NBA preseason primer: Breakdown candidates


NBA preseason primer: Breakdown candidates

Leading up to Bulls media day on Sept. 28, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman will preview the upcoming NBA season with daily features on everything related to the Association. Today the pair analyze which players may take a step backward late in their careers.

Mark Strotman: I've got to admit, this was much harder to "predict" than the breakout candidates. Maybe that's the optimistic side in me, or it's just a healthy sign that the NBA has plenty more rising stars than fading ones heading into the 2015-16 season.

But why not kick this one off with some controversy? When Pau Gasol signed a three-year, $22 million deal last offseason he was breaking down. He had missed 55 games the previous two seasons, averaged a career-low in points one of those years (2013, 13.7) and averaged a career-low in minutes the other (2014, 31.4). So naturally he comes to the Eastern Conference at age 34 and turns back the clock entirely with arguably a career year in his 14th NBA season.

But he'll surpass 40,000 career minutes sometime in December, returns to a somewhat crowded Bulls frontcourt that won't ask as much of him this season (addition of Bobby Portis, healthy Taj Gibson, progressing Nikola Mirotic) and has the recent string of injuries — even last year he missed Games 4 and 5 against the Cavs despite playing 78 regular-season games. Maybe "breaking down" isn't the right phrase for it, but I don't expect another All-Star campaign or All-NBA Second Team selection. At some point he's got to slow down. My guess is it happens this upcoming year. That being said, as long as he's hitting from 17 feet and grabbing his fair share of rebounds he'll be an important piece to the Bulls' championship-aspiring group. I don't want to make it sound like he's going to fall off the map.

Vincent Goodwill: It’s not earth-shattering to believe the Bulls will scale back Gasol’s usage coming up this season. Gasol just turned 35 in July, and last season served as his turn-back-the-clock year, which means there was considerable doubt as to whether his great days were long gone. Now, he’s efficient around the basket, an adept mid-range shooter and incredibly smart on both ends of the floor. It’s not likely his skills will erode before our eyes, but his body will be a question.

The list of bigs past 35 who posted a season with a Player Efficiency Rating north of 22 (Gasol’s PER was 22.7 last season, 11th in the NBA) read like this: Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal. So while it’s not impossible for Gasol to have a repeat performance, chances are the Bulls aren’t wont to put that load on him, so his body is fresher down the stretch.

One player who could take a step back is Nowtizki, who just turned 37 (!) in June and is entering his 18th year. Only Paul Pierce and Vince Carter remain from that draft class in addition to Nowitzki, as Dallas has failed to put a roster around him for him to take a true step back in terms of responsibility. His offensive rating dropped seven points last season, but he still made the All-Star team. Me thinks those days are over, and considering he’ll be playing with the difficult Deron Williams as his point guard, along with the franchise still smarting over the loss of DeAndre Jordan, putting too much on his plate could backfire.

And considering Duncan is the only player known to make a deal with Father Time (me and Roger Goodell have the evidence after a crack investigation), Nowitzki can’t keep this going, right?

MS: Well I'm going to keep our trend of Hall-of-Famers suffering from down years going by picking Tony Parker. Again, I don't think we're saying these guys are going to transform into Nazr Mohammed from one year to the next, but with a lot of these players — as is the case every year — it's more, "It's got to happen at some point, right?"

I believe it happens with Parker in 2015-16. Last year his PER (15.9) was 20th among starting point guards who played at least 50 games, and personally it was his worst mark since the 2003-04 season, when he was 21. His usage went down for a fourth straight season while his assist percentage decreased a third straight season; his turnover percentage was also his worst mark since 2011. In last year's playoffs he was pitted against Chris Paul in the first round and was dealing with multiple injuries, so take this with a grain of salt, but he averaged 10.9 points on 36 percent shooting. It was ugly, and injuries are bound to catch up with him at some point.

The NBA's transformation to a point guard-dominant league is in full motion, and a 32-year-old Parker with nearly 40,000 minutes (and 203 playoff games, or two and a half extra seasons) could get passed by this season. Gregg Popovich will have a plan to make sure Parker is ready for the postseason, to be sure. Still, his arrow is trending down.

VG: Could Dwight Howard be on the downturn? Seems hard to believe, but Howard will be 30 come December and his numbers were down across the board as he battled a right knee injury that caused him to miss half the season.

When healthy, he’s still one of the more impactful pivot men in the league, especially on the defensive end. But he experienced that debilitating back injury his last season in Orlando, didn’t have the impact in Los Angeles many thought he would’ve and is now entering his 12th season. Many don’t realize this, but Howard is the shortest center in the league, standing at barely 6-foot-10. His athleticism and strength enabled him to overcome his vertical limitations but if injuries are starting to catch up with him, his effectiveness will continue to wane.

Despite the game placing more of an emphasis on the swingmen and small guards, if Howard was at his best while playing alongside MVP runner-up James Harden, then the Rockets would be mentioned with Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City as title contenders. Instead, they’re a step behind.

He barely played 30 minutes a game last season, so his per-36 minute numbers of 19.0 points and 12.7 rebounds rank right up there with his career averages. But how many big men get healthier past the age of 30? Even Alonzo Mourning’s body began to break down before his kidney disease was discovered before the 2002-03 season. Ewing’s last All-Star appearance came in Year 12. Olajuwon, the rare player who seemed to get better into his 30’s, made his last All-Star appearance in Year 13. Howard is far from done as an impact player, but expecting him to be the feared force every night of the year could be asking a bit much.

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


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.