Mark Schanowski

NBA Buzz: Summer League ends with mixed reviews

NBA Buzz: Summer League ends with mixed reviews

Anyone who spends eight or nine days in Las Vegas generally has a lot of stories to tell. Some good, some bad, but generally an experience they’ll never forget.

Which is pretty much the case for the Summer League Bulls, who returned to Chicago with a 2-3 record, but a much greater understanding of what it will take to be successful in the NBA.

Rookie point guard Coby White took the wildest rollercoaster ride, shooting just 34 percent from the field and a hard to fathom 3-for-30 from the longer NBA 3-point line. Hey, no one said playing point guard in the pros is easy! Still, White showed noticeable improvement in his decision-making as Summer League wore on, dishing out eight assists in the finale against Orlando. The 19-year-old White said going into the tournament that the biggest challenge he would face is learning how to adjust his pace, and not go 100 miles per hour at all times. And, Bulls’ fans will remember Derrick Rose had similar issues when he played in Summer league back in 2008.

Through his five games in Vegas, White showed better recognition on pick and roll coverage and did a better job of limiting turnovers in the last game he played. The former North Carolina star figures to come off the bench as a rookie and his speed will give the second unit a completely different look. White has the ability to get by an initial defender, forcing help from bigger players in the paint. After a full training camp and preseason schedule, the rookie should have more success kicking out to proven shooters like Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. instead of a group of NBA hopefuls thrown together with almost no practice to develop some chemistry. That in itself will lead to a better assist/turnover ratio than what we saw in Vegas.

Similarly, you can bet White will spend the rest of the summer in the gym working on his 3-point shooting. At almost 6-foot-5, White’s ability to play both guard positions was one of the things that appealed to the Bulls’ front office and his shooting stroke in college suggested he could be effective as a spot up option. As my colleague Mark Strotman wrote, White simply joins a long list of accomplished NBA point guards who struggled to shoot the 3-ball in Summer League. He should be just fine with more reps.

Second-round pick Daniel Gafford earned almost universal praise for his work in Summer League. The former University of Arkansas center averaged almost 14 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocked shots over his 5 games in Vegas, showing a physicality and understanding of the pick-and-roll game that could earn him minutes playing behind Wendell Carter Jr. as a rookie. As Bulls’ Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson noted at the 2019 rookie introductory news conference, Gafford has a unique understanding of who he is as a player and tries to go to his strengths to maximize effectiveness.

What that meant in Vegas was outrunning opposing big men down the court for easy baskets in transition, setting hard screens on pick and roll plays, and rolling decisively to the basket looking for return passes that he could power home at the rim. Sure, it would be great if Gafford could pop out like Al Horford and knock down an 18-foot jumper, but that’s just not his game right now. Gafford has a few low post moves he can go to when needed, but initially he’ll just be asked to play hard, rebound and block shots, and occasionally roll to the hoop for a momentum shifting dunk.

Head coach Jim Boylen will have a number of options at center with Luke Kornet providing 3-point shooting and Markkanen expected to play the 5 spot in certain line-ups. Gafford could wind up playing a lot of games for the Windy City Bulls this season, but the fact the Bulls signed him to a four-year contract suggests they see him as a long-term fit.

As for the rest of the Summer League crew, Chandler Hutchison played better as the tournament went on, showing an aggressive mentality in going strong to the basket. Hutchison told reporters he just recently returned to fullcourt games after missing the second half of his rookie season with a broken foot, so it was understandable he had to work off some rust. Still, his ability to run the court should fit in well with White’s speed and Denzel Valentine’s 3-point shooting on the second unit. Veteran free agent Thaddeus Young is also expected to play with the reserve group to provide some stability.

Two-way wing player Adam Mokoka and Windy City Bulls’ swingman Mychal Mulder looked good at times during the Summer League circuit, and both figure to be on the practice court when training camp opens in late September at the Advocate Center.

