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NBA Buzz: 2018 brings hope for Bulls fans that rebuild could progress faster than expected

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: 2018 brings hope for Bulls fans that rebuild could progress faster than expected

With another dismal Bears season now in the books, it’s time for the return of my weekly NBA Buzz column featuring analysis on the latest news and happenings around the league.

Let’s start right here in Chicago, where the Bulls' sudden turnaround has drawn a lot of national interest. Since the return of Nikola Mirotic from the injuries he suffered in the training-camp fight with Bobby Portis, the Bulls have put together a 10-4 record, which is even more impressive since it directly followed a 10-game losing streak that dropped the Bulls to a league-worst 3-20.

So, what are we to make of the amazing change of fortunes? First of all, let’s give credit to Fred Hoiberg and his staff for remaining positive and continuing to work hard on player development during the rough start. The Bulls lost a number of close games early in the season that could have destroyed the confidence of a young team. Instead, the coaches focused on working to improve every day, which included tweaking the systems on offense and defense to better suit the talent on the roster.

Secondly, credit Mirotic and Portis for putting their differences aside to work together on the court, in the process helping the Bulls develop one of the highest-scoring second units in the NBA. Mirotic came back from nearly seven weeks of inactivity with his strength and conditioning from an intense summer of weight training surprisingly still intact. And even more significantly, his entire mental approach to the game has changed with a newfound confidence and decisiveness we didn’t see during his first three NBA seasons. Sure, 14 games is a relatively small sample size, but it appears that Mirotic finally understands what he needs to do to be successful at this level, which should ensure a long and productive NBA career.

Portis also deserves credit for adjusting so quickly to the backup center role in place of Cristiano Felicio. Portis’ ability to score in the post and step out to the 3-point line makes him a valuable commodity in the modern NBA game. And some of the best stretches of offensive basketball over the last 14 games have come with Portis and Mirotic on the floor together, which no one would have predicted after their fight two days before the season opener.

The other major factor in the Bulls' turnaround has been the play of second-year point guard Kris Dunn. Since taking over as the starter, Dunn’s confidence and play-making ability has returned to the level he displayed as an All American at Providence. The 6-foot-4 guard has emerged as the Bulls’ closer, ready and willing to take the big shot down the stretch in close games. Sure, he’s had some failures, including Monday night in overtime against Portland, but Dunn’s emergence as a potential high-level point guard is probably the most significant story from the 2017 portion of the season.

So, what does 2018 hold? A lot depends on which direction the front office decides to go leading up to the trade deadline in early February. If John Paxson and Gar Forman decide to trade Mirotic, Robin Lopez and/or other rotation players in hopes of improving their chances in the draft lottery, the wins will come less frequently. Paxson told reporters the night of the Jimmy Butler trade the Bulls would be patient in the rebuilding process and focus on improving through the draft. That leads me to believe the Bulls will sacrifice some short-term success for a better shot at one of the potentially franchise-changing talents at the top of the 2018 draft.

Bulls fans can also look forward to the return of dynamic shooting guard Zach LaVine in the next couple weeks. The two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion is in the final stages of his rehab from ACL surgery last February, and his return will give the Bulls' coaches another athletic wing who can create his own shot in close games. Don’t forget, LaVine was averaging nearly 19 points a game and shooting 39 percent from the 3-point line when he was hurt last season, and despite the injury, NBA general managers voted him the third most athletic player in the league in the annual preseason survey. The 22-year-old LaVine was the centerpiece of the Butler trade, and you can count on the Bulls signing him to a long-term contract this summer with hopes of future All-Star appearances.

Bottom line, 2018 offers Bulls fans some exciting possibilities and hope for the future. It’s no longer just about trying to "secure the Bagley" or "lose every quarter for Porter." The Bulls have already identified three foundation pieces in LaVine, Dunn and rookie Lauri Markkanen, plus some useful role players in Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine, Portis and Jerian Grant. And they should get a high-quality player in the draft, with ample cap room to spend in free agency in July. With a little luck in the lottery, the Bulls rebuild could progress a lot faster than most people expected.

