Bulls

Five Things to Watch: Bulls open preseason play against Pelicans

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USA TODAY

Five Things to Watch: Bulls open preseason play against Pelicans

1. All the new faces: The Bulls have 12 players in training camp who were not on the team a year ago. The headliners are there in Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Nikola Mirotic, but with what should be one of the youngest rosters in the league there are plenty of roster spots up for grabs. Former five-star recruit Diamond Stone, Summer League standout Antonio Blakeney and athletic combo guard David Nwaba are a few names to watch as preseason begins and decisions are made.

2. The return on Jimmy: The Bulls’ rebuild will be clearer after next year’s draft, but fans will always go back to the one trade that sent them into this phase. Trading a top-15 talent in Jimmy Butler must yield a return, and though Zach LaVine won’t play until the leaves change colors the progress of Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen will loom large. Dunn has a pretty clear path to the starting point guard position, while Markkanen could fight for minutes in a sixth man role behind newly paid Nikola Mirotic.

3. Big payday for Big Cris: The Bulls’ first move in free agency this summer was handing Cris Felicio a four-year, $32 million deal.  He’s just 25 years old and has shown steady improvement in each of his first two seasons. At the very least he’s a formidable backup moving forward in the rebuild. But if the Bulls move on from Robin Lopez (potentially sooner than later) it would thrust Felicio into a starting role. If he continues to progress he could be the center of the future. How he fits into Fred Hoiberg’s style is another question, but the Bulls continue to like what they see from him.

4. Feel-good story in Quincy Pondexter: The Bulls traded for Pondexter earlier this month, and it’s going to be difficult not to root for this guy. Multiple knee surgeries cost Pondexter each of the last two seasons. He now appears to be healthy and should see game action in the preseason. When healthy he was a formidable wing, averaging 5.3 points on 42 percent shooting and 2.0 rebounds in 279 career games for New Orleans and Memphis. He’s not going to make fans forget about Jimmy Butler, but it would be a great story if he can make the team and, more importantly, stay healthy.

5. Welcome back, Rajon! The Bulls are going to see more than a few old faces from last year’s team, and they’ll get one on Opening (preseason) Night. After the Bulls bought him out over the summer, Rajon Rondo signed a one-year, $3.3 million deal with the Pelicans. Rondo was a superb teammate and excellent mentor to some of the young Bulls he’ll face on Tuesday, so it’ll be fun to watch him interact with some of those players, including Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine and Cris Felicio.

NBA Buzz: Will recent surge change the Bulls' front office plans on the fly?

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Will recent surge change the Bulls' front office plans on the fly?

When the Bulls announced the draft night trade sending three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, John Paxson said the front office would be "patient and methodical" in adding to their young roster with an emphasis on building through the draft.

Now, halfway through the 2017-18 season, will the Bulls’ decision makers decide to ramp up the rebuild based on what they've seen so far from the 3 players acquired in the Butler deal, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn?

Even though LaVine's only played two games, it's clear he won't have any psychological hurdles to overcome following ACL surgery on his left knee, and his physical skills are still off the charts. The 20-year-old Markkanen has been drawing rave reviews from players and coaches around the league for his combination of athleticism and elite shooting ability. If the 2017 draft had a do-over today, Markkanen would probably go no lower than 3rd. Meanwhile, Dunn currently ranks 3rd in the NBA in steals while showing some of the offensive skills that made him the 5th pick in the 2016 draft.

So, with three young building blocks already in place, should the Bulls continue to focus on patiently and methodically building through the draft, or should they try to get back into the playoffs next season by adding veteran talent through free agency?

Depending on what moves the front office makes before the February 8 trade deadline, the Bulls could have somewhere between $30 to 40 million available to spend in the free agent market this summer. We know LeBron James or Paul George aren't walking through the door to the Advocate Center, and the Bulls probably aren't interested in some of the other headliners in the 2018 free agent class, including DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul.

A good chunk of the Bulls’ cap space will go to re-signing LaVine to a max or near-max extension, but the Bulls can still be aggressive in free agency this summer by waiting to sign LaVine until they complete their other moves, meaning only LaVine's cap hold will be on the books.

Looking at the Bulls roster, Paxson and Gar Forman have done a good job of adding solid young players at just about every position. Small forward could probably use an upgrade, especially another explosive athlete who can create his own shot. With that in mind, how about Denver's Will Barton? He'll be an unrestricted free agent after the Nuggets failed to sign him to an extension last fall. The 6-foot-6 wing is averaging a career best 14.4 points and is ideally suited for the fast-paced offense Fred Hoiberg favors.

Other wing players who could be good fits for a young and improving team include Detroit's Avery Bradley, the Lakers' Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Philadelphia's J.J. Redick, Boston's Marcus Smart, Utah's Rodney Hood, San Antonio's Danny Green, the Clippers’ Lou Williams, Denver's Wilson Chandler and the Grizzlies' Tyreke Evans. Of course, the Bulls could also decide to keep their powder dry until 2019, when the $14.3 million salary of Robin Lopez comes off the books.

By now it's pretty clear the Bulls won't be adding a top-3 pick in the 2018 draft unless they get lucky in the lottery. There are definitely some talented players in the 5 to 12 range, including Texas big man Mo Bamba, Alabama point guard Collin Sexton, Villanova swingman Mikal Bridges, Kentucky's wing duo of Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo, and the Michigan St. forward tandem of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges. All of them look like NBA starters with high end potential, and would be nice additions to the Bulls’ rotation.

The real question is, when does free agency factor into the Bulls' rebuilding plan? If the front office is convinced they already have a potential Big 3 in place with LaVine, Markkanen and Dunn, the strategy for this summer may look a lot different than what Bulls fans envisioned on the night of the Butler trade.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

-- Monday night's Rockets-Clippers game might have raised the bar for NBA drama. Chris Paul making his return to Staples Center after being traded to Houston last summer for a package of role players. It became obvious from the outset that Paul wasn't very popular with his teammates on the way out of L.A. Clippers’ bench players were heckling Paul throughout the game, and Blake Griffin got in a couple after the whistle shoves on his former L.A. co-star.

Before the game was over, Griffin exchanged expletives with Rockets' coach Mike D'Antoni and later Griffin and Houston forward Trevor Ariza were ejected after Ariza menacingly marched towards the Clippers bench where injured guard Austin Rivers had been yelling at Houston players all night.

When the game ended, three Houston players reportedly tried to get into the Clippers locker room through a back entrance to go after Rivers and Griffin. Security was able to prevent the incident from escalating even further, but L.A. police were called in to make sure nothing happened when the Rockets walked to the team bus.

Clearly, Paul alienated a lot of his former Clipper teammates with his heavy-handed approach, but what happened at Staples Center on Monday came dangerously close to an incident that would have embarrassed the league for years.

-- We've clearly reached the dog days of the NBA season. Teams are tired at the halfway point, and the trade deadline is still over three weeks away. Still, it's hard to ignore what's happening in Cleveland right now with the 3-time defending Eastern Conference champs dropping 9 of their last 12 games.

The Cavs rank near the bottom of the league in all the major defensive metrics, and the return of Isaiah Thomas hasn't given the offense the jump-start everyone expected. Beat writers in Cleveland are now expecting first year general manager Koby Altman to make some kind of major deal to turn things around, but realistically, which players on the roster hold a lot of value in the trade market?

Cleveland would love to pry Paul George loose from Oklahoma City, but unless Thunder management is convinced George will bolt for Los Angeles this summer, it appears they're determined to ride out the season with their underachieving Big 3 of George, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony.

The Cavs could probably swing a Tristan Thompson and their own 2018 1st round pick for Clippers' center DeAndre Jordan, but does that really improve their chances against Golden State in a possible Finals' rematch? Until the Cavs' players commit to working harder on the defensive end, this will be the most vulnerable playoff team we've seen in Cleveland since James returned for the 2014-15 season.

-- Finally, did you see the painful video of 76ers rookie guard Markelle Fultz trying to shoot at a recent practice? The No. 1 pick from the 2017 draft has played sparingly this season because of a mysterious shoulder ailment, but the team hasn't given many details about the injury, and it appears his problem might be more psychological than physical. Fultz now has a hitch in his shot, and releases the ball around chest level, which means he has no chance to be an effective scorer at the NBA level.

The 76ers know all about redshirt seasons after watching Nerlens Noel and Ben Simmons miss their rookie campaigns and Joel Embiid sit out his first two years. But if Fultz can't find his shooting form again it will be a huge loss for the organization after they traded a future lottery pick to long-time rival Boston to move up from 3rd to 1st last June.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen reached 100 career 3-pointers made faster than any player in NBA history. Our stats guru Chris Kamka came up with this interesting list of how long it took the top long distance shooters to reach the century mark.

8 players in NBA history have 2,000 or more 3-pointers made

Other notables...

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Back to the strange saga of 76ers rookie Markelle Fultz suddenly losing his shooting ability. Head Coach Brett Brown was asked whether Fultz had to be 100% recovered from his shoulder injury to return to the court, and his response indicated how serious Fultz's shooting problems have become.

“What he needs … to be, is able to shoot a basketball.” 

“It is my understanding there is still some discomfort from time to time, but that is part of recognizing there is still some sort of erratic shooting, and it is not where it used to be yet.”

Watching Fultz shoot a basketball right now is kind of like watching Charles Barkley swing a golf club, and that is not a comforting image for hoops fans in Philadelphia.

Bulls Talk Podcast: How big can the Bulls' Big 3 be?

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Bulls Talk Podcast: How big can the Bulls' Big 3 be?

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski and Vincent Goodwill discuss Zach Lavine’s impressive Bulls debut and if the new ‘Big 3’ of Lavine, Markkanen, and Dunn can be the top players on a championship contender. Plus they’ll debate the Bulls immediate future and what it would take for the front office the to abandon the tank. And they’ll recap a wild night in Los Angeles with secret hallways, decoys, and why it trumped the conversation Vinnie heard while having dinner. Trust us, you don’t want to miss this story.