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NBA Buzz: Trying to solve the Pau Puzzle with Bulls

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NBA Buzz: Trying to solve the Pau Puzzle with Bulls

Pau Gasol is a proud athlete who has accomplished so many things over his career in basketball: Two NBA titles, five All-Star game appearances, plus a number of championships in international competition with Spain's national team.

So, it's understandable the Bulls are being very careful in what they say about the 35-year-old big man.

The front office is still hoping this inconsistent group can come together in time to make a playoff run in an Eastern Conference that is decidedly mediocre once you get past the Cavaliers. And, in order to be at their best in the postseason, the Bulls will need Gasol functioning at a high level on the offensive end. Everyone knows he's a poor defender in pick & roll situations, but the Bulls will live with that to get what he provides offensively.

[RELATED - NBA Power Rankings: Raptors cruising behind East's top backcourt]

ESPN's Mark Stein reported last week he's hearing the Bulls would rather re-sign Gasol this summer than let him walk in free agency. And, I have no doubt Stein's sources are good. But to understand the Bulls' position in this situation, you have to look a little bit deeper.

Remember what happened during the 2012-13 season in L.A.? Then-head coach Mike D'Antoni wanted the Lakers to play at a faster pace, and one of his ideas was to bring Gasol off the bench. Gasol criticized the strategy immediately and found himself in constant conflict with D'Antoni, finishing that season with the lowest scoring average of his career.

When Pau became a free agent the following summer, the Lakers made him the best financial offer, and Kobe Bryant worked hard to convince his good friend to stay in Los Angeles, but Gasol refused to budge, saying it was all about principle and how the Lakers had insulted him by allowing his name to continually be thrown around in trade rumors. He wound up taking a team-friendly three-year deal with the Bulls that included a player option for the 2016-17 season.

And that's where we stand today.

Assuming Gasol opts out (which he's already indicated he will), the Bulls could have somewhere between $18-20 million in cap space this summer to pursue a free agent market that includes Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford, Mike Conley, Nic Batum, Chandler Parsons and Arron Afflalo, among many others.

With the influx of the new television money increasing the salary cap to close to $90 million per team, just about every franchise will have maneuverability to make deals this summer, which means possibly the most active trade market in league history as teams try to gain ground on the Warriors, Spurs and Cavs.

So, why would the Bulls be willing to commit $12-15 million per season (at least) to a player like Gasol who turns 36 in July, as Stein indicated?

The short answer is, they probably won't. But there is no advantage to be gained by saying that publicly now. Gasol is a proud athlete who wants to feel respected and valued. The business of summer free agency will come soon enough and the Bulls still have almost half a season to play.

When July 1 rolls around, you can count on the front office having multiple scenarios ready to go, starting with approaching Durant's agent about a possible meeting, all the way down to exploring whether Gasol or Joakim Noah would like to return on a short term, team-friendly deal.

The front office made a five-year contract commitment to Fred Hoiberg and John Paxson and Gar Forman are going to do whatever they can to give Hoiberg a roster that suits the offensive system he'd like to run. Gasol just isn't a good fit with the up-tempo system Hoiberg prefers. And it's not just Gasol. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see half the roster turned over this summer.

But until that time, there are games to be played and egos to manage. Making any declarations about Gasol's future with the franchise just isn't good business.

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AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

**Break up the Raptors? All of a sudden, Toronto has emerged as Cleveland's top challenger in the East, reeling off a franchise-record 11 straight wins.

We know all about their All-Star backcourt of DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, but head coach Dwane Casey has come up with a solid nine-man rotation than now features the scoring of Terrence Ross and Cory Joseph off the bench, to go along with a solid 1-2 punch at center with Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo.

Valanciunas missed 17 games earlier this season with a hand injury but now he's rounding into shape, averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds a game while shooting almost 54 percent from the field.

The Raptors are starting veteran Luis Scola and former Bulls 1st-round draft James Johnson at the forward spots, allowing them to bring 3-point shooting off the bench with Ross, Joseph and back-up power forward Patrick Patterson.

