NBA Buzz: Summer of change for Bulls?


NBA Buzz: Summer of change for Bulls?

With the return of Jimmy Butler and Niko Mirotic, the Bulls are as healthy as they've been since early January. Question is, will this team at almost full strength be good enough to crack the top eight in the Eastern Conference and qualify for the playoffs?

The first game provided some encouraging signs. The ball movement and cutting on offense and the intensity on the defensive end was outstanding for the first eight minutes against Houston on Saturday. But as soon as Butler went to the bench because of foul trouble, the offensive flow disappeared and the Bulls again proved vulnerable to penetrating guards on the other end.

The Bulls were able to hang on to beat the dysfunctional Rockets, 108-100. Butler was sensational in his first game back with 24 points and 11 rebounds, and Pau Gasol also put up big numbers with 28 points, 17 rebounds and six assists. But the home team almost blew an 18-point fourth-quarter lead, thanks to sloppy ball-handling that resulted in 25 turnovers. That number will have to drop if the Bulls are going to make the playoffs.

The next five games should tell us a lot about whether the return of Butler and Mirotic will be a turning point in the season. After a home game against Milwaukee, the Bulls face tough tests against San Antonio, Miami, Toronto and Washington.

Still, barring an unexpected run to the Conference Finals, you'd have to expect an offseason of change at the Advocate Center. All options should be on the table for a team that's been maddeningly inconsistent to this point.

[MORE: Hoiberg calling for Bulls to ride emotion for final stretch]

We learned last week in a Boston Herald report that Celtics' general manager Danny Ainge reportedly called the Bulls before the trade deadline about Butler, offering Brooklyn's unprotected first round pick (expected to be in the top five) and a first rounder Boston acquired in the Rajon Rondo trade with Dallas last season. According to the report, the talks never really gained any traction, but that type of trade could be revisited this summer if the Bulls are ready to hit the reset button on a roster that has maxed out.

Former NBA front office executive and current ESPN analyst Amin Elhassan made a guest appearance on David Kaplan's radio show last week, offering his opinion that the Bulls should have already started the rebuilding process. Elhassan said he went on the air on Christmas Day, advocating it was time for the Bulls to "blow up the roster" and start over.

Of course, that was followed by a nationally televised win over the Thunder and later a six-game winning streak in early January. But since that time, the Bulls have lost 18 of their last 27 games. The front office passed on a chance to get something for free agent to be Gasol at the deadline, reportedly turning down a Sacramento offer that included young wing player Ben McLemore, veteran back-up center Kosta Koufos and reduction of the top 10 protection on the first-round pick the Kings owe the Bulls from a previous trade.

Elhassan said on Kap and Co. the Bulls' front office overvalued the talent on the current roster, mistakenly believing they could make a run to the Finals with a coaching change alone. Now, they're left with a roster that's ill-suited to the type of system Fred Hoiberg wants to run.

In looking ahead to the offseason, Elhassan said he would be willing to trade anyone on the roster "not named Jimmy Butler" and thinks a split with Derrick Rose would be best for everyone involved. Elhassan said the Bulls can't really start the rebuilding process until they say goodbye to Rose, whose injury history and max contract have been an impediment to making the roster changes necessary to become a contending team again.

With the explosion of the salary cap from $69 million to somewhere around $90 million, we can expect to see one of the most active summer trade seasons in NBA history. Plus, the Bulls could have somewhere between $20 million and $23 million to spend in free agency, assuming they renounce their rights to Gasol and Joakim Noah. If the front office wants to do a roster makeover for their hand-picked head coach, this summer should offer them the perfect opportunity.

Around the Association

Even though the Cavaliers have been at the top of the Eastern Conference almost all season, the situation is far from harmonious in Cleveland. General manager David Griffin fired head coach David Blatt in late January and reportedly discussed trade options involving former All-Star Kevin Love.

Then we learn of an ESPN report claiming point guard Kyrie Irving is unhappy playing in the shadow of LeBron James, and would welcome the chance to go elsewhere. Irving quickly denied the report, but it's apparent he won't reach his full potential with James dominating the ball.

