Bulls

NBA Buzz: Getting better with age, LeBron James taking aim at title of greatest player of all-time

NBA Buzz: Getting better with age, LeBron James taking aim at title of greatest player of all-time

Now in his 14th NBA season, you'd think LeBron James would be starting to slow down given all the wear and tear on his body from seven different runs to the Finals.

But as hard to believe as it sounds on the surface, James might be playing the best basketball of his career at the age of 32. He's coming off a series against the third-seeded Raptors in which he averaged 36 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists in the Cavs' four-game sweep.

And dating back to last season, James has led the Cavs to 11 straight playoff wins, starting with the improbable rally from a 3-1 deficit to beat Golden State in the Finals.

Early in his career, James would often defer to his teammates in the closing minutes of tight games, saying it was all about making the right basketball play. Now, James has so much confidence in his own ability that he's able to control the flow of the game from start to finish, knowing when to get his teammates involved and when the situation dictates he should take over as a scorer.

Opposing teams used to challenge James to shoot long jumpers by going under screens to cut off his driving lanes. Now, that strategy has been rendered ineffective with James hitting almost 47 percent of his shots from 3-point range during this year's playoffs.

And forget about trying to take advantage of James getting worn down by playing extended minutes. He's averaging 42.4 minutes per game this postseason but never appears to be tired, obviously helped along by the fact the Cavs' two sweeps earned the players a week off between playoff rounds.

James has already established himself as the greatest small forward to play the game, now he's taking dead aim at Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the title of the greatest player period. James will probably pass Jordan during the current playoff run as the all-time leading postseason scorer, and before he's ready to retire, he'll probably pass Abdul-Jabbar for the No. 1 spot on the NBA's all-time scoring list.

Sure, James' 3-4 record in the Finals is the one blemish on his incredible resume, but looking back at those series, the 2011 Finals against Dallas and maybe the 2014 series against San Antonio would be the only times James' team lost to an underdog opponent.

James is virtually indestructible, rarely missing games for anything other than scheduled rest during the regular season. He's likely headed to a seventh straight Finals appearance, destroying just about every other Eastern Conference challenger along the way, including Doc Rivers' Celtics, Frank Vogel's Pacers and Tom Thibodeau's Bulls.

Given his effectiveness right now, it's easy to project the Cavaliers owning the East for at least another three years, with James going strong until the age of 40. When James is finally ready to hang up his signature shoes, he'll likely own just about every significant scoring record in the game, and he's already the top assist man among all forwards.

After having the pleasure of watching much of Jordan's career in person, I'm still going with Jordan as the greatest competitor and individual talent in the history of the game. But James will surely wind up on just about everyone's Mt. Rushmore of all-time greats alongside Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar and your choice of a fourth player: Wilt Chamberlain? Bill Russell? Magic Johnson?

And the scariest thing for other Eastern Conference teams? LeBron is still getting better.

Around the Association

With the Raptors and Jazz eliminated after getting swept in the conference semifinals, front offices for both teams head into an uncertain offseason.

Will Toronto really commit to five more years and more than $200 million to 31-year-old point guard Kyle Lowry after a second straight demolition at the hands of Cleveland? General manager Masai Ujiri gave DeMar DeRozan a max contract last summer, and since the Raptors wouldn't have enough cap room available to find a suitable replacement for Lowry, they probably have little choice but to double down with a new contract for their All-Star point guard.

Re-signing mid-season trade acquisition Serge Ibaka is a much tougher choice. Ibaka will also be looking for a max deal, but he's not the elite defender he was when he came into the league and really isn't much of a low-post scoring threat. Sure, a stretch four like Ibaka will have value on the free-agent market, but the Raptors would have to go deep into the luxury tax to keep him.

The Jazz qualify as one of the NBA's better stories this past season after getting back to the playoffs with 51 wins and winning a seven-game first-round playoff series against the Clippers. Center Rudy Gobert emerged as a defensive force while also becoming more of a threat in the pick-and-roll game. Trade acquisition George Hill solidified the offense with his steady play at point guard, and Gordon Hayward made the All-Star team for the first time in his career.

But both Hayward and Hill are free agents, and if they decide to sign elsewhere the Jazz could turn out to be a one-year wonder. Hayward has already been linked to the Celtics, where his old college coach at Butler, Brad Stevens, has done an outstanding job on the bench. Like most veteran free agents, Hayward would have to leave a ton of money on the table to change teams, but given Boston's situation as a rising power in the East, he'll certainly be tempted to make the jump. If the Celtics somehow manage to sign Hayward in free agency and draft top college prospect Markelle Fultz, they could be primed to give the Cavaliers a serious challenge next season.