Are the Raps good enough to beat Cleveland in a best-of-seven series? Probably not, but they've definitely emerged as the favorites to grab that No. 2 seed.

[MORE - Bulls treating Mike Dunleavy return as a trade acquisition]

**Reporters around the NBA were surprised to hear about Blake Griffin's fight with the Clippers' assistant equipment manager that left Griffin with a broken bone in his hand, and a four-to-eight week recovery period.

Griffin has been known to get frustrated with overly physical play against him on the court and has consistently ranked among the league leaders in technical fouls. But off the court, he's been good with the media and been a constant presence on television with those creative KIA commercials.

The Clippers were quick to issue a stern release about Griffin's actions with even the ultimate player-friendly coach Doc Rivers saying there's no place in the organization for that type of conduct.

The strange thing is, the Clippers have actually played better since Griffin went out with a leg injury on Christmas Day. Rivers is going with a smaller lineup, featuring Paul Pierce and Luc Mbah a Moute at the forwards and journeyman Cole Aldrich has been a consistent contributor as DeAndre Jordan's back-up.

Check out these numbers courtesy of CSN's stats guru, Chris Kamka:

17-13, +1.5 avg Point Differential with Griffin
15-3, +8.2 avg Point Differential without Griffin

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Best record in NBA Dec. 26* to present:

14-2 (.875) Spurs
16-3 (.842) Warriors
16-3 (.842) Thunder
15-3 (.833) Clippers
14-3 (.824) Raptors

*Clippers' first game without Blake Griffin

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Clippers' 3-point shooting this season

30 games with Griffin: 244-712 (.343) 8.1 makes, 23.7 attempts per game
18 games without Griffin: 206-523 (.394) 11.4 makes, 29.1 attempts per game
JJ Redick this season since Griffin left lineup (18 games): 28.7 MPG, 17.9 PPG, .502 FG%, .523 3Pt% (career-high 40 on Jan. 18)

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No one is saying the Clippers are ready to challenge the Warriors, Spurs or even the Thunder for the Western Conference title, but it will be interesting to see what the organization decides about Griffin's future with the team long-term.

**Staying out West, the Phoenix Suns finally pulled the plug on head coach Jeff Hornacek on Monday. The Suns just missed the playoffs in Hornacek's 1st season on the bench, going 48-34, but a series of personnel moves that didn't pan out sent the franchise into reverse. Phoenix has bottomed out after losing leading scorer Eric Bledsoe to a season-ending knee injury, losing 19 of their last 21 games and dropping 14 straight on the road.

It's a tough break for Hornacek - a LaGrange, Ill., native - who deserved a better fate.

**Another team that's struggling right now is the Atlanta Hawks, losers of five of their last six games. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but the stretch of poor play coincides with rumors that point guard Jeff Teague, an All-Star last season, is now on the trading block. Reportedly, the front office favors going with current backup Dennis Schroder as their point guard of the future, and has discussed Teague's name in trade scenarios with several teams. Atlanta could be at a crossroads point with a pair of starters in Horford and Kent Bazemore becoming free agents. If they decide to unload Teague, would they consider an ever bigger move and explore trades for Horford, who will probably be looking at a multi-year deal starting at around $25 million this summer.

[MORE - Kobe Bryant heaps praise on Bulls' Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose]

**Washington continues to be one of the league's most puzzling teams. The Wizards begin the new week at 21-24 (10th in the East) and just can't seem to find any consistency because of an ever-changing starting line-up necessitated by injuries. Young shooting guard Bradley Beal has already missed 75 games in his first three-and-a-half seasons and told reporters he might have to play on a restricted minutes schedule for the rest of his career because of continuing problems with stress reactions in his right leg. The Wizards have to decide whether to offer a max extension to Beal before next Oct. 31. They probably don't have a realistic shot at D.C.-area native Kevin Durant this summer, so the front office will have to look at other free agent options to add to the talented backcourt of Beal and John Wall.

