Bulls

Kobe Bryant exits All-Star stage in appreciation, with perspective

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Kobe Bryant exits All-Star stage in appreciation, with perspective

TORONTO—The tributes came, then came more fervently and passionately for Kobe Bryant in his last All-Star Game as he stood alone on the Western Conference sideline with one of the greatest showmen, Magic Johnson, saluting him before tipoff.

The tears didn’t come streaming down Bryant’s face in his last All-Star game, but they didn’t have to because the heartless assassin has already shown more humanity in his last season than many knew existed.

He happily posed for photos with some officials he likely used to berate during heated playoff battles or Tuesday nights in Memphis, when intensity was at all-time highs or simply because his mood determined he should.

But now the man who coldly and almost clinically disrupted Michael Jordan’s last All-Star moment in Atlanta had his own, and instead of launching up jumper after jumper with the young guns watching, waiting their turn, Bryant ceded the stage.

Bryant scored 11 with seven assists and six rebounds in 26 minutes as Russell Westbrook’s boundless energy and bottomless thirst led to 31 points and a second straight All-Star MVP in a 196-173 Western Conference win at Air Canada Centre.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

LeBron James had his hand at stirring up some competition, telling Bryant to “bring it” and spreading his arms wide while forming a defensive stance, one of the few times there appeared to be some genuine competition in a game that had very, very little.

Instead of ruthlessly going at James, he playfully faded away on a long jumper that came up short. More pointedly, he seemed to have more fun going one on one with Dwyane Wade’s son and Chris Paul’s son at halftime during warmups.

“None of us have seen that part,” said Pau Gasol, Bulls center and a former teammate of Bryant for two championship runs. “At this point of his life and career, the older you get, the bigger the gap is with younger players. When he was playing his first All-Star game, some of these players were in kindergarten.”

Bryant had a little time for the adults, as he and the older elder statesman Gasol playfully went at each other a few times on the post, and sharing moments throughout the evening.

“We talked about it before the game, to see if we posted each other up who would be successful,” Gasol said. “We both tried it but neither of us was successful. It was fun, a cool bonding moment.”

Gasol scored nine with seven rebounds in 15 minutes of playing time as he was selected as teammate Jimmy Butler’s replacement days before All-Star weekend. Safe to say, he was happy to be there but had to adjust to the uber lack of defense being played in the highest-scoring All-Star game in NBA history.

[MORE: Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon combine for best-ever NBA Dunk Contest]

“I like to compete and play the right way. Games like these are difficult to do that but I tried to get myself going,” Gasol said. “You don’t anticipate that. You know these games aren’t known for their defense but today was a little…absent.”

He laughed as he said it, but the game was a showcase for some of the younger stars, the establishment and the resurgent player who came within a basket of overtaking Wilt Chamberlain as the all-time single-game scoring leader.

Paul George scored 41 in his return to the All-Star stage, a welcome sight as many remember his gruesome injury during USA Basketball camp in Las Vegas in 2014 and believed he would never return to form as one of the top swingmen.

Chicago Native Anthony Davis feasted on uncontested alley-oop dunks to score 24 while reigning MVP Stephen Curry scored 26, including a 40-footer with seconds remaining to conclude the scoring on the evening.

Curry’s triple came moments after Bryant’s final curtain call, as he exited the game to chants of “Kobe! Kobe!” with 1:06 remaining, getting hugs and daps on the head from virtually everyone on the floor.

The man who said he could never envision being elder statesman two days ago, like Michael Jordan and Julius Erving before him, had essentially successfully passed the torch to the young players whose flame burns bright and star shines just as bright as a new era is ushered into the NBA.

[RELATED: Butler feeling better after being 'scared' with injury]

“As a younger player, I couldn't even see the next day," he said Friday. "No, when you're young, you never think you'll get old. You're always just moment to moment. You think it's never going to end, the body is never going to hurt, never going to give out. … I'm enjoying this whole thing with being around these players and talking to them one more time. The competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish something and prove something, that's gone."

But even as he will join the likes of Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Jordan, luminaries, ambassadors whom the younger generation will look to for approval, he found there wasn’t a challenge on the floor, not in the way he challenged Jordan in his very first All-Star game 18 years ago.

“Michael was still Michael,” said Bryant, acknowledging his mortality. “It was 98. He was that guy. I’m 20 years in and it’s different. These kids, they’re so many generations removed from that, it’s not even about that anymore.”

But on this night, it was about Kobe and for once, he soaked in the appreciation the way an ambassador is supposed to.

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.