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Inside the draft room: How the Bulls ended up with the No. 7 pick

Inside the draft room: How the Bulls ended up with the No. 7 pick

It started with a green band and ends in a hail of purple, as the NBA held its draft lottery in Chicago for the first time and selected media members were able to witness the actual drawing.

Phones were confiscated and the new-world technology that often captures us all was put on hold as eight media members, several league personnel and team representatives for the lottery teams were sequestered in the Monroe Room on the sixth floor of the Palmer House Hilton.

Anything digital? iPhones and iWatches were placed in a manila envelope by Maureen Coyle, NBA Vice President of Basketball Communications. Coyle and NBA Vice President of Communications Tim Frank are never ones for regular pleasantries in their interactions with media, so when the order to fall in line came to depart the media room for the Monroe Room, it was meant with the usual snark today’s media often displays on social platforms.

Green wristbands for the special few, like VIP at the NBA's nightclub--or so-called conspiracy hall, if you believe the lottery truthers.

“Notebooks are good,” Coyle barked. “Everything else…”

No contact with the outside world, except for interaction with each other in a room that would soon go quiet. Making note of every person wearing a shade of purple was Sacramento Kings assistant general manager Ken Catanella, looking for every bit of luck and advantage he could find.

“Nice purple,” he said to this reporter who wore a lavender shirt under his suit. The Kings and Bulls had exact number of possible combinations and 5.3 percent chance of winning the first pick, but due to a coin flip won by the Bulls the day after the season concluded, the Kings’ combination of lottery numbers differed ever-so-slightly from the Bulls’ potential four-digit combinations.

Sitting feet away from Catanella on a dais was Joey Reinsdorf, son of Bulls COO Michael Reinsdorf and grandson of Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.

Clearly the youngest person in the room, he took in the environment as a posterboard of each team’s lottery combinations was posted on the side of the room, feet away from the lottery machine that would randomly start the process of changing the fortunes of every franchise hoping to be anywhere but this particular room a year from now.

Reinsdorf pulled his father’s 1996-97 Bulls championship ring from his jacket pocket as his lucky charm, saying Michael was holding onto the Bulls’ 1995-96 championship ring, hoping for a similar result.

Media members going through digital withdrawals began counting the instances where they reached in their pockets for their phones—believing something had to be vibrating at a moment’s notice.

The count started at 5:56 Central Time and rose to at least 15 instances over the next hour—it was insanity in the purest sense.

Soon after, Coyle turns to the media and explains that the door was about to be permanently closed for the next 90 minutes, so bathroom breaks would be accompanied by a member of the league—or other less-than-flattering alternatives—Reinsdorf turned to Catanella.

“If we don’t get lucky, I hope it’s you,” Reinsdorf said.

NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Kiki VanDeWeghe walked by the assorted media sitting on the side of the wall, introducing himself before heading to the podium to explain the process.

No, not that Process.

“Best of luck to all you,” he said, explaining the often mundane rules of the lottery—with one quirk in case of an emergency in the event the lottery machine malfunctions or “we lose power” according to Lou DiSabatino, Vice-President of Event Operations.

An official NBA basketball was next to the machine, cut open from the top near the logo with enough space for each of the 14 lottery balls that would then be shaken up for 20 seconds before dipping his hand to blindly select a number.

If there ever was a time for some Chicago chicanery, someone should’ve cut the power from the Hilton—or handed a frozen envelope to VanDeWeghe.

Wait, that happened already, didn’t it?

VanDeWeghe motioned to Micah Day, a man who stood in the back of the room with his back to everyone, would count to 20 before raising his right hand to signal time for the lottery ball to come from the machine—similar to a tennis official on the sideline.

DiSabatino then opened a James Bond-like black briefcase, containing the certified and allegedly equally-weighed lottery balls. The whole process reminds one of Carl Reiner and Andy Garcia in “Oceans Eleven”—where Garcia’s character was a casino owner who got fooled by George Clooney and his band of bandits.

Chicanery alert?

