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NBA Playoffs chat: If Bulls advance, can they get past LeBron's Cavs?

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NBA Playoffs chat: If Bulls advance, can they get past LeBron's Cavs?

With the Bulls set to kick off their first round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman are chatting about the Bulls' prospects this postseason. Here's what transpired:

Mark Strotman: LeBron James heading home. The Splash Brothers and the Warriors taking the NBA by storm. A narrow, four-player MVP race late into the year. The Atlanta Hawks reeling off 19 straight wins. Far too many injuries to stars and rookies alike. Derek Fisher and the Knicks trying to run the triangle offense. Derrick Rose's return after two years away from the game. The 2014-15 regular season had a little bit of everything, setting up what should be a terrific postseason with plenty of intriguing storylines.

As it pertains to the Bulls, Tom Thibodeau's group will be making their seventh straight trip to the postseason. And with Rose back in the lineup, Jimmy Butler playing at an All-Star level, Pau Gasol having a career year at age 34 and a bench with offensive firepower, when healthy (which they are) this is the Bulls' most talented roster since Thibodeau took over in 2009. Yet for a fifth straight season, the question remains: Can the Bulls get past LeBron James? In James' four seasons in Miami, twice he knocked out the Bulls on his way to Finals appearances (as well as his final season in Cleveland), and with the two teams headed for a collision course in the semifinals, my question is: What will it take for the Bulls to get over that 6-foot-8, 250-pound hump in Northeast Ohio?

I believe it begins with the play of Jimmy Butler. Before he was named an All-Star ranked 15th in the league in scoring, Butler averaged 41.6 minutes per game in 17 playoff games the last two seasons as the Bulls' primary defensive stopper while also averaging a respectable 13.4 points. Now the onus is on him to continue that All-NBA Defensive Second Team defense from a year ago while also playing the second scoring option behind Pau Gasol. Chicago's slight defensive regression this season (11th in defensive efficiency after four straight years in the top-5) will need to improve in the playoffs, and that's on Butler. Joakim Noah isn't playing at a Defensive-Player-of-the-Year-caliber level, while Gasol and Derrick Rose aren't cut out for the role, meaning Butler needs to be "the guy" while also maintaining his season point and shooting averages.

Vincent Goodwill: Jimmy Butler, you say? If it starts with him, he has to be the best wingman in this series. You know, the guy who sets everything up for his buddy at the bar? Smooth conversation, under control, low maintenance, that's what Butler has to be. The ultimate complement to Derrick Rose.

And not Derrick Rose the 30-point scorer, but the player who controls the game from a playmaking standpoint. He's displayed far more mastery at the point guard spot since he's returned from injury than I ever recalled, and while some of that is a function of learning and trusting his body, that mindset must carry over. Rose will be the first option when he's out there but by the attention he commands, Butler has to benefit.

If that tantalizing and drama-filled Bulls-Cavs matchup occurs, you try to prevent James from his explosions while trying to keep Kyrie Irving from making a mockery of the series, because he can. In other words, hope and pray.

Strotman: Butler's breakout campaign and Rose's third, fourth and fifth returns from injury this year dominated headlines, while Gasol became the dollar-for-dollar best free agent signing of the offseason (Gar Forman owes Carmelo a fruit basket and a thank you card at some point, by the way). But I was amazed at how little criticism Noah received this year. It was almost as if the positive headlines coming out of the United Center allowed Noah a free pass because, hey, they were winning. True, Noah finished last year's playoffs on one knee and dealt with that injury most of this season. Even still, this isn't a fan base that gives free passes for injuries (see: Rose, Derrick).

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Looking past the fans' criticism, though, Noah shot a career-worst 44.5 percent from the field and was nowhere near the same defender he was a year ago. It's clear he hasn't been totally healthy most of the year, but in the playoffs that'll get you sent home packing. The biggest issue may be that a true center playing power forward on a bad knee/hamstring is going to have to guard stretch-fours in Ersan Ilyasova, Paul Millsap, and/or Kevin Love in the coming weeks. I have serious doubts about how much Noah will be able to contribute in a seven-game series. Am I overreacting? It was, after all, Noah who said "the plan" was to flip the switch once the playoffs began.