Around the Association

In case you missed it, Las Vegas sports books are posting their over/under win totals for the 2019-20 season, with the Bulls checking in at 30.5. I’m sure you all remember I was the guy saying it was a lock they would surpass the 28.5 betting line for last season, so I’m going to stay away from offering any wagering advice this time around!

On paper, the Bulls look good enough to top 30.5, but it’s impossible to predict the kind of injuries that destroyed their season last October. The hope is with a healthy core group and the additions of White, Gafford, Kornet, Young and Tomas Satoransky, the Bulls will be a deeper and much more talented team for the upcoming season.

But then every other lottery team in the East (with the exception of the Hornets and Wizards) also figures to be better, so it’s difficult to project win totals.

That’s why they call it gambling!

Now that the transaction madness has finally slowed down, it appears the NBA will be more wide open than at any time this century. The 2014-15 season began without a clear-cut favorite after LeBron left Miami to go back home to Cleveland, but that’s when the “Splash Brothers” tandem of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, along with Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala quickly established themselves as the league’s new power team. The 2019-20 campaign could feature as many as 10 teams entering training camp with the belief they could win a championship if a few things break their way.

Milwaukee and Philadelphia appear to be the class of the East, with the Celtics and Raptors a couple notches below. The 76ers just handed out another max contract on Monday, this time to All-Star point man Ben Simmons, who still needs to add a reliable jump shot and more consistent free throw shooting to his otherwise impressive skill set. Joel Embiid is one of the best big men in the game, and adding Horford and Josh Richardson gives the Sixers a talented starting line-up, but if the man with the ball in his hands (Simmons) can’t be counted on at crunch-time, can Philadelphia make a serious run at the title? We’ll have to wait until next spring to get the answer to that question.

Out west, the race for conference supremacy figures to include both L.A. teams, Denver, Houston, Utah, Portland and maybe even the Warriors if D’Angelo Russell proves to be a capable replacement for Thompson until the veteran sharp-shooter is ready to return from the ACL injury he suffered in the Finals. The Clippers have the highest over/under total in Vegas at 54.5, with the Lakers next at 51.5.

Doc Rivers will have his best roster yet with L.A.’s “other” team after acquiring both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two superstar forwards in their prime. The Clippers also re-signed feisty point guard Patrick Beverley and will have one of the league’s best benches, featuring top sixth man Lou Williams, productive big man Montrezl Harrell and forwards Mo Harkless, Wilson Chandler and JaMychal Green. But the Lakers quickly pivoted after losing Leonard to the Clips and signed veterans Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, DeMarcus Cousins, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Quinn Cook, Jared Dudley and Troy Daniels. It will be crazy watching the Staples Center co-tenants battle it out all season long.

Don’t forget Denver finished with the West’s second-best record last season behind the young trio of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, then added Jerami Grant to team with Paul Millsap at power forward. Plus, the Nuggets are looking forward to unveiling 2018 lottery pick Michael Porter Jr., who was supposed to play in Summer League after rehabbing from back surgery, only to suffer a sprained knee.

Houston general manager Daryl Morey made another bold move, sending a pair of future first-round draft picks along with aging point guard Chris Paul to Oklahoma City for Mr. Triple Double, Russell Westbrook. It will be fascinating to see how a pair of ball-dominant, stat-hungry guards like Westbrook and James Harden co-exist, but one thing we know for sure, it won’t be boring! Morey knew the chances of winning a conference title with Paul and Harden had pretty much disappeared after back to back playoff losses to the Warriors, but only time will tell if the team is any better now with Westbrook in the co-star role.

Many NBA analysts believe the Jazz are in position to win the conference title after trading for talented veteran point guard Mike Conley and then signing former Indiana 3-point specialist Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency. Utah now has a starting five of Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Conley, Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles, with Ed Davis, Jeff Green, Royce O’Neale, Emmanuel Mudiay and Dante Exum in reserve. Quin Snyder has his most talented team yet in Salt Lake City.

