Bulls

How will Cam Payne remember the Cam Payne Game? 'I felt like it was the ocean'

How will Cam Payne remember the Cam Payne Game? 'I felt like it was the ocean'

Cam Payne was headed for another ugly game and more criticism.

The point guard, starting in place of the injured Kris Dunn, had missed both of his first-half attempts and had one more assist (three) than turnovers (two) in 12 quiet minutes. He was an ugly -11 while the Bulls were hanging around at home against the Hornets in part because of his backup, Ryan Arcidiacono, and the second unit.

Then the second half happened. And the Cam Payne Game was born.

Payne scored a career-high 21 points, all coming on a career-best seven 3-pointers after halftime, before deferring to Zach LaVine down the stretch as the Bulls tallied their first win of the 2018-19 campaign.

"I felt like it was the ocean," Payne said after the game.

Payne's first half wasn't all that bad, given that the rest of the first group struggled as a whole - the starters were 8 of 25 at the half - and Payne was matched up against Kemba Walker, the league's second leading scorer. But Payne has become the punching bag for the Bulls' shortcomings, of which the list is long. And after a scoreless first half, and especially in one where Arcidiacono looked solid behind him, criticism was going to roll in.

But Payne put that all behind him after halftime. The buzzword with Payne from Fred Hoiberg, his teammates and even himself has been "aggressiveness." It's admittedly a cliche in basketball circles, especially for a team's point guard in today's NBA. But it's true with Payne, who played passive in road losses to Philadelphia and Dallas.

So despite the 0-for-3 start, Payne continued to shoot. Zach LaVine did most of the initiating offensively, working a pick-and-roll action with Wendell Carter Jr. that forced Walker to help weak side. That left Payne open in the corner multiple times to begin the period, and LaVine and Payne made the Hornets pay. LaVine assisted on four of Payne's five 3-pointers in the third quarter, which helped the Bulls extend their lead to as many as 11 points.

Payne sat for Arcidiacono to begin the fourth quarter, which coincided with the Hornets cutting the deficit from nine with Payne went to the bench to a one-point lead when he re-entered. But Payne again made his presence felt in an instant, connecting on his sixth 3-pointer from the left wing to put the Bulls back up a pair. Later in the period Payne stripped Nicolas Batum which led to a transition layup by LaVine that pulled the Bulls within three after a 5-0 Hornets run.

Payne then connected on his seventh triple after grabbing his own miss on a floater, dribbling back out and connecting over an out-stretched Walker. That tied the game at 105 apiece. It was also the last shot Payne attempted, as LaVine went to work down the stretch, scoring the Bulls' final six points, including two free throws with 0.5 seconds remaining.

It was a remarkable performance from the Bulls' new starting point guard, nearly matching Walker's 25 points. It was only one game, but it was a huge one for Payne's confidence. He'll start for the next 4 to 6 weeks while Dunn recovers from his MCL sprain, so to get a performance like this in a win against a quality opponent was the perfect start.

"It was a huge night for Cam, huge confidence booster," Hoiberg said. "You know, Cam works as hard as anybody on this team. It’s great to see that hard work pay off and it’s a confidence booster, something he can build on."

LaVine concurred with Hoiberg's sentiment, that Payne - despite all the criticism he's faced since being dealt for Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott two trade deadlines ago - is beginning to reap the rewards of his hard work.

"That’s what hard work is for," LaVine said. "There’s gonna be times where there’s ups and downs, people are going to be on you but you have to have trust in yourself and I trust him. He made great plays tonight."

For Payne, "it's 1-0." The Bulls will travel to Charlotte to face this same Hornets team and a Walker who likely isn't pleased he went 5-for-14 against one of the league's worst defenses. Payne will have his work cut out for him, and while he won't be asked to make seven 3-pointers every night, Wednesday was a step in the right direction when both he and the Bulls needed it dearly.

"It means a lot, especially in front of the fans. I'm glad we got the win. That’s really the main thing," he said. "Zach found me on that first one and it went in. Then he found me again and it went in again, so all they could say was 'keep shooting.' I did that and they kept falling for me."

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 dollars 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 dollars 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 dollars 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 dollars 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 dollars 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 dollars 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 dollars. 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 dollars 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. 

Bulls finally getting with the times, putting together versatile roster

Bulls finally getting with the times, putting together versatile roster

Position-less basketball is the hot new buzzword in NBA circles, but it's also an important one.

Consider what the 2016-17 Bulls rolled out the same year the Golden State Warriors Death Lineup'd their way to an NBA title. Led by the Three Alphas of Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, here's how the minutes shook out, per Basketball Reference.

