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NBA preseason primer: NBA Finals predictions

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NBA preseason primer: NBA Finals predictions

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 team will come out of the Western Conference.

Vincent Goodwill: Ahh, so it’s the first week of June. The pretenders have been eliminated and only two teams stand, battling for Larry O’Brien’s gold trophy and the right to have William Felton Russell award some deserving player NBA Finals MVP. But before they’re revealed, how did we get there?

In the West, the Houston Rockets looked quite formidable, but couldn’t make it past the first round, bringing up another round of “playoff re-alignment” catcalls from the peanut gallery. The Clippers took the San Antonio Spurs to seven games in the semifinals, but as the Miami Heat learned in 2014, Old Man Riverwalk (Tim Duncan), Kawhi Leonard and new addition LaMarcus Aldridge helps propel the Spurs past the in-turmoil Clippers.

On the other side, the champion Golden State Warriors do everything they can to force Russell Westbrook to ignore Kevin Durant in the final minute of games, including holding up #35 jerseys in front of the other Thunder players to get him to forgo passing to anybody on his own team. Eventually, it only works until Game 5, and Durant finishes the champs off with two 40-point performances in Games 6 and 7 to go to the conference finals.

From there, Westbrook takes over in the conference finals, torching Tony Parker so much it forces Leonard to slide over to defend the Tasmanian Devil, which leaves Durant open for the final wing of his Western revenge tour. The MVP gives Danny Green every bit of 50 in the clinching Game 6, taking the Thunder back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2012.

Mark Strotman: Five years ago Dirk Nowitzki was beginning to plateau as a player. Granted, that plateau still put him among one of the game's best players, but it was apparent as he hit 30 years old he had peaked as a player and needed to shift his focus toward cementing his legacy with an NBA championship. No doubt, we'd still be talking about Nowitzki as one of the game's all-time greats - he'll pass Shaq for sixth on the scoring list this season - but having an NBA championship to his name puts him in another prestigious category.

Fast forward and it's where Chris Paul finds himself. The game's best true point guard enters his 11th NBA season with 65 playoff games to his name, and none in the Western Conference Finals. Paul, 30, is no doubt in the prime of his career much like Nowitzki was, and it also seems like he's reached that peak. The personal accolades have piled in for eight-time All-Star, 2006 Rookie of the Year, 2013 All-Star Game MVP, and so on and so on. You get the point.

It's time for Paul to win. And it almost felt like DeAndre Jordan's 180 back to the Clippers this offseason was a sign that he's got another real chance this year. Remember, the Clips were up 3-1 on the Rockets in the semifinals before James Harden went berserk and, admittedly, Los Angeles choked in a big way.

I'm not into the whole "motivation" cliche with players and teams, but if I were this Clippers team would be the epitome of it. It was easy to see what adding Paul Pierce did to the Wizards in the postseason, and him joining Doc Rivers and the Clippers will have a similar effect. Wes Johnson was quietly a nice signing, and though it took bringing on Head Case of the Century Lance Stephenson, they found a way to get rid of Spencer Hawes.

The bench scares the crap out of me, but Pierce (or Johnson, depending on who starts) will certainly help it. Just as you feel like this could be the Year of KD, it wouldn't surprise me to see Paul have his "Dirk Year" and wind up going toe-to-toe with Stephen Curry in the Western Conference Finals. It's then that Rivers will buck the small-ball trend, utilizing Jordan and Blake Griffin against Steve Kerr's Draymond-Green-at-center lineup, ultimately winning in seven games and getting Paul to the game's biggest stage. It's time to win for Paul, and this is his best chance.

VG: Now in the East, the Milwaukee Bucks emerge as second-round darlings, while the Miami Heat return to some form of prominence, as many sportswriters rejoice over being able to hit South Beach in between games (No word on whether commissioner Adam Silver ruled on all ECF games to be played in Miami, even if the Heat weren’t playing).