Not quite.

The process begins with 14 balls in the lottery machine, with the combination 9-12-6-1 coming up cleanly, meaning the Phoenix Suns, the team with the league’s worst record and best odds, were awarded the first pick.

Then it got freaky—or fun—or wild, depending on how one observes these matters.

Then VanDeWeghe began the process again.

“11…13…”

Wait, those are the Bulls combinations….

“3….1…”

Joey Reinsdorf couldn’t keep up with the initial numbers, but a glimmer of hope came across his face until the final two—another winning selection for the Suns.

But teams can’t win twice and given the Suns had the most possible combinations, it was likely they would win it again.

Re-draw.

It occurred a third time, to chuckles in the room. Probably since the Suns could have the top three picks in the draft and no one would be sure they’d be playing past Tax Day in 2019.

The next time finally revealed a different outcome, with the combination 14-7-6-8. As hard as it was for the media to match the numbers, the league personnel marked the Sacramento Kings had the lucky combination for the second pick.

The Athletic’s Darnell Mayberry whispered to this writer and the Sacramento Bee’s Kings reporter Jason Jones in the immediate aftermath: “Wait, they had the tiebreaker with the Bulls.”

But no one could be sure how that affected the lottery combinations, if at all—and Reinsdorf himself wasn’t sure if the April coin flip had any affect on the results.

The smiling Catanella knew, though.

Feet away on the same row, Celtics assistant general manager Michael Zarren smirked.

Zarren is a proponent of total lottery reform, suggesting the league have a wheel that guarantees each franchise have a top five pick every five years to disincentivise tanking.

But that would take away from the league’s Made-for-TV experience, manufactured drama but real consequences—evidenced on Joey Reinsdorf’s face later.

Now, finally, the last chance for the teams hoping on a prayer—some begging privately a few months of tanking would bear fruit, was upon all.

“5…4…6…12”

Vandeweghe announced the Atlanta Hawks had been awarded the third pick. Michelle Leftwich, the Hawks’ Vice-President of Salary Cap administration, started grinning ear to ear, almost in disbelief.

Leftwich stood out—as the only female representative in the room, and one of two blacks representing teams in the process with Detroit Pistons Director of Public Relations Cletus Lewis Jr. sitting rows behind.

Leftwich also wore a red outfit with gold buttons, on the suggestion of her son.

“I didn’t even think about being the only woman in the room,” the former NBA executive said. “I’m really happy.”

The lottery was over but there was still a mystery to be solved for the Bulls. The media was still sequestered with no technology for almost another hour, with no means to verify information about the lottery combinations.

NBA senior manager of basketball operations Joanna Shapiro wasn’t sure, and tried to track down lawyers who could explain the process.

“Good question, I’m really not sure. I think it happened a few years ago. Same thing,” she said, pointing to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ representative Brock Aller.

“It happened to us,” he said, explaining in 2012 the Cavaliers and New Orleans Pelicans had the same record, with the Cavaliers winning the coin flip to give them their set of lottery combinations.

Anthony Davis was the prize and the Cavaliers were still reeling from LeBron James’ initial departure.

“We won the coin flip and lost the player,” Aller said.

The Pelicans’ combination came up, they drafted Davis and the Cavaliers were left with more chances at the lottery system before James returned.

Reinsdorf sat at his spot on the table for awhile, knowing his father would soon learn the fate of the Bulls in agonizing fashion some time later before undergoing an agonizing revelation of his own.

As he was sitting next to Catanella, this reporter remarked the discovered truth—winning the coin flip cost the Bulls five slots in a draft that could deliver a franchise changer.

Almost stone-faced, he allowed a weary smile of sorts before a few words came out.

“Awesome. Good to know,” he said.

Turning to Catanella, Reinsdorf said, “I did say if not us, I’m glad it was you.”

Catanella smiled before talking about some of the events Sacramento and their franchise had to endure—events with real-world consequences when an unarmed young man was gunned down by police, resulting in citizens soon shutting down Golden 1 Center days later in protest—as only a smattering of fans made it in to watch the Kings in late March.

