Bulls

Four Bulls score 20 or more points in win over Hornets

Four Bulls score 20 or more points in win over Hornets

CHARLOTTE— Only the Bulls.

Only the Bulls could enter the second game of a back-to-back looking as lifeless and disinterested as they have for the past week, then put together a performance that confounded, amused and reinvigorated the locker room.

Only the Bulls could turn a card game called "guts" into a rallying cry after a rousing pregame speech from Dwyane Wade.

Their 115-109 win over the Hornets certainly doesn't put them back in the top eight of the Eastern Conference, nor will it put true fear in the hearts of Detroit, Milwaukee or Miami, but they did show a bit of a pulse for the first time in awhile.

Speaking of pulses, Nikola Mirotic showed he had more than a little after being listed as inactive against the Celtics, pumping both of his fists after hitting a corner triple to put the Bulls up 100-94 with a little over four minutes remaining, giving him 21 points. 

He added a few more to score 24 with 11 rebounds in clearly, his best game of the season. Having been persona non grata for the last three games from the coaching staff and out of the rotation since going two for seven against Detroit, he re-emerged as a valuable reserve.

"It means a lot. I was inactive and didn't play the last three games and coach wanted me to be ready so I've been working and being in the weight room, getting up extra shots and came into the game with energy," Mirotic said. "I think that energy helped me to get some good shots, to be very solid on defense."

Being pulled to the side by Wade and Jimmy Butler—players whose lives he was supposed to make easier with his versatile skills—either gave him confidence or put the bullseye on his back.

"Just desperate. When you're desperate you do things you need to do in this league," Wade said. "Me and Jimmy talked to him, told him we needed him. We're not gonna make the playoffs without him. And let him know we need his focus, his ability to shoot the ball. He came right in and fired it up."

Perhaps the insertion of Rajon Rondo back into the starting lineup had something to do with it, perhaps that desperation manifesting itself as the self-proclaimed "three alphas" were reunited for the first time since Dec. 30 in Indianapolis.

"Yeah, that's what I came here for. But it's a process I went through. It didn't kill me," Rondo said. 

Reunited and it felt so good—at least it did with Rondo's jump shot as he hit his first three triples in the first quarter, taking heed of Fred Hoiberg's desire to play with pace and speed.

"I just tried to do what I do best, set the pace," Rondo said. "Think we got off to a great start, we were up 10 or 12 in the first quarter. That was my only goal, get us off to a good lead. Get guys easy shots, get Jimmy easy looks, to the free throw line, along with D-Wade."

It resulted in the Bulls having 29 assists on 41 field goals, a ratio they hadn't seen in ages. Hoiberg gushed when talking about the ball movement, a differing look than the man who appeared distressed and didn't have many answers for the recent events.

"It was a beautiful thing to watch. I said, ‘put this thing on loop, guys'," Hoiberg said. "This is how we want to play. We were sharing it, making the unselfish play. The ball wasn't sticking in anyone's hands and we were getting it into the paint and kicking it out with great spacing."

Hitting 14 triples—five from Mirotic—was evidence that at least on occasion, the Bulls can play to Hoiberg's vision.

And Rondo is clearly the eyes and brains of the operation when he's empowered and the rest of the team is on the same page.

"It looked nice. It looked really good," Butler said. "Everybody was taking the open looks they were getting. It looked really great, even when we came in here and watched it, that's the way basketball is supposed to be played."

Rondo's 20 points, six assists and seven rebounds paced the Bulls in the energy department as he kept Hornets point guard Kemba Walker busy on defense, allowing Butler and Wade to play more off the ball.

Butler and Wade worked themselves into the game and were used less in pick and rolls, a strategy that led to them each shooting eight of 15 to score 23, as Butler added 11 assists and six rebounds.

It wasn't all gravy, as the Hornets nearly made the Bulls do more than sweat late, as Walker kept attacking and Jeremy Lamb admirably filled Nic Batum's shoes with 26 points as all five Hornets starters scored in double figures.

Butler sealed the game making three of four free throws, being fouled after Walker scores, then blocked a Lamb dunk in the final seconds to end the last threat.

Playing Rondo and Mirotic represented a slight shift in what Hoiberg has been doing recently, trying to get some of the younger guys in to play extended minutes.