**NBA coaches did an excellent job in picking the reserves for the Feb. 14th All-Star game (after all, they agreed with me on 13 of the 14 picks!). Still, it's hard to believe this All-Star game will be the first since 1997 without Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki representing the Western Conference. Duncan's numbers continue to fall as he gets fewer offensive touches and plays fewer minutes, but Dirk could have been selected for his work in helping Dallas to the sixth-best record in the West.

**With the Bulls spending half of last week in Los Angeles, here's some notes from Kamka on the first time Kobe Bryant faced the Bulls, back on December 17, 1996, when Kobe came off the bench for five points:

The starting lineups:

Lakers:

Nick Van Exel
Eddie Jones
Jerome Kersey
Elden Campbell
Shaquille O'Neal

Bulls:

Michael Jordan
Ron Harper
Scottie Pippen
Dennis Rodman
Bill Wennington

-Robert Parish came off the bench for the Bulls. He is currently 62 years old.

-Three current NBA head coaches came off the bench: Byron Scott LAL (Lakers), Derek Fisher LAL (Knicks) and Steve Kerr, CHI (Warriors)

**DeMarcus Cousins is only the 4th player since the NBA-ABA merger to score 100-plus points and grab 25-plus rebounds in a two game span, (joining Antawn Jamison, David Robinson and Michael Jordan).

Cousins is unquestionably the most dominant offensive center in the game right now, but will he be able to carry Sacramento to the playoffs? Cousins' career-high 56-point explosion came in a double overtime loss to Charlotte and the Kings are sorely in need of another consistent threat on offense with Rudy Gay missing time because of an eye injury.

From Kamka, Cousins is having a fairly unique season, averaging: 27.2 PPG, 11.2 RPG & 10.2 FTA per game this season (through last week).

Looking at seasons with 25 PPG, 10 RPG & 10 FTA/G, Cousins can finish the season as first player to put up those numbers since Shaquille O'Neal in 2002-03. Shaq is the only player to do it from 1998-99 through last season (he did it 5 times 1998-99 through 2002-03, as well as three other earlier seasons).

Cousins, however, is making use of those free throw attempts with a percentage of .733. O'Neal's FT percentages in his most recent five seasons of 25, 10 & 10 FTA per game were: .540, .524, .513, .555 & .622.

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WARRIORS PURSUIT OF 72 WINS

Golden State continues to blast through the NBA schedule, rattling the veteran Spurs in a 30-point statement blowout last Monday.

The Warriors are executing their offense at such a high level right now, it's hard to imagine them falling short of the 72-win mark unless Curry goes down with an injury. I know they've got a lot of games to play, but I'm moving their chances of breaking the 1995-96 Bulls record to 55 percent, up from 50 percent last week.

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STATS OF THE WEEK

More from Kamka:

10,000+ career points with Bulls

1. 29,277 - Michael Jordan
2. 15,123 - Scottie Pippen
3. 12,623 - Bob Love
4. 10,286 - Luol Deng
5. 10,233 - Jerry Sloan

Players currently with Bulls (with rank on Bulls career points list)

8. 8,518 - Kirk Hinrich
10. 7,498 - Derrick Rose
20. 5,325 - Joakim Noah

--Deng's NBA Debut was Nov. 5, 2004.

Half of the 10 Bulls players to play that night were making their NBA Debut (*indicates debut):

Starters                   

Kirk Hinrich
Andres Nocioni* 
Othella Harrington
Tyson Chandler
Ben Gordon

Reserves

Luol Deng*
Chris Duhon*
Adrian Griffin
Jared Reiner*
Eric Piatkowski

Bulls this season:

20-3 when allowing fewer than 100 points
6-17 when allowing 100 or more points (have allowed 100+ in 14 of last 21 games)

Following the Bulls win at Cavaliers:

LeBron James is 24-22 in regular season vs Bulls...though he's 16-5 in playoffs

Minutes per game this season (as of last week)

