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NBA preseason primer: Breakdown candidates

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NBA preseason primer: Breakdown candidates

Leading up to Bulls media day on Sept. 28, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman will preview the upcoming NBA season with daily features on everything related to the Association. Today the pair analyze which players may take a step backward late in their careers.

Mark Strotman: I've got to admit, this was much harder to "predict" than the breakout candidates. Maybe that's the optimistic side in me, or it's just a healthy sign that the NBA has plenty more rising stars than fading ones heading into the 2015-16 season.

But why not kick this one off with some controversy? When Pau Gasol signed a three-year, $22 million deal last offseason he was breaking down. He had missed 55 games the previous two seasons, averaged a career-low in points one of those years (2013, 13.7) and averaged a career-low in minutes the other (2014, 31.4). So naturally he comes to the Eastern Conference at age 34 and turns back the clock entirely with arguably a career year in his 14th NBA season.

But he'll surpass 40,000 career minutes sometime in December, returns to a somewhat crowded Bulls frontcourt that won't ask as much of him this season (addition of Bobby Portis, healthy Taj Gibson, progressing Nikola Mirotic) and has the recent string of injuries — even last year he missed Games 4 and 5 against the Cavs despite playing 78 regular-season games. Maybe "breaking down" isn't the right phrase for it, but I don't expect another All-Star campaign or All-NBA Second Team selection. At some point he's got to slow down. My guess is it happens this upcoming year. That being said, as long as he's hitting from 17 feet and grabbing his fair share of rebounds he'll be an important piece to the Bulls' championship-aspiring group. I don't want to make it sound like he's going to fall off the map.

Vincent Goodwill: It’s not earth-shattering to believe the Bulls will scale back Gasol’s usage coming up this season. Gasol just turned 35 in July, and last season served as his turn-back-the-clock year, which means there was considerable doubt as to whether his great days were long gone. Now, he’s efficient around the basket, an adept mid-range shooter and incredibly smart on both ends of the floor. It’s not likely his skills will erode before our eyes, but his body will be a question.

The list of bigs past 35 who posted a season with a Player Efficiency Rating north of 22 (Gasol’s PER was 22.7 last season, 11th in the NBA) read like this: Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal. So while it’s not impossible for Gasol to have a repeat performance, chances are the Bulls aren’t wont to put that load on him, so his body is fresher down the stretch.

One player who could take a step back is Nowtizki, who just turned 37 (!) in June and is entering his 18th year. Only Paul Pierce and Vince Carter remain from that draft class in addition to Nowitzki, as Dallas has failed to put a roster around him for him to take a true step back in terms of responsibility. His offensive rating dropped seven points last season, but he still made the All-Star team. Me thinks those days are over, and considering he’ll be playing with the difficult Deron Williams as his point guard, along with the franchise still smarting over the loss of DeAndre Jordan, putting too much on his plate could backfire.

And considering Duncan is the only player known to make a deal with Father Time (me and Roger Goodell have the evidence after a crack investigation), Nowitzki can’t keep this going, right?

MS: Well I'm going to keep our trend of Hall-of-Famers suffering from down years going by picking Tony Parker. Again, I don't think we're saying these guys are going to transform into Nazr Mohammed from one year to the next, but with a lot of these players — as is the case every year — it's more, "It's got to happen at some point, right?"

I believe it happens with Parker in 2015-16. Last year his PER (15.9) was 20th among starting point guards who played at least 50 games, and personally it was his worst mark since the 2003-04 season, when he was 21. His usage went down for a fourth straight season while his assist percentage decreased a third straight season; his turnover percentage was also his worst mark since 2011. In last year's playoffs he was pitted against Chris Paul in the first round and was dealing with multiple injuries, so take this with a grain of salt, but he averaged 10.9 points on 36 percent shooting. It was ugly, and injuries are bound to catch up with him at some point.

The NBA's transformation to a point guard-dominant league is in full motion, and a 32-year-old Parker with nearly 40,000 minutes (and 203 playoff games, or two and a half extra seasons) could get passed by this season. Gregg Popovich will have a plan to make sure Parker is ready for the postseason, to be sure. Still, his arrow is trending down.

VG: Could Dwight Howard be on the downturn? Seems hard to believe, but Howard will be 30 come December and his numbers were down across the board as he battled a right knee injury that caused him to miss half the season.

When healthy, he’s still one of the more impactful pivot men in the league, especially on the defensive end. But he experienced that debilitating back injury his last season in Orlando, didn’t have the impact in Los Angeles many thought he would’ve and is now entering his 12th season. Many don’t realize this, but Howard is the shortest center in the league, standing at barely 6-foot-10. His athleticism and strength enabled him to overcome his vertical limitations but if injuries are starting to catch up with him, his effectiveness will continue to wane.

Despite the game placing more of an emphasis on the swingmen and small guards, if Howard was at his best while playing alongside MVP runner-up James Harden, then the Rockets would be mentioned with Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City as title contenders. Instead, they’re a step behind.

He barely played 30 minutes a game last season, so his per-36 minute numbers of 19.0 points and 12.7 rebounds rank right up there with his career averages. But how many big men get healthier past the age of 30? Even Alonzo Mourning’s body began to break down before his kidney disease was discovered before the 2002-03 season. Ewing’s last All-Star appearance came in Year 12. Olajuwon, the rare player who seemed to get better into his 30’s, made his last All-Star appearance in Year 13. Howard is far from done as an impact player, but expecting him to be the feared force every night of the year could be asking a bit much.

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”