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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.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bulls trade up or down in the draft?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bulls trade up or down in the draft?

Mark Carman, Hub Arkush, Phil Rogers and Will Perdue join Kap on the SportsTalk Live Podcast.

The guys start by discussing Brandon Morrow's injury that he sustained while taking off his pants... what's the craziest cause for an injury the guys can remember?

Plus, should the Bulls move up or down in Thursday's NBA Draft? Does it make sense to take on a bad contract in a potential deal?

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here:

Chandler Hutchison's unusual basketball background makes him an intriguing target for the Bulls

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USA TODAY

Chandler Hutchison's unusual basketball background makes him an intriguing target for the Bulls

Over the past several weeks, the Bulls have been heavily rumored to be selecting Boise State small forward Chandler Hutchison with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although the 6-foot-7 Hutchison had a stellar four-year career with the Broncos, and was regarded as a top-100 national prospect coming out of high school, his background is relatively unknown compared to many of his first-round counterparts. Not many recruiting gurus watched Hutchison in-depth in high school. The same could be said about draft analysts watching Hutchison's career unfold at Boise State.

Part of the reason Hutchison has flown under the radar for so long, despite being a first-round talent, is his unique basketball upbringing. Many elite high school players opt to transfer to big-time basketball schools while playing in high-exposure shoe-company leagues during the spring and summer. Instead of the normal path, Hutchison chose to stick with the people that he trusted.

Playing for a small, independent grassroots program in high school known as Team Eastbay, Hutchison started showing special gifts as a sophomore in before blossoming into a top-100 national prospect towards the end of high school. Hutchison's trainer and coach with Team Eastbay, Perry Webster, saw that Chandler had the ability to be a big-time player.

"I walked into the gym and saw this 15-year-old kind of gangly kid. And he just moved different than anybody else. I thought he had a chance to be a pretty good player," Webster said of Hutchison.

As Hutchison developed more of a reputation in the Southern California basketball scene, becoming a starter at Mission Viejo High School his junior season, he started to draw more attention from local and national recruiting analysts — including former ESPN recruiting insider Joel Francisco, Scout.com's Josh Gershon and SoCal recruiting analyst Devin Ugland.

"You saw during his junior year that he was a legitimate Division I prospect. During the spring he started blossoming," Francisco said. "He had the ball skills and the prototypical length and things like that. And he was finishing plays. He had a good IQ for the game. It was a matter of strength and he had to fill out to become a more complete player."

By the end of summer going into his senior season, Hutchison had established himself as a potential Pac-12 recruit, as schools like Oregon and USC started to show heavy interest. But it was mid-major programs like Boise State, Saint Mary's and UC-Irvine who had long been involved in Hutchison's recruitment.

Knowing that Hutchison was a unique wing with a high IQ and passing skills, Webster, a former Division I player at Cal State Fullerton himself, advised that his star player take a close look at the programs that would put him in position to succeed right away.

"Every AAU program in Southern California was trying to get him for their team. Free ride this, free shoes. The kid stayed really loyal to me. I was very hard on him," Webster said. "I demanded a lot of him. I screamed at him, I yelled at him. And he looked me in the eye and took it. I realized, this kid is pretty special because he's not running away from what he is. He knows what his limitations are. That's not something he's afraid to address.

"Not everybody was sold on him. Joel [Francisco] was. Joel was one of the proponents of him. But being that he burst on the scene late, and that he didn't play for the big shoe companies, we kind of came to the decision that we wouldn't be so enamored by the Pac-12. He realized he had ability but he still had a long way to go." 

Hutchison eventually decided to sign his National Letter of Intent with Boise State before his senior season started as assistant coach Jeff Linder acted as his lead recruiter. Even though his collegiate future had been decided, Hutchison continued to evolve into a major prospect during senior year as he flourished at Mission Viejo.

Even with his strong senior season, skepticism remained about Hutchison since he hadn't played with and against many of the major names in Southern California. Ranked as the No. 83 overall prospect in ESPN's final Class of 2014 national recruiting rankings, Hutchison was viewed as the seventh best player in his own state. While Francisco pushed for Hutchison to be ranked in the top 50, he had to settle for him being a back-end top-100 talent.

"They're like, hey, he's going to Boise State, he's not on a major shoe company team. How good can he be? But if he can play, he can play. It doesn't matter if he's not on the adidas circuit, he's not in the EYBL," Francisco said.

Francisco wasn't the only major recruiting analyst to take notice of Hutchison's play. Rivals.com's Eric Bossi also labeled Hutchison as a potential breakout player at Boise State. Hutchison was even placed in the Rivals national recruiting rankings, ending up at No. 98 overall, after his senior season. Bossi was on vacation with his family during spring break and he happened to see Hutchison play during his senior season. But Hutchison's strong effort, along with some research, convinced Bossi that he was worthy of a top-100 ranking, even with only one serious viewing. 

"I decided to go watch some regional California high school playoff stuff. And it just so happened to be that Chandler's high school team was one of the teams I was seeing," Bossi said. "I knew he was on the team and committed to Boise State. But then when I watched him play I was like, 'Holy cow, what an incredible get for Boise State. Like, this dude's legit.' He had great size for a wing. He could handle the ball, he could really pass and I thought he could defend multiple positions at the next level when it was all said and done. I thought he was a versatile, well-skilled, well-rounded basketball player. So, based on that, I thought he was top-100. I wish I had seen him more."

Even as a former top-100 national prospect, it took some time for Hutchison to gain traction at Boise State as he didn't put up big numbers during his first two seasons. Although Hutchison played plenty of minutes and started a healthy amount of games, he often took a back seat to talented all-conference players like Anthony Drmic and James Webb III.

When those players eventually moved on from the Broncos, Hutchison was given his chance to shine, as his ascension into all-conference player and future first-round pick came with an intense work ethic that continually developed during workouts in college.

Hutchison also became a consistent three-point threat — something he had been lacking during his development — as he became a hot name in the 2018 NBA Draft despite his unorthodox basketball background.

"He's always been competitive. I think the big thing is reps. And it still will be as he continues to play in the league," Webster said. "He wasn't a bad shooter in high school, but I think the big adjustment for him getting to college, it's hard to put up good percentages in college. I think some of it is mental. But I think he's a good shooter and I think that he'll prove that." 

It's hard to predict if the Bulls will end up with Hutchison with the No. 22 overall pick on Thursday night — especially given all of the chaos that can occur on draft night. But if Hutchison does end up in Chicago, he won't be fazed by having to prove himself after already doing so at the high school and college level.