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NBA Buzz: Zach LaVine is back, so now what for the rebuilding Bulls?

NBA Buzz: Zach LaVine is back, so now what for the rebuilding Bulls?

With Zach LaVine set to make his debut Saturday at the United Center against the Pistons, Bulls fans will now get a chance to watch one of the most athletic players in the league. Matter of fact, LaVine was voted the third most athletic player in the NBA as part of the annual preseason survey of general managers, even more impressive considering he was coming off ACL surgery.

LaVine joked with reporters on Tuesday that he was ready to play “two months ago,” but the reality is the Bulls have every reason to be conservative with getting him back into game action, given their past experience with Derrick Rose and the fact the franchise currently is in Year 1 of a rebuild. The front office will get a chance to gauge how LaVine fits with the rest of the players on the roster over the final 40 games, but barring another injury, it's unlikely anything LaVine does will change his status as the face of the franchise in the wake of last summer's Jimmy Butler trade.

The immediate impact of LaVine's return will be seen in the Bulls' offense. Head coach Fred Hoiberg says he started tweaking his system over the summer with LaVine's skillset in mind, and can't wait to run high pick-and-roll plays with LaVine and Lauri Markkanen to force defenses into no-win situations. Most fans are familiar with LaVine as a two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion, but he made tremendous improvement as a 3-point shooter last season in Minnesota, converting at a nearly 39-percent clip before suffering the ACL injury in early February. He's also capable of creating shots off the dribble on need possessions with his quickness and leaping ability.

LaVine will be limited to 20 minutes a game at the outset, and John Paxson made it clear there won't be any leeway for the coaching staff to go beyond that limit to get him back into a close game late. The plan is to increase LaVine's minutes slightly each week leading up to the All-Star break as his conditioning improves.

Adding a player of LaVine's talent and skill level will undoubtedly help the Bulls win some of the close games they let slip away in the first half of the season, so it's fair to wonder if we should expect more roster tweaking before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. We've seen Nikola Mirotic's name being bandied about in trade rumors nationally, and it's no secret the Bulls will listen to trade offers for the fourth-year forward, who currently leads the team in scoring.

It's also possible other veterans could be paired with Mirotic in trade discussions, including Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday and Jerian Grant. The Jazz, Trail Blazers and Pistons are among the teams reportedly showing interest in Mirotic, with contending teams like the Rockets, Celtics, Raptors and Spurs also expected to check in. With the trade deadline moved up to before the All-Star break this season, it's possible the Bulls' roster will have a much different look for the final 25 to 30 games.

Still, with LaVine back in the rotation to go along with the two other promising young players acquired in the Butler trade, Markkanen and Kris Dunn, the Bulls are likely headed to at least 25 wins this season, which probably will put them somewhere between Nos. 5 and 10 in the ranking of the NBA's worst records and corresponding lottery odds. So, they'll have to get lucky on lottery night to snatch one of the top three picks for a shot at foundation talents like Marvin Bagley, Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic and Trae Young.

No one said rebuilding is easy. Just look at teams like the Kings, 76ers, Suns, Magic, Knicks, Nets and even the mighty Lakers, who have been picking high in the draft for several years and are still struggling to make an upward move in the standings. The Bulls got a big head start on their rebuilding project by acquiring three young, high-quality starters in the Butler trade, but it looks like the next moves will be a little trickier to execute.

Around the Association

With the trade deadline now less than a month away, we're hearing more rumors about players who could be on the move. Mirotic is one of the most popular names league-wide, but he's not the only player hearing his name mentioned in trade discussions.

There's a lot of speculation right now about what the Clippers will do with veteran center DeAndre Jordan. Jordan has a player option for next season at just over $24 million, and given the fact very few teams will have cap room this summer, it's unlikely he'll be able to command a long-term deal at that salary figure on the open market. So, do the Clippers roll the dice and assume he'll opt of his contract for next season? Or do they trade him now to eliminate the risk of having Jordan walk away in free agency and get nothing in return?

The Bucks reportedly are anxious to upgrade at the center position for the playoffs, and it's possible the Cavs might put in a bid for Jordan to give them another impact defender for the expected matchup with Golden State in the Finals. Matching the money on Jordan's $22.6 million salary won't be easy for any team, but as we've learned over the years, general managers can get pretty creative on multi-team trades to land a player they really want.

The Magic have been a huge disappointment after getting off to an 8-4 start. Injuries are part of the reason for the Magic's annual collapse, but with a new front office in place, it might be time to start exploring trades for some of the young players who were supposed to be the core of a revival in Orlando, including Nic Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja.

Fournier in particular has generated a lot of interest around the league, even with two more years at $17 million, plus a player option for 2020-21 remaining on his contract. Hezonja will be a free agent this summer and could be a second-tier player the Bulls look at as an affordable wing option for next season. Payton has been a disappointment, and the Magic could look to upgrade at the point guard position in the 2018 draft with potential stars like Young and Collin Sexton expected to go in the top 10.

Who else could be dealt before Feb. 8? The Hawks currently own the league's worst record and are in full-on tank mode, so they would be happy to unload veterans like Kent Bazemore, Ersan Ilyasova and former Bull Marco Belinelli.

