One of the quickest ways for any NBA team to improve is by identifying and pursuing young players with high upsides who have yet to reach their potential with their current squads.
As I mentioned in my column on fixing the Bulls last week, the front office needs to be proactive in seeking out possible trades for impact players, and based on developments around the league last week, two of the top players from last year's draft class could be available this summer.
Let's start in Philadelphia, where longtime NBA executive and director of USA Basketball Jerry Colangelo has become the most important voice in the 76ers decision-making process, basically usurping the power of general manager Sam Hinkie.
Colangelo knows it's time in the team's rebuilding process to add some high-caliber veteran talent to the Sixers' collection of odd-fitting pieces. Hinkie has been collecting injured big men in recent drafts with Nerlens Noel sitting out his entire rookie season while rehabbing a knee injury and Joel Embiid missing two seasons because of continuing foot problems.
So, when the Sixers' turn came up at No. 3 last June, Hinkie went with another big man, Chicago native Jahlil Okafor. Okafor had a mostly solid rookie season, averaging 17.5 points and seven rebounds, but he's more of an old-school, low-post center, not the 3-point-shooting rim runner most teams are searching for these days.
Meanwhile, the 7-foot-1 Embiid has been tearing it up in team workouts recently, finally looking like the player everyone had scouted leading up to the 2014 draft. Colangelo and the rest of the Sixers' brain trust believe Embiid might be the better long-term option at center, which means Okafor could be available in the days leading up to the June 23 draft.
Could the Bulls pry him loose with an offer of Nikola Mirotic and a first-round pick? Or would it take a pair of No. 1s and either Mirotic or Taj Gibson to get Colangelo's attention?
Yes, we've heard the rumors about Jimmy Butler's possible availability in trade this summer, but if the Bulls really are thinking about trading their best player, a deal needs to be centered around a bigger target than Okafor, like Clippers power forward Blake Griffin. Like all players, Butler has his faults, but he’s still a top-15 or 20 talent in the league and shouldn’t be moved unless the Bulls are able to make a home-run deal.
The big story in the NBA last week involved Lakers rookie D'Angelo Russell recording a conversation with teammate Nick Young about Young's infidelity, which somehow was released for public consumption. The two players met the media before the Lakers' game against Miami last Wednesday, but clearly it will take more than that for Russell's teammates to trust him again.
Russell told reporters, "Only time can make this really go away. ... If I've lost anybody's trust, I'm gonna work my tail off to get it back. ... I feel as sick as possible. I wish I could make things better right away, but I can't."
Russell added, "That was just an incident of playing too much goes wrong. ... I have no clue how it got out." Did Russell know how it got out? "Honestly, no. It was for my eyes and his eyes only."
Young only spoke for 29 seconds and didn't take any questions, saying simply, "I don't want to get into my personal life right now. Me and D'Angelo handled the situation."
The Lakers obviously have a lot more invested in Russell than they do in Young or any other player with the possible exception of young forward Julius Randle, so their likely course of action is to try to rehabilitate Russell's image and bring him back with a much different looking roster next season. Young has one more guaranteed year on his contract, plus a player option for 2017-18, so look for him to be traded or released this summer.
Still, if Lakers' management decides Russell has done too much damage to bring him back into their locker room, the Bulls might have the unique opportunity to improve the roster on multiple fronts.
We know Derrick Rose spends his summers in Los Angeles and might welcome the challenge of succeeding Kobe Bryant as the featured star in Laker Land. So, would the Bulls consider a 1-for-1 trade of Rose for Russell, which would work since the Lakers could absorb Rose's $21.3 million contract for next season into their ample cap space?
The Bulls would have a 20-year-old combo guard who could push the pace in the manner Hoiberg desires, and an extra $16 million in cap room to pursue free agents this summer (raising their total to close to $40 million without Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah). They would also head off all the drama that's sure to follow Rose as he goes through his lead-up season to free agency in the summer of 2017.
As I said earlier, it's unlikely the Lakers will give up on the guy they selected with the second-overall pick in last year's draft over Okafor and Kristaps Porzingis, but it's a phone call the Bulls' front office needs to make as they formulate their plans to rebuild the roster.
More of E'Twaun?
One free agent the Bulls would like to re-sign this summer is valuable backup guard E'Twaun Moore. The East Chicago, Ind., native and former Purdue Boilermakers star has been rock solid this season playing both guard spots and even a little small forward.
Moore's averages of 7.5 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists don't jump off the page, but the Bulls' offense runs more smoothly when he's on the floor. And we know the 6-foot-4, 190-pound guard isn't afraid to battle on the defensive end. Moore is also willing to take big shots, and he's shooting around 48 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range. He makes good decisions with the ball and is a totally unselfish teammate.
