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Bulls: Jimmy Butler gametime decision with flu Friday night

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Bulls: Jimmy Butler gametime decision with flu Friday night

BOSTON — Jimmy Butler will most certainly be in Toronto for All-Star weekend, but his availability for Friday night’s game in Boston is in question as he’s suffering from flu-like symptoms and didn’t participate in the morning shootaround.

“Jimmy was at practice yesterday. Just kind of got it overnight,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “So (we’ll) see how he does throughout the day, get him rest obviously, fluids, and kind of see where things go.”

[RELATED - Fred Hoiberg calls for accountability during recent slide]

Butler missed out being voted into the All-Star game as a starter by nearly 100,000 votes as Toronto’s Kyle Lowry was voted in by the fans for the second year in a row. Lowry and Miami’s Dwyane Wade will start at the guard spots along with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. Butler actually finished fourth behind Wade, Lowry and Kyrie Irving in the voting.

Actually, Pau Gasol came within 360 votes of starting ahead of Carmelo Anthony with a late push, likely due to the international voting from his home of Spain.

“Jimmy Butler should be starting (over Wade),” said TNT’s Charles Barkley on the telecast that revealed the starters Thursday night. “He’s been terrific all year. He’s the best player on the Bulls. Other than LeBron James, he’s been the second best player in the Eastern Conference all year.”

Butler, who’s averaging 26.2 points, 6.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds this month, will likely be voted in by the coaches for the second straight year.

“Jimmy I think is very deserving this year with the consistency he’s had with his play all year, being a two-way player,” Hoiberg said. “I think we’re confident that Jimmy will be in Toronto over All-Star Weekend, but it is great for our league. No doubt about it. Especially with it being Kobe’s last year. I think this could be a special one.”

Butler is averaging 22.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists on the season while leading the league in minutes. Derrick Rose finished seventh in voting for backcourt members, but said he didn’t pay much attention to it.

“All-Star is great, huge accomplishment, great accolade, great to have on your resume. But don’t define the player I am or someone is just because of All-Star game,” he said.

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Rose endorses Butler’s sure-fire candidacy for one of the seven reserve spots, but doesn’t think he’s done enough to go.

“Nah, not at all,” Rose said. “Just the year. I’ve missed too many games. That’s about it. I don’t care about what people think or say. It’s whatever they say. The only thing I can do is just keep working on my game and keep focusing on what I’ve been focusing on.”

And perhaps tired of the questions about his game, Rose went rhetorical when asked if he was the same player he once was. Rose is having his best scoring month, averaging 19 points on 49 percent shooting in 31.1 minutes. He scored 29 in the Bulls' 31-point loss to Golden State Wednesday

“You can’t see it? What you want me to say it? You can’t see it when I’m out there? I hope so,” he said. “Whenever I step on the floor, I just try to play my heart out. Try to play aggressive and win a game for one and with the team we’re on, I have to be more vocal as far as becoming a leader.”

Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why didn't Zach LaVine receive more national praise last season?

Fresh off a $78 million contract, the 25-year-old averaged 25.6 points on 44% shooting, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 36.1 minutes in October/November. He led the non-James Harden NBA in usage rate (32.5%), a slight tick above Kevin Durant (32.1%), Joel Embiid (32.0%), Devin Booker (31.4%) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (31.3%).

He was tasked with carrying a Bulls offense that was without its projected second leading scorer (Lauri Markkanen, elbow), starting point guard (Kris Dunn, knee) and Sixth Man (Bobby Portis, knee). On most nights, LaVine's second and third options were Jabari Parker and rookie Wendell Carter - Carter wasn't even a second or third option at Duke.

And he produced. The efficiency wasn't there - his 47.9% eFG was 24th of 27 players with a usage rate of 27 or higher - but that was to be expected. None of those 27 players had a weaker supporting cast than LaVine, who led the Bulls in scoring 17 of 22 times in that span.

LaVine's usage scaled back when the injured rotation players eventually returned. LaVine's usage rate from Dec. 1 until the end of the season was 28.4%, 23rd highest in the NBA and on par with Kyrie Irving (28.6%), Bradley Beal (28.7%) and Paul George (28.8%).

