Bulls

NBA Buzz: With trade deadline looming, Bulls' season at a crossroads

NBA Buzz: With trade deadline looming, Bulls' season at a crossroads

With an extremely difficult six-game road trip right around the corner, it's safe to say we'll have a pretty good idea about the Bulls' playoff hopes by mid February, which just happens to be right before the league's trade deadline on Feb. 23.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg says he talks about big picture issues with his players "all the time" but acknowledges the perspective from the coaching staff has to be on preparing for the next game. Still, with Atlanta playing its best basketball of the season and the Wizards also enjoying a New Year's resurgence, we're probably looking at six teams (Bulls, Hornets, Pacers, Bucks, Pistons and Knicks) battling it out for the final three playoff spots in the East.

Yes, the Bulls did go 4-2 on their last extended road trip, but they were playing much more efficiently early in the season. Now, a trip that includes games against the Thunder, Rockets, Kings, Warriors, Suns and Timberwolves looks much more daunting. Even the teams with losing records will be tough to beat, considering Sacramento will be looking for payback after last Saturday's controversial loss at the United Center, the Suns are playing very well right now led by high-scoring guards Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker and Minnesota is also starting to find its way under Tom Thibodeau.

When the Bulls hit the All-Star break on Feb. 17, front-office executives John Paxson and Gar Forman should have a clear indication of which direction to pursue. Will they be looking to add another veteran scorer off the bench for a playoff run or start trading off pieces for draft picks? I'm guessing it's more likely the latter.

Right now, Taj Gibson and Niko Mirotic look to be the most tradeable commodities. Gibson will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and it seems unlikely the Bulls will be of the mind to offer a big money, long term contract to a role-playing power forward who turns 32 in June.

With the experience of losing Pau Gasol for nothing last year still fresh in their minds, look for the Bulls to pursue trades with playoff teams trying to add another piece for the stretch run. The Toronto Raptors immediately come to mind, since they've been interested in Gibson for quite some time and look at power forward as their weakest position in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup against Cleveland. Would the Raptors be willing to give up their late first-round pick for a half season of Gibson's services? If they believe they have a legitimate shot at knocking off the Cavs this season, the answer is probably yes, especially considering their star point guard Kyle Lowry can also become a free agent at season's end.

Finding equal value for Mirotic might be a more difficult proposition, especially considering his reputation around the league has taken a hit since he came over before the 2014-15 season hailed as the best prospect in Europe. Mirotic was billed as a classic "stretch 4," but to this point, he's only shooting 34 percent for his career from 3-point range, and only 31 percent this season.

Anyone who's watched Mirotic play over the last couple months can see he's battling his confidence and that he might benefit from a fresh start with a new team. Plus, it looks like the Bulls have a ready-to-go replacement on the roster in second-round draft pick Paul Zipser, coincidentally, another European import. Add in the fact Mirotic will be a restricted free agent at season's end, and you can see why the Bulls might be better off exploring trade options now rather than being faced with the choice of matching a big contract offer this summer.

As for Rajon Rondo, unless he's involved as part of a blockbuster deal, there's little chance any NBA team is going to trade for the money remaining on his $14 million contract for this season. Look for the Bulls to explore buyout talks after the trade deadline.

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

Here are a few stories from around the Association that have caught my attention.

All-Star reserve picks

With the announcement of NBA All-Star reserves coming Thursday, here are my picks.

Remember the coaches from each conference will select two guards, three frontcourt players and two wild card choices from any position.

In the East, I would go with Isaiah Thomas and John Wall at guard, Paul George, Kevin Love and Joel Embiid in the frontcourt and Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker as my wild card picks. I know the East will have a point guard heavy roster, but that's the way the game is trending and Lowry and Walker are more deserving in my opinion than frontcourt players like Paul Millsap and Hassan Whiteside.

In the West, I've got Russell Westbrook and Klay Thompson as my reserve guards, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Gordon Hayward in the frontcourt and Marc Gasol and Damian Lillard as my wild card picks. Apologies to other worthy choices in the West like Draymond Green, C.J. McCollum, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, but in case you haven't noticed, Jordan is having the best season of his career (averaging 13 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks a game while shooting 69 percent from the field) and he's kept the Clippers afloat with the injuries to both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.

Boston's Thomas deserved to start All-Star Game

Back to the East, Thomas really should have been voted a starter. All he's done this season is average 29 points and six assists a game, carrying Boston to the third best record in the conference. But more impressively, the 5-foot-9 dynamo leads all NBA players in fourth-quarter scoring, averaging just over 10 points during winning time.

