Bulls

Ping-pong balls everywhere: Where do the Bulls rank among projected lottery teams?

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AP

Ping-pong balls everywhere: Where do the Bulls rank among projected lottery teams?

When your team is no longer in playoff contention it's always a good time to look forward. The Bulls finally have a direction after trading Jimmy Butler on draft night and will go to a youth movement to build the talent pool back up. And with free agency pretty much wrapped up (although Derrick Rose is making noise) it's time to look at where Fred Hoiberg's group stands among the teams looking for the most ping-pong balls on Lottery night next May.

The numbers in parentheses are the projected over-under win totals in Las Vegas:

Brooklyn Nets (20.5 wins)

The good news? Brooklyn had an excellent offseason. The bad news? It's going to take way more than one good string of moves to fix this mess. In dealing Brook Lopez and a first-round pick for D'Angelo Russell, the Nets gave away their best player for one with a bright future. Drafting Jarrett Allen was another solid move, but he's barely 19 and is more of a project than anything right now. Taking on DeMarre Carroll's and Timofey Mozgov's contracts provide them more talent, but neither should get much playing time during the youth movement. It may be tough for this team to get to 20 wins.

Phoenix Suns (25.5 wins)

There might not be a better young core in the Western Conference than in Phoenix. With Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson (all lottery picks) leading the way, there's optimism about the Suns' future. It just might not lead to many victories in 2017-18. Bender is 19 and the others are 20, and veterans Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler are prime trade candidates. Phoenix is going somewhere, but expect them to pick in the top 3 a year from now.

Chicago Bulls (28.5 wins)

It's difficult right now to project how many wins the Bulls will tally. Restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic is still unsigned, and there are questions about whether Dwyane Wade will be bought out at some point during the season. Zach LaVine's timetable on returning from ACL surgery is still unknown, and the Bulls will take a cautious approach in bringing him back. Robin Lopez could also be dealt at some point. The young guns are going to get all the run they can handle, helping the rebuild while not doing much in the win department.

Sacramento Kings (30.5 wins)

The Kings went 8-17 after dealing DeMarcus Cousins, which projects to a 26-win season over an 82-game span. The good news is Scott Perry made this roster a whole lot better before leaving for the Knicks. Drafting De'Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles and Frank Mason III, and signing George Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph has this roster looking as deep as it's been in quite some time. They're in the West, which makes things more difficult, but they're a good bet to make serious improvement in 2017.

Indiana Pacers (31.5 wins)

Like the Bulls, the Pacers began their rebuilding phase after dealing a star in Paul George. Indiana grabbed an established two-way guard in Victor Oladipo (25 years old) and 21-year-old Domantas Sabonis, Potential trade candidates are Thaddeus Young, Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic. Myles Turner is a budding star, while young players in T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu and Glenn Robinson III will get plenty of playing time. Those four matchups against the Bulls could loom large as far as the Lottery balls are concerned.

Los Angeles Lakers (32.5 wins)

It looks like the Lakers hit on both their first-round draft picks, as Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma had monster Summer Leagues. Add Brook Lopez, who was outstanding last season, to a talented young core and it appears the Lakers are trending in the right direction. It wouldn't be surprising to see Los Angeles compete for a playoff spot. Plus, the Lakers have no incentive to tank, as their first-round pick in 2018 will go to Philadelphia or Boston. Expect them to move past the Bulls in the win total.

New York Knicks (32.5 wins)

Not sure about this one. It still seems there's a good chance Carmelo Anthony gets dealt, and depending on what they get back in a deal their second best player (behind Kristaps Porzingis) will be $71 million man Tim Hardaway Jr. They won 31 games a year ago, and it's hard to imagine they're better without Anthony, regardless of how inefficient he's become.

Atlanta Hawks (34.5 wins)

No team in the league took a bigger hit from where they were a year ago to now than the Hawks. After winning 43 wins and earning the No. 5 seed in the East, Atlanta lost Paul Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr. to free agency and traded Dwight Howard. Essentially it's Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and a ton of question marks. Taurean Prince, DeAndre' Bembry and rookie John Collins are a good core, but this is going to be an ugly season in the ATL.