Speaking of draft prospects, Chicago is the home of the annual NBA Draft Combine this week at Quest Multisport. Most of the top-10 prospects have decided to skip the process entirely, including the measurements and media interviews, but NBA scouts, coaches and executives will get a chance to evaluate 67 invited players, including Fultz and Kentucky point guard De'Aaron Fox.

With the league considering expanded rosters that include two-way contracts for young prospects, more players than ever are expected to remain in the draft with the chance to catch on with an NBA team and get paid a decent salary to develop while playing for a D-League affiliate.

The Bulls hold the 16th and 38th picks in the June 22 draft, so you know they'll be well represented at Quest this week, searching for shooters and athletes to add to a roster that figures to look very similar to the one that finished 41-41 this past season.

How Bulls' potential front office revamp could impact Jim Boylen

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USA Today

How Bulls' potential front office revamp could impact Jim Boylen

Here’s what Bulls coach Jim Boylen said at Media Day back in September:

“Our goals for the season are to make the playoffs. And every day to prepare like we’re a playoff team. Every day to work like we’re a playoff-bound team. I’m excited for that. I think that’s the only way to do it. There’s no way that we were going to stand up here and say, ‘Hey, I hope we can win 10 more games or we hope we can be better.’ We want to get to the mountain top.’’

Here’s what Boylen said Tuesday night:

“It is a win-loss league, but that’s not the only thing that gets evaluated. Are we establishing a style of play? I think we have. Have we cleaned up our defense that needed to be cleaned up? I think we have. Have we established a shot profile that’s top five in the league? I think we’re three right now in the shots we get compared to other teams. So those are all positive things,” he said. “And then you can look at the what-ifs, which I don’t do very often. With our shot profile, what would Otto Porter do in that shot profile? He’d be pretty successful. And Lauri Markkanen and right on down the line.

“I’m not worried about my personal record or my win-loss record. I’ve been asked to establish a style of play, to have a disciplined approach and develop a young group of guys. And in my opinion, we are doing that. Case in point – Coby White’s improvement, Daniel Gafford’s improvement. Cris Felicio, I think, is doing a heckuva job for us. So play the guys you have and hopefully make them better.”

There’s both some moving of the goalposts and truth to what Boylen says.

Yes, the Bulls have suffered an inordinate amount of injuries. Yes, they had a top-10 defense, which is impressive for such a young team, before injuries to crucial defenders like Kris Dunn and Wendell Carter Jr. occurred. Yes, they continue to play hard most nights, including Tuesday’s 124-122 loss to the Thunder in which injuries forced the rotation to prominently feature Cristiano Felicio, Adam Mokoka and Shaquille Harrison.

But the Bulls began the season at full strength, playing mostly non-playoff teams and came out of the gate at 3-6 before Porter went down first.

“It is hard for me. But that’s not my calling. That’s not what they ask me to do,” Boylen said about how difficult the reality of the won-lost record is. “Nobody in this organization said to me, ‘You got to win this many games.’ Nobody said to me, ‘Hey, we’re going to talk about wins and losses all year.’ Not one time have they said that to me. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to win. It doesn’t mean we’re not trying to win, but nobody said that to me.

“I have to honor the organization with trying to do this thing the right way. If we do that and if we can get healthy, I feel good about it.”

As has been written and said plenty, ownership and management first hired and then extended Boylen because they saw a teacher who held players accountable. So, yes, the full evaluation of Boylen moves beyond won-loss record.

And that’s why Boylen answered confidently when asked if it would surprise him if management used the Bulls’ poor record against him.

“Yes, it would,” he said. “I don’t foresee that happening.”

But here’s the rub: However the Bulls end up restructuring the front office this season, there will be at least one new prominent voice in basketball operations. So Boylen’s future won’t merely be decided by who is currently employed by ownership.

In fact, while executive vice president John Paxson will remain with the organization, the biggest new hire is expected to have significant autonomy in basketball operations. While it’s unknown at this point whether this hire would be able to solely determine Boylen’s future, that prerequisite likely would be a priority for most attractive candidates.

This story isn’t over yet.

To Boylen’s credit, he’s staying true to what he believes in, including currently keeping Coby White in a reserve role despite loud outside noise to start him. White is playing electrifying and historic offense these days, piling a career-high 35 points tonight on top of back-to-back, 33-point games.

