Kris Dunn

The main takeaways from John Paxson’s news conference

The main takeaways from John Paxson’s news conference

He hated the tanking but deemed it necessary: The last six weeks of this season was a desperate, ugly slog meant to mitigate the exhilarating 14-7 stretch that revitalized the season.

However, that stretch came at a cost as the Bulls had to stay focused on their long-term objectives; getting the best pick possible in this coming June’s draft, evaluating young players and keeping costs down for the future.

It didn’t mean, though, that the finish was something easy for Bulls Executive-Vice President Paxson to stomach, even if it was for the greater good.

“We did this year what we felt was in the longterm best interests of the Bulls,” Paxson said. “It’s not a situation that any of us want to ever be in again; it goes against everything as a competitive person that you believe in; but it’s the way the system is set up.”

The Bulls are tied for seventh-worst odds with the Sacramento Kings, and the coin flip to determine who gets the upper hand in the lottery will be tomorrow. The system is undergoing minor changes next season, and perhaps full-fledged lottery reform is on the way.

But if it isn’t, one has to wonder if the Bulls will be in a similar position 12 months from now. Paxson doesn’t envision he’ll be addressing this issue, though.

“We feel we went about it the right way; our intentions were to see what we had and develop our young guys,” Paxson said. “But we didn’t ever want to ever be in this position again and honestly I don’t think we will and I think next year if we stay healthy.”

The Zach LaVine situation will be tricky: By the time LaVine heads into restricted free agency this summer, he’ll be 17 months removed from ACL surgery and not a strong sample size since to make teams throw max money at him.

Then again, it only takes one team among the usual suspects with cap space: Sacramento, Dallas, Atlanta and Philadelphia, among others. The Bulls haven’t traditionally thrown money at their restricted free agents so it’s not hard to see a standoff on the horizon.

He’ll want a max contract; The Bulls’ first offer will certainly not be that. But it’s hard to see the Bulls taking a pass on matching a market-based deal, even before it gets to the offer-sheet stage.

“Well, the market dictates a lot and how things go,” Paxson said. “I think the market has tightened up a little bit the last couple years since the (salary cap) spike. But we obviously value Zach a lot, and we think he’s a part of our future, but he has the opportunity to explore things.”

Speaking of LaVine: Paxson reiterated several times he’s seen how recoveries from ACL injuries go, given the organization’s experience with Derrick Rose and his initial ACL tear in 2012.

So while they understood LaVine’s performance wasn’t going to be indicative of what he can truly develop into, Paxson is expecting more from the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade that jump-started all of this.

“We need---and I mentioned this to our team after Fred spoke to them last night---Zach LaVine to be a better basketball player,” Paxson said. “We need him to have a great summer.”

LaVine played 24 games and Paxson said there were things he liked in that sample. But while he mentioned others in the way of internal improvement like Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis, it was clear his initial message was aimed at LaVine becoming a more complete player before the start of next season.

“We knew he wasn’t going to play for us right away and we knew we were going to get him back at some point, but I think he answered some questions for us,” Paxson said. “He had some really good moments, but he has a ways to go, but again that’s his responsibility to work and become a better player.”

Pleased with Hoiberg: Fred Hoiberg’s first two years were littered with questions at various times surrounding his job security and aptitude for the high-pressure, high-stress cauldron of NBA coaching. So while it wasn’t a surprise to hear Paxson confirm Hoiberg would return to start his fourth season, he elaborated on the type of team best-suited for Hoiberg’s style.

It wasn’t an intentional shot from Paxson but the inference was clear: Younger teams are better for him.

“I think Fred just kind of got his feet underneath him more this year,” Paxson said. “This group, the way he wants to play, pushing the basketball. Just from my observations watching practices and games, you could see that comfort level.”

Will this experience bode better for Hoiberg when this team’s talent level begins to turn the corner? Paxson wasn’t asked that directly but there’s not many young teams that actually win much—especially if there’s no unicorn capable of lifting all tides.

