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NBA Buzz: Will recent surge change the Bulls' front office plans on the fly?

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Will recent surge change the Bulls' front office plans on the fly?

When the Bulls announced the draft night trade sending three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, John Paxson said the front office would be "patient and methodical" in adding to their young roster with an emphasis on building through the draft.

Now, halfway through the 2017-18 season, will the Bulls’ decision makers decide to ramp up the rebuild based on what they've seen so far from the 3 players acquired in the Butler deal, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn?

Even though LaVine's only played two games, it's clear he won't have any psychological hurdles to overcome following ACL surgery on his left knee, and his physical skills are still off the charts. The 20-year-old Markkanen has been drawing rave reviews from players and coaches around the league for his combination of athleticism and elite shooting ability. If the 2017 draft had a do-over today, Markkanen would probably go no lower than 3rd. Meanwhile, Dunn currently ranks 3rd in the NBA in steals while showing some of the offensive skills that made him the 5th pick in the 2016 draft.

So, with three young building blocks already in place, should the Bulls continue to focus on patiently and methodically building through the draft, or should they try to get back into the playoffs next season by adding veteran talent through free agency?

Depending on what moves the front office makes before the February 8 trade deadline, the Bulls could have somewhere between $30 to 40 million available to spend in the free agent market this summer. We know LeBron James or Paul George aren't walking through the door to the Advocate Center, and the Bulls probably aren't interested in some of the other headliners in the 2018 free agent class, including DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul.

A good chunk of the Bulls’ cap space will go to re-signing LaVine to a max or near-max extension, but the Bulls can still be aggressive in free agency this summer by waiting to sign LaVine until they complete their other moves, meaning only LaVine's cap hold will be on the books.

Looking at the Bulls roster, Paxson and Gar Forman have done a good job of adding solid young players at just about every position. Small forward could probably use an upgrade, especially another explosive athlete who can create his own shot. With that in mind, how about Denver's Will Barton? He'll be an unrestricted free agent after the Nuggets failed to sign him to an extension last fall. The 6-foot-6 wing is averaging a career best 14.4 points and is ideally suited for the fast-paced offense Fred Hoiberg favors.

Other wing players who could be good fits for a young and improving team include Detroit's Avery Bradley, the Lakers' Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Philadelphia's J.J. Redick, Boston's Marcus Smart, Utah's Rodney Hood, San Antonio's Danny Green, the Clippers’ Lou Williams, Denver's Wilson Chandler and the Grizzlies' Tyreke Evans. Of course, the Bulls could also decide to keep their powder dry until 2019, when the $14.3 million salary of Robin Lopez comes off the books.

By now it's pretty clear the Bulls won't be adding a top-3 pick in the 2018 draft unless they get lucky in the lottery. There are definitely some talented players in the 5 to 12 range, including Texas big man Mo Bamba, Alabama point guard Collin Sexton, Villanova swingman Mikal Bridges, Kentucky's wing duo of Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo, and the Michigan St. forward tandem of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges. All of them look like NBA starters with high end potential, and would be nice additions to the Bulls’ rotation.

The real question is, when does free agency factor into the Bulls' rebuilding plan? If the front office is convinced they already have a potential Big 3 in place with LaVine, Markkanen and Dunn, the strategy for this summer may look a lot different than what Bulls fans envisioned on the night of the Butler trade.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

-- Monday night's Rockets-Clippers game might have raised the bar for NBA drama. Chris Paul making his return to Staples Center after being traded to Houston last summer for a package of role players. It became obvious from the outset that Paul wasn't very popular with his teammates on the way out of L.A. Clippers’ bench players were heckling Paul throughout the game, and Blake Griffin got in a couple after the whistle shoves on his former L.A. co-star.

Before the game was over, Griffin exchanged expletives with Rockets' coach Mike D'Antoni and later Griffin and Houston forward Trevor Ariza were ejected after Ariza menacingly marched towards the Clippers bench where injured guard Austin Rivers had been yelling at Houston players all night.

