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.
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!"
The Land pic.twitter.com/zes2MxC2IM
— /r/Heat (@Heat_Reddit) March 2, 2016
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:
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.