The Mavericks are also hoping to sink to the bottom, which means a high-priced veteran shooter like Wesley Matthews is very much available. The Grizzlies are getting surprising production from the oft-injured Tyreke Evans, but they are having a terrible season so they might look to flip the veteran swingman for a future asset.

And, let's not forget about the Lakers, who are looking to free up cap room for their summer pursuit of free agents LeBron James and Paul George. It appears no team is willing to take on the two and a half years remaining on the ridiculous four-year contract they gave Luol Deng back in the Wild West summer of 2016, but they could find a market for combo guard Jordan Clarkson (who's owed more than $25 million for the next two seasons) and young forwards Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr.

The Lakers don't own their first-round pick this year, so Magic Johnson plans to go all in on free agency, hoping to convince James or George to bring their star power to the L.A. market. But first, Magic has to whittle down the payroll, and that could make the Lakers one of the most intriguing teams to watch over the next month.

Quote of the week

Speaking of the Lakers, coach Luke Walton found himself in the crossfire as bombastic LaVar Ball held court with ESPN during his made-for-television reality show centering on his two younger sons playing professional basketball in Lithuania.

LaVar Ball told Jeff Goodman that Walton had lost the team and didn't know how to coach his oldest son, Lonzo, who was selected No. 2 overall by the Lakers in the 2017 draft.

Walton took the high road in responding to the comments, but when asked after the next game the Lakers played why he took Lonzo out so early in the first quarter, he offered this beauty: "His dad was talking s---, so I took him out early." Two seconds later he smiled and said, "Just kidding."

Or was he? Safe to say the LaVar-Lakers drama isn't going away any time soon.

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


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.

Lauri Markkanen, Lonzo Ball making rookie history as they prepare to face each other


Lauri Markkanen, Lonzo Ball making rookie history as they prepare to face each other

It'd be a stretch to say that any rookie is having a better or more impactful season than Philadelphia's Ben Simmons. The Sixers are 9-7, and Simmons looks like a 10-year veteran with his decision making, athleticism and all-around feel for the game. He's the frontrunner for MVP, but there are two other rookies vying to catch Simmons and win that title. And they'll face each other tomorrow night in Los Angeles.

Lonzo Ball was the second pick in June's NBA Draft, and fellow Pac-12 freshman standout Lauri Markkanen went five picks later to the Bulls, who had traded up as part of the Jimmy Butler trade. Both players were drafted to rebuilding franchises - the Lakers still working out the kinks in the post-Kobe era, and the Bulls beginning their rebuild after dealing Butler - and were expected to make immediate impacts on their franchises.

Ball's was more pronounced, as the Lakers dealt D'Angelo Russell to the Nets on draft night to free up space at the point for their prized No. 2 pick. Markkanen's came more abruptly, as the 20-year-old was thrust into the starting lineup after Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic's fight put Mirotic in the hospital and Portis on paid leave. However they got there, both players have been impressive in their early NBA careers.

Starting with Markkanen, the Bulls knew the 7-foot stretch forward was a perfect build for the modern NBA. He set freshman 3-point and rebounding records that, since 1992, only some guy named Kevin Durant had reached. After a successful summer in Eurobasket he was set for a large role with the Bulls, and he's succeeded in just about every aspect. His 15.6 points per game are third only to Simmons and the other Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma, and his 8.1 rebounds are second to Simmons. And his 2.6 made 3-pointers per game are most among rookies, and well past No. 2 on the list (Utah's Donovan Mitchell, 1.9 per game).

In fact, Markkanen would become the only rookie in NBA history to average at least 8.0 rebounds and 2.5 3-pointers per game. The 2.5 3-pointers would break a rookie record currently held by Damian Lillard (2.3 per game). The closest a rookie has ever come to reaching those marks was Stephen Curry, who averaged 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 3-pointers per game as a rookie. Allen Iverson also met the 4/2 threshold, but that's a far cry from Markkanen's 8/2.5 mark. Paul Pierce's rookie season saw him average 6.4 rebounds and 1.8 3-pointers.

But that's not all. If he kept those averages up he would be just the fifth player EVER to accomplish those thresholds. The others are James Harden, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and Antonie Walker, who naturally did it twice.

So, yeah, Markkanen is having quite a rookie year.

So, too, is Ball. While he's had some real issues with efficiency, slashing .313/.228/.462 and has committed 2.6 turnovers per game, his counting stats have been outstanding. Ball is averaging 8.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 7.1 assists, and that puts him in equally impressive company.

Simmons has reached those numbers this season, too, averaging 18.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.0 assists. You may have heard of the other two players, named Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson.

The two future Hall of Famers averaged these numbers:

Robertson: 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 9.7 assists (missing averaging a triple-double for the season by 20 assists)

Johnson: 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists

Ball is also averaging 0.9 blocks, and no other rookie guard has ever accomplished that. It might not always look pretty for Markkanen and Ball as they feel their way out in the NBA, but just remember watching these two that they're in the midst of making history in the new era of the NBA.