Bulls' roster - not just Thibs - a question for future, too


Bulls' roster - not just Thibs - a question for future, too

The ugly way the Bulls were dispatched in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers unearthed some harsh truths and stripped away a facade many believed all season long.

That presently constructed and fully healthy, the Bulls were a championship team.

Losing to LeBron James in a series that featured his third-worst field-goal percentage in a storied 12-year career, where his support didn’t feature Kevin Love at all or a full-strength Kyrie Irving erased the visions of grandeur.

The revelation of the reality is the easy part.

The process of going about turning the fantasy of having a championship team into a reality is an entirely different one.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau and the franchise will likely part ways, as the clashes seemed to pile up as the season wore on, the so-called “noise” began to add up the closer things got to playoff time—whether it played a part in the team’s performance can be debated from now until the start of next season, but there’s a chance the Bulls will look moderately different than the outfit that walked off the floor of the United Center in disappointment.

If the Bulls are convinced coaching or friction between the front office and head coach is the only problem, only one change needs to be made, although you’ll be hard-pressed to find many coaches better than Thibodeau.

But considering the way the Bulls under-performed, it seems more plausible to believe that this roster isn’t ready for June basketball and internal improvement is necessary to get this team in form for true contention.

Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler will both likely be working under max deals next season, as Butler is entering restricted free agency and getting a max offer sheet from another franchise or the Bulls appears to be a certainty.

Two ball-dominant guards who haven’t played a lot together will spend a lot of time doing that next year, and the teams who win championships with starting guards who command so much attention are scarce in the modern NBA, but it can happen.

[MORE: Nikola Mirotic named to NBA's All-Rookie team]

While Butler’s game is still evolving and it doesn’t seem quite like a stretch to say Rose will come back next season closer to form than in any of his previous comebacks, there are questions about the existing roster—warts that showed up in the playoff series against the Cavaliers.

Will Joakim Noah, a year removed from knee surgery that took a very long time to recover from, regain the form that had him finish fourth in the 2014 MVP voting? He’s entering the last year of his deal next year and of course there will likely be concerns about his play this season, but considering he’s such a huge part of this team’s identity, will management take the risk of even shopping him this summer?

Rose, Noah and presumably Butler could take up $48.7 million of a $67 million salary cap, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for free agency additions, especially if they bring Mike Dunleavy back on a similar deal to this season ($3.3 million).

Taj Gibson is another part of the Bulls’ culture of toughness, and he doesn’t have a cap crippling deal ($8.5 million in 2015-16, $8.95 million in 2016-17).

He’s slightly off last year’s career-high showing of 13 points and 6.8 rebounds, and his offensive rating rose to a career-high 112 points per possession, so he could be attractive to other teams if the Bulls look to shop him. But his teammates love him and a trade likely wouldn’t be received well in the locker room.

Pau Gasol was a godsend, with his best and most consistent season in years, but he’ll be 35 by the time training camp convenes in October, and his hamstring injury severely hampered his participation in the second round—and players his age don’t get healthier as they cross that age.

The list of players who have averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds at 35 or older: Robert Parish in 1989 for a Celtics team that crept into the eighth playoff spot before getting swept.

[RELATED: Weight of previous years came crashing down on Bulls in loss to Cavs]

The Bulls have higher goals than that, and if they’re going to lessen their dependency on Gasol’s usage, it means Nikola Mirotic must take a more prominent role and Doug McDermott must have a role.

McDermott couldn’t crack the veteran-laden rotation and Mirotic was only trusted when player availability got really thin, so one would have to assume they’ll make jumps next season.

But if nobody takes a leap, will Gar Forman and John Paxson feel comfortable heading into a season where the East will markedly improve, a veteran roster is a little older and with the strong possibility integrating a new coach will take time?

Either way, there appears to be a lot of questions, more questions than answers as the Bulls head toward an interesting offseason.

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend


Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler was absent from the scoresheet of the All-Star Game, unless you count a “DNP-Coaches’ Decision” as activity. Whether due to the All-Star festivities of the weekend or even the grinding minutes he plays under Tom Thibodeau, it wasn’t truly surprising to see him want to have a night off of sorts.

But what was mildly surprising was the reflection he displayed on Saturday at All-Star Media Day in reference to his time with the Chicago Bulls. Usually, Butler’s armor is up because of his feelings surrounding his draft-night departure.

“I learned a lot in Chicago,” Butler said. “Just all through the season and life in general. What to do, what not to do and how to adapt to any situation that you’ve been in. I’ve done that to the best of my abilities. I have a ways to go in that.”

It’s clear he’s still grasping the weight of his words as the best player on a team, or at least, the player whose words impact everything around him.

“A people pleaser? No, I just didn’t say much,” Butler said. “Now I just don’t care. I never talked whenever I was in the league at an early age. It really didn’t matter, nothing I did was gonna make or break us when it comes to losing a game. Now it does and I have a lot to say. Half the time it’s not the right time or right way to say it but it’s okay.”

Whether it was the battles with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or the internal struggles in the Bulls’ locker room through his ascension from bench warmer to rotation player to impact player to now, a legitimate star, he’s modifying his approach—just a tad.

“I’ve never been the best player on my own team. I was in Tomball,” he joked, in reference to his beginnings in small town Texas. “I wasn’t in junior college. At Marquette I wasn’t. I’m probably not now. In Chicago I wasn’t. You just pick up on it, watch others and learn.”

He admitted to writing in a journal and reading self-help books now that he’s in Minnesota. The novel he’s reading now, “Faith, Forward, Future” is authored by Chad Veach, a Los Angeles pastor and the subtitle of the book says “Moving past your disappointments, delays and destructive thinking.”

Whether he started the book following a slow start with the Timberwolves in November, where his nightly numbers looked like one of a high-level role player, he took some self-evaluation before leading the charge since, playing like an MVP candidate with 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49 percent shooting since the start of December.

“It’s relatively new. Yeah, basketball is still basketball but it’s hard when somebody else is coming in and roles change overnight,” Butler said. “You gotta see where you fit in with the group. At the end of the day you gotta win. I didn’t feel the way I was playing was our best opportunity to win games.”

Bringing along the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Towns being a fellow All-Star for the first time, has been a process.

“I’ve never actually had to be a leader,” Butler said. “I just always done what I was supposed to do, didn’t say much and played hard. Now you know, everybody wants to call someone a leader.”

He disputes taking a softer hand, especially as Towns and Wiggins seem to struggle with sustaining concentration at critical moments. The Timberwolves won’t be able to make those mistakes during the playoffs, but he’s being more selective with his words.

“I’m not soft,” he said. “If I see something wrong, I speak on it. If you don’t like it, oh well. You’ll get over it.”

One thing he could take a bird’s eye view of was the aftermath of LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s comments to the “Uninterrupted”, where they were criticized by cable news hosts for speaking out against President Donald Trump.

No stranger to criticism, Butler would likely have the same approach if he dipped his toes into that arena.

“I like it. You got the right to say what you want and you speak on what you think is right,” Butler said. “Good for them. And they are magnified in a very big way. They embrace it and they’re doing the right thing, I’m all for it.”

And if the day comes where he doesn’t stick to sports, Butler’s directness and lack of diplomacy would certainly cause an interesting reaction.

“I don’t care. Whatever I believe in, I believe in,” Butler said. “Everybody else does it. You see everybody on Twitter and the Internet doing it and saying what they want to say. We just have a different job than the person to our left and right.”

Well, not quite a warm and fuzzy Jimmy Butler.

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment


Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”