Bulls

Stagnant offense, little ball movement show how much the Bulls miss Kris Dunn

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Stagnant offense, little ball movement show how much the Bulls miss Kris Dunn

Jerian Grant dribbled across the timeline late in the second quarter, got switched on to Julius Randle, dribbled some more, then dribbled in on Randle and took a contested 15-footer with 7 on the shot clock. The shot caromed off the rim and into the hands of Brandon Ingram. Another missed shot, another stagnant set, another moment where Kris Dunn was sorely missed.

Those struggles persisted all evening in Friday's loss to the Lakers. Though the final box score showed the Bulls dishing out 21 assists – just off their season average – and going down to the wire with a red-hot Lakers team, their lack of ball movement, inability to push pace and their ugly showing in the closing minutes showed just how much they’re missing their second-year point guard.

There was hope that Dunn’s absence could be masked on Friday. The Lakers entered the night with the league’s quickest pace and averaged the second most transition points per game, behind only the Lakers. It was the perfect setup for a Bulls team that has increased its pace in each of the first four months of the season; since Dec. 8, when the Bulls were 3-20 and turned their season around, they had ranked 12th in pace and transition points, and 15th in assist ratio.

But no player was more responsible for that turnaround than Dunn. So when he went tumbling to the United Center floor in the closing minute of the Bulls’ loss to the Warriors, it left question marks at the point. Fred Hoiberg said before Friday’s tilt that the Bulls’ increased number of ball handlers has allowed their pace to increase.

“I think it’s one thing you can hopefully use your youth to an advantage, getting out, playing fast and hopefully wearing down teams with pace. We talk a lot about that with our group is get out and try to utilize the athletes that we have,” he said. “We now have multiple handlers, and teams like that are difficult to guard.”

Hoiberg’s not wrong in his declaration, but they didn’t show up Friday. Jerian Grant had eight assists and no turnovers, pushing him back into fourth place in the leagug in assist-to-turnover ratio. Denzel Valentine had four assists led the charge on an efficient second unit that got the Bulls back in the game on two different occasions. But ball handling, transition and ball movement aren't tracked on assists alone; both David Nwaba and Lauri Markkanen looked comfortable bringing the ball up the court and initiating offense.

But sometimes numbers lie. The Bulls handed out 21 assists, but from the 2:19 mark of the second quarter to the 13-second mark of the fourth quarter, more than an entire half’s worth of basketball, the Bulls had six assists. Per NBA.com, the Bulls passed the ball 307 times on Friday, just above their season average. But in a fast-paced game with more possessions more passes should have been expected, and would have helped the Bulls.

Hoiberg applauded the Bulls before the game, saying how his young team has bought in to the system and isn't being bogged down by isolation basketball that hindered them a year ago with Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade.

But in that ugly span the Bulls had more unassisted field goals (seven) than assisted (six). True, they scored 10 points off free throws in that span, but the Bulls only had 40 “potential assists,” per NBA.com. They entered the night fourth in the NBA in that category, with more than 47 per game. They'll need to figure out better ways to move the ball - Zach LaVine shooting 17 times in 25 minutes likely isn't the answer - because Dunn doesn't appear close to a return.

Though he began showing up at the Bulls’ practice facility the last two days, Dunn is still experiencing headaches, dizziness and tiredness. The symptoms he began suffering after his tumble late against the Warriors on Jan. 20 “really haven’t changed much,” according to Hoiberg. The Bulls plan on taking Dunn’s recovery slowly regardless, but at this stage he hasn’t even been cleared through the league’s concussion protocol. He’ll have to pass both cognitive and physical tests before he can do anything basketball-related.

That's also hurting the Bulls in crunch time. Per NBA.com, the Bulls went 1-for-8 with two turnovers in the "clutch," defined as a game within five points with 5 minutes or fewer remaining. The shots weren't falling like they were early in the fourth quarter when they made the comeback. And when hero ball stopped working there was little to no ball movement to right the ship. Meanwhile the Lakers went 4-for-8, had two assists and didn't turn the ball over in the clutch.

Without Dunn the Bulls are lacking in multiple areas. It shows both the talent level of Dunn, who if healthy will play in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend, and also the Bulls' shortcomings in the backcourt. And no, Cameron Payne isn't coming to rescue the Bulls. For now they'll continue to push in transition - they had just 11 fast-break points against Los Angeles - and attempt to beat teams from deep - the Bulls made 17 3-pointers. But it's not necessarily sustainable in the long-term. The Bulls need Dunn back sooner than later. They've built the offense (and closing situations) around him, and it's simply not working without him there.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Bulls use Lauri Markkanen as centerpiece of a trade to bring in a superstar?