Dallas Mavericks (34.5 wins)

We'll go ahead and assume restricted free agent Nerlens Noel returns. So, too, is Dirk Nowitzki back for another year, and the Mavs look like they have a steal in rookie Dennis Smith Jr. They've entered a rebuild, which owner Mark Cuban admitted, but their talent across the board might be enough to get them to the 33 wins they had a year ago. Playing in the West makes it more difficult to project, but they should tally more wins than the Bulls simply on their talent pool.

Orlando Magic (34.5 wins)

This Las Vegas win total is a little confusing. Orlando made nice moves in the offseason, drafting Jonathan Isaac and signing Jonathon Simmons. But that's about it, and the Magic were lucky to win 29 games a year ago. True, they're in a depleted Eastern Conference but it's hard to see Frank Vogel turning around the franchise this quickly. That being said, their young players (Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic, Mario Hezonja and Aaron Gordon) have NBA experience, so maybe they make a jump and it results in wins.

The Bulls can learn plenty from the Celtics' near-perfect rebuild

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USA TODAY

The Bulls can learn plenty from the Celtics' near-perfect rebuild

Before you read any further, let’s get this out of the way: no organization will ever match what Danny Ainge and the Celtics accomplished the last four years. In that span they have hoarded assets and dealt them at the right time, developed young talent, signed A-list free agents in two different offseasons and traded for a top-5 point guard in the prime of his career.

The Celtics have gone from a 25-win team in Brad Stevens’ first season to the class of the Eastern Conference and holders of the NBA’s best record. They hit on just about every move (looking at you, James Young) and are built to win now and in the future.

So there’s your disclaimer: this isn’t written to be a blueprint for how the Bulls can mirror what the Celtics did and, voila, the 2021 Bulls are looking down on the rest of the league.

There are steps, however, the Celtics made that the Bulls can follow as they begin the first phase of their own rebuild. And hey, the Bulls play the Celtics tonight, so it’s timely. Follow along. We’ll be looking at a handful of moves the Celtics made from 2013 to this past offseason (not all of them, because there isn’t enough room on the internet), and how the Bulls can, in theory, attempt to recreate it within their own organization. And one last time, that’s all this is: a theoretical blueprint for how the Bulls can get back to winning games and competing for titles.

Chapter 1: Enter the rebuild with a splash

What the Celtics did: Danny Ainge broke up the Boston Three Party, sending Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Nets for a package that included four future unprotected first-round picks. The writing was on the wall for the C's, who had just completed a 41-40 season and bowed out to the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs. Garnett was 37, Pierce was 36 and LeBron had been to three straight Finals. The trade ensured Boston would be drafting near the top of the 2014 NBA Draft (they won 25 games the following season) and gave Ainge plenty of ammo for later years, regardless of how the Nets did. The fact that Brooklyn imploded as a franchise just one year after that trade helped.

What the Bulls can do: Trade Jimmy Butler. The Bulls began their rebuild in June when they dealt the three-time All-Star. In return they received Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick, which they used on Lauri Markkanen. It’s a good bet that all three pieces are not only part of the future, but significant pieces. Dunn, 23, has shown marked improvement in Year 2. Markkanen, 20, is a Rookie of the Year candidate. And LaVine, 22, was averaging 19 points on 46 percent shooting before his ACL injury. His ceiling is an All-Star wing. So the Bulls initiated Step 1 of the rebuild, and the early returns are they made out just fine.

Chapter 2: Draft well

What the Celtics did: All those picks were nice to have, but Ainge still had to draft the right players. And he did just that. In 2014 they nabbed Marcus Smart with the No. 6 pick (their own) and James Young with Brooklyn's (the only bad selection). The following year they took Terry Rozier with their own pick. Both have proven to be valuable bench commodities. But then the fun started. Brooklyn went in the tank and the Celtics grabbed Jaylen Brown with the No. 3 pick in 2016. Then they won the Lottery in 2017, only to deal that pick for the No. 3 pick and another future first to the Sixers. With that No. 3 pick they drafted Jayson Tatum, who has taken on a major role in the wake of Gordon Hayward's ankle injury. That's four straight years of first-round "hits," with Brown and Tatum having sky-high ceilings.

