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NBA Buzz: Fixing the Bulls

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NBA Buzz: Fixing the Bulls

With the Bulls seemingly destined to miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season under Scott Skiles/Jim Boylan, it’s time to start thinking about how the front office can re-tool the roster over the next two summers for a return to contending status.

Here’s my plan:

1. Say goodbye to Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah this summer. Both veteran big men plan to test the free agent market come July 1, and even though they’ve been productive players and solid citizens, it’s time to move in a new direction. Gasol turns 36 in July, while Noah has been hit hard by injuries over the last few seasons. Re-signing either player out of a sense of loyalty for past contributions will only slow down a much-needed roster makeover.

2. Try to trade off the contracts of Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell. Signing Dunleavy was a great idea as a final piece to a championship contending team, but now that the Bulls are in re-tool mode, they should see if they can trade him for a second round draft pick and utilize the nearly $5 million in cap savings. Similarly, the Bulls should admit their mistake in drafting Snell over big men Gorgui Dieng and Mason Plumlee, and see if they can find a taker for Snell, whose contract option was picked up last fall.

3. Clear space. Making those moves would give the Bulls somewhere between $25-27 million in cap room, depending on whether they have to take a contract back in the deals for either Dunleavy or Snell. That’s enough to offer a max contract to Miami center Hassan Whiteside, who’s been tearing up the league lately as the Heat climb up the Eastern Conference standings. As I detailed in a previous column, Miami doesn’t hold Whiteside’s “Bird rights," so they have to use cap room to re-sign him and can’t offer an additional contract year, which means it’s an equal playing field with other teams. Plus, don’t count the Heat out as a possible destination for prize free agent Kevin Durant. Pat Riley always thinks big, and if he can find a way to bring Durant to South Beach, Miami wouldn’t have the cap room left to re-sign both Whiteside and Dwyane Wade.

4. If Miami does re-sign Whiteside, pursue one of the top free agent wing players available. DeMar DeRozan and Nic Batum are unrestricted free agents, and while Harrison Barnes is a restricted free agent, the Warriors may have to let him go if they decide to get involved in the Durant sweepstakes. The Bulls need to think big and try to add a premier free agent in each of the next two summers.

5. Look ahead. Draft Notre Dame point guard Demetrius Jackson or Vanderbilt’s Wade Baldwin as a back up for Derrick Rose next season and a possible replacement down the line. Jackson showed his ability to perform at a high level under the pressure of the NCAA tournament, and he has the strength and athleticism to get to the basket and draw double teams. Jackson also looks like the type of push the pace guard Fred Hoiberg wants to run his offense. Baldwin is one of the draft’s high risk/reward options, a 6-foot-3 athletic point guard who could wind up being better than the more well-known prospects. The Bulls could also choose to go with a developmental big man like Utah’s Jakob Poeltl, Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis or Maryland’s Diamond Stone.

6. Prepare for another big free agency push in 2017. With the cap expected to go up to about $92 million for next season, and then jump again to about $108 million in 2017, the Bulls could be major players in 2017 free agency. With the contracts of Rose and Taj Gibson coming off the books, the Bulls could have over $40 million in cap room that summer, and if they don’t re-sign Rose, they’ll have plenty of free agent alternatives in Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry, George Hill and Jrue Holiday. Other potential free agents in the class of 2017 include LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, Gordon Hayward, Greg Monroe and Rudy Gay.

Granted, even the best-laid plans can fall apart. We all know the Bulls were in great position for a free agent windfall in 2010 with two max salary slots available, but James and Chris Bosh decided to team up with Wade in Miami. Then in 2014, Carmelo Anthony flirted with the Bulls, but eventually decided to stay in New York. The key this summer is to be open to all possibilities. If a deal presents itself to acquire an impact player on draft night, don’t worry about preserving cap room because nothing is guaranteed in free agency. Star players like DeMarcus Cousins, Griffin, Kevin Love and maybe even Anthony figure to be available this summer, and the Bulls need to be involved in any trade discussions that can bring in a much-needed impact player.

[MORE: Rock bottom - Bulls submit in blowout loss to Magic]

Around the Association

The long-running soap opera, “As LeBron Turns” continues in Cleveland. Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue had a conversation with James, asking him not to openly fraternize with opposing players during games after James hugged just about everyone on the Miami sideline before a recent match-up at American Airlines Arena. And, Cavs general manager David Griffin also talked with James about his recent behavior that included a trip to Miami to work out with Wade during a two-day break from practice, and his passive-aggressive behavior on social media seemingly calling out teammates for their failings. James also unfollowed the Cavs’ official Twitter site and a couple of the team’s broadcasters, saying he needs to sharpen his focus for the stretch run.

