Bulls

NBA Power Rankings: NBA parity evident through 3 weeks

paul-george-nba-power-rankings.png

NBA Power Rankings: NBA parity evident through 3 weeks

Three unofficial weeks are in the books on the NBA's regular season, and the usual suspects head the top of the power rankings. Golden State hasn't lost, Cleveland is rolling and soon will get a 23-year-old All-Star back and Russell Westbrook is doing Russell Westbrook things.

But one glance at the NBA standings and it's clear there's a healthy parity this season. Nineteen of the 30 teams are .500 or better, and 17 teams are between 6-4 and 4-6. On this date last season only 14 teams were at or above .500 and six teams were 3-7 or worse; in 2015 there are only four such teams. They're small differences and may or may not make a difference by season's end, but regardless it shows the talent gap getting a smidgen closer as younger teams begin to see their futures make progress on the court.

On to the power rankings.

Previous power rankings: Preseason | Week 1 | Week 2

Rank (LW) Team
Record Comment
1 (1) (11-0) It's beginning to seem a little less crazy to consider this team flirting with 72 wins. Steph Curry: Still ridiculous.
(2) (8-2) All that offseason talk of LeBron pacing himself? He's averaging 27.0 PPG on 50.5 percent shooting. Third in NBA in FGA.
(3) (7-2)  After a slow two-game start, LaMarcus Aldridge has averaged 17.9 points and 10.4 rebounds in his last seven.
4 (8) (6-4)  Russell Westbrook among point guards: 2nd in points (25.2), 1st in rebounds (8.6), first in assists (10.9), 4th in steals (2.1). Simply incredible.
5 (11) (6-3)  Chris Bosh is balling. The Heat power forward is averaging 19.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game.
6 (9) (7-4)  The Raptors are averaging a league-best 30.7 free throw attempts per game. Kyle Lowry has the Toronto offense humming. 
7 (12) (6-3)  Pau Gasol is averaging a double-double (16.0 points, 10.4 rebounds) since his opening-night dud against Cleveland. 
8 (4) (8-4)  Al Horford and Paul Millsap have quietly turned in spectacular seasons early on. If the former stays healthy, Hawks will remain dangerous in the East.
9 (14) (6-3)  Wins over the Clippers and Rockets (and Lakers) this week. Zaza Pachulia and Dwight Powell have played really well inside post-DeAndre fiasco.
10 (16) (6-4)   They've shaken off an 0-3 start and won six of seven. Paul George (24.3/8.8/4.6) has returned with a vengeance.
11 (6)   (6-4)  Difficult week with Chris Paul (groin) in and out of the lineup but they're still the third most efficient offense behind Blake Griffin's MVP-like start.
12 (10)   (4-3)  Tough sledding on a four-game road trip without Rudy Gobert for two nights, but they finished the week with a nice win over the Hawks.
13 (13)   (4-4)  Always scary seeing Bradley Beal on the injury report. Wizards will need him healthy if they want to contend in the East.
14 (5)   (4-6)  Will the real Rockets please stand up? Losses to Brooklyn, Dallas and Denver this week. James Harden can only do so much.
15 (18)   (5-4)  Jae Crowder leads the NBA in steals per game for the Celtics, who have won four of five after a slow start.
16 (7)   (5-5)  They've lost four straight to end their six-game West Coast trip. Awaiting them at home? A Tuesday matchup with LeBron and the Cavs.
17 (21)   (5-4)  Eric Bledsoe averaged 28.0/8.5/6.5 and 2.0 steals in an important 2-0 week for the Suns to get them back over .500.
18 (24)   (5-4)  They've won five of their last seven, and Nicolas Batum is heating up, averaging 23.0 points and 6.3 rebounds in his last three games.
19 (15)   (5-6)  They pick up two wins before facing this upcoming gauntlet: vs. OKC, vs. HOU, @ SA, vs. DAL, @ HOU, vs. ATL. Godspeed.
20 (19)   (5-6)  Evan Fournier is looking like an early candidate for Most Improved Player. He's averaging 18.8 points in 38.0 minutes per game.
21 (22)   (5-6)  His outside shot still isn't falling - though his near-buzzer beater in Charlotte was pure as it gets - but he's still looking like the steal of the 2015 draft class.
22 (17)   (5-5)  Jabari Parker had a few highlight reel dunks in Milwaukee's 2OT win over the Cavs. Milwaukee adds another dimension once he's back to full-speed.
23 (25)   (5-5)  Emmanuel Mudiay is averaging 9.2 assists in the Nuggets' five wins. In their five losses, he's averaging just 3.2 dimes.
24 (26)   (4-7)  Boogie Cousins making a strong case for first team All-NBA honors. Averaging 26.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and is shooting 43.5 percent from deep.
25 (20) (4-7)  They've now lost five straight since a 4-2 start, and the road doesn't get any easier this week (@SA, @HOU, vs. LAC).
26 (23) (4-6)  Rough five-game week in which they went 1-4. Oddly enough, the T-Wolves are 0-5 at home and 4-1 on the road.
27 (28) (1-8)  Jordan Clarkson's continued improvement is helping hide DeAngelo Russell's invisible rookie season. Lakers have to find a way to get him going.
28 (27) (1-9)  Worth mentioning again this week that the Pelicans are the NBA's least efficient defense by a wide margin. Unfathomable with Anthony Davis in the middle.
29 (30) (1-9)  Going toe-to-toe with the Warriors in Golden State is no small feat. Brook Lopez's missed bunny at the buzzer was crushing.
30 (29) (0-10)  They're the last winless team, and the first in NBA history to begin two straight years 0-10. Trust the process, I guess?