Around the Association

Tuesday marks the return of All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas from a serious hip injury suffered during last season’s playoffs. Thomas finished third in the NBA scoring race a year ago, averaging 29 points a game on the way to leading Boston to the Eastern Conference Finals. But despite his heroic play, Danny Ainge decided to trade Thomas to Cleveland as part of a package to acquire arguably one of the top 10 players in the league, Kyrie Irving.

How the ball-dominant Thomas fits with LeBron James will be one of the most intriguing storylines of 2018. James is the de facto point guard for the Cavs. The ball is always in his hands with the game on the line. Irving chafed at being asked to go stand in the corner and space the floor for James, and my guess is Thomas won’t be thrilled with that role either. Adding to the drama is the fact Thomas will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, anxious to show the other 29 teams that he’s fully recovered from his hip injury and worthy of a max contract in a year when very few teams have significant cap space.

The James-Thomas-Kevin Love experiment could provide the Cavs with the additional firepower they need to dethrone Golden State in June. But if it fails, James and Thomas could be looking for greener pastures in July, sending the Cavs into rebuild mode.

Speaking of which, did you see the Lakers held a team meeting last week, giving players the chance to air out their grievances? The Lakers have done a nice job of accumulating talented young players through the draft, including Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. But apparently, some of the young guys are looking over their shoulders with all the media reports Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson is looking to make a hard push to sign James and Paul George as free agents this summer.

A couple of those young players might be traded elsewhere to free up cap space, and Randle in particular has been unhappy with the erratic playing time he’s been given lately by head coach Luke Walton. Meanwhile, Los Angeles has been sinking towards the bottom of the Western Conference standings after a solid start, and they won’t have a first-round pick this year because of a previous trade. We know Johnson is popular with current NBA players and has a ton of charisma, but if he can’t convince James or George to come to L.A. this summer, the return of the Lakers to contending status might turn out to be fake news.

Finally, NBA fans have been treated to another exciting rookie class for 2017-18. Bulls fans have enjoyed the sweet-shooting stroke and better-than-advertised athleticism of the 20-year-old Markkanen. He could be a future All Star in the East.

Utah guard Donovan Mitchell has been drawing rave reviews at every NBA stop with his spectacular dunks and 3-point shooting range, and the same can be said for Kuzma, who looks like the steal of the draft as a late first-round selection the Lakers acquired in the D’Angelo Russell trade with Brooklyn.

Jayson Tatum has been a Day 1 starter for a championship-contending team in Boston, ranking among the league leaders in 3-point field-goal percentage. Dennis Smith Jr. is sparking a recent upswing by the Mavericks with his off-the-charts athleticism and play-making ability. Ball gets a lot of unfair criticism because of his father’s antics, but he looks like the type of point guard who can make his teammates better in the Jason Kidd mold. Former Indiana Hoosiers star O.G. Anunoby has come back strong from knee surgery and is showing off his two-way skills as the starting small forward for a very good Toronto team.

Add in the exciting potential of high lottery picks Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox and Frank Ntilikina, and you can see why the NBA is in such a good place right now with probably more talented players under the age of 25 than we’ve seen in the long history of the league.

Quote of the Week

I mentioned the stunning transformation of Mirotic's confidence level. That confidence has also carried over to his postgame interview sessions, where he now routinely refers to himself in the third person and isn’t afraid to detail all his accomplishments. Here’s what Mirotic had to say after knocking down eight of 16 3-point attempts in last Friday's win over Indiana.

“My son actually told me before the game, ‘Daddy, I want you to make five 3s.’ I told him I will try. I can’t promise. But I made eight actually. So I’m sure he’s very happy. And he was at the game, too.”

Keep going Niko. Keep going.