Goodwill: I think the lack of attention placed on Noah's play has been for two reasons. One, he's always been thought of as the heart and soul of the on-court product. He speaks candidly, he's been around and his effort always looks on-point. It's hard to quantify his numbers because his effect has always been greater than tangibly.

How do those passes get there? How does he even make free throws? It's apparent he has trouble finishing in traffic and the offense is run differently because of Gasol's presence and the emergence of Jimmy Butler. I think if Noah believes he's been playing possum all season with the hope he'll be able to turn it on during the playoffs, that's very dangerous.

The true problem is you have to wonder about all the interior defenders the Bulls have. Each has major concerns. Taj Gibson, is he healthy? Nikola Mirotic, is he ready for the physicality of the postseason? Gasol, he struggled with Al Horford Wednesday night at the United Center and against mobile bigs as a whole. Will they be able to keep athletic bigs off the offensive glass, i.e. Milwaukee and Cleveland?

Noah's play is a question. But there's plenty of questions all around.

Strotman: I'm glad you brought up Mirotic. I have no idea how to project him in the playoffs. He showed flashes in the season's first half, then seemingly came out of nowhere to average 20.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in March before tapering off in April. I was amazed to see he's shooting just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc this season. It just feels like he's making them at such a better clip, and that's where I'm stuck. Will the Bulls get the passing-the-eye-test version of Mirotic in the postseason, or the guy who shot 29 percent from deep and committed more turnovers than he had assists in the season's final two months?

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I'm cautiously optimistic we're going to see a plus contributor...so long as he knocks off that damn pump-fake. The big question is whether or not he can improve defensively. As you mentioned, the game slows down and gets more physical in the postseason, and this is new territory for him. The Bulls were significantly worse defensively with Mirotic on the floor, and that fourth-quarter scoring magic is only going to fly with Thibs so long. And for a Bulls team that struggled rebounding the ball this season, second chances are going to loom large.

All that being said, it's incredible how unfazed he is for having only 82 NBA games under his belt. It's almost as if not fully understanding specific players' skill sets has made him fearless. Ninety-nine percent of the NBA knows not to try and defend LeBron at the rim in transition. Mirotic strikes me as that 1 percent who will say, "Screw it. I got this." It'll get him into trouble at times, but that Nate Robinson-type attitude also won the Bulls a few playoff games two years ago. (Still, Niko...When LeBron has a full head of steam? Don't jump, youngblood.)

Before we wrap this up with predictions, let me ask you: What's one area the Bulls are going to be better off in the postseason than they were in the first 82 games?

Goodwill: I understand the general feeling about Mirotic. But I'm not sure if the dependence on him will be as heavy as it ever was in March when he set the world on fire. I think once you get to the playoffs, it's more about guys who can create their shot over guys who can make them. And it'll be extremely hard to break that long-held habit of the "Niko fake", which is catching few opponents by surprise and more importantly, fewer officials (picture Danny Crawford or Joe Crawford smirking at Niko when they keep their whistles in their pockets).

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Rookies get little respect from the officials on either end in the playoffs, and defensively you wonder if some of the extra physical jousting that goes on will hurt Niko on that end. But back to offense. The dependency on shots will come from Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol. It wouldn't be a surprise if 60-70 percent of usage comes from those three guys. Niko's offense will be like chili on your coney dog (it's a Detroit thing, you'll understand one day), an added bonus but too much of it will send you holding your stomach in pain.

As far as the Bulls being better in the playoffs? Consistency on defense, actually. No more random nights where your mind wanders to the next night on the schedule or the dreaded 4-in-5 stretches that can lead to mental fatigue. The offense, of course, will come and go but I think the attention to detail defensively will lead to tighter play--plus with Thibs coaching for it all this postseason, he'll leave nothing to chance. I don't think you'll see the 110-104 final scores (except for maybe Saturday, which is the courting period), but the old-fashioned defense, if the Bulls have it in them? It'll come out in this series.

Strotman: I agree the defense will be better, or at least have fewer silly lapses (looking at you, Bulls defense that gave up 121 points to the Magic in January). Will it be good enough to slow down a Cavaliers offense that's posted a blistering, NBA-best 110.1 offensive rating since LeBron returned in mid-January? No, it won't. I believe the Bulls could end the Milwaukee series in four games if they really want to, but this Cleveland team has found a phenomenal rhythm behind James and Kyrie Irving. Hell, even the black sheep of the group, Kevin Love, was the only player in the NBA this year to average 16 points, nine rebounds and a 3-pointer per game. The Bulls hit home runs this offseason in bringing over Mirotic and signing Gasol; the problem is the Cavaliers hit grand slams with their midseason trades (not to mention signing James and trading for Love in the process).