White is the first rookie in NBA history to post three such games off the bench.

“I keep getting this question and I’m just going to answer it one more time: Coby is in a good place. We’re going to keep him in a good place,” Boylen said when asked about starting White. “I understand what you’re trying to ask. But let’s let Coby keep playing and keep developing and keep him in a good spot. That’s my goal right now.”

Boylen has other goals and they all stem from staying true to his beliefs. Time will tell if that’s enough for him to return.

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Bulls observations: Zach LaVine and Coby White nearly lead epic comeback

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USA TODAY

Bulls observations: Zach LaVine and Coby White nearly lead epic comeback

After a lackluster first half, the Bulls nearly staged the comeback of the season behind 76 points from Zach LaVine and Coby White. But ultimately, the Thunder prevailed 124-122. Observations:

Daniel Gafford needs to stay out of foul trouble

Jim Boylen again stressed at shootaround this morning the importance of the Bulls defending without fouling. As a team, they entered play dead last in the NBA in opponent free throw rate, and conceded 28 charity stripe trips to the Thunder when they met on Dec. 16. 

Daniel Gafford has been among the biggest culprits in that area. Since re-entering the regular rotation (from injury) after the All-Star break, Gafford has averaged 4.8 fouls per game, including a foul-out in 16 minutes against Charlotte in his first game back. Tonight, he picked up two in the first three minutes of the game and a third early in the second quarter en route to just five first-half minutes (and 14 total). He finished the night with four personals. 

That’s a problem for a Bulls team thin on the front line and struggling defensively. In Gafford’s stead, Cristiano Felicio played 33 minutes, and though he posted an admirable six points and nine rebounds, most would agree — for the sake of both development and staying competitive — Gafford minutes are preferable. As a team, the Bulls committed 25 fouls and sent the Thunder to the line 30 times, though that was boosted by having to play the foul game late.

The sweet life of Zach and Coby rolls on

Another game, another torrid combined performance from Zach LaVine and Coby White. This one was especially fun.

LaVine poured in 41 points on 19-for-35 shooting, White a new career-high 35 points on 13-for-21 (6-for-9 from 3-point range). As the Thunder rained hellfire from long-range and otherwise picked the Bulls’ defense apart early, those two kept the team afloat on the other end. Then, they keyed a whirlwind of a comeback in the third. 

 

In that third quarter, LaVine notched 19 points on a preposterous 9-for-11 shooting; White had three timely 3-pointers — each eliciting exponentially louder roars from the United Center crowd. Play them together as many minutes as humanly possible down the stretch of the season… When they’re ‘on’ in unison, it’s downright electric.

Also worth mentioning is this is White’s third 30-point game in a row. He’s set, matched, then re-set his career-high scoring totals in each of the last three games. That type of momentum is immensely encouraging in what had been a tumultuous rookie season. 

This time, it was the Bulls’ turn for a comeback

The Thunder put on an absolute offensive clinic in the first half — canning 11 of their first 15 3-pointers, assisting on 19 of 26 made buckets and committing just five turnovers. Danilo Gallinari was en route to a career night (he had 17 points on 5-for-5 from 3 in the game’s first six-and-a-half minutes) and the Bulls’ defense again looked woefully undermanned. 

But that third quarter swung the game for a bit. The Bulls won the period 38-19 behind the aforementioned contributions from LaVine and White, and also four Oklahoma City turnovers. The hosts held the Thunder to 36.8% shooting from the field (1-for-8 from deep) in the period after they shot 63.4% in the first half.

In these teams’ first meetup of the season, the Bulls coughed up a 26-point lead late on the Thunder’s home floor. Tonight, it was their turn to flip the script — that is, until the end.

Ultimately, not a bad loss

The Thunder eventually ground out a nail-biter of a 124-122 win behind a litany of crucial plays by Chris Paul (19 points, nine assists) down the stretch. With the loss, the Bulls drop to 20-39 on the season and 1-9 in their last ten. But against a really good Thunder team — they’re now 36-22 and have won nine straight on the road — this isn’t one to hang heads about.

LaVine catching fire — and nearly pulling off a Charlotte-esque barrage in the game's final minute — another scorcher of a game from White, and clawing back after such a lackluster first half is enough to take solace in given where we are with this team. Let’s enjoy the ones we can and take the silver linings as they come.

Next up: The Knicks in New York on Saturday.