Bulls

Examining Bulls' options with free agency starting

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Examining Bulls' options with free agency starting

Much is still up in the air when it comes to the NBA's delayed, truncated and almost-guaranteed-to-be-hectic free-agency period, which officially begins Friday afternoon, but that hasn't stopped speculation from abounding.

While the majority of the focus continues to be on two members of the 2012 free-agent class--superstars Dwight Howard and Chris Paul--behind the scenes, several of the NBA's middle class are being ardently pursued by teams around the league.

With reports of the Spurs' planning to amnesty Richard Jefferson and Tracy McGrady's next destination being Atlanta, as well as the Heat adding small forward Shane Battier (at least per the player's own Twitter feed Thursday), moves are already being made.

The Bulls have been no exception, as they continue to do their due diligence by contacting candidates in their search for a shooting guard. Only one free agent, Caron Butler, has visited Chicago, and incumbent starter Keith Bogans has been working out at the Berto Center--it would be no surprise if the veteran, popular among teammates and coaches (if not fans), returns to the Bulls--but on the eve of the madness beginning, here's a look at some of the organization's options:

--Arron Afflalo: A strong defender and capable outside shooter, Afflalo would be a great fit in a Bulls uniform, especially when it's considered that he's much younger than most of the other options. However, as a restricted free agent, the Nuggets would be able to match any offer for him--and likely will, given that J.R. Smith, no lock to be back in Denver anyway, is currently stuck in China--and in a shallow market, there's a chance he could command more than the mid-level exception the Bulls are poised to offer a free agent.

--Keith Bogans: While a faction of Bulls fans considered Bogans the weak link in last season's starting lineup, it should be noted that his minutes reflected those of a reserve, as he split playing time with Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, and very rarely finished games. Although he's not a big scorer, Bogans is a solid outside shooter and tough defender who was a big part of the on and off-court chemistry that was a major reason the Bulls won 62 games a year ago, making it likely that he returns to Chicago, but perhaps in a reserve role this time around.
--Caron Butler: It's been reported that Butler privately considers the Bulls his front-runner (though sources say he was also very positive about meeting with the Clippers and Spurs, who jettisoned Richard Jefferson, possibly to add a natural small forward of Butler's caliber) and if the Racine, Wis., native did end up in Chicago, his toughness, offensive versatility, experience and hunger for a title would pay major dividends. Conversely, his surgically-repaired knees are a major concern, particularly if he needs the lateral quickness to defend shooting guards, and could also pose a problem if he's expected to beat opponents off the dribble as he did earlier in his career.

--Vince Carter: Carter isn't technically a free agent (the Suns are expected to waive him), but being that he's likely to be available, it's worth examining how he'd fit in Chicago. One thing he's always been able to do is score, though his shot selection, ongoing health issues, less-than-stellar defense and perceived selfishness have seemingly run their course, making him frequent trade bait (New Jersey, Orlando and Phoenix in the span of three years) as of late, and at least on paper, a player whose cons outweigh his pros for the Bulls.

--Jamal Crawford: The former Bulls draft pick is obviously familiar with the franchise and vice versa, and has built on his early-career potential by becoming one of the league's best instant-offense scorers, if somewhat of a hired gun. Crawford's ballhandling and playmaking abilities set him apart from most of the other prospective additions, but it comes at the cost of occasional ball-stopping offense and sometimes indifferent defense, not to mention his price tag could be beyond Chicago's desired range, although there's been talk of a sign-and-trade scenario with Atlanta involving Taj Gibson, a high premium to pay.

--Grant Hill: Alternately rumored to be either re-signing with the Suns or on the verge of taking his talents to the Big Apple, the league's second-oldest player (after veteran big man Kurt Thomas, another free agent the Bulls are in discussions with), Hill is now seen as a bit of long shot to relocate to the Windy City. His time spent at Phoenix's fountain of youth has rejuvenated his game in recent years, as he's morphed from one of the game's best all-around players, elite scorers and high-flying athletes into a defensive standout capable of guarding multiple positions, a reliable outside threat and solid secondary ballhandler.

--Josh Howard: Like the aforementioned Butler--ironically one of the players included in the trade that sent him to the Wizards from the Mavericks--Howard has also had knee problems and hasn't regained the form he showed as a promising young player. When healthy, however, Howard offers a nice slashing game, good defensive acumen, the ability to score without needing a lot of offensive touches and some versatility, though he was never known as knockdown three-point shooter.