When the game ended, three Houston players reportedly tried to get into the Clippers locker room through a back entrance to go after Rivers and Griffin. Security was able to prevent the incident from escalating even further, but L.A. police were called in to make sure nothing happened when the Rockets walked to the team bus.

Clearly, Paul alienated a lot of his former Clipper teammates with his heavy-handed approach, but what happened at Staples Center on Monday came dangerously close to an incident that would have embarrassed the league for years.

-- We've clearly reached the dog days of the NBA season. Teams are tired at the halfway point, and the trade deadline is still over three weeks away. Still, it's hard to ignore what's happening in Cleveland right now with the 3-time defending Eastern Conference champs dropping 9 of their last 12 games.

The Cavs rank near the bottom of the league in all the major defensive metrics, and the return of Isaiah Thomas hasn't given the offense the jump-start everyone expected. Beat writers in Cleveland are now expecting first year general manager Koby Altman to make some kind of major deal to turn things around, but realistically, which players on the roster hold a lot of value in the trade market?

Cleveland would love to pry Paul George loose from Oklahoma City, but unless Thunder management is convinced George will bolt for Los Angeles this summer, it appears they're determined to ride out the season with their underachieving Big 3 of George, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony.

The Cavs could probably swing a Tristan Thompson and their own 2018 1st round pick for Clippers' center DeAndre Jordan, but does that really improve their chances against Golden State in a possible Finals' rematch? Until the Cavs' players commit to working harder on the defensive end, this will be the most vulnerable playoff team we've seen in Cleveland since James returned for the 2014-15 season.

-- Finally, did you see the painful video of 76ers rookie guard Markelle Fultz trying to shoot at a recent practice? The No. 1 pick from the 2017 draft has played sparingly this season because of a mysterious shoulder ailment, but the team hasn't given many details about the injury, and it appears his problem might be more psychological than physical. Fultz now has a hitch in his shot, and releases the ball around chest level, which means he has no chance to be an effective scorer at the NBA level.

The 76ers know all about redshirt seasons after watching Nerlens Noel and Ben Simmons miss their rookie campaigns and Joel Embiid sit out his first two years. But if Fultz can't find his shooting form again it will be a huge loss for the organization after they traded a future lottery pick to long-time rival Boston to move up from 3rd to 1st last June.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen reached 100 career 3-pointers made faster than any player in NBA history. Our stats guru Chris Kamka came up with this interesting list of how long it took the top long distance shooters to reach the century mark.

8 players in NBA history have 2,000 or more 3-pointers made

Other notables...

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Back to the strange saga of 76ers rookie Markelle Fultz suddenly losing his shooting ability. Head Coach Brett Brown was asked whether Fultz had to be 100% recovered from his shoulder injury to return to the court, and his response indicated how serious Fultz's shooting problems have become.

“What he needs … to be, is able to shoot a basketball.” 

“It is my understanding there is still some discomfort from time to time, but that is part of recognizing there is still some sort of erratic shooting, and it is not where it used to be yet.”

Watching Fultz shoot a basketball right now is kind of like watching Charles Barkley swing a golf club, and that is not a comforting image for hoops fans in Philadelphia.

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”

Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”

Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.

Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.

The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.

It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.

They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.

There was the fight (or the punch).

The aftermath.

The miserable 3-20 start.

The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.

The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.

And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.

So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.

It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.

LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously.  Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.

And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.

The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.

What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.

And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.

Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.

With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.

And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.

But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.

This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.

All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.

The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.

Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.

However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.

And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Donte Ingram's 2018 keeps getting better and better.

The March Madness hero, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of Loyola's win over Miami, will play on the Bulls' Summer League team.

Ingram, a Simeon Academy graduate, had himself an incredible senior season with the Ramblers, who advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

In five NCAA Tournament games Ingram averaged 7.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Ramblers. He also had 18 points in the MVC Conference Championship Game to secure the Ramblers' March Madness berth.

He'll join first-round draft picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the Las Vegas Summer League team, which will begin play early next month.