Bulls can't hold fourth quarter lead against Pistons, lose third straight

Bulls can't hold fourth quarter lead against Pistons, lose third straight

AUBURN HILLS, MICH—The margins in the Eastern Conference aside from Cleveland and Toronto are thin, and the Bulls found them themselves sitting outside the playoff picture last year because taking care of business against peer competition was too much.

They’ve followed the mold this seas as the Detroit Pistons continued their recent dominance over the Bulls, winning 102-91 at the Palace of Auburn Hills Tuesday as the Bulls completed their four games in five nights stretch with one win and three straight alarming losses.

It was the same old story from the night before in their late loss to Portland Monday, as the Bulls held a slim lead into the fourth quarter and couldn’t hold it as their defense and bench let them down.

“We gotta find a way to get some production (from the bench). It is what it is right now,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Just do the best with what we got.”

And to make matters worse, the Detroit Pistons’ bench was full of players ready to play big minutes in the fourth and one couldn’t tell the difference, as Darrun Hilliard, Aron Baynes and Jon Leuer carried the Pistons, each having at least a plus-16 for the night.

Hoiberg had few options, evidenced by playing Jimmy Butler 43 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back and Dwyane Wade 34 minutes when he sat out the last back to back.

“You gotta get these guys to go out and play with some confidence, and get the rotations where we have some starters out there with them,” Hoiberg said. “And fight and do the best we can.”

A balanced attack from the Pistons was led by Tobias Harris scoring 22 points with seven rebounds, while Butler tried to put the Bulls on his back again late, scoring 32 with six rebounds and four assists, but was unable to stop the Bulls from losing their sixth game in nine tries.

Nikola Mirotic’s triple gave the Bulls a 75-71 lead but the Pistons went on a 12-0 run to take firm control, as the Bulls fatigue began to creep in. Gone was their advantage from the free throw line that helped them work themselves back from a large deficit as they trailed by 17 in the second as the Pistons blitzed the Bulls early.

“What we have is what we have,” Wade said. “The good teams figure it out earlier than not. If we don't figure it out we'll be .500 all year. If we do, we're going to take some games and go over. It's on us.”

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Mirotic went right back into his slumber, going two-for-seven and hitting one of four from three. Cris Felicio replaced Bobby Portis in the rotation but was a minus-17 and Isaiah Canaan was one of five and missed both of his 3-point attempts, as the Bulls shot a putrid two-for-15 from long range (13 percent).

 “So what if they’re in a slump,” Butler said. “Pretty sure, sometime soon, the starters are going to be in a slump but I guarantee they’re going to shoot their way out of it because we need them to. We need them to stay aggressive.”

It’s making Hoiberg rely on guys like Butler and Wade more than he should, and one wonders how much more they can handle

“I gotta continue to produce and probably play a little bit better,” Butler said. “Do a little bit more to put us in position to win.”

But Butler was more perturbed about the defense.

“The problem is not on the offensive end; they got whatever they wanted,” “We’re not defending the way we’re capable.”

“We’re messing up assignments. Not boxing out. Not playing to guys’ weaknesses. We gotta fix it. All of these count early on. We have to turn this around.”

The Pistons are already a bad matchup for the Bulls, with an aggressive point guard and one of the league’s most active bigs in Andre Drummond. Add the fourth game and fifth night element to it and it was a recipe for disaster.

Drummond’s fresh legs accompanied by Jackson’s fresh spirit meant bad news for a weary team that played a full 48 the night before in Portland. Drummond had 15 with 10 rebounds and three blocks in just 25 minutes while Jackson, in his second game back from a knee injury, scored just seven with seven assists in 18 minutes.

Drummond was bouncy and the Bulls didn’t have an early answer aside from the perimeter attack by Butler and Wade, who scored 19.

But the Bulls began chipping away at a 51-34 lead with 3:47 left in the second quarter, with Butler scoring 12 of the last 14 points to pull within seven. A steal and alley-oop from Wade to Butler took some air out of the Pistons, as they reclaimed some real estate with Drummond and Jackson on the bench.

A Rajon Rondo layup gave the Bulls a 62-61 lead with 5:18 in the third, completing the comeback. Rondo scored 10 in 37 minutes after his one-game punishment, giving the Bulls a little boost in the second half.

But like loss to the Blazers, the Bulls found themselves not making enough stops when it counted most, and are now one game from .500.

How Jabari Parker impacts Bulls’ salary cap in 2019

How Jabari Parker impacts Bulls’ salary cap in 2019

The Bulls ‘rebuild’ seems to be just a one-year experiment after the team signed Chicago native Jabari Parker to a two-year, $40-million dollar deal on Saturday. Although on first look Parker’s contract would seem to restrict what they can do in free agency next summer, the reality is that the 2nd year team option gives the Bulls plenty of flexibility with—or without- Parker next year.  