38.3 Jimmy Butler (led NBA in MPG last season)
37.5 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
37.3 James Harden
36.5 DeMar DeRozan
36.5 Kyle Lowry

2015-16 Win Shares leaders (as of last week - via basketball-reference.com)

10.9 Stephen Curry
8.8 Kawhi Leonard
8.7 Russell Westbrook
8.5 Kevin Durant
7.4 LeBron James
7.2 Kyle Lowry
6.9 Jimmy Butler
6.9 James Harden
6.7 Draymond Green
6.7 Paul Milsap

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QUOTES OF THE WEEK

**Pau Gasol shocking everyone with a lecture about defense following last Monday's loss to Miami: "I feel there's some times where it's just [we] just lift the foot off the pedal and we're not disciplined enough at times. And that's when we allow teams to get back in the game. And I don't care about missing shots. I think guys some times worry too much [about] "I missed open shots," I don't care about that. I care about defensive mistakes and break downs and not doing what you're supposed to do on D and that's how they got back into the game. And that's why we lost the game."

"We have to look ourselves in the mirror and do better. Prepare. Learn. Watch tape every single day until you get it right."

Hopefully somebody will send Pau a tape of his mistakes on screen/roll coverage to watch and learn.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

**John Wall following Wizards' loss to Boston last week: "It's up to players to want to have that work ethic. You can't force (anybody) to do the work," Wall said. "You can demand it. You got to love the game to want to put in the work. It starts from me going down. If you love the game, you're going to do it."

Looks like we have a theme going here. The Eastern Conference is almost impossible to figure out on a nightly basis.

**And finally, once again Gregg Popovich walks away with the quote of the week after watching his veteran team lose to the Warriors by 30 in Oakland: "I'm glad my general manager wasn't in my locker room or I might've gotten fired."

Somewhere, David Blatt is smiling.

'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls

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USA TODAY

'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls

It's been a whirlwind of a summer for point guard Tyler Ulis, but he finally feels like he's found a home. Literally.

The 5-foot-9 point guard was cut by the Suns in late June, latched on with a training camp invite by the Warriors and was subsequently waived on Friday. It was then that Ulis, working out in California, received a call from his agent. He had been claimed on waivers by the Chicago Bulls. His hometown Bulls.

"I grew up watching (the Bulls)," he said after his first practice on Tuesday. "Growing up in this city, you always want to be a Bull and you’re always willing and hoping that you’ll be here one day...I'm home now. It's a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to it."

Ulis is back in Chicago for the first time since he was breaking records for Marian Catholic High School. Ulis became a five-star recruit for the Spartans and in 2014 signed on as the next point guard in the long line of successful floor generals under John Calipari and Kentucky.

Ulis backed up the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, as a freshman but saw his role increase as a sophomore. He blossomed, earning Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the SEC. Only Anthony Davis had ever earned both honors in a single season.

He declared for the 2016 NBA Draft with hopes of becoming a first-round pick. But unlike the Calipari point guards before him, Ulis slipped all the way down to the second round before the Phoenix Suns scooped him up with the 34th pick.

"Honestly I really did think (the Bulls) were going to draft me," Ulis said on Tuesday when recalling the 2016 NBA Draft. The Bulls took Denzel Valentine with the 14th pick. "But I'm here now so that's all that matters."

In 132 games, Ulis averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 assists in 21.1 minutes. He started 58 of those games, and while his shooting left plenty to be desired he handled the offense well and brought that same pesky defense he showed off at Kentucky. It wasn't enough, even for the guard-deprived Suns. They released Ulis before free agency this summer - which ruffled the feathers of franchise guard Devin Booker - in a rather unexpected move.

"My Mom always taught me (to) never expect anything," Ulis said of his release from the Suns. "When you're on a losing team like that anything can happen. I feel like I showed I could play at this level but they went a different way."