What the Bulls can do: It’s easier said than done, but hit on their draft picks. We already know the Bulls are looking at a likely top 3 pick next June, and assuming a Marvin Bagley III or Luka Doncic doesn’t carry the franchise on his back as a rookie, another top 5 selection in 2019. Maybe even 2020 depending on how quickly (or slowly) the rebuild goes. GarPax adhered to the “younger and more athletic” mantra in drafting Lauri Markkanen, and there’s nothing but youth and athleticism at the beginning of drafts each year (especially 2018). Not focusing on positional needs (the Celtics took similar guards in consecutive years, then similar wings the two years after that) and instead evaluating and drafting the best talent available will be key. Simply put, unless you sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh in a single offseason, rebuilds only work if you hit on draft night.

Chapter 3: Make smart trades

What the Celtics did: Once the rebuild was underway the Celtics made three significant trades. First they took on Tyler Zeller's salary from Cleveland so the Cavaliers could sign LeBron James in 2014. The Cavs also attached a first-round pick to that deal (more on that later). With the rebuild in full swing they let Rajon Rondo go to Dallas a few months later, and received little-used Jae Crowder and another first-round pick. And that draft pick from the Cavs? They put that in a deal in 2015 that landed them Isaiah Thomas the following year. No one could have predicted what Thomas would become, but he was certainly worth the risk at the time. Three trades (pre-Kyrie deal) that hurt in the short-term but netted them draft picks and role players who could potentially thrive with plenty of minutes open in Boston.

What the Bulls can do: The Bulls aren’t going to find the next Isaiah Thomas in a deal, but they can find a Jae Crowder-type player. What that would require is dealing a veteran that can help a contender. The prime candidate, of course, is Robin Lopez. He doesn't hold crazy value given his limitations, but he's a reliable veteran who could bring back value. A team like Denver dealing with frontcourt injuries or Cleveland needing frontcourt depth could be options, but that's speculation. Nikola Mirotic is another trade candidate for a team looking for spacing and versatility, though his unusual no-trade clause makes that more difficult. Justin Holiday is an option, too, if he isn't part of the long-term plans. The Bulls don't have much tradeable talent, making inevitable deals all the more important with what they can trade. They can't afford another Gibson/McDermott-to-the-Thunder debacle.

The second part of this is taking on bad contracts and attaching draft picks to them in trades. The Nets did this in the offseason in taking on both Timofey Mozgov's (Lakers) and DeMarre Carroll's (Raptors) bad contracts, and it's something the Bulls could and should seriously consider. Players like Brandon Knight (Phoenix), Matthew Dellavedova (Milwaukee) and Luol Deng (Lakers) have ugly contracts that teams are certainly looking to rid of. Eating a year of two of those salaries to stockpile future first-round picks (the Nets got a lottery-protected 2018 first-round pick and a second-round pick in the Carroll deal) or talented young players (the Nets got D'Angelo Russell in the Mozgov deal) can pay off down the road, and the salaries don't matter in the short-term. Hey, maybe Brandon Knight revives his career in Chicago. OK, let's not get crazy.

Chapter 4: Retain your role players

What the Celtics did: Boston committed to Avery Bradley, their first-round pick in 2010, by giving him a four-year, $32 million deal. They did the same with Jae Crowder, giving him a five-year deal after he showed plenty of promise as a 3-and-D wing. Crowder was used to land Irving, while Bradley was dealt to make cap space for Gordon Hayward, though the two were arguably Boston's best defenders the previous two seasons when the C's began their turnaround. Plus, both turned out to be extremely team-friendly deals. They'll have to make a decision on Marcus Smart next season, but there haven't been any players during this rebuild that got away from Boston. They evaluated talent correctly, gave up quickly on mistakes (James Young, R.J. Hunter, Jared Sullinger) and invested in the right players that helped them get to where they are now.

