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2016-17 NBA Preseason Primer: Offseason winners

2016-17 NBA Preseason Primer: Offseason winners

Leading up to Bulls' preseason opener and beyond, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman will preview the upcoming NBA season with daily features on everything related to the Association. Today the pair analyze which team had the most impressive offseasons.

Mark Strotman: So we're not beginning our nine-day NBA primer with the most difficult discussion, but we'll delve deeper than the top of the class to go over the league's offseason winners. Still, it's not difficult to peg the Golden State Warriors at the top of the class. All Steve Kerr's group did a year ago was rewrite the NBA history books with an offensive onslaught, win 73 games in the regular season and tout the sport's first unanimous MVP. They had a near-perfect season before LeBron James became Optimus Prime and kept them from back-to-back titles.

So what did they do in July? They went and signed this generation's greatest scorer, Kevin Durant, to a max deal (not to mention they replaced Harrison Barnes with him). It's not as simple as plugging Durant and his numbers from a year ago into the Warriors' system, as there will clearly be some sacrificing in the form of touches and shot attempts (looking at you, Klay Thompson). But Kerr and his coaching staff will figure it all out and turn an already all-time great offense into an unimaginable force.

Past Durant, they swapped out Andrew Bogut with Zaza Pachulia. It's an upgrade in talent but I'm not sure it's an upgrade in fit. The Warriors needed to deal Bogut to make room for the Durant signing, and taking a hit at center was well worth it. Adding David West will help a second unit that lost Mo Buckets, and it adds another veteran presence who's chasing a ring a year after signing with the Spurs. I also loved their draft selection of UNLV shooting guard Patrick McCaw, a potential 3-and-D guy down the road who will get ample time to learn behind one of the league's best two-way players in Thompson.

OK, Vinnie. I took the softball toss and chose the Warriors as the offseason winner. Take the brunt on this one and give me a team whose offseason will propel them to a significant difference in 2016-17.

Vinnie Goodwill: Yes, you definitely took the easy road and I won’t disagree with you on the Warriors being most improved. Anytime you have the last three regular-season MVP’s on your roster, you win the offseason. Do they have questions, serious questions? Yes. No more Andrew Bogut is big. See the freeway down the lane in Games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals without him there, and he won’t easily be replaced.

But since the Warriors were taken, I’ll take an under the radar team that should challenge for a playoff spot this season, the Orlando Magic. For the last three years they’ve been slowly building with pieces and draft picks in the wake of Dwight Howard’s departure and they’ve cashed a few in for some veterans to grow up and speed up the rebuild.

Serge Ibaka seemed like the odd man out in Oklahoma City and although his play has plateaued, he doesn’t seem like the type that will suffer a precipitous fall in the near future. Adding Bismack Biyombo means they’ll have a long, shot-blocking group on the backside of the defense that can cover baseline to baseline. Trading Victor Oladipo, as painful as it probably was, frees things up for Evan Fournier and Mario Hezonja on the perimeter. Expecting Aaron Gordon to take another step in his development, while sliding to small forward, can be a slight concern but he’s got star potential.

More than anything, though, they got rid of the toxic presence known as Scott Skiles and replaced him with a real coach who has a history of developing young talent while not simultaneously spontaneously combusting in Frank Vogel, who was let go in Indiana. Vogel earned the trust of his young guys as they went through being have-nots to contenders until Paul George’s devastating injury before the 2014-15 season.

They have a good combination of youth, scoring and although it could take 30 games to mesh, I’m pretty confident the Magic will be a force in the East this season.

MS: I'm also interested to see what Vogel can do with Elfrid Payton. Skiles never seemed to fully give him the keys to the offense, and his minutes per game last season somehow went down from his rookie campaign. I see a bright future for Payton, and Vogel should help move that along.

I began the discussion with the Warriors, so naturally I'm going to shift gears and throw out the Sixers as another team that made significant strides. Wait, what? Seriously. The Process finally yielded a first overall pick, and they wisely used it on a player in Ben Simmons who I believe can be transcendent for the franchise. He's that talented. Forget concerns about his lack of a killer instinct or jumper. I'm not worried about his attitude. There's not another player like him in the league with a combination of interior moves, transition ability and passing acumen. I'm giddy to watch him.

But Philadelphia didn't stop with Simmons. Grabbing Timothe Luwawu (24th overall) and Furkan Korkmaz (26th) are both wings with plenty of upside; Luwawu showed flashes in Summer League. They'll also finally get to see what their 2014 draft class can do when a (fingers crossed) healthy Joel Embiid takes the floor for the first time. And Dario Saric, who went No. 10 that year, is finally coming over. In 24 Euroleague games last season he went 50/40/90 and was his team's second-leading scorer.

With so many youngsters in the fold it was great to see them (relatively) active in free agency by signing Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson. They also added Elton Brand, who should act more as a mentor for their trio of talented bigs in Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel -- while we're on that topic, they'll have to deal one of them at some point. Robert Covington is also one of the more underrated players in the East.

Brett Brown is the right man for the job, and while they're still a few years away from thinking playoffs you can finally see the pieces starting to come together. They've got their face of the franchise in Simmons, and if Embiid can get past his severe injury troubles the Sixers might also have a dominant big down the road.

The bar was set pretty low for the Sixers to improve on what they've done the last four years, but this was a massive offseason. If only Sam Hinkie were still around to see it through...

VG: Did you just say Philly? I might've forgotten the 76ers as the biggest offseason winners of all! Do we know if Ben Simmons will be the next LeBron James, or even the next Lamar Odom? No. Do we know if Joel Embiid will stay healthy enough to show what made him the object of affection before the draft a couple years ago? No.

But what we do know is the ill-fated "Process", no matter how it's framed by defenders (not pointing any fingers in your direction, Mr. Deerfield), was an abject embarrassment to the league and one of its flagship franchises. Getting rid of Sam Hinkie makes the 76ers a winner in every way that counts, before they even win a game. We won't see if his residue will trickle down to other teams that want to try a hand at this "tanking for years" strategy but the pain the 76ers have felt won't automatically turn around.

But they do have a plan, and it's something that revolves around being a respectable franchise compared to rigging the system in a way that felt Ponzi-esque. Just having mere competence is a step up, and some of the actual pieces can play so they'll start moving in the right direction.

Another offseason winner? The Minnesota Timberwolves. No, they didn't pull off a trade for Jimmy Butler (and good for the Bulls on resisting the less-than offers), but in getting Tom Thibodeau to coach and mold those young pieces could be considered a coup. And it's more about the maturity of the pieces than Thibs himself, as Karl-Anthony Towns is a top-25 player in his second season, Andrew Wiggins is getting closer to realizing his vast potential and Kris Dunn has Rookie of the Year written all over him.

Nobody's saying they'll make the postseason this time around, and the way things were done with Thibs at the helm of basketball operations doesn't leave the best of tastes, as it'll be an adjustment for a coach who craved having total control, actually getting total control.

The best part? The pieces are so young, there's no danger of the "Thibs miles" effect on Towns and Wiggins. What are "Thibs miles"? Think of city miles on your car, running over and hitting every pothole, every morning on the way to work and back home. Thibs miles don't affect young guys, right Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose?

Wait, can we start this over?

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”