But yes, the Bulls and Cavs are back again, albeit on different sides of the East bracket. The Bulls were taken to seven games by the Bucks in the I-94 series, as Greg Monroe makes Pau Gasol appear twice his age by running slight circles around him on the block. Derrick Rose rebounds from an up-up-down-up-down season to put the Bucks away in a Game 7 in Chicago, while Jimmy Butler put the clamps on Chicago native Jabari Parker in the fourth quarter, leaving the locals befuddled as whether to cheer or boo.

The Heat and Cavs don’t quite go the distance, as LeBron James got major satisfaction from putting his old mates away on their home floor, after getting a 3-pointer negated in Cleveland in Game 5 thanks to David Blatt calling an unfortunate timeout, fearing James would miss and he’d get blamed for it.

Setting the stage for the Bulls to stare their tormentors in the eyes yet again, as the Bulls stole Game 2 in Cleveland but gave it right back in Game 3 before losing in six. Thankfully, the Bulls didn’t quit on their home floor, instead going cold in a Thibodeau-like offensive freeze in the last five minutes to thwart yet another chance to get to the Finals.

MS: How did I know after all these previews you'd find a way at the end to properly convey your feelings on David Blatt? Anyway, I'd really love to give a prediction where the Cavaliers don't wind up underachieving early in the year, go on an incredible run after the All-Star break and coast through the Eastern Conference but, well, that's probably going to happen. The reality is it happens every year with a James-led team, and 2016 will be no different. We'll hear the stories about how Kevin Love, despite his nightly 16 and 10, is the wrong fit in Cleveland. We'll hear about Kyrie Irving's "low" assist totals, we'll hear about Iman Shumpert's and Tristan Thompson's salaries and how they aren't worth the money. We'll hear about LeBron's tarnished legacy because the Cavaliers are 12-8 in early December....and then Cleveland will coast to the Finals, four wins away from the ultimate prize.

It's like clockwork. The reality is LeBron wanted to go back to Cleveland to finish career. The reality is also that he wasn't going anywhere near the Western Conference in free agency. The Bulls have a new coach but their roster remains unchanged, the Hawks don't have the personnel to win a serious seven-game series and the Bucks are a few seasons away from becoming the East's version of the Thunder. Pick a storyline, any storyline, and the end result will be the Cavaliers headed back to the Finals.

If I needed an alternate storyline, it's that Jimmy Butler makes the jump to super-stardom, Joakim Noah turns back the clock (to 2013) and Pau Gasol proves he has one more year left in the tank. Derrick Rose becomes the top-5 point he was pre-knee fiasco and Fred Hoiberg changes the culture in a matter of one season. That's the only scenario standing between LeBron James and a sixth - sixth! - straight Finals appearance. In actuality, the preparation the Cavaliers are doing this offseason is to get ready for the NBA Finals. It's not as easy as one sentence, but this team more or less walked to the Finals without Love and a one-footed Irving. Bulls fans won't like it, but they also remember an MJ-led Bulls team in the 90s doing the same.

Cleveland is headed to the Finals. LeBron gets his matchup against close friend Chris Paul and we get LeBron vs. Paul Pierce, CP3 vs. Kyrie and Blake vs. Love.

Vinnie, we've got a lot of work ahead of us before that happens, but I couldn't be more excited to get it going.

Wendell Carter Jr. is now 6 feet, 9 inches---and other Bulls' height adjustments

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USA Today

Wendell Carter Jr. is now 6 feet, 9 inches---and other Bulls' height adjustments

With player heights long a topic of question and debate, the NBA informed teams that all players must be measured by a team physician this training camp.

It’s all part of the league’s push towards transparency, which includes detailed reports on officiating and other initiatives.

So who grew and who shrank among the Bulls?

Wendell Carter Jr. dropped from 6 feet, 10 inches to 6-foot-9, which will do nothing to change the narrative that he's an undersized big man. Kris Dunn moved from 6-4 to 6-3. Daniel Gafford isn’t 6-11, as first advertised when drafted, but 6-10. And Denzel Valentine is no longer 6-6 but 6-4.

The Bulls even pushed down Coby White’s flamboyant hairstyle and discovered he’s 6-4, not 6-5.

