Bulls

NBA Buzz: Summer of change for Bulls?

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NBA Buzz: Summer of change for Bulls?

With the return of Jimmy Butler and Niko Mirotic, the Bulls are as healthy as they've been since early January. Question is, will this team at almost full strength be good enough to crack the top eight in the Eastern Conference and qualify for the playoffs?

The first game provided some encouraging signs. The ball movement and cutting on offense and the intensity on the defensive end was outstanding for the first eight minutes against Houston on Saturday. But as soon as Butler went to the bench because of foul trouble, the offensive flow disappeared and the Bulls again proved vulnerable to penetrating guards on the other end.

The Bulls were able to hang on to beat the dysfunctional Rockets, 108-100. Butler was sensational in his first game back with 24 points and 11 rebounds, and Pau Gasol also put up big numbers with 28 points, 17 rebounds and six assists. But the home team almost blew an 18-point fourth-quarter lead, thanks to sloppy ball-handling that resulted in 25 turnovers. That number will have to drop if the Bulls are going to make the playoffs.

The next five games should tell us a lot about whether the return of Butler and Mirotic will be a turning point in the season. After a home game against Milwaukee, the Bulls face tough tests against San Antonio, Miami, Toronto and Washington.

Still, barring an unexpected run to the Conference Finals, you'd have to expect an offseason of change at the Advocate Center. All options should be on the table for a team that's been maddeningly inconsistent to this point.

[MORE: Hoiberg calling for Bulls to ride emotion for final stretch]

We learned last week in a Boston Herald report that Celtics' general manager Danny Ainge reportedly called the Bulls before the trade deadline about Butler, offering Brooklyn's unprotected first round pick (expected to be in the top five) and a first rounder Boston acquired in the Rajon Rondo trade with Dallas last season. According to the report, the talks never really gained any traction, but that type of trade could be revisited this summer if the Bulls are ready to hit the reset button on a roster that has maxed out.

Former NBA front office executive and current ESPN analyst Amin Elhassan made a guest appearance on David Kaplan's radio show last week, offering his opinion that the Bulls should have already started the rebuilding process. Elhassan said he went on the air on Christmas Day, advocating it was time for the Bulls to "blow up the roster" and start over.

Of course, that was followed by a nationally televised win over the Thunder and later a six-game winning streak in early January. But since that time, the Bulls have lost 18 of their last 27 games. The front office passed on a chance to get something for free agent to be Gasol at the deadline, reportedly turning down a Sacramento offer that included young wing player Ben McLemore, veteran back-up center Kosta Koufos and reduction of the top 10 protection on the first-round pick the Kings owe the Bulls from a previous trade.

Elhassan said on Kap and Co. the Bulls' front office overvalued the talent on the current roster, mistakenly believing they could make a run to the Finals with a coaching change alone. Now, they're left with a roster that's ill-suited to the type of system Fred Hoiberg wants to run.

In looking ahead to the offseason, Elhassan said he would be willing to trade anyone on the roster "not named Jimmy Butler" and thinks a split with Derrick Rose would be best for everyone involved. Elhassan said the Bulls can't really start the rebuilding process until they say goodbye to Rose, whose injury history and max contract have been an impediment to making the roster changes necessary to become a contending team again.

With the explosion of the salary cap from $69 million to somewhere around $90 million, we can expect to see one of the most active summer trade seasons in NBA history. Plus, the Bulls could have somewhere between $20 million and $23 million to spend in free agency, assuming they renounce their rights to Gasol and Joakim Noah. If the front office wants to do a roster makeover for their hand-picked head coach, this summer should offer them the perfect opportunity.

Around the Association

Even though the Cavaliers have been at the top of the Eastern Conference almost all season, the situation is far from harmonious in Cleveland. General manager David Griffin fired head coach David Blatt in late January and reportedly discussed trade options involving former All-Star Kevin Love.

Then we learn of an ESPN report claiming point guard Kyrie Irving is unhappy playing in the shadow of LeBron James, and would welcome the chance to go elsewhere. Irving quickly denied the report, but it's apparent he won't reach his full potential with James dominating the ball.

For his part, James has been going with the "tough love" approach in regard to his teammates, saying the Cavs have to be mentally stronger if they want to accomplish their championship goal. James was especially agitated after the Cavs blew a lead against the Toronto Raptors recently, saying again it's the mental approach that's holding the team back.

So, how did James show his leadership with this mentally fragile group? He decided to fly to Miami on the team's off days last week and was seen in a video working out with his good friend and former Heat teammate Dwyane Wade. James also sent out a cryptic tweet, "It's OK to know you've made a mistake. Cause we all do at times. Just be ready to live with whatever that comes with it and be with those who will protect you at all cost!"

Was James saying he regretted leaving Miami? Was he taking a shot at his current teammates? LeBron refused to elaborate when he returned to Cavs' practice last Thursday, telling Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, "I don't care," if people are upset. "I would love to go to L.A., but I'll take two and a half (hour flight) over four and a half. I've got a house in L.A., but it makes more sense for me to go south than go west. But I go because I want to."

