Bulls

NBA Buzz: Fixing the Bulls

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NBA Buzz: Fixing the Bulls

With the Bulls seemingly destined to miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season under Scott Skiles/Jim Boylan, it’s time to start thinking about how the front office can re-tool the roster over the next two summers for a return to contending status.

Here’s my plan:

1. Say goodbye to Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah this summer. Both veteran big men plan to test the free agent market come July 1, and even though they’ve been productive players and solid citizens, it’s time to move in a new direction. Gasol turns 36 in July, while Noah has been hit hard by injuries over the last few seasons. Re-signing either player out of a sense of loyalty for past contributions will only slow down a much-needed roster makeover.

2. Try to trade off the contracts of Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell. Signing Dunleavy was a great idea as a final piece to a championship contending team, but now that the Bulls are in re-tool mode, they should see if they can trade him for a second round draft pick and utilize the nearly $5 million in cap savings. Similarly, the Bulls should admit their mistake in drafting Snell over big men Gorgui Dieng and Mason Plumlee, and see if they can find a taker for Snell, whose contract option was picked up last fall.

3. Clear space. Making those moves would give the Bulls somewhere between $25-27 million in cap room, depending on whether they have to take a contract back in the deals for either Dunleavy or Snell. That’s enough to offer a max contract to Miami center Hassan Whiteside, who’s been tearing up the league lately as the Heat climb up the Eastern Conference standings. As I detailed in a previous column, Miami doesn’t hold Whiteside’s “Bird rights," so they have to use cap room to re-sign him and can’t offer an additional contract year, which means it’s an equal playing field with other teams. Plus, don’t count the Heat out as a possible destination for prize free agent Kevin Durant. Pat Riley always thinks big, and if he can find a way to bring Durant to South Beach, Miami wouldn’t have the cap room left to re-sign both Whiteside and Dwyane Wade.

4. If Miami does re-sign Whiteside, pursue one of the top free agent wing players available. DeMar DeRozan and Nic Batum are unrestricted free agents, and while Harrison Barnes is a restricted free agent, the Warriors may have to let him go if they decide to get involved in the Durant sweepstakes. The Bulls need to think big and try to add a premier free agent in each of the next two summers.

5. Look ahead. Draft Notre Dame point guard Demetrius Jackson or Vanderbilt’s Wade Baldwin as a back up for Derrick Rose next season and a possible replacement down the line. Jackson showed his ability to perform at a high level under the pressure of the NCAA tournament, and he has the strength and athleticism to get to the basket and draw double teams. Jackson also looks like the type of push the pace guard Fred Hoiberg wants to run his offense. Baldwin is one of the draft’s high risk/reward options, a 6-foot-3 athletic point guard who could wind up being better than the more well-known prospects. The Bulls could also choose to go with a developmental big man like Utah’s Jakob Poeltl, Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis or Maryland’s Diamond Stone.

6. Prepare for another big free agency push in 2017. With the cap expected to go up to about $92 million for next season, and then jump again to about $108 million in 2017, the Bulls could be major players in 2017 free agency. With the contracts of Rose and Taj Gibson coming off the books, the Bulls could have over $40 million in cap room that summer, and if they don’t re-sign Rose, they’ll have plenty of free agent alternatives in Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry, George Hill and Jrue Holiday. Other potential free agents in the class of 2017 include LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, Gordon Hayward, Greg Monroe and Rudy Gay.

Granted, even the best-laid plans can fall apart. We all know the Bulls were in great position for a free agent windfall in 2010 with two max salary slots available, but James and Chris Bosh decided to team up with Wade in Miami. Then in 2014, Carmelo Anthony flirted with the Bulls, but eventually decided to stay in New York. The key this summer is to be open to all possibilities. If a deal presents itself to acquire an impact player on draft night, don’t worry about preserving cap room because nothing is guaranteed in free agency. Star players like DeMarcus Cousins, Griffin, Kevin Love and maybe even Anthony figure to be available this summer, and the Bulls need to be involved in any trade discussions that can bring in a much-needed impact player.

[MORE: Rock bottom - Bulls submit in blowout loss to Magic]

Around the Association

The long-running soap opera, “As LeBron Turns” continues in Cleveland. Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue had a conversation with James, asking him not to openly fraternize with opposing players during games after James hugged just about everyone on the Miami sideline before a recent match-up at American Airlines Arena. And, Cavs general manager David Griffin also talked with James about his recent behavior that included a trip to Miami to work out with Wade during a two-day break from practice, and his passive-aggressive behavior on social media seemingly calling out teammates for their failings. James also unfollowed the Cavs’ official Twitter site and a couple of the team’s broadcasters, saying he needs to sharpen his focus for the stretch run.

Oh, and James also wondered openly about the possibility of teaming up with “super-friends” Wade, Paul and Anthony, saying it would be great for the four of them to play a year or two together before retirement. I’m sure THAT went over will with his current teammates, who were beaten by the lowly Brooklyn Nets last week, and appear to be far from peak form as the playoffs draw near. James knows he’ll be condemned publicly if he leaves Cleveland again, but if the Cavs don’t get back to the Finals, we can expect another wild few weeks of speculation leading up to the start of free agency on July 1. As usual, James will opt out of his current deal and figures to makes a number of demands from Cavs’ management to get his signature on a new contract, mostly likely for one year and a player option to maintain his power over the franchise.

[MORE: Jimmy Butler doesn't think he'll need surgery but is worried about body]

Speaking of the playoffs, don’t count out the possibility of Miami winning the East. The Heat have been playing exceptionally well since signing veteran Joe Johnson on the buy-out market. Miami has been going with a small-ball lineup with Johnson at small forward and former Bull Luol Deng at power forward. That has brought out the best in point guard Goran Dragic, who struggled earlier in the season in a more deliberate, half-court offense. Head coach Erik Spoelstra is bringing Whiteside off the bench, and the threesome of Whiteside and rookies Justice Winslow and Josh Richardson has been beating up on other team’s second units. The Miami reserves have been calling themselves the “Mob”, an acronym for Most Outstanding Bench, which brought a mild rebuke from Deng, who said that name belongs to the former Bulls bench mob of Omer Asik, Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson. It was a friend of Watson’s who came up with the name, so I jokingly suggested on Twitter that Watson should fight to protect the name.

Watson had T-shirts made for the original bench mob, and appreciated Deng letting his teammates know the idea originated in Chicago. Unfortunately, Deng dropped his mild protest over the weekend, saying if the Miami reserves keep playing at the level they have been, they can call themselves whatever they want.

Warriors' pursuit of 72 wins

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Golden State probably cleared the last hurdle to breaking the 1995-96 Bulls record of 72 wins when they pulled out a tight game at Minnesota last Monday. The young Timberwolves led much of the game but couldn’t hold off the defending champs down the stretch. Afterwards, head coach Steve Kerr talked about Curry needing a “mental break,” but Curry wouldn’t even consider the possibility of sitting out. The Warriors are all-in for breaking the record now, and I can’t imagine them losing more than two games the rest of the way. Even though they have a pair of matchups remaining with San Antonio, Gregg Popovich made his point in beating the Warriors earlier this month, and don’t put it past Pop to sit out some of his stars against Golden State to try to preserve some type of mental edge for a likely Western Conference Finals battle. Popovich has already started with his rest for the playoffs routine, sitting his five best players for a game against Oklahoma City last Saturday. Given the Spurs’ indifference to late regular season games, I think it’s 90 percent likely the Warriors break the Bulls record.

Quotes of the Week

It sure sounds like Anthony might be open to a trade out of New York this summer. Here’s Melo’s response to a question about whether an onset of migraine headaches was brought on by the team’s constant losing. "No I don't think so," Anthony told reporters. "If that was the case I'd have had migraines every day last year. Last year was a lot worse than this year, just as far as, winning 17 games and figuring out how to approach each day mentally. So I think it would have been more stress on me last year than it is this year.

"I don't really want to start trying to name and guess about what triggered the migraine. It happened. I dealt with it. I'm glad I'm back."

And finally, back to the Bulls. Jimmy Butler dealing with a crisis of confidence these days, trying to overcome the mental challenge of playing through knee pain. "You see the way I've been playing lately," he said. "It's saddening. It's piss-poor, it's terrible. My teammates won't say it, my coaches won't say it. I'm a realist. If I continue to play like this, I'm hurting the team."

[SHOP: Get your Bulls gear right here]

And this from Gibson’s postgame chat on Thursday with ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell: "Teams are more eager to play us. [In years prior,] it was vice versa. They knew we were coming in to punch people in the face and keep playing. It's just, it's hard, man. It really eats me up inside. It's really hard to sleep at night knowing it's coming down to the wire, and our effort isn't there. It's really frustrating."

“I'm just tired of having these same talks with [the media] every night. About how we got to do better. ... [Hoiberg's] right. We got to look ourselves [in the mirror]. I look at myself in the mirror every night, and I try to do different things every night. Still got how many more games left? We've got 11 more games left (as of last Thursday). It's really do or die, and it's really frustrating. We got to want it. We got to want it. Sometimes I feel we want it, sometimes I don't know if we're kidding ourselves or not."

Taj, Bulls fans are wondering the same thing about a team that appears to be headed towards the draft lottery.

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”