The pick was no solace to the situation. But Catanella made note of how the franchise stood with the people and its owner, Vivek Ranadive, made it known he understood the angst, fear and anger of their fan base.

Now, their fan base had something to rejoice about—at least the possibility of it.

It harkened Rosie Perez’ quote in “White Men Can’t Jump”: “Sometimes when you win, you really lose. And sometimes when you lose, you really win.”

Losing the coin flip, winning the combinations.

Minutes later everyone reconvened as NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum was handed the envelopes and the suspense inside the main ballroom was building.

The teams rattled off in order until Tatum said, “The seventh pick…goes to the Chicago Bulls.”

The camera panned to Michael Reinsdorf, who tried to keep it together but emitted the same smirk as his son. Joey knew the feeling, sitting easily in the same spot he’d been in for the last hour or so.

The results ran its course and finally the media was released with Coyle allowing the eight members their devices—or vices, one could say.

The ballroom filled with media and NBA personnel moments later. Coyle, who grew hilariously annoyed on All-Star Weekend in Toronto during Kobe Bryant’s last All-Star appearance in 2016 when assorted media kept asking “where’s Kobe?” that she probably wakes up in her sleep bellowing “He’s in the mixed zone!”, chuckled as she escorted the seven members back to civilization.

The eighth member was lost—or disappeared for a few minutes as Chicago Tribune newcomer Malika Andrews finally found her way to the zoo downstairs.

“I’ve never lost a person before,” Coyle joked.

Tim Frank soon verified the tweet that stated the Bulls would’ve had the Kings’ combinations had they lost the coin flip—with word soon traveling to Bulls Executive Vice-President John Paxson and Michael Reinsdorf.

Paxson, always one to keep his cool publicly, didn’t lament the Bulls’ position, stating they found Lauri Markkanen with the seventh pick this time last year and a good player would be on the board this time around.

But the second pick could’ve given them a transcendent one.

Catanella soon strolled out of the Hilton and into a truck, where the scouting would soon begin but beginning a process that carries the possibility of something more than just an ordinary lottery pick.

He smiled as he saw this reporter walk out alongside him, the two familiar from Catanella’s days as an executive with the Detroit Pistons.

“Hey, nice purple.”

Sometimes when you win, you really lose.

NBA Buzz: Bulls fans get their chance to scout top college prospects

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Bulls fans get their chance to scout top college prospects

For many pro basketball fans, last week’s opening rounds of the NCAA tournament might have been their first chance to get an extended look at some of the players projected to be lottery picks in the upcoming NBA Draft.

Of course, just about everyone who loves basketball is aware of Zion Williamson. The Duke freshman forward was a YouTube sensation in high school, and his highlights this season have been seen on every video platform known to man.

Zion didn’t disappoint in his first NCAA tournament games, going for 57 points and 14 rebounds in Duke’s two victories. He opened up against North Dakota St. by scoring 25 points on 12 of 16 shooting, and followed that up with 32 points and 11 rebounds in the Blue Devils’ thrilling one-point win over Central Florida.

Williamson showed his competitive fire in that nail-biter against UCF, bringing Duke back from a four-point deficit in the final two minutes. The 6-foot-7 285-pound freshman wanted the ball on the closing possessions, and even though he missed a pair of 3-point attempts late, he finally barged to the basket with his team down three for a basket and a foul. Williamson missed the free throw, but teammate RJ Barrett was able to grab the rebound and score on the putback to keep Duke’s national title hopes alive.

Zion’s skill and athleticism were on full display for the nation to enjoy, and whichever team is fortunate enough to win the lottery on May 14 will land a franchise-changing talent who also will be a huge plus for the marketing department.

Similar story with Murray State point guard Ja Morant. Because so few of his games in the Ohio Valley Conference were nationally televised, most fans only knew about him through highlight clips. So, when Morant put together a dominant 17 point, 16 assist, 11 rebound game in the tournament opener against Marquette, the national reaction was interesting to watch. Suddenly, everyone wanted the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Morant running the offense for their favorite NBA team, comparing him to Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook.

