Bulls

NBA Buzz: If GOAT debate matters to LeBron James, he needs to stay in Cleveland

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: If GOAT debate matters to LeBron James, he needs to stay in Cleveland

No matter what happens in the upcoming Finals, LeBron James has earned worldwide acclaim for carrying a disjointed Cavs team to the NBA’s biggest stage for the fourth straight season.

And, make no mistake about it, James has been brilliant during these playoffs, averaging 34 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.8 assists while playing the most efficient basketball of his postseason career. But even in the midst of this remarkable playoff run, the topic of where James will be playing next season has been a constant theme.

James will be playing in the Finals for an eighth straight year, and there’s no question he’s been helped by facing a weaker Eastern Conference field in most seasons. So why would James consider leaving Cleveland and the East if his ultimate goal is to match Michael Jordan’s total of six NBA titles?

Did you happen to catch the video of the Cavs marching in to receive the conference championship trophy? Owner Dan Gilbert offered congratulations and handshakes to all the players as they walked by, but James wouldn’t even make eye contact with Gilbert. Clearly their relationship has been poor since Gilbert went scorched earth on James when he left Cleveland in 2010.

James returned to Northeast Ohio for family reasons and because he legitimately wanted to win a championship for the long-suffering fans in Cleveland, not because he had made peace with Gilbert. And because James led the Cavs back from a 3-1 deficit to win the 2016 title, he could justify a second departure by saying he accomplished his mission in his second stint in Cleveland.

Still, if you’ve listened to James' interviews over the years, you know he’s a basketball historian and his legacy means everything to him. History would not look kindly on James jumping franchises again in search of a better path to future titles.

Joining forces with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philly? Clearly a move to create another super team. Head west to team up with Chris Paul and James Harden in Houston? Same thing. Join forces with the coach he respects most, Gregg Popovich, in San Antonio? That move might not be viewed as harshly, but he would still be joining forces with two other All Stars in Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

We know James has been frustrated with the inconsistent play of his Cavaliers teammates this season, and the midseason trades that sent out six players and brought in four new ones didn’t go far enough in his mind. According to reports, James wanted the front office to swing a deal for rim protector and rebounder deluxe DeAndre Jordan, but instead he got veteran point guard George Hill, young wing players Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood and power forward Larry Nance Jr. — and only Hill is playing significant minutes in the postseason.

Can the Cavs still be the best team in the East next season? Don’t forget they own the No. 8 pick in the upcoming draft which means they could add a rotation player like Trae Young, Mikal Bridges, Collin Sexton, Wendell Carter or Miles Bridges, or trade the pick in a package for a veteran starter. Clarkson and Nance should take on bigger roles next season, and maybe Ty Lue will finally realize how valuable Tristan Thompson is to the team’s success and stop messing around with Thompson’s minutes.

Maybe a healthy Boston will dominate the East over the next few years. Maybe the 76ers will sign another star with their available cap space and take us back to the 1980s, when Philly and Boston battled for Eastern Conference supremacy for most of the decade. But James is still the best player in the league, and if he stays in Cleveland, the Cavs will be in the mix for a conference championship.

James understands what he’ll be risking by jumping to another super team. He’s won back the media and so many fans around the country with his spectacular play and exemplary work off the court. He’s right in the conversation with Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the greatest players of all time.

Stay in Cleveland, LeBron, and work with the existing roster to battle for another championship. It’s your best path to leaving the legacy basketball historians will be talking about forever.

Around the Association

So what about the two teams that were just eliminated in Game 7 of the Conference Finals? Houston will lament its bad luck in not having star point guard Chris Paul available for the final two games of its series against Golden State. The Rockets led both games by double digits at halftime but then were crushed by Warriors’ third-quarter onslaughts. Paul definitely would have helped the Rockets maintain their poise during those Golden State runs. Now the question is: Will he be back with the team next season?

Paul and starting small forward Trevor Ariza are unrestricted free agents, and breakout center Clint Capela is a restricted free agent. Houston would like to retain all three players. We know Rockets general manager Daryl Morey always thinks big, so don’t rule out a possible run at James in free agency. Given the team’s cap situation, Houston would probably need to work a sign and trade with Cleveland to acquire James, and they don’t have much to offer outside of Capela and veteran shooting guard Eric Gordon. Still if Gilbert wants to get James out of the conference, a deal with Houston is not out of the realm of possibility.

