Bulls

NBA Buzz: Draft intrigue heating up

NBA Buzz: Draft intrigue heating up

With just over a week to go until the NBA Draft, speculation is running wild over where the top prospects might land. Outside of Deandre Ayton going to Phoenix with the No. 1 overall pick, opinions vary dramatically among draft analysts.

The top of the draft is basically divided into two tiers. Ayton, International guard Luka Doncic, Duke PF Marvin Bagley III, Texas center Mo Bamba, Michigan St. PF-C Jaren Jackson Jr. and Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr. make up the top tier.

The second tier includes wing prospects Kevin Knox, Mikal and Miles Bridges, point guards Trae Young and Collin Sexton and Duke big man Wendell Carter Jr.

So, with the Bulls holding the seventh overall pick, what are their chances of landing one of the top 6 prospects? Actually, pretty good, if you believe all the speculation linking Young to Orlando at No. 6.

The only point guards on the Magic roster are journeymen D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack after Orlando traded former lottery pick Elfrid Payton to Phoenix last season. And, after years of wallowing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, the Magic's front office of Jeff Weltman and John Hammond would love to make a splash by adding a player with box office appeal like Young.

Now, all bets are off if a player Orlando ranks higher than Young is still on the board at 6, and at this point, that could be almost anyone, including Doncic, who appears to be dropping in the eyes of some talent evaluators because of his lack of elite athleticism. Trades could also impact the selection order, with the Knicks reportedly looking to move up from 9 for a chance to get Porter.

The Clippers are another team to watch on draft night. Doc Rivers currently holds the 12th and 13th picks, and would love to move into the top 5 for a shot at Doncic or Porter. The Bulls could also look to make a move if a player they really covet starts to slide, but right now it sounds like they'll be content with making their picks at 7 and 22 to add two more young players to the rebuilding effort.

Plenty of intrigue surrounding what Sacramento and Atlanta will do at picks 2 and 3, respectively. Bagley had an impressive workout with the Kings on Monday, and according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Jackson had a "monster workout" in Phoenix over the weekend. Several teams have reportedly inquired about what it might cost to acquire a top 3 pick, and any potential deal could impact which of the top tier players (if any) falls to the Bulls. 

Dallas holds the fifth overall pick, and Mark Cuban has said he's willing to move down for the right combination of assets. The Mavericks need a big man, and it's possible both Bamba and Porter will be available when they're on the clock. But Cuban would like to challenge for a playoff spot in what could be Dirk Nowitzki’s final season, so Dallas could deal the pick if the right veteran becomes available.

With so many moving parts, it's almost impossible to know which group of players the Bulls will be choosing from at 7. You can bet the front office has already done its own mock drafts, trying to figure out every possible scenario, but at this point it's too early to get a clear read on how the selections will fall.

Who knows, maybe Cuban will fall in love with Carter Jr. over the next week, creating another unexpected scenario. One thing's for sure, John Paxson and Gar Forman don't figure to get a lot of sleep on draft eve, trying to figure out if a trade or trades will alter their master plan.

Around the Association

After Golden State's four-game demolition of the Cavs, NBA observers are already bracing for another "Summer of LeBron." It's fair to conclude James has already decided there isn't enough talent on the Cleveland roster to beat the Warriors, and even if he stays, the Cavs might drop behind a healthy Boston team in the Eastern Conference pecking order next season.

So, where does LeBron wind up? I took a shot at handicapping the field, making the Lakers the early favorite. Magic Johnson's pitch figures to resonate with James, particularly considering LeBron is already involved in the entertainment industry with his company involved in a variety of television projects. What better place to pursue his basketball and business interests than Los Angeles?

Long-time James' friend and teammate Dwyane Wade offered some insight into LeBron's upcoming choice on a recent national radio show when he said the decision this time around will be based more on family and lifestyle factors than purely basketball reasons. Make of that what you will, but LeBron already owns two mansions in the Los Angeles area, and the idea of finishing his career wearing the purple and gold and trying to add another banner to the rafters at Staples Center might hold a lot of appeal.

And, don't forget, the Lakers are trying to free up cap space to add two max free agents this summer. Whether that's Paul George, "banana boat" buddy Chris Paul or even rehabbing DeMarcus Cousins, the Lakers could suddenly have a roster that will be extremely competitive, even in the loaded Western Conference.

----------------

Remember Wojnarowski's comment from last week about the Bulls possibly being "sneaky" in free agency next month. Well, unless George gets frozen out of L.A. by a LeBron signing and starts shopping his services, don't expect any kind of major move by the Bulls this summer.

