Kyrie Irving overcomes limitations to kickstart Cavaliers


Kyrie Irving overcomes limitations to kickstart Cavaliers

CLEVELAND –- There was never a doubt Kyrie Irving would play in Tuesday night's Game 5 against the Bulls. Even playing with a strained right foot and left knee tendinitis that has caused him both evident pain and limited burst, Irving was confident he could find a way to contribute in a series that necessitated his improved play.

His response was was a 25-point, five-assist performance while gutting out 39 more minutes to help the Cavaliers earn a 106-101 victory and a commanding 3-2 series lead.

And it's been just that - learning his limitations while logging crucial minutes for a Cavaliers team already without Kevin Love and facing a lethal East backcourt - that has been most difficult for Irving to overcome. One of the league's best attackers and 3-point shooters has been forced to dial back his offensive aggressiveness, admitting after Games 3 and 4 that at times he was no more than a decoy. A player who has averaged 1.5 steals per game in his career and thrives on competition has been taken off the assignment of guarding Derrick Rose. But that scaling back on both ends of the floor also have made Irving realize that his contributions are still integral for a Cavs team chasing a championship.

"This has been the biggest mental challenge of my career thus far, just because I want to do more and I want to be that guy for my teammates as well as for (LeBron James)," Irving told reporters after the game. "When you can’t do that, when you’re limited to certain things, you have to come to grips with it."

What he was able to do Tuesday, however, played a significant role in the Cavs win. Irving said he woke up Tuesday morning feeling better than he had since aggravating the foot injury in Game 3. In that game and Game 4, played two days later, Irving combined to shoot 5-for-20 and was an essential non-factor in a pair of games Cleveland was lucky to have split.

[MORE: Bulls can't complete comeback, fall to Cavs in Game 5]

And Irving looked the part early, moving seamlessly in the first quarter by connecting on three early field goals - one more than he had in 41 Game 4 minutes - that helped erase an 8-0 Bulls lead to begin the game. Irving's hot start was important for his own confidence, but the combination of his presence on the perimeter and a hot start also freed up things on the inside for James, who not coincidentally had his best scoring half since Game 2 with Irving on the court, scoring 24 first-half points.

"Even though he’s hurt he still puts a threat on the defense and makes it easy for everybody else," said JR Smith, who had 12 points in 30 minutes.

In the third quarter the Bulls made good on their pregame promise to attack Irving on the defensive end. With Shumpert and Dellavedova locked on Rose, Irving was afforded relief in the third quarter against Mike Dunleavy. But the Bulls used their sharpshooter on a number of cuts and post-ups against the smaller Irving; the result was an 11-point quarter for Dunleavy, who went to the free throw line four times (both off Irving shooting fouls) as the Bulls narrowed a 10-point halftime deficit to as few as one.

Still, Irving gutted out his minutes in a bind. His foot appeared to act up on him early in the stanza when he fed Tristan Thompson under the basket for a layup. Hobbling down the floor, he connected on an 18-footer the next trip down, again showing some limp as he trudged back on defense. It was then that Irving showed his true "coming to grips" moment; off a James steal Irving found himself one-on-one against Joakim Noah at the rim. Irving barely got any lift as he jumped into Noah, but was able to finish off the 6-foot-11 center and bank the shot high off the glass.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

When the Bulls cut the deficit to one, 63-62, Irving responded with his second triple. He hit another jumper to extend the lead to six before the Bulls began attacking him with Dunleavy, forcing David Blatt to sub out his point guard late in the stanza. He finished the quarter with nine points on perfect shooting as the Cavs withstood the Bulls' run and took a nine-point lead into the final quarter.

"Even if I don’t have any lift, somehow I get it up to the rim and spin it the right way," Irving said. "I wouldn’t even call it a fast break. I still remember, me and Joakim tonight...I went up there and somehow put the ball at a certain angle.  Physically I still have to get better, but it's just about being in the right spots."

Irving and James played a two-man game the majority of the fourth, with James' continued hot shooting giving Cleveland as much as a 17-point lead. And though the Bulls came roaring back to pull within two inside 2 minutes to play, it was Irving's steal - a deflected Joakim Noah pass Irving saved from going out of bounds - and four free throws in the final 17 seconds that capped off the win to give Cleveland a commanding 3-2 series lead.

Though both teams have used the phrase of "no player being healthy this late in the season," Irving's limitations are clear. The same player who scored a league-high 59 points earlier this season on the road against the Spurs has been relegated to guarding Kirk Hinrich in crunch time of a Game 5. Irving's teammates were vocal about wanting Irving on the court after he asked them during Game 4 if he was doing more harm than good, and tonight he proved why his teammates were right.

"I think for tonight it was just having the mental confidence and being there mentally and being OK with - I'm not 100 percent," Irving said, "but I’m going to go out there and play, be in my spots, and be ready to knock down shots when I’m open."


The Bulls aren't trading for Kawhi Leonard, but what would a potential deal look like?


