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Nine things to watch for in the Bulls’ last nine games

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USA TODAY

Nine things to watch for in the Bulls’ last nine games

Let's get right into it. Nine things to watch in the Bulls' final nine games.

Shaq Harrison’s continued offensive approach

In case you weren’t aware, Shaq Harrison is becoming one of the best individual defenders in basketball. He’s become an invaluable part of Jim Boylen’s game plan, has filled in for both Zach LaVine and Otto Porter this week and is the strongest chain on an otherwise ugly Bulls defense.

We know about his defense. It’s the offense that we’ll want to keep on down the stretch. Assuming the Bulls remain cautious with LaVine and Porter, who are resting respective knee and shoulder ailments, expect Harrison to get a ton of run in the final nine games; he’s played 32 and 39 minutes the last two games, both of which were season-highs.

That means more shot attempts, more touches and more strong drives to the basket. Since Jan. 29, Harrison is shooting better than 50 percent from the field with outstanding shot selection. He’s never going to be more than a fourth or fifth option when he’s on the floor, but any sort of improvements he can make on that end will only make him more valuable, given what he’s able to accomplish as a defender.

The best-case scenario for Harrison? 8 points on 4 of 6 shooting with a handful of rebounds and assists and limited turnovers. We know the steals and hounding defense will be there.

Lauri Markkanen’s shooting touch

After breaking out of a long shooting slump in Wednesday’s overtime win against the Wizards, Lauri Markkanen said he had gone back and looked at tape and saw that he was fading away on some of his missed 3-pointers.

It was a pretty mature and pointed response when Markkanen simply could have given a run-of-the-mill answer about always believing in his shot and continuing to practice. The fact that he’s analyzing his game down to that level is a great sign for his future.

Now, of course, he has to make good on it. Even if Markkanen isn’t able to find his shooting touch in the final nine games his sophomore season will have been deemed a rousing success. But it would probably make him, the coaching staff, front office and fans feel a little better if he finishes out the season on a strong note from beyond the arc. He seems dedicated and committed to making it happen, so he’s already off to a good start.

Zach LaVine’s, Otto Porter’s health

Two different injuries, two different things to watch on this one.

Zach LaVine’s mentality that he’s already missed enough games in his career is valiant, and Otto Porter Jr. sure doesn’t sound like someone ready to pack it in. But the truth is the Bulls should be – and will be – extra cautious with dealing with these injuries down the stretch. Forget tanking and catching the Cavs, there’s no real benefit to having these guys play unless they’re 100 percent healthy.

LaVine and Porter have both shown what they can do, and the chemistry they built in February will carry over into next season. If anything, them sitting gives the front office a longer look at some other bench guys who may or may not stick with the team next season. It’s in everyone’s best interest that two key pieces to the Bulls’ core stay healthy and remain healthy heading into the offseason.

Cris Felicio’s baby steps

With Cameron Payne gone he’s been the butt of every tank joke, but Cris Felicio has shown a pulse over the two weeks that shouldn’t go unnoticed. It isn’t going to move the needle or change any part of the Bulls’ rebuild, but credit where it’s due: In his last six games Felicio has averaged 8.0 points on 63 percent shooting and 6.5 rebounds in 16.3 minutes. That includes back-to-back double-digit point totals in his last two games – the first time he’s done that this season – and his first double-digit rebound game since last April.

He’s never going to be worth $8 million per year and he’s never going to have any trade value unless the Bulls attach an asset along with it, which they won’t. But as long as he’s on the roster he’s worth monitoring, and dare we say he’s actually deserving of these minutes? His defense is still as ugly as it’s been, but if he can have 8 and 5 nights and play in the teens, all the better.

They’re just baby steps, but for the first time in a long time Felicio appears to at least be heading in the right direction.

Back to the basics on defense

Remember when Jim Boylen took over, instilled that drill sergeant mentality into his team and it resulted in the Bulls doing an absolute 180 on defense? Yeah, about that.

In Boylen’s first month the Bulls actually ranked eighth in defensive efficiency. Seriously. They were better than the Warriors, Raptors, Celtics and Sixers in December. True, Zach LaVine missing some time, Jabari Parker getting tossed out of the rotation and a healthy Wendell Carter Jr. helped matters, but it was still an impressive showing.

That has wholly disappeared in 2019. Since the calendars flipped over the Bulls are 29th in defensive efficiency, second only to the Cavaliers. Perhaps as the Bulls offense has opened up it’s led to breakdowns on the other end, and they aren’t going to fix their woes in the final nine games, but some sort of improvement would be nice.

