The Bulls are moving forward with their youth, as John Paxson announced on Tuesday that David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne will all enter the rotation for the duration of the season.
Call it tanking, call it wanting to get a look at younger players who may or may not be part of the rotation. Whatever the reason, here's what to expect from the three newcomers, what the Bulls are looking for and why it matters moving forward.
What he's done: We wrote on Nwaba last month after the bulky 6-foot-4 shooting guard did his best to limit Giannis Anteotokounmpo in a loss to the Bucks. He's as unique a shooting guard as you'll find in today's NBA, attempting just 19 3-pointers in nearly 1,000 minutes this season. He's also taken just two 2-point attempts outside of the paint. He's a bully who attacks the basket and takes high-percentage shots, which is why he's not surprising he's shooting 51.7 percent from the field this year. Of course, he's limited offensively. The NBA is finding it hard for 7-footers to make it if they can only shoot at the rim, and Nwaba's a shooting guard...who doesn't shoot.
But he's made his mark defensively, and then some. He's the Bulls' best defender, both via the eye test and statistically. And because of that he also has the team's second best net rating (-0.4), behind only Bobby Portis (-0.2). He can defend three positions, and a fourth in the paint if need be. He's an absolute rock at 220 pounds and moves well for his size. His athleticism is on full display, and he's a high-motor guy every time he steps on the floor. His offensive limitations put a cap on his potential, and he's already 25 years old despite this being just his second NBA season. There's a spot somewhere in the league for Nwaba (see: Allen, Tony playing 14 NBA seasons), but he isn't exactly a perfect fit in Chicago because of his lack of outside shooting. He needs to be paired with floor spacers at all times or the offense will really suffer.
What the Bulls are looking for: Perhaps Nwaba's new role will allow him to have more of a green light on offense. Fred Hoiberg loves the way Nwaba plays his role (he's shooting 26 percent from 3, but on just 19 attempts that hardly matters) and doesn't go outside his comfort zone, but maybe he needs to do just that. Per NBA.com, Nwaba has played 16 minutes at the point (Grant, Dunn, Valentine, Arcidiacano all off the floor), but maybe the Bulls will see if his bully ball driving to the basket can create open looks for shooters. He's not a terribly gifted ball handler, but he's a threat in transition and an apt rebounder to boot.
Above all the Bulls are looking for a few more flashes from Nwaba. He'll be a free agent this summer and might be a part of the Bulls' plans if the market doesn't heat up for him. Again, don't expect a 3-point revelation from him. He is who he is, and that's a 6-foot-4 power forward who plays shooting guard. That has its obvious advantages, but more disadvantages. If he can prove to have a little more offensive flexibility it'd make the Bulls more comfortable about bringing him back in the fold next season. The fact that the Bulls don't have a second-round pick in 2018 helps his cause.
What to expect: More of the same from what we've seen. If it's not yet clear, Nwaba isn't going to become a different player just because he's playing more minutes. His numbers might not change much, either. It will be fun to see how much trust Fred Hoiberg puts in him to guard the opponent's best player, with matchups like Andrew Wiggins, Kemba Walker, Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving coming in the next two weeks. He'll be a hounding defender, and he'll have a few 6-for-8 shooting nights. He may even begin shooting more 3-pointers, just to see if he can find a comfort level.
What he's done: It hasn't been Timofey Mozgov-getting-$64 million bad, but the Bulls have to feel a little buyer's remorse in giving Felicio a four-year, $32 million deal last summer. He showed real potential on offense down the stretch last season, averaging 4.8 points on 64 percent shooting and 4.3 rebounds after the All-Star break. He did his damage in limited minutes (16.0 per game) but appeared to be a solid pick-and-roll option with good hands. He didn't bring much to the table defensively, but you also can't teach 6-foot-10, 270 pounds. And yet, for whatever reason, all that potential has fizzled in 2017-18. Felicio was essentially yanked from the rotation (despite the Bulls not having a true backup to Robin Lopez) and in his limited minutes has been awful. His happy feet from his rookie season have returned, he's out of position more times than not and it's led to copious fouls.