The Bulls aren't trading for Kawhi Leonard, but what would a potential deal look like?

The Bulls aren't trading for Kawhi Leonard.

Let's get that out of the way before continuing on.

At this stage in their rebuild the Bulls are interested in acquiring pieces - they dealt a Kawhi-like Jimmy Butler 12 months ago for three core parts - and have two picks in next week's NBA Draft.

The Spurs will have myriad options on where to send Leonard, the two-time All-Star and 2014 Finals MVP, and offers will pour in from everywhere. Leonard could also dictate where he plays next season, as he has one year remaining on his deal and will be a free agent after the 2019 season. Certainly a team giving up the assets required to get Leonard would want to know their All-Pro intends on staying.

So that's why. Whichever team deals for Leonard (assuming he is dealt) will be able to put together a more enticing package than the Bulls could (think Boston, the Lakers, Philadelphia). Leonard also reportedly prefers to play in Los Angeles or New York. No mention of Chicago.

But! It's Friday afternoon and we can only churn out so much draft content before our own heads begin spinning. So we figured we would put together the best deal the Bulls could offer for Leonard.

First off, the Bulls would need a gaurantee from Leonard that he intended to re-sign. Like Butler, Leonard wouldn't be able for the supermax extension if he leaves the Spurs. Instead, Leonard could sign a five-year, $188 million max deal with the Bulls, averaging $37.6 million per year.

The Bulls would get a 26-year-old All-Pro just about to enter the prime of his career. Make no mistake about it: Kawhi Leonard is a superstar. It's easy to forget because he played in just nine games last year, but Leonard is just a year removed from a season in which he averaged 25.5 points on 48 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals in 33.4 minutes. Oh, and he's won two Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2015 and 2016.

The Bulls would have Leonard through his age 31 season and would give the Bulls a souped-up version of Jimmy Butler, and perhaps one that could get them closer to contention in an Eastern Conference that may be without LeBron James.

The price would be steep. All-Rookie Lauri Markkanen would be the centerpiece of any deal. The Spurs have utilized versatile, small-ball lineups well in the past and adding Markkanen would be like a cheat code for Gregg Popovich. He'd slot in well next to LaMarcus Aldridge, who played 62 percent of his minutes at center last year, according to Basketball Reference. That was the most minutes he had played at center since his rookie season.

The Bulls would also have to include the 7th and 22nd picks in next week's draft, which only makes the deal more unlikely (from 0.01 percent to 0.005 percent). San Antonio could pursue a wing like Mikal Bridges or Kevin Knox and add him to a core that would include Dejounte Murray, Markkanen and Aldridge. The Spurs also have the 18th pick, so they could conceivably have five core players (Markkanen, Murray, 7, 18, 22) 21 years or younger to complement the 32-year-old Aldridge, who bounced back in a big way last season (ironically without Leonard).

Adding Justin Holiday's $4.615 million salary to the deal makes the money work and gives the Spurs another perimeter shooter.

What would the Bulls look like? Well, needless to say they would have found their wing.

Building around Leonard would include Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. With Markkanen gone, Portis would be in line for a significant contract extension and a much larger role in the offense; his per-36 numbers were on par with Kevin Love's and Joel Embiid's a year ago.

PG: Kris Dunn
SG: Zach LaVine
SF: Kawhi Leonard
PF: Bobby Portis
C: Robin Lopez

Alas, this deal is not happening. We can only hope to have angered some of you at this hypothetical, fun mock trade.

A history of teams moving in to the top 5 of the NBA Draft and what it might cost the Bulls


A history of teams moving in to the top 5 of the NBA Draft and what it might cost the Bulls

It’s difficult to move up in the NBA Draft. Like, really difficult. More often than not it costs more than it should – like free agency – because teams are aware you’re moving up to go after a specific player. Few, if any, teams move up in the draft to position themselves better on draft night. So, you want Player X and don’t think he’ll be around when you pick? Ante up. Show us how much Player X means to your franchise.

Moving up in the top 5 is even more difficult and expensive (duh). The most recent examples are Philadelphia dealing with Boston last year, going from No. 3 to No. 1. The cost was Sacramento’s 2019 first-round pick, which will likely be in the first half of the lottery. In 2009 the Timberwolves dealt two key rotation pieces – Randy Foye and Mike Miller – to the Wizards for the No. 5 pick. In retrospect that doesn’t seem like much, but Foye was three years removed from being the No. 7 pick and had just averaged 16.3 points in 70 games; Miller was 28 and one of the better 3-point shooters in the league.

And when trying to move inside the top 5, you have to go all the way back to 2005. And that’s where Bulls fans should start paying attention.

The Utah Jazz were in desperate need of a point guard after cycling through the likes of Carlos Arroyo, Raul Lopez, Howard Eisley and Keith McLeod (who?) in the two years after John Stockton’s 2002 retirement. Utah had the fifth best odds in the Lottery after a 26-win season and, like the 2018 Bulls, were bumped back a spot after Milwaukee jumped from sixth to first.

Moving back one spot didn’t seem like much on the surface, but it was significant; there were three point guards near the top of the class – Illinois’ Deron Williams, Wake Forest’s Chris Paul and North Carolina’s Raymond Felton – who all had the chance to go in the top 5, along with the consensus top pick Andrew Bogut and the potential-oozing freshman Marvin Williams. Utah GM XXXXXX said the team was interested in Paul or Williams.

So here the Jazz were, sitting at No. 6 with the potential to see the three point guards go ahead of them. In hindsight, the next point guard wouldn’t be taken until Nate Robinson at No. 21. There were three clear-cut top point guards in the class, and Utah needed one of them.

So they found a trade partner. The Portland Trail Blazers had selected high school phenom Sebastian Telfair with the No. 13 pick the previous season, and were ready to hand him the keys to the offense with Damon Stoudamire set for free agency. Not necessarily needing a point guard, Portland became the perfect trading partner for a team looking to move up. Enter the Jazz.

In addition to the No. 6 pick, Utah also had the 27th pick thanks to a draft-night deal the previous season with Dallas.

Armed with assets, hours before the start of the 2005 draft the Jazz sent No. 6, No. 27 and a future first-round pick to the Blazers for the No. 3 pick. The caveat here – as it will later pertain to the Bulls – is that the future first was actually Detroit’s first-round pick in 2006; the Jazz had traded point guard Carlos Arroyo to the Pistons for a first-round pick, which was widely expected to be near the end of the first round. Detroit went 64-18 in ’05-06 and the pick wound up being No. 30; Utah kept its own pick in 2006, which wound up being No. 14.

That was the cost. Three first-round picks, though admittedly No. 27 and the contending Pistons’ pick weren’t oozing with value. Utah selected Williams over Paul, Portland got Martell Webster at No. 6 and used the other two picks on Linas Kleiza and a year later Joel Freeland.

How does this affect the Bulls? They’re in a similar situation as Utah…kind of. The Jazz had missed the playoffs each of the previous two seasons post-Stockton but felt they were turning a corner with 23-year-olds Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko leading the way. In fact, their eight leading scorers from the previous season were 28 or younger. They were on the right path if they could find a point guard to play with Boozer, Kirilenko, Matt Harpring, Mehmet Okur and Raja Bell.

The Bulls aren’t exactly one specific piece away like Utah clearly was – they’d miss the playoffs the following year but then win between 48 and 54 games each of the next four seasons after. But they could be targeting someone specific in the top 4 of the draft. And they just so happen to have assets, and just so happen to have two teams reportedly willing to move back in a deep class.

Memphis reportedly would like to move back, and if possible add Chandler Parsons’ absurd contract to a deal. This seems like a plausible idea at face value, but the Grizzlies are going to want something substantial in return. They tanked hard – Marc Gasol “rested” eight games after the All-Star break, with Memphis losing all eight of those – for a reason, and they aren’t going to attach their main asset to a deal just to get rid of Parsons’ remaining $49 million. Freeing up cap space is nice, but at what cost? Memphis isn’t in a positon to win now. True, they’d like to try and contend with Gasol (two years left) and Mike Conley (three years left) but attaching the 4th pick to Parsons is different from the Raptors attaching two picks to DeMarre Carroll in a trade with Brooklyn last year; that Raptors pick wound up being No. 29, as the Raptors knew they’d be contending.

The Bulls might entertain a deal of the Nos. 7 and 22 picks for No. 4 and Parsons. If Parsons weren’t included in the deal, it could still get done if Bobby Portis were added. The Bulls love Portis, but he’ll need a significant contract extension in 13 months and Lauri Markkanen has the power forward position on lockdown.

The Hawks are also a potential trade option. They reportedly are looking to move down and still be able to draft Trae Young, who could supplant a disgruntled Dennis Schroder at the point. Again, a package of the Nos. 7 and 22 picks plus Portis could be enough to get the deal done; Atlanta drafted forward John Collins a year ago but he doesn’t offer much as a pick-and-pop power forward. Portis would give them a solid complement. Then again, Atlanta couldn’t be sure Young would be available at 7, especially considering Orlando is picking No. 6 and has a serious need at the point.

Who would the Bulls be targeting at No. 3 or No. 4? Rumors are everywhere so it’s difficult to pinpoint. Michael Porter Jr. could now go as high as No. 2 to the Sacramento. That would mean international sensation Luka Doncic falls. Marvin Bagley’s name has been quiet for a while, while Jaren Jackson Jr. is having “monster workouts” that have him flying up draft boards. We won’t speculate.

For now just know that trading in to the top 5 is difficult. You need the assets to do it (check), a team with enough talent that moving up will push the franchise forward (check), a willing trade partner (check) and a player you really want (check?). The pieces are there for a potential move-up, but actually pulling the trigger is far more difficult than just writing about it.