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The Bulls simply won't have the firepower to match Cleveland. I've come around on the idea of the Cavaliers being a better matchup for the Bulls than the Hawks - the Bulls went 0-3 against Atlanta this year - but that doesn't make it a good matchup. Cavaliers in six, and it won't feel that close. I've seen this LeBron vs. Bulls movie way too many times. It always ends the same.

Goodwill: Well, nobody's being foolish about their chances against the Cavs from a defensive standpoint, once that inevitable matchup happens. Their best chance at an extended run through May is taking care of business against the Bucks. The Bucks are young, athletic and energetic--as the Bulls aren't exactly brimming with young nor do they employ the versatile wings the Bucks have. But this series shouldn't be tough, and making sure they're enjoying the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight on May 2 as opposed to coming off a Game 7 or recovering from a longer-than-expected series is paramount.

Now, to LeBron. You're not stopping him and Kyrie Irving won't be the least bit concerned with the rigors and pressure of the playoffs. So the Bulls' best bet relies on two things that have come under heavy scrutiny: Coaching and depth. The Bulls have the better coach in Thibodeau and the 4th-7th guys are better as well. Trusting David Blatt in a playoff series? The Cavaliers would be better off with Scott Brooks and he's not exactly John Wooden.

All things in their favor, health and Derrick Rose, the Bulls carry this to sixth or seventh game. But the two best players are on the other side, and that usually wins out. Do the Bulls have enough? Yes. But their margin for error is so wire-thin it's too much to expect given the circumstances, and it'll make way for an interesting offseason before we reconvene next September.

Bulls mailbag: Who is getting traded? Does system fit Lauri Markkanen?

Bulls mailbag: Who is getting traded? Does system fit Lauri Markkanen?

Two weeks remain until the NBA’s trade deadline. Yet, according to a majority of your questions, it’s never too early for speculation.

What are Bulls officials saying about areas of need ahead of the trade deadline? Will they be buyers or sellers? – Will G.

Shockingly, they say very little to reporters about their plans. That said, it doesn’t take a genius, or even a reporter, to ascertain that nobody should be untouchable on this roster in this most disappointing of seasons. Do I think Zach LaVine or Lauri Markkanen will be traded? No. Should the Bulls listen to any and all offers for those players if they come? Absolutely.

As for being buyers, you need assets to do that. LaVine’s reasonable contract is one, although, as previously stated, I don’t see him being moved. Beyond that, the only asset I see ⁠— the Bulls historically have frowned upon surrendering first-round picks ⁠— is Thaddeus Young. And that’s mostly because he’s a solid veteran who would help any playoff team.

I see Young and Denzel Valentine as the most likely candidates to be moved. Executives from other teams that I talk to think Young will draw interest, particularly since the third year of his deal isn’t fully guaranteed.

Has the front office considered keeping Kris Dunn beyond this season? Or are they still attempting to move him by the deadline? – Ryan B.

I’ve heard no trade discussions involving Dunn since last offseason. Back then, it was well documented how available he was. And the Bulls had talks with the Grizzlies, at least, to move him there.

But, again, when you’re in a position like the Bulls are, you have to listen to any offers. I personally think there’s a good chance Dunn will be back with the Bulls next season. His role acceptance and ability to defend have made him a valuable rotation piece. As a restricted free agent, Dunn’s offers can be matched by the Bulls. It’s their duty to have a sense of what Dunn’s market will be this summer in restricted free agency. As previously written in this feature, I think a three-year, $30-36M deal is feasible for Dunn. And while that sounds like a lot, remember that the salary cap keeps increasing.

What are your trade ideas/wishes for the February deadline that you think the Bulls should make? – Areeb A.

I have no wishes other than to make deadline. As for ideas, this isn’t really original but a Young-for-Maurice Harkless deal makes plenty of sense for both the Bulls and Clippers. The Clippers get another savvy, strong defender for a player who, while valuable, is somewhat redundant with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. And the Bulls get an expiring contract and look at Harkless, who helps with the uncertainty surrounding Otto Porter Jr.