“I think every year as a coach you gain experience and you learn things,” Paxson said. “So I’m sure you’ve talked to Fred about what he’s learned over this year as opposed to last year. Again, I thought Fred and our staff did a tremendous job of keeping our group together.”

It wasn’t an easy task, especially after the Bobby Portis-Nikola Mirotic incident and subsequent 3-20 start; Some of the roster changes management wanted to see implemented in the last six weeks and the general upheaval of the roster considering there was little continuity with new players coming in and out of the lineup.

“I know Fred enjoyed coaching this group,” Paxson said. “I think this you go back to last summer. Fred and our guys set the tone when our guys came back and they just had the everyday attitude of working. That needs to carry over and it will. Our guys need to continue to buy in which we believe they will.”

Overselling? Not quite: The general thought about the Bulls revolves around a belief that with two first-round draft picks in a deep class, the Bulls should be back in playoff contention in short order.

Whether it was a tacit acknowledgement of the gaffes Gar Forman has made at times or merely wanting to keep expectations at a modest level, Paxson would not get himself caught up hyping the sum of the parts.

Teams like Philadelphia and Boston are set up for the long run if LeBron James leaves Cleveland and heads west. The Bulls have the salary cap space to do some things but Paxson was pragmatic about not being too hasty.

“I don’t know how far away that is. You never know what other teams are going to do but all we can do is worry about ourselves,” Paxson said. “When we went on the path that we did last summer, we’re not just going to go out and try and sign some older players that fill a need. We have to remain patient and discipline in the approach we have.”

The expectation is to play more competitive basketball this time next season and if it results in the playoffs, he won’t turn his nose at it.

“We’re going to be a better basketball team. And we’re going to be young, we’re going to be athletic, we’re going to be more skilled,” he said. “And for coaches and players, their goal has to be every year to be as good as they can be. Be a playoff team, be whatever you can be.”

Three pieces/Markkanen: The timeline of injuries and organizational objectives interfered with the Bulls being able to see Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn all on the floor at the same time.

He didn’t duck the belief someone would have to emerge among the three, but stated if they all make the expected improvements this offseason, it’ll be a problem he’s glad to have.

“That’s one thing we have to find out,” Paxson said. “That was part of the deal when we made it. We need to find out how those guys play together. That’s why I said this summer is important. We need them all healthy so we can have a good training camp and find a way to get them playing the right way together.”

Paxson would hedge and watch himself on a lot of things, but Markkanen seemed to be the exception. Calling Markkanen a “cornerstone”, he’s excited about the strides Markkanen can make with a summer in Chicago or at least under the guidance of the Bulls’ strength and conditioning coaches.

“We loved him in the draft, obviously, but we didn’t know what we had,” he said. “I’m incredibly impressed with the poise he plays with. He rarely gets outside of himself. But Lauri, like Zach and Kris Dunn and all our guys, he has so much room to grow.”

The expectations for a significant jump next season appear to be as high for Markkanen as it is for LaVine.

“With his size and his ability to shoot the ball, he should be able to get in areas on the floor where he can really dominate a game,” Paxson said. “He’s a young man and just one year in the league, but he at least from my seat, he exceeded expectations. So yeah, we’re lucky. We feel very lucky he was part of that deal we made last summer.”

How do Bulls evaluate Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine?

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How do Bulls evaluate Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine?

With Monday's expected news that Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn won't play in any more games for the Bulls this season, the coaching staff and front office now have to make an evaluation of their play based on a much smaller sample size than they would have preferred.

Dunn played in 52 games, averaging 13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 6 assists, while LaVine was limited to just 24 games, averaging 16.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3 assists. Even more concerning was the lack of extended court time together, with Dunn playing his best basketball while LaVine was still in rehab mode following ACL surgery in February of 2017.

So, as the decision makers look ahead to an important off-season, what do they really know about the two players (along with Lauri Markkanen) acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota last summer? Has Dunn established himself as the long term answer at point guard, and is LaVine worthy of a long-term contract commitment?

