Bulls' D-League team will further develop franchise's 'culture'


Bulls' D-League team will further develop franchise's 'culture'

When the Bulls ceased ties with the Developmental League's Iowa Energy in 2014, hardly anyone took notice.

The Bulls hadn't assigned or recalled a player from the team since 2011, when second-year forward James Johnson was reassigned to the team. The closest general manager Gar Forman and the Bulls came in 2013, when first-round bust Marquis Teague was scheduled to be sent to Iowa before an injury to Mike James necessitated the Bulls keeping an additional point guard on the roster.

Cutting ties with Iowa marked a seven-year stretch in which the Bulls assigned just five players to Iowa a total of seven times, including draft picks in Johnson and JamesOn Curry, the latter twice during the 2007-08 season. Much of the Bulls' inactivity in using the D-League option was due in large part to the organization not having full control over the Energy.

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They shared the team, owned and operated by Iowa Basketball, LLC, with the Miami Heat in 2007 and the Phoenix Suns in 2008 to 2011. From 2011 to 2014, they shared the team at various times with the then-New Orleans Hornets, Washington Wizards, Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves. The Bulls then shared the Fort Wayne Mad Ants with 12 other teams in 2014-15.

It's why the Bulls worked so diligently the past 14 months with the NBA to earn the right to own and operate its own D-League team, which they announced Wednesday afternoon at the United Center. The organization will begin play in 2016-17 and will play 24 home games in Hoffman Estates, Ill., at the Sears Centre Arena, where the basketball and business operations will be housed.

"We haven’t used the D-League a lot in the past, the biggest reason being that we wanted our players in our culture and within our system," said general manager Gar Forman. "But now that we have control of a D-League team, and especially a proximity so close to where we’re at, we see it where we’re going to have the best of both worlds. We’ll have players in our building learning our culture, learning the game from our veterans, from our coaches. And yet we’ll have the opportunity to send those players to the D-League to get valuable minutes on the floor."

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Forman and VP of basketball operations John Paxson said Wednesday that owning and operating a D-League team was a logical step for a franchise that values the NBA Draft and development of young players so highly. Of the 15 players on the roster, nine were drafted by the team and have never played for another team: Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott, Tony Snell, Bobby Portis and Cameron Bairstow. A 10th, rookie Cristian Felicio, signed in July as an undrafted free agent and made the final roster.

Forman gave an example where a rookie such as Portis or Felicio could practice with the team in Chicago in the morning, take the 35-mile trip to Hoffman Estates and play 35 minutes of "great quality basketball" before returning to the NBA team the following day.

"We think it is a key ingredient to sustaining success over a long period of time," Forman said of the Bulls' draft philosophy. "This will be another important tool for us to help our young players develop and grow."

The timing is also significant as the Bulls begin a new era and philosophy under first-year head coach Fred Hoiberg. Whereas the core of the Bulls' veteran roster had played under Tom Thibodeau for six seasons, adjusting and acclimating to Hoiberg's up-tempo offense has been a work in progress for the 5-3 Bulls. The addition of a D-League team, said Paxson, will allow younger players to expedite their growth process by seeing the floor in Hoffman Estates rather than sitting on the bench behind one of the deepest rosters in the NBA.

The Bulls will be in charge of staffing the D-League team, and Paxson said the culture will mirror that of the NBA team, allowing for young players to learn the same system Hoiberg is teaching in Chicago while also getting valuable experience with live game action.

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"We have to keep it seamless. So everybody’s talking the same language, players know when they go from our practice to a D-League game, the terminology’s going to be the same," Paxson said. "It has to be that way. And the other thing is expectations. Our expectations of players aren’t going to change from being here or when we do send them to the D-League."

The Bulls are the 13th NBA team to fully own and operate a D-League team. The Brooklyn Nets and Charlotte Hornets also will begin operations with their respective teams in the 2016-17 season, giving the D-League a record 22 franchises. Per the Bulls' press release, an all-time high 30 percent of current NBA players have at one point played in the D-League.

Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done


Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done

Monday's deadline came and went with expected results: Bobby Portis and the Bulls being unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension.

Some 19 hours later all parties involved said the right things, that they value one another and hope to be working together long-term.

But all that will be shelved until July 1, when Portis enters restricted free agency at this coming season's end. The two sides found themselves in position to wait out on an extension.

For Portis, he's improved his game each of his first three seasons in the league posted per-36 numbers on par with some of the game's best big men. Expected to start while Lauri Markkanen recovers from a sprained elbow - and then act as the team's Sixth Man after that - Portis is in line to post career numbers once again.

For the Bulls, nearly all their front office decisions the past three seasons have been with an eye toward the 2019 offseason and having as much cap space as possible. Waiting on a Portis contract allows them to see if any of the top free agents in the class are interested in Chicago, while also having the ability to match any deal Portis gets on the open market.

It's similar to how the Bulls played out the rookie scale contracts of both Jimmy Butler and Zach LaVine.

John Paxson spoke during Tuesday's practice at the Advocate Center and reiterated how much the Bulls value Portis and the work he's put in since they drafted him 22nd overall in 2015.

Portis also spoke with reporters after practice. And what would normally be considered posturing from any other player, Portis' blue-collar mentality was present in his comments.

"I couldn’t see myself in no other jersey. Obviously, I got Bulls DNA," he said. "Me and the city have a love connection somewhere. At the same time, I just enjoy playing for the Bulls.

"I play this game because I love it. Obviously, you want to make as much money as possible to help your family. But I started playing basketball because it’s fun to me and I loved it. I still have that same passion, that same heart every night I go out there."

Still, the opportunity will be there for Portis to make himself significant money in the coming six months. After averaging a modest 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in Year 3, Portis will be called upon to shoulder a scoring load in the absence of Markkanen. And with Jabari Parker's Bulls career off to a shaky start, Portis will be the go-to guy on the second unit once Markkanen is back in the lineup.

"Bobby is a guy that is very confident in himself. He’s confident in his ability. That’s what we love about him," Fred Hoiberg said. "And like I said, he’s going to go out there and play the same way every time he steps on the floor, whether it’s practice, whether it’s a pick-up game in the summer or once we get started on Thursday. He’s a warrior, and he’s just going to go out there and play the right way with great effort.’’

The Bulls will need that with the start of the regular season just two days away. They open on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that went 30-11 at home last season.

Portis will play a significant role in slowing down one of the NBA's best frontcourts. Whether or not this is his last season doing so in Chicago, he knows what the Bulls think of him and won't let the impending negotiations distract him.

"I know how much I’m valued. They tell me a lot. Give it all I got. Kind of the leader of the bunch. Blue-collar worker," he said. "Everybody respects me because I come in every day with a chip on my shoulder, try to push my guys to get better each day. That makes me go."

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild


Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

In talking with Bulls' fans over the summer and reading posts on social media, it seems like expectations for the 2018-19 season are all over the board.

Some fans think the Bulls will finish at or slightly above the .500 mark and contend for a playoff spot, others are looking for more modest improvement with a win total in the low to mid 30's, while others believe Fred Hoiberg's team will be among the worst in the league.

Reality probably lies in the middle ground. Bulls' General Manager Gar Forman told us on media day the goals will be to win as many games as possible while still focusing on individual player development. The Bulls will again be among the NBA's youngest teams with 9 of their top 11 players under the age of 25. 

Bulls' Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson made it clear at the end of last year's 27-55 campaign that he couldn't endure another season of manipulating the roster and player rotations to improve draft lottery chances, while Hoiberg enters the 4th season of his 5 year contract needing to show improvement to keep his position as head coach. 

Clearly, no one in the front office or coaching staff is talking about tanking with the hopes of landing a top 3 pick in the 2019 draft. The Bulls will play to win this season, but they’ll also have to ride out the normal highs and lows of competing with such a young roster.

