Bulls

Bulls: Jimmy Butler faced with task of slowing down LeBron James

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Bulls: Jimmy Butler faced with task of slowing down LeBron James

There’s no greater high for the Bulls than closing out a series with a record-54 point margin for a victory against the Milwaukee Bucks, and no greater subsequent challenge than taking on the four-time MVP in his prime in his home building.

Jimmy Butler will be on the frontline of defenders Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James will see Monday night, and through the duration of the Bulls-Cavs series, which tips off at Quicken Loans Arena.

James is one of the few players Butler can’t outmuscle at his position, while Butler is one of the few who can physically match up with perhaps the most gifted basketball player of his size in NBA history. 

Butler sounded like a man who knew the inevitable was coming—that he’d have to be James’ shadow for nearly 48 minutes in the series opener—but resignation doesn’t mean fear from Butler’s end.

[MORE BULLS: Thibs must make most of versatile bench against Cavs]

“I like to think I’m big and physical as well. We’ll see,” said Butler, who’s averaging 42.2 minutes in six playoff games this spring. “It’s playoff basketball. It’s never just me guarding him anyways. We’ll see what all this matchup stuff is about. I want to help win, no matter who I’m guarding. Tonight, it’ll probably be LeBron James.”

That means advice can come from any and everybody on guarding James, which is why Derrick Rose won’t publicly divulge what he’ll tell his backcourt mate, if he has specific advice at all.

“I’ll keep that to myself,” Rose said after catching himself.

James averaged 27 points, nine rebounds and 6.3 assists in the Cavaliers’ four-game sweep over the Boston Celtics in the first round.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

“I think he’s focused. I think he’s going to take that challenge,” Rose said. “But who knows what he’s actually going through? When you’re playing against one of the best players in the NBA and you’re coming in this arena knowing how much he did in this arena, I think nerves play a little part to it. But I know during the game, that should be gone. And he should be ready.”

Considering Butler is the Bulls’ leading scorer (24.8 points against Milwaukee), he knows he has to balance the delicate dance between expending his energy chasing James around and making him work on defense. As great as James is, he doesn’t have an endless reservoir of energy, and has appeared to coast on defense at times this season to save his body.

The prospect of matching up with James can lead to the most confusing of answers, even to the most unflappable players.

“Yes, no. I don’t know the answer to that,” said Butler when asked if he needs to focus more on offense. “I think I have to be aggressive but I don’t think I have to put all my energy on the offensive end. I think I have to spend a lot of energy on the defensive end. It’s definitely gonna be a balance tonight and the rest of the series.”

Bulls' Daniel Gafford snubbed for All-NBA Summer League Team spot

Bulls' Daniel Gafford snubbed for All-NBA Summer League Team spot

The only thing sillier than putting too much stock in Las Vegas Summer League results are getting upset over Summer League awards.

Still, Bulls fans may have been confused that center Daniel Gafford wasn't named to either All-NBA Summer League Team announced yesterday.

Say what you will about how it will translate in the NBA, but Gafford's numbers were outstanding in Las Vegas. The 38th overall pick finished with 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in just 24.9 minutes over five games. He shot 68.3% from the field, which was the best mark among players who attempted at least 40 shots (Gafford was 28 of 41). The next best players on that list were 8th overall pick Jaxson Hayes (63%; 27 of 43), Devontae Cacock (62%; 28 of 45) and Jarrett Allen (61%; 33 of 54).

Gafford's numbers were similar to Wendell Carter Jr's from a year ago, when the 7th overall pick from Duke averaged 14.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game in Las Vegas. Carter was named to the All-NBA Summer League First Team fofr his efforts in five games.

Instead, Gafford was bypassed by voters for the following big men: Jarrett Allen, Brandon Clarke (the MVP of Summer League) and Mitchell Robinson on the first team, and Chris Boucher, Rui Hachimura and Jaxson Hayes on the second team.

Here's how those players stacked up against Gafford, who, again, finished with 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while shooting 68.3% from the field:

Allen: 16.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 61.1% FG, 26.6 minutes (5 games)
Clarke: 14.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.8 blocks, 55.2% FG, 22.0 minutes (6 games; Memphis won the Summer League championship)
Robinson: 15.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, 86.7% FG (26 of 30), 26.0 minutes (4 games)

Boucher: 23.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 49.1% FG, 30.9 minutes (4 games)
Hachimura: 19.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 50% FG, 31.6 minutes (3 games)
Hayes: 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 62.8% FG, 24.3 minutes (4 games)

Gafford had a real case to make the second team over both Hachimura and Hayes, while Allen and Robinson really shouldn't have been playing in the Summer League. Allen has 152 NBA games and more than 3,600 minutes to his name, while Robinson was one of the top rookies in the NBA last season and led the NBA in blocks per game.