Paul made $24.6 million last season, and at this point of his career no one should expect him to offer Houston a hometown discount. And Capela could command a near max contract after his terrific season. Morey will face a number of challenges this summer, but he’s one of the most creative executives in the league. Houston will definitely be a team to watch.

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Similar story in Boston, where Danny Ainge still has valuable draft picks at his disposal if he wants to bring in another veteran to push the Celtics over the top. Boston already looks like the Eastern Conference favorite for next season with the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward from injuries. Head coach Brad Stevens could move explosive wing scorer Jaylen Brown to the bench to form a lethal second unit alongside Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris and possibly Marcus Smart.

Smart’s free agency will be something to watch this summer. He told reporters after the Celtics’ Game 7 loss to Cleveland that he’s worth more than $12 million to $14 million a season as a restricted free agent because of all the intangibles he brings to the court. Well, intangibles are great, but Ainge has to think about his cap situation long term with Jayson Tatum and possibly Brown as max players down the line to go along with his current max stars in Irving, Hayward and Al Horford.

Since so few teams have the available cap space to offer max contracts this summer, Smart might be best served to take a one-year, team-friendly deal with the Celtics and go back into the market as an unrestricted free agent in 2019. Who knows, by that time he might be able to show off a shiny new championship ring.

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With just over three weeks to go until the NBA draft, we’re seeing the usual reports of players rising and falling on teams' boards. NCAA tournament hero Donte DiVincenzo is being talked about as a possible late-teens selection after his strong showing at the combine, while decorated college point guards Jalen Brunson and Jevon Carter might have worked their way into the first round, as well.

At the top of the draft, Phoenix is expected to take seven-foot Arizona center Deandre Ayton with the first pick, even though new Suns coach Igor Kokoskov will push for international guard Luka Doncic after the two teamed up on Slovenia’s EuroBasket championship team last summer. And if the Suns pass on Doncic, he could fall all the way to No. 4, since the Kings and Hawks reportedly prefer some of the talented big men available.

What does all this mean for the Bulls? Well ultimately one of the top-tier players will drop out of the top five, and if Orlando decides to address its pressing point guard need at No. 6 with a player like Trae Young, Collin Sexton or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Bulls could have Michael Porter, Jr., Jaren Jackson Jr. or Mo Bamba fall into their laps.

Trades could ultimately change the order of the top seven picks, but even if Doncic and all of the top bigs are gone when the Bulls are on the clock, Villanova’s Mikal Bridges would be one heck of a consolation prize. With Bridges' length and athleticism, he projects as the ideal small forward in the modern NBA, capable of switching to defend multiple positions, while also possessing a versatile offensive game that should expand at the NBA level.

We’ll be hearing all kinds of rumors between now and the night of the draft (June 21), but rest assured, the Bulls should be able to add another starter to their lineup with the seventh pick.

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Finally, I can’t sign off without a Finals prediction. I’ve genuinely been impressed with what James has done in leading this Cavs team to another Eastern Conference title. But unless some members of his supporting cast play out of their minds, the Cavs will be out-gunned by Golden State’s four All Stars.

Out of respect to James’ greatness, I’ll give the Cavaliers two wins. Let’s call it Golden State in six, with Steve Kerr & Co. celebrating their third NBA championship in the last four years.

Zach LaVine leads Bulls to raucous fourth quarter comeback win over Cavaliers

Zach LaVine leads Bulls to raucous fourth quarter comeback win over Cavaliers

The Bulls went down big, then came up bigger down the stretch. Observations from a 118-116 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers:

This one was… a shootout? (For a bit)

Before this one, I wrote that anything and everything was possible in this game — especially given that both teams entered on the back-end of back-to-backs and had their travel delayed overnight on Friday.

A shootout wasn’t high on the list of most probable outcomes, but that’s what we got, at least early on. Kevin Love and Collin Sexton led the charge for Cleveland. Love notched 21 first half points, scoring with relative ease at all three levels (4-for-6 from three). Sexton’s full array of crisp crossovers and breakneck dribble drives were on display — he had 16 at the break.

As a team, the Cavaliers shot an unholy 12-for-17 from 3-point range (with one of those misses being a last-second heave just before the half), 68.4% from the field and at one point made 14 consecutive field goals in the first half. They won the second quarter 40-25. 