For his part, James has been going with the "tough love" approach in regard to his teammates, saying the Cavs have to be mentally stronger if they want to accomplish their championship goal. James was especially agitated after the Cavs blew a lead against the Toronto Raptors recently, saying again it's the mental approach that's holding the team back.

So, how did James show his leadership with this mentally fragile group? He decided to fly to Miami on the team's off days last week and was seen in a video working out with his good friend and former Heat teammate Dwyane Wade. James also sent out a cryptic tweet, "It's OK to know you've made a mistake. Cause we all do at times. Just be ready to live with whatever that comes with it and be with those who will protect you at all cost!"

Was James saying he regretted leaving Miami? Was he taking a shot at his current teammates? LeBron refused to elaborate when he returned to Cavs' practice last Thursday, telling Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, "I don't care," if people are upset. "I would love to go to L.A., but I'll take two and a half (hour flight) over four and a half. I've got a house in L.A., but it makes more sense for me to go south than go west. But I go because I want to."

James is right. If he feels like enjoying some warm weather during an unexpected two-day break in the middle of the season, more power to him. But given his past history of jumping teams, and his ability to enter the free agent market this summer, Cavs' fans and management have to be more than a little nervous if Cleveland fails to make a return trip to the Finals this June.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

***Speaking of uneasy alliances, Carmelo Anthony's love affair with the Knicks organization seems to have hit another rough patch. Last week Anthony responded to a heckling fan at Madison Square Garden by pointing to Knicks' owner James Dolan and saying that's the owner sitting over there, ask him for your money back.

The next day, Anthony issued a statement apologizing for his actions, but he told reporters it was Dolan's idea, not his. With the Knicks again heading for the lottery, you have to wonder if Anthony regrets committing to Phil Jackson for five years. Melo received a no-trade clause as part of the negotiations, but don't be surprised if he and his agent try to come up with an exit strategy this summer.

***In case you missed it, Michael Beasley is back in the NBA, signing a free agent deal with the Houston Rockets after an MVP season in the Chinese Basketball Association. Beasley, of course, is the player selected right after Derrick Rose in the 2008 draft. He's bounced around the league because of character issues, but no one's ever denied his talent. Still, you have to wonder about his fit on the dysfunctional Rockets, who fired head coach Kevin McHale after just 11 games, and are fighting to make the playoffs in the West despite a roster that features star players James Harden and Dwight Howard. Should be interesting to see Harden's reaction the first time Beasley throws up a crazy shot.

***At 36 years old, Baron Davis hasn't given up on his dream of making an NBA comeback. Davis signed with the Developmental League's Delaware 87'ers with the hope of showing NBA teams he still has something to offer. Davis averaged 16.1 points and 7.2 assists in 835 career games, but he hasn't played in the league since suffering a serious knee injury during the 2012 playoffs.

***And, congratulations to our friend Nazr Mohammed on returning to the NBA, signing on with Oklahoma City for the rest of the season and the playoffs. Mohammad had been out of the league since leaving the Bulls at the end of last season, but he stayed in shape, hoping for another chance at extending his career. The former Kenwood Academy star says this last comeback is all about leaving the NBA on his own terms, and he hopes to do whatever he can to help the Thunder, either on the court, or by sharing the benefits of his 18 years of experience. When the season ends, Mohammed is ready to move on with his life, grateful to have this final opportunity to say goodbye.

Warriors pursuit of 72 wins

Just when it looked like the Warriors were a lock to break the 1995-'96 Bulls record of 72 wins, they inexplicably failed to show up for an afternoon game against the tanking Lakers and got run out of Staples Center, losing 112-95. Even harder to believe, two of the best shooters in the game, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, combined to shoot 1-18 from 3-point range. Maybe the Warriors just had a bad day, or maybe the players stayed out too late in L.A. Saturday night, figuring they could mail it in for a 12:30 afternoon start against one of the worst teams in the league.

Golden State needs to go 18-3 the rest of the way to break the Bulls' record, and 15 of those games will be played at Oracle Arena in Oakland where they haven't lost all season. But they also have to play San Antonio three times, with two of those match-ups coming on the Spurs' home court. All of a sudden, the challenge is looking a little tougher for Steve Kerr's crew, but I'm still putting the odds of Golden State breaking the record at 60 percent.

Stats of the Week

Here's some numbers to show how much the Bulls defensive efficiency has fallen off this season, courtesy of CSN's Chris Kamka.

The .675 FG% the Bulls allowed vs. Miami on March 1 is the highest in the NBA by any team since Feb. 27, 2010 (includes playoffs).

On that day, the Jazz shot 52-77 (.675) vs. the Rockets (same as Heat vs. Bulls).

The previous high in the NBA this season was back on Dec. 7, when the Spurs shot .618 (47-76) vs. 76ers.

Bulls allowing 60+ points in the first half:

Regular season Times Games
2015-16 10 60
2014-15 7 82
2013-14 4 82
2012-13 3 82
2011-12 1 66
2010-11 7 82
2010-16 totals 22 394

Quotes of the Week

This from Pau Gasol on the Bulls' current plight:

"Teams come in and see us struggling, they know we're struggling, and they see opportunity. They're smelling blood and they're going for it. It doesn't make things any easier, but at the same time we've got to step it up.''

And finally, this from Steve Kerr on his Warriors losing to the Lakers: "We got what we deserved. When the ball doesn't go in, you have to win with energy and defense and toughness, and we didn't have any of that."

"I joke with Steph all the time that this team is full of millennials, and millennials can't focus," Kerr said, "so we looked like millennials today. We weren't locked in at all. We weren't focused. But every team is going to have a tough time being locked in for 82 games. It's hard."

Maybe now Steve can understand some of the frustration that every other NBA coach has to experience. Kerr probably has the best perspective of anyone on the Warriors' record chase after playing for the '95-96 Bulls and coaching this Golden State team. He's in the enviable position of knowing he'll come out on top either way.

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is fed up with being underestimated and he’s going to do something about it. The Bulls guard has been having a strong pre-season so far but is looking to improve his skills as a two-way player.

“I’m just tired of people talking shit about my defense,” LaVine said. “I’ve always been a good on-ball defender. But there’s no reason I can be this good offensively and not be that on the defensive end.”

“I’m taking more pride in it,” he continued. “I’m pretty sure it’ll show. I’ll make sure of that.”

If you think LaVine sounds confident, he has good reason to be. Last season LaVine was one of only ten players to average at least 23 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, making him stand out as an elite player in the company of MVPs and All-Stars. LaVine’s personal triumphs, however, were overshadowed by the Bulls abysmal 22-60 record last season.

So far, this preseason LaVine has been looking better on defense, averaging 1.3 steals per game through three preseason games. Any improvements on defense will greatly help LaVine’s All-Star case.

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3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

The Bulls recorded their first win of the preseason with Sunday night’s 105-91 win over the Raptors. Here are three takeaways:

We got a peek at Jim Boylen's regular-season rotation

We had a clue that Boylen was going to go with Tomas Satoransky as his starter after he chose to sit him with the starters in the Bulls third preseason game against the Indiana Pacers. Sunday confirmed this idea. Boylen stated before the game that he would be starting to roll out his regular season rotations, and we saw "Sato" start next to the regular Bulls starting group of Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and the returning Wendell Carter Jr.

On top of seeing the starting group, we got to see Thaddeus Young in his probable role as the sixth man, coming in for Carter to provide the Bulls with more of a small look where Markkanen acts as the center.

Markkanen was particularly effective on the glass against the smaller Raptors frontline sans Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam. Lauri collected a double-double, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds, including four offensive rebounds. 

Giving an even greater effort on the glass will push Markkanen closer to All-Star status and it is not out of the question as we have seen him raise his rebounding average every season. Games like Sunday night's show that all of the muscle Markkanen added this offseason is going to pay dividends in the 2019-20 NBA regular season and beyond, which will allow the Bulls to play smaller more often to get dynamic scorers like Coby White on the floor.

White came in as a substitute for Porter, giving the Bulls another small-ball lineup in which LaVine acts as the small forward next to him and Satoransky.

Satoransky was great, finishing with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 turnovers in 21 minutes. Sato pushed the pace but also could sense the right time to pull the ball back out and run a play in the halfcourt.

In general, the Bulls trotted out more three-guard lineups in this game, and the size of big guards like Satoransky and Kris Dunn help the Bulls blur the lines between wing and guard, mitigating some of the risks involved with not having a traditional wing on the floor.

On the flip side, the perimeter skills of a big man like Young allow the Bulls to play bigger lineups in which Young plays small forward next to two big men. In Sunday night's win over the Raptors, Young finished the game second on the Bulls in rebounds (7) and assists (3), while being in the right spot more times than not on D. 

With stretch-five Luke Kornet (2-of-7 from 3-point line vs Raptors), the gritty, playmaking Ryan Arcidiacono (3 assists, no turnovers), and rookie Daniel Gafford rounding out the rest of the new Bulls' Bench Mob," Boylen will have the ability to play many different ways, affording us a fair chance to see what he is made of as an NBA head coach. He is already passing his first test of showing that he is open to change, with the Bulls shooting 49 3-pointers on Sunday night, keeping their promise of being more aggressive from deep.

The Zach LaVine All-Star push starts now 

Overall, Zach LaVine has not been shy about already being at an All-Star level of play, you just have to ask him.

LaVine came into Sunday night's game sixth in the league in preseason scoring, averaging 22.0 points per game through two contests, and he kept up that scoring onslaught in a big way. He finished Sunday's win over the Raptors with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in just 24 minutes of action. He finished the night with four turnovers as well, and while you would like to see the assist-to-turnover ratio improve, high turnover totals are just the name of the game for high-usage stars.

Besides, Boylen and Co. likely would rather see LaVine collect some turnovers trying to make the extra pass—something the Bulls have committed to hard this preseason—rather than trying to iso and make a play for himself.

Notably, the LaVine-Markkanen pick-and-roll that figures to be a staple of the Bulls offense for a long time again made an appearance in this game, looking crisp at moments as defenses struggle with scrambling to Markkanen at the 3-point line or worrying more about LaVine's oftentimes dominant drives to the rim.

While it is encouraging to see LaVine score effortlessly, that is not a new development for Bulls fans. The true mark of improvement for LaVine will be his defense and playmaking, both of which looked good on Sunday night.

LaVine racked up two steals and showed an improved awareness and aggressiveness when prowling the passing lanes. What makes defense so huge for LaVine, besides the fact that his effort-level sets the tone for the team, is that he so often turns opponent turnovers into points in transition for Chicago.

The Bulls had 14 fastbreak points and 17 points off of turnovers in their win over the Raptors, with LaVine's efforts playing a large hand in the win. 

Coby White continues to score in bunches 

It has been stated many times how Coby White was more of a shooting guard in high school and only transitioned into being more a lead guard at North Carolina. And those natural scoring instincts have shown up time and time again in the NBA preseason, especially in transition. 

If you get White going towards the rim with a head of steam in transition, he will make it to the basket before the 24-second shot clock hits the 19-second mark, a remarkable display of his blazing speed.

Of course, everything is to be taken with a grain of salt in the NBA preseason, as we are often seeing White (and others) face off against a team's backups or even worse, players that won't even make an NBA roster. But what White has done well should play in the regular season, too. He scored 18 points on 37.5% shooting from the field, including hitting 4 of his 12 attempts from 3-point range. White was 2-2 from the free throw line and finished with one assist and no turnovers. 

It looks like it will be a while before we see Coby White look like an NBA-level floor general but he is already playing like an uber-confident, spark plug shooting guard.

The Bulls can utilize White's scoring in the regular season knowing that even if his court vision isn't where they want it to be, his shoot-first mentality and propensity to keep the ball moving should result in lower turnover totals than your usual score-first point guard.