OK, we've faked our outrage long enough. Gafford had a great Summer League and he should be in the mix for some rotation minutes along with free agent signee Luke Kornet behind Carter.

NBA Buzz: Summer League ends with mixed reviews

NBA Buzz: Summer League ends with mixed reviews

Anyone who spends eight or nine days in Las Vegas generally has a lot of stories to tell. Some good, some bad, but generally an experience they’ll never forget.

Which is pretty much the case for the Summer League Bulls, who returned to Chicago with a 2-3 record, but a much greater understanding of what it will take to be successful in the NBA.

Rookie point guard Coby White took the wildest rollercoaster ride, shooting just 34 percent from the field and a hard to fathom 3-for-30 from the longer NBA 3-point line. Hey, no one said playing point guard in the pros is easy! Still, White showed noticeable improvement in his decision-making as Summer League wore on, dishing out eight assists in the finale against Orlando. The 19-year-old White said going into the tournament that the biggest challenge he would face is learning how to adjust his pace, and not go 100 miles per hour at all times. And, Bulls’ fans will remember Derrick Rose had similar issues when he played in Summer league back in 2008.

Through his five games in Vegas, White showed better recognition on pick and roll coverage and did a better job of limiting turnovers in the last game he played. The former North Carolina star figures to come off the bench as a rookie and his speed will give the second unit a completely different look. White has the ability to get by an initial defender, forcing help from bigger players in the paint. After a full training camp and preseason schedule, the rookie should have more success kicking out to proven shooters like Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. instead of a group of NBA hopefuls thrown together with almost no practice to develop some chemistry. That in itself will lead to a better assist/turnover ratio than what we saw in Vegas.

Similarly, you can bet White will spend the rest of the summer in the gym working on his 3-point shooting. At almost 6-foot-5, White’s ability to play both guard positions was one of the things that appealed to the Bulls’ front office and his shooting stroke in college suggested he could be effective as a spot up option. As my colleague Mark Strotman wrote, White simply joins a long list of accomplished NBA point guards who struggled to shoot the 3-ball in Summer League. He should be just fine with more reps.

Second-round pick Daniel Gafford earned almost universal praise for his work in Summer League. The former University of Arkansas center averaged almost 14 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocked shots over his 5 games in Vegas, showing a physicality and understanding of the pick-and-roll game that could earn him minutes playing behind Wendell Carter Jr. as a rookie. As Bulls’ Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson noted at the 2019 rookie introductory news conference, Gafford has a unique understanding of who he is as a player and tries to go to his strengths to maximize effectiveness.

What that meant in Vegas was outrunning opposing big men down the court for easy baskets in transition, setting hard screens on pick and roll plays, and rolling decisively to the basket looking for return passes that he could power home at the rim. Sure, it would be great if Gafford could pop out like Al Horford and knock down an 18-foot jumper, but that’s just not his game right now. Gafford has a few low post moves he can go to when needed, but initially he’ll just be asked to play hard, rebound and block shots, and occasionally roll to the hoop for a momentum shifting dunk.

Head coach Jim Boylen will have a number of options at center with Luke Kornet providing 3-point shooting and Markkanen expected to play the 5 spot in certain line-ups. Gafford could wind up playing a lot of games for the Windy City Bulls this season, but the fact the Bulls signed him to a four-year contract suggests they see him as a long-term fit.

As for the rest of the Summer League crew, Chandler Hutchison played better as the tournament went on, showing an aggressive mentality in going strong to the basket. Hutchison told reporters he just recently returned to fullcourt games after missing the second half of his rookie season with a broken foot, so it was understandable he had to work off some rust. Still, his ability to run the court should fit in well with White’s speed and Denzel Valentine’s 3-point shooting on the second unit. Veteran free agent Thaddeus Young is also expected to play with the reserve group to provide some stability.

Two-way wing player Adam Mokoka and Windy City Bulls’ swingman Mychal Mulder looked good at times during the Summer League circuit, and both figure to be on the practice court when training camp opens in late September at the Advocate Center.