They could go the route of the Lakers and 76ers and sign a veteran to a one year, overpriced contract just for the purpose of holding cap room open for 2019. Philadelphia paid J.J. Redick a whopping $23 million last season, while the Lakers gave Kentavious Caldwell-Pope $17.7 million, just so they would have money to throw at LeBron, George and the other top free agents this summer. The strategy might pay off perfectly after the turbulent season James just went through in Cleveland, but it hardly suggests fiscal responsibility or a fool-proof plan for success.

Paxson isn't going to throw money at veteran free agents just to win 3-5 more games next season, and there's also the issue of preserving court time for all the young players on the roster. After adding two more young guys in next week's draft, the Bulls figure to have the league's youngest team in 2018-19, and all of those developing players need minutes that would be reduced by bringing in a highly-paid veteran through free agency.

Rest assured the Bulls aren't planning to go through another painful tanking season, but the front office wouldn't mind one more trip to the lottery as they search to add a big-time star to their young nucleus of Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis. 

So, don't hold your break waiting for a "Woj-bomb" involving the Bulls on July 1st.

----------------

One of the Bulls' long-time rivals just hired accomplished head coach Dwane Casey. The Pistons will pay Casey somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million over the next five seasons to try to get the most out of a capped-out roster that features big men Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, along with enigmatic point guard Reggie Jackson. Former coach Stan Van Gundy wasn’t a big fan of playing young guys, and the Pistons traded this year’s No. 1 pick to the Clippers in the Griffin deal, so it’s up to Casey and his staff to get more production out of recent first rounders Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard and Henry Ellenson if Detroit plans to contend for a playoff spot next season.

Casey could win coach of the year honors after leading Toronto to a franchise-record 59 wins this past season. But Raptors management had seen enough after Casey's team got embarrassed in a four-game sweep at the hands of long-time nemesis Cleveland in the conference semi-finals.

You'd think after making a bold move like firing Casey, Toronto President of basketball operations Masai Ujiri would want to bring in a big name coach to maximize a talented roster. But after losing out to Milwaukee in the recruitment of former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, Ujiri decided to promote long-time assistant Nick Nurse to the top spot.

Granted, Nurse is well respected in NBA coaching circles and won a pair of championships in the Developmental League, but what new philosophy will he implement after five seasons of coaching alongside Casey?

The Raptors are saddled with a number of big contracts and now will have to contend with a pair of rising powers in their own division in the Celtics and 76ers. The city of Toronto fell in love with a hard-working team that improved just about every season, but now the fans can get back to their customary winter pastime of cheering on the Maple Leafs.

That sound you're hearing is the championship window slamming shut in Toronto.

NBA Buzz: What's next for Robin Lopez?

rolo.jpg
USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: What's next for Robin Lopez?

The transformation of 11-year veteran Robin Lopez from a hard-working role player to a low post scoring machine is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my long career covering the NBA.

Lopez owns a career scoring average of 9 PPG playing for the Suns, (formerly New Orleans) Hornets, Trail Blazers, Knicks and Bulls. His previous high for a season was an 11.8 PPG average in 2017-18. But all of a sudden, the guy they call RoLo has morphed into a modern day version of Kevin McHale with a series of advanced low post and pivot moves that have left defenders totally perplexed.

Since the start of February, Lopez has reached double figures in 16 of the Bulls’ 20 games, including six games of 20 points or more. He’s averaging right around 16 points over that span, shooting 63% from the field.

What’s behind this sudden offensive explosion? Part of the reason is the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Jim Boylen. Boylen likes to play an inside-out style in his half-court sets, using post touches and guard penetration to set up open looks on the perimeter. That means more touches for the center, with a green light to score if opportunities present themselves in the low post.

Another reason is the thumb injury that sidelined top draft pick Wendell Carter Jr. for the season after 44 games. If Carter Jr. was still active, Lopez would still be in a limited 15-to-18 minute role off the bench.

But even with increased touches and minutes, it still comes back to a more aggressive mindset on offense that we really hadn’t seen in any of Lopez’ previous NBA seasons. RoLo always had the ability to score from in close, using jump hooks with either hand, but now he’s displaying spinning crossovers and up-and-under moves right out of the McHale textbook.

What makes this even more amazing is the scoring spree comes right after most fans and media believed RoLo’s run in Chicago was about to come to an end. Lopez is on the final year of a contract he signed with the Knicks, paying him $14.3 million this season. The Bulls explored trade possibilities before the early February trade deadline but couldn’t find any takers, with interested teams assuming they could get Lopez without giving up assets on a contract buyout.

As it turned out, Bulls’ Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson decided he wanted Lopez to finish out his contract, especially with Carter Jr. done for the season, Bobby Portis traded to Washington, and little faith in holdover 3rd string center Cristiano Felicio. Instead of brooding over losing the chance to join a playoff team, Lopez focused his energy on expanding his game and continuing to play a vital leadership role on the youngest team in the NBA.

