Bulls

Bulls' Jimmy Butler calling for better defense, including his own

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Bulls' Jimmy Butler calling for better defense, including his own

Neither a time to panic nor one to praise midway through the Bulls preseason, Jimmy Butler believes, as they have four games remaining before the curtain is up on the 2015-16 season 14 days from Tuesday.

They’ve certainly shown signs of growth offensively, the biggest thing Butler is impressed with as a whole, even though his own individual offense has been up and down. Scoring 115 points—as they did in Monday’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans—is certainly enough to win most nights even in today’s offense-happy NBA.

But their defense, a staple in recent seasons, has taken a step back. Predictably it was bound to slip when a franchise replaces Tom Thibodeau with an offensive-minded coach like Fred Hoiberg, but Butler doesn’t care for the slippage.

“Everybody’s confident on offense that’s for sure,” Butler said. “Everybody knows their strengths and they go to it. We share the ball extremely well. We rebound extremely well. The only thing we lay down on defense at times and we recklessly foul.”

Fouling the Pelicans to the tune of 37 free-throw attempts is prime for the preseason, when everybody down to the clock operators is still getting adjusted.

[MORE: Bulls blow 20-point lead in preseason loss to Pelicans]

“We can always play better to tell you the truth,” Butler said. “We rely too much on our offense than our defense. That can’t happen. It’s preseason, everybody’s learning. It’s all very new to us. That’s what practice is for.”

Asked to grade his own defense—a previous staple he vowed to return to this season—he believes there’s room for improvement, much like this Bulls team as a whole.

“Ehh, it’s alright. It’s not good. I’m not gonna say it’s bad by any means,” he said. “I have to start on that end. I have to let my defense lead to offense. We’ll pick that up on Wednesday.”

When it was suggested a “C” or “C-minus”, he wouldn’t wade into those waters:

“I was never a grade school teacher so I can’t give you pluses or minuses, but it’s ‘aiight’. You give me the grade.”

It looked as if the Bulls get into a comfort zone when scoring becomes too easy, and Butler didn’t wholeheartedly disagree.

“Maybe but I don’t think that’s the thing,” Butler said. “I think whenever we’re scoring the ball well in the first half, we think we’re gonna continue to make shots and we don’t have to guard. It happens. We take that foot off that pedal and stop guarding. Then we’re not making shots, still not guarding, they’re making shots, still not guarding and before you know it, they got the lead.”

[RELATED: Until Butler and Rose succeed together, speculation will always loom]

After a stellar start to the preseason, a 23-point, six-assist showing against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler is shooting just 18 percent in the three games since. After a 2-for-13 game Monday, he was respectfully dismissive about the notion of being concerned with his own offense.

“Not at all. Continue to take the right shots. It’ll turn around, it happens all the time,” Butler said. “(It’ll) Probably happen during the regular season, to tell you the truth. I know I put in the work, taking the right shots. Keep getting to the paint. More than anything, Continue to make the right play. With the offense we have it’s so spread we have a lot of space. I’m not worried about scoring the ball at all.”

With the only real dud coming in Boulder, Colo. against the Denver Nuggets, he’s more encouraged than discouraged, especially with the number of players being out has limited getting a jump start on their continuity.

“Hell yeah. I like the way we’re moving,” he said. “Let’s just get this defense under way and figure out how to do that. Before you know it, we’ll be winning these preseason games.”

There are 600,000 reasons you won't hear Gar, Pax or Hoiberg discuss losing

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AP

There are 600,000 reasons you won't hear Gar, Pax or Hoiberg discuss losing

The Bulls made headlines on Tuesday when VP John Paxson announced that David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne would be entering the rotation, thus continuing the youth movement in Chicago.

On the surface the moves make sense. The 24-year-old Nwaba, the 25-year-old Felicio and the 23-year-old Cameron Payne will be replacing 28-year-old Justin Holiday, 29-year-old Robin Lopez and 25-year-old Jerian Grant. The Bulls want to see what they have in these younger players who haven't played much; they already know what they have in Lopez and Holiday, and Grant (like the other two) is under contract through next year.