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

krisdunnbulls.png
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.

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

jimmy_butler_twolves.jpg
USA TODAY

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler was absent from the scoresheet of the All-Star Game, unless you count a “DNP-Coaches’ Decision” as activity. Whether due to the All-Star festivities of the weekend or even the grinding minutes he plays under Tom Thibodeau, it wasn’t truly surprising to see him want to have a night off of sorts.

But what was mildly surprising was the reflection he displayed on Saturday at All-Star Media Day in reference to his time with the Chicago Bulls. Usually, Butler’s armor is up because of his feelings surrounding his draft-night departure.

“I learned a lot in Chicago,” Butler said. “Just all through the season and life in general. What to do, what not to do and how to adapt to any situation that you’ve been in. I’ve done that to the best of my abilities. I have a ways to go in that.”

It’s clear he’s still grasping the weight of his words as the best player on a team, or at least, the player whose words impact everything around him.

“A people pleaser? No, I just didn’t say much,” Butler said. “Now I just don’t care. I never talked whenever I was in the league at an early age. It really didn’t matter, nothing I did was gonna make or break us when it comes to losing a game. Now it does and I have a lot to say. Half the time it’s not the right time or right way to say it but it’s okay.”

Whether it was the battles with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or the internal struggles in the Bulls’ locker room through his ascension from bench warmer to rotation player to impact player to now, a legitimate star, he’s modifying his approach—just a tad.

“I’ve never been the best player on my own team. I was in Tomball,” he joked, in reference to his beginnings in small town Texas. “I wasn’t in junior college. At Marquette I wasn’t. I’m probably not now. In Chicago I wasn’t. You just pick up on it, watch others and learn.”

He admitted to writing in a journal and reading self-help books now that he’s in Minnesota. The novel he’s reading now, “Faith, Forward, Future” is authored by Chad Veach, a Los Angeles pastor and the subtitle of the book says “Moving past your disappointments, delays and destructive thinking.”

Whether he started the book following a slow start with the Timberwolves in November, where his nightly numbers looked like one of a high-level role player, he took some self-evaluation before leading the charge since, playing like an MVP candidate with 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49 percent shooting since the start of December.

“It’s relatively new. Yeah, basketball is still basketball but it’s hard when somebody else is coming in and roles change overnight,” Butler said. “You gotta see where you fit in with the group. At the end of the day you gotta win. I didn’t feel the way I was playing was our best opportunity to win games.”

Bringing along the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Towns being a fellow All-Star for the first time, has been a process.

“I’ve never actually had to be a leader,” Butler said. “I just always done what I was supposed to do, didn’t say much and played hard. Now you know, everybody wants to call someone a leader.”

He disputes taking a softer hand, especially as Towns and Wiggins seem to struggle with sustaining concentration at critical moments. The Timberwolves won’t be able to make those mistakes during the playoffs, but he’s being more selective with his words.

“I’m not soft,” he said. “If I see something wrong, I speak on it. If you don’t like it, oh well. You’ll get over it.”

One thing he could take a bird’s eye view of was the aftermath of LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s comments to the “Uninterrupted”, where they were criticized by cable news hosts for speaking out against President Donald Trump.

No stranger to criticism, Butler would likely have the same approach if he dipped his toes into that arena.

“I like it. You got the right to say what you want and you speak on what you think is right,” Butler said. “Good for them. And they are magnified in a very big way. They embrace it and they’re doing the right thing, I’m all for it.”

And if the day comes where he doesn’t stick to sports, Butler’s directness and lack of diplomacy would certainly cause an interesting reaction.

“I don’t care. Whatever I believe in, I believe in,” Butler said. “Everybody else does it. You see everybody on Twitter and the Internet doing it and saying what they want to say. We just have a different job than the person to our left and right.”

Well, not quite a warm and fuzzy Jimmy Butler.