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.

Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Why the Bulls should bet on potential and draft Jaren Jackson Jr.

Previous making the case for: Deandre Ayton | Luka Doncic | Mo Bamba | Marvin Bagley | Michael Porter Jr.

The modern NBA center is transforming. Last season 12 centers (as listed by Basketball Reference) made 50 or more 3-pointers, up from 10 players in 2016-17. The year before that, in 2015-16, five players accomplished that feat. Four players did it in 2014-15, three did it in 2013-14, and from 1990 to 2012 only Mehmet Okur (five times), Channing Frye (three times) and Byron Mullens (once) accomplished it.

Many of the names on that list, however, don’t exactly cut it on the other end. Sure, players like Joel Embiid, Al Horford and Marc Gasol are elite defenders. But repeat 50+ club members also include Karl-Anthony Towns, Marreese Speights, Kelly Olynyk, DeMarcus Cousins and Pero Antic. In other words, players Rudy Gobert won’t have to worry about contending with for Defensive Player of the Year.

But that former list – the Embiid, Horford, Gasol one – could add another member to it in the coming years. Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. was a rarity in college basketball this past season. He became the fifth player since 1992 to compile 35 or more 3-pointers and 100 or more blocks in a single season. Jackson had 38 and 106, respectively, and he accomplished those numbers in 764 minutes; the other four players on the list averaged 1,082 minutes, and the next fewest was Eddie Griffin’s 979 minutes in 2000-01.

Staying on those minutes, Jackson averaged 21.8 per game. That was decidedly fewer per game than Carter (26.9), Bamba (30.2), Ayton (33.5) and Bagley (33.9). We’ll get to why those minutes might be an issue, but for now it’s a reason to not be scared off by his lack of raw numbers (10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 blocks).

Jackson’s block percentage (14.2%) ranked fourth in the country. That was higher than Bamba’s 12.9%, despite Bamba tallying 3.7 blocks per game. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Jackson was elite as a rim protector. He ranked in the 99th percentile in defensive possessions around the rim, allowing a mere 0.405 PPP. To put that number in context, freshmen Joel Embiid (0.844), Karl-Anthony Towns (0.8) and Myles Turner (0.667) weren’t even close. This past season Bamba allowed a whopping 1.088 PPP in that area, ranking in the 33rd percentile nationally.

Jackson plays bigger than the 236 pounds he weighed in at last week’s NBA Draft Combine. Here’s where we tell you he’ll need to add muscle like all 18-year-olds entering the NBA (oh, he’s also the youngest first-round prospect in the class). But defending the interior shouldn’t be a problem; his defensive rebounding rate wasn’t spectacular (19.8%), but the Spartans were a solid rebounding team as a whole – 76th nationally – so Jackson didn’t need to be great for the Spartans to succeed.

Jackson is going to defend at a high level, and in five years he’ll likely be known more for his defense than his offense. But that’s not to say he doesn’t have potential on that end of the floor. He ranked in the 91st percentile in points per possession (shooting 51 percent from the floor and 40 percent from deep helps), doing his most damage in the post (1.22 PPP, 98th percentile) and on jumpers, which were almost exclusively 3-point attempts (1.09 PPP, 81st). He was even a plus on pick-and-rolls, averaging 1.11 on a limited 27-possession sample size.

But not all 3-pointers are created equally. Consider that Jackson did almost all of his damage beyond the arc from the top of the key. He went 21-for-42 from straightaway, according to Synergy Sports, an absurd percentage on that many attempts. From all other areas he went 17-for-54. But in the pick-and-roll era, Jackson’s ability to pop out to the top of the key after setting a screen, and his confidence to take and make those shots, is priceless.

He needs polish on both ends. That seems like the easy way out, and a generic statement that could be made for all these prospects. But so much of his game is still raw; again, there’s a reason he played just 54 percent of all available minutes, and tallied 15 minutes in the Spartan’s NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse.

He committed 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes (Bamba committed 4.3, for reference) and he shot just 48 percent on non-dunks inside 6 feet. His post numbers were good because he is nearly 7 feet tall and was always one of the most talented players on the floor. It’ll get tougher at the next level, and he’ll need to improve his feel around the rim as well as his post moves.

It doesn’t appear likely at this point, but there’s still a chance Jackson could fall to the Bulls at 7. We’ll safely assume Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic will be off the board. If Michael Porter’s medicals check out he should go in the top 5, and the other three selections could be Marvin Bagley, Mo Bamba and Trae Young. Young is certainly the least likely of the bunch, but it only takes one team to fall in love with his potential. Orlando at No. 6 is a natural fit.

If he is there at No. 7, he needs to be the Bulls pick. Admittedly this would be less of a decision than some of the other picks we’ll get to in the coming weeks. Allowing Lauri Markkanen to roam the wings while Jackson set picks for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine would improve the offense drastically. And putting an elite rim protector next to Markkanen only covers up the latter’s weaknesses and, thus, makes him a better player.