His efficiency picked up, too. His effective field goal percentage in that span was 54.9%, seven points higher than the putting-the-team-on-his-back-doe October and November. Of players with a usage rate of 28% or better, LaVine's eFG% was 11th of 25 players.

LaVine was born to score. His 23.7 points per game were all the more impressive considering how the Bulls slowed the pace once Jim Boylen took over, and the fact that he managed to shoot nearly 47% from the field after such a heavy October/November was a major positive.

So why didn't LaVine get more attention? Because points aren't everything and wins matter.

The latter isn't really LaVine's fault. The Bulls went 5-18 during LaVine's heavy usage stretch, but that was more a by-product of the injuries and decimated rotation. It would have been tough for Giannis Antetokounmpo to drag the Bulls to a win in late October when Cam Payne scored 15 points, Cristiano Felicio led the team in rebounds and Antonio Blakeney played 22 minutes off the bench. LaVine needed to play flawlessly for the Bulls to win - he averaged 30.6 points in the Bulls' five wins. The Bulls couldn't have won last season.

Offense is creeping back up to all-time highs in terms of pace and points, and efficiency has never been higher. That's good news for LaVine, who topped 30 points 11 times (in 63 games). Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bulls were 6-5 in those games. In the 52 games LaVine played but didn't top 30 points? The Bulls were 10-42 (a 16-win pace over an 82-game season). They were 2-21 when LaVine scored 21 or fewer points (a 7-win pace).

There's a lot to unpack here, beginning with the fact that LaVine really could have used some help last season. Lauri Markkanen's February surge and Otto Porter's arrival helped matters, but the season had been lost long before then and momentum never really picked up when all were benched late in March in the chase for ping-pong balls.

The Bulls will be better next season. LaVine may not average 23.7 points because Markkanen will need touches and Porter is a legitimate No. 3 scorer. Last season the Bulls' No. 3 scorer - of players who began and ended the year with the team - was Kris Dunn at 11.3 points.

That should mean an even bigger uptick in efficiency for LaVine, and it'll also allow him to flourish in other aspects of the game.

There's a debate among Bulls fans regarding LaVine's passing. He averaged 4.5 assists but did so in a high-usage capacity. He was 47th in assists per game and 60th in assist percentage (22.4%). But his turnover percentage was also 12%; of the 28 players who had a usage rate above 27% for the entire season, only Trae Young and Devin Booker had worse turnover percentages than LaVine.

LaVine isn't a bad passer, but he really isn't a good one, either. And that's fine! The Bulls overhauled the point guard position last season, adding Tomas Satoransky and Coby White. The expectation is LaVine's turnover percentage will decrease in, at times, an off-ball role where he isn't forced into making tough passes and decisions. That's just not who he is as a player, and it oftentimes showed.

He showed promise in pick-and-roll action with Wendell Carter and pick-and-pop action with Markkanen. Getting to pick and choose those spots with his big men will be a boon for the Bulls offense. It felt forced a lot of the time last season, and defenses could key in on the action knowing that the other option for the Bulls was a Ryan Arcidiacono jumper or Shaq Harrison cut to the basket. Not exactly a tough decision.

LaVine gets better as the Bulls' roster gets better. That sounds an easy enough concept, but it's even more true for a player whose perception unfairly took a hit because of his supporting cast. LaVine was asked to play a role he wasn't entirely fit for - it's REALLY tough to maintain that kind of usage rate and win - knowing team success was going to be nearly impossible.

He has defensive issues. They really didn't get better last season despite him pledging to improve off the ball. But again, consider the toll his offensive load took on his body on a nightly basis. Maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but a lower usage rate means a slightly smaller workload which means more energy over the course of 48 minutes.

LaVine was one of the few carry-overs who will have a similar role this season as he did a year ago. But a new roster, a new rotation and a new coaching staff could mean a new LaVine. Expect the numbers and efficiency to remain where they were, only this time around he'll get his due.

Why Lauri Markkanen's ceiling is the face of the Bulls' franchise

Why Lauri Markkanen's ceiling is the face of the Bulls' franchise

Something significant occurred on Dec. 7, 2018.

The Bulls were 8.5-point home underdogs to the red-hot Oklahoma City Thunder, who after an 0-4 start had won 16 of 19 games, including their last four by a combined 61 points. Chicago, who had elevated Jim Boylen to head coach four days earlier, was used to the underdog status – it had been favorites just once in its first 25 games – but hadn’t had much to show for it, entering that Friday night affair having lost 11 of its previous 12 games with an NBA-worst -12.1 net rating in that span.

It was, simply put, a matchup of the hottest team in the NBA vs. the coldest team in the NBA.

Then Lauri Markkanen arrived.

In just his third game back from a 10-week absence, Markkanen sliced up the NBA's best defense. He scored 24 points on 8 of 12 shooting, made four triples, and looked like the best player on a floor that included Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Zach LaVine. He battled Steven Adams inside. He made the Thunder pay on multiple pick-and-pop 3-pointers. He countered on those pick-and-pops by taking a switching George off the dribble for a thunderous dunk. He made a critical pass for an assist in the final minute to give the Bulls a lead. And with the game tied and 10 seconds remaining, he went 1-on-1 with George and finished with a floating layup over the eventual second runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year voting.

Markkanen played like an All-Star. He played like a future star. He played exactly like what the front office, coaching staff and fan base believe he can be: the face of the Bulls franchise.

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Markkanen was essentially the fourth storyline during Draft Night 2017. The focus, of course, was the Bulls finally dealing three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler. But even the return the Bulls received was focused more heavily on acquiring Zach LaVine, a rising star with a torn ACL who needed a new contract in 12 months, and on Kris Dunn – a player the front office had always loved – potentially being the point guard of the future the franchise had been missing since trading Derrick Rose.

Then there was Markkanen, the 7-foot floor spacer who many – this author included – gave the “project” label because of his international status, age and position on the depth chart. Remember, the Bulls had Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, and had intentions of extending the latter.

One argument in practice, one punch and one suspension later, Markkanen was in the starting lineup when the Bulls opened their 2017-18 campaign in Toronto. The 20-year-old had 17 points and 8 rebounds in his debut, playing 33 minutes – the most by a Bulls rookie in his first game since Luol Deng in 2004 – and opening both local and national eyes.

Work in progress? Certainly. A project? Not in the least.

Markkanen’s rookie season was, as expected, rocky. The Bulls were tanking, LaVine was trying his best (and failing) to shake off rust post-ACL injury and there was an awkward logjam at power forward until Mirotic was traded in February.

Markkanen finished his rookie season averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds, joining Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor as the last players to reach those thresholds the last decade. He was the fastest player in NBA history to 100 3-pointers (41 games) and was everything the Bulls wanted off the court. There was optimism, and if you believe in year-to-year momentum, he finished his rookie campaign averaging 18.9 points on .500/.500/.742 shooting over his last seven contests.

His sophomore season began with the elbow sprain – suffered on Day 1 of training camp – and, in reality, should have put an asterisk on all his numbers going forward. Markkanen was excellent in Year 2, averaging 18.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.3 3-pointers – numbers reached only by Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love – in 52 games. But those numbers were accomplished after having his shooting arm immobilized for multiple weeks, returning to a 5-18 team and playing for a new head coach who didn’t exactly run a style suited to his game. Markkanen had every excuse to regress in Year 2, and instead put together a promising season bookended by two injuries.

He was lethal in February, averaging 26.2 points and 12.0 rebounds. He dropped a career-high 35 points on the Celtics’ No. 4 defense, made some defensive improvement late in the season and heeded his coach's advice to be aggressive on the glass and move the ball up the floor himself - he had 20 double-doubles as a sophomore, six more than his rookie season in 16 fewer games.

It’s why Year 3 holds such promise. He’s accomplished so much in two seasons despite having little to no stability around him and his health getting in his way. There’s a clean slate – and more hope for his team – this upcoming season and beyond. The bad years are seemingly out of the way, but even during them Markkanen was a bright spot. John Paxson said at the Bulls’ end-of-the-season press conference that he wasn’t “ruling out Zach LaVine or Lauri Markkanen being significant players in this league.”

Paxson is certainly doing all he can to make sure that happens.

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The Bulls were targeting a center in the 2018 NBA Draft. Despite rumors of them trying to move up to No. 4 to grab Jaren Jackson, they wound up standing pat at No. 7 and selecting Wendell Carter Jr. They got their man, but they also passed on the likes of Collin Sexton, Kevin Knox and Michael Porter, all of whom may have been better fits given the makeup of the roster at the time.

But the decision to take Carter made the front office’s intentions clear: They were building around Markkanen. Everything Carter did well – protect the rim, clean up around the basket, pass out of the pocket – were areas Markkanen struggled with during his rookie season. The two complemented each other perfectly, something Paxson alluded to on draft night.

A year later, the Bulls agreed to a deal with Thaddeus Young in the first minute of free agency – OK, they tampered like the other 29 NBA teams and agreed to a deal well before June 30. That’s the same Young whose experience and tutelage the last three seasons in Indiana helped turn Domantas Sabonis into a Sixth Man of the Year runner-up and Myles Turner into one of the best two-way bigs and Team USA’s starting center. Young was just as much a signing for Markkanen (and Carter) as he was for Boylen and on-court production.

The Bulls also inked a deal with Tomas Satoransky, a low-usage, pass-happy point guard who will be able to find Markkanen more often than Dunn did each of the last two seasons. Boylen hired two assistants this offseason – a big man coach and another whose Nets teams ranked in the top-5 in 3-point shooting each of the last three seasons. Coincidence? Probably, but both just so happen to benefit Markkanen.

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Markkanen isn’t a perfect prospect. There’s work to do.

Remember the 24-point breakout against OKC? Markkanen followed it with an 8-point game in the infamous Celtics loss. Then he went 5 of 16 against the Kings two nights later. Three nights after that, in Mexico City, Markkanen scored seven points in 28 minutes against the Magic.

Markkanen scored 30 or more eight times last season. He scored 10 or fewer eight times, too. He had five games in which he hit five 3-pointers. He also had six games in which he missed every triple he took.

For 10 games in February he was the best non-Greek basketball player in the world. In March, he shot worse from the field and 3-point line than Kris Dunn.

He shot below 50 percent from 2-point range – only four other 7-footers who appeared in 41+ games did that, compared to 29 7-footers who shot better than 50% inside the arc – and disappeared at times. He doesn’t always have the killer instinct required to be a No. 1 option on a team hoping to play late into May.

That consistency will be the key for Markkanen. It’s cliché but it’s true. As the Bulls continue to put the right pieces around him to succeed, Markkanen will need to use them to his advantage while advancing his own game on a nightly basis. There’s optimism he’s willing to do just that (which is why they made the moves in the first place) and accomplish everything in front of him. Health will be important, as it is for every star, but especially for someone who has already missed 44 games in two seasons.

If it all comes together for Markkanen – and the Bulls are banking plenty on that happening – he’ll be the one to take the Bulls into the next chapter of their franchise. He’s that unique and talented. On the one hand, he won't turn 23 until next offseason. On the other hand, the NBA isn't waiting around for the Bulls to grow up. They're in Year 3 of their rebuild and, injury excuses or not, have a combined 49 wins (and zero top-five picks) in two seasons to show for it.

Someone will need to step up and make a leap to stardom to bring the Bulls back to relevance. LaVine feels just as much on the cusp as Markkanen, and the Bulls would have no issue with the duo becoming 1A and 1B in the pecking order. But Markkanen, at just 22 years old, is putting together something special. His potential feels untapped despite all he's accomplished in two turbulent seasons.

As Boylen put it the night of “that big Finnish kid’s” game-winner against the Thunder: “He’s a hell of a guy to have on our side.”

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