Bulls

Bulls' 'frustrating' inconsistencies continue with win over Cavs

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Bulls' 'frustrating' inconsistencies continue with win over Cavs

The Bulls were home underdogs on Saturday night, one loss away from being eliminated from playoff contention. Standing in their way was a surging LeBron James and a Cleveland Cavaliers team that could have wrapped up home court advantage in the East with a victory. And yet, given their plethora of baffling losses in what's soon to be a lost season, the Bulls' 105-102 victory to stave off elimination didn't come as much of a surprise.

Instead, it marked yet another example of consistent inconsistency that has plagued the team during a season in which they've proved capable of competing against — and beating — the league's best teams. And it's the reason why one more loss — or Pacers win — will mean the Bulls missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Saturday's primetime matchup marked the 16th and final game this season against the teams with the NBA’s current six best records: Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Toronto and the Clippers. And including the Saturday's win, the Bulls went 11-5 in those contests, including 7-1 against the top two teams in their conference, Cleveland and Toronto.

"Yeah if you would have told me at the beginning of the year we’d be 7-1 against the top two seeds and be on the outside looking in I would have thought you were crazy," Hoiberg said after the game. "But it’s where we are."

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

To put that 11-5 record in perspective, the Bulls are the only of the 24 other teams to record a winning record against the NBA’s top six teams. And it isn’t close.

The only other team even hovering around .500 in those games is Houston, which went 8-11. The closest team to the Bulls in the East is Detroit, which went 5-9 against the Big Six. In fact, the teams currently seeded third through sixth in the East (Atlanta, Miami, Boston and Charlotte) went a combined 15-45, including Charlotte’s paltry 3-12 mark.

But that impressive record, which included a four-game sweep of Toronto, three wins over Cleveland, two against Oklahoma City, and home wins over San Antonio and Los Angeles, has been rendered irrelevant by the Bulls’ shortcomings against the league’s worst teams. Against those groups currently with the NBA's worst eight records, the Bulls have gone 12-7. A winning record can be misleading, as that number is the fewest wins by a team ranked in the top 10 in the East.

So, with two games remaining the Bulls’ season, their win percentage against the league’s six best teams (.687) is higher than it is against the league’s eight worst teams (.631).

You read that correctly.

[RELATED: Bulls stave off elimination with emotional win over LeBron James' Cavaliers]

Even if the Bulls win their final two games, at New Orleans and against Philadelphia, their win percentage against the bottom eight will be .667, still below.

And that's what Fred Hoiberg pointed to during his pregame comments Saturday as to what went wrong early in his first year at the helm.

By the end of November the Bulls were 10-5, third in the East and just two games behind the Cavaliers for the top spot in the East. Their December schedule included 11 of 15 home games, and seven games against teams at or below .500. But losses to Phoenix, New York and Brooklyn set them back. And, looking back, that quadruple-overtime loss to the Pistons wound up being a major blow to the Bulls’ playoff chances.

“And that’s costing us now,” Hoiberg said of the 8-7 December record. “Those early games may not seem like much at the time but you look where we are now, and there’s such a thin margin for error because we didn’t take care of business with some teams that we absolutely should beat.”

When the wheels fell off in mid-January — a five-week span in which the Bulls lost 14 of 19 games — they still remained in the playoff hunt, tied with the Hornets for seventh in the East on Feb. 19. They teetered around .500, remaining in the thick of the race, but the baffling performances continued.

[MORE: Fred Hoiberg plays 'Dumb and Dumber' clip for Bulls, laments early-season losses]

A 13-point loss in Orlando. A 21-point loss in Washington two days after beating the Raptors on the road. They recovered from that loss in the nation's capital with three straight home wins. But that streak was followed with what was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end, two straight losses to the Knicks. The Bulls have gone 4-7 since then and, as Hoiberg admitted, will "hope for a miracle" in the final week of the season.

It’s why Hoiberg disagreed that there was any sort of silver lining in the Bulls’ ability to compete against the league’s best this season. As they proved often this season, Saturday night included, flashes of greatness and team cohesiveness mean little when they’re countered with just as many no-shows. Hoiberg said the Bulls will need to improve their consistency in all areas next season. Until then, they'll have to reflect on what could have been playing meaningful games in April.

“It is frustrating because we’ve given away so many golden opportunities over the course of this year to put ourselves into a position where we’d be locked into a playoff position. Where we’d be making a decision on whether we rest a player going into the playoffs.