In their final nine games the Bulls will play teams ranked 15, 6, 5, 6, 30, 13, 8, 30 and 8 in offensive efficiency. That’s five games against top-10 offenses for those who have difficulty counting. It’ll be a challenge but these are also good tests for a Bulls defense that seems to have had trouble communicating. Nothing like getting thrown into the fire to see what you’ve got. They can only go up from here.

Wayne Selden playing for a spot somewhere

Remember the Wayne Selden hype train? It’s been a rough go for the former Grizzlies wing since a really nice stretch in late January and early February. But since the All-Star break Selden is averaging 8.2 points on 40 percent shooting and just 23 percent from beyond the arc. He continues to be a fluid player in transition and has solid court vision, but too often he’s playing on his own and is out of control on both ends.

Whether or not Selden is playing for the Bulls next season, these nine games are critical for his NBA future. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that as the Bulls have slowed down the pace, Selden’s numbers haven’t been as good. That’s all the more reason for him to push in transition when he can to try to knock him out of this funk he’s been in. He’s had his moments but the consistency just hasn’t been there.

Will the pace keep picking up?

Jim Boylen slowed things down to a snail’s pace when he first took over in December, wanting the Bulls to take care of the ball, dirty up games to stay competitive longer and work inside-out. But over time he’s continued to give the young Bulls some more freedom to get out and run.

Here’s how the Bulls have ranked in pace under Boylen, by month:

December: 26th, 96.4 possessions
January: 23rd, 98.8 possessions
February: 20th, 99.8 possessions
March: 18th, 100.3 possessions

It’s a glowing trend to see, and even though he insists on playing a ridiculous amount of stretches with the ball going down to Robin Lopez on the block, the Bulls are still moving it around for a 48-minute stretch. Remember, pace doesn’t just mean wild 3-pointers and fast break opportunities. They’ve been more decisive and it’s shown. Hopefully those possessions stay on the rise in the final nine games.

The scoreboard

Let’s be honest. It’s impossible not to look at what the Cavaliers are doing. They’ve won eight of their last 15 games and that’s included victories over Orlando, Toronto, Detroit and Milwaukee. So even though the Cavs have a difficult schedule down the stretch, they look ready to compete.

So whether you’re part of the 14 percent club or believe that it’s all up to chance so who cares, monitoring Cavs games is critical. As it stands, the Bulls are two games up in the win column on Cleveland with nine games to play (the Cavs have 10 left). It doesn’t seem like the Bulls will “catch” the Cavs, especially with two games left against the Knicks, but keep your eye on those Cavs scores.

How the Bulls can land a max-salary free agent

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How the Bulls can land a max-salary free agent

The Bulls will enter free agency with approximately $20 million in cap space. That’s far short of the amount needed to sign a max-salary player, but there is a path for the team to land a star — if one chooses to play in Chicago. With rumors out of Brooklyn that D’Angelo Russell would be on his way out if the Nets sign Kyrie Irving, coupled with the uncertain futures of both Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, Bulls fans are wondering “what if.” I’ll let much wiser people debate if the Bulls should extend an offer to any of these players; I’ll outline how it could happen.

In terms of this discussion, it’s very important to note that not all free agents are eligible for the same max salary. The league has three tiers of max free agents, broken up by years of service. Players with 0-6 years of service are in one tier, 7-9 years in another, and 10+ years of service in the last.

Players in the more experienced tiers can get a much larger contract over players coming off their rookie contracts. The wonderful Larry Coon explains this in detail in his CBA FAQ. The exact 2019-20 salary cap will be announced at the end of the month. It’s currently projected at $109 million, and for this scenario, we use that number. Essentially, tier 1 players can get 25 percent of the cap, tier 2 30 percent and players with 10+ years of experience can get 35 percent of a team’s cap.

Russell would fall into the 0-6 years tier, earning him a first year salary (the one that matters in terms of cap space) of approximately $27.2 million. Klay Thompson has eight seasons of experience and is eligible for a first-year salary of about $32.7 million. His teammate Kevin Durant can sign a max deal starting at $38 million.

Step 1- Get medical waiver on Omer Asik’s $3 million cap hit.

The Bulls will find out by June 30 if the league approves their waiver request on Asik. The former Bulls big has a $3 million cap hit of guaranteed money on the books for the 2019-20 season. The team waived Asik back in October and it looks like his NBA career may be over after dealing with arthritis and Crohn’s Disease. The NBA is likely to approve the Bulls request, and they’ll get that money back in cap space for free agency.

