Bulls

NBA Buzz: The Bulls may have found a keeper in Cristiano Felicio

NBA Buzz: The Bulls may have found a keeper in Cristiano Felicio

We're taking a break from the breathless NBA trade rumor mill to write about an unqualified success story for the Bulls' front office and coaching staff.

Second-year center Cristiano Felicio just keeps getting better, and it's exciting to think about what his ceiling might be. You've probably heard the story by now: Felicio grew up in Brazil playing soccer like most young athletes in that country. But as Felicio kept growing, it was suggested he might want to switch to basketball.

After limited exposure to professional basketball in Brazil, Felicio found out he wasn't eligible to pursue a college scholarship in the U.S., so he focused on finding an opportunity to try out at an NBA training camp. The Bulls saw enough potential in the raw, 6-foot-9 athlete to bring him to camp in September 2015, and he impressed enough in preseason games to earn a spot on the 15-man roster.

Felicio didn't play much early in the season behind veterans Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, but once Noah went down with a season-ending shoulder injury Felicio got his chance and impressed with his active play on both ends.

Year 2 began with Felicio in the rotation as the back-up center, but then he disappeared in November, barely playing over a stretch of 13 games. Now he's back as the second-team center and often is on the court in the Bulls' fourth-quarter lineup. Felicio is averaging 4.8 points and 4.9 rebounds in 15.7 minutes, but you can see the potential is there for so much more.

Felicio's ability to run the court and fly in for put-backs and tip dunks energizes the entire team, and he's already built a nice chemistry with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo on alley-oop passes at the rim.

So, what's the ceiling for the 24-year-old Brazilian? I asked Fred Hoiberg after practice on Wednesday.

"I think the sky's the limit for Cris. He's a guy that, just the way he moves his feet for a guy that size, allows us to change our ball-screen coverages," Hoiberg said. "He's getting more comfortable on the offensive end, I think he's built nice chemistry with Dwyane and Rajon in that second group, picking and choosing his times to roll to the rim and also finding guys on the perimeter. He's also built a nice chemistry with Doug (McDermott) as well, trying to find him with screens coming down in transition. The big thing is, you can see he's getting more comfortable every time he's out there. He's a big part of this team."

Starting center Robin Lopez added: "I've seen nothing but great things from him, honestly. Every time he's inserted into the lineup he does really good things for us."

So, give credit to the Bulls' scouting staff for discovering an unpolished diamond like Felicio. He's still raw offensively, and tends to rush his jump hooks and floaters in the lane, but the potential for improvement is there. Felicio has a nice touch at the free throw line, and with time and repetition, should be able to develop a consistent mid-range shot.

The danger for the Bulls is what might happen in free agency this summer. Teams around the league have taken notice of the agile and springy big man, and he could be in high demand in a new NBA that emphasizes small lineups and versatile bigs. 

Since the Bulls signed Felicio originally as an undrafted free agent, they'll be limited in what kind of contract they can offer him under the little known "Arenas provision" in the league's collective bargaining agreement. That's the same provision that allowed Houston to swoop in and steal Omer Asik from the Bulls after the 2011-12 season. While the "poison pill" option has been removed in the current CBA, if a team wants Felicio badly enough they could come in with an offer that the Bulls are unable to match.

Still, after all the disappointments the Bulls have had with their recent first-round draft picks, turning an unknown free agent like Felicio into a productive rotation player is a big positive for the front office.

Trade chatter continues around the league

Speaking of the center position, the Bulls have been linked in trade talks involving Philadelphia's second-year big man Jahlil Okafor, but that interest may have been overblown.

The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor writes the 76ers may have held Okafor out of their road game in Charlotte earlier this week just to try to flush out better offers, adding the only serious trade proposal came from the Pelicans, offering back-up center Alexis Ajinca and a first-round draft pick. O'Connor writes the Bulls likely aren't interested in trading for the Chicago native, who is an old fashioned back-to-the-basket center that doesn't defend, rebound or pass very well.

Okafor returned to the Sixers for Wednesday night's game in Boston, and unless general manager Bryan Colangelo gets some better offers, he might wind up finishing the year in Philadelphia.

So, which players could be on the move before the February 23 deadline? The Lakers, Magic and Nuggets look like motivated sellers right now. The Lakers have to turn over their first-round pick to Philadelphia if it falls outside the top 3, and also would have to send a 2019 first-rounder to Orlando. But, if the Lakers tank the rest of the season and slide into the bottom of the three, they keep a premier pick in this year's loaded draft, and they would only owe the Magic a pair of second-rounders in the future.

That means embattled Lakers' general manager Mitch Kupchak is open for business, willing to sell off any and all of his veteran players. No one is touching the long-term deals Kupchak mistakenly handed out to Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, but the Lakers should draw interest on perimeter shooters Lou Williams and Nick Young. Don't be surprised if the Cavaliers come calling for Williams, who's been on a scoring tear lately, averaging 21 points over his last 10 games. Williams just might be the dynamic playmaker LeBron James has been asking for. 

After trading Serge Ibaka on Tuesday, the Magic still have the for-sale sign out with Rob Hennigan trying to save his job as general manager. Orlando was expected to contend for a playoff spot in the East after acquiring Ibaka from Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and lottery pick Domantas Sabonis, but the trade hasn't gone well for the Magic. 

Head coach Frank Vogel hasn't been able to get his team to play consistent defense, and now Hennigan is trying to shake things up to save the season. Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja, Jeff Green C.J. Watson and Nikola Vucevic are all available for the right price.

A different story in Denver, where the Nuggets currently hold the 8th seed in the West, and would love to add a veteran star to their young mix. Denver just acquired center Mason Plumlee from Portland to back-up emerging star Nikola Jokic, and they're willing to deal Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Will Barton, Jameer Nelson and former DePaul star Wilson Chandler to get the right player.

Carmelo Anthony told reporters on Wednesday he expects to be with the Knicks after the trade deadline, but that doesn't mean other teams will stop calling. Anthony grew up in Baltimore and would be a great fit on a Wizards team that has a 27-9 record since December 4. Not sure if Washington has the assets to pull off that kind of a deal, but it's definitely worth a try with Cleveland suddenly looking a little more vulnerable in the East. 

Similar story with Boston, where Danny Ainge is still sitting on that treasure trove of draft picks from the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trade with Brooklyn. With Kevin Love now out six weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery, Washington playing great basketball and Toronto just acquiring Serge Ibaka, will Ainge step forward with his best offer to try to pry Jimmy Butler loose from the Bulls?

Unless Ainge is willing to offer both of the Brooklyn picks he holds (1st rounders in 2017 & '18), plus a pair of players to match salaries, there likely isn't any chance of a deal getting done between the two teams before the deadline. But you can bet those talks will be revisited once we get closer to the draft in June.

As for the Bulls, don't expect much in the next week. There's a chance they'll find a new home for Nikola Mirotic, and Gibson could go if a contending team offers a late first-round pick, but don't expect any blockbuster deals. With the front office still looking to get younger and more athletic players in the mix, first-round picks will be at a premium, and those types of trades normally get done just before the draft.

Stats of the Week

With the Bulls running their current winning streak over Toronto to 11 games on Tuesday, our stats "cruncher", Chris Kamka came up with these interesting notes.

The last time Bulls lost to Raptors (December 31st, 2013)

- Luol Deng was Bulls leading scorer (16).  He played 2 more games with Bulls then was traded
- Jimmy Butler's career PPG was 7.3 at the time

Jimmy Butler's unique game
- Tuesday's game is the only time (1983-84 to present) a Bulls player had 15+ FT made and 12+ Assists in a game   (Butler finished with 19 pts. & 12 assists, making 15-19 FT's)

And, when the Bulls are good, they can be VERY good.

Most 25+ point wins through first 50 games of a season in Bulls history

8       1971-72
5       2016-17   --->  5 of 25 wins this season have been by 25+ points
5       2006-07
5       1996-97
5       1990-91

Those five wins:
                                              Score                   Margin of Victory
Oct 31        at Brooklyn          118-88                 30
Nov 7         vs Orlando          112-80                 32
Nov 15       at Portland          113-88                 25
Dec 19       vs Detroit             113-82                 31
Feb 1         at Oklahoma City 128-100             28

Quote of the Week

Finally back to the quirky Robin Lopez, who had this response to my question about whether he ever discusses trade rumors with his twin brother Brook: "No, he once told me he would trade me to a high school team for a bag of Cheetos, but that's about it."

Which led me to the obvious follow-up question of what would it be like if he was ever traded FOR his brother, a Lopez twin swap, "I think whoever got Brook would be sorely disappointed. That's quite the presence to have to follow."

Robin then dropped the mike and walked away, interview session over.
 

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
 
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
 
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.