Morant’s tournament run came to an end in a blowout loss to Florida State last Saturday, but he still impressed by scoring 28 points, including five 3-pointers. He figures to go second in the June draft, unless a team with a young point guard already in place like the Cavs, Knicks or Hawks winds up with that selection. In that case, interested teams like the Bulls could explore trade scenarios to move up.

As for some of the other potential lottery picks, the Duke duo of Barrett and Cam Reddish had their moments in the opening two rounds. Barrett scored 26 points in Duke’s blowout win on Friday and followed that up with the clutch rebound basket on Sunday. Reddish combined for 25 points in the two games, and he fits in the modern NBA as a 3-and-D player that just about every team is seeking.

Texas Tech shooting guard Jarrett Culver could be cementing his status as a top-five pick with a strong showing in the tournament. Culver combined for 45 points, 18 rebounds and 12 assists in the Red Raiders’ two wins, reminding scouts of DeMar DeRozan with his smooth mid-range game.

North Carolina mystery man Nassir Little also improved his stock by scoring 39 points in the Tar Heels’ two wins. Little has been coming off the bench all season, similar to the strategy Roy Williams employed with talented freshman Marvin Williams during North Carolina’s run to the 2005 NCAA title. Williams still wound up being the second overall pick.

Little probably won’t crack the top five, but scouts are intrigued by his potential as an explosive 6-foot-8 athlete with a defensive mindset, similar to Kawhi Leonard during his college career at San Diego State.

Probably the biggest move came from Gonzaga’s high-jumping forward Brandon Clarke, who exploded for 36 points, 8 rebounds and 5 blocked shots in a win over Baylor on Saturday. Clarke has worked his way up from a second round pick to a late lottery consideration, but he’ll have to prove to NBA scouts he can make outside shots during the combine and individual team workouts.

Around the Association

We’re heading down the stretch of the regular season with a close two-way battle for the MVP award between Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden. Harden put up a 61-point game on Friday and he’s almost singlehandedly led the Rockets on a late season charge for homecourt advantage in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Bucks have all but wrapped up the best record in the NBA, thanks to Giannis’ all-around brilliance. Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.4 points, 12.6 rebounds and 6 assists per game while shooting 58.2 percent from the field.

It’s hard to predict which way voters will go in making this tough choice, but my guess is Giannis will come out on top, based on the Bucks’ record and the fact Harden won the award last season.

One of the interesting free agents to watch this summer will be Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker. The 6-foot-1 three-time all-star is having another great season statistically, but the Hornets are about to miss the playoffs again.

Walker expressed his frustration to the front office earlier in the season, and was assured the team will make the changes necessary to build a competitive team around him. But with Walker turning 29 before next season, will the Hornets be willing to make a five-year, $220 million supermax offer to their franchise player? And, will Walker be confident enough to entrust the rest of his career with a middling, small market team?

You can expect the Knicks, Nets and Clippers to explore the Kemba market this summer, but the Bulls are most likely out of the running after giving up their ability to offer a max contract with the Otto Porter Jr. trade.

Long term, the Bulls would be better off by landing a young point guard like Morant, but Walker’s explosive scoring ability will make him an attractive target in free agency.

Former Bulls’ all star Jimmy Butler could be on the move again this summer. First year 76ers GM Elton Brand is on the record saying the team will make every effort to re-sign Butler and Tobias Harris in free agency this summer, but it’s become increasingly apparent Harris is their No. 1 priority.

Harris is four years younger than Butler and is enjoying his best season as a pro. He’s also become a go-to option in Brett Brown’s half-court sets. The 76ers are expected to move quickly to get Harris to commit to a long-term contract once the bell rings at midnight on July 1.