The Suns' loss - they may resort to starting 38-year-old Jamal Crawford at point guard this year - could be the Bulls' gain. Expectations should be harnessed for Ulis, especially with him joining the roster this late in the preseason, but the Bulls, like Phoenix, have question marks at the point.

Kris Dunn is entrenched as the starter, but Cameron Payne struggled mightily in the preseason and Ryan Arcidiacono doesn't project as a contributor. That leaves an opening for Ulis to potentially fill on the second unit, and apparently he's making a statement early in practice.

"Tyler had a real good practice," Fred Hoiberg said. "I think I think he changes the pace when he’s out there on the floor. He picks up full-court, he gets up underneath you. He can make a shot. He’s got good vision and can make a play with the ball in his hand. So I was very impressed with his first workout."

Ulis is working on a 45-day two-way contract, so it's unknown how much he'll contribute. He could be shuttled back and forth between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, but there's certainly an opportunity for him to stick. He'll be playing catch-up and learning on the go, but doing so in his hometown wth friends and family around him for support will work to his advantage.

"Being a smaller guard growing up in a big man’s sport, you get looked over. So I’m the underdog," he said. "And I feel like this team is an underdog, so we should all be excited to get the season started and prove people wrong."

Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done

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USA TODAY

Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done

Monday's deadline came and went with expected results: Bobby Portis and the Bulls being unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension.

Some 19 hours later all parties involved said the right things, that they value one another and hope to be working together long-term.

But all that will be shelved until July 1, when Portis enters restricted free agency at this coming season's end. The two sides found themselves in position to wait out on an extension.

For Portis, he's improved his game each of his first three seasons in the league posted per-36 numbers on par with some of the game's best big men. Expected to start while Lauri Markkanen recovers from a sprained elbow - and then act as the team's Sixth Man after that - Portis is in line to post career numbers once again.

For the Bulls, nearly all their front office decisions the past three seasons have been with an eye toward the 2019 offseason and having as much cap space as possible. Waiting on a Portis contract allows them to see if any of the top free agents in the class are interested in Chicago, while also having the ability to match any deal Portis gets on the open market.

It's similar to how the Bulls played out the rookie scale contracts of both Jimmy Butler and Zach LaVine.

John Paxson spoke during Tuesday's practice at the Advocate Center and reiterated how much the Bulls value Portis and the work he's put in since they drafted him 22nd overall in 2015.

Portis also spoke with reporters after practice. And what would normally be considered posturing from any other player, Portis' blue-collar mentality was present in his comments.

"I couldn’t see myself in no other jersey. Obviously, I got Bulls DNA," he said. "Me and the city have a love connection somewhere. At the same time, I just enjoy playing for the Bulls.

"I play this game because I love it. Obviously, you want to make as much money as possible to help your family. But I started playing basketball because it’s fun to me and I loved it. I still have that same passion, that same heart every night I go out there."

Still, the opportunity will be there for Portis to make himself significant money in the coming six months. After averaging a modest 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in Year 3, Portis will be called upon to shoulder a scoring load in the absence of Markkanen. And with Jabari Parker's Bulls career off to a shaky start, Portis will be the go-to guy on the second unit once Markkanen is back in the lineup.

"Bobby is a guy that is very confident in himself. He’s confident in his ability. That’s what we love about him," Fred Hoiberg said. "And like I said, he’s going to go out there and play the same way every time he steps on the floor, whether it’s practice, whether it’s a pick-up game in the summer or once we get started on Thursday. He’s a warrior, and he’s just going to go out there and play the right way with great effort.’’

The Bulls will need that with the start of the regular season just two days away. They open on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that went 30-11 at home last season.

Portis will play a significant role in slowing down one of the NBA's best frontcourts. Whether or not this is his last season doing so in Chicago, he knows what the Bulls think of him and won't let the impending negotiations distract him.

"I know how much I’m valued. They tell me a lot. Give it all I got. Kind of the leader of the bunch. Blue-collar worker," he said. "Everybody respects me because I come in every day with a chip on my shoulder, try to push my guys to get better each day. That makes me go."