Bulls

Zach LaVine exits players-only NBA 2K20 tournament in first round

Zach LaVine exits players-only NBA 2K20 tournament in first round

It's day 74 of self-quarantine, and Zach LaVine bowed out of the players-only NBA 2K20 tournament on ESPN with a 57-41 first-round loss to Deandre Ayton.

Ayton played as the Houston Rockets. LaVine played as the Miami Heat. Yes, that means he was controlling Jimmy Butler, who the Bulls swapped for LaVine, Kris Dunn and the rights to Lauri Markkanen to spark the rebuild three short years ago.

Fortunately, no stats are available from this one, so I am physically incapable of breaking down Butler's performance (though a few bricked layups stand out). But LaVine did struggle to get offense all game, scoring just four points in the fourth quarter after trimming a nine-point deficit down to three entering the final period.

Perhaps he would have fared better playing as the team that employs him:

Alas. The quality of the on-court product in the Ayton-LaVine matchup waxed and mostly waned, with LaVine saying he hadn't played 2K since his rookie year.

But the true entertainment value came from the banter on the side between the two.

It began friendly, with Ayton teaching LaVine how to throw alley-oops (double-tap Y, Zach! come on) followed by LaVine chiding Ayton for a dunk he uncorked on him when Phoenix visited Chicago back in February.

Then, the two took a few moments to appreciate Shaq Harrison — frankly, something all of us can do more of. LaVIne called Harrison "my dog" and fondly recalled a conversation in which Harrison good-naturedly lamented having to guard LaVine in practice in Chicago after being tasked with checking Devin Booker in his time in Phoenix. After spending a year with the Suns, Harrison signed with the Bulls in advance of Ayton's rookie season, but it appears the two are friendly.

The topic of conversation eventually shifted to favorite NBA arenas to play in. Ayton answered Madison Square Garden — a fine choice — while LaVine cited the Sacramento King's old Sleepy Train Arena as a true "shooter's gym." The context to that comment is... Something (albeit completely inocuous). 

All the while, Ayton pulled away as LaVine largely spammed contested 3s in the second half. Considering the real-life Bulls' woes in 2019-20, it was all perfectly on the nose. Especially so was LaVine intentionally fouling Ayton, down 16 with five seconds left, to squeeze in an extra possession — though luckily no timeouts were called.

And finally, before signing off, LaVine was sure to make his feelings on participating in the dunk contest once again clear:

Fair enough. LaVine is more than just a dunker. He's also a prolific scorer, clutch late-game performer and near All-Star level player with a tremendous amount of potential.

But if he wants to add '2K star' to that list of distinctions, he'll have to keep hitting the sticks.

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Grading the Bulls’ 2019-20 wings: Porter, Hutchison, Valentine, Shaq

Grading the Bulls’ 2019-20 wings: Porter, Hutchison, Valentine, Shaq

The Bulls’ 2019-20 season is officially over after 65 games.

And what a season it was.

Yes, a .338 winning percentage left them well short of preseason playoff expectations, even with the league’s novel 22-team resumption format allowing for teams within six games of the eighth seed into play-in contention (the Bulls finished eight back of the Orlando Magic).

But widespread front office overhaul — punctuated by the hires of Arturas Karnisovas as executive vice president of basketball operations and Marc Eversley as general manager —  somewhat salvaged a lost season. The two now face the rigors of an unprecedented, potentially nine-month offseason that will involve draft prep, continued roster and front office evaluation, and possibly a coaching search — all while continuing to grapple with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has pushed much of the team out-of-market, limited training capabilities and could act as a buzzsaw to the CBA as we know it.

That’s a lot to digest. And we’ll get to it all. But first, let’s tie a bow on the on-court good, bad, ugly and otherwise the Bulls endured this season, in report card form. We’ve hit the guards. Now, it’s time for the wings — where injury asterisks are sure to abound.

Otto Porter Jr. 

14 G, 23.6 MPG | 11.9 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.8 APG | 44.3% FG, 38.7% 3P, 70.4% FT | 2020-21 contract: $28,489,238 (player option)

Porter makes the Bulls a significantly better basketball team when he’s on the floor. In severely limited action this season (331 minutes), the Bulls registered an offensive rating of 110.2 points per 100 possessions and defensive rating 107 with him on the floor — figures that, extrapolated out, would register 16th and sixth in the NBA, respectively. Not phenomenal, but certainly better than their current ranks of 29th offensively and 13th defensively. 

