Bulls

NBA preseason primer: NBA Finals predictions

12053186_10200317927925872_1068738136_n.jpg

NBA preseason primer: NBA Finals predictions

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 team will come out of the Western Conference.

Vincent Goodwill: Ahh, so it’s the first week of June. The pretenders have been eliminated and only two teams stand, battling for Larry O’Brien’s gold trophy and the right to have William Felton Russell award some deserving player NBA Finals MVP. But before they’re revealed, how did we get there?

In the West, the Houston Rockets looked quite formidable, but couldn’t make it past the first round, bringing up another round of “playoff re-alignment” catcalls from the peanut gallery. The Clippers took the San Antonio Spurs to seven games in the semifinals, but as the Miami Heat learned in 2014, Old Man Riverwalk (Tim Duncan), Kawhi Leonard and new addition LaMarcus Aldridge helps propel the Spurs past the in-turmoil Clippers.

On the other side, the champion Golden State Warriors do everything they can to force Russell Westbrook to ignore Kevin Durant in the final minute of games, including holding up #35 jerseys in front of the other Thunder players to get him to forgo passing to anybody on his own team. Eventually, it only works until Game 5, and Durant finishes the champs off with two 40-point performances in Games 6 and 7 to go to the conference finals.

From there, Westbrook takes over in the conference finals, torching Tony Parker so much it forces Leonard to slide over to defend the Tasmanian Devil, which leaves Durant open for the final wing of his Western revenge tour. The MVP gives Danny Green every bit of 50 in the clinching Game 6, taking the Thunder back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2012.

Mark Strotman: Five years ago Dirk Nowitzki was beginning to plateau as a player. Granted, that plateau still put him among one of the game's best players, but it was apparent as he hit 30 years old he had peaked as a player and needed to shift his focus toward cementing his legacy with an NBA championship. No doubt, we'd still be talking about Nowitzki as one of the game's all-time greats - he'll pass Shaq for sixth on the scoring list this season - but having an NBA championship to his name puts him in another prestigious category.

Fast forward and it's where Chris Paul finds himself. The game's best true point guard enters his 11th NBA season with 65 playoff games to his name, and none in the Western Conference Finals. Paul, 30, is no doubt in the prime of his career much like Nowitzki was, and it also seems like he's reached that peak. The personal accolades have piled in for eight-time All-Star, 2006 Rookie of the Year, 2013 All-Star Game MVP, and so on and so on. You get the point.

It's time for Paul to win. And it almost felt like DeAndre Jordan's 180 back to the Clippers this offseason was a sign that he's got another real chance this year. Remember, the Clips were up 3-1 on the Rockets in the semifinals before James Harden went berserk and, admittedly, Los Angeles choked in a big way.

I'm not into the whole "motivation" cliche with players and teams, but if I were this Clippers team would be the epitome of it. It was easy to see what adding Paul Pierce did to the Wizards in the postseason, and him joining Doc Rivers and the Clippers will have a similar effect. Wes Johnson was quietly a nice signing, and though it took bringing on Head Case of the Century Lance Stephenson, they found a way to get rid of Spencer Hawes.

The bench scares the crap out of me, but Pierce (or Johnson, depending on who starts) will certainly help it. Just as you feel like this could be the Year of KD, it wouldn't surprise me to see Paul have his "Dirk Year" and wind up going toe-to-toe with Stephen Curry in the Western Conference Finals. It's then that Rivers will buck the small-ball trend, utilizing Jordan and Blake Griffin against Steve Kerr's Draymond-Green-at-center lineup, ultimately winning in seven games and getting Paul to the game's biggest stage. It's time to win for Paul, and this is his best chance.

VG: Now in the East, the Milwaukee Bucks emerge as second-round darlings, while the Miami Heat return to some form of prominence, as many sportswriters rejoice over being able to hit South Beach in between games (No word on whether commissioner Adam Silver ruled on all ECF games to be played in Miami, even if the Heat weren’t playing).

But yes, the Bulls and Cavs are back again, albeit on different sides of the East bracket. The Bulls were taken to seven games by the Bucks in the I-94 series, as Greg Monroe makes Pau Gasol appear twice his age by running slight circles around him on the block. Derrick Rose rebounds from an up-up-down-up-down season to put the Bucks away in a Game 7 in Chicago, while Jimmy Butler put the clamps on Chicago native Jabari Parker in the fourth quarter, leaving the locals befuddled as whether to cheer or boo.

The Heat and Cavs don’t quite go the distance, as LeBron James got major satisfaction from putting his old mates away on their home floor, after getting a 3-pointer negated in Cleveland in Game 5 thanks to David Blatt calling an unfortunate timeout, fearing James would miss and he’d get blamed for it.

Setting the stage for the Bulls to stare their tormentors in the eyes yet again, as the Bulls stole Game 2 in Cleveland but gave it right back in Game 3 before losing in six. Thankfully, the Bulls didn’t quit on their home floor, instead going cold in a Thibodeau-like offensive freeze in the last five minutes to thwart yet another chance to get to the Finals.

MS: How did I know after all these previews you'd find a way at the end to properly convey your feelings on David Blatt? Anyway, I'd really love to give a prediction where the Cavaliers don't wind up underachieving early in the year, go on an incredible run after the All-Star break and coast through the Eastern Conference but, well, that's probably going to happen. The reality is it happens every year with a James-led team, and 2016 will be no different. We'll hear the stories about how Kevin Love, despite his nightly 16 and 10, is the wrong fit in Cleveland. We'll hear about Kyrie Irving's "low" assist totals, we'll hear about Iman Shumpert's and Tristan Thompson's salaries and how they aren't worth the money. We'll hear about LeBron's tarnished legacy because the Cavaliers are 12-8 in early December....and then Cleveland will coast to the Finals, four wins away from the ultimate prize.

It's like clockwork. The reality is LeBron wanted to go back to Cleveland to finish career. The reality is also that he wasn't going anywhere near the Western Conference in free agency. The Bulls have a new coach but their roster remains unchanged, the Hawks don't have the personnel to win a serious seven-game series and the Bucks are a few seasons away from becoming the East's version of the Thunder. Pick a storyline, any storyline, and the end result will be the Cavaliers headed back to the Finals.

If I needed an alternate storyline, it's that Jimmy Butler makes the jump to super-stardom, Joakim Noah turns back the clock (to 2013) and Pau Gasol proves he has one more year left in the tank. Derrick Rose becomes the top-5 point he was pre-knee fiasco and Fred Hoiberg changes the culture in a matter of one season. That's the only scenario standing between LeBron James and a sixth - sixth! - straight Finals appearance. In actuality, the preparation the Cavaliers are doing this offseason is to get ready for the NBA Finals. It's not as easy as one sentence, but this team more or less walked to the Finals without Love and a one-footed Irving. Bulls fans won't like it, but they also remember an MJ-led Bulls team in the 90s doing the same.

Cleveland is headed to the Finals. LeBron gets his matchup against close friend Chris Paul and we get LeBron vs. Paul Pierce, CP3 vs. Kyrie and Blake vs. Love.

Vinnie, we've got a lot of work ahead of us before that happens, but I couldn't be more excited to get it going.

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.