Bulls

NBA Buzz: The case for building around Jimmy Butler

NBA Buzz: The case for building around Jimmy Butler

After John Paxson and Gar Forman's harsh critique of their team's under-achieving season, you'd have to expect an active summer of personnel changes at the Advocate Center. Both front office executives stressed all options are on the table for improving the roster; draft, trades and free agency.

Paxson took a veiled shot at All-Star guard Jimmy Butler for his failed attempts at assuming a vocal leadership role with this year's team.

"Here’s how I feel about the whole leadership thing: When you’re talking too much about leadership you’re probably not getting what you need from the team leaders," Paxson said. "I played with the greatest player in the game (Michael Jordan) and you didn’t hear him talking about leadership. You heard him going out and showing leadership and showing that he was a winning player. I don’t think any of our guys need to talk about that anymore, about leadership. I think they need to show it.”

A number of fans and media members took that as a signal the Bulls will actively look to trade Butler this summer. Yes, it's true Butler's attempts at proclaiming himself team leader rubbed some veterans the wrong way. And, it's also true a number of people inside the organization are turned off by the way Jimmy has morphed from the humble, small-town kid who came in as a rookie to a sometimes disruptive, self-absorbed celebrity. Plus, we've all seen that Butler and Derrick Rose don't always function well playing together in the same backcourt.

But let's not get carried away in this whole Jimmy has got to go mentality. The NBA is and always has been a players' league, and Jimmy Butler is one of the top 15-20 players in the game. Butler is one of the NBA's best shooting guards, along with Klay Thompson, James Harden, Dwyane Wade and DeMar DeRozan, and when you factor in his defensive skills, I don't think there's a two guard I'd rather have with the exception of Thompson.

I'm hoping the front office is extremely aggressive in trying to give Fred Hoiberg a roster that suits his offensive and defensive systems, but trading away Butler would send the franchise into a total rebuild. And, we all witnessed how well that worked in the dark era that followed the Bulls' six championships. In case you've forgot, the Bulls won 13 games in 1999 (lockout shortened season), 17 in 1999-2000, 15 in 2000-2001, 21 in 2001-2002, 30 in 2002-2003 and 23 in 2003-2004.

Rebuilding is hard and painful to watch. Just ask the fans in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York who are watching three proud franchises (76ers, Lakers and Knicks) try to come up with a winning formula.

The Bulls should be able to return to the playoffs next season with a few tweaks. Let Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah leave in free agency. Trade the contracts of Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell to create more cap room. And use the minimum of 23 million dollars in cap space to make a run at all of the top free agents: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, DeRozan and Al Horford. When they say no, pursue a defensive anchor like Hassan Whiteside in free agency. Or failing that, sign an impact 2-way wing player like Nic Batum, Harrison Barnes or Kent Bazemore.

Use the 14th pick in the draft to select a point guard of the future like Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson, who can serve a one-year apprenticeship behind Derrick Rose, then take over in 2017-18 if Rose leaves in free agency.

A 2016-17 roster of Whiteside and late season find Cristiano Felicio at center, Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott, Niko Mirotic and Bobby Portis at forwards, and Butler, Rose, Jackson and Justin Holiday (another late-season find) at guards should be good enough to get back into the playoffs next season. And the Bulls should have enough cap room left to re-sign valuable reserve E'Twaun Moore as well. Plus, with the cap increasing by another 15 million in the summer of 2017 and the contracts of Rose and Gibson coming off the books, the Bulls could have over 40 million dollars available to add more high end talent to the roster.

The rumors we heard at the trade deadline about sending Butler to Boston for a pair of 1st round picks isn't fair value for one of the best 2-way players in the league. Now, if All-Star players like Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins or Kevin Love become available in trade, that might be something for the Bulls' front office to consider.

But simply trading Butler because of perceived attitude issues could send the Bulls into a prolonged rebuild. And I don't know about you, but I'd rather watch the team compete in the playoffs, as opposed to the draft lottery.

Bulls suffer another loss

Speaking of the lottery, in case you missed it on Friday, the Bulls hopes of landing that 1st round pick from Sacramento from the 2014 Luol Deng went up in smoke.

The Kings finished in a tie with the Nuggets and Bucks at 33-49, but won a pair of blind draws to earn the 8th overall pick in the June 23rd draft. Had the Kings lost the draws and fallen to 10th in the draft order, the Bulls could have stolen the top 10 protected pick if one of the teams in the 11-14 slots jumped into the top 3 through the lottery process (ideally the Bulls).