His -23.8 net rating is second worst in the NBA among players averaging 12 minutes per game, behind only Jahlil Okafor. And his 89.9 offensive rating is the worst in the league, not a good sign considering he's known as a better offensive than defensive player. It's been a season to forget, and the Bulls simply have to hope extended playing time improve his confidence, which in turn improves his game.
What the Bulls are looking for: Anything. Without piling too much on him - he's such a friendly dude - the Bulls need to see some of that spark he showed late in each of the last two seasons. Felicio has essentially split his minutes between playing with Jerian Grant (161 minutes) and Kris Dunn, and he's performed much better with Dunn (shocking, we know). That should help, and it'll also be interesting to see how often Hoiberg pairs of Payne and Felicio. Don't laugh, but those two could see a lot of time together next season off the bench. Simply being given a rotation spot isn't going to give Felicio more athleticism or quicker feet, but the Bulls will want to see him grasping concepts, communicating better and defending with his body on that end of the floor. It's a lot to ask, but he's sort of hit rock bottom as a 25-year-old making $8 million a year to rack up DNP-CDs.
What to expect: He will be better playing with Dunn, and playing alongside Markkanen should free up room for him in the paint. He'll likely be the beneficiary of some dump-offs from LaVine and Dunn on drives to the hoop. We'll get the occasional 16-point, 7-rebound night where he puts himself in the right position under the basket and plays well in pick-and-roll. Defensively he's going to continue to rack up fouls, and playing next to Markkanen instead of Bobby Portis probably won't help much. But the Bulls want to see some improvement from here on. If he can transform into a 9-point-per-night scorer who can be relatively hidden defensively, the Bulls will take it. Watch for how he moves his feet on defense, and his hands on offense.
What he's done: The centerpiece of last year's Taj Gibson/Doug McDermott deal, Payne really struggled in his limited minutes with the Bulls. Playing behind Rajon Rondo and the 14 other point guard the Bulls had that year, Payne averaged 4.9 points and 1.4 assists in 12.9 minutes. He had 15 assists and 13 turnovers in 142 minutes, while shooting 33 percent from the field. Between OKC and the Bulls, Payne had a 40.7 true shooting percentage, second worst in the NBA among 233 qualified players. His offensive rating among those same players was fourth worst. Simply put, Payne had a 2016-17 to forget...and then he broke his foot. He's set to make his debut on Thursday, taking Jerian Grant's spot in the rotation. Here goes nothing.
What the Bulls are looking for: Payne is a natural score-first point guard, or at least has been in his limited minutes in the league. But the Bulls are going to want to see how he distributes on the second unit, playing alongside wings with range in Denzel Valentine and Paul Zipser. Payne will have his chance to score, and he is a career 38 percent 3-point shooter in limited minutes, so perhaps Hoiberg will draw up some plays to find him open looks. He's got the length to succeed defensively, but thus far his defensive metrics haven't said the same.
What to expect: Payne is different from Nwaba and Felicio in that he's been injured all year. The Bulls are going to need to progress slowly with a foot he's now broken twice. So don't expect the same type of run the other newbies will get in the rotation. But Payne is going to have the green light to shoot (it's when he's at his best) but will also be tasked with finding open shooters. He's not particularly quick with the ball and doesn't create much separation, meaning pick-and-roll/pop opportunities will be where he delivers most. Put simply, he isn't as good as Jerian Grant, and the Bulls will see a decrease in production. But he's only 23 years old and is three years removed from being a Lottery pick. It'd be unfair to dub him a bust, and this is the same Bulls management that really liked Kris Dunn. That's worked out, so maybe they have an eye for point guards.
It’s what every fan base deserves, along with players on a roster where tough conversations must be had to set a course for the present in order to secure a better future.
It’s ugly and while not aesthetically pleasing to the eye, everyone can see what the Bulls are doing for the remainder of the NBA season. For the paying customers who still fill the seats at the United Center, it’s a “cry now so hopefully you laugh later” proposition.