The decision on Dunn's future is probably easier to make. He established himself as a high quality defender (fourth in the NBA in steals), with better than expected shooting range. Dunn also showed the willingness to take big shots late in close games and his positional size allowed him to score over smaller point guards in isolation sets. The biggest issue he faces going forward is a high turnover rate (2.9 per game), reducing his assist to turnover ratio to a pedestrian 2.1.

Has Dunn showed enough to let John Paxson and Gar Forman pass on highly regarded college point guard prospects Collin Sexton and Trae Young if one or both are still on the board when the Bulls are on the clock? Again, the answer is probably yes, especially considering the Bulls also have back-up point guards Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne under contract for next season.

At 6'4", Dunn could certainly handle the defensive responsibilities playing alongside a smaller point guard like Sexton or Young, but it's more likely the Bulls would use their top 10 pick on a small forward prospect like Mikal or Miles Bridges.

The LaVine situation is a lot trickier, especially considering he's heading into restricted free agency. Paxson has said consistently the Bulls plan to re-sign LaVine this summer, but at what cost?

Since the Bulls hold LaVine's Bird rights after the trade with Minnesota, LaVine would be eligible for a five year max contract at around $146 million, depending on where the cap is set in July. The Bulls could try to sign LaVine at a lower total package or for fewer years, and they also have the option of letting Zach and his agent shop the market for an offer sheet the Bulls could match.

Washington used that strategy with Otto Porter last summer, and wound up matching a Brooklyn Nets offer sheet for four years at around $106 million. Porter is a good player, but hardly worth that kind of contract, and the Bulls could be in the same position if they let another team set the market. The one advantage the Bulls do have is because so few teams have money available to offer a max contract this summer, it's unlikely any franchise would want to tie up its dollars on a restricted free agent they're unlikely to get.

Still, Paxson and Forman have to evaluate what LaVine's ceiling could be. Will LaVine make a big jump in his second year following knee surgery and become an Eastern Conference All-Star or is he a high volume scorer who needs the ball in his hands to be successful and sometimes drifts on defense?

LaVine showed flashes of his pre-knee injury form during his 24 games this season, especially in his first game against his former team. LaVine scored a season-high 35 points and out-dueled Butler down the stretch in a 114-113 Bulls’ win at the United Center. The explosiveness and leaping ability is still there, and you'd have to expect he'll be a more efficient player next season with a full summer and training camp under his belt.

LaVine admitted as much to me in a recent interview, saying, "You've got to work to improve your game each summer. I think that's where NBA players make the biggest jump is in the off-season. You get your experience through the season, you build on what you want, and you go back and evaluate it. Me personally, that's where I put a lot of my work in. Obviously, last year, I didn't get a summer so I'm really looking forward to it. Me and Kris talk all the time, this is going to be a big summer, we're going to make a big jump, there's not going to be any messin' around. We're going to go to work."

Best guess here is that the Bulls will offer LaVine a long term contract at less than max value, and if the two sides can't reach an agreement, LaVine could sign a two or three year deal and then re-visit the market as an unrestricted free agent with more teams willing and able to join in the bidding.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

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With the Bulls winning back to back games against the Magic and Wizards, it looks like they'll need some lottery magic to move up from their current eighth position in the reverse standings. Matter of fact, there's a decent chance the Knicks might catch or pass the Bulls before we hit the finish line.

If the Bulls stay at number eight, their choices will likely come down to one of the point guards we mentioned earlier, Duke big man Wendell Carter or small forwards Mikal Bridges of Villanova and Miles Bridges of Michigan State. Mikal Bridges fits the mold of the "3 & D" small forward that would mesh nicely with the team the Bulls are building. Mikal Bridges is 6"7" with a 7'2" wingspan, and he plays the point on Villanova's trapping defense. It wouldn't be a franchise-changing addition like some of the prospects at the top of the draft, but remember this year's rookie sensation, Donovan Mitchell, was the 13th pick last June.

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Don't look now, but the New Orleans Pelicans are crashing back to earth. Anthony Davis is one of the top five players in the league, but even he can only carry a team so far. New Orleans went 0-for-4 during a brutal stretch of games against Houston, Cleveland, Portland and Oklahoma City. In the process, the Pelicans have dropped to eighth in the West, just one game ahead of Denver.