As for those who grew, well, Zach LaVine’s All-Star candidacy now features him as a 6-6 guard, not 6-5. New big man Luke Kornet is really big; he’s 7-2, not 7-1. And Shaq Harrison somehow grew from 6-4 to 6-7.

That’s the official Bulls’ roster. 

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Insider K.C. Johnson calls Bulls the 'sexy pick' to make the postseason but tempers expectations

Insider K.C. Johnson calls Bulls the 'sexy pick' to make the postseason but tempers expectations

On the 2019 NBA Preview Show, NBC Sports Chicago Bulls insider K.C. Johnson broke down what it would truly take for the Bulls to make the jump into playoff contention following a particularly tough 22-win season. 

Johnson, like most of the national NBA landscape, is optimistic about the prospects of the 2019-20 Bulls. He stated that it is "widely accepted that they had a pretty strong offseason," but cautioned us against simply penciling in the Bulls for a playoff spot this season. 

Despite the additions of savvy veterans like Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young, the Bulls still enter the 2019-20 NBA regular season as the second-youngest team in the NBA, as good of a reason as any to temper expectations.

That being said, the Bulls, from a simple talent standpoint, are much better than last year's squad that featured a ton of injuries and many Windy City Bulls/NBA G League call-ups. 

With a new coaching staff around head coach Jim Boylen and a new offensive philosophy, things will be very different in Chicago this season.

But as Johnson stated in Tuesday's 2019 NBA Preview Show, for the Bulls to achieve their ultimate goal of reaching the postseason, "basically, all of those [free agent] additions need to hit.

"You need to see Tomas Satoransky prove that he can be a full-time starter at that point guard position, you need to see Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen take a step towards stardom, you need to see Otto Porter Jr. stay healthy enough to contribute at that small forward position and you need to see Wendell Carter Jr. hit the two-way potential that the organization believes he has... and Coby White... needs to bring you something off the bench."

If that sounds like a lot, that's because it is and it appropriately represents the amount of work needed to make the leap from 22-wins to a playoff spot. 

What the Bulls have working on their side as of now is that everything we have seen and heard from the team throughout preseason has indicated that there is good shot that every one of the things K.C. Johnson named happens. 

Carter was limited to just 44 games due to injury last season and while he has looked rusty in the preseason, he has also had some explosive finishes and shown his trademark appetite for help defense and blocked shots. Carter blocked 2.0 shots per game over two preseason games but was abysmal in terms of his offensive efficiency (26.7% from the field), something to keep an eye on throughout the first week of regular-season games. 

Boylen recently made comments about managing Porter's workload, so clearly keeping Porter healthy amid the backdrop of the Bulls questionable wing depth is already something the organization has discussed and seems to have a concrete plan for. 

Satoransky has shown that he can comfortably handle the starting duties at the one as Johnson suggested, averaging 7.5 points, 4.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.2 steals per game while being lights-out from 3-point range (80% on 1.2 attempts per game). And while Sato represents the steady hand, Coby White represents the true "boom-or-bust" option in the backcourt, capable of going off for 25+ points or fading into the background while playing more of an off-ball role. 

The factor that Johnson mentioned that will have the greatest impact on the 2019-20 Bulls season is if Markkanen and LaVine can take a step towards superstardom.

LaVine looks clearly poised to do so, finishing the preseason third in the league in scoring at 23.2 points per game on 59.3/56.0/ 83.3 shooting splits. Markkanen, on the other hand, struggled to find his shot and despite being one of the top-three scoring options on the team, struggled to get his scoring average just over 11.0 points per game (11.2). 

It is only preseason action, so all results are to be taken with a grain of salt. But as we gear up for the start of the Bulls games that count on Wednesday, it is clear that the national outlook on the Bulls is much rosier than it has been in the past.

Johnson stated that the Bulls are indeed shaping up as a "sexy pick" to make the playoffs and that alone is a monumental step in the right direction as the franchise looks to put last season's disappointment further in the rearview mirror. 

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