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NBA Notebook: Competitive playoffs, draft season

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NBA Notebook: Competitive playoffs, draft season

Friday, April 29, 2011
Posted: 10:04 a.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

And then there was one--first-round series, that is. In addition to Atlanta, the Bulls' second-round opponent, two other teams advanced Thursday night, leaving just Memphis and San Antonio as the lone ongoing opening-round matchup.

Although no series went to seven games--and none will, if the Grizzlies close out the Spurs at "The Grind House" (as Grizzlies guard Tony Allen has dubbed Memphis' Fed Ex Forum) Friday evening--this spring's edition of the playoffs has been among the most exciting in years. Only one team, Boston, swept its opponent (New York, which was missed both All-Star Amar'e Stoudemire and point guard Chauncey Billups for much of the series) and even in that instance, the Knicks gave the Celtics a battle half of the time.

READ: Second round matchup with Hawks favors Bulls

Upstart teams rose to the occasion--Indiana tested Chicago's mettle, Atlanta upset Orlando, Philadelphia refused to bow down to Miami, New Orleans stole two games from the defending champion Lakers, Portland threw a scare into Dallas, Denver didn't make it easy for Oklahoma City and Memphis is on the verge of shocking San Antonio--everywhere and even though the favored teams have mostly held serve, nobody appears to be invulnerable.

Adding to the fun is the possibility of a changing of the guard, with youth-driven teams in the Windy City and elsewhere (specifically Oklahoma City) having a clear path to the conference finals, something NBA conspiracy theorists probably love. That said, neither Derrick Rose nor Kevin Durant will have valet service on their way to their potential first NBA Finals trips, not with the old guard--the Lakers and Mavericks in the West, Miami and Boston in the East--looking to stand in their way after getting through much more obtrusive roadblocks.

Regardless of whether they face an underdog Memphis team or an aging San Antonio squad, the young Thunder should advance in no more than six games. As for the other conference semifinal matchups, expect the experience and team-oriented style of the Celtics to get them by the still-individualistic Heat in a hotly-contested, seven game slugfest, while the Lakers should make one more stand in Phil Jackson's final season coaching and rely on a rejuvenated Kobe Bryant--who, in turn, seemed to pass on that energy to his teammates in the process of dispatching Chris Paul's pesky Hornets--and their frontcourt dominance to beat Dirk Nowitzki's flawed Mavericks in six games.

Coaching carousel begins its ride

Always running concurrently with the playoffs is the start of the NBA's annual coaching carousel. The first organizations to make move this spring were Houston and Golden State, which parted ways with under-appreciated veteran Rick Adelman and rookie head coach Keith Smart, respectively.

READ: NBA releases Bulls vs. Hawks schedule

Adelman's ouster might not have been a surprise, but it seemed to come as a jolt to his players, who understood the incredible job he did with short-handed rosters that were without injured superstar center Yao Ming most of the time. Smart, on the other hand, was put in a tough position by being given the head job by the Warriors' new ownership group just before training camp; the longtime Don Nelson assistant couldn't be expected to change the team's culture in one season, but while free-agent signee Dorell Wright blossomed under his watch, their marquee acquisition David Lee was a mild disappointment and second-year star Stephen Curry appeared to regress.

One situation that bears watching is Indiana, where 37-year-old Frank Vogel took over for the deposed Jim O'Brien on an interim basis mid-year and not only led the Pacers to the playoffs, but adjusted the young team's approach and actually gave the Bulls a run for their money in four of the five games in the first-round series. Vogel is enthusiastic, a bit brash and somebody who inspires his team, which genuinely seemed to like playing for him.

If Larry Bird returns as the franchise's top executive, expect Vogel to also stay put, although Bird indicated he'd also interview other candidates for the opening. Indiana's youth and potential are obvious, and with the cap space the Pacers have, bringing in power forward that can score on the low block and a perimeter scorer to complement Danny Granger--a deal they almost made at the trade deadline would have brought them Grizzlies shooting guard O.J. Mayo--could elevate them in the Eastern Conference pecking order.

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While speculation about other openings--outside of the aforementioned Lakers, where Bryant has already offered his support for longtime assistant Brian Shaw to take over for the departing Jackson--would be unfair at this point, former NBA head coaches Mike Brown, Mike Woodson and Kevin McHale are hot names, as are a litany of current assistant coaches, such as Boston's Lawrence Frank and San Antonio's Mike Budzenholzer.

Draft season also shaping up

With the deadline for underclassmen to enter June's NBA Draft--players who didn't sign with agents have until May 8 to return to school--recently passing, it's clear that many collegiate stars are taking advantage of the upcoming multi-team mega-workout to be held in New Jersey. Sixty-nine underclassmen declared for the draft this year, with the usual anonymous names dotting the list alongside potential lottery picks like Duke point guard Kyrie Irving, Arizona forward Derrick Williams and Connecticut star Kemba Walker.

