Bulls

NBA Buzz: Bulls will be in evaluation mode over final 2 1/2 months

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Bulls will be in evaluation mode over final 2 1/2 months

Outside of maximizing their draft lottery odds, what exactly are the Bulls playing for over the final 35 games of the NBA season?

Wendell Carter Jr.’s rookie season is most likely over after going through surgery to repair ligament damage to his left thumb, so the 19-year old center won’t be able to continue to develop his offensive game. Carter did show enough in his 44 games to convince the front office he will be an important part of the team’s future.

Before we hit the trade deadline on February 7th the Bulls could ship out two of their veteran players in Robin Lopez and Jabari Parker which would move largely unproven players into backup roles.

Still, with almost half of the schedule left to be played there are several important things for the front office to learn about the roster and the coaching staff.

1. Should Jim Boylen be brought back next season? Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson told reporters the plan is for Boylen to be the coach next season, but as we all know, plans can change. Zach LaVine’s comments last weekend about the team getting blown out too often after playing competitively early in the season had to resonate with the front office. If the Bulls limp to the finish line and fall short of the 20 victory mark, Paxson and general manager Gar Forman will have to take a long, hard look on whether they can start Year 3 of the rebuild with the same coaching staff in place.

2. Is Kris Dunn the PG of the future? The Bulls were high on Dunn dating back to the 2016 draft when he was selected 5th overall by Minnesota. They thought about swinging a deal for the Providence All-American that year, and eventually did acquire him on draft night 2017 in the Jimmy Butler trade. Dunn has shown flashes of being a solid NBA starter, especially on the defensive end, but his lack of consistency and availability (due to injuries) will probably bring considerable debate in the Advocate Center offices on whether to offer the 3rd year guard a big money extension of his rookie contract this summer. Forman has already been seen in college arenas twice over the past week scouting Murray St. PG Ja Morant, who could wind up being the 3rd pick in the 2019 draft. Dunn needs to have a strong finish to the season to convince the Bulls’ decision makers that he’s the right man to direct the offense long term.

3. Can Dunn, LaVine & Lauri Markkanen co-exist? The three players acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota haven’t had much time to play together because of injuries, but the analytics show they aren’t very successful over the minutes they have shared the court. Both Dunn and LaVine are at their best when playing on the ball, which means all too often Markkanen has a tough time getting consistent touches. The Bulls’ coaching staff and front office will be watching closely over the final two and a half months to see if the threesome can co-exist or if a trade might be necessary to improve offensive efficiency.

4. Is Bobby Portis still worth a lucrative contract extension? The Bulls worked with Portis’ agent right up to the opening night deadline with hopes of extending the 4th year forward-center. Reportedly, the Bulls made a very competitive offer on a 4-year contract, but Portis and his agent decided to roll the dice and see if he might do better as a restricted free agent this summer. Problem is, Portis has already missed two long stretches of the season because of knee and ankle injuries, which could hurt his value in a crowded 2019 free agent market. The Bulls will have to evaluate his play over the final 35 games and decide if a good shooting 6th man is worth a 4 year contract that could fall anywhere from 48 to 64 million dollars.

5. Is Chandler Hutchison a starting caliber SF? The Bulls are happy with Hutchison’s growth over the first half of the season, but questions remain about his ability to shoot consistently from the outside. On a team lacking consistent 3 point shooting, can the Bulls afford to start a non-shooter at a position that normally features a primary scoring threat? With the Bulls hoping to land Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett in the draft and possibly making a run at free agent SF Tobias Harris, they’ll want to have a better idea of where Hutchison fits in the rebuilding puzzle by season’s end.

So, when you’re watching the final 35 games and our pre and post-game coverage on NBC Sports Chicago and the My Teams by NBC Sports app, these are some of the areas to focus on that go far beyond winning or losing that night’s game.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

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When training camp began in late September, Paxson told the assembled media the Bulls were healthy and 2 deep at every position. As we all know, that blew up almost immediately with Markkanen suffering a serious elbow injury in one of the first practices, Denzel Valentine being lost for the season to ankle reconstruction surgery and Dunn and Portis going out in the opening weeks of the regular season with knee sprains.

The Bulls were hoping to show the kind of progress we’ve seen in Sacramento and Brooklyn this season. Both of those teams have gone through long stretches of losing basketball, but they’re finally coming out on the other side. Sacramento is over the .500 mark for the season with 2nd year PG De’Aaron Fox looking like a future star, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic scoring on the wing, and young forwards Marvin Bagley III and Justin Jackson still in development mode. Kings’ coach Dave Joerger has done a terrific job getting his young squad to play with pace and believe in each other. Plus, Sacramento will have significant cap space this summer to try to add a veteran star to a team on the rise.