So, as a Bulls' fan, what should you be watching for this season to judge how much the team has improved? Here's what I'll be looking for:

1. Will Lauri Markkanen take the next step towards All-Star status?

Losing your best player on the 3rd day of training camp isn't the ideal way to start a season, but the good news is Markkanen should return from his elbow injury around Thanksgiving with plenty of time to re-establish himself as one of the league's rising stars. The 1st team All-Rookie selection put on needed bulk and muscle in the off-season to improve his low post game and he's ready to punish smaller defenders who switch on to him in pick and roll situations. Markkanen has all the tools to become a top 30 player in the league. The question is, how much closer will he come to reaching that status this season?

2. Is Zach LaVine all the way back?

Judging by what we saw during the preseason, LaVine appears to be ready to pick up where he left off during his 3rd year in Minnesota when he was averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting nearly 39% from 3 point range before an ACL injury set him back. LaVine should average 20 points a game or more this season, but how much he improves in other areas of his game (particularly on the defensive end), will be the key to whether the Bulls made the right decision in matching that 4 year, 78 million dollar offer sheet LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings back in July. If LaVine reclaims his status as one of the league’s most promising wing players, the Bulls will have at least two foundation pieces in place. 

3. Can the backcourt pairing of LaVine and Kris Dunn succeed long term?

The Bulls' young guards didn't get a chance to play many minutes together last season because of LaVine's ACL rehab and Dunn's scary fall after making a breakaway dunk against Golden State. Both players are most comfortable with the ball in their hands, and both showed the ability to make big shots at the end of games. Dunn will need to sacrifice some of his offensive game to get the ball into the hands of the team's best shooters, but he's already one of the better defensive point guards in the league and looks like a potential leader on future Bulls' playoff squads. Developing better chemistry with LaVine is critical in year 2 of the rebuild.

4. Is Wendell Carter Jr. the answer at center?

The Bulls used the 7th pick in last June's draft to grab the 6'10" big man, who played in the considerable shadow of Marvin Bagley during their one season together at Duke. Carter Jr. showed enough during Summer League play and pre-season games to move into the starting line-up ahead of 10 year veteran Robin Lopez, but whether he's ready to stay there is another question. Carter Jr. is an excellent rim protector and also has the lateral quickness to switch out on to smaller perimeter players, but right now he's a reluctant shooter. Given the fact Carter Jr. is only 19, it will be fascinating to track how much he improves throughout his rookie season. Did the Bulls strike gold again with the #7 pick?

5. How does Jabari Parker fit?

More than a few eyebrows were raised around the league when the Bulls decided to sign the Chicago native to a 2 year, 40 million dollar free agent contract. Parker was expecting to move to the small forward spot, but returned to power forward when Markkanen was injured, and then moved to the bench when the coaching staff wasn't happy with how the starting line-up was playing early in the pre-season. Parker could be a valuable weapon as a big-time scorer and facilitator with the 2nd unit, but if he's unhappy with his role or playing time, this season could turn out to be an unhappy homecoming. How Parker adapts to the challenges of establishing his role will determine whether the Bulls exercise the team option on the 2nd year of his contract. 

6. Which other players will be part of the roster when the Bulls are a playoff team again?

Questions remain about a number of the team's young players. Bobby Portis has established himself as a legitimate NBA scorer and team leader; his improved 3 point shooting will be critical to the team's success, whether he starts or comes off the bench. But after failing to reach agreement on a contract extension by the Monday deadline, will Portis be chasing stats as he looks ahead to restricted free agency next summer? Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and rookie Chandler Hutchison will all have to make the most of limited minutes, with each player needing to prove to the coaching staff and front office they deserve to be in the rotation long term.

So, don't get caught up in the Bulls chasing some arbitrary win total number. Even though the Eastern Conference is weaker overall than the West, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Miami and Detroit all appear to be likely playoff teams, barring an injury to a key player. 

Hoiberg's offense will continue to emphasize pace, floor spacing and 3 point shooting which should bring out the best in a young and developing roster.