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Bulls use Lauri Markkanen as centerpiece of a trade to bring in a superstar?

On this episode of SportsTalk Live, Hub Arkush (670 The Score/Pro Football Weekly), Danny Parkins (670 The Score) and Lauren Comitor (The Athletic) join David Kaplan on the panel.

Manny Machado Mania continues in Chicago. Do the Cubs even need to trade for him to win the World Series this year?

Ricky Renteria has to bench another player for not hustling. Is this becoming a problem on the South Side?

Plus, Lauri Markkanen is named to the All-Rookie team. Could he be the centerpiece of a trade if the Bulls want to acquire a superstar or move up in the draft? 

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

NBA 'promises' to potential draft picks not unusual

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NBA 'promises' to potential draft picks not unusual

Bulls Twitter went on high alert after last week's national report that the front office had made a "promise" to draft Boise State small forward Chandler Hutchison if he was still on the board at No. 22 in the first round. Weren't the Bulls supposed to be interested in SF prospects like Michael Porter Jr., Mikal Bridges and Miles Bridges with their own first round selection? Did a "promise" to Hutchison mean the Bulls would go with Wendell Carter, Trae Young or Collin Sexton at No. 7?

The simple answer is the Bulls haven't made any final decisions on either pick. They still plan to bring the top prospects in for workouts and interviews before June 21 and will continue to take a close look at players likely to be available in the 18-30 range.

And, like any professional sports franchise, the Bulls aren't about to confirm or deny they've made a commitment to Hutchison or any other player. Drafts are fluid, and invariably players will rise and fall throughout the workout/interview process as teams try to get their boards lined up for the big night.

The main reason a team will make a "promise" to a player is to eliminate his incentive to work out for other franchises. In the case of Hutchison, he's obviously received assurances from a team or teams that he will be drafted in the first round. Hutchison cancelled his plans to participate in last week's NBA Draft Combine, and most likely will only work out for teams drafting ahead of the franchise that said they would select him.

Jerry Krause would famously try to hide his interest in players he coveted in a particular year and persuade them not to work out for other teams. The best example came in 1987 when a little known player from Central Arkansas named Scottie Pippen became an obsession for Krause, and the Bulls GM tried everything in his power to keep Pippen under wraps. Problem is, Pippen did attend the scouting combine and quickly became the hot topic among NBA scouts and executives. It took some intense work on Krause's part to arrange for the draft night trade that brought Pippen to Chicago for Olden Polynice. Krause also added Horace Grant later in that same draft, and the foundation was built for the Bulls' first three championship teams.

So, the idea of a team making a "promise" to a player they like is certainly nothing new. What's important to understand is that doesn't guarantee the team will follow through on that promise when they're on the clock. Back in 2013, the Bulls got word to Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng they were interested in taking him with their No. 20 pick in round one. But when the Bulls were on the clock, the front office decided they would rather have New Mexico swingman Tony Snell who was ranked higher on their draft board. The Bulls drafted Snell, much to Dieng and his agent's surprise. Dieng wound up going to Utah with the next pick and was traded to Minnesota. He's still with that franchise today, although in a reduced role after the Timberwolves signed Taj Gibson as a free agent last summer.

With so much uncertainty in this year's draft, it seems unlikely the Bulls would "promise" to select Hutchison five weeks before the selection process was going to begin. Hutchison and his agent most likely received assurances from NBA executives that he would be drafted in the 20-30 range, and that was enough to get him to drop out of the combine. But just like in 2013, if the Bulls see a player ranked higher on their draft board fall to 22, that's the player they're going to take.

Hutchison is a good prospect, a 3-and-D player who would fit well with the team the Bulls are building. But he's also a 22-year-old senior without the upside of some of the younger prospects who might be available with the Bulls' pick late in Round 1. Both Hutchison and the Bulls have to reserve the right to protect their own best interests. Hutchison will most likely agree to work out for teams drafting earlier than 22, and he'll have to understand if the Bulls decide to go a different direction on draft night, no matter what kind of previous discussions his agent may have had with the front office.