James is right. If he feels like enjoying some warm weather during an unexpected two-day break in the middle of the season, more power to him. But given his past history of jumping teams, and his ability to enter the free agent market this summer, Cavs' fans and management have to be more than a little nervous if Cleveland fails to make a return trip to the Finals this June.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

***Speaking of uneasy alliances, Carmelo Anthony's love affair with the Knicks organization seems to have hit another rough patch. Last week Anthony responded to a heckling fan at Madison Square Garden by pointing to Knicks' owner James Dolan and saying that's the owner sitting over there, ask him for your money back.

The next day, Anthony issued a statement apologizing for his actions, but he told reporters it was Dolan's idea, not his. With the Knicks again heading for the lottery, you have to wonder if Anthony regrets committing to Phil Jackson for five years. Melo received a no-trade clause as part of the negotiations, but don't be surprised if he and his agent try to come up with an exit strategy this summer.

***In case you missed it, Michael Beasley is back in the NBA, signing a free agent deal with the Houston Rockets after an MVP season in the Chinese Basketball Association. Beasley, of course, is the player selected right after Derrick Rose in the 2008 draft. He's bounced around the league because of character issues, but no one's ever denied his talent. Still, you have to wonder about his fit on the dysfunctional Rockets, who fired head coach Kevin McHale after just 11 games, and are fighting to make the playoffs in the West despite a roster that features star players James Harden and Dwight Howard. Should be interesting to see Harden's reaction the first time Beasley throws up a crazy shot.

***At 36 years old, Baron Davis hasn't given up on his dream of making an NBA comeback. Davis signed with the Developmental League's Delaware 87'ers with the hope of showing NBA teams he still has something to offer. Davis averaged 16.1 points and 7.2 assists in 835 career games, but he hasn't played in the league since suffering a serious knee injury during the 2012 playoffs.

***And, congratulations to our friend Nazr Mohammed on returning to the NBA, signing on with Oklahoma City for the rest of the season and the playoffs. Mohammad had been out of the league since leaving the Bulls at the end of last season, but he stayed in shape, hoping for another chance at extending his career. The former Kenwood Academy star says this last comeback is all about leaving the NBA on his own terms, and he hopes to do whatever he can to help the Thunder, either on the court, or by sharing the benefits of his 18 years of experience. When the season ends, Mohammed is ready to move on with his life, grateful to have this final opportunity to say goodbye.

Warriors pursuit of 72 wins

Just when it looked like the Warriors were a lock to break the 1995-'96 Bulls record of 72 wins, they inexplicably failed to show up for an afternoon game against the tanking Lakers and got run out of Staples Center, losing 112-95. Even harder to believe, two of the best shooters in the game, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, combined to shoot 1-18 from 3-point range. Maybe the Warriors just had a bad day, or maybe the players stayed out too late in L.A. Saturday night, figuring they could mail it in for a 12:30 afternoon start against one of the worst teams in the league.

Golden State needs to go 18-3 the rest of the way to break the Bulls' record, and 15 of those games will be played at Oracle Arena in Oakland where they haven't lost all season. But they also have to play San Antonio three times, with two of those match-ups coming on the Spurs' home court. All of a sudden, the challenge is looking a little tougher for Steve Kerr's crew, but I'm still putting the odds of Golden State breaking the record at 60 percent.

Stats of the Week

Here's some numbers to show how much the Bulls defensive efficiency has fallen off this season, courtesy of CSN's Chris Kamka.

The .675 FG% the Bulls allowed vs. Miami on March 1 is the highest in the NBA by any team since Feb. 27, 2010 (includes playoffs).

On that day, the Jazz shot 52-77 (.675) vs. the Rockets (same as Heat vs. Bulls).

The previous high in the NBA this season was back on Dec. 7, when the Spurs shot .618 (47-76) vs. 76ers.

Bulls allowing 60+ points in the first half:

Regular season Times Games
2015-16 10 60
2014-15 7 82
2013-14 4 82
2012-13 3 82
2011-12 1 66
2010-11 7 82
2010-16 totals 22 394

Quotes of the Week

This from Pau Gasol on the Bulls' current plight:

"Teams come in and see us struggling, they know we're struggling, and they see opportunity. They're smelling blood and they're going for it. It doesn't make things any easier, but at the same time we've got to step it up.''

And finally, this from Steve Kerr on his Warriors losing to the Lakers: "We got what we deserved. When the ball doesn't go in, you have to win with energy and defense and toughness, and we didn't have any of that."

"I joke with Steph all the time that this team is full of millennials, and millennials can't focus," Kerr said, "so we looked like millennials today. We weren't locked in at all. We weren't focused. But every team is going to have a tough time being locked in for 82 games. It's hard."

Maybe now Steve can understand some of the frustration that every other NBA coach has to experience. Kerr probably has the best perspective of anyone on the Warriors' record chase after playing for the '95-96 Bulls and coaching this Golden State team. He's in the enviable position of knowing he'll come out on top either way.

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.