That is in no way meant to insinuate the Bulls’ fortunes would have changed drastically with Porter in tow all season long. They were just 5-9 with him in the lineup. But his net positive impact makes sense. Injuries up and down the roster aside, Porter’s size, defensive versatility and reliable jump shooting (he’s a career 40.4% 3-point shooter on 3.3 attempts per game) were sorely missing qualities on the wing for the Bulls all season — especially considering his and Chandler Hutchison’s replacements ranged from Kris Dunn to Tomas Satoransky to Ryan Arcidiacono to Shaq Harrison. At 27 and a seven-year NBA veteran, his veteran competence was missed, as well.

But (and it’s a big but) that “when he’s on the floor” phrase is entirely operative. Porter missed 51 consecutive games this season from Nov. 6 to March 2 with a sprained left foot that’s recovery timetable seemed to permute with the wind. Despite being on a gradually increasing minutes restriction, Porter was effective upon returning, averaging 13.2 points on 48.2% shooting (36.4% from 3-point range) in five games before the pause while playing just 21 minutes per. He enjoyed a similarly positive-trending stretch in the games leading up to his injury in November.

The point: Porter is the Bulls’ highest paid and, theoretically, most well-rounded player, but he couldn’t stay on the court this year. That’s a problem — not the problem, but a problem — that’s resolution remains open-ended until Porter inevitably exercises his lofty player option for 2020-21 and we see what he can bring to the Bulls next season. If what he promises on paper ever fully comes to fruition on the hardwood, he’ll help the team immensely.

Porter checks in with an average, passing grade, with one tick up for positive individual play in his time out there.

Grade: C+

Chandler Hutchison

28 G, 18.8 MPG | 7.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.9 APG | 45.7% FG, 31.6% 3P, 59% FT | 2020-21 contract: $2,443,440

On Feb. 8, I wrote the following about Chandler Hutchison. At the time, Hutchison was in the midst of a miniscule four-game stretch in which he averaged 15.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals:

Hutchison’s current 17-game streak of simply playing in games is already the second-longest of his career (the longest being a 20-gamer between Dec. 15 and Jan. 25 of last season). There’s a lot to be said for building momentum day-by-day and his steadily increasing output is evidence.

Two games later, the All-Star break hit. What we didn’t know until returning to the Advocate Center the following Monday was that a shoulder injury that had cost him 17 games between November and January had flared up again in the Bulls’ final game before the break. Hutchison missed the team’s final ten games of the season. He’s played 72 of a possible 147 games in the first two years of his NBA career.

Unfortunately, Hutchison’s injury history must be addressed at the top of any assessment of his play and progress to this point. Any statistical evaluation (e.g. his 2.1% steal rate this season being in the 91st percentile for his position) is inevitably based on too small a sample size to take much appreciable away from — other than that his outside shooting (49.2% eFG, 59.5% FT for his career) must improve. He still brings great positional size at 6-foot-7, rare bounce and the tools to be a rangy, versatile defender at both forward spots. 

There were flashes, but he comes out with a flat grade. It’s simply not going to all come together until he can get consistent reps. And he’s already 24.

Grade: C-

Denzel Valentine

36 G, 13.6 MPG | 6.8 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.2 APG | 40.9% FG, 33.6% 3P, 75% FT | 2020-21 contract: RFA

Valentine followed up an encouraging second season in 2017-18 by missing all of 2018-19 with ankle reconstruction surgery. Recovered a rearing to go, though, he didn’t crack the Bulls’ 2019-20 rotation until injuries paved a path in late November. 

He then spent the year oscillating in and out of Jim Boylen’s rotation, despite profiling as the exact type of player the Bulls might want to execute their preferred style of play — a savvy playmaker, perhaps the most skilled passer on the team and a dead-eye long range shooter when open. 

Valentine was never suited to the Bulls’ aggressive defensive schemes, and occasional bouts of irrational confidence don’t inspire trust. But with the Bulls’ perpetually strapped on the wing, that he only played more than 20 minutes eight times this season is confounding.

By the end of the campaign, his counting stats and shooting percentages aren’t reflective of the lottery pick he once was. Checkered utilization undeniably played a role there. If his next contract (as he enters restricted free agency this summer) isn’t with the Bulls, it would hardly come as a surprise as of this writing — though it’s unclear how new management may view him.

Grade: C-

Shaq Harrison

43 G, 11.3 MPG | 4.9 PPG, 2 RPG, 1.1 APG | 46.7% FG, 38.1% 3P, 78% FT | 2020-21 contract: RFA

Harrison is what he is, a relentless, energetic defender best suited to a deep reserve spot. His ever-ready attitude in spite of wildly fluctuant playing time was admirable and evident in a few spot starts for the Bulls this season — among them, a 15-point, 11-rebound, three-steal outing in an early season drubbing of the Pistons, and a five 3-pointer night against the Pacers a week before the season froze. That Pacers game capped a four-game stretch in which Harrison shot 9-for-11 from 3-point range, a departure from his regular jump shooting woes.