The Bulls shot 54.5%, scored 56 points and forced 12 turnovers, yet all of that amounted in a 73-56 deficit entering the third. The Cavs’ shooting numbers regressed from there, as the Bulls eventually staged a furious rally.

Credit Cleveland for playing with pride and energy in a game they could have phoned in. And credit the Bulls for rebounding from a porous defensive first half in a game they should have dominated from the start.

Lauri Markkanen bounced back

The Bulls ran plays for Markkanen to start all three quarters that he began on the floor (the first, the third and the fourth). In that order: one ended in a turnover, one a made 3-pointer of a pick-and-pop feed from Tomas Satoransky, one a missed 3-pointer on a similar action.

His increased involvement seemed intentional on the heels of a three-game stretch in which Markkanen averaged 8.7 field goal attempts per game. He finished the night with 17 points, scoring seven of those in the fourth, on 7-for-14 shooting in 33 minutes. His 2-for-8 from 3-point range sticks out, but it was encouraging to see him find his offense in other ways (on the break, facing up and off offensive rebounds).

Markkanen gave the Bulls a 112-111 lead, a lead they never surrendered, with a transition layup through contact with just under three minutes left.

A rally ends in victory

The Bulls entered the fourth quarter trailing 102-87 but claimed the lead — 108-107 — by the 4:38 mark with a torrid 21-5 run. Games of this narrative arc are a pattern for the Bulls — only this time, the late rally ended in victory.

Zach LaVine was, again, the hero. He poured in 21 fourth quarter points — finishing the game with 42 on 19-for-31 shooting — and ignited the UC throughout the game’s last 12 minutes with tough bucket after tough bucket of every variety. His last one was an and-one layup that stretched the Bulls’ lead to four with under a minute left that caused a frenzy.

Dunn bounced back after Sexton got loose in the first half and made a litany of key plays. Some that stick out: drawing an offensive foul on Love that set up the possession that initially gave the Bulls the lead, a steal that resulted in a LaVine dunk to retake it a few minutes later and the game-clinching rebound off a Love miss with seconds remaining. He was everywhere. 

The Bulls’ closing lineup consisted of Chandler Hutchison at the presumptive four and Markkanen at center, with Satoransky, LaVine, and Dunn manning the wing. Hutchison only took two shots but played his role — his length and activity were pivotal to the Bulls holding the Cavaliers to 14 fourth-quarter points. It was an encouraging performance for him.

The game swung on a coach’s challenge won by Jim Boylen that took the ‘and-one’ designation off a Love dunk with 20.1 seconds left (the foul, on Markkanen, was ticky-tack). The Bulls forced nine turnovers and held the Cavaliers to 4-for-15 shooting, outscoring them 31-14 in the fourth quarter and 62-43 in the second half. The clamps went on at the right time.

It was an absolute ride, and though against suspect competition, an exhilarating win. Reality calls with Milwaukee in town on Monday.

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Olympic swimmer Ryan Held reps Bulls' Ryan Arcidiacono at TYR Pro Series

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USA Today

Olympic swimmer Ryan Held reps Bulls' Ryan Arcidiacono at TYR Pro Series

When Ryan Arcidiacono saw Olympic swimmer Ryan Held’s latest Twitter post showing his homestate Bulls some love, the guard did a double-take.

“I was like, ‘I wonder if it’s Chandler [Hutchison],’” Arcidiacono said of Held wearing a Bulls No. 15 jersey as he prepared to take the blocks for a race. “And then I saw him bend and I could see my name and I was like, ‘Wow. That’s pretty cool.’”

This is the depth of Held’s fandom. The Springfield, Ill., native is breaking out Arcidiacono jerseys from the journeyman guard’s rookie season. Arcidiacono wears No. 51 now. Hutchison sports No. 15. 

“He’s a Bulls fan,” Arcidiacono said of Held. “I’ve never met him but we’ve exchanged some [direct messages] on Twitter. This last one, I Tweeted back at him and said, ‘Way to represent.’ I also wished him luck.” 

Held, who swam at Springfield’s Sacred-Heart Griffin High, may not need it. The Illinois swimmer of the year in 2014, he qualified for the 2016 Summer Olympics and swam a leg on the gold-medal winning 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay team.

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.