Now, the Bulls have to wait another year, and if the perpetually dysfunctional Kings can't find their way out of the bottom 10 next season (the pick is again top 10 protected), the choice owed to the Bulls converts to a 2nd rounder.

Turns out the 50th anniversary season of Bulls basketball didn't go exactly as planned. No playoffs, Golden State breaks the 1995-'96 Bulls' record of 72 wins in a season and Sacramento comes up three wins short of giving the front office another 1st round draft pick to use this summer.

Around the association

It will be another busy offseason of coaching moves, with at least a half dozen teams expected to make a change at the top.

Three coaches were let go after the final game of the season, George Karl in Sacramento, Randy Wittman in Washington and Sam Mitchell in Minnesota. In addition, the Rockets, Nets, Knicks and Suns are expected to address the fates of their interim coaches.

Sacramento is reportedly interested in Kevin McHale, Mark Jackson and Vinny Del Negro. Kings GM Vlade Divac would also like to talk with Scott Brooks and former Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, but the belief is they'll be looking for better situations.

Brooks is reportedly the leading candidate to replace Wittman in the nation's capital. The Wizards have been planning to make a run at D.C.-area native Kevin Durant in free agency, and they're hoping bringing in Brooks (who coached Durant in Oklahoma City) will help their chances.

Thibodeau figures to be the most highly sought-after coaching candidate this offseason, and it's believed he has his eyes on the Minnesota vacancy. Thibs was an assistant for Bill Musselman back in the Timberwolves' expansion days, and it would be interesting to see what he could do with all the young talent on the roster, including franchise big man Karl-Anthony Towns, former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and slam dunk champ Zach LaVine. Minnesota only won 29 games this past season, but you'd have to believe they'd contend for a playoff spot with Thibodeau in charge.

Phil Jackson still prefers to hire a coach who will keep the principles of the triangle offense, whether that's interim coach Kurt Rambis or someone else. Jackson told reporters at the end of the season he doesn't want to bring in a coach he doesn't know because the relationship the coach will have with him and general manager Steve Mills is crucial to the team's success.

Meanwhile, Jackson's star player, Carmelo Anthony, is growing more restless after another losing season. Anthony told New York reporters he understood the Knicks would be going through a rebuilding process when he re-signed in 2014, but it's still hard to remain patient.

"I understood that because I agreed to come back to be a part of that process," Anthony said of the rebuilding process. "I was here the first day that they started cleaning this thing out and started a new process. Last year was a total disaster as far the process goes. This year we got a little bit better, a little ahead of that process. Every year the plan is to get better. We've gotten better. We've made some strides this season. I think this offseason is a big offseason for us."

Anthony said he expects the Knicks to pursue impact players in free agency this summer.

"I look at the list [of free agents] every day. Whether it's for me, whether it's for other teams," he said. "I want to see what other guys are thinking about as far as who they want to get to better their team and where we fit in the free agency market. I look at that stuff. Those are things I pay close attention to."

Don't be surprised if Anthony makes a trade demand if he doesn't like Jackson's personnel moves, or his choice of the next head coach.

History making night

I don't know if we'll ever see a closing night of the regular season like we witnessed last Wednesday. Steph Curry scored 46 points in Golden State's blowout victory over Memphis, allowing the Warriors to break the single season record of 72 wins set by the 1995-96 Bulls. Curry made 10 3-pointers in the finale, giving him 402 for the season, obliterating the record he set a year ago by more than 100.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr was a reserve guard on that record-setting Bulls team, and admitted he didn't expect his squad would be able to top 72 wins. "I'd never in a million years have guessed that that record would ever be broken. I thought it was like [Joe] DiMaggio's hit streak, really, and I was wrong."

The Golden State players were similarly awe-struck, Klay Thompson saying, "I'm going to look back at this and think of it as the best time of my life." While Draymond Green, the most vocal Warrior player about trying to break the record had this to say about what it all means, "It means I'm a part of the best team ever."

I'm sure Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen might have an argument over that statement, but both stars from the 1995-96 teams took the high road in sending out messages of congratulations afterwards.

Still, victory No. 73 for the Warriors had to take a back seat to Kobe Bryant's incredible final game in Los Angeles. The NBA’s third all-time leading scorer turned back the clock, piling up an unimaginable 60 points in a come from behind win over Utah, making all five of his shots in the final three minutes with the Staples Center crowd and his Laker teammates going crazy.

Bryant came into the league at 18 as an unapologetic gunner, and that's the way he went out, making 22 of 50 attempts from the field, including 6 of 21 from 3 point range.

He kept his sweat-soaked jersey on for an extended news conference, not wanting to see an unforgettable evening come to an end.

"It's surreal," he said of leaving the court for the last time. "It's hard to describe. It's almost like you're in a fog and everything is moving extremely slow yet extremely fast. You're trying to look and take it all in. You're trying to observe and you're not quite sure where to look to just take it all in. Very difficult to do. But it's like a dream."

And for one final night, Kobe reminded fans around the world why he should be included on any list of the Top 10 NBA players of all time.

Stat of the week

Kobe's 60 point farewell game got our stats whiz, Chris Kamka, thinking about how some of the other greats did in their last regular season outing. Here's a look at the Top 10 scorers in NBA history.

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 10 points (April 23, 1989; had 7 on June 13, 1989, in his last playoff game)

2. Karl Malone: 4 (April 14, 2004; had 2 on June 13, 2004, in his last playoff game)

3. Kobe Bryant: 60 (April 13, 2016)

4. Michael Jordan: 15 (April 16, 2003)

5. Wilt Chamberlain: 1 (March 28, 1973; had 23 on May 10, 1973, in his last playoff game)

6. Dirk Nowitzki: still active

7. Shaquille O'Neal: 6 (April 3, 2011; had 0 on May 9, 2011, in his last playoff game)

8. Moses Malone: 6 (Dec. 27, 1994)

9. Elvin Hayes: 8 (April 14, 1984)

10. Hakeem Olajuwon: 4 (April 17, 2002; had 8 on May 2, 2002, in his last playoff game)

Quotes of the week

Bulls Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations John Paxson didn't hold anything back in his season-ending news conference last week.

"I do think that anybody who watched us play this year saw a team that didn't have the collective fight and toughness to fight through adversity," Paxson said. "To me that's the biggest disappointment in all of this. That falls on all of us. We put the roster together; the coaching staff and players, we're all in this together. That's the way it should be. Again, it goes back to responsibility and accountability for all of us. Gar and I know we're ultimately the ones that are responsible. Moving forward, we understand changes are going to have to be made."

Here's what Jimmy Butler had to say about the Bulls' lost season. "I think that a lot of this season I put on myself. Because I feel like I could have done more. It's a learning curve for everybody, especially for myself. Very humbling, to tell you the truth. Whenever you think you're good enough or you can do this, something like this happens."

But Jimmy did not want to discuss the much-reported story that he and Derrick Rose can't co-exist in the same backcourt, telling the Trib's K.C. Johnson, "Come on, man," "That s--- always comes up. Man, when [we're] losing. I'm tired of talking about that bull----."

Butler is still hoping to work out in California with Rose and other Bulls players this summer. Might be a good way to start building a better relationship with his teammates.

Let's give the final word to Paxson on what to do with the Bulls' under-achieving roster...... "It's obvious this roster isn't going to be exactly the same coming back. We have to make some changes. What we have to do is determine that path, whether it's through trades, free agency, draft, all those type of things."

Sounds like it will be a very active summer, starting with the Bulls hoping to beat the odds in the NBA Draft Lottery on May 17.

This will be my last weekly NBA Buzz column for 2015-16, but I'll have much more on the Bulls' draft preparations as we get closer to the big day on June 23. And we'll be back with regular weekly columns next season.

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

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USA TODAY

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

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.

Transparency.

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 tanking.

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.

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

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USA TODAY

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

And here you thought the Bulls wouldn't be competing for anything down the stretch. Yes, the Bulls will miss the postseason for the second time in three seasons, and the post-Jimmy Butler rebuild is off and running with a Lottery selection (and potentially two) on the horizon.

And now the race for the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery is on, with 23 to 27 games left in the regular season and a whopping seven teams within 1.5 games of each other for the worst record in the league. The Bulls are currently sitting 8th in the reverse standings at 20-37, 3.0 games behind the league-worst Suns and Hawks. And in what's largely considered a seven-man draft, Fred Hoiberg and the boys have some work to do to improve their chances of moving into the top-5 or top-3 of the draft.

Yes, the Bulls were sellers at the deadline, dealing leading scorer Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans. And they lost eight of their last 10 games before the All-Star Break while promising extended minutes for players like Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and even Cameron Payne. All those signs point to a franchise with a full and clear understanding that losses right now mean much bigger wins in June. But it's not as easy as it sounds. The Bulls aren't the only team looking to secure losses, and those other teams may have easier paths of doing so. Here's why.

For starters, not all these clumped-together records were built equally. Yes, the wins and losses all count the same at the end of the day, but if we're projecting how each team may finish the Bulls are certainly poised to play better than the teams around them. In fact, the Bulls are still playing .500 basketball (17-17) since their infamous 3-20 start. Unsurprisingly all seven teams ahead of the Bulls have worse records, as do the New York Knicks (11-24 since Dec. 8), who are just two games behind the Bulls, have lost eight straight and are without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL). Remember, there are teams chasing the Bulls, too.

The Bulls have a seven-game win streak to their name and won 10 games in December; of the teams with worse records than the Bulls, only the Mavericks have a seven-win month this season.

And let's remember, too, the Bulls have gone 17-17 while missing Zach LaVine in 20 of those, Kris Dunn in 11 others and Lauri Markkanen in three. Those three are all healthy now (LaVine likely won't play in back-to-backs, but the Bulls have just three of those sets left) and while they have an ugly -18.8 net rating in four games, the Bulls are 2-2 with all three on the floor and have losses against the top-seeded Raptors and defending champion Warriors. It's safe to assume Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen will all benefit and improve from playing with one another. And while Nikola Mirotic was a large part of the Bulls' success (they went 14-11 with him in the lineup), the trade has opened up more minutes for Bobby Portis, who's quietly averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds since the Mirotic trade. No, Portis isn't Mirotic, but the dropoff isn't all that significant, especially when considering the defensive end.

What's this all mean? That the Bulls have the best top-end talent of any team in these tank standings, and arguably the most talented overall roster. It sounds laughable, but we're not comparing them to the Rockets and Celtics. Perhaps Orlando's core of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic (when healthy) comes close, but the Magic also just sold their starting point guard Elfrid Payton for pennies on the dollar. They're clearly in tank mode, and the rest of that roster is a nightmare. Dallas has some nice pieces, but also plenty of shutdown candidates as the season nears its end.

And that's another angle to this. The Bulls really don't have any players who may rest late in the season. Then again, phantom injuries could arise and LaVine might sit down the stretch for precautionary purposes. But Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, the team's elder statesmen at 29 and 28, respectively, aren't exactly tipping the scale between wins and losses. As long as LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, Portis and Denzel Valentine are seeing 28+ minutes, the Bulls are going to be in good position. Teams like Atlanta and Sacramento are already resting veterans, and Memphis could do the same with Marc Gasol if the Lottery balls depend on it. It's a good thing the Bulls don't have this luxury, as they're leaning on their young talent, but it also means the team isn't going to get much worse.

The biggest hurdle for the Bulls, however, is going to be their remaining schedule. Marvin Bagley fans might want to stop reading. Only four teams in the NBA will face an easier remaining schedule than the Bulls, and none are ahead of them in the race for the top pick. The 76ers, Hornets, Warriors and Heat have easier schedules, and then it's the Bulls, with a remaining SOS of .474. Here's how that compares to the seven teams the Bulls are looking up at in the tank standings:

So the Bulls have an easier schedule than any team in front of them, and the Knicks. And looking at the Bulls' remaining schedule (far right column), it's clear that the three games against the Nets (which includes what should be a fun home-and-home in the season's final week) and two games against the Grizzlies will loom large. It also wouldn't surprise anyone if the Bulls picked up random victories over teams like Boston (March 5), Cleveland (March 17), Milwaukee (March 23) or Houston (March 27). They have a way of playing up to their opponents (see: Minnesota).

When it comes to discussing the league's worst teams, the Bulls might simply be too good. And their schedule might simply be too bad. That's certainly a good problem to have when considering the franchise's rebuild has gone quicker than most expected, even if it means fewer chances to secure a top-3 pick. Then again, the Bulls did fine selecting 7th overall last season in grabbing Markkanen, so perhaps a top-5 pick isn't necessary. It might not even be an option.