Relative to expectations coming into the season, Harrison did about all you could ask of him. He’s a restricted free agent this offseason; if Kris Dunn moves on, might he be a discount alternative for a hard-nosed defense at the guard spot?

Grade: C

Adam Mokoka / Max Strus

The two-way squad! Mokoka had two shining moments this season. On the night of the trade deadline, he spruced up a bad loss to the New Orleans Pelicans by scoring 15 points in 5:07 minutes of garbage-time action — the first time in the shot-clock era a player has scored 15 or more points in as little playing time. On March 2, he keyed the Bulls’ second win against a team at or above-.500 at time of contest by pestering Luka Doncic down the stretch of a home victory over the Dallas Mavericks (without Zach LaVine). He’s got a nice shooting stroke (40% from 3-point range on 15 total NBA attempts) and displayed shades of a useful perimeter defender, but logged just 112 minutes of NBA action season.

That was still more than Strus, who appeared in just two games with the Bulls this year. In one of them, he scored five points in a flurry to push a blowout loss to the Heat back towards respectability (the Bulls have a knack for that huh?). But that was the extent of his NBA contribution. He tore his ACL on Dec. 23, with an expected eight-to-12 month recovery timetable at the time of injury. 

Either could find themselves back with the Bulls on two-way deals once again in 2020-21, though Strus’ rehab could take him to the doorstep of even next year’s delayed start date. Mokoka got a bit more run — and I personally wouldn't mind seeing more — but having a definitive take on either one of these two (or prescribing them a long-term role with the team) feels hasty.

Grade: INC

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Bulls ‘disappointed’ to not participate in NBA return, but respect compromise

Bulls ‘disappointed’ to not participate in NBA return, but respect compromise

As of a ratification by the Board of Governors Thursday and a pending vote by the NBPA Friday, the NBA’s resumption plan is virtually set in stone.

In it, 22 teams will make the trip to Orlando, Fla. to complete a truncated 2019-20 regular season, possible play-in round for each conference’s eighth seed and a 16-team playoff. The Bulls, at 22-43 and paused eight games back of the Orlando Magic for the East’s eighth spot, did not receive an invite.

In statements, Bulls president and COO Michael Reinsdorf and executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas expressed disappointment for not being able to return to action, but understanding of commissioner Adam Silver’s verdict.

“It is disappointing that we will not return to play for the 2019-20 season, but ultimately this decision is about more than just one team. We are supportive of Commissioner Adam Silver and the outcome of the vote by the NBA Board of Governors,” Reinsdorf said in the release. “We thank Adam and his team for their thoughtful work in exploring all available options to come up with a solution that allows the NBA as a league to resume. They spent countless hours having open dialogue with leaders and experts across various industries, as well as team executives, listening and educating themselves to ensure the NBA made the best, safest decision for the league and our players during these unprecedented times.

“We will now shift our focus to continue to build our team under the new leadership of Arturas Karnisovas and our Basketball Operations Department with a focus on the Draft, free agency and offseason development. To our fans and the great city of Chicago: We thank you for your continued support. Keep moving forward with us as we prepare to return to the court for the 2020-21 season.”

Indeed, the focus now shifts to an elongated and unprecedented offseason for the Bulls. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Thursday that the NBA Lottery and Draft will be rescheduled for Aug. 25 and Oct. 15, respectively. Shams Charania of The Athletic pinpointed Oct. 18 as a potential start date for free agency. Those dates are reportedly fluid, but they’ll be ones to monitor for Bulls fans.

Also worth keeping an ear to the ground on will be the new regime’s decision on the future of head coach Jim Boylen with the franchise, as well as restricted free agents Kris Dunn and Denzel Valentine, and various others along the basketball operations department and roster.

Karnisovas evidently saw some benefit to the Bulls returning to action from an evaluation perspective, but conveyed understanding for the difficult situation the league currently finds itself in.

“To be included in the plan to restart the 2019-20 season would have been a positive for our players and their development, but we understand the need to compromise and we support the decision made today by the NBA Board of Governors,” Karnisovas said in his statement.  “We are disappointed that our season is over and there won’t be opportunities to see our team or players in game action, but we will be creative in discovering new opportunities to support their growth as we prepare for the next season. Commissioner Adam Silver had the difficult responsibility to develop the best option for the league, and I commend him for the job he has done, particularly given the extraordinary circumstances.”

Karnisovas and new general manager Marc Eversley will reportedly soon head to Chicago. Much of the team is out of market, and there are no games left to be played, but getting under one roof — even for a spell — should only benefit the organization in their quest to “build” under new leadership.

The Bulls' final game of the 2019-20 campaign was a 108-103 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 10. The NBA suspended its season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic March 11.

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