At this point in the pre-draft process, a "promise" can only be seen as a team's legitimate interest in a given player and an indicator of how the first round is likely to play out. But a lot can and will change before Phoenix goes on the clock on June 21.

Combine notes

Since most of the projected first round picks do little or nothing at the combine, it's left to the second-round guys to try to improve their draft stock with a strong showing in the scrimmage games. Last year, it was Kyle Kuzma working his way into the first round with a dazzling performance at the combine, and this year, the big winner might be Villanova shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo.

The NCAA Tournament hero impressed everyone with his athleticism on both ends and his ability to knock down open shots. DiVincenzo told me his 31-point performance in the title game against Michigan convinced him he had what it takes to apply for early entry, and his strong showing last week probably convinced him to hire an agent and remain in the draft.

Much like Kuzma, DiVincenzo had been projected as a likely second-round pick before the combine. Now he's looked at as a probable first rounder, going somewhere in the 20-30 range, which means he's likely headed to a good team that can ease his transition to the pro game. Not bad for a guy who came off the bench most of the season for the eventual NCAA champs and probably never imagined he would be leaving early for the NBA until that magical night in San Antonio.

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Other players who improved their draft stock last week include USC combo guard De’Anthony Melton, Maryland swingman Kevin Huerter, Tulane shooting guard Melvin Frazier, Cincinnati swingman Jacob Evans and another Villanova product, point guard Jalen Brunson.

Brunson didn't play in the scrimmages in Chicago, but he showed well in the physical testing, displaying the kind of athleticism every team is looking for at the point guard position. It looks like Brunson will definitely be a first round pick.

Similar story for Evans, who averaged a modest 13 points a game for a top 10 Cincinnati team, but impressed the NBA execs at the combine with his tenacious defensive play and offensive potential. Evans could be a possibility for the Bulls at 22.

Maryland's Huerter showed scouts he's more than just a standstill 3-point shooter. The 6-foot-6 sophomore averaged just under 15 points a game last season, shooting almost 42 percent from 3-point range. Huerter's solid play at the combine gives him a chance to be drafted at the end of Round 1.

Frazier also showed enough in games last week to have his name called among the top 30 picks. At 6-foot-6, he has excellent size at the shooting guard position. Frazier averaged just under 16 points a game during his junior season at Tulane, shooting almost 56 percent from the field.

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But the most interesting story involves Melton, who was held out by USC last season because of his connection to the FBI's investigation of corruption in college basketball. Melton maintained his innocence all along, and said the university was just doing what it had to do, fearing additional trouble with the NCAA over allegations a friend of Melton's had accepted money to try to steer Melton to an agent.

Still, even without playing competitively last season, Melton probably cemented a first round selection with his play at the combine. The 6-foot-4 combo guard flashed on both ends, scoring 15 points in a game last Friday playing alongside DiVincenzo in the backcourt.

Melton told USA Today he compares himself to other two-way standouts like Dwyane Wade, Kawhi Leonard and Avery Bradley. That's some pretty impressive company. Melton might be worth the investment of that No. 22 pick by the Bulls.

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Kudos to all the players who took part in the two days of media interviews last week. Almost all of them came off poised and well prepared. Among the top ten picks, I was especially impressed with Michael Porter Jr., who patiently answered all the questions about his back surgery and confidently said he considered himself the best player in the draft without sounding cocky.

Of course, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young also proclaimed themselves the best player in the draft, and projected top 10 picks Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr. and Collin Sexton also came across as supremely confident.

The latest Basketball Insiders Mock Draft has the Bulls taking Bamba at 7 and Chandler Hutchison at 22, which would make the front office and a lot of Bulls fans very happy. But just to show you the wide range in how draft experts are evaluating the top prospects, Basketball Insiders currently has Jackson Jr. going 11 to Charlotte, and it's hard for me to imagine him staying on the board past four.

Brace yourself for all kinds of wild speculation over the next four weeks.

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Finally, May 22 turned out to be quite a day for Lauri Markkanen. Not only is Markkanen celebrating his 21st birthday, but he found out he was voted to the NBA's All-Rookie first team after averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds.

Markkanen joined Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma from the extremely talented 2017-18 rookie class.

And the second team isn't bad either with Dennis Smith Jr., Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Given Markkanen's talent and work ethic, it's very easy to see him making multiple All-Star Game appearances down the line. The Bulls can only hope they come up with another foundation player like Markkanen when they draft seventh for the second year in a row.