Around the Association

In case you missed it, Las Vegas sports books are posting their over/under win totals for the 2019-20 season, with the Bulls checking in at 30.5. I’m sure you all remember I was the guy saying it was a lock they would surpass the 28.5 betting line for last season, so I’m going to stay away from offering any wagering advice this time around!

On paper, the Bulls look good enough to top 30.5, but it’s impossible to predict the kind of injuries that destroyed their season last October. The hope is with a healthy core group and the additions of White, Gafford, Kornet, Young and Tomas Satoransky, the Bulls will be a deeper and much more talented team for the upcoming season.

But then every other lottery team in the East (with the exception of the Hornets and Wizards) also figures to be better, so it’s difficult to project win totals.

That’s why they call it gambling!

Now that the transaction madness has finally slowed down, it appears the NBA will be more wide open than at any time this century. The 2014-15 season began without a clear-cut favorite after LeBron left Miami to go back home to Cleveland, but that’s when the “Splash Brothers” tandem of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, along with Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala quickly established themselves as the league’s new power team. The 2019-20 campaign could feature as many as 10 teams entering training camp with the belief they could win a championship if a few things break their way.

Milwaukee and Philadelphia appear to be the class of the East, with the Celtics and Raptors a couple notches below. The 76ers just handed out another max contract on Monday, this time to All-Star point man Ben Simmons, who still needs to add a reliable jump shot and more consistent free throw shooting to his otherwise impressive skill set. Joel Embiid is one of the best big men in the game, and adding Horford and Josh Richardson gives the Sixers a talented starting line-up, but if the man with the ball in his hands (Simmons) can’t be counted on at crunch-time, can Philadelphia make a serious run at the title? We’ll have to wait until next spring to get the answer to that question.

Out west, the race for conference supremacy figures to include both L.A. teams, Denver, Houston, Utah, Portland and maybe even the Warriors if D’Angelo Russell proves to be a capable replacement for Thompson until the veteran sharp-shooter is ready to return from the ACL injury he suffered in the Finals. The Clippers have the highest over/under total in Vegas at 54.5, with the Lakers next at 51.5.

Doc Rivers will have his best roster yet with L.A.’s “other” team after acquiring both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two superstar forwards in their prime. The Clippers also re-signed feisty point guard Patrick Beverley and will have one of the league’s best benches, featuring top sixth man Lou Williams, productive big man Montrezl Harrell and forwards Mo Harkless, Wilson Chandler and JaMychal Green. But the Lakers quickly pivoted after losing Leonard to the Clips and signed veterans Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, DeMarcus Cousins, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Quinn Cook, Jared Dudley and Troy Daniels. It will be crazy watching the Staples Center co-tenants battle it out all season long.

Don’t forget Denver finished with the West’s second-best record last season behind the young trio of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, then added Jerami Grant to team with Paul Millsap at power forward. Plus, the Nuggets are looking forward to unveiling 2018 lottery pick Michael Porter Jr., who was supposed to play in Summer League after rehabbing from back surgery, only to suffer a sprained knee.

Houston general manager Daryl Morey made another bold move, sending a pair of future first-round draft picks along with aging point guard Chris Paul to Oklahoma City for Mr. Triple Double, Russell Westbrook. It will be fascinating to see how a pair of ball-dominant, stat-hungry guards like Westbrook and James Harden co-exist, but one thing we know for sure, it won’t be boring! Morey knew the chances of winning a conference title with Paul and Harden had pretty much disappeared after back to back playoff losses to the Warriors, but only time will tell if the team is any better now with Westbrook in the co-star role.

Many NBA analysts believe the Jazz are in position to win the conference title after trading for talented veteran point guard Mike Conley and then signing former Indiana 3-point specialist Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency. Utah now has a starting five of Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Conley, Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles, with Ed Davis, Jeff Green, Royce O’Neale, Emmanuel Mudiay and Dante Exum in reserve. Quin Snyder has his most talented team yet in Salt Lake City.

Portland returns the dynamic back-court duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and the Trail Blazers swung a deal with Atlanta to bring in Kent Bazemore to share the small forward spot with Rodney Hood. They also brought in enigmatic center Hassan Whiteside to hold down the post until Jusuf Nurkic returns from the serious leg fracture he suffered in the playoffs, and third-year big Zach Collins looks poised for a breakout season.

So, as the NBA heads into its “quiet season” over the next couple months (with the exception of the upcoming World Cup), basketball fans can look forward to the most compelling conference races we’ve seen in a long time.

 

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