Portland returns the dynamic back-court duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and the Trail Blazers swung a deal with Atlanta to bring in Kent Bazemore to share the small forward spot with Rodney Hood. They also brought in enigmatic center Hassan Whiteside to hold down the post until Jusuf Nurkic returns from the serious leg fracture he suffered in the playoffs, and third-year big Zach Collins looks poised for a breakout season.

So, as the NBA heads into its “quiet season” over the next couple months (with the exception of the upcoming World Cup), basketball fans can look forward to the most compelling conference races we’ve seen in a long time.

 

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NBA Buzz: Where do Bulls fit in the new look East?

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Where do Bulls fit in the new look East?

While the NBA universe waits for Kawhi Leonard to decide where he’ll be playing basketball next season, most of the major free agents have already made their choices. So, here’s a very early look at how the Eastern Conference race could shape up for the 2019-‘20 campaign. 

If Kawhi decides to run it back in Toronto, the Raptors will clearly be the favorites to earn the top seed. Marc Gasol picked up his contract option, and Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Fred Van Vleet, Norman Powell and a healthy O.G. Anunoby will all be back, with Danny Green also likely to sign on for another run if Leonard stays.

Milwaukee lost valuable combo guard Malcolm Brogdon to Indiana in free agency, but the Bucks did re-sign all-star forward Khris Middleton, versatile guard George Hill and 3-point shooting big man Brook Lopez. Plus, they’re bringing in Brook’s twin brother Robin to add size off the bench and veteran shooter Wesley Matthews to provide perimeter scoring. (I can even imagine how much fun Milwaukee beat writers will have following the antics of the Lopez twins!) Don’t expect the Bucks to win 60 games again next season, but they should be a top 3 seed.

If Leonard does bolt for his native Southern California to join the Clippers or Lakers, Philadelphia just might be the team to beat in the East. Sure, they lost former Bull Jimmy Butler to Miami in a complicated four-team sign-and-trade deal, but the Sixers added one of the best clutch big men in the game in Al Horford, and they also picked up explosive scorer Josh Richardson in the Butler trade.

Philadelphia’s starting line-up of Joel Embiid, Horford, Tobias Harris, Richardson and Ben Simmons might just be the best in the league. The Sixers still need to add depth, but they project as a versatile team at both ends featuring the kind of size we haven’t seen in the NBA for some time.

Boston began last season as the overwhelming favorite in the East, but wound up as the fourth seed, thanks to a disconnect between star guard Kyrie Irving and young wing players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who led the Celtics to the conference finals the previous season when Kyrie was out with an injury. Irving is now in Brooklyn, and Danny Ainge moved swiftly to replace him with three-time all-star Kemba Walker, who figures to be a much better fit as the Celtics’ featured player. Ainge also picked up veteran big man Enes Kanter at a bargain price to replace Horford and Aron Baynes up front. It will be interesting to see if the chemistry improves enough to keep Boston in the race for one of the East’s top playoff seeds.

Brooklyn had the best free agent haul of any team, landing Kevin Durant, Irving and center DeAndre Jordan. Of course, Durant won’t be able to play next season while rehabbing his Achilles injury, but the addition of Irving and Jordan to one of the East’s big surprise teams of a year ago should mean another playoff berth for the Nets. Head coach Kenny Atkinson will design a system to utilize Irving’s play-making skills while also getting the most out of young wing players Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Taurean Prince.

Indiana should also be a good bet to return to the postseason. The Pacers re-shaped their starting line-up with Bogdan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison out, replaced by Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren. Domantas Sabonis figures to move into the starting lineup alongside talented young center Myles Turner. And, with underrated coach Nate McMillan calling the shots, the Pacers should have enough firepower to earn a five or six seed.

