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NBA Buzz: Bulls pass on chance to start roster makeover

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NBA Buzz: Bulls pass on chance to start roster makeover

The NBA trade deadline hit at 2 p.m. on Thursday with the Bulls standing pat, outside of the salary dump of Kirk Hinrich to Atlanta for seldom-used bench player Justin Holiday and a 2018 second round draft pick from Utah.

According to multiple national reports, including a detailed story from the well-connected Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the Sacramento Kings aggressively pursued a deal for Bulls’ All-Star Pau Gasol, and made a generous offer that included promising young shooting guard Ben McLemore, back-up center Kosta Koufos, and reduction of the protection on the first round pick they owe to the Bulls (currently top 10 for this year and next).

The Bulls front office ultimately decided to pass on the deal, mostly because they didn’t want to be saddled with the contract of Koufos, a serviceable career back-up who’s owed over $8 million in each of the next three seasons. Now, I understand the perils of taking on a long-term contract for a player you don’t really love, but with the salary cap expected to grow by about $20 million in each of the next two summers, that contract might not look so bad.

Plus, the front office knows they need to add more shot creators and athletes to the roster, and that’s where McLemore comes in. When he arrived at the University of Kansas, McLemore was considered one of the top freshmen and NBA prospects in the country. To this point, McLemore has failed to live up to that enormous potential in his two and a half professional seasons, averaging just under 10 points a game on .415 shooting from the field, and .345 from 3-point range. But you can certainly blame some of that lack of development on playing for such a dysfunctional franchise like Sacramento, and you have to like McLemore’s odds of improving dramatically in his next NBA stop. He certainly has youth on his side after just turning 23 earlier this month.

[MORE: Chicago's goodbye to Kobe Bryant]

The opportunity to add a 6-foot-5 shooting guard with athleticism and upside sure looked like the perfect opportunity for the Bulls front office to start re-shaping the roster for the style of play their hand-picked young coach prefers. Especially when you consider the possibility Gasol can walk away in free agency this summer and the Bulls would get nothing in return.

General manager Gar Forman says he considers Gasol (who turns 36 in July) part of the team’s core group, adding that the Bulls would try to re-sign both Gasol and Joakim Noah this summer. Doing that would cancel any opportunity to improve the team in the free agent market, where the Bulls could create approximately $20-21 million of cap room by letting their two veteran big men walk. Plus, there are no assurances Gasol is interested in re-signing, saying what happens during the rest of the regular season and playoffs will determine whether he believes the Bulls are still a championship contender.

Why the Bulls front office wanted to pass up an offer of McLemore and Koufos to jump-start their plans to get younger and more athletic for a 36-year-old player who may or may not be interested in staying in Chicago, plus throw-in Tony Snell, is a mystery to me. We can only hope the summer strategy involves a lot more than just adding another draft pick of two to an aging and underachieving roster.

Niko's Nightmare

Second year forward Niko Mirotic returned to the Advocate Center following the All-Star break and met with local reporters last Wednesday. Mirotic looked noticeably thinner after dropping 18 pounds after an appendectomy, followed by a second emergency surgery to remove a hematoma.

Mirotic told the harrowing story of how the follow-up surgery came about, saying the surgeon told him in all his years of doing appendectomies he had never seen such a serious complication. “It was maybe bad luck," said Mirotic. "It was no one's mistake. It just could happen. I'm trying to forget that and focus on my recovery. Last year, I just missed one game. The good thing is I know my body is young and I can recover soon. Maybe two, three weeks. I don't know what the time is. The one thing I know that I will do the best job I can to get on the floor soon and help my teammates. Now I'm just walking; so I'm trying to move around a little bit. Let's see when I can do that. After that, try to get some shots. It's all about days. We'll see. I don't know. I know I'm going to be back before playoffs."

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

So, Mirotic is weeks away from returning to the court, with Fred Hoiberg telling reporters Mirotic will start with low-impact conditioning work in the pool.

The reality is the Bulls probably won’t get a good read on what they have in Mirotic, given his erratic play earlier in the season, then all of the health issues. And since Niko only signed a three-year contract when he came over from Spain, he’ll be a free agent in the summer of 2017. Just another element of uncertainty as the Bulls try to decide which players will remain part of the team’s core group going forward.

Around the Association

No blockbuster deals on trade deadline day after all the rumors involving Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love.  Detroit picked up 23-year-old forward Tobias Harris from Orlando for two players that were not going to be part of their future, Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. And later, the Pistons strengthened their bench by acquiring Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton from Houston for a first round draft pick.

