Mark Strotman

Nwaba, Felicio, Payne: Getting to know the newest members of the Bulls rotation

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USA TODAY

Nwaba, Felicio, Payne: Getting to know the newest members of the Bulls rotation

The Bulls are moving forward with their youth, as John Paxson announced on Tuesday that David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne will all enter the rotation for the duration of the season.

Call it tanking, call it wanting to get a look at younger players who may or may not be part of the rotation. Whatever the reason, here's what to expect from the three newcomers, what the Bulls are looking for and why it matters moving forward.

David Nwaba

What he's done: We wrote on Nwaba last month after the bulky 6-foot-4 shooting guard did his best to limit Giannis Anteotokounmpo in a loss to the Bucks. He's as unique a shooting guard as you'll find in today's NBA, attempting just 19 3-pointers in nearly 1,000 minutes this season. He's also taken just two 2-point attempts outside of the paint. He's a bully who attacks the basket and takes high-percentage shots, which is why he's not surprising he's shooting 51.7 percent from the field this year. Of course, he's limited offensively. The NBA is finding it hard for 7-footers to make it if they can only shoot at the rim, and Nwaba's a shooting guard...who doesn't shoot.

But he's made his mark defensively, and then some. He's the Bulls' best defender, both via the eye test and statistically. And because of that he also has the team's second best net rating (-0.4), behind only Bobby Portis (-0.2). He can defend three positions, and a fourth in the paint if need be. He's an absolute rock at 220 pounds and moves well for his size. His athleticism is on full display, and he's a high-motor guy every time he steps on the floor. His offensive limitations put a cap on his potential, and he's already 25 years old despite this being just his second NBA season. There's a spot somewhere in the league for Nwaba (see: Allen, Tony playing 14 NBA seasons), but he isn't exactly a perfect fit in Chicago because of his lack of outside shooting. He needs to be paired with floor spacers at all times or the offense will really suffer.

What the Bulls are looking for: Perhaps Nwaba's new role will allow him to have more of a green light on offense. Fred Hoiberg loves the way Nwaba plays his role (he's shooting 26 percent from 3, but on just 19 attempts that hardly matters) and doesn't go outside his comfort zone, but maybe he needs to do just that. Per NBA.com, Nwaba has played 16 minutes at the point (Grant, Dunn, Valentine, Arcidiacano all off the floor), but maybe the Bulls will see if his bully ball driving to the basket can create open looks for shooters. He's not a terribly gifted ball handler, but he's a threat in transition and an apt rebounder to boot.

Above all the Bulls are looking for a few more flashes from Nwaba. He'll be a free agent this summer and might be a part of the Bulls' plans if the market doesn't heat up for him. Again, don't expect a 3-point revelation from him. He is who he is, and that's a 6-foot-4 power forward who plays shooting guard. That has its obvious advantages, but more disadvantages. If he can prove to have a little more offensive flexibility it'd make the Bulls more comfortable about bringing him back in the fold next season. The fact that the Bulls don't have a second-round pick in 2018 helps his cause.

What to expect: More of the same from what we've seen. If it's not yet clear, Nwaba isn't going to become a different player just because he's playing more minutes. His numbers might not change much, either. It will be fun to see how much trust Fred Hoiberg puts in him to guard the opponent's best player, with matchups like Andrew Wiggins, Kemba Walker, Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving coming in the next two weeks. He'll be a hounding defender, and he'll have a few 6-for-8 shooting nights. He may even begin shooting more 3-pointers, just to see if he can find a comfort level.

Cristiano Felicio

What he's done: It hasn't been Timofey Mozgov-getting-$64 million bad, but the Bulls have to feel a little buyer's remorse in giving Felicio a four-year, $32 million deal last summer. He showed real potential on offense down the stretch last season, averaging 4.8 points on 64 percent shooting and 4.3 rebounds after the All-Star break. He did his damage in limited minutes (16.0 per game) but appeared to be a solid pick-and-roll option with good hands. He didn't bring much to the table defensively, but you also can't teach 6-foot-10, 270 pounds. And yet, for whatever reason, all that potential has fizzled in 2017-18. Felicio was essentially yanked from the rotation (despite the Bulls not having a true backup to Robin Lopez) and in his limited minutes has been awful. His happy feet from his rookie season have returned, he's out of position more times than not and it's led to copious fouls.