Count me strongly in the camp against trading LaVine. I’ve said this plenty, but people far too often focus on his weaknesses rather than his strengths. He’s an athletic marvel who can score easily and is still growing as a player while on a reasonable contract. His decision-making has improved. Maybe he’s not a No. 1 piece on a championship team. You traded Jimmy Butler for him and if you’re trading him away, you’re looking for a player like him from the draft lottery to replace him.

Like everyone else, I’ve been very disappointed in Lauri Markkanen’s season thus far. He is being criminally misused as a spot-up shooter in Jim Boylen’s vaunted offense that has a “modern” shot profile and emphasizes 3-pointers and layups. This is mentioned frequently by Boylen in press conferences. But it produces points at a level that the Minneapolis Lakers would recognize. Is there any credence to the recent trade rumors on Lauri, and if so, what type of return would we get? I’m sure he’ll immediately flourish if he’s able to escape the dumpster fire that this team has become this season so I wish him the best of luck. -Nick P.

Tell us how you really feel.

I’ve heard no trade rumors surrounding Markkanen. I do think, whether he’s being misused or not, this season raises legitimate questions on whether his ceiling is as high as the Bulls projected. That said, I completely agree he’s not this ineffective and he’d be better served if he’s on the move more. I know coaches have talked to him about cutting forcefully in halfcourt sets and running the wings hard in transition. But, yes, the fact this offense largely eschews midrange looks or postups has affected Markkanen.

Remember that drag step, one-legged fadeaway off the glass that he sank with regularity during his dominant stretch in February last season? It’s getting hard to since he rarely uses it anymore. Over half of Markkanen’s attempts this season have been from beyond the arc. He has certainly missed his share of open looks, which is on him. But he’s much more than a stationary shooter.

Do you think the front office will step in at some point regarding how Boylen is using Markkanen, especially since Lauri is starting to air some frustration with the system? – Jack S.

John Paxson and Boylen talk basically every day. They have a strong working relationship. Paxson also talks to Markkanen and other players regularly. Paxson’s M.O. with all coaches has been to offer input or suggestions if he sees fit but let the coach do the coaching. So this is Boylen’s system, for better or for worse.

I found it telling that Thad Young, at a recent shootaround in Boston, said how his role of staying more on the perimeter and shooting more 3-pointers wasn’t disclosed during the free agency process. At the same shootaround, Boylen went on to say how that was conveyed to Young during those voluntary September workouts and in October training camp. This seems clear that Boylen arrived at this offensive system late, although Chris Fleming’s hire likely started talks towards this style earlier in the offseason.

A lot has been made about Chris Fleming’s offense in Brooklyn. Why hasn’t that translated to Chicago? How Lauri is being handled in this offense is pathetic! – Derek B.

Speaking of . . .

To clarify, it’s not Fleming’s offense — either here or in Brooklyn. He’s an assistant coach with ideas and input and known for his offensive acumen. But the head coach signs off on the systems.

The Bulls wanted to modernize their offense with a more free-flowing, read-and-react system that emphasizes rim and 3-point attempts. Despite languishing in the bottom five for offensive rating all season, Boylen has touted strengths of the team’s shot profile and an establishment of a system. As of this writing, the Bulls rank second in attempts at the rim with 35.6 per game while converting just 56.7 percent. That’s tied for last with the Knicks. And that’s hard to do.

Can you please tell me why Jim Boylen feels it is more appropriate to build a system on both ends of the floor rather than play to his players strengths? I just don't get it, and the more I try and figure it out the more it baffles me. This equal opportunity offense is just stupid. Surely he can see that? – Matt A.

This isn’t meant to defend Boylen but to provide context. You have to remember management’s charges when he took over for Fred Hoiberg: Raise accountability. Build a culture. Establish a style of play.

Boylen waited over two decades for this opportunity. It’s pretty clear, from his strong relationship to the Reinsdorfs to the fact that he had some input on personnel moves this offseason, that he likes pleasing his bosses. So he is trying to establish a style of play with interchangeable parts so that if one player is injured, another can step in and play the same way.

You can call it whatever you want, but Boylen is doing what he believes is best to build championship habits. I personally would have, say, Luke Kornet playing more at the rim as a shotblocker than blitzing way out on the perimeter or more of a pecking order offensively. But I’m also not coach of the Bulls who waited two decades for his chance.