Ten Bulls participated, although Joffrey Lauvergne only played three minutes and Cameron Payne played 11 minutes—missing all six of his shot attempts. But Payne is ahead of Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams, so Hoiberg didn't completely abandon the "evaluation" experiment.

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But if he goes with the veterans and somewhat dependable players, it's perhaps the Bulls' best chance to creep back into this muddled Eastern Conference playoff picture.

"We all know what it's gonna take on the road, especially a game like this," Butler said. "Anything can happen. I know the way we wanted to fix it. We did a decent job of it. I don't think it's out of reach but we definitely gotta win some games."

And with 16 games remaining, nobody knows if this is the final big alteration before the season finishes out.

"It's only so many things you can change up," Rondo said. "We were supposed to make a push and I would love to be in the starting lineup. But you never know."

Because the Bulls.

Only the Bulls.

Bulls offseason watch: Key dates for 2020 NBA Draft, Free Agency

Bulls offseason watch: Key dates for 2020 NBA Draft, Free Agency

Tuesday begins the staggered, three-day voyage of 21 NBA teams to Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Fla. for the 2019-20 season restart (the Raptors have already arrived).

For the Bulls, and Bulls fans, that’s not of direct consequence. Excluded from the bubble, supporters and observers will be limited to loose Bulls ties — enter: Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler — and draft lottery dreaming as the NBA’s best battle for the 2019-20 crown in Orlando.

But that doesn’t mean the next five months, which will comprise an unprecedented offseason in the league’s history, don’t hold significance for the Bulls. A likely third consecutive top-10 draft choice is on the way for the team, as are key contractual deadlines for players currently on the roster and a decision on the future of head coach Jim Boylen.

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There remains much unknown about the 2020 NBA offseason — chiefly, from the Bulls’ perspective, the salary cap, luxury tax line and status of the predraft process, the last of which has been halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Also now in play is the matter of a possible eight-team bubble being constructed in Chicago for the squads not joining the league in Orlando, though there are hurdles galore on that front.

What we do have is a framework of a reported schedule to track through the remainder of the summer and ensuing autumn. Here are some key dates for Bulls fans to watch for the time being (all of which are, of course, subject to change given the potentially fluid nature of the league’s calendar amid the pandemic):

NBA Draft

Aug. 17: Early entry deadline for prospects

The last day for underclassmen not automatically eligible to declare for the NBA draft to state their intentions. Moved back from its original date of April 26, as reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Scott Phillips has you covered tracking who’s already declared or testing the waters.

Aug. 25: Draft Lottery

Typically, the early entry deadline and draft lottery would be nearly two months apart, with the combine sandwiched in between. But with the pandemic moving predraft interviews to Zoom, and live, remote workouts currently prohibited, it appears the league will squeeze both into an eight-day span, also per Wojnarowski.

The Bulls have selected No. 7 three years in a row, using those picks to draft core pieces in Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Coby White. And even as the world erupts into chaos around them, they slot seventh in the lottery ranks once again this season. 

But with the NBA smoothing its lottery odds before the 2019 draft, the Bulls will have a modicum higher of a chance of leaping. They enter the lottery with a 7.5% chance of nabbing the No. 1 pick, 32% shot at vaulting into the top four and 19.7% odds of staying locked at No. 7. They also own mathematical chances at No. 8 (34.1%), No. 9 (12.9%), No. 10 (1.3%) and even 11 (0.03%).

Last nugget of note: This year’s lottery intentionally falls 11 days after the conclusion of the NBA’s eight-game seeding round in Orlando; while the eight teams left out of the bubble are locked into their current slots, the final six teams in the 14-team lottery will be populated by those who fall short of the playoffs. Right now, those six are the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards. If any of them vault into the postseason during the seeding games and play-in round, they’ll flip places with the team they usurp outside of the lottery. Both the lottery order, and the order of selections 15 - 30 will be determined by team record from when the league suspended play on March 11. 

Oct. 6: Early withdrawal deadline for prospects

Any not automatically eligible prospects that declared for the draft on or before Aug. 17 will have the opportunity to rescind that declaration (and maintain NCAA eligibility) on or before Oct. 6, per Wojnarowski.

Oct. 16: 2020 NBA Draft

The draft this year will fall three days after a potential Game 7 of the NBA Finals (Oct. 13), according to Wojnarowski. Broadcast, location and logistical specifics appear to be undetermined as of yet.

RELATED: 2020 NBA Mock Draft 6.0

Option/Offer Deadlines and Extension Eligibilities

From there, a few key decision days for players already on the Bulls’ roster loom. First and certainly not least...

Oct. 17: Otto Porter Jr.’s player option deadline

As reported by ESPN’s Bobby Marks, Otto Porter Jr. will have until Oct. 17 to decide whether or not to exercise his roughly $28.5 million player option for the 2020-21 season. His opting in appears all but a certainty (especially coming off an injury-riddled season in which he appeared in just 14 games, and amid a potentially tumultuous cap environment), and will essentially seal the Bulls’ fate as an over-the-cap team this offseason. 

Heaping that $28.5 million figure onto the Bulls’ books would bring the team’s guaranteed salaries for the 2020-21 season to $106,027,707 (numbers via Spotrac) before addressing restricted free agents or contracts for any draftees. The latest reputable pre-pandemic cap projection, from Wojnarowski, was $115 million, which could now be subject to change.

Oct. 17: Qualifying offer deadline

Also on Oct. 17 is the last day for teams to extend qualifying offers to restricted free agents, per Marks. The Bulls have three: Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine and Shaq Harrison. Full breakdown on the considerations at play for each here.

Oct. 18: Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Porter and Cristiano Felicio become extension eligible

The next day, per Marks, three Bulls starters become extension eligible — Markkanen on a rookie-scale basis, while LaVine and Porter are of the veteran designation.

Markkanen’s case is among the more curious in the league. His third season saw marked regression from his second in usage, opportunity and production, but given his skillset and considerable potential, he still represents a possible building block for the Bulls moving forward. A year ago — assuming expected development — we might have thought we’d be pondering a max for Markkanen at this point. Now, with a new front office regime in place, his market value is anyone’s guess. Maybe Arturas Karnisovas and Markkanen’s representation find an amenable compromise before the start of the 2020-21 season. But perhaps just as likely is Karnisovas wanting to see more from him, and Markkanen taking the opportunity to bet on himself making a leap in a contract year and earning some extra dough, as Jimmy Butler did five years ago.

RELATED: Bulls mailbag: Which free agents fit? Lauri Markkanen extension talks?

LaVine has two years and $39 million remaining on a contract he has become one of the more team-friendly in the league given his production since returning full-time from his ACL tear. Porter and Felicio’s deals enter their final years in 2020-21. Frankly, it’d be surprising to see any of them consummate extensions before Karnisovas and new general manager Marc Eversley get a chance to see the Bulls up close and in action.

Free Agency

Oct. 18: Free Agency opens

According to Wojnarowski, free agency is expected open Oct. 18 at 6 p.m. ET, with the moratorium period running from Oct. 19 - 23, and lifting on Oct. 24.

As mentioned, the Bulls will likely be out of the running for any appreciable cap space when that window opens. But they will have their (as of now) non-taxpayer mid-level exception to work with — possible targets for which you can peruse in K.C. Johnson’s latest mailbag.

And for what it’s worth, that luxury tax line could be worth monitoring. In a tweet Monday, Marks mentioned a previous projection of $139 million for next season’s luxury tax. That projection would have to plunge pretty far for the Bulls to need sweating it out, but in the current climate, who knows what could be on the table? If the Bulls somehow found themselves over that line, the difference in last seasons non-taxpayer and taxpayer MLE was about $3.5 million (~$9.2 million to $5.7 million).

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7 WNBA players test positive for coronavirus, Indiana Fever's travel delayed

7 WNBA players test positive for coronavirus, Indiana Fever's travel delayed

The WNBA announced Monday that seven of 137 (5.1%) tested players were positive for COVID-19, and that 11 of the league's 12 teams will report to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. for its season start-up by the end of the day.

The one exception in that travel schedule is the Indiana Fever. After sustaining two positive tests in their organization, the Fever's travel will be delayed at least five days "in an abundance of caution due to the CDC’s close contact self-quarantine requirements," according to a statement from the league.

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"Any player who tested positive will remain in self-isolation until she satisfies public health protocols for discontinuing isolation and has been cleared by a physician," the statement said.

That 5.1% positive rate checks in under the NHL (5.8%) and NBA's (7.1%) most recent rounds of testing, and above MLB's (1.2%).

The WNBA's season is expected to tip off at some point in late July in a bubble environment at IMG Academy.

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