And, one thing we know for sure, the last player selected in the 2011 draft isn't lacking for confidence. Check out these tweets from the unlikely Celtics' star:

https://twitter.com/Isaiah_Thomas/status/823610527356166145 https://twitter.com/Isaiah_Thomas/status/823610573661339649 https://twitter.com/Isaiah_Thomas/status/823610607094132737 https://twitter.com/Isaiah_Thomas/status/823612468589162496

For years now, we've been hearing about Celtics general manager Danny Ainge looking to package some of his haul of future draft picks for a veteran star (like the Bulls' Jimmy Butler). Turns out his under-the-radar deal for Thomas back in February 2015 brought the C's a big-time scorer in one of the league's smallest players.

Stats of the week

Speaking of Butler, our stats "cruncher" Chris Kamka highlights some of the accomplishments that earned Jimmy Buckets the first All-Star start of his career.

— Butler has four games with 40 or more points this season, the most by a Bulls player in a season since Michael Jordan's 12 in 1997-98.

— He is the first Bulls player with three 40-point games over a six-game span since Jordan in January 1998.

— Butler put up 52 points, 12 rebounds and six assists on Jan. 2 vs. Hornets, the first time in United Center history a player had a game with at least 50 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

— He has two career 50-plus-point games, joining Jordan (38) as the only Bulls players with more than one (including playoffs).

— Butler had a streak of 15 straight games with 20 or more points this season, the longest such streak by a Bulls player since Jordan's last 23 games with Bulls (including playoffs).

— His 9.7 free-throw attempts per game this season are the most by a Bulls player since Jordan's 9.8 per game in 1988-89.

— Butler has attempted 10 or more free throws in 24 of his 43 games this season. He attempted 20 or more free throws twice.

Butler has improved his points per game in every year of his career:

— 2011-12: 2.6 PPG
— 2012-13: 8.6 PPG
— 2013-14: 13.1 PPG
— 2014-15: 20.0 PPG
— 2015-16: 20.9 PPG
— 2016-17: 24.8 PPG

Most 40-point game in Bulls history, including playoffs:

— Michael Jordan: 203
— Bob Love: 13
— Jimmy Butler: 7
— Ben Gordon: 5
— Scottie Pippen: 5
— Reggie Theus: 5

Quote of the week

And finally, with so many trade rumors circulating around the league these days, it was refreshing to hear Pistons coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy give beat reporters some candid comments about what actually goes on between front office execs, courtesy of the Detroit News.

"These discussions happen all the time, and I love it when teams say somebody is off limits. I won't lie to my guys. There's no one in this league who is off limits," Van Gundy said. "Who's the most off-limits guy? LeBron? What if the Warriors offered Kevin Durant and Steph Curry? They wouldn't consider that? There's no deal they wouldn't consider?

"Everybody's available. I got asked a question the other day: There's a report out there that Reggie (Jackson)'s available for the right price. Everyone in the league is available for the right price. It's just for your main guys, the right price is a lot steeper and usually doesn't come around."

Interesting stuff from the always-quotable Van Gundy. But I don't think we'll have to worry about that James-for-Durant-and-Curry suggestion getting a lot of play before the deadline.

How Coby White is putting it all together over most recent hot stretch

cob-1.jpg
USA Today

How Coby White is putting it all together over most recent hot stretch

The shots are starting to fall for Coby White. In seven February games, the Bulls freshly-turned 20-year-old is averaging 17.7 points, 4.4 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting 35.7% from 3-point range (eight attempts per). That’s good news for the Bulls. 

And better is that’s not all that’s going right for White. Yes, consecutive career-high 33-point games — something no rookie reserve has ever done — on cumulative 55% field goal shooting (12-for-22 from deep) will grab eyes, especially on the heels of a frigid stretch between the beginning of February and the All-Star break. But after Sunday’s losing-streak-snapping 126-117 win over Washington, Bulls coach Jim Boylen peeled back the layers of White’s growth.

“I think he's been aggressive in transition, I think his finishing has been terrific, he's had the ball up and out, he's got it out of his stomach, something he's working on,” Boylen said. “I think his work pre-practice, post-practice is paying off.”

And of White’s defense: “We make a defensive (film) edit on Coby after every game. And him and I watch it together… (Early in the season) he had, of his 14 plays on the tape, you know, seven of them were good and seven of them were bad. Now it's like 10 are good and four are bad. He's climbing in that way.

