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

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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.

State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

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State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

2018 draft class is loaded at the top

Quietly, you can bet Bulls' front office executives John Paxson and Gar Forman had a little celebration after hearing that prep star Marvin Bagley III was going to graduate from high school early and enroll at Duke for the 2017-18 season, making him eligible for the 2018 draft.

Bagley, a 6'11 power forward from Los Angeles, is being compared to longtime NBA star Chris Bosh, right down to his smooth left-handed shooting touch. Bagley averaged 24.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and two blocked shots during his junior season for Sierra Canyon H.S. He's also fared well against NBA competition at the highly-regarded Drew League in L.A. this summer. Bagley’s physical tools are off the charts, and you can count on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski preparing him well for life in the NBA.

Most NBA scouts and execs expect the No. 1 overall pick to come down to either Bagley or Michael Porter Jr., who will play his one season of college basketball at Missouri. The 6'10 Porter averaged an amazing 34.8 points and 13.8 rebounds last season against Seattle high school competition. He's considered a more dynamic scorer than Bagley with more range on his jump shot. Some scouts believe he could quickly develop into one of the league's elite players with Kevin Durant-type length and shooting ability at the small forward position.

International swingman Luka Doncic is also highly coveted by NBA teams. The 6'8 swingman has excellent shooting range, and is also capable of creating his own shot with outstanding ball-handling ability. Forget the stereotype of European players being mechanical and unable to compete athletically, Doncic is capable of being an 18-20 point scorer in the NBA and should go in the top five next June. He's considered one of the best international prospects in the last decade.

Two 7-footers also will hear their names called early on draft night 2018. University of Arizona freshman DeAndre Ayton averaged 19.8 points and 12 rebounds in high school last season, while Texas freshman center Mohamed Bomba has an incredible 7-foot-9 wingspan. Sure, the NBA has moved away from the traditional low post center, but teams are still looking to acquire agile big men like Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside. Depending on how they fare against top level college competition, Ayton and Bomba could round out the top five.

Other names to watch in the lottery portion of next year's draft include Texas A&M power forward Robert Williams, Michigan State's forward duo of Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., and the latest one-and-dones from John Calipari's Kentucky program, center Nick Richards and small forward Jarred Vanderbilt.

In case you missed it, ESPN released its preseason win total expectations for the Eastern Conference on Wednesday, and the Bulls were dead last with a projected record of 26-56. Now, I'm not sure a team with veterans Dwyane Wade and Robin Lopez and the three young players acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota will be quite that bad, but if you're going to rebuild, the idea is to get the best draft pick possible, and the Bulls appear to be on course for a top-five selection depending on how the lottery falls.

If the Bulls are able to land an elite talent like Porter Jr., Bagley III or Doncic in the draft, then use their $40-50 million in cap space to land a couple of quality free agents, the rebuild might not be as painful as some fans are fearing.

Last dance for LeBron in Cleveland?

Well-connected NBA writer Chris Sheridan dropped this bomb on Twitter Wednesday, quoting an NBA source, "This will be LeBron's final season in Cleveland. He is 100 percent leaving. Relationship with owners beyond repair." Don’t forget, Sheridan was the first national writer to report James was going to leave Miami to go back to Cleveland in 2014, so his reports definitely warrant a little extra attention.

Okay, we've already heard countless rumors about James planning to join the Lakers after next season. He's built a mansion in Brentwood, is close with Magic Johnson and will be able to bring another superstar with him to L.A. like Paul George or Russell Westbrook. Plus, the Lakers have a number of talented young players in place like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. and a promising coach in Luke Walton.

Add in the likelihood Kyrie Irving will be traded before training camp opens and LeBron's long-standing poor relationship with Cavs' owner Dan Gilbert, and you have the perfect formula for another James' free agent decision next July. Although, I'm not sure why LeBron would want to go West, where Golden State is positioned to dominate the league for another five seasons, with strong challengers like the Rockets and Spurs still in place. 

But if we've learned anything from watching James over the years, he's clearly a man who wants to align the odds in his favor. So don't rule out anything when it comes to James' free agent decision. If the Cavs make a home run trade for Irving, maybe LeBron decided to plays out his career in his home state. If not, look for him to find a team with the cap space to bring in another top star to run with him.

Back in 2010, the Bulls carved out the cap space to add two max contract stars, but lost out to Pat Riley in Miami. This time around they won't be on James' July travel itinerary.

One thing we know for sure. Where LeBron plays in 2018 will be the number one story throughout the NBA season.

Bulls Talk Podcast: March is Nikola Mirotic's month

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Bulls Talk Podcast: March is Nikola Mirotic's month

On the newest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill and Vincent Goodwill talk big Bulls win over the Bucks. 

The panel breaks down Nikola Mirotic's huge performance on Sunday and history of putting together a hot March. 

Later, Kendall tells how Magic Johnson motivated James Worthy and Vincent becomes the "Love Doctor." 

Listen to the Bulls Talk Podcast below.