Step 2- Waive and stretch Cristiano Felicio

The league allows teams to waive players and stretch their contracts over several years to lessen the immediate cap hit a team takes. Felicio is owed approximately $15.7 million over the next two seasons. The stretch provision means teams can spread out the cap hit of a waived player twice the years remaining on the deal, plus one. This translates to a cap hit of approximately $3.1 million over the next fives years instead of the amount he’s owed. This means the Bulls would gain an additional $5 million in cap space this summer.

Accomplishing steps 1 and 2 will clear enough cap space for the Bulls to sign a 0-6 year free agent, so if Russell wants to play for the Bulls and the front office feels he’d be a good fit, it would only take these two steps to sign him. It gets more complicated for the more experienced free agents.

Step 3- Trade Kris Dunn for a 2nd round pick.

Dunn is owed $5.3 million for the 2019-20 season. Trading him for a second round pick would net the Bulls a cap saving of $4.4 million. The reason the Bulls don’t get to keep the full amount is that teams have to account for a roster spot against the cap when they go below 12 players. Trading Dunn would get them into the 7-9 years tier and allow them to sign Klay Thompson (or any of the other free agents at that tier).

Step 4A- Trade out of the first round of the 2019 draft

Here is where it gets a lot more difficult for the Bulls if they want to sign a 10+ year free agent. They have to clear about $5 million more in cap space. Let’s safely assume they aren’t going to trade Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen or Wendell Carter for pennies on the dollar just to clear cap space. Otto Porter’s contract makes him a very unlikely trade candidate as well. Trading the No. 7 pick for a future first nets them another $4.4 million, close enough to get to that max slot with other small moves.

The major flaw with this is the draft is June 20 and free agency starts 10 days later. You’re not going to get a commitment from any superstar worth this amount until June 30, so essentially this option is off the table.

Step 4B- Trade Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison for second round picks

This option is a lot more likely if the Bulls can sign a superstar in the 10+ years tier. Hutchison showed promise in his rookie season, and despite missing all of last season, Valentine should be able to get you something (especially if packaged with Hutchison). I doubt the team wants to punt on Hutchison after one season, but they'd have to, if this was the only thing in the way of signing a franchise changing star.

If you want to dream for the Bulls, our friends at NBC Sports Boston put together a list of the top free agents available. The likelihood is that the Bulls will use their cap space to sign a few veteran free agents to give them some much needed depth, but should they dream big, there is a path to be in play for a star.

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.

Bulls not a part of Anthony Davis-to-the-Lakers trade, but it could have an effect on the draft

Bulls not a part of Anthony Davis-to-the-Lakers trade, but it could have an effect on the draft

Farewell, Lonzo Ball-to-the-Bulls rumors.

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Saturday evening that the Los Angeles Lakers have finally acquired Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans, and the deal doesn't include a third team.

In exchange for Davis, a six-time All-Star about to enter his prime, the Pelicans recieved Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and three first round picks, including the No. 4 pick in next week's NBA Draft.

There was some speculation - also reported by Woj - that a third team would need to get involved in order to satisfy what Pelicans GM David Griffin was looking for in a package for Davis.

Though the Bulls were never directly connected in reports as a potential third team, it made sense considering they own the No. 7 pick and have a need at point guard.

There was also some speculation - though, again, never concrete news or reports - that Zach LaVine could have been an option in a deal, with the Bulls acquiring the No. 4 pick.

Alas, the Bulls aren't part of the deal. But it still may have an effect on them.

The Pelicans now own the Nos. 1 and 4 picks in next week's draft. They're obviously going to take Duke forward Zion Williamson with the first pick but now have options at No. 4. Whereas the Lakers had been linked to Vanderbilt poing guard Darius Garland, the Pelicans really don't have a need there with Ball and Jrue Holiday in the backcourt.

That, in theory, could bump Garland down to No. 6 and the Phoenix Suns, which would then free up the Bulls to take North Carolina's Coby White at No. 7.

Wojnarowski also reported that teams are still inquiring about the No. 4 pick from the Pelicans. It's unlikely the Bulls would depart with LaVine though maybe they could put together some sort of package to move up from No. 7.

What's more likely is the Bulls keep their assets intact in such a weak draft class and move forward with the best player available on the board at No. 7.

But it's officially Woj Bomb season, so buckle up. As is the case every NBA offseason, anything can and will happen.