“But it is what it is. There’s nothing we can do about that now. But certainly a good learning lesson for us next year.”

The next preps-to-pros leaper, Anfernee Simons confident 'I'll be able to make this jump'

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USA TODAY

The next preps-to-pros leaper, Anfernee Simons confident 'I'll be able to make this jump'

Anfernee Simons looks more like a ball boy than a 2018 NBA Draft prospect right now. He’s not considered small, what with having a 6-foot-3 frame with a massive 6-foot-9 wingspan, and he weighed in at last week’s NBA Draft Combine at 183 pounds, “heavier” than Lottery-bound guards like Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Collin Sexton.

But there’s plenty of potential to unpack from the soon-to-be 19-year-old, baby-faced combo guard. Don’t let the appearance fool you. Simons is one of the most talented players in the class, and a team patient enough to let him develop at his own pace could reap major benefits in due time.

You won’t find much video on Simons, as the IMG Academy star is preparing to be the first prospect to go preps-to-pros without a year in college since Thon Maker did so in 2016.

Simons, a consensus five-star recruit in the 2018 class, originally committed to Louisville in November 2016 and then decommitted the following September shortly after Rick Pitino was fired. Since he had graduated from Edgewater High School in Florida and was playing a post-grad year at IMG Academy, he became eligible for the 2018 NBA Draft because he is a year removed from high school. That’s where he played this past season, declaring for the draft and signing with an agent in late March.

“The opportunity is there. Me and my parents talked about it a lot and I feel like I’m confident in myself that I’ll be able to make this jump,” he said at last week’s Combine. “So I just felt like, do it now and not waste any time.”

Simons has been on the radars of NBA teams, even if he’s not a household name like Ayton, Doncic and Bagley. He’s currently projected outside of the Lottery, in part because teams haven’t seen him compete against collegiate level talent and because his wiry frame almost surely means time in the G-League as a rookie. But again, the skill set is there.

Simons is a point guard with solid range beyond the arc. He may struggle off the ball because of his size, though that long wingspan and a quick release from his chest should allow him to get off shots. He’s a blur in transition and finishes well at the rim – his 41.5-inch vertical was tied for third best at the Combine, and his three-quarters court sprint was eighth fastest.

He’s a mixed bag defensively. Wingspan is the fun buzz word these days, and that will help him at the next level, but his small frame means there’s work to be done. A strength and conditioning coach will salivate at bringing Simons into the weight room and getting his body NBA-ready.

“Just staying durable through 82 games,” Simons answered when asked about his biggest challenge physically at the next level. “Taking care of your body is real pivotal so I feel like learning how to take care of my body now is a good thing.”

Simons maturely answered that the “unknown” of his game will be both a positive and minus during the pre-draft process. While fellow prospects he may face in team workouts don’t know as much about him and, thus, his game, teams also need to find out more about Simons’ game and off-court habits.

“Coming in young, people don’t know who I am and haven’t seen me play much. That’s the good side about coming in early,” he said. “It could be the same thing (negatively). People haven’t seen me like that, so I feel like they don’t know who I am. They probably think I’m too young to play in the league.”

Simons met with the Bulls and has scheduled a pre-draft workout with them. Though the Bulls feel like their rebuild could go quicker than anticipated – especially if they hit on their No. 7 pick – there could be plenty to gain from drafting for upside on a player like Simons.

Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne will both be free agents in 2019, and Denzel Valentine’s long-term future isn’t set in stone in Chicago. That leaves plenty of openings in the backcourt behind Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine. Simons won’t be ready to contribute much in 2018-19, but the Bulls wouldn’t need him to. A handful of outlets projected Simons as a top-5 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. The Bulls could snag him a year earlier, let him develop in Hoffman Estates and bring him up in a year when they’re a step closer to contending.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Bulls use Lauri Markkanen as centerpiece of a trade to bring in a superstar?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should Bulls use Lauri Markkanen as centerpiece of a trade to bring in a superstar?

On this episode of SportsTalk Live, Hub Arkush (670 The Score/Pro Football Weekly), Danny Parkins (670 The Score) and Lauren Comitor (The Athletic) join David Kaplan on the panel.

Manny Machado Mania continues in Chicago. Do the Cubs even need to trade for him to win the World Series this year?

Ricky Renteria has to bench another player for not hustling. Is this becoming a problem on the South Side?

Plus, Lauri Markkanen is named to the All-Rookie team. Could he be the centerpiece of a trade if the Bulls want to acquire a superstar or move up in the draft? 

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: