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NBA Buzz: Should Bulls make a deal or not?

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NBA Buzz: Should Bulls make a deal or not?

With the Bulls sliding into the All-Star break having lost 13 of their last 18 games, it's only natural to wonder if the contending window has closed on the current roster.

The coaching change from Tom Thibodeau to Fred Hoiberg was supposed to bring a new offensive system that would maximize the talents of the young players on the roster. Instead, Niko Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Tony Snell have failed to take advantage of expanded playing time, leaving the front office to wonder what changes are necessary to put the right personnel around All-Star guard Jimmy Butler.

Butler is expected to be out until early March after suffering a left knee strain, but the time off might turn out to be a blessing in disguise if the NBA's leader in average minutes played per game comes back refreshed for the stretch run.

The front office is also counting on Derrick Rose continuing his post-Christmas resurgence, and Mirotic should return in a few weeks to give the Bulls another scoring threat off the bench. Plus, the hope is Mike Dunleavy will be able to stabilize the small forward position as he gradually increases his minutes load following off-season back surgery.

[MORE: NBA Power Rankings - Evaluating teams at the All-Star break]

That's why it's unlikely the Bulls will make a major trade before Thursday's 2 p.m. deadline.

John Paxson and Gar Forman still are hoping a healthy Bulls' team can compete with any of the Eastern Conference playoff teams, outside of Cleveland. Their thinking is if the "Big 3" of Butler, Rose and Pau Gasol can get a stretch of games together in March and April to build some chemistry, maybe this team can win a round or two in the playoffs. If it doesn't work out, the Bulls will have cap space and at least one first round pick to re-shape the roster this summer, maybe two if the Kings finish outside the bottom 10.

So, what's out there if the Bulls attempt to make changes now? Phoenix is desperately trying to unload talented but moody forward Markieff Morris (who had a heated bench confrontation with teammate Archie Goodwin last Wednesday), Minnesota has no use for 33-year-old swing-man Kevin Martin, the Pelicans are willing to trade just about anyone outside of superstar Anthony Davis, and Sacramento would certainly listen to offers about the consistently under-achieving Rudy Gay.

Now that Marc Gasol is out indefinitely because of a broken foot, would Memphis consider bringing Pau Gasol back to his original NBA home in a trade for a first round pick and an expiring contract?

And, with the Lakers still in tank mode to protect their first round pick that will go to Phoenix if it falls outside of the top 3, would the Bulls be interested in a proven perimeter scorer like Lou Williams (who's signed for reasonable money over the next two seasons), which would allow Butler to move back to small forward?

Right now, it's difficult to read what the Bulls' front office thinks about the roster long term. But if there is a deal available to land a young talent who can be part of the team's future along with Butler, Portis, Mirotic, McDermott and maybe Rose, why wait until the summer?

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

If the Bulls decide to delay their roster makeover, which players might they be able to pursue in free agency? With Gasol and Joakim Noah most likely moving on after the season, along with Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks, the Bulls could have between $20-21 million in cap room available to bid on the top free agents.

Here's the breakdown on the Bulls' salary commitments for next season, courtesy of CSN's resident capologist, Kevin "Bulldog" Anderson. Remember Gasol holds a player option for 2016-17, but has already indicated he will opt out and become a free agent.

Player Salary
Derrick Rose $21,323,252
Jimmy Butler $17,552,209
Taj Gibson $8,500,000
Nikola Mirotic $5,782,450
Mike Dunleavy $4,837,500
Doug McDermott $2,483,040
Tony Snell $2,368,327
Bobby Portis $1,453,680
Cristiano Felicio (non-guaranteed) $874,636
Cameron Bairstow (non-guaranteed) $980,431
Charge first round pick (Currently No. 18) $1,420,100
Total $68,119,096
2016 Salary Cap Prediction $89,000,000

That leaves approximately $21 million available for the Bulls to spend in free agency after they renounce their rights to Noah, E'Twaun Moore, Hinrich and Brooks.

Ok, we know Kevin Durant isn't coming to Chicago, but what about some other All-Star caliber players like Al Horford, DeMar DeRozan, and Mike Conley or productive two-way wing players Nic Batum, Arron Afflalo and Kent Bazemore? All would be great additions for the Bulls, with DeRozan and Batum in particular looking like good fits for the Hoiberg offense.