If the Bulls pick up the option on Parker, they will still be able to sign a max free agent next July if they make the right moves between now and July 1, 2019.

The NBA projects the 2019-20 cap will rise to $109 million, up from $101.9 million for the upcoming season. The league bases a ‘max’ salary on years of service. A 10-year vet like Kevin Durant is eligible for more ($38.2 million) than his teammate Klay Thompson ($32.7 million), an 8-year vet. If the Bulls keep Parker, they’ll enter free agency with approximately $15.4 million next summer—far short of the cap space needed for a player like Durant or Thompson, but that number is misleading. The $15.4 million also includes cap holds (salary slots assigned to a player based on several factors including previous year’s salary). The cap hold is designed to prevent teams from completely circumventing the soft cap model the league uses. The cap holds for Bobby Portis ($7.5 million) and Cameron Payne ($9.8 million) are just theoretical if the Bulls don’t sign either to a contract extension before the October 31, 2018 deadline. 

Let’s say the Bulls are in line to sign a star free agent like Thompson; all they would need to do is rescind any qualifying offer to Payne or Portis, and then renounce them as free agents. This would effectively take the cap holds off the Bulls’ cap sheet and give them approximately $32.7 million in cap space. Coincidently (or perhaps it’s no coincidence), that’s the exact salary a 7-9 year free agent like Thompson would command.

In order to create enough space for Durant and his increased ‘max’ slot, they would need to waive and stretch a player like Cristiano Felicio or incentivize a trade involving a player by attaching another asset in the deal, like a future 1st round pick.

If the Bulls decline the team option on Parker, then they will enter free agency with anywhere between $35 million and $53 million. 

Gar Forman finally comes through on promise


Gar Forman finally comes through on promise

"We felt we needed to start getting younger and more athletic..."

It was 2016 when Bulls general manager Gar Forman made this statement, drawing ire from many Bulls fans for what felt like—at the time—a disingenuous statement. A swap of Derrick Rose for Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant making you younger and athletic? No one was buying it.

But fast forward to July, 2018, and it is clear that at the very least, Forman has finally made good on his promise. The signing of Jabari Parker has been met with mostly positivity, as a short-term commitment to a former No. 2 overall pick is something that is difficult to hate. But when you factor in the rest of the pieces currently on the roster, it is OK for Bulls fans to be downright giddy over the future.

Lauri Markkanen is 21 years old, Wendell Carter Jr. is 19, Zach LaVine is 23, Jabari Parker is 23 and Kris Dunn is the elder statesmen of the group at 24 years old. If these five become the starting group moving forward, as expected, it would represent one of the youngest starting groups in the league with an average age of 22. 

And athleticism can be checked off the list as well. We know Markkanen has hopsLaVine showed off the explosiveness he was known for last season and Dunn had some dunks last year that legitimately gave fans a Rose flashback

Markkanen and Carter Jr. have both flashed the ability to switch onto guards for a limited amount of time and guard in space, a huge component of any defense that wants to switch a lot. And it also is the type of athleticism that is much more important at their position.

At this stage, Parker represents the biggest question mark athletically speaking. Despite his young age, the two ACL injuries make you wonder if there is any room for him to improve his agility. But at the least, Parker can drive to the basket and finish over the top with authority, even if his defense doesn't catch up.

So, Bulls fans are starting to become intrigued with this roster.

Fred Hoiberg wants his teams to play an up-tempo game, and last season was the first year during Hoiberg's Bulls tenure where the team actually ranked in the top 10 in pace. So if you have followed the Bulls carefully since Thibodeau's departure, you see a front-office that supports their new head coach, yet wasted a couple years to commit fully to his vision, and to a direction for the franchise.

But the point is Forman finally chose a direction.

The Bulls have a young core, and financial flexibility moving forward. And for all the jokes the "GarPax" regime have endured over the years, they have put the team in a position to have sustained success if they hit on all the young players they have acquired. 

And if they are wrong in their assessment of their young talent? 

The Bulls would be able to let Parker go, now that we know the second year of his contract is a team option. LaVine's offensive skill set will allow him to still have trade value years from now, as his contract won't look nearly as bad over time. 

And if the Bulls flurry of moves make the team significantly worse in a year where many expect them to take a step forward, all it would mean is being equipped with a high lottery pick in what is shaping up to be a top-heavy 2019 NBA Draft.

So Gar Forman wanted the team to get younger and more athletic, and though it took longer than it should've, the front-office made good on their promise. That is something that Bulls fans can believe in.