When the Bulls acquired Otto Porter Jr. on the eve of the trade deadline in a deal with Washington, John Paxson and Gar Forman knew they were effectively taking themselves out of the running for one of the elite free agents in the class of 2019. Paxson admitted as much, telling reporters the Bulls wouldn’t be able to attract superstars like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson at this stage of the team’s rebuild.
With Porter owed approximately $55 million dollars for the final two seasons of his contract, the 25-year-old forward basically represents the Bulls’ big strike with their available cap space. And, in the small sample size we saw Porter on the court with the Bulls other foundation pieces, Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine, the results were encouraging. The Bulls had the 9th best offensive rating in the 15 games that Porter played before his season ended early because of a shoulder injury.
Bulls’ head coach Jim Boylen raved about the Porter acquisition, telling me, “I read an article that said it was one of the best, biggest trades in the last 5 to 10 years in the league. We got positional size. We got positional expertise. We got a high character guy. When he comes in the game, it just calms us down. He makes the right play, a good decision. He makes a tough shot that stops their run. He has a feel for that, which is a big skill. He understands our defense and can play in his gaps with his length, 7-foot-2 wingspan.”
But it’s what Porter contributed on the practice court and in film sessions that really impressed his coach. Boylen says Porter routinely reinforces his coaching points and has been important in getting the younger players to buy in to the culture he’s trying to create. “Some guys haven’t been coached hard. Some guys haven’t been told the truth. When I tell these guys the truth, he (Porter) understands that’s what has to happen. They need that. We need that. I’m not caring for them if I’m not doing that to them, and he understands that. Not everybody does.”
Porter returned the compliment, telling reporters before the final home game, “He (Boylen) cares very much about the Bulls’ organization and about his players, and about growing and being together. I think that’s very important that the guys understand what he’s trying to say as far as everybody needs to be on the same page. We have one goal in common and that’s to win a championship, and guys have to buy into that.”
Porter went on to say, “That’s something I was able to see and understand what he (Boylen) wants. Once the guys started to see me following that model, I think that’ll continue to help us, and they’ll continue to understand what it takes. How much hard work you have to put into it.”
Boylen has big plans for Porter in his first full season with the Bulls, saying the 6-foot-8 forward will play a critical role with his 3-point shooting and ability to create in pick-and-roll situations. Boylen also plans to use Porter at power forward on occasion with Markkanen sliding over to center, giving the Bulls their best offensive lineup. And, with Wendell Carter Jr. returning next season to provide added rim protection, Porter’s defensive versatility will become an even more impactful weapon.
Porter shot 49 percent from beyond the arc in his 15 games with the Bulls, giving the team much better offensive spacing for Markkanen and LaVine to attack one-on-one coverage. The six year NBA veteran saw enough to believe a healthy Bulls’ team can challenge for a playoff spot next season. “I just have confidence in my guys. I’ve seen what we’re capable of doing, and we still didn’t have everybody. Just imagine if we did.”
Porter unleashed a hearty laugh and a big smile at the end of that last statement. Let’s hope a productive offseason has Bulls’ fans smiling with anticipation about what lies ahead.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
Two of the Bulls’ division rivals head into the offseason with some uncertainty after suffering first round playoff sweeps. The Indiana Pacers hope to have All-Star guard Victor Oladipo back at full strength for the start of next season after he suffered a serious leg injury in January, but they’ll have multiple players heading into free agency, including starters Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison.
The Pacers could look to upgrade at point guard by using their cap space to pursue three-time All-Star Kemba Walker, who’s hinted at testing the market after seeing his Hornets fall short of the playoffs once again. That could mean saying goodbye to Collison and top reserve Cory Joseph, both of whom could be considerations for the Bulls if they look to add a veteran point guard in free agency.
Collison turns 32 before the start of next season, which could put him outside the Bulls’ timeline, but the durable Joseph might be a possibility. Joseph has contributed off the bench for quality teams in San Antonio, Toronto and Indiana, and he’ll turn 28 in August. The former University of Texas star has played in at least 79 games in each of the last five seasons, and could help a rookie point guard like Ja Morant or Darius Garland learn the ins and outs of life in the NBA.
Collison would also be a more affordable option than established starters like Collison, Ricky Rubio or Patrick Beverley.
The future is also looking a little murky in Detroit, where the Pistons were drummed out of the playoffs by Milwaukee, losing all four games by at least 15 points. Granted, All-Star Blake Griffin sat out the first two games and was limited in the final two because of a knee injury, but the Pistons looked outclassed in every area.
Griffin has three years left on the max deal he signed with the L.A. Clippers and he’s been dogged by injuries throughout his career. Plus, the Pistons are still waiting for high-paid starters Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson to live up to their contracts on a more consistent basis. With little salary cap flexibility, the Pistons are basically locked into their roster for the foreseeable future. Dwane Casey did an excellent job in leading Detroit to the playoffs in his first season as head coach, but the challenges facing him could grow even more difficult in the years ahead.
Still, the situations in Indiana and Detroit pale in comparison to what’s going on in Phoenix. After finishing with the worst record in the Western Conference again, the Suns promoted long-time NBA player James Jones to head of basketball operations. Jones initially said he was planning to retain head coach Igor Kokoskov, since he was involved in the hiring process last year. But Monday night, Jones changed his mind, firing the well-respected, long-time NBA assistant after just one season.
That means the Suns will have their fifth different coach in the last five years when they report for training camp in September. Phoenix has received permission to interview the hottest coaching candidate on the market, 76ers assistant Monty Williams, but Williams is also under consideration for the Lakers’ job, along with Tyronn Lue, Jason Kidd and Chicago native Juwan Howard.
The Suns have a number of talented young players on the roster, including high-scoring shooting guard Devin Booker, 2018 No.1 overall draft pick Deandre Ayton, 2018 lottery pick Mikal Bridges, 2017 No. 4 overall pick Josh Jackson and 23-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr., but to this point they’ve been unable to show any upward mobility in the standings.
Phoenix is in desperate need of a starting point guard and would love to add Morant if the lottery combinations fall their way. Right now, the Knicks, Suns and Cavaliers all have a 14 percent chance to land the top pick in the upcoming draft, but as we’ve seen so many times in the past, high draft picks don’t always translate into immediate success.