--Tayshaun Prince: The longtime Pistons veteran is probably in need of a change of scenery after a few tumultuous years in Motown, and his versatility on both ends of the court--the ability to guard a variety of players, an effective post-up game, spot duty as a primary ballhandler, long-range shooting--would be an intriguing addition to the Bulls. Prince, however, has suffered a multitude of injuries as of late after being extremely durable earlier in his career, the stink of last year's mutiny of ousted Detroit head coach John Kuester clings to him and other veterans (such as Rip Hamilton, though Prince's "buffoonery" comment was the highlight of that saga) and he isn't a natural shooting guard.

--Jason Richardson: When it comes to pure shooting guards, Richardson might be the best fit on paper who's actually available, as the veteran has hinted at being willing to take less money (like Chicago's mid-level exception) in exchange for an opportunity to compete for a championship. His perimeter shooting and athleticism would seem to be a good match for the Bulls' roster and style of play, and while he can't be considered an elite defender, he's at least adequate and could thrive under Tom Thibodeau.

--Nick Young: In terms of scorers, Young has the most potential going forward on anyone on the market, and with his youth and athleticism, he could surpass even optimistic expectations. Problem is, he has the classic "good scorer on a bad team" syndrome, where he put up big numbers in a losing situation and neglected other parts of his game, such as defense and passing, although comments he's made indicate he's ready to mature as a player and do what it takes to round out his game, if in a winning environment.

Lauri Markkanen battling the rookie wall

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen battling the rookie wall

MINNEAPOLIS — The misses have come wide, long and short for Lauri Markkanen in the last couple games, perhaps a sign he’s hit the popular but unseen “Rookie Wall.”

Since coming back from the All-Star break, Markkanen has hit the same amount of jump shots as a dead man, only scoring with two dunks and missing all seven 3-point attempts.

He’s hit the point of the season where the legs turn to spaghetti as the grind of the season catches up. Last year at Arizona, he played 37 games and then went through Summer League following the draft before playing for the Finland national team. The Bulls have been careful with his minutes, particularly early on in the season when they didn’t have the depth at power forward, but Markkanen is still adjusting to the rigors of the NBA.

After seemingly peaking in January, averaging 17 points and 8.4 rebounds on 48 percent shooting and 43 from three-point range, he’s averaged just 10.8 points on 37 percent shooting and hitting just four of 27 from deep.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg tried to pump Markkanen up recently, comparing his shooting to a golfer who’s lost his stroke. Unfortunately, it didn’t translate to Markkanen, who looked at his coach as if he grew a third eye.

By the time Hoiberg compared it to curling, he wound up confusing the press corps last week.

And yet, Markkanen hasn’t broken out of his slump. It’s been quite a while since Markkanen’s devastating performance on Broadway where he nailed eight 3-pointers against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 10 for a career-high 33 points.

“It’s been a long season, I’m not denying that,” Markkanen said Saturday night following the Bulls’ loss to the Timberwolves. “I just gotta work through it. At times I feel it. I felt good today. As the game went on, a little tired.”

Consistency has been a hallmark of Markkanen’s season to date. He scored in double figures 21 straight games before the last two, where he scored three points in the last two Bulls losses.

As a whole, he’s only scored fewer than 10 points six times. To compare, rookie of the year frontrunners Donovan Mitchell (nine) and Ben Simmons (six) are right around the same number.

Hoiberg boldly predicts Markkanen will burst out in a big way soon, but the rookie wall takes no prisoners, especially in the dog days of the season.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

His looks have been relatively clean, although one can’t discount the difference between playing alongside Cristiano Felicio compared to Robin Lopez. Lopez assisted on 39 field goals, tied with Jerian Grant for second-highest feeds behind Kris Dunn.

Both Lopez and Grant are out of the rotation, while Dunn is still getting his legs back after missing nearly a month in concussion protocol. Lopez was used in a lot of dribble handoff offense with Markkanen, while also setting solid screens to free him.

Felicio doesn’t have that level of experience in this offense, and the Bulls are also running more through Zach LaVine as a primary ballhandler.

“He’s had a lot of really good games. It’s never gonna be an 100 percent season,” LaVine said. “It’s so many games you’ll eventually run into some slumps so I just think he needs to get into a rhythm. We’ve gotta help him with that too. Help him find easier shots on the floor. He’s cool, he’s good. We tell him to shoot the ball every time.”

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”