Bulls Executive-Vice President John Paxson addressed the media Tuesday and said what we all knew to be true, what everyone knew what was coming.
He didn’t stand up in front of cameras and tape recorders and ask, “Do you like Brazilian music?”
They’re putting a little bit more sugar to go with it but it’s old-fashioned ‘tussin for the next several weeks.
All of this is due to sight unseen—unless you watch college basketball or cue up European basketball highlights.
When you see Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson take two hard dribbles from the top of the key, spin and dunk while being fouled, it makes sense.
When Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton help on a driving guard to cut off a lane, recover to block a 3-point shot and run the floor for a layup in a six-second span, it makes sense.
When Duke’s Marvin Bagley III seals his defender with one arm, catches with his left hand and finishes on the opposite side of the rim with ease, it all makes sense and kudos to the Bulls for not trying to fool a smart public with useless rhetoric.
Every loss counts, of course, but the key thing about the NBA is this: No matter where a team picks, bad franchises make the worst of a good opportunity and good franchises make the best of any situation.
If the Bulls are the latter, it’ll show itself whether they pick fourth or second or sixth. This draft’s best player went 13th, Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. Lauri Markkanen is in competition for best player after Mitchell and he went seventh.
This was inevitable from the moment the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler on draft night. Although Kris Dunn has turned out to be a revelation and Markkanen could be a superstar, none of the micro wins should take away from the macro vision of this franchise, chief reason why Paxson has reasserted himself in the last year.
Paxson just framed it in the vein of long-term evaluation in announcing Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup, while Jerian Grant will see his playing time cut for Cameron Payne.
“Seeing some of our young guys play consistently, we’ve learned a lot about them,” Paxson said. “The hard thing when you do things like this is you’re asking certain people to sacrifice roles and minutes. And oftentimes, it’s veteran guys. That’s what we’re asking some of our vets to do right now—sacrifice some time on the floor and roles they’ve been very good in. That’s never an easy thing.”
Lopez and Holiday have been good soldiers through this process, especially helping navigate a fragile locker room after the crazy start to the season when Bobby Portis had enough of Nikola Mirotic in a practice and unleashed holy hell on a season that was supposed to be a quiet, boring losing season.
“I know what it’s like to be asked to take a lesser role,” Paxson said. “Players have pride. So it’s hard. I don’t take that lightly at all. It’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37 with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”
Lopez has had a solid season, with career-highs in scoring and assists. Holiday’s scoring has nearly doubled this season and he’ll garner some attention around the draft in the trade market.
But with the Bulls being eighth of the eight bad teams, they need to get Super Bad (with a nod to James Brown) in the next several weeks. It’s not that the rebuild is steps ahead, it’s that other teams are better at being incompetent than the Bulls—and they’ll also be doing whatever’s necessary to secure a draft position.
At least the Bulls’ competence has come in the form of long-term answers. Certainly at the end of the year, one can lament Zach LaVine saving the Bulls from losses to the Timberwolves and Magic with late-game plays that cements the belief he could be a front-facing player—especially with restricted free agency coming this summer.
If Payne happens to be a useful NBA player in the process, it’s gravy but the Bulls aren’t really expecting it.
Fred Hoiberg has been pumping up Payne publicly by referencing him playing the role of Isaiah Thomas in the playoff preparation last spring, but he hasn’t played NBA level basketball in over a year.
And when he was on the floor, for that ill-fated period after last year’s deadline when Hoiberg was playing 11 guys without a real plan to win, Payne looked overmatched and overwhelmed.
“We want to see him as a point guard, especially when you’re running with the second unit, and the way Fred wants to play, play with pace, defend your position, compete every night and stay within yourself,” Paxson said. “His role is to get us into offense quickly and efficiently and make the right play with the ball.”
Felicio has taken a step back in terms of his development after steady improvement over the last two years, but in the big picture they’re casualties in the NBA’s cost of doing business.
And if you believe it’s anything else besides what you’re seeing, you might believe Paxson is truly asking if you like Brazilian music.