What the Bulls can do: Develop role players with current roster. The Bulls haven't drafted well of late, to say the least, so there isn't a slam dunk contract extension awaiting any of the players on their rookie deals. But those decisions won't have to be made for a few years. Players like Denzel Valentine, Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis all could play themselves into roles for the future. It isn't exactly likely, but Portis is still 22, Valentine and David Nwaba are 24 and Jerian Grant is 25. Let's not close the book on one of those players blossoming in a few years’ time into an able-bodied reserve. Let's not bet any large sums of money on it, either. But the point to take away here is these early rebuilding years are about evaluation as much as anything else. Assuming the Butler return (Dunn, Markkanen, LaVine) are locked in, finding those role players for the future on the current rebuilding roster is important. Then locking those players down as they settle into their roles adds another piece to the puzzle.

Chapter 5: Attract big-name free agents

What the Celtics did: Sign Al Horford and Gordon Hayward to long-term deals. Only the Sixers have completed a rebuild without the help of big-name free agents (no offense, JJ Redick). But the rebuild was moving in the right direction after the Celtics won 48 games in 2015-16, and doing so with players mostly on rookie deals gave them cap flexibility that summer. They signed Horford to a four-year, $113 million deal and proceeded to win 53 games. They lost in five games to LeBron and the Cavs, but they again had max cap space this past summer when Hayward became a free agent. And although Hayward suffered that gruesome ankle injury on Opening Night, he'll make a full recovery and the Celtics will have him for three more years. These deals were possible because A) the Celtics were starting to win, and both Horford and Hayward saw an opportunity to win titles and B) they did that early winning with players on team-friendly deals, so the money to sign those All-Stars was there.

What the Bulls can do: It doesn't make sense to name names (don't worry, we will in a little bit), but the key here is to improve little by little each season to the point that an A-list free agent sees himself as the missing piece toward a championship run. When the Celtics signed Al Horford they had improved from 25 to 40 to 48 victories in the East. When they signed Gordon Hayward this past summer that record jumped to 53 wins and included an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Even with max space next summer (and maybe even the summer after that) it's going to be tough to lure a max free agent in if the Bulls are winning 25 and 30 games. Again, this is going to take time. But the final piece, at least as it was for Boston, will be finding All-Stars ready for a fresh start, and ones who want to do it in a big market with a steady head coach and a young team ready to compete now.

OK, so you want names? Assuming the top guys aren't coming in 2018, here are expected big-name free agents for 2019 that realistically could be looking for new homes: Paul George, Klay Thompson, Nikola Vucevic, Kemba Walker

And 2020: Kyle Lowry, Hassan Whiteside, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and...Jimmy Butler

Chapter 6: Trade for Kyrie Irving

What the Celtics did: They traded for Kyrie Irving and turned him into an MVP candidate.

What the Bulls can do: Trade for Kyrie Irving. OK, so this part isn't happening. The Bulls won't have a disgruntled superstar fall into their laps and have the assets to deal for him. But, hey, it's nice to dream.

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn pass necessary test as Bulls claim first winning streak

Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn pass necessary test as Bulls claim first winning streak

The New York Knicks provided the perfect type of test for the Bulls, in the most imperfect conditions but a test of growth and morale.

It’s certainly a game with its share of warts but seeing the Bulls put together their first winning streak of the season with a nail-biting 104-102 win at the United Center had more successes than failures.

Kristaps Porzingis was staring Lauri Markkanen in the face, finally getting hot and finding a rhythm after struggling early. Once he got the Bulls rookie on his hip, he exploded to the rim for a dunk that gave the Knicks a one-point lead in the third.

“Short, short," Porzingis yelled the next time down as Markkanen gave Porzingis a taste of his own medicine, albeit with a mid-range jumper as opposed to a drive.

By the time Porzingis was done barking, Markkanen was already backpedaling to the other end as his jumper was true.

Passed.

There was Kris Dunn, one night after playing a strong game against the Hornets, trying to put together a second straight performance, having earned the trust of Fred Hoiberg to put the ball in his hands late.

Dunn drove on Knicks guard Courtney Lee and got a foul called—a ticky-tack call but a call—with 2.9 seconds left. Dunn hit both free throws to complete his 17-point, nine-assist, seven-rebound evening.

“It was a design play. Attack him. He was on my hip, and I tried to finish the layup,” Dunn said.

Passed.

The Bulls nearly giving away the game doesn’t make anyone look good in the light, but it’s better to learn in the midst of an “almost” loss than another soul-crushing, spirit-dropping defeat—Hoiberg has had plenty of those that have turned his youthful look into nearly a salt-and-pepper, gruff appearance.

“We need to get a little more movement in the last two minutes there, that’s on me,” Hoiberg said.

Having six players in double figures, including Nikola Mirotic hit five triples for 19 points in his home debut this season, is certainly an eye-catcher for the immediate future and January when the trade market opens up.

“It felt great,” Mirotic said. “I know we’ve had a lot of ups and downs but like I said this team is going in a different direction. There are players who are improving a lot and we’re doing a good job.”

Then there’s the wild card, David Nwaba, streaking down the floor like a wide receiver that could be put to use on Sunday’s at Soldier Field. Hard to measure his value but the energy quotient goes up when he hits the floor.

Three plays in succession gave the Bulls a 100-92 lead that put them in the driver’s seat with two minutes remaining.

On a larger scale, though, it shows the Bulls front office can still mine a diamond in the rough every now and again, as acquisitions like Nwaba often go undersold—which is probably better for this front office given the gaffes in recent memory—but he can overdeliver and do it in flashes.

“I’m gonna give it right to him. That speed, nobody wants to get in front of that,” Dunn said. “It’s like (Russell) Westbrook, you wanna get in front of that? Go ahead. You take a charge, you’re gonna feel it the next morning.”

Nobody dared try, aside from Kyle O’Quinn on a Nwaba dunk attempt, but Nwaba’s 15 points and five rebounds were all impactful.

Passed.

Never mind the Bulls didn’t make it back to Chicago from Charlotte until early Saturday afternoon after some pilot issues, breaking their usual gameday routine while the Knicks were waiting and well-rested.

“It shows you a group that really cares and a group that is going to go out and compete every night regardless of what the circumstances are,” Hoiberg said.

Hoiberg knows he’s in a precarious situation, that the overall objective this season is not winning games. But he can’t have his team laying down for an opponent that jumps on them early and strips the Bulls of their spirit.

His personal wins come in small doses, like not having to take those early timeouts.

“Now we’re doing a good job of going out with the right mentality,” Hoiberg said. “We’re getting after it on the defensive end and getting some push in the game.”

The “getting after it” can certainly apply to Markkanen, he of the quick feet, long arms and wide eyes who had his hands full with a player he’ll likely be compared to for fair and unfair reasons in Porzingis. Porzingis has had a steady growth after his draft standing was questioned coming out of Latvia, although the questions about Markkanen were more because watching Arizona play on the west coast is a tougher task for the east coast elite.

As Markkanen shown all year, even through his periodic struggles, he’s shown a willingness to compete and defend his position, never running from his matchup. He stayed with Porzingis and helped harass him into a 10-for-25 shooting night.

“It’s how competitive I am, giving my all, I’m happy with that,” said Markkanen when asked how he judged himself defensively. “If I look in the mirror and said I’ve done everything I can…if they still score, I gotta get back to the gym.”

He smirked when asked if he felt he did everything he could against Porzingis Saturday.

“He got a couple easy ones against me so I’ve gotta learn from those. Most of the time I think I’ve done a decent job.”

He chuckled.

He knows he did a better than decent job and in a season full of scheduled failures the Bulls had a necessary success.