THE CITY OF CHICAGO HAS NEXT FOR ALL-STAR WEEKEND
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
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.
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.
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.