If teams fall in love with Bamba’s length, Young’s shooting and Porter’s health, Jackson could be waiting when the Bulls pick at No. 7. He isn’t the wing the front office covets, but he is a two-way player with immense upside.

Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need


Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need

The Bulls are in need of talent. That much is clear after a 27-win campaign in which they finished ranked 28th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They’ll add a pair of prospects next month, with two selections in the first round, and presumably take the next step in their rebuild. Talent is important, that can’t be overstated. The Bulls should stick to their board and take the best player available nine out of 10 times.

But as much as the Bulls need an influx of talent, versatility in the backcourt might be a close second. And while there isn’t really any player at No. 7 that would fit that bill – they could reach for Collin Sexton – there are a number of versatile guards, in a class dominated at the top by bigs, who could be there when the Bulls are on the clock at No. 22.

Meet Wichita State guard Landry Shamet. That classic NBA buzzword “versatile” is thrown around more often than ever before. The idea that a player can play multiple positions, can defend 1-3 or has the potential to learn two spots at the next level. Then there’s Shamet. He’s actually done it.

He arrived in Wichita as a shooting guard, the Shockers’ highest-rated recruit in nine years. A broken foot cost him all but three games of his freshman season, but he returned in 2016 and made an immediate impact, including a shift to point guard midway through the season; the move went seamlessly, as he led the Shockers in assists (3.3) and was 14th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.00). He matched Kentucky freshman point guard DeAaron Fox in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 20 points on 7 of 14 shooting in a loss.

He remained at point guard in his sophomore season and dominated, earning an honorable mention All-American nod while leading the team in points (14.9) assists (5.2), and 3-pointers (2.6) per game for a Shockers team ranked in the top 25 all year, and as high as No. 3 in December.

He had the ball in his hands plenty at Wichita State, but his shooting hardly suffered. A point guard in name, his shooting may be his best attribute. In his final two seasons Shamet shot 44.1 percent from deep on 354 attempts. He was the nation’s best spot-up shooter when Greg Marshall used him off the ball, and made multiple 3-pointers in 23 of 32 games.

His versatility can best be explained as such: He was the only player in the country – and just the 13th since 1992 – to average at least five assists, 2.5 3-pointers per game and shoot 44 percent from deep. The 6-foot-5 guard brings shooting, facilitating and length defensively to the table. It’s no cliché.

“I feel like I can step in and do whatever a coach needs me to do, whether it’s playing on the ball being a facilitator/playmaker/initiating offense, or a guy you’ve got to honor off the ball (as) a spot-up shooter,” Shamet said Friday at the NBA Draft Combine.

He struggled shooting in the 5-on-5 scrimmages over the two-day span, but also noted that he accomplished his main goal of defending well. His 6-foot-7 wingspan will be looked down upon in an era where measurements mean more than ever, but he also had a 39-inch max vertical (12th best) and a 3.11 three-quarters court sprint (10th best).

He admitted he’s more athletic than some give him credit for – as his vertical would suggest – but that his game is more “cerebral” and making the right decisions.

“I feel like I have a high IQ, a cerebral player,” he said. “I’m not going to wow you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. I feel like I’m a solid player, pretty steady across the board.”

It’s a skill set the Bulls could use. His numbers and measurements look similar to Denzel Valentine, who has drawn mixed reviews in two NBA seasons and is really the closest thing the Bulls have to a “versatile” guard; Valentine was one of 21 players with 140+ 3-pointers and 240+ assists, 12 of whom were All-Stars.

Shamet also has seven inches of vertical leap and a quicker sprint as far as Combine times are concerned, and he’s a more natural fit as a point guard than Valentine. Shamet said two players whose games he studies include Malcolm Brogdon, a less-than-flashy guard who won 2017 Rookie of the Year making just about every correct play. Brogdon possesses the same sneaky athleticism – ask LeBron James – has shot 40 percent from deep in two NBA seasons and has a 2.62 A/TO ratio.

“You don’t want to step out of your comfort zone and be somebody you’re not, so out here I’m trying to be me, be solid, (and) make the right play all the time,” he said. “I don’t rely on my athleticism, I like to think the game. So I try to just be myself.”

Kris Dunn is cemented as a point guard for the Bulls’ future, and the front office sang Cameron Payne’s praises at season’s end, though he’ll be a free agent after next season. But Dunn, Payne and Jerian Grant combined to shoot 33.6 percent from deep, and even Payne’s 38.5 percent shooting came in a limited, 25-game span.

Shamet wouldn’t be a home-run pick, and certainly not a sexy one. Those picks have burned the Bulls in the past with players like Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and even Valentine. Shamet is 21 years old and has had two major foot surgeries. But the skill set is one the Bulls have needed for some time. And in a draft where the Bulls will be searching for talent, adding a player who fits the bill as a team need as well makes sense.