So, will this late season scoring spree earn Lopez another contract in Chicago?

Right now, it’s hard to predict how the Bulls’ offseason plans will develop. They could draft a big man with their early 2nd round pick, and Paxson has indicated the Bulls will pursue quality veterans to strengthen their bench unit in free agency.

This new and improved version of Lopez could fit into that equation, but there are several questions to be answered, including what kind of salary Lopez will expect in free agency, and whether he’d be satisfied in a more limited role backing up Carter Jr. in seasons to come. The Bulls also could look to add a free agent big man who fits more with the modern day NBA. Someone like Portis, who’s a threat from 3-point range and has a better chance with hard shows and switches on high pick-and-roll actions. But it won’t be Portis, whose salary expectations led to the deal with the Wizards in the first place.

And then there’s the issue of the Felicio contract that has two more seasons remaining at around $8 million a year. The Bulls’ front office would have a hard time convincing Lopez that he should re-sign at a figure lower than what Felicio is making to be the primary backup for Carter Jr.

Any way you look at it, Lopez has made his upcoming free agency a lot more interesting by unveiling his complete offensive arsenal on an unsuspecting league. It’s provided a fun storyline as the Bulls head towards another last place finish. You can’t help but root for a guy like RoLo, who always puts the team first and is one of the hardest workers in the game.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

———————————————-

One of the teams that had been mentioned as a possible destination for Lopez in the buyout market was the Golden State Warriors. When the Bulls decided they wanted to keep him for the rest of the season, Golden State turned to an old friend to provide some depth behind starting center DeMarcus Cousins.

The Warriors plucked Andrew Bogut out of the Australian professional league (NBL) after he won the NBL MVP and his team’s season had been completed. Ironically, because of an injury to Cousins, Bogut wound up starting in his debut with the Warriors, scoring 7 points and grabbing 7 rebounds in a loss to San Antonio on Monday.

Bogut was the starting center on Golden State’s 2015 championship team, so he’s very familiar with Steve Kerr’s offensive system. Bogut has always been an underrated passer for a big man, and will set hard screens to free up the team’s deadly 3-point shooters. Adding another quality veteran to the mix should only improve the Warriors’ chances of winning a 3rd straight title, and 4th in the last five seasons.

San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich is working his magic again, leading his team on a late season run that could bring home court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. After limping through their annual rodeo road trip with a 1-7 record, the Spurs have suddenly caught fire, reeling off nine straight wins to pull within a game and a half of Portland for 4th place in the West.

San Antonio was one of the league’s worst defensive teams through the first two-thirds of the season, and gave up an average of 122 points per 100 possessions during their disastrous road trip in February. Just when Pop thought he had lost the ability to motivate his squad, they suddenly turned it on at both ends of the court.

Unheralded 2nd year guard Derrick White has played a big role in the turnaround, providing quality minutes alongside DeMar DeRozan and Bryn Forbes in the Spurs’ three-guard starting lineup. During the current nine-game winning streak, San Antonio has beaten the Bucks, Warriors, Nuggets, Thunder and Trail Blazers. The Spurs probably aren’t talented enough to made a deep run in the playoffs, but anyone who thought Popovich couldn’t stay competitive in the new NBA is sadly mistaken.

Finally, did you hear about the fan who paid nearly $7,000 on StubHub for a pair of courtside seats at Fiserv Forum to watch LeBron James and the Lakers square off against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks Tuesday night?

Turns out both superstars were declared out for the game. James because of a lingering groin injury and Giannis because of a sore ankle.

Never a good idea to count on star players suiting up for games late in the regular season, especially with James ready to bring down the curtain on one of the most disappointing seasons of his career.

Oh well, at least the fan will have plenty of time to tour the Bucks’ brand new arena.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Remembering Jordan’s return in 1995; NCAA Tourney bracket advice

michael_jordan_ap.jpg
USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Remembering Jordan’s return in 1995; NCAA Tourney bracket advice

On this edition of this Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill, and Will Perdue remember Michael Jordan’s comeback game in 1995, and get you ready for the NCAA Tournament

0:45       On difficulty playing the last month of the season after being eliminated from playoff contention

3:50       On Kris Dunn and his struggle playing consistently

5:45       Why Markkanen is slumping in March

7:50       On Jordan’s comeback in 1995 and his first game back, against the Pacers

14:35    On why Jordan eventually switched back to #23 after wearing #45

16:30    Perdue on getting traded for Dennis Rodman

17:45    Our NCAA Tourney preview including likely upsets and bracket advice

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: