Bulls

Early-season NBA filled with plenty of compelling storylines

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USA TODAY

Early-season NBA filled with plenty of compelling storylines

With Chicago sports fans and baseball fans nationwide captivated by the Cubs’ remarkable World Series run, you might have missed some of the early action around the NBA. Here’s a look at my top 10 observations from the opening 3 weeks, with most teams having played about 10 games out of the 82 game marathon.

10. Joel Embiid is legit. After waiting for two seasons to see the No. 3 pick from the 2014 Draft, Philly fans can finally understand why former general manager Sam Hinkie was so excited about landing the 7-foot center from Cameroon. Even though he’s not playing back-to-back games yet - to protect him from re-injury - Embiid is averaging 18 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in just 22 minutes, looking like a young Hakeem Olajuwon. The 22-year-old has range out to the 3-point line, and displays an Olajuwon/Kevin McHale skill set in the low post. If Embiid can stay healthy, the 76ers' rebuilding program finally has a foundation piece.

9. Luke Walton already making an impact in L.A. NBA observers were wondering how the former Golden State assistant coach would fare taking over a total rebuild with the Lakers, but the early returns are encouraging. Not many coaches would have the courage to start a D’Angelo Russell/Nick Young backcourt, but the Lakers' young players are justifying the faith being shown in them, already scoring victories over the Warriors, Rockets and Hawks. Julius Randle is playing the best basketball of his career, while Jordan Clarkson is averaging 15 points a game in a sixth man role. Time will tell if the Lakers can keep up their early pace, but at least they finally have the right man in charge.

8. Don't sleep on Atlanta in the East. Like many other media members who cover the league, I was skeptical about the Hawks signing Atlanta native Dwight Howard to a big-money free agent contract to replace Al Horford, who left for Boston. Horford is the model of consistency, while Howard destroyed team chemistry in Orlando, Los Angeles and Houston. But through the first 10 games, Howard seems revitalized playing in his hometown, and Dennis Schroder is making Hawks fans forget about Jeff Teague. I don’t believe the Hawks have enough firepower to make a serious run at Cleveland, but they still shape up as a top four team in the East with one of the league’s best coaches in Mike Budenholzer.

7. Thibs still has a lot of work to do. Tom Thibodeau’s return to the NBA as head coach and president of basketball operations of the Minnesota Timberwolves was one of the big offseason stories. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it looks like it will take some time for a young roster to master Thibs’ defensive concepts. Andrew Wiggins exploded for 47 points in a recent game, and Karl-Anthony Towns is already among the top-25 players in the league, but it might take a little while for Thibodeau to get the T-Wolves back in the playoffs. Don’t be surprised if front office boss Thibodeau eventually decides to shake up the roster, most likely with a trade involving inconsistent point guard Ricky Rubio.

6. Trade rumors starting early. Normally, we don’t hear a lot of trade rumors until around Dec. 15, when players who signed free agent contracts in the offseason are eligible to be dealt. But just three weeks into the new season, we’re already hearing big names like DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Klay Thompson being mentioned in possible trades. The Warriors could have some salary cap issues to deal with next summer, but Thompson isn’t going anywhere for now. Similarly, Sacramento plans to give new head coach Dave Joerger some time to figure out how to best utilize a revamped roster. Gay will be a free agent next summer, and there’s a good chance he’s traded before February, but Kings’ owner Vivek Ranadive has always been a Cousins fan and is unlikely to approve any deal involving Boogie in the short term.

5. Bulls will never see that first-round pick from the Kings. In case you’ve forgotten, the Kings still owe the Bulls a future first-round pick from the Luol Deng trade back in January 2014. But unless the Kings finish outside of the bottom 10 this season, it converts to a second-round pick in next June’s Draft. If you haven’t watched the Kings this season, they’re a lock for the bottom 10 after signing a bunch of journeymen vets last summer like Arron Afflalo, Ty Lawson, Matt Barnes, Garrett Temple and Anthony Tolliver. The Kings might have a shiny new arena, but the product on the court is still dreadful with little hope of changing anytime soon.

4. McDermott and Mirotic are keys to Bulls' success. After watching the Bulls' first 10 games, it’s pretty clear their starting five of Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Robin Lopez, Taj Gibson and Rajon Rondo should be competitive against just about any team in the league. The key to how high the Bulls can finish in the East probably comes down to bench production, specifically the play of young forwards Doug McDermott and Niko Mirotic. When those two players are spacing the floor by knocking down open shots the Bulls are capable of overpowering other teams' second units. But when Doug and Niko are struggling, it puts too big a strain on Butler and Wade to try to carry the offensive load. Getting Michael Carter-Williams back from an early-season knee injury should help the Bulls’ reserve group be even more productive, as will the development of top draft pick Denzel Valentine.

3. Harden and Westbrook shooting (and passing) for history. Former Oklahoma City Thunder teammates Russell Westbrook and James Harden are staging a pretty unique competition. They’re each trying to become the first players since Nate “Tiny” Archibald in 1972-’73 to lead the NBA in both scoring and assists in the same season. Harden has taken over point guard duties under new Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni, currently leading the league in assists at 12.6 per game, while also keeping up his scoring average at 30.3. Westbrook is out to prove he can lead his team to the playoffs (and maybe win the MVP award) without Kevin Durant, averaging 32 points and 10 assists. Their personal competition will be fascinating to watch throughout the season.

2. Clippers are a real threat to the Warriors. After Durant signed on with the Warriors this past summer, most NBA experts were ready to hand the 2016-17 championship to Steve Kerr’s group because of the four All-Stars in their starting lineup. But it’s the Clippers stealing the headlines right now, thanks to a 10-1 start. A lot of the names are still the same with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan playing at an All-Star level. Doc Rivers also made some moves to strengthen his bench, stealing long range shooting big man Marreese Speights from the Warriors, while adding productive vets Brandon Bass, Ray Felton and Alan Anderson. It might not be enough to win a seven-game series against the Warriors in late May, but the Clippers have probably passed San Antonio as the second best team in the West.

1. Phil Jackson experiencing some serious buyer's remorse. More than a few eyebrows were raised last summer when Jackson decided to commit $72 million guaranteed over the next four seasons to free agent center Joakim Noah. Noah was coming off the worst season of his career, which ended with a dislocated shoulder in mid-January, and the 31 year old big man had also been sidelined with serious knee and foot injuries in recent years. But Jackson took a leap of faith, hoping Noah could somehow return to the form that made him an All-NBA selection in 2013-’14.

So far, the results are not encouraging. Noah is averaging just 4 points and 8 rebounds in 24 minutes a game, and Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek recently benched him for the entire second half after watching the team manage just 36 points in the opening half against the Mavericks. The Knicks’ offense functioned much more efficiently with a lineup that included Kristaps Porzingis at center, Carmelo Anthony at power forward and Courtney Lee, along with former Bulls Justin Holiday and Derrick Rose on the perimeter. That could be a lineup Hornacek turns to a lot more in the future as the Knicks try to find a way to crack the eight-team playoff field in the East.

Report: Bulls possibly interested in adding Jrue Holiday?

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USA TODAY

Report: Bulls possibly interested in adding Jrue Holiday?

According to a story by Sporting News NBA writer Sean Deveney, the Bulls may be looking for help in the form of one of the NBA’s better two-way players.

In the post, Deveny goes over the most salient points made by brand new New Orleans Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin. This included the fact that Griffin stated that Pels head coach Alvin Gentry will be back and that Jrue Holiday is considered “a franchise building block”.

This could be a bit of gamesmanship from Griffin, hoping to drive up the asking price for an All-Star caliber player such as Holiday.

But Deveney suggests that New Orleans may indeed be serious about their efforts to keep building with Holiday on the roster. Deveney stated, “if the Pelicans don't trade Holiday, it will set up the team for an attempt at a fast turnaround rather than a long, slogging rebuild......It will also frustrate teams looking for a versatile point guard in his prime, hoping that Holiday would be on the block.”

Phoenix was mentioned as the “top contender” for Holiday’s services should he be made available, as the Suns are one of the few teams with an obvious hole at PG. Along with the Suns, Chicago and Orlando were the other teams listed as having interest in Holiday. The Magic completed a low-risk trade during the 2018-19 season that landed them 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, so they may not be inclined to give up solid assets in a deal.

As far as the Bulls are concerned, any serious inquires on Holiday are likely to come after the May 14 NBA Draft lottery.

Depending on where the Bulls lottery pick ends up, the Pelicans could be much more inclined to make a deal with the Chicago front office. The Pelicans ended the season tied with Memphis and Dallas for the 7th spot in the draft lottery odds, and their specific organizational goals could make moving up in the draft order worth losing a valuable player like Jrue Holiday. And for the Bulls, nabbing a player like Holiday helps build onto the positive team culture that Jim Boylen wants to establish and gives the Bulls a perfect guard to pair in the backcourt with Zach LaVine.