Moore's absence was one of the factors that contributed to the Bulls' disappointing losses to the Knicks and Magic, and he played his typically steady role in road wins over Indiana and Houston in his first games back from a hamstring injury.
With the salary cap expected to jump to around $92 million this summer, Moore might find himself in position to earn a sizable raise from his current rate of just over $1 million. But with all the roster turnover expected this offseason, hanging on to a valuable utility player like Moore would be a good idea.
Around the Association
— It looks like Detroit will be able to hang on to one of the final playoff spots in the East, but Stan Van Gundy still has some issues to deal with in trying to build a legitimate contending team. Let's start with Andre Drummond's miserable free-throw shooting. Van Gundy had to bench Drummond for the final five minutes of a close win against the Bulls on Saturday because the All-Star center was only 1-for-10 from the free-throw line, and the Bulls were able to erase Detroit's lead by intentionally fouling Drummond and sending him to the line. Drummond is only shooting 35 percent from the line, which is an embarrassment to him and the entire organization. Yes, the 6-foot-11 center leads the league in rebounding and is a capable low-post scorer, but until he learns to make an unguarded shot from 15 feet, it's hard to consider him a player you can count on in the postseason.
— The Pistons' second-best player, Reggie Jackson, was also in the news last week after his over-the-top celebration of Detroit's home-court win over an Oklahoma City team that was resting both Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Jackson received an $80 million contract extension last summer and carries himself on the court like he's one of the top point guards in the league. Jackson used to be Russell Westbrook's backup in Oklahoma City, and he was traded away last season because he chafed at playing a reserve role. So, his celebration last week was directed at Westbrook and Thunder management, and none of the Oklahoma City players were very happy about it, with Westbrook saying he'll look forward to facing Jackson again next season. Circle that one when the 2016-17 NBA schedule is released.
— Veteran NBA coach Terry Stotts hasn't had much luck over his career, taking over weak teams in Atlanta and Milwaukee, then seeing his Portland team lose four starters last summer through free agency and trades. The Trail Blazers were expected to be one of the worst teams in the league, but Stotts and his staff have done a remarkable job building around small scoring guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Portland is currently sixth in the West, with a chance to run down Memphis for the No. 5 spot and a first-round series against the talented but erratic Clippers. Look for Stotts to get plenty of support in the Coach of the Year balloting, and I wouldn't be surprised if he wins it.
— Did you catch the video of Lakers' back-up guard Marcelo Huertas hiding behind Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, then running back into play to steal the ball from behind. Huertas looks like a guy who came out of the stands to put on an NBA uniform, and it's hard to believe the proud Lakers' franchise would give him a roster spot, but at least he provided one of the funniest moments of the regular season.
Warriors' pursuit of 72 wins
Golden State is staggering a bit trying to get to the finish line. They should have lost last Wednesday at Utah, but the Jazz couldn't make their free throws down the stretch and wound up losing in overtime. That was followed the next day by the NBA's official review of officiating in the final two minutes that listed several mistakes that were made in favor of the Warriors. Then on Friday, Golden State lost at home for the first time this season to Brad Stevens' feisty Celtics. So, in a season when the Warriors are likely to set the record for wins, San Antonio could become the first team to go through an entire home schedule without a loss. The Spurs play hosts to Golden State on April 10, trying to go to 40-0 at home, so maybe that will be enough incentive for Gregg Popovich to play all his regulars. Still, the Warriors only need to go 4-1 the rest of the way to break the Bulls' record, so I'm keeping it as a 90-percent likelihood they get the job done.
Stat of the week
Jimmy Butler recorded the first triple-double of his NBA career Saturday against Detroit with 28 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists, in the process becoming the first Bulls guard since Michael Jordan in 1997 to pull down as many as 17 boards.
Quotes of the week
Back to the Russell situation in Los Angeles. Head coach Byron Scott has been critical of the rookie for much of the season and cut back his playing time in January and February. Scott had this to say about the No. 2 overall pick recently: "He's such a kid. I told him the other day, 'You're 19, but sometimes I think you're 14.'" If Scott returns as Lakers coach, he certainly won't be trying to block a Russell trade.
Finally, Scottie Pippen has been one of the few players from the 1995-96 Bulls to openly root against Golden State in their pursuit of the Bulls' single-season record of 72 wins. So, when Pippen was asked who would win a series between the two all-time great squads, Pip said simply, "Bulls in four."
You have to like Scottie's confidence, and I agree the defensive skills of Pippen, Jordan and Dennis Rodman would cause all kinds of problems for Steph Curry & Co. But based on Curry's amazing shot-making ability, I'll give the Warriors one win in the series, maybe two.