So, now it gets interesting. Orlando re-signed Nik Vucevic and Terrence Ross after earning the seventh seed in the East last season, but they didn’t really do much to improve the roster. Detroit picked up former Bulls’ star Derrick Rose to split point guard minutes with Reggie Jackson, but basically they’re coming back with the team that earned the eighth and final playoff spot a year ago.

Could the Bulls realistically make a run at the seventh or eighth seed in the East? First of all, it’s asking a lot from one of the NBA’s youngest teams to make the jump from 22 wins to the 40-42 it would take to make the playoffs next season.

Secondly, the Bulls will have to prove they can stay relatively healthy for a full season after going through the injury epidemic that undermined the first two years of the post-Butler rebuild.

Third, can lottery picks Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. take significant steps in their development? Markkanen looked like an all-star in February when he averaged 26 points and 12 rebounds, but the Bulls will need that kind of production on a nightly basis to become a playoff contender. And, Carter Jr. will have to be more of a threat on the offensive end after being a somewhat reluctant shooter in his injury-shortened rookie season.

Lastly, what kind of impact will Jim Boylen and a revamped coaching staff have on the team’s fortunes? Admittedly, Boylen had a lot to learn after taking over from Fred Hoiberg in early December. But with the benefit of a summer of individual work with players at the Advocate Center and a full training camp, we should get a much better understanding of the types of systems Boylen wants to implement at both ends of the court.

The Bulls did well in the draft with speedy point guard Coby White and old school center Daniel Gafford, then followed that up in free agency with commitments from high character forward Thaddeus Young and athletic 6-foot-7 guard Tomas Satoransky. There’s no question the roster will be more talented and deeper than at any point since the Butler trade.

Still, the Bulls aren’t the only team hoping to jump into the playoff race next season. Miami should be a postseason contender after adding Butler to a veteran group that includes Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk and former Illini center Meyers Leonard. The Heat also picked up a pair of wing shooters in the draft in Kentucky’s Tyler Herro and Stanford’s K.Z. Okpala.

Atlanta added top ten draft picks De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish to an exciting young team led by Trae Young and John Collins, so there’s no reason to think the Hawks won’t be in the race for one of the final playoff spots in the East as well.

I think it’s safe to eliminate the Knicks, Cavs, Wizards and Hornets. All of those teams are either in the early stages of rebuilds or mired in organizational dysfunction (hello James Dolan!).

So, when training camps open in late September, keep your fingers crossed for the Bulls to avoid injury and get off to a solid start in the regular season. Jumping to 35 wins seems totally reasonable. Getting the extra five to eight wins they’ll need to contend for a playoff spot is all dependent on good health, development from the young core players and a little luck.

Around the Association

This is the time of year when everyone likes to pick winners and losers in the roster building process. Brooklyn blew every other team away with their free agent trifecta, but how about the job done by David Griffin, the new head of basketball operations in New Orleans?

First of all, Griffin made the best possible trade for unhappy superstar Anthony Davis, sending him to the Lakers for three good young players in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, plus three future first-round draft picks. The trade could wind up being as successful for New Orleans as the one the Celtics pulled off with Brooklyn for aging stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce years ago.

Griffin did have the amazing good fortune of his franchise winning the draft lottery in the year a transcendent player like Zion Williamson was available, but he also turned that Lakers pick (No. 4 overall) into the eighth and 17th picks via a trade with Atlanta to add promising young center Jaxson Hayes and intriguing combo guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

The Pelicans were able to add young veterans Derrick Favors and Stanley Johnson for bench depth, and then pluck one of the league’s best shooters, J.J. Redick off the free agent market on a two-year, $26 million dollar contract while the Sixers were tending to other business.

It’s never a good thing to be forced to trade one of the top 10 players in the game, but Griffin will enter next season with a starting line-up of Zion, Ingram, Redick, Jrue Holiday and Jahlil Okafor, backed up by Hayes, Favors, Johnson, Alexander-Walker, Hart and ex-Bulls guard E’Twaun Moore. Not a title contender, but definitely a team that could make a run at a playoff spot in the West.

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Another team earning rave reviews out West is the Utah Jazz. They started the off-season by trading for veteran point guard Mike Conley just before the draft, then added sharp-shooter Bogdan Bogdanovic and solid veteran rebounder Ed Davis in free agency.

Bringing in two more offensive weapons to go along with star Donovan Mitchell was at the top of the front office’s to-do list. Now, head coach Quin Snyder can run out a starting line-up of Mitchell, Conley, Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, with Davis, Royce O’Neale, Dante Exum and rookie Justin Wright-Foreman in reserve.

With Golden State taking a step back this season after losing Durant in free agency and Klay Thompson rehabbing from the ACL tear he suffered in the Finals, the West is as wide open as we’ve seen it in half a decade. Teams like Utah, Denver, Portland, Houston, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, the Clippers and the Lakers all feel like they can win a conference championship if things break right.

Unless, of course, Kawhi decides to team up with LeBron and A.D. to form the next super team in L.A. That superstar trio might very well be the best the league has ever seen and would make the Lakers an overwhelming favorite to win a championship next season.

James is undoubtedly one of the top players all time, but his ability to stack the odds in his favor everywhere he goes is almost as impressive.

 

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NBA Buzz: Cap room figures to go fast in 2019 free agency

NBA Buzz: Cap room figures to go fast in 2019 free agency

With the Bulls projected to have between $20 to $23 million to spend when the free agent market opens for business at 5 p.m. on Sunday, the assumption had been the front office could add two or three quality veterans to the youngest team in the NBA. Problem is, with so many teams having serious cap space this summer, the price for second- and third-tier free agents could be driven up higher than we’ve ever seen.

Take Chicago native Patrick Beverley for instance. He’s a defensive menace, solid 3-point shooter and great teammate, who brings a lot of value to any team he plays for. But he also has career averages of 9 points and 3.5 assists. Beverley made $5 million last season for the Clippers and turns 31 years old next month. So, how much is he worth on the free agent market? NBA analysts and agents are predicting Beverley will be looking at a three or four-year deal averaging at least $10 million per season, which sounds crazy considering his career statistics. Given the fact Beverley is not a pure point guard, he’s probably not as high on the Bulls’ wish list as some have speculated.

Same story with other veteran point guards available on the free agent market like Ricky Rubio and Darren Collison.

The Bulls have an interest in Collison’s backup, Cory Joseph, who earned just under $8 million last season. Joseph could be a starter with the Bulls while 19-year-old Coby White learns the ins and outs of the NBA game, but would he leave a playoff team in Indiana for a contract that averages less than $10 million per season? Probably not. And, that’s the problem the Bulls and most non-playoff teams are facing this summer. They might have to seriously overpay to have a chance at adding players who can help them take a significant step forward next season.

Let’s say the Bulls get a positive ruling on Omer Asik’s career-ending medical condition and have his $3 million for next season wiped off their cap. With $23 million to spend, can they really fit three veteran free agents into their budget?

With Kris Dunn’s future as a Bull uncertain, the assumption has been the front office will try to sign a veteran point guard in free agency. Let’s say that’s Joseph on a two or three-year contract averaging $10 million per season. That leaves $13 million to add a veteran big man and a 3-point shooter to come off the bench. The list of potential backups at the power forward and center spots includes Thaddeus Young, Taj Gibson, Marcus Morris, Ed Davis, Kevon Looney, Dewayne Dedmon, Kenneth Faried, JaMychal Green, Jeff Green, Richaun Holmes, Nikola Mirotic, Jonas Jerebko, Dante Cunningham, and Mike Scott.

We’ve been hearing for weeks about mutual interest between the Bulls and Gibson on a Chicago return, but after making $14 million in each of the last seasons, will Taj be willing to sign for less than $10 million annually? If he’s not, that also quickly eliminates several players off the list of available big men, with only Davis, Looney, Faried, the two Greens, Holmes, Jerebko and probably Scott in the Bulls’ price range.

