NBA preseason primer: Potential new playoff teams


NBA preseason primer: Potential new playoff teams

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 playoff teams may become new faces in the 2016 NBA Playoffs.

Mark Strotman: Even in the lowly Eastern Conference it was difficult to imagine the Bucks making last year's playoffs, let alone earning the No. 5 seed. They topped their Vegas win total (24.5) before February and won 41 games despite losing No. 2 pick Jabari Parker to an ACL tear in mid-December and learning a new system under Jason Kidd. In the West, Anthony Davis's Pelicans team got an early start on their resurgence and reached the postseason over Russell Westbrook's one-man show in Oklahoma City - Westbrook's stretch from February to April was as much fun as I've had watching a player since LeBron's 2012-13 campaign. Boston returned to the playoffs in another surprise, while Cleveland's ridiculous offseason made them a shoo-in for the postseason.
Four new teams reached the postseason in 2015, and I could see that happening again in 2016. Which fresh teams could pop up in this year's postseason, and who are they replacing?
Vincent Goodwill: Every year teams break out from the lottery to playoff contention, but rarely will a team go from the doldrums to the penthouse. That’s where the Oklahoma City Thunder come in, as long as all the pieces that have been masterfully put together alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook stay healthy.

They were decimated by injuries last year, especially the scary foot injuries suffered by Durant. While the NBA world was treated to a triple-double fest from Westbrook, it didn’t amount to a playoff appearance. They finally realized Scott Brooks had maxed out with this team and brought in Florida coach Billy Donovan, who’s highly regarded as an NBA-ready coach. Durant and Westbrook will have to re-adjust to one another, given Westbrook’s development and desire to be on the same billing as the 2014 MVP. Whether the deepest roster finds a way to develop enough chemistry to get on the same level as Golden State or San Antonio remains to be seen, but it’s clear that with any kind of relative health, they’ll be in the thick of the title chase.

Durant missed 55 games last year, Westbrook 17. Serge Ibaka missed 18 and the Thunder went through a bit of upheaval before the deadline yet they still had a record good enough to be fifth in the East if they played there. Either way, the most compelling story in the NBA sans LeBron James this season.

MS: I can't wait to see what Durant does this season. The question will always linger about how Westbrook and he play together, and I'm intrigued to see if the progression the former made last season playing "alone" will translate with a healthy Durant back on the floor. If it does, it's pretty clear there's not a better 1-2 punch in the game.

I'll stay in the Western Conference and swap out the Mavericks for the Utah Jazz. Quinn Snyder's group went 21-11 to finish the season, including an impressive 8-8 mark in that span against eventual playoff teams. That stretch, which began on Feb. 7 with a win over the Kings, saw Utah post the league's best defense by nearly FOUR points per 100 possessions (95.3). They were one of the league's best rebounding teams in that span, and had the fifth best net rating in the NBA. The four teams ahead of them? San Antonio, Golden State, the Clippers and Cleveland. Not bad company, huh?

They return their entire young core (minus the raw yet talented Dante Exum, who tore his ACL this summer) led by the impressive frontcourt tandem of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert. The latter really took off after the Jazz dealt Enes Kanter at the trade deadline, and paired with Gordon Hayward that duo is going to be good enough to sneak into the No. 8 seed. Their duo of young shooters on the perimeter in Rodney Hood and Alec Burks should make a jump, and rookie Trey Lyles could help right away giving teams a different inside-out look than Favors/Gobert give. That being said, I'm far from sold on Trey Burke as an everyday point guard, and their depth there is really shaky. Still, last year's finish was more than just a sample size; these guys are for real, and while I don't think Steve Kerr will stay up at night wondering how to stop them, the Jazz are headed for the postseason.

VG: I would be with you on Utah but losing Exum is too big to assume this young team will overcome it without bumps and bruises. Trey Burke has yet to prove much of anything in his first two years, so they’re on the bubble for me.

A team I can believe in, though, that can at least sneak into the bottom two playoff spots in the East is the Indiana Pacers. They traded away Roy Hibbert and David West surprisingly opted out of the last year of his deal to go to San Antonio, but they have some pieces after losing on a tiebreaker for the 8th seed this past April.

Paul George is back and healthy, as many have forgotten he was on the doorstep to superstardom 18 months ago, on the same plane as a Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, and perhaps a step ahead of both before his leg unfortunately met the basket stanchion at the USA Basketball showcase in July 2014. Rodney Stuckey and Monta Ellis are pretty interchangeable, and make up a pretty dynamic backcourt from a talent standpoint. I’ve always been a fan of Frank Vogel as a coach, despite his semi-arrogance. He knows what he’s doing as far as in-game adjustments, and crafted a very stout defense around a center in Hibbert, who wasn’t very mobile.

If the Pacers play more small ball with George playing the four at times, things can get very interesting in the Midwest. Lest we forget, George averaged nearly 22 points per game with 6.8 rebounds in 2013-14, and went toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals two years in a row. If he’s relatively healthy…Katy Bar the door.

MS: You didn't even mention Myles Turner, my favorite prospect in the 2015 rookie class, who will help with the loss of Hibbert and West inside. I'm still not sure if their depth is good enough, but it's the Eastern Conference we're talking about. Having a better season than the Brooklyn Nets isn't a major accomplishment. And speaking of George, I'm expecting a monster year from him. You're not wrong about him being on the cusp of the NBA's next great young star before his injury. Hopefully he can get back there this season.