The Bulls own New Orleans' first round pick as a result of the Niko Mirotic trade, so they'll be rooting for the Pelicans to fall into the lottery over the final week of the season. Owning two lottery picks might give Paxson and Forman enough ammunition to move up a few spots in the top 10 if a player they really like starts to slip.

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That player might just be Michigan State big man Jaren Jackson Jr., who formally applied for the draft on Monday. Jackson Jr. had an inconsistent freshman season because of foul trouble that limited his playing time, but some scouts believe he's the ideal "stretch 5" with his ability to protect the rim and shooting range out to the 3 point line.

In this era of perimeter-oriented play, we could see five players 6'10" or taller go in the top six picks with Jackson Jr., Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Mohamed Bamba and Michael Porter Jr. joining international prospect Luka Doncic, a 6’8” combo guard.

If a point-guard needy team like Orlando decides to reach for Sexton or Young, one of the elite bigs could fall to the Bulls. At least, that's what Gar and Pax are hoping.

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Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside has had issues in the past because of a poor attitude, and he took that to a new level on Saturday after a one point overtime loss to Brooklyn. Whiteside didn't play over the final 21 minutes because Heat coach Erik Spoelstra decided to go with a smaller line-up. Which led to these comments post-game from Whiteside about Spoelstra choosing to match up, "It's annoying. We shouldn't. Why are we matching up? We've got one of the best centers in the league. Why are we matching up?

A lot of teams don't have a good center. They are going to use their strengths. It's (B.S.). It's really (B.S.) man. There are a lot of teams that can use a center. That's one of them. That's (B.S.)."

The Heat fined Whiteside an undisclosed amount for conduct detrimental to the team. Spoelstra insists the issue is behind them, but he did offer this interesting take on how Whiteside could let him know he's unhappy, "Guys want to throw a few eggs after the game or TP my house, that's actually a better way to deal with it than speaking to [the media] about the frustrations."

Wouldn't you love to see a 7-foot center toilet-papering the head coach's house? Talk about your viral videos!

 

Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn shut down for last five Bulls games

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Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn shut down for last five Bulls games

In what was an expected development, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn have been shut down for the remaining five games this season.

While the Bulls say the two have made progress from their respective injuries—LaVine with knee tendonitis and Dunn with a toe injury—neither has made enough improvement to get in proper condition to play over the next week and a half.

And with the Bulls trying to improve their lottery positioning, there’s no rush in putting either on the floor. There’s very little to gain and it seems clear the Bulls have seen what they’ve needed to from both to feel comfortable moving forward into the offseason.

LaVine finishes his season with 25 games played, averaging 16.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 27.3 minutes, as he didn’t make his debut from ACL surgery until January.

Dunn showed some signs as a potential closer, helping engineer the Bulls’ best stretch of the season in mid-December and averaged 13.4 points, 6.0 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals. His progress was cut short by a recovery from a concussion he suffered against Golden State on Jan. 17.

“They've both individually had big games for us,” Robin Lopez said. “I love the mentality.”

Lopez points out, though, including Lauri Markkanen, there was never a signature game or period where the trio all played at the same level. LaVine’s peaks came when Dunn was out and vice-versa.

“I don't think there was any point where Lauri, Zach and Kris were ever at their own peak when they were playing together,” Lopez said. “That's a tantalizing aspect that we haven't even seen yet.”

It’s a question that’s yet to be answered headed into the draft and free agency this summer, how effective can they be together.

“I’m excited about next year with those two guys for the fact that when we were playing our best stretch of basketball this season, Zach had come back,” Fred Hoiberg said. “He was playing about 20 minutes when he first got back. We won those first two games where we had him playing some of our best basketball. I wish we could’ve kept that going.”

“We just weren’t able to see exactly what that would’ve looked like when we were playing our best basketball. I’m excited. It’s going to take a lot of work in the offseason to get that chemistry right.”