I hear all these comments about giving Lauri more minutes, but am I the only one that sees little if any production from him when he is playing? Missing wide open shots, going weak to the basket, turnovers, overpowered in rebounds. He looks very disinterested the majority of the time, so I, for one, don’t think giving him more minutes is warranted. Just my frustrated take. – Shawn J.

Frustration is allowed. I think everyone, Markkanen included, would agree he hasn’t played to the level of which he is capable. Any discussion of this season-long issue shouldn’t fully absolve Markkanen of his role in his struggles. I just personally think he has shown an ability to play at a higher level than this, so you also have to look at the system.

Will we get a chance to see Coby White actually run the point? Do the Bulls see him as a primary ball handler long term, or as an off-ball scoring threat? I know he’s valuable to us as a bench scorer this season, but I worry about the kind of habits that he’ll develop in such a scoring focused role for an extended period of time. – Patrick S.

The Bulls view him as a 19-year-old lottery pick who is extremely talented and will grow into whatever his proper role is. This is a byproduct of taking young players in the lottery who aren’t fully formed. Yes, he played point guard in his lone season at North Carolina. But that basically consisted of Roy Williams telling him to dribble up the floor as fast as he possibly could and get the best first available shot for him or others.

When, or if, the Bulls shift fully to player development as opposed to this pipe dream of chasing a playoff berth will be a storyline I’ll be monitoring once the trade deadline and All-Star break pass. It certainly wouldn’t hurt playing him more minutes as a pure point if the Bulls reach that full-on development stage. For now, their lack of pigeonholing or limiting him has been the right move for a young, raw talent.

Why was the Shaq Harrison contract guaranteed? How can you not make a single roster move all season? Will they admit the rebuild needs a rebuild? When will Lauri reject contract extension because he wants away from Boylen and Bulls? Does Doug Collins have any hair left after watching this disaster? – Andrew G.

The best part is this dude sent in two other questions that I trimmed because others asked them. Angst, much?

I assume you mean: Why was the non-guaranteed deal of Harrison allowed to become guaranteed past the guaranteed date? Because Boylen likes defense and toughness.

They’ve moved Cristiano Felicio back and forth between the G League. Does that count?

John Paxson answered that question during his round of media interviews “There is no quick fix,” he said. So I’m going with no.

I wrote that last week: The Markkanen extension talks will be more difficult because of Markkanen’s slow start to his season. His camp almost certainly will point to less opportunity, both in terms of touches and minutes. (Not to mention the system has affected Markkanen.) The Bulls, as always, will try to sign him on a team-friendly deal. Expect difficulty. (The Bulls would still own his rights, obviously, even if they fail to reach an extension.)

Doug has his hands full because he also watches his son, Chris, at Northwestern.

Hypothetical seven-game series. Each team has the exact same players, but the coaches are Boylen vs. Floyd. Who wins? – Andy H.

Not sure. But I know I’d like to interview Charles Oakley afterward.

Thanks for all your questions. Talk to you soon.

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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Markkanen and LaVine lead Bulls over T-Wolves

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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Markkanen and LaVine lead Bulls over T-Wolves

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, John Sabine, and David Watson react to the Bulls' 117-110 win over the Timberwolves.

0:45: Reaction to Bulls winning 10th game at home this season and good game from Lauri Markkanen

3:50: On Cristiano Felicio having his best game of the season

6:45: Viewer comment on Lauri Markkanen

8:20: On Jim Boylen calling a timeout with five seconds left

10:05: Viewer comment on Lauri’s play and postseason chances

11:15: Viewer comment on Kris Dunn not getting enough credit

13:30: Viewer comment celebrating a win

14:30: Viewer comment why the Bulls should sign Joakim Noah

15:20: Kendall Gill wants to know if Matt Peck saw what Derrick Rose did tonight

16:25: Viewer comment on afraid Lauri Markkanen becomes the Bulls Andrew Wiggins

17:30: Viewer comment on Chandler Hutchison developing his offensive game

19:30: Viewer comments on Felicio and Denzel Valentine

22:05: The Outsiders react to Channel 7’s Mark Giangreco throwing shade at the Bulls Outsiders during an appearance on Waddle and Silvy