Bulls

Bulls clinch playoff berth with blowout win over Nets in regular-season finale

Bulls clinch playoff berth with blowout win over Nets in regular-season finale

One wonders when the minds of the Bulls players and coaches shifted from the Brooklyn Nets to the upcoming playoff opponent, the Boston Celtics.

It could’ve been five minutes into the game or five hours before, when they realized the Nets weren’t making any special additions to their lineup while sitting their top players.

Either way, they didn’t put forth their best performance in a 112-73 win, where the led wire-to-wire, clinching a playoff spot with a 41-41 record—one game worse than last season but enough to make the playoffs in an underwhelming Eastern Conference.

“Now the fun begins,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said, as Game 1 on Sunday evening starts the enjoyment against the Celtics in Boston, with Game 2 being Tuesday at TD Garden.

The Bulls were 34-39 a month ago, losers of five straight that included a 100-80 thrashing on a Sunday afternoon that wasn’t as close as the 20-point spread.

“I just told the guys how proud I am of them, our backs were against the wall,” Hoiberg said. “It was a great job of being resilient by our players, hanging in there and sticking in there and finding a way to battle all the way to the last day.”

They finished off their season like they started it—with more questions than answers, stumbling out after tipoff but thankfully for them, they played a team without Jeremy Lin, Brook Lopez and a few others who could’ve made the night miserable.

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Instead, it allowed the Bulls to shoot just 36 percent through three quarters but have such a comfortable lead that none of the starters were truly needed in the fourth quarter.

Jimmy Butler concluded his best season as a pro with a 25 point, six-rebound and four-assist showing, with career-high averages in all three categories. Had the Bulls record been better and Butler not gone through a mini-slump after the All-Star break, he’d be on the back end of some Most Valuable Player conversation.

“I think we all are seeing the evolution of Jimmy Butler,” said Wade in the morning shootaround. “I can’t say anybody, even Jimmy, knew that he would be this player right now. The biggest thing that surprised me is he’s a clutch player. For a guy who hasn’t had a lot of clutch moments in his career, he’s as clutch as it gets.”

He’ll have to settle for getting this rag-tag bunch into a playoff showdown with the Celtics, a team they probably feel confident against—or as confident as an eighth seed should against a top seed.

Presumably, Wednesday shouldn’t be an indication of how the Bulls are going to play but it appears their rotation is set the right way as Rajon Rondo returned from a right wrist injury to play 19 minutes and scored 10 points with five assists and six rebounds.

His backup, Jerian Grant, got valuable playing time in his stead and although he was right with the muck of the night, his 3-point shooting over the last couple weeks elevated him past Michael Carter-Williams for backup minutes.

And with Wade still working himself back into decent shape and rhythm, Paul Zipser had a career night, helping break the game open in the first quarter to score eight of his career-high 21 points off the bench in 29 minutes. The lead kept increased through the night against the undermanned Nets, who were led by Archie Goodwin’s 20 and K.J. McDaniels’ 15 points off the bench.

With the inconsistency of the season costing them throughout, it wasn’t a fatal blow as they get new life this weekend in Boston, with a chance to craft a new narrative and make the season a surprising success.

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

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USA TODAY

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.