Cleveland also picked up a potentially valuable bench piece, getting veteran stretch four Channing Frye from the Magic, and the Cavs are considered the front-runners to sign Joe Johnson if he agrees to a buyout with Brooklyn.

All told, there were 12 deals made during deadline week involving 26 players. Here’s a look at how that compares to the last five years. 

2015: 46 players traded (22 still with team), 12 draft picks. Notable: Isaiah Thomas (Suns to Celtics), Arron Afflalo (Nuggets to Blazers), Reggie Jackson (OKC to Pistons), Goran Dragic (Suns to Heat).

2014: 26 players traded (1 still with team), 6 draft picks. Notable: Aaron Brooks (Rockets to Nuggets), Evan Turner (76'ers to Pacers)

2013: 29 players traded (1 still with team), 2 draft picks. Notable: JJ Redick (Magic to Bucks), Tobias Harris (Bucks to Magic), Josh McRoberts (Magic to Bobcats).

2012: 28 players traded (2 still with team), 8 draft picks. Notable: Andrew Bogut (Bucks to Warriors), Monta Ellis (Warriors to Bucks), Nene Hilario (Nuggets to Wizards), Gerald Wallace (Blazers to Nets).

2011: 50 players traded (4 still with team), 16 draft picks. Notable: Carmelo Anthony (Nuggets to Knicks), Deron Williams (Jazz to Nets), Danilo Gallinari (Knicks to Nuggets), Derrick Favors (Nets to Jazz), Wilson Chandler (Knicks to Nuggets). 

A number of players coming with some big number out of the All-Star break. Chicago native Anthony Davis set a New Orleans Pelicans franchise record with his 59-point performance Sunday against the Pistons, it’s also the highest scoring game in the history of the Palace. Davis also pulled down 20 rebounds.

And, another Chicago native, Jabari Parker, appears to be fully recovered from ACL surgery in December of 2014. Parker has been dunking on players with regularity in recent weeks, and he scored a career-high 28 points in the Milwaukee Bucks’ win in Atlanta last Saturday.

Warriors pursuit of 72 wins

Golden State came out of the break with an embarrassing 32-point loss at Portland, but then bounced back with a good road win over the Los Angeles Clippers. At 49-5, the Warriors are one game ahead of the pace set by the 1995-96 Bulls when they won 72 games, and they’re also trying to become the first NBA team to go through an entire season without losing back-to-back games. The schedule is tough for Golden State over the next few weeks, but I’m still giving them a 55 percent chance to get to 72 wins.

Stats of the Week

Courtesy of CSN’s stats whiz Chris Kamka:

Derrick Rose 20+ point games this season:

Nine in last 15 games

Six in first 33 games

20+ point trios vs. Bulls (this season)

Feb. 19 (TOR): DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry

Feb. 6 (MIN): Andrew Wiggins (21), Karl-Anthony Towns (26) and Gorgui Dieng (24)

Jan. 3 (TOR): Luis Scola (22), DeRozan (24) and Lowry (22)

Dec. 18 (DET): Andre Drummond (33), Reggie Jackson (31) and Marcus Morris (20)

Nov. 18 (PHX): Brandon Knight (23), Eric Bledsoe (21) and P.J. Tucker (20)

Oct. 30 (DET): Morris (26), Jackson (22) and Drummond (20)

Bulls longest losing streak by season under Tom Thibodeau (regular season)

2010-11: two games (four times)

2011-12: two games

2012-13: three games

2013-14: four games (twice)

2014-15: three games (twice)

Under Fred Hoiberg

2015-16: five games (longest by Bulls since 10-game losing streak Feb. 27-March 19, 2010 under Vinnie Del Negro).

Quotes of the Week

Hoiberg used to work in the Timberwolves’ front office as an assistant to the GM, so he has some personal experience on what goes on at the trade deadline: "People like to lie to each other all the way up to those last 48 hours.”

And here are the thoughts of Taj Gibson on whether the Bulls disappointing season is the most challenging of his seven-year career. “I think, yeah. Just because we got a lot of young guys too. In previous years we [were] able to muster up because we had guys that had been together for a while, we had a good belief system. But it's a little different, we got different guys, and it's different. You're a veteran now. It's not like you're the young guys on the curb anymore so it's frustrating but I believe in this team…"

Gibson has definitely emerged as a team leader. We’re all waiting to see if this Bulls team is capable of sustaining a run of winning basketball once Jimmy Butler returns from his knee injury in a couple weeks.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.