OK, got that? Here's why they're making the move: they're sitting 8th in the NBA Lottery standings and really want to move into the top-5 to give themselves a chance at what should be a loaded front-end of the draft class. It's pretty obvious, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either named Gar Forman, John Paxson or Fred Hoiberg.

And here's why: On Wednesday Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined a whopping $600,000 by the NBA for comments he made on a podcast regarding tanking. The Mavericks are currently 18-40, the third worst record in the NBA. This comes a season after they finished 33-49, netting them the No. 9 pick that turned into talented point guard Dennis Smith Jr.

So when Cuban was asked about the best interests of his Dallas team, which touts young talent but clearly isn't headed for the postseason in 2018, he said this on the House Call with Dr. J Podcast:

"I'm probably not supposed to say this, but, like, I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night, and here we are, you know, we weren't competing for the playoffs. I was like, 'Look, losing is our best option. [Commissioner] Adam [Silver] would hate hearing that, but I at least sat down and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we're not going to tank again. This was, like, a year-and-a-half tanking, and that was too brutal for me. But being transparent, I think that's the key to being kind of a players owner and having stability."

Cuban isn't wrong, and the Mavericks sure as hell aren't the only team tanking. But to come right now and admit that losing is the team's best option wasn't, as Cuban predicted, going to sit well with the league office.

Commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo with the fine that said Cuban's comments "which concerned his perspective on the team's competitive success this season" were "detrimental to the NBA."

So while the Bulls are going about their business in trying to lose as many games down the stretch as possible, don't expect anyone to admit it's the reason behind their personnel moves. There are 600,000 reasons why.

NBA Draft Tracker: Michigan State's Miles Bridges

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft Tracker: Michigan State's Miles Bridges

NBA general managers were fully expecting to see Miles Bridges declare for the 2017 draft after a solid, but unspectacular freshman season at Michigan State. Bridges arrived in East Lansing as one of the nation’s top prospects, and his impressive leaping ability led to a number of highlight reel plays for Tom Izzo’s Spartans.

Problem is, Bridges didn’t show much versatility to his offensive game because of an inconsistent outside shot and inability to create shots off the dribble. Bridges probably would have been a late lottery pick last year on athletic talent alone, but to his credit, he decided to go back to Michigan State for his sophomore season and work on some of his weaknesses.

Unfortunately for Bridges, he really hasn’t shown much improvement year to year. Yes, he’s leading the Big Ten in free throw shooting at 89%, but his other numbers are basically flat from season to season. Bridges averaged 16.9 points a year ago, 17.1 this season. He shot .486 from the field in 2016-17, .477 this year. Even with all the work he put in on his 3 point shooting, his percentage has dropped slightly this season, from .389 to .376. Rebounding is also down slightly, from 8.3 to 6.8. 

Bottom line, Bridges is once again projected as a late lottery pick.

How does he fit for the Bulls? It’s no secret small forward and center are the two positions of need heading into the 2018 draft, and the 6-7 Bridges would give the Bulls another athletic frontcourt player who fits the pace and space game Fred Hoiberg prefers. Bridges could be a real weapon running the floor with Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine for alley-oop dunks, and he should continue to improve as a 3 point shooter.

The Bulls are hoping to land a top 5 pick to add one of the elite players in this draft, and unless the Pelicans drop into the late lottery, Bridges will probably be gone by the time that selection comes up. He’s probably a bit of a reach in the 6 to 10 range, but if positional need and athletic potential are the most important factors for the Bulls, Miles Bridges could be the choice if they don’t improve their position in the current lottery watch standings.

Personally, I would prefer either Kentucky’s Kevin Knox or Villanova’s Mikal Bridges (no relation) over Miles Bridges as a small forward prospect, but all 3 players offer different skill sets that could be helpful to a young, developing team like the Bulls.

The dream scenario would be drafting a young center like Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. or Mo Bamba with a top 5 pick, then coming back to add one of those 3 small forward prospects with the 1st rounder they acquired in the Niko Mirotic trade with New Orleans. We’ll all have to wait until the lottery is held on May 15th to see if the Bulls are in position to add two more foundation pieces to their rebuilding project.