Easy win and a big statement as Bulls pick up seventh straight win

Easy win and a big statement as Bulls pick up seventh straight win

Here's the observations from the Bulls' 112-94 win over the Orlando Magic, Wednesday at the United Center.

Grand opening, grand closing: This one was over before it started as the Bulls jumped on a disinterested Magic team from the beginning with a 12-0 start and had Magic coach Frank Vogel disgusted early.

With Cleveland ahead on Thursday and coming off Monday’s thrilling win over the 76ers, Wednesday’s game was a trap game of sorts but the Bulls took matters seriously early.

“The start was key. We wanted to get out the gates,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It’s not the easiest thing to do is put that (Philadelphia) behind you, move onto the next. I was really pleased.”

Now, it helped the Magic looked as if they had one night too many on Rush Street in their three-day stay in Chicago, but the Bulls’ ball movement was crisp and it led to a season-high 31 assists as the Bulls got a combined 28 points and 13 assists from Kris Dunn and Jerian Grant.

It looked like the actual manifestation of Hoiberg’s offensive vision, even if the Bulls hit just 11 of 33 3-pointers. It was the spirit in which they moved the ball, leading to them taking a 30-point lead in the fourth quarter. As opposed to going through the motions, as they appeared to do to start the season, they now have purpose with ball movement.

They actually know where they’re going and what they want to do.

As much of a punching bag as he’s been through his time in Chicago, Hoiberg deserves credit for that.

For the way this team has stuck together through adversity of all kinds, they’ve seemed to take on Hoiberg’s demeanor through this phase.

He’s stressed the importance of ball movement and with six players in double figures, there’s no talk or worry about him losing this team.

“Justin (Holiday) had a great pass, we spread it to the corner and we had a ‘good to great play’ as we call it, where Justin had a good shot but he gave Denzel a great shot in an open corner three,” Hoiberg said.

For once, he can sleep easy in December.

Dunn and Valentine: In the way of player development, two of Hoiberg’s biggest successes have to come in the form of Dunn and Denzel Valentine.

Dunn has continued his torrid play with another stat-filling performance, scoring 15 with seven assists, six rebounds and three steals in 24 minutes. As for Dunn, he was averaging 16.8 points, 7.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2.3 steals during the streak headed into Wednesday’s game.

He didn’t make the highlight plays, instead he took advantage of a lax defense, often finding Robin Lopez inside for easy, simple opportunities.

“The chemistry is good, positive energy,” Dunn said. “Executing well. Offensively, we’re starting to get more together.”

The Bulls have given him a mix of freedom and structure, and he’s responded in waves. He doesn’t hold onto the ball long before making some kind of movement and isn’t afraid to kick it out ahead to Holiday or Valentine to allow them to make plays.

“They’re making better reads in the offense, doing a much better job,” Hoiberg said. “So when you cut, and move, and understand where guys are going to be, that’s a big part of it and we’re getting a lot better shots.”

Valentine had arguably his most complete game of the year with 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, along with a game-high plus-minus of +24.

When Zach LaVine comes back, one wonders where Valentine will fit in the starting unit or in the rotation completely. But placing Valentine at small forward in the meantime, both have made the best of things.

Valentine is seeing the floor better and shooting 38 percent from 3-point range. He made three of four Wednesday. And when given a chance to make plays, those passes finally hit the mark, none prettier than his no-look pass on the break to Nikola Mirotic for a lefty layup.
Of course, Valentine is a confident kid and offered up this gem about where this team sits with its winning streak.

“I just think, with our whole team back now, I think we’re one of the best teams in the East because of our matchups,” Valentine said. “We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of things. I know we started off bad, but I think we’re one of the better teams in the East.”

Alrighty, then!

Markkanen not all the way back yet: Lauri Markkanen didn’t look like his usual self in his second game back from back spasms. On one hand, he was just three of 10 and missed all four of his 3-point shots in 19 minutes.

On the other, he and the Bulls recognized the natural mismatch of the Magic putting 6-foot-8 Mario Hezonja on Markkanen, and he hit two mid-range shots by positioning himself near the basket and shooting over the top of the smaller defender.

“We are being careful with Lauri right now,” Hoiberg said. “But he feels great, felt better today than he did against Philadelphia. He just looks a little off balance, so we’ll get back to work on that and fix a little with his mechanics. He’ll get it back, I have no concern with that.”

Luckily, power forward is his deepest position so Mirotic and Bobby Portis again did their work off the bench. Mirotic had 15 and 10 rebounds while Portis scored 14 with five rebounds in just 14 minutes of run.

Honesty: The Magic are terrible and the Bulls took advantage of a struggling team the way they were supposed to.

And LeBron James and the Cavaliers are waiting, along with the Boston Celtics on Saturday.

It’s likely the streak will end and another one of a different kind will begin, an expected streak against the conference leaders of the East.

But it doesn’t mean Hoiberg hasn’t relished the experience or recognized the change in the tone surrounding his team—especially in their own building.

“Our fans have been unbelievable,” Hoiberg said. “That game against Philly, it was absolutely rocking in here. It was a lot of fun, great experience for a lot of our guys to play in that type of environment. Following it up with a great crowd tonight. We really appreciate everything our fans have brought to us, they’ve been awesome this year.”

Cavaliers happy to offer support upon Derrick Rose's return to the team

Cavaliers happy to offer support upon Derrick Rose's return to the team

Derrick Rose isn’t with the Cleveland Cavaliers in Chicago, but after his time away from the team where he contemplated his future, he’s rejoined the fold.

Cavaliers coach Ty Lue said Rose is “too young and too talented” to give up his career so quickly and said the team will be happy to have him back. Rose is in Cleveland rehabbing from the sprained ankle he suffered a few weeks ago. The injury was the first link in the chain of events that led to him stepping away.

Well, the real first chain was Rose tearing his ACL in 2012 while a member of the Bulls, setting off a series of starts and restarts, steps and missteps, while not being able to reclaim his MVP form of 2011.

It’s clear the situation has weighed on Rose in the time since, and the Cavaliers are all trying to be supportive given his myriad injuries, as he's probably two weeks away from hitting the floor again.

“Whatever he needs. From coaches, from the organization, from the players,” Lue said. “We’re here for him, and we’ve always been here for him since Day 1.”

Many believed joining a team headlined by LeBron James would be the best environment for Rose, a pressure-free space considering the Cavaliers have made the NBA Finals each of the last three years and are heavy favorites to qualify for a fourth straight year.

With a deep team, there would be little asked of Rose, especially with Isaiah Thomas scheduled to make his Cavaliers debut in a few weeks. The thought was he could play his game off the bench without the wear and tear that comes with having to play 35 minutes a night.

But everything with the former MVP has been a mystery, and he went through a similar instance last year with the Knicks where he disappeared before a game without contacting anyone from the franchise.

This time, at least, he notified the Cavaliers of his plans to step away.

“It’s impossible. None of us can understand what someone is going through,” James said. “You just don’t know. We support him in whatever he’s going through, and we’re going to be a shield for him if he wants to use us. Hopefully he wants to use us. And just try to keep his mind on basketball and try to help him with everything else.”

James said he hasn’t had any contact with Rose since Rose left the Cavaliers more than two weeks ago. Rose is averaging 14.3 points in 26.9 minutes a game for the Cavaliers, who have gone on an 11-game winning streak after starting 5-7.

“I’m sure he’s going to have a conversation with guys,” Dwyane Wade said. “That’s the way it goes in this league when most guys have their moment where they talk to the team and say the things they need to say.

“And then the team moves on. As we said early on, we understand. I’m sure we’ve all had a point where we’ve all been overly frustrated about different things in this game, injuries or playing time or roles. Sometimes you need to get away.”