However, the list of entrants might be more notable for the names not on it, such as the freshman trio of North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Baylor's Perry Jones, all of whom were projected to be top picks, but opted to return to college. While some of those decisions were primarily motivated by the potential of team success--in Jones' case, it was surprisingly about improvement, something more shocking considering the NCAA-mandated suspension he faces at the beginning of next season for receiving improper benefits--the chance of an NBA lockout also likely played a role, as a truncated rookie campaign would be detrimental to player's development.

Having seen the three aforementioned prospects--and the majority of the other players on the early-entry list--develop from the time they were prep phenoms, their decision is commendable, although a perceived strong 2012 draft class might push some players to strike while the iron is hot. Still, even in what's being panned as a weak crop of incoming rookies for next season, there is a lot of underwhelming talent looking to make the leap and even if selected in the first round, some may never make an impact in the league due to lack of preparedness.

Artest wins league's citizenship award

Lastly, Lakers forward Ron Artest won the NBA's annual Walter J. Kennedy Citizenship Award, voted on by the Professional Basketball Writers Association, for his efforts in the field of mental; health. The former Bulls draft pick, who famously thanked his therapist after the Lakers won last season's NBA Finals, is one of the league's great turnaround stories, going from a pariah after various antics--well, the antics are still there, but in a non-destructive fashion--and more importantly, his role in the infamous "Malice in the Palace," to a media darling and fan favorite.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

From Bulls to Spurs, why NBA dynasties should be savored as they pass

From Bulls to Spurs, why NBA dynasties should be savored as they pass

The pandemic-induced NBA pause featured the running of the Bulls, an ESPN-produced treat that detailed “The Last Dance” and a 1990s dynasty to remember.

The NBA restart featured the elimination of the Spurs. A so-called “The Last Stand” if you will. Their record-tying, 22-season playoff streak died on the Disney World campus on Thursday.

Savor these streaks when they occur. They don’t come around often, even if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich reacted the way you thought he would about the dissolution of his dynasty.

“I don’t dwell on the past,” Popovich said. “I don’t know who won the baseball championship from year to year. Four years ago, I don’t know who won the NBA championship. That stuff is totally unimportant. What’s important is the moment. You do what you gotta do and you move on.”

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Just wait until the ever-reclusive Tim Duncan talks on the documentary that one day should come on the Spurs. Let’s just say Michael Jordan memes are probably safe.

Three Spurs who started Thursday’s loss to the Jazz weren’t even born the last time the franchise missed the playoffs. The run tied the 76ers’ streak from 1950 to 1971, which they began as the Syracuse Nationals before moving.

Us media types like to document such things. I mean, we watch sports to witness greatness, right? And what’s not great about this?

Five NBA championships. 10 Western Conference finals appearances. Six 60-win seasons. 13 50-win seasons. The passing of the torch from David Robinson to Duncan to Kawhi Leonard, with longstanding greatness from Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Popovich mixed in for good measure.

As "The Last Dance" reminded a whole new generation that didn't live it, the Bulls' dynasty ended off the court. Age, attrition, salary cap concerns and the natural evolution of power, money and ego combined to leave Jordan's jumper to win the 1998 Finals as the enduring memory.

The Spurs never possessed the megawatt, marketing starpower of an athlete like Jordan. Even with the international success of the NBA and players like Ginobili from Argentina and Parker from France, they never seemed to dominate headlines outside small-market San Antonio.

And unlike the tidy, separate three-peats amassed by the Bulls, they spaced out their five Finals triumphs in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. But like perennials popping, they always seemed to be there come spring.

These playoffs are taking place in August, September and October, a nod to the unprecedented nature of this pandemic-paused season. They will begin next week without Popovich and the Spurs.

But fear not: The last time they landed in the lottery in 1997, things worked out pretty well. They won it and drafted Duncan.

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For Bulls fans, Michael Porter Jr.’s breakout stings, but comes with silver lining

For Bulls fans, Michael Porter Jr.’s breakout stings, but comes with silver lining

However the NBA structures its bubble awards ballot — say “bubble ballot” ten times fast — Michael Porter Jr. should find his way in in some capacity.

The Denver Nuggets’ second-year wing (who’s technically still rookie-eligible) has fully burst onto the scene under the bright lights of ESPN’s World Wide of Sports Complex. Porter's started all seven of the Nuggets’ seeding games so far, averaging 22 points and 8.6 rebounds with 55.1/42.2/93.1 shooting splits in 33.3 minutes per contest. Minutes limits and defensive critiques have melted away with increased opportunity. His outside stroke, effortless athleticism and superhuman length have popped. The training wheels are off.

 

For Nuggets fans, Porter’s breakout is a coronation — a long-awaited glimpse at the potential final piece to a deep, talented and precocious roster vaulting to the highest echelon of contention. For basketball fans, the bloom of a potential star is always a thrill.

For Bulls fans, it’s pain. Dull, throbbing and all-too-familiar pain.

The answer to why requires a stroll down memory lane, all the way back to the 2018 NBA Draft Combine held in Chicago. Though he didn’t participate in any basketball drills, Porter's 6-foot-10, 3/4-inch height and 7-foot, 1/4-inch wingspan wowed for a wing of such innate bounce and tact. Kevin Durant comparisons abounded in the analyst pool. Meanwhile, the Bulls sat in on at least one of Porter's pro days, presumably expressing some level of interest. 