Similar story at the wing shooter position where the Bulls could have an interest in players like Reggie Bullock, Bojan Bogdanovic, Wesley Matthews, Alec Burks, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wayne Ellington, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Rodney Hood, Jeremy Lamb, Austin Rivers, and Garrett Temple. But most of those players will come with price tags too high for the Bulls to afford, with the exception of journeymen like Bullock, Burks, Ellington, and Temple. 

Ellington could turn out to be a Bulls’ target after averaging 10.3 ppg for Miami and Detroit last season. The 11-year veteran is a career 38 percent shooter from 3-point range.

So, as we all look forward to the start of free agency on Sunday evening, remember $23 million doesn’t go as far as it used to. If you’re looking for a prediction, I’m thinking the Bulls will prioritize signing Joseph and Gibson in free agency and hope to add a shooter like Ellington with their room exception of just under $5 million. That type of free agent spending won’t draw a lot of national attention, but it will accomplish John Paxson’s objective of adding quality, tough-minded veterans to his young roster.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

Meanwhile, other teams around the league are preparing to start chasing the max level free agents on Sunday. Charlotte’s All-Star point guard Kemba Walker is reported to be high on the wish lists of the Celtics, Mavericks, and Lakers. Walker would have to sacrifice close to $50 million by signing with a new team rather than agree to a five-year super max deal from the Hornets worth around $221 million. Walker told Charlotte-area reporters that he might be willing to take less than the full five-year max to help the Hornets improve their roster, but he’s also grown increasingly frustrated with the organization’s inability to make the playoffs consistently and might be ready to move elsewhere for a chance to win.

Boston is conducting business like a team that fully expects to lose free agent stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Danny Ainge made some not-so-cryptic comments to the local media that it’s easier to build a team around players willing to sacrifice for the good of the organization, a clear shot at Irving who reportedly already has his eyes on joining the Brooklyn Nets. Boston added an odd mix of players in last week’s draft, two small guards in Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters, shooting guard Romeo Langford and hard-working forward Grant Williams. Don’t discount the ability of Brad Stevens to build a playoff team around the talents of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward, but the Celtics’ expected run as the “Beast of the East” never materialized the way Ainge had hoped.  

Irving would love to bring Kevin Durant with him wherever he goes, but it’s hard to imagine Durant tying his future to the mercurial Irving, who’s already burned bridges in Cleveland and Boston. Nets’ GM Sean Marks could be facing a difficult decision on Sunday, whether to commit to Irving without any assurances that Durant or another All-Star like Jimmy Butler will follow. Signing Irving will most likely mean saying goodbye to restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell, who’s coming off an All-Star appearance in just his fourth NBA season. If the Nets aren’t able to add another impact player in free agency besides Irving, they might not be any better than the team that surprised most NBA analysts with their run to a sixth seed in the East this past season.

Over in Philadelphia, 76ers ownership has gone on record saying they’ll do whatever it takes to bring free agents Tobias Harris and Butler back on long term, max contracts. But with All-Star guard Ben Simmons looking at a max contract extension this summer, and All-Star center Joel Embiid already making max dollars, will the Sixers be willing to go that deep into the luxury tax for a chance to win a championship in the next few years? Butler could be a target for both of the L.A. teams, and the versatile Harris will be fielding offers from a number of teams with big money to spend.

The East could be top heavy with championship caliber teams if Butler and Harris return to Philly and Kawhi Leonard re-signs with Toronto, but there’s also the possibility that at least two of those players head West with the Clippers making an all-out pitch to recruit Leonard. Plus, Milwaukee has to re-sign several key free agents, including Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Malcolm Brogdon. The entire conference could look a whole lot different when players start signing contracts on July 6.