Oh, and James also wondered openly about the possibility of teaming up with “super-friends” Wade, Paul and Anthony, saying it would be great for the four of them to play a year or two together before retirement. I’m sure THAT went over will with his current teammates, who were beaten by the lowly Brooklyn Nets last week, and appear to be far from peak form as the playoffs draw near. James knows he’ll be condemned publicly if he leaves Cleveland again, but if the Cavs don’t get back to the Finals, we can expect another wild few weeks of speculation leading up to the start of free agency on July 1. As usual, James will opt out of his current deal and figures to makes a number of demands from Cavs’ management to get his signature on a new contract, mostly likely for one year and a player option to maintain his power over the franchise.

[MORE: Jimmy Butler doesn't think he'll need surgery but is worried about body]

Speaking of the playoffs, don’t count out the possibility of Miami winning the East. The Heat have been playing exceptionally well since signing veteran Joe Johnson on the buy-out market. Miami has been going with a small-ball lineup with Johnson at small forward and former Bull Luol Deng at power forward. That has brought out the best in point guard Goran Dragic, who struggled earlier in the season in a more deliberate, half-court offense. Head coach Erik Spoelstra is bringing Whiteside off the bench, and the threesome of Whiteside and rookies Justice Winslow and Josh Richardson has been beating up on other team’s second units. The Miami reserves have been calling themselves the “Mob”, an acronym for Most Outstanding Bench, which brought a mild rebuke from Deng, who said that name belongs to the former Bulls bench mob of Omer Asik, Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson. It was a friend of Watson’s who came up with the name, so I jokingly suggested on Twitter that Watson should fight to protect the name.

Watson had T-shirts made for the original bench mob, and appreciated Deng letting his teammates know the idea originated in Chicago. Unfortunately, Deng dropped his mild protest over the weekend, saying if the Miami reserves keep playing at the level they have been, they can call themselves whatever they want.

Warriors' pursuit of 72 wins

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Golden State probably cleared the last hurdle to breaking the 1995-96 Bulls record of 72 wins when they pulled out a tight game at Minnesota last Monday. The young Timberwolves led much of the game but couldn’t hold off the defending champs down the stretch. Afterwards, head coach Steve Kerr talked about Curry needing a “mental break,” but Curry wouldn’t even consider the possibility of sitting out. The Warriors are all-in for breaking the record now, and I can’t imagine them losing more than two games the rest of the way. Even though they have a pair of matchups remaining with San Antonio, Gregg Popovich made his point in beating the Warriors earlier this month, and don’t put it past Pop to sit out some of his stars against Golden State to try to preserve some type of mental edge for a likely Western Conference Finals battle. Popovich has already started with his rest for the playoffs routine, sitting his five best players for a game against Oklahoma City last Saturday. Given the Spurs’ indifference to late regular season games, I think it’s 90 percent likely the Warriors break the Bulls record.

Quotes of the Week

It sure sounds like Anthony might be open to a trade out of New York this summer. Here’s Melo’s response to a question about whether an onset of migraine headaches was brought on by the team’s constant losing. "No I don't think so," Anthony told reporters. "If that was the case I'd have had migraines every day last year. Last year was a lot worse than this year, just as far as, winning 17 games and figuring out how to approach each day mentally. So I think it would have been more stress on me last year than it is this year.

"I don't really want to start trying to name and guess about what triggered the migraine. It happened. I dealt with it. I'm glad I'm back."

And finally, back to the Bulls. Jimmy Butler dealing with a crisis of confidence these days, trying to overcome the mental challenge of playing through knee pain. "You see the way I've been playing lately," he said. "It's saddening. It's piss-poor, it's terrible. My teammates won't say it, my coaches won't say it. I'm a realist. If I continue to play like this, I'm hurting the team."

[SHOP: Get your Bulls gear right here]

And this from Gibson’s postgame chat on Thursday with ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell: "Teams are more eager to play us. [In years prior,] it was vice versa. They knew we were coming in to punch people in the face and keep playing. It's just, it's hard, man. It really eats me up inside. It's really hard to sleep at night knowing it's coming down to the wire, and our effort isn't there. It's really frustrating."

“I'm just tired of having these same talks with [the media] every night. About how we got to do better. ... [Hoiberg's] right. We got to look ourselves [in the mirror]. I look at myself in the mirror every night, and I try to do different things every night. Still got how many more games left? We've got 11 more games left (as of last Thursday). It's really do or die, and it's really frustrating. We got to want it. We got to want it. Sometimes I feel we want it, sometimes I don't know if we're kidding ourselves or not."

Taj, Bulls fans are wondering the same thing about a team that appears to be headed towards the draft lottery.

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.