NBA Buzz: State of the Bulls


NBA Buzz: State of the Bulls

All things considered a pretty solid week for Fred Hoiberg's crew. They won three out of four games to take over second place in the Eastern Conference. Only problem is, Cleveland went 3-0 to pick up a half game in the standings over that stretch.

We've seen some positive signs in the on-going Jimmy Butler-Derrick Rose dynamic. I've noticed those two players talking more coming out of timeouts and during dead-ball periods, and it looks like Rose has accepted Butler being the main option in the offense and is doing what he can to get Butler the ball in his favorite scoring areas.

Rose also picked up right where he left off before the hamstring/knee strain in terms of attacking the basket, and not shooting too many long jumpers. Butler is unquestionably the Bulls' best offensive player, but Rose's ability to get past the initial defender and draw help defense in the paint is one of the keys to the team's long-term (playoffs) success. He even shot eight free throws in Atlanta on Saturday, hopefully the sign of getting more respect from officials as the season rolls on.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Still questions remain about the ever-changing rotation. Who's the back-up point guard? Is it Kirk Hinrich? Aaron Brooks? Or, even E'Twaun Moore?

And, what will Hoiberg do when Joakim Noah returns, perhaps as early as Monday's home game against Washington? Who loses minutes or falls out of the rotation completely? After an impressive start, rookie Bobby Portis struggled in his last two games against the Celtics and Hawks, so will Hoiberg give Portis fewer minutes now?

With the Bulls playing much better lately, including 10 straight games scoring 100 or more points, speculation about possible trades has quieted. But Hoiberg's job might be a little easier with fewer players looking for rotation minutes. The trade market is pretty quiet right now, but a 2-for-1 deal for a small forward starter might be a good option for the Bulls, especially with all the uncertainty about Mike Dunleavy's return.

Around the Association

Speaking of trades, several teams out West might be looking to make changes after getting off to disappointing starts. Word out of Houston is that always-aggressive GM Darryl Morey is looking to shake things up with his team floundering around the .500 mark. Former All-Star center Dwight Howard has a player option to leave after this season, and the Rockets might be looking to re-shuffle the deck around high-scoring guard James Harden. The Bulls saw first-hand how valuable veteran Trevor Ariza can be in a playoff series. The question is, would the price be too high (think Niko Mirotic or Taj Gibson) to get a deal done?

Another team looking to make changes is the New Orleans Pelicans, who were hoping to take a step forward after earning the eighth seed a year ago, but instead they've plummeted near the bottom of the West standings with Chicago native Anthony Davis suffering through an injury-plagued season. Veterans like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon (both free agents this summer), and Tyreke Evans (owed 10.2 million next season) can all be had as the Pels once again look to the future in trying to build a contending team around Davis.

Out East, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov finally had seen enough of his dysfunctional group, and fired head coach Lionel Hollins on Sunday while also re-assigning GM Billy King. King made the ill-fated trade with Boston for aging veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce that cost the Nets a likely Top 5 draft pick in the 2016 draft and another first rounder in 2018. Boston also holds the right to swap first round picks with Brooklyn in 2017. So, Prokhorov will hope to strike big in free agency this summer, with the Nets expected to have over $40 million in available cap room. Outside of center Brook Lopez and power forward Thaddeus Young, this team is sorely lacking in talent, so without any draft picks, they better find a way to sign two productive free agents. Assistant coach Tony Brown will take over the team on an interim basis, but you know Prokhorov will try to land a big name coach like John Calipari, Jeff Van Gundy or former Bulls' head man Tom Thibodeau.

[MORE: Hoiberg, Bulls get 'back to the basics' after win streak snapped]

NBA All-Star balloting always brings complaints over some of the starters voted in by fans. For instance, Cleveland's Kyrie Irving is currently running second in voting for the East starting guard spots, but Irving has played in less than 10 games after a long rehab from the fractured kneecap he suffered in the Finals. When the Cavs were in Washington last week, the Wizards' in-game entertainment crew had some fun at Irving's expense, interviewing some "fans" wearing Cavs' jerseys, who said they were voting for Wizards' star John Wall, who's currently running fourth in the balloting. They played the skit on the stadium scoreboard during a timeout, and apparently the Cavs' players were a little annoyed. Irving said he noticed the bit, but it didn't really bother him. I guess it bothered him a little, because Irving went on to light up the Wizards for 21 fourth-quarter points in a 121-115 Cleveland win.

Remember Jordan Crawford, the 6-4 guard the Bulls invited to training camp? Crawford didn't play all that well in pre-season games, and was released in the final cutdown, but he's been lighting it up since signing with Tianjin Ronggang of the Chinese Basketball Association. Crawford is averaging 41.5 points in 18 games, and he recently scored 72 points and pulled down 16 rebounds in a game against the Sichaun Blue Whales.

Warriors chase for 72

Turns out Steph Curry only missed two games while recovering from a calf strain, and Klay Thompson and Draymond (Mr. Triple Double) Green picked up their games while Curry eased back into action. I remember thinking after the Warriors began the season 24-0, the key benchmark would be matching the 1995-96 Bulls start of 41-3. Then, we could take this record chase seriously! Well, Golden State is 35-2 now, so yes, we can start talking legitimately about 72 wins. I'm upping their chances of matching or breaking the Bulls' record to 55 percent (had it at 45 percent last week).

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Stat of the week

I've enlisted the help of CSN's stats whiz Chris Kamka for this weekly segment. Here are a few gems Chris came up with:

  • Draymond Green now has eight triple doubles this season, just one short of the franchise single season record set by Tom Gola back in 1959-60. In case you were wondering, Wilt Chamberlain had eight career triple doubles during his time with the Philadelphia Warriors.

  • Jimmy Butler is averaging 7.7 free throw attempts per game, putting him over seven for the second year in a row. He's the first Bulls’ player since Michael Jordan to reach seven per game. Derrick Rose topped out at 6.9 during his 2010-11 MVP season.

  • And, this note about Timberwolves teammates, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Garnett. Towns was born on Nov. 15, 1995 - which is the same day Garnett scored in double-digits for the first time in his career (19 points at age 19).

[RELATED: Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler: Rising together, debunking myths]

NBA's top shooting guards

Back to Butler, when he was asked about his status as one of the league's elite shooting guards after his 40-point second half in Toronto, Jimmy Buckets said simply, "There's no way you’re going to draw me into any of that nonsense." Well Jimmy, we respect your wishes not to comment on that topic, but here's one man's (mine) opinion on the league's top SGs.

1. Klay Thompson 21.3 3.8 2.4 .471
2. Jimmy Butler 22.0 4.8 4.1 .457
3. James Harden 28.3 6.0 6.6 .420
4. Dwyane Wade 18.8 3.9 4.5 .466
5. DeMar DeRozan 23.0 4.3 4.1 .444
6. Andrew Wiggins 20.6 3.7 1.7 .436
7. Khris Middleton 16.8 3.4 3.8 .432
8. Bradley Beal 19.8 4.7 3.2 .438
9. C.J. McCollum 20.9 3.6 4.3 .442
10. Arron Afflalo 13.6 3.9 1.8 .477

(Next week: Top PGs)

Quotes of the week

Knicks point guard Jose Calderon after missing the potential game-winning shot in San Antonio last Friday, "I know everybody is going to want me out of New York because I missed that shot." 

Sad, but true Jose. After all, it is New York.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich after learning he had been named the NBA's Coach of the Month for December, "I think you should at least get a car. If you don't get a car, I don't give a damn."

Just another example why Pop is loved by reporters around the league, (except the ones who have to do those sideline TV interviews during games).

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment


Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”

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


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.”