My second favorite draft prospect was Devin Booker, and he goes to a Suns team that has been thisclose from the postseason the last two years. They underwent a big change in 2015, dealing Goran Dragic to Miami and winding up with Brandon Knight after the dust settled, and then they paid Knight $70 million. He and Eric Bledsoe form a supremely talented backcourt (not sure how they'll co-exist long-term, but it'll be fun to see) while Booker and Archie Goodwin, a pair of former Kentucky Wildcats, will add good two-way depth.

I also loved the addition of Tyson Chandler after they swung and missed on LaMarcus Aldridge. The Suns were 17th in defensive efficiency a year ago, and Chandler could vault them into the top-10 conversation. If the Markieff Morris situation remedies itself and he somehow stays in Phoenix, I really like the versatility of this roster. I'm not as high on them as I am the Jazz, but considering they were 6 games out of the final playoff spot after losing 10 of their last 11, I believe they'll improve greatly on their 39-win mark and have a chance to sneak in as a No. 7 or 8 seed.

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music


John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

It’s what every fan base deserves, along with players on a roster where tough conversations must be had to set a course for the present in order to secure a better future.


It’s ugly and while not aesthetically pleasing to the eye, everyone can see what the Bulls are doing for the remainder of the NBA season. For the paying customers who still fill the seats at the United Center, it’s a “cry now so hopefully you laugh later” proposition.

Bulls Executive-Vice President John Paxson addressed the media Tuesday and said what we all knew to be true, what everyone knew what was coming.

He didn’t stand up in front of cameras and tape recorders and ask, “Do you like Brazilian music?”

They’re tanking.

They’re putting a little bit more sugar to go with it but it’s old-fashioned ‘tussin for the next several weeks.

All of this is due to sight unseen—unless you watch college basketball or cue up European basketball highlights.

When you see Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson take two hard dribbles from the top of the key, spin and dunk while being fouled, it makes sense.

When Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton help on a driving guard to cut off a lane, recover to block a 3-point shot and run the floor for a layup in a six-second span, it makes sense.

When Duke’s Marvin Bagley III seals his defender with one arm, catches with his left hand and finishes on the opposite side of the rim with ease, it all makes sense and kudos to the Bulls for not trying to fool a smart public with useless rhetoric.

Every loss counts, of course, but the key thing about the NBA is this: No matter where a team picks, bad franchises make the worst of a good opportunity and good franchises make the best of any situation.

If the Bulls are the latter, it’ll show itself whether they pick fourth or second or sixth. This draft’s best player went 13th, Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. Lauri Markkanen is in competition for best player after Mitchell and he went seventh.

This was inevitable from the moment the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler on draft night. Although Kris Dunn has turned out to be a revelation and Markkanen could be a superstar, none of the micro wins should take away from the macro vision of this franchise, chief reason why Paxson has reasserted himself in the last year.

Paxson just framed it in the vein of long-term evaluation in announcing Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup, while Jerian Grant will see his playing time cut for Cameron Payne.

“Seeing some of our young guys play consistently, we’ve learned a lot about them,” Paxson said. “The hard thing when you do things like this is you’re asking certain people to sacrifice roles and minutes. And oftentimes, it’s veteran guys. That’s what we’re asking some of our vets to do right now—sacrifice some time on the floor and roles they’ve been very good in. That’s never an easy thing.”

Lopez and Holiday have been good soldiers through this process, especially helping navigate a fragile locker room after the crazy start to the season when Bobby Portis had enough of Nikola Mirotic in a practice and unleashed holy hell on a season that was supposed to be a quiet, boring losing season.

“I know what it’s like to be asked to take a lesser role,” Paxson said. “Players have pride. So it’s hard. I don’t take that lightly at all. It’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37 with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”

Lopez has had a solid season, with career-highs in scoring and assists. Holiday’s scoring has nearly doubled this season and he’ll garner some attention around the draft in the trade market.

But with the Bulls being eighth of the eight bad teams, they need to get Super Bad (with a nod to James Brown) in the next several weeks. It’s not that the rebuild is steps ahead, it’s that other teams are better at being incompetent than the Bulls—and they’ll also be doing whatever’s necessary to secure a draft position.

At least the Bulls’ competence has come in the form of long-term answers. Certainly at the end of the year, one can lament Zach LaVine saving the Bulls from losses to the Timberwolves and Magic with late-game plays that cements the belief he could be a front-facing player—especially with restricted free agency coming this summer.

If Payne happens to be a useful NBA player in the process, it’s gravy but the Bulls aren’t really expecting it.

Fred Hoiberg has been pumping up Payne publicly by referencing him playing the role of Isaiah Thomas in the playoff preparation last spring, but he hasn’t played NBA level basketball in over a year.

And when he was on the floor, for that ill-fated period after last year’s deadline when Hoiberg was playing 11 guys without a real plan to win, Payne looked overmatched and overwhelmed.

“We want to see him as a point guard, especially when you’re running with the second unit, and the way Fred wants to play, play with pace, defend your position, compete every night and stay within yourself,” Paxson said. “His role is to get us into offense quickly and efficiently and make the right play with the ball.”

Felicio has taken a step back in terms of his development after steady improvement over the last two years, but in the big picture they’re casualties in the NBA’s cost of doing business.

And if you believe it’s anything else besides what you’re seeing, you might believe Paxson is truly asking if you like Brazilian music.

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


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.