Gar Forman

Kris Dunn gets his biggest confidence test yet against Kyrie Irving

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USA TODAY

Kris Dunn gets his biggest confidence test yet against Kyrie Irving

The biggest difference in Kris Dunn has been the overwhelming confidence he’s played with, helping spur this new brand of Bulls basketball.

The biggest attribute Kyrie Irving has in his bag is the overwhelming ability to embarrass his opponent with his trick bag of dribble moves, quickness and tricky shots around the rim.

Safe to say, Dunn’s newfound confidence will be tested against the Celtics—one can surmise it’ll either be validated as real or doubted as some form of anomaly. Irving missed the Dec. 11 matchup with the Bulls due to injury but he’s been on a tear in the six games since.

Irving is averaging 30.2 points and 5.3 assists on 48 percent shooting and 41 percent from 3-point range. In the last eight games Dunn’s numbers represent the best sample size of his career, with 15.8 points, 8.3 assists and 4.9 rebounds on 46 percent shooting.

Dunn doesn’t deny looking forward to the matchup.

“For sure. He’s one of the best point guards in the league,” Dunn said after the Bulls beat Orlando earlier this week. “I’m a competitor, I want to compete against all the best guards.”

While the point guard position is as deep as it’s ever been in recent memory, Dunn hasn’t had to go against the top players at his position in this streak. Charlotte’s Kemba Walker is a fringe All-Star who gave the Bulls big time problems last month, scoring 47 points in a close Bulls win.

But Dunn helped hold Walker to just 5-for-16 shooting, including 3-for-10 from 3 in the streak-starting Bulls' win on Dec. 8.

Since then it’s been a who’s who of “who” opposing Dunn, which makes the matchup with Irving in Boston so interesting.

“It’s a great opportunity for Kris to see one of the best players in the game right now,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “So again (he’s) got to go out and play solid basketball, can’t go out and make it a personal one on one matchup, Kyrie Irving you’re going to have to have full team awareness, you are not going to stop him one in one; for Kris continue to go out, grow and get better but it’s a great opportunity and challenge for Kris tonight.”

Irving can score 30 in his sleep, and even a good defender like Dunn can only provide so much of a defensive challenge. One key will be watching Dunn’s body language if Irving gets it going early—the boisterous and emotional Dunn hasn’t had to tone it down during this streak so if he carries that defeated look it may not bode well for the long run.

“He’s a completely different basketball player,” Hoiberg said. “He’s confident, he’s got a swagger to him; he’s getting into the paint and making plays; he’s shooting his three at a high clip, the best of his career, so he’s doing a lot of things well. The biggest thing we always talk about with Kris is consistency in everything he s doing, offensively, defensively, and he’s again continuing to grow and get better and he still has a very high ceiling.”

It’s easy for Hoiberg to say it isn’t personal, and Dunn isn’t going to make it personal but to put up numbers or to have a positive effect on winning against a player of Irving’s caliber is what coaches want their players to have.

“Always. When you go against the best guards, you have to step your game up to a whole nother level,” Dunn said. “You know they’re gonna go out there and compete. You gotta go out there and battle against them.”

He’ll see Washington’s John Wall, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry in a four-day stretch starting Dec. 31, point men who can embarrass in different ways.

This stretch hasn’t yet put Dunn on the radar for those guys, but he’s desperate for a measure of respect.

“It’s all about the respect thing. That’s what I’m trying to play with,” Dunn said. “I still have to put a lot more work in. This NBA, it’s not easy. It’s a lot of good guards out there. I have to keep working each and every day.”

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.

Michael Reinsdorf pleased with first phase of Bulls' rebuilding process

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AP

Michael Reinsdorf pleased with first phase of Bulls' rebuilding process

Bulls COO and team president Michael Reinsdorf is rarely one to make public statements, but Friday afternoon he stated he’s pleased with the state of the Bulls rebuild to date.

With a 2-8 record following Friday’s loss to the Indiana Pacers, the Bulls own the third-worst mark in the NBA behind Atlanta and Dallas—which some would argue is right where the franchise wants itself to be.

Reinsdorf spoke at the United Center earlier in the afternoon, part of the NBA’s announcement that Chicago would be hosting NBA All-Star Weekend in 2020.

“The rebuild so far, I’m not normally the spokesperson on basketball stuff like that,” he cautioned. “We’re only a few weeks in. Lauri’s (Markkanen) playing really well. So far we’re happy. When Zach (LaVine) comes back, that’s going to be a big indication. Kris (Dunn) just came back from an injury.”

Of course, Markkanen and LaVine were the big pieces from the draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves that jump-started this process. LaVine is a couple weeks away from practicing with contact after his ACL surgery last February.

Dunn is attempting to find his way after a preseason injury cost him two weeks of playing time and development.

Markkanen, especially in the aftermath of the Nikola Mirotic-Bobby Portis altercation last month, has stepped forward and established himself as one of the NBA’s top rookies.

“We have to see, but right now, we’re happy. The team is playing really hard. Fred’s got them playing really hard,” Reinsdorf said.

It was a public endorsement of sorts of Hoiberg, who’s had to endure questions seemingly every week since being named head coach two years ago, and then had to deal with the Portis-Mirotic mess.

The Bulls have only been blown out of one game this season, a home date against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and one would think Reinsdorf is pleased with at least the effort the team is putting out.

“It’s not going unnoticed,” Reinsdorf said. “There’s certain sports writers in this city that have written actually positive articles about the way the team is playing right now. I can look to the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times, hopefully the fans will start to take notice.”

Hoiberg said he keeps in regular contact with Reinsdorf but seemed to take the compliment in stride.

“The one thing our staff is focused on is playing better,” he said.

Reinsdorf pointed to the rebuilds of other franchises in town in the hopes fans will be more accepting of what the Bulls are embarking on.

“Because we know this isn’t necessarily about wins and losses this year, but we do want to make sure the team and the players are trying their hardest to win games and giving their best effort,” Reinsdorf said. “Because that’s kind of the mentality the city of Chicago has and the fans – work hard and let’s see what happens. As far as the rebuild, the Cubs did a great job with their rebuild, the White Sox are in the midst of their rebuild, and I think the fans understand that’s kind of the nature of sports.”