His -23.8 net rating is second worst in the NBA among players averaging 12 minutes per game, behind only Jahlil Okafor. And his 89.9 offensive rating is the worst in the league, not a good sign considering he's known as a better offensive than defensive player. It's been a season to forget, and the Bulls simply have to hope extended playing time improve his confidence, which in turn improves his game.

What the Bulls are looking for: Anything. Without piling too much on him - he's such a friendly dude - the Bulls need to see some of that spark he showed late in each of the last two seasons. Felicio has essentially split his minutes between playing with Jerian Grant (161 minutes) and Kris Dunn, and he's performed much better with Dunn (shocking, we know). That should help, and it'll also be interesting to see how often Hoiberg pairs of Payne and Felicio. Don't laugh, but those two could see a lot of time together next season off the bench. Simply being given a rotation spot isn't going to give Felicio more athleticism or quicker feet, but the Bulls will want to see him grasping concepts, communicating better and defending with his body on that end of the floor. It's a lot to ask, but he's sort of hit rock bottom as a 25-year-old making $8 million a year to rack up DNP-CDs.

What to expect: He will be better playing with Dunn, and playing alongside Markkanen should free up room for him in the paint. He'll likely be the beneficiary of some dump-offs from LaVine and Dunn on drives to the hoop. We'll get the occasional 16-point, 7-rebound night where he puts himself in the right position under the basket and plays well in pick-and-roll. Defensively he's going to continue to rack up fouls, and playing next to Markkanen instead of Bobby Portis probably won't help much. But the Bulls want to see some improvement from here on. If he can transform into a 9-point-per-night scorer who can be relatively hidden defensively, the Bulls will take it. Watch for how he moves his feet on defense, and his hands on offense.

Cameron Payne

What he's done: The centerpiece of last year's Taj Gibson/Doug McDermott deal, Payne really struggled in his limited minutes with the Bulls. Playing behind Rajon Rondo and the 14 other point guard the Bulls had that year, Payne averaged 4.9 points and 1.4 assists in 12.9 minutes. He had 15 assists and 13 turnovers in 142 minutes, while shooting 33 percent from the field. Between OKC and the Bulls, Payne had a 40.7 true shooting percentage, second worst in the NBA among 233 qualified players. His offensive rating among those same players was fourth worst. Simply put, Payne had a 2016-17 to forget...and then he broke his foot. He's set to make his debut on Thursday, taking Jerian Grant's spot in the rotation. Here goes nothing.

What the Bulls are looking for: Payne is a natural score-first point guard, or at least has been in his limited minutes in the league. But the Bulls are going to want to see how he distributes on the second unit, playing alongside wings with range in Denzel Valentine and Paul Zipser. Payne will have his chance to score, and he is a career 38 percent 3-point shooter in limited minutes, so perhaps Hoiberg will draw up some plays to find him open looks. He's got the length to succeed defensively, but thus far his defensive metrics haven't said the same.

What to expect: Payne is different from Nwaba and Felicio in that he's been injured all year. The Bulls are going to need to progress slowly with a foot he's now broken twice. So don't expect the same type of run the other newbies will get in the rotation. But Payne is going to have the green light to shoot (it's when he's at his best) but will also be tasked with finding open shooters. He's not particularly quick with the ball and doesn't create much separation, meaning pick-and-roll/pop opportunities will be where he delivers most. Put simply, he isn't as good as Jerian Grant, and the Bulls will see a decrease in production. But he's only 23 years old and is three years removed from being a Lottery pick. It'd be unfair to dub him a bust, and this is the same Bulls management that really liked Kris Dunn. That's worked out, so maybe they have an eye for point guards.

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

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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.

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
 
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
 
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.