“What he's finding out is: If you get into the game defensively and you follow your assignment and all that, good things happen for you at the other end. It just does. And I think he's locked in that way.”

White’s restricted area finishing has steadily improved over the season (59.3% in February) — he’s getting to the rim and finishing through contact better than ever before (White’s seven free throw attempts versus the Wizards ties a season-high). In transition, he’s a blur running off live rebounds and steals, which could prove a boon for a Bulls team that lives in the fastbreak. His decision-making and ability to change speeds in the halfcourt stand out. Defensively, though not yet perfect, he’s staying more and more connected off-ball, rotating sharply and hunting loose ball recoveries.

If the jumpers are falling, gravy. But the game slowing down for White, and his confidence growing as a result, should excite the Bulls and their fans the most. White, for his part, has learned over the course of a curious rookie campaign to control what he can control.

“It feels good,” White said of his recent red-hot shooting. “But I think now I look at the game differently than I did at the beginning of the year. Now, I just look at the games like I'm gonna go in and play hard on both ends of the court, that's all I'm gonna do. And then control what I can control — I can't control whether I miss or make shots, so. I'm just going out there and playing hard.”

That comes from Boylen, who White lauded for pushing him to continue improving, especially defensively.

“Coach Boylen was preaching to me, you gotta play defense you gotta play defense, so I took it as a challenge. And I feel like I'm continuing to get better at it. I still can get better at it,” White said. “But he pushes me, he pushes me to be a good player, so I can't knock him for that and that's the type of coach I want.”

None of the above (nor Boylen’s unconditional trust in White) has culminated in his first career start, despite clamoring from some media and fans. But perhaps that’s OK. Boylen has often preached White’s increasing comfortability leading the Bulls’ second unit — even injury-ravaged — and that comfort is starting to show up on the floor and in the stat sheet. It speaks to the labeless approach the Bulls have taken to White’s development.

“We got a second group that's playing pretty good again, and we're also melding Coby into that first group at times in the game,” Boylen said when asked if starting White could be a possibility. “So, coming off two 33-point games, I don't know if it makes sense to [start him].”

To that point: White is still getting his fair share of minutes — he played 34 tonight and is averaging 30.6 in February — and a healthy amount of time on the floor staggered alongside Zach LaVine and Tomas Satoransky. White has also played valuable minutes down the stretch of games recently and his usage rate is up to 24.1% over his last seven games. Opportunity comes in many forms.

“I feel like I'm in a good position,” White said. “This year for me wasn't about starting, it wasn't about being this being that, it was just about me getting better over the season. That's the main thing in this league, you just keep getting better. You don't want to be a guy that just stays the same the whole time.”

White certainly hasn't. The overarching point is that nights like tonight (and Saturday against Phoenix) further emphasize how crucial his continued progression will be down the 25-game stretch of this ill-fated Bulls season — whatever form it takes. Talk of a playoff push has noticeably tempered around the United and Advocate Centers, but White’s been the center of plenty of conversations.

“You see how explosive he is,” said LaVine, who’s been highly complimentary of White all year. “Trying to figure out some nicknames for him. Either like propane or gasoline or something like that. His scoring is special. He can do it in a variety of ways. He's finding his rhythm. Kid's good. He's real good.”

If we land on a pseudonym by mid-April, it’d be a welcome sign.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Coby White drops 33 in 2nd straight game

bulls_outsiders_podcast_website_listen_now.jpg
NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Coby White drops 33 in 2nd straight game

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders Podcast, Matt Peck, David Watson and Allana Tachauer discuss Coby White becoming the first Bulls rookie since Michael Jordan to score 30+ points in back-to-back games; LaVine breaking the Bulls record for threes made in a single season; and Dwyane Wade's role in Derrick Jones Jr.'s controversial dunk contest victory.

0:40 - Allana's back and the Bulls losing streak is over

1:10 - White drops 33 points in second straight game

5:30 - Tomas Satoransky records team-high 13 assists

6:45 - Zach LaVine breaks Bulls single-season three-point record

8:35 - Bradley Beal scores 53 points and doesn't get victory

9:45 - Have injuries kept Bulls from reaching their full potential?

11:10 - Should Daniel Gafford start over Wendell Carter Jr.?

14:00 - Pros and cons of playing White and LaVine together

18:25 - Is LaVine in the Bulls long-term future?

20:50 - Injured Bulls look like boy band

22:45 - Did Wade rig dunk contest for Jones Jr.?

25:50 - Does Coby need to start?

Listen here or in the embedded player below.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.