Why the Bulls should take Charles Bassey with the No. 38 pick

Why the Bulls should take Charles Bassey with the No. 38 pick

This is the first entry in our "8 for 38" series, where will be looking at eight different under-the-radar NBA prospects that the Bulls could snag with their No. 38 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Charles Bassey/ 6’11’’/ 275 lbs./ Freshman/ Western Kentucky  

Bassey is a a well-regarded five-star recruit from Nigeria, who played his college ball at Western Kentucky University. He is a physical force on the court but definitely is a raw prospect at this stage of his development.

Bassey came into the season as an assumed first round talent, however, his stock has dropped after his impressive freshman season still revealed holes in his game that will definitely be exploited at the NBA level. All that being said, he was quite the prospect at WKU.

Strengths:

In his lone season at WKU, Bassey averaged 14.6 points and 10.0 rebounds per game on 62.7 percent shooting from the field. His impressive double double average was built on his insane dominance inside the paint.

He shot an astounding 77.4 percent on shots at the rim and that number is even higher on non-post up shots around the basket. Bassey has a rudimentary hook shot that he can hit over his left shoulder but his postgame isn’t the hub of his offense. He generates most of his points by finishing on pick-and-rolls and using his faceup game.

Bassey’s physicality leads to him setting hard screens, and when he doesn’t set a hard screen, he slips to the basket quickly where he takes advantage with his soft touch when looking to score. It is tough for help defenders to knock Bassey off his path when he is rolling to the rim, as his immense lower body strength allows him to displace smaller players.

When Bassey faces up from 15-feet and in, he uses the aforementioned soft touch to convert on 40.8 percent of his 2-PT jump shots per Hoop-Math.com. On top of that, he generally has the speed to blow by most big men.

Bassey’s biggest strength from day one in the NBA will be his motor. He clearly gets fired up for big matchups, as he showcased when he dominated Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, who ended up winning the 2019 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, given by the Basketball Hall of Fame to the country’s best center. In their late December matchup, Bassey helped hold Happ to a very inefficient 20 points on 23 shots.

In that same game Bassey finished with 19 points (7/8 FG, 5/5 FT), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 4 blocks. He has arguably had better games, but the all-around versatility showcased in the stat line above is outstanding.

Bassey has flashed the ability to make nice passes before:

Since Bassey’s NBA offense will be centered around pick-and-roll plays, further developing his decision making on the short-roll will be a boon to whatever team drafts him.

On defense, Bassey already shows the ability to be an asset in the right system. When he is allowed to play in a traditional defensive system that has the center dropping back in pick-and-roll coverage, he swallows up shots with his 7-foot-3 wingspan.

Weaknesses:

The gigantic weakness Bassey showcased this season was an inability to function as a switch defender. He was great when it comes to protecting the rim--he averaged 2.4 blocks per game-- but he was consistently beat off the dribble by guards.

Of course it is rare to find any center--let alone a young one--that has the legitimate ability to function at a high-level when it comes to switching on to smaller, faster players. But that is precisely what makes Bassey the exact type of center you can find easily.

This is why a player of his talent level can slip into the second round.

Another big issue for Bassey is hands, or more specifically, the inability to hold on to passes when diving to the rim. As mentioned above, pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop basketball is how Bassey will carve out a niche in the league. But he occasionally struggled to hold on to the ball on throws that many would not even consider to be “tough passes”.

In the above strengths section it is mentioned how Bassey has some untapped potential as a passer, but he will never cash in on that potential if simply possessing the ball is a difficulty for him. He isn’t as explosive as usual if there are multiple defenders crowding him and raking at the ball, which happens often.

Over 1,067 minutes Basey amassed 24 assists as compared to a whopping 97 turnovers.

Long term outlook:

I believe Bassey will have a long NBA career due to his finishing in the paint and ability to block shots.

Bassey ran roughshod over his mostly Conference USA opposition on the season.

His 62.7 percent shooting from the field and 3.0 blocks per 40 minutes were a few of the many things that showed that Bassey is at least ready for the physicality of the NBA.

But to become much more than a solid journeyman center, Bassey will have to hone his perimeter jump shot to the point that he can become a solid 3-point threat. He shot 45 percent on a very limited 20 attempts from 3-point range and converted on 76.9 percent of his free throws, an enticing set of numbers that show the type of player he could be in the future.

Whether or not Robin Lopez stays, the Bulls will be short on center depth next season.  After Wendell Carter Jr. went down for the remainder of the 2018-19 season, we saw the Bulls play ultra-small lineups that got beat up on the glass often as Jim Boylen was still reluctant to play Felicio more than 15 minutes per game.

Adding a high-upside prospect like Bassey helps Boylen and co. avoid over-using lineups with Lauri Markkanen at center, which helps keep Markkanen fresh and theoretically improves the overall team defense.