Another name to keep an eye on is Miami center Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside has continued to improve in his first full season with the Heat, and could be one of the most sought-after players on the free agent market, since he leads the league in blocked shots and is one of the NBA's most athletic centers. Whiteside will be available to the highest bidder since Miami doesn't hold his Bird rights, which means they can't offer an extra year, and can't go over the salary cap to re-sign him. The Heat doesn't figure to have much cap room available with big contracts on the books for Chris Bosh and Goran Dragic, and Dwyane Wade likely to tie up at least another $20 million after he signs his next deal. So, you can look forward to a wild west bidding war for a player who bounced around the D-League for a few years, and was basically out of basketball when the Heat signed him.

It was another crazy week on the NBA coaching front. Phil Jackson pulled the plug on his former player, Derek Fisher, after just a season and a half on the Knicks' bench, appointing Kurt Rambis as the interim head coach. While in Sacramento, George Karl earned another reprieve from the front office after another round of sniping from star center DeMarcus Cousins.

Jackson ran out of patience after watching the Knicks move into playoff contention at 22-22, then promptly lose nine out of 10 games. Jackson's insistence of running some semblance of the triangle offense might eliminate Thibodeau from consideration with early speculation centering on long-time Jackson disciples like Rambis, Luke Walton and Brian Shaw.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Thibodeau served as an assistant coach with the Knicks under Jeff Van Gundy, and reportedly told confidants running the Knicks would be his "dream job", but the egos involved with Thibs and Jackson could make for a combustible working relationship. It would be fascinating to watch, but not an option Jackson is likely to consider at this point in his life.

As for Karl, ESPN's Marc Stein reported early last week that the Kings were prepared to make a change in the next few days. But after meeting with GM Vlade Divac last Tuesday, the two men decided they would work through the team's many issues together. Karl is expected to keep his job through the remainder of the season, so we'll see if his meeting with Divac will result in any roster changes before the trade deadline.

A number of contending teams are keeping their eye on veteran wing scorer Joe Johnson to see if he's able to negotiate a buyout with the Nets before the March 1 deadline. Johnson has been playing much better of late, including his game-winning three-pointer against Denver last Monday. According to ESPN stats and info., Johnson has hit seven game-winning buzzer beaters over the last 10 years, more than any other player in the league. Monta Ellis and Andre Iguodala are next with four apiece. If Johnson hits the buyout market, look for the usual teams to pursue him, including Cleveland, San Antonio, Miami, Houston and the Clippers.

Speaking of the Cavs, LeBron James has been busy giving GM David Griffin some trade ideas to strengthen the team for a possible re-match with Golden State in the NBA Finals. Players linked to the Cavs on the trade rumor circuit include a pair of former Bulls' players, Kyle Korver and Omer Asik.

WARRIORS PURSUIT OF 72 WINS

Another perfect week for Steve Kerr's Warriors. They head into the break with a 48-4 record and they're unbeaten at home. Barring an injury to one of their key players, it seems almost a foregone conclusion they can go 25-5 over their remaining 30 games and break the 1995-96 Bulls single season record. I'm jumping their odds all the way up to 70 percent.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

We told you about Johnson's big night against Denver which also included that embarrassing crossover move on Nuggets' young big man, Jusuf Nurkic.

At least Nurkic was able to maintain his sense of humor, sending out the following tweet, "Don't worry guys, my ankles are okay. Just need a little ice. Good play by Johnson."

And finally back to where we began with the plight of the Bulls. Here's a sampling of some of the quotes following last Wednesday's embarrassing loss to Atlanta.

Taj Gibson: "You have to really deep down love each other and play hard, knowing that guy is going to battle for you.""It hurts my heart."

Hoiberg: "I challenged them, whatever they got to do over the break, look themselves in the mirror, find a way to get committed to this team where we can come out and go on a run. And that's all we can do right now is look forward. It's been a bad, bad stretch of basketball. Hopefully we'll get healthy and move forward."

And finally this from Rose: "Come back, got 30 games left and we got to decide whether we want to play or not."

It will be fascinating to watch how the Bulls' players come out of the All-Star break with the very real possibility of missing the playoffs staring them in the face.

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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USA TODAY

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.”