Rondo played 100% of his minutes at point guard despite having played 42% of his minutes at shooting guard the year earlier for the Kings (a year in which he shot 36.5% from deep). Wade played 84% of his minutes at shooting guard. The following seasons, the last two of his career, he played 31% at point guard, 54% at shooting guard and 15% at small forward.

Butler played 93% of his minutes at small forward. The next two seasons, in Minnesota and Philadelphia, his minutes were split up at 45% shooting guard, 48% small forward and 7% power forward.

Taj Gibson played 96% of his minutes at power forward and Robin Lopez played 100% of his minutes at center. Nikola Mirotic played 88% of his minutes at power forward. Over the last two seasons, he's played 74% of his minutes at power forward and 23% at center (and 3% at small forward).

Sensing a theme here?

While the NBA zigged toward position-less basketball, the Bulls...didn't do anything. They had traditional roles, had little depth that allowed them to tinker with lineups despite that being the best way to utilize Fred Hoiberg's philosophies, and they failed. Yes, they led 2-0 on the Celtics in the first round of the postseason. No, that didn't make that entire season any less of a mess.

Fast forward two years and one rebuild later, and the Bulls enter Year 3 of the post-Jimmy Buckets era with some serious versatility.

The latest signal that this franchise is ready to move forward came on Thursday when the Bulls drafted North Carolina guard Coby White. He's not a traditional point guard, and the Bulls don't want him to be. In fact, the Bulls' entire offseason feels like it could be more about finding the right players instead of the right positional needs.

"John (Paxson) and I have had great conversations about our team during the year, at the end of the season, about what we thought we needed, where we thought we needed to go, and today is a product of that, of those meetings, those discussions, and his view," Jim Boylen said Monday. "We talked about positional size a lot, we talked about speed, quickness, athleticism. Those are the things we thought we needed with the group of guys we had, to add to them. Whether it’s vertical spacing, speed, making defenses chase people over, all those kinds of things, we discussed. And as we went into the draft process we were hoping to find players to help us with that. Thankfully we have."

Of White specifically, Boylen said the Bulls won't "put him in this box where he just has to play this way," Boylen added. For the first time arguably since Nate Robinson in 2013, the Bulls have a legitimate shooting threat at point guard. What's more, the 6-foot-5 White can play off the ball and spot up for perimeter jumpers, something that makes Zach LaVine more valuable and the offense more versatile.

The Bulls are finally looking to look like a versatile group. Otto Porter's defensive ability will give the Bulls the option of playing small, something that prior to his arrival just meant Chandler Hutchison getting abused in the post. Lauri Markkanen is a work-in-progress as a center, though his limited minutes and skill set give optimism that it's something he can do in spurts going forward. LaVine was never going to take on a full-time point guard role, but he was more than comfortable with the ball in his hands acting as an offensive initiator last season, maybe Kris Dunn, LaVine and White all share the floor together.

We could even see second-round pick Daniel Gafford and Wendell Carter Jr. together in massive frontline spurts if the opposition calls for it. That's more fantasy than reality, but having the option is something they didn't have in the past.

The next step is free agency. With the Bulls, in theory, having starters at all five positions - White could move to the bench if Paxson goes after a veteran free agent - the Bulls can again get versatile and hone in on particular skill sets instead of simply trying to round out the depth chart. It doesn't feel like the Bulls will make a major splash - either giving Milwaukee's Malcolm Brogdon a gigantic offer sheet or finding room to sign Brooklyn's D'Angelo Russell - but they'll be aggressive with their more than $22 million in cap space. They need point guard depth, more shooters on the wing and a locker room presence (Cris Felicio is a month younger than Otto Porter, the oldest player on the Bulls).

"We have a very good idea of what we want. But we’re going to have to wait until the 30th to go at it. But we know we need to add some veterans," Paxson said. "Definitely, we’re looking for a couple of veteran guys that fit well with this young group – be pros, show these guys every day what it means to be a professional. Most guys that last a long time in this league, they last because they’ve been pros. They take care of themselves, they’ve played well, they’ve done all the right things. And that’s always best example for young players.”

The roster is far from a finished product. Injuries aside, the Bulls still won just 22 games a year ago, don't have max cap space, and White isn't Zion Williamson.

There's work to do. But for the first time during the rebuild, the Bulls are going to have options. The roster is beginning to look like what a group of NBA players in 2019 should look like. The Bulls are getting versatile, and it's an important step forward.