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The situation looks even brighter in Brooklyn, where the Nets currently hold the 6th playoff spot in the East, own two 1st round picks in the upcoming draft and have the potential to offer two max contracts in free agency,

In case you didn’t know, the Nets have won 17 of their last 22 games and their improvement hasn’t been lost on the rest of the league. Head coach Kenny Atkinson told Newsday’s Barbara Baker, “Hopefully, there’s really talk among players in the league, like ‘hey that’s a neat place to go to.’ “They care for their players. It’s a positive culture, a collaborative culture. You really want players to talk about that, to say that’s a place I’d love to go.”

Baker wrote dramatic improvement engineered by Atkinson in his 3 seasons in Brooklyn could outweigh the lure of Madison Square Garden when the Nets and Knicks compete for the elite free agents available this summer. If Kevin Durant would seriously consider signing with the Knicks, why wouldn’t he jump at the chance to bring another elite free agent with him to a team on the rise in nearby Brooklyn?

The progress made by organizations like the Kings and Nets will only make things more difficult for the Bulls when they try to recruit free agents in July.

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Klay Thompson was at it again Monday night in Los Angeles, making his first 10 three point attempts against the Lakers to tie an NBA record and finishing with 44 points in just 27 minutes.

Bulls’ fans witnessed another Thompson explosion back in October when he knocked down an NBA record 14 threes and didn’t play in the 4th quarter. Surprisingly, Thompson hasn’t shot the ball exceptionally well for the season, but it looks like he and Draymond Green are back in peak form after slow starts.

The Warriors have won 8 in a row, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are playing at MVP level, they’ve got another former All-Star in the line-up with DeMarcus Cousins at center and they’ve taken over 1st place in the West.

Barring injury, it’s hard to imagine any team beating Golden State in a best of 7 series come playoff time.

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Finally, January 22nd holds special significance for a couple of recent events. Back in 2006, Kobe Bryant exploded for 81 points against the Raptors, which ranks as the 2nd highest single game total in NBA history, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain’s incomprehensible 100 point performance.

Closer to home, January 22nd, 2010 is the night Derrick Rose unleashed that iconic two hand thunder dunk on top of Suns’ guard Goran Dragic. It definitely ranks as one of the signature moments in Rose’s career and the classic call by Stacey King has been replayed locally and nationally hundreds of times. Check it out on our website when you get a chance. I guarantee it will still bring a smile to your face.

NBA Draft Big Board Check In: Romeo Langford nets near double double in IU loss

NBA Draft Big Board Check In: Romeo Langford nets near double double in IU loss

Mark Schanowski's Big Board 5.0 had some movement, particularly around the bottom half of the top 10. We take the time to go over some performances from throughout the week, including a prospect who dropped out of Schanowski's top 10 earlier in the season.

Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga (vs San Diego): 22 PTS (10/15 FG), 10 REB, 1 STL

Hachimura’s efficient double double came on Saturday against San Diego but we wanted to make sure we discussed he continued excellent play. Against the Toreros, Hachimura was an imposing force in the paint and finished the night shooting 66.6 percent from the field. But just as important, he was 1/3 on his shots outside the paint, which included a (missed) 3-point attempt. The fact that he has improved year-to-year as a jump shooter bodes very well for his NBA future.

At this stage of his development, Hachimura figures to be a nice pick-and-roll scorer based off of his quickness alone. If Hachimura’s defender is trying to hedge and then get back to him, it’s a near impossible task if the weakside defense is not helping early.


At 6-foot-8, Hachimura is a bit undersized for what seems like it would be his natural position at center. And if he plays power forward in the NBA, he will certainly need to improve his touch from outside and his ball-handling. Overall, Hachimura is an intriguing prospect but the lack of depth in this class makes it tough to peg exactly where he should go. But with a solid post game, tremendous finishing inside the paint, great rebounding and an explosive faceup game, he is more than worth a look inside the top-15 to 20 picks.

Romeo Langford, Indiana (vs Purdue): 14 PTS, 9 REB, 2 AST, 1 BLK, 1 STL, 9/10 FT line

Langford continued to flash all the things that make him both impressive and frustrating as a prospect on Tuesday night. His 14 points against rival Purdue came on only six shots, which was awesome to showcase just how efficient he can be as a scorer without needing to use up a ton of possessions.

His 10 free throw attempts were the sixth time this season that he has reached double-digit attempts from the charity stripe. Langford is as physical as they come as a wing prospect. He knows that opponents are playing him for the drive, but he still barrels into the chest of his defender, forcing the referees to make a call one way or the other. When you watch Langford play, it is easy to picture him getting to the free throw line a considerable amount at the NBA level. And on top of his clear ability to get to the free throw line, Langford has shown a tremendous step-back jump shot that could one day become a staple in his offensive game.

On the negative side, Langford--a solid perimeter shooting in college--shot 1 for 3 from the 3-point line on Tuesday. On the season, he is shooting a very concerning 26.5 percent from the shorter, college 3-point line. Langford’s free throw percentage is 71.8 percent, which would indicate that he has the ability to be a positive 3-point shooter at the NBA level, but isn’t a huge indicator of long-term success. So we will simply need to see more repetitions of Langford’s jumper to get a better handle of it. But as of now it seems that he will be a primarily midrange-focused shooter, at least in his NBA rookie season. But if he can’t develop that 3-point shot long-term, it definitely changes his ceiling as a prospect, even with improvements in his ball handling and elsewhere.


But when you are talking about a 19-year old with an NBA-ready frame, shot creation skills, strong defensive instincts and a team-first attitude, a lack of a projectable jumpshot does little to dissuade me from taking them somewhere in the bottom half of the top 10 at worst.

Keldon Johnson, Kentucky (vs Missouri): 5 PTS (1/6 FG), 6 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 3/3 FT

Keldon Johnson dropped out of Schanowski’s NBA Draft Big Board top-10 after version 3.0. He has done little to show that he deserves to be back in the top 10, but still seems like a player worthy of serious lottery consideration. On Tuesday, Johnson was third on the team in shot attempts, going 1/6 from the field (0/2 from 3-point range). Though, Mizzou’s guards shot the ball well, Johnson was great on help side defense, especially when it came to disrupting drives by getting his hand on the ball.

He plays within the team concept on offense, taking smart shots and picking his spots well. But when things get tight down the stretch, Johnson has not showcased the ability to go get an easy bucket in one-on-one situations. His passing is extremely underwhelming and he has yet to reach 5 assists in a game (NCAA career-high is 4 AST). Johnson only makes the simple skip pass right now and his lack of playmaking ability is a huge concern when coupled with his below average finishing at the rim.

If Johnson can’t string together great performances the rest of the season, a few big scoring nights against elite competition could do a lot to help his draft stock.

Johnson has shown that he can be a solid catch-and-shoot option on offense and a good defender in the right defensive scheme, which means that he definitely can be a good top-end starter in the NBA. But for Johnson to have a ceiling that is higher than “good NBA starter”, we will need to see more in terms of shot creation skills and finishing at the rim.

NBA Buzz: The city of Chicago has next for All-Star Weekend

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AP

NBA Buzz: The city of Chicago has next for All-Star Weekend

THE CITY OF CHICAGO HAS NEXT FOR ALL-STAR WEEKEND

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Chicago Bulls' President Michael Reinsdorf is more than prepared to host the NBA's showcase event next year. After all, he's been taking his son Joey to All-Star weekend in cities across the country over the last 15 seasons for some father-son bonding with a little research mixed in. So, you can bet the Bulls' organization will have more than a few ideas on how to make the 2020 spectacle one of the best the league has even seen.

Now the question is, how well represented will the Bulls be on the court for the weekend events?

Friday night should be easy with Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison and the Bulls' No. 1 pick in June likely candidates for the Rising Stars game for first and second-year players.

Then on Saturday, we're already hearing rumblings of a rematch between 2016 Slam Dunk contest finalists Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon, with 2018 champ Donovan Mitchell and this year's winner Hamidou Diallo possibly rounding out the field. Lauri Markkanen is a likely selection for either the Skills Challenge or the 3-Point Contest, and who knows, if the Bulls are lucky enough to draft Zion Williamson, he could crash the party in the dunk contest as well.

The Bulls' chances of getting a player in the main event are largely dependent on their record through the first half of next season. LaVine is averaging 23 points per game right now, but didn't get a sniff from the coaches who are responsible for selecting the All-Star reserves. Markkannen missed the first two months of the season, but he's been playing like an All-Star lately, averaging 23.7 points and 12.6 rebounds over his last 7 games.

It's hard to predict how free agency will affect the balance of power between the East and West heading into next season, but when you consider guys like Nikola Vucevic, Kyle Lowry, Khris Middleton and D'Angelo Russell were named as reserves for the East this year, you'd have to think either Markkanen or LaVine would have a decent shot at being selected next February if the Bulls' record is respectable.

Speaking of which, prospects for a much improved Bulls' team next season are looking brighter than they did just a few weeks ago. Start with Markkanen getting back to the versatile offensive play we witnessed at the end of his rookie year, mix in the improved offensive efficiency of Zach LaVine, and then add the acquisition of Otto Porter Jr., who's been nothing short of sensational since arriving from the Wizards in a trade for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker.

The Bulls are a modest 2-2 since Porter's arrival, with the 6th year forward averaging 22.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game on 62 percent shooting from the field and 58 percent from the 3-point line. It's probably unrealistic to expect Porter to continue playing at that level, but his presence on the court has opened up driving lanes for LaVine and Markkanen, with defenders unwilling to leave a 3-point shooting threat to offer double team help. And, Porter's ability to contribute at both ends of the court should be an even bigger plus as the coaching staff designs ways to best utilize the talent on the roster heading into training camp in September.

With Carter Jr. back to protect the rim next season, and the addition of a high lottery pick, the Bulls should be poised to make a significant jump in the Eastern Conference standings next season. Whether or not that ends up in a return to the playoffs is hard to predict, but if the Bulls are hovering around the .500 mark in January of 2020, their chances of having an All-Star game representative will be greatly improved.

There's no doubt the Bulls’ organization and the city of Chicago will be ready to put on a world-class show for All-Star weekend. We'll just have to wait and see if the Bulls’ improved play on the court will be a topic of conversation for the national media in attendance.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

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Those same reporters spent a lot of time last weekend trying to figure out exactly what Anthony Davis wants for his basketball future. Davis and his agent, Rich Paul, tried a power play a few weeks back to force the Pelicans to trade Davis to the Lakers, where he would team up with Paul's lifelong-friend LeBron James.

Pelicans' GM Dell Demps and team ownership pushed back against that request, saying they would wait until the summer to seek out a trade that’s most beneficial to the franchise. Demps wound up getting fired last week, but the resolve of ownership to get the best possible return for one of the top-five players in the league hasn't changed.

At last Friday's All-Star media day, Davis told reporters he was open to going to any of the other 29 teams, as long as that organization is committed to winning. But by the time the national media left Charlotte, reports were already circulating that Davis wasn't interested in staying in Boston long-term if he's traded to the Celtics, suggesting his end game still involves a partnership with LeBron in L.A.

Meanwhile, the Pelicans are trying to decide whether it's in their best interests to continue playing Davis, especially after he left a game last Thursday because of a bruised left shoulder. At this point, the Pelicans are better off losing games to improve their odds in the draft lottery, while also making sure Davis doesn't suffer a serious injury before they can negotiate a trade around draft day in June.

The league has already told Pelicans' management they have to play Davis if he's healthy, so we could be heading to a stand-off very soon. The Chicago native will likely be playing for a new team next season, but the process of getting a trade done is turning out to be a lot more difficult than Davis, his agent and LeBron expected.

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All-Star weekend turned out to be a showcase for the team with the league's best record right now. The Bucks' coaching staff ran the show for Team Giannis with Antetokounmpo and Middleton among the 12 players on the roster. Giannis put on a dunking exhibition, leading all scorers with 38 points, while Middleton added 20, making 6 of 10 attempts from 3-point range.

The final 25 game sprint to the playoffs should be entertaining in the East, where the Bucks hold a one game lead over Toronto, with the Celtics and Sixers 6.5 games back. Philadelphia will use the final 7 weeks of the season to try to build some chemistry with in-season trade acquisitions Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, while Boston will be looking for better chemistry in general after an inconsistent start to the season.

Gordon Hayward finally appears to be rounding into form after missing all of last season with a serious leg injury. Hayward has improved his scoring average every month, and has played his best basketball over the last 5 games, averaging 17 points on 61 percent shooting from the field. With Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier all coming off the bench, Brad Stevens should have plenty of weapons at his disposal for what promises to be a hotly contested postseason in the East.

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Meanwhile, the race in the West is more interesting at the bottom of the playoff field, with the focus on whether LeBron James will be able to carry the Lakers into the postseason. James still looks like he's playing at three-quarters speed after suffering a groin injury in a Christmas Day game, and the Lakers find themselves games behind the cross-town Clippers for the final playoff spot, and two games behind the 9th place Kings.

Sacramento will be going all out to make the postseason with a rebuilt young roster centered around the backcourt of De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, while the Clippers might have a tough time hanging on after trading their best player, Tobias Harris, to the Sixers.

If we've learned anything over the last decade, it's never a good idea to bet against James carrying his team beyond expectations. LeBron might be looking ahead to the summer recruiting season, but he didn't come to L.A. to miss the playoffs, and his talent and resolve should be enough to get the Lakers one of those final spots out West.