And if there was interest from the team side, it appeared to be mutual.

"I feel like I'd fit in great with those guys," Porter said (via Chicago Tribune) of potentially joining the Bulls. "They have a great core, a lot of young, athletic guys. And they're kind of looking for small forward."

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Indeed, the Bulls entered the 2018 draft with only Paul Zipser under contract in the way of traditional small forwards. The marriage of fit and talent was all too perfect. 

But injury flags stopped Porter from being a slam-dunk selection. After exiting high school the No. 1 prospect in his class, he missed all but three games of his freshman year at Missouri because of back surgery conducted in November 2017. That operation — a microdiscectomy of two spinal discs – invited valid questions regarding Porter’s durability, both in the long- and short-term. 

Despite inarguably owning the talent and skill set of a top five prospect, Porter fell past the Bulls, and 12 others, all the way to the Nuggets at No. 14. He sat out 2018-19 rehabbing his back and, pre-bubble, has been on a gradual ramp-up plan this season. The reasons behind his slip are completely reasonable; still, it’s one that has the potential to haunt many organizations for a long time.

The 2018 draft could go down as one of the more talent-flush in recent memory. Also selected in the top 14 that year: already-proven superstars in Luka Doncic and Trae Young, fast-rising wunderkins in Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and other incredibly promising talents from Mikal Bridges to Miles Bridges to Collin Sexton and beyond. There are no busts, in the conventional sense, from that lottery. Even Jerome Robinson helped net the Los Angeles Clippers Marcus Morris at the 2020 trade deadline.

So Bulls fans, and the team itself, shouldn’t kick themselves too hard about their selection of Wendell Carter Jr. (he belongs in the above paragraph, but I was waiting for the reveal) No. 7 overall. 

Yes, Carter has played only 87 games through two professional seasons — just 32 more than the injury-plagued Porter. But his defense has translated to the professional level, as has his advanced basketball IQ and rebounding prowess; already, he’s shown the potential to be stalwart at the most important defensive position in the game. 

What’s more, Carter averaged nearly a double-double in his second season, has proven a better-than-average finisher, and with necessary tweaks, him blossoming into a facilitating hub and outside shooting threat on the offensive end isn’t far-fetched. Toning down the team’s trapping coverages in the pick-and-roll could revive gaudy shot-blocking figures from his rookie campaign, though Carter can thrive in just about any defensive context. 

Subtler skills than that of Porter, to be sure. But valuable, still.

Now, a lot of the above is rooted in projection. Carter has yet to appear in more than 44 games in a season, and those offensive forecasts, specifically, might be optimistic. But lauding Porter requires a level of projection, too. Before the bubble, he had yet to play in 30 minutes in an NBA game, and was averaging 16.4 on the season. Held up against the flashes of brilliance, his development has been and may continue to be painstakingly slow-moving. Injury concerns persist for both, but, given the small sample size and the fact that Carter's injuries have largely been trauma-induced, Porter’s concerns remain greater.

Bottom line: Porter's ceiling is astronomical. Higher than Carter’s. That’s always been the case, and his successes will forever come with a little sting for Bulls fans. But it doesn’t make the Carter choice the wrong one (though the rationale of filling the wing need with Chandler Hutchison at No. 22 hasn't panned out). He's a promising, young two-way big, and continued progression feels a reaonsable expectation.

That won’t assuage all, and it’s fair if it doesn’t. Winning takes star power in this league, and outside of Zach LaVine, the Bulls are sorely lacking in that department. There, Porter could have been a salve down the road. And the process behind the choice — high-floor over high-ceiling, to oversimplify — is emblematic of a front office philosophy the Bulls and its fans are anxious to leave behind.

Which is why, as far as silver linings go, it should register as downright shimmery that the Bulls now employ an integral member of the front office that snared Porter as executive vice president of basketball operations in Arturas Karnisovas. Whatever your opinion on his handling of the Jim Boylen situation, Karnisovas’ solid standing in Denver’s collaborative, forward-thinking front office is well-documented, especially as a talent evaluator. That front office staffed the Nuggets’ current roster, which is dotted with multi-skilled pieces of every variety. 

The superstar, Nikola Jokic, was a second-round pick. So was key reserve Monte Morris, and fellow bubble standout Bol Bol. P.J. Dozier, who narrowly missed spearheading an unlikely victory for the Nuggets’ backups over the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday, was plucked off the G League scrap heap. Jamal Murray and Porter were lottery picks (Porter being the last in the lottery), but Torrey Craig was an undrafted find. Will Barton and Jerami Grant came aboard via shrewd, if unheralded, trades. Paul Millsap is the biggest free-agent signing in Nuggets history, and on the short list of their best.

Top to bottom, it’s a versatile, well-constructed roster — and done in admirable fashion, especially considering the team’s ability to retain talent. Porter is the final piece to title contention. 

Could he have been that for the Bulls? Possibly. One way or the other, his will be a career of countless variables, and it’ll never be entirely possible to say if everything would have broken the same in Chicago. 

But if the Bulls’ future ends up bright, it’ll be pointless to look back.

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