Meanwhile, Butler’s age (he’ll turn 30 before the start of next season) and high usage rate might make the 76ers reluctant to commit to a five-year max deal. Now, this all could change based on how well Philly does in the upcoming playoffs, but it looks like Butler will be exploring interest from other teams this summer, including both New York and both Los Angeles franchises.

Butler could wind up being the backup choice for the Clippers, who are expected to go hard for Kawhi Leonard, and also the second choice for the Knicks if they can’t sign Kevin Durant. It’s hard to imagine Jimmy agreeing to be LeBron’s supporting actor with the Lakers, but as we’ve seen in the past, free agency can lead to some unexpected alliances.

 

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Opportunities arise in backcourt for injury-riddled Bulls

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USA TODAY

Opportunities arise in backcourt for injury-riddled Bulls

It’s that time of the year again for the Bulls. Though last season’s shutdowns were a thinly veiled attempt to increase their chances at a top-3 pick, this time around injuries to key players have the Bulls taking an overly cautious approach as their campaign winds down.

The Bulls, already without rookies Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison for the rest of the season, will be without Otto Porter Jr. and Zach LaVine on Tuesday against the Raptors. Point guard Kris Dunn, dealing with back soreness, is listed as doubtful and is unlikely to play.

That’s three missing starters – four if you include Carter – against a 51-23 Raptors team. So while a loss is almost certainly on the docket that hardly means there’s nothing to be gained from these final eight games.

“Next man up is the focus,” Lauri Markkanen said Monday. “We’re trying to compete and win a couple games here down the stretch. It’s an opportunity for other guys who don’t get to play as much.”

There are a handful of Bulls reserves who will be fighting for a roster spot next season. If we’re to assume that the sure bets – pending any trades – of the Bulls roster will be LaVine, Markkanen, Carter, Porter, Dunn, Hutchison, Denzel Valentine and Cristiano Felicio, plus the Bulls’ first and second round picks, that leaves just three or four openings if the Bulls don’t add anyone in free agency, which seems unlikely.

So with only a few roster spots available next season, and plenty of playing time available this season, the eight-game audition begins Tuesday in Toronto.

The two most important players of these evaluations will likely start in the backcourt. Shaq Harrison will continue to start on the wing while Ryan Arcidiacono will start if Dunn is unable to go. Jim Boylen said he’s undecided on who will start at small forward and likely match up with All-Star Kawhi Leonard, but one of Wayne Selden or Antonio Blakeney would get the call, with Harrison moving to Leonard if the latter started.

“With every injury, there’s an opportunity for someone to step into that role,” Boylen said. “We’ve had guys do that pretty well this year.”

Arcidiacono has been one of the most pleasant surprises this season. He had a serious lull in December and January but has rebounded nicely as the season nears an end, shooting 52 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc since the All-Star break.

Meanwhile Harrison has averaged a cool 10.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals in nearly 37 minutes over his last three games, all starts. He’s provided outstanding effort on the defensive end and has seen his offensive game improve; just how much that improvement can be sustained over a long stretch will determine his NBA future, but he should get that chance if one or both of LaVine and Porter are shut down.

While Blakeney’s contract is guaranteed for next season, he’s got work to do. He’s shooting just 42 percent from the field this season and is averaging just 0.6 assists per game. After a red-hot start from beyond the arc in October and November (44.8 percent on 2.6 attempts) he’s made just 36 percent since Christmas Day. But the opportunity is there for him to get extended run, as he’s averaged 22.5 minutes over his last three games, the last two of which were his first career starts.

While those players showcase their talents in the backcourt, the injuries could also allow Lauri Markkanen to take the reins and own the final two weeks. Though it's been a roller coaster of a season, the second year forward appears to be closing on a high note. He's averaging 18.9 points and 9.0 rebounds in 32.7 minutes and could see his numbers across the board improve as he takes on a high-usage role down the stretch with LaVine and Porter out.

"I’m doing the same things, trying to play the right way," Markkanen said. "I know there are guys who don’t normally start and I talked about it with Coach (Boylen) about making the right decision, maybe slow the pace down. At the same time, try to stay aggressive with guys being out."