Bulls

With no Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, opportunity available for younger Bulls

With no Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, opportunity available for younger Bulls

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Absence often creates opportunity, which means there will be a lot of opportunity for a few Bulls Tuesday night with Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade out against the Washington Wizards.

The Bulls’ two leading scorers will be out, with Butler still recovering from the flu and Wade on a scheduled rest.

“Coach said I’m out tomorrow,” Wade said at his locker following the Bulls’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Monday night at the United Center.

With two more sets of back-to-backs this month, Wade and Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg have agreed to a plan for his usage. Sitting Wade for the second night in this first set — while also having a game Thursday night in New York for a three-game, four-night set — seems to be the prudent approach for a man who turns 35 this month.

It just so happens to coincide with Butler being all but useless against the Thunder Monday, barely able to muster up much of an athletic effort while fighting off illness. Butler didn’t make the trip to the nation’s capital but the Bulls hope he’ll join the team in New York.

[SHOP BULLS: Get a Jimmy Butler jersey right here]

“When you see guys fighting through stuff, you really appreciate it,” Wade said. “’Be smart’, that’s my message to him. We need him to be healthy. We need him to take care of himself.”

While the Bulls are without 43 percent of their scoring, it means Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine and Isaiah Canaan will see opportunity against a Wizards team that used strong second halves from John Wall and Bradley Beal to beat the Bulls by 10 in Chicago.

“I’ve been telling the young guys, just be ready,” Taj Gibson said. “Next man up. Just giving them as much encouragement as you can. Jimmy played his heart out, tried his best. But we have to be better.”

As for Rajon Rondo, Hoiberg didn’t dismiss the possibility of playing him but never really dismisses the possibility of playing him — but Rondo hasn’t played in the last six games, with the Bulls going 4-2 in that stretch.

The front office has a lot invested in some of the younger players, so it wouldn’t be surprising for them to get an extended look.

“That’s the first thing when young guys look at me,” Gibson said. “We have more than enough to win. We always thugged it out. If you go in with the right mindset, first you’ll learn from it and then confidence will come.”

Season in Review: Zach LaVine shows promise in Year 1 of new deal

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USA TODAY

Season in Review: Zach LaVine shows promise in Year 1 of new deal

Over the next month we'll be recapping each of the Bulls' individual 2018-19 regular seasons.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Shaq Harrison | Ryan Arcidiacono | Otto Porter  | Wayne Selden

Preseason expectations: The Bulls’ decision to immediately match the $78 miller offer sheet the Kings gave Zach LaVine was telling. Despite an ugly first season in Chicago, LaVine clearly had the trust and commitment from the Bulls front office to be the healthy player they had hoped he could become. Armed with that $78 million contract and the 47th highest annual salary, expectations were set high for the 23-year-old.

He also set them for himself, noting at Media Day that the upcoming season would be different because it was his first healthy offseason in years. That mattered, and there was optimism that LaVine could become the kind of scorer he was prior to tearing his ACL. The potential to form a 1-2 punch with Lauri Markkannen and set into motion the next chapter of the rebuild was a necessity for a Bulls team without much talent around them on the offensive end.

What went right: He proved his worth. We’ll get to some of his shortcomings later, but it’s impossible to deny that LaVine was worth every penny in Year 1 of his new contract. He was 18th in the NBA in scoring – 16 of the 17 ahead of him were All-Stars – and posted career-bests across the board. He was critical in the first six weeks of the season while the Bulls were without Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis. LaVine was the constant in the first half of the season, took on an enormous usage burden, and kept the Bulls afloat.

LaVine is never going to be a pass-first option, and the notion of him running the point at any time for the Bulls isn’t a great one, but he did distribute fairly well. Of note, his pick-and-roll game with Wendell Carter and pick-and-pop action with Lauri Markkanen were both beneficial plays. LaVine looked comfortable in that action and it will add another element to his game once the Bulls find a point guard to run the offense. Having ball handlers and initiators on the wing is a bonus, and it looks like the Bulls have a capable one in LaVine.

We’ll also add that his free throws were a nice touch. LaVine averaged 13.6 drives per game, 12th in the NBA among qualified players and fourth among non-point guards. It resulted in 3.2 free throw attempts per game, trailing only James Harden among all players with at least 13 drives per game. LaVine averaged 6.0 free throw attempts per game, a career-best, and had a knack for finding open windows that allowed him to get to the basket. He should only improve in that category as the Bulls add pieces around him to give him more space to work.

What went wrong: LaVine still hasn’t done much to improve his defense. LaVine’s DRPM was 194th among 227 guards, and if advanced numbers aren’t your thing then the eye test proved as much. He still has trouble staying with defenders away from the ball, he doesn’t provide much in the way of help defense and at times he still looks uninterested. Granted, he was asked to do so much for the Bulls offense that he’s allowed to take some plays off on the other end, but he spoke a big game about being able to improve as a defender and we didn’t really see it.

It wouldn’t be as big an issue on another team, but the Bulls are desperate for defensive help. They ranked 28th in efficiency for a second straight season, and for as much firepower as they’ve racked up on offense, the wins won’t come until the defense improves. It’s not on LaVine to be a lockdown defender, but improvements are needed.

The Stat: 19 on 51%

Call it cherry-picked but this is still excellent company that LaVine and Lauri Markkanen find themselves in. Whether you think LaVine will become a star or simply be a scoring piece to complement around other top options, his trajectory is promising. In the limited minutes he and Markkanen have played together, it’s clear the two pieces work as a 1-2 scoring punch. This, of course, allows the Bulls to focus on other areas like drafting a defender in Wendell Carter Jr. or adding shooting on the wing in Otto Porter. There are plenty of steps to take during a rebuild, but finding two guys who score efficiently night in and night out is a big piece of it.

2019-20 Expectations: What does LaVine have in store for Year 2? He proved he can be a primary scoring option – though he may cede those responsibilities to Lauri Markkanen – and was an above average distributor on the wing. He can drop 20 points in his sleep, has no problem getting to the free throw line and improved his 3-point field goal percentage. The next step is to improve on his efficiency, which should be helped out if Markkanen can take his own next step and take some of the burden off LaVine. LaVine goes from a nice scorer to an All-Star if he gets his percentages up to 48/39/85 (last year he was 46/37/83).

He'll continue to be called upon as a leader, too, as Jim Boylen gives him more responsibility in such a role. Incredibly, he’ll be entering his sixth season in the NBA this fall. He said multiple times that the Bulls need to learn how to win, and the roster will be looking to LaVine on how to get that done.

 

NBA Buzz: Bulls counting on Otto Porter Jr. to lead the way back to playoff contention

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NBA Buzz: Bulls counting on Otto Porter Jr. to lead the way back to playoff contention

When the Bulls acquired Otto Porter Jr. on the eve of the trade deadline in a deal with Washington, John Paxson and Gar Forman knew they were effectively taking themselves out of the running for one of the elite free agents in the class of 2019. Paxson admitted as much, telling reporters the Bulls wouldn’t be able to attract superstars like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson at this stage of the team’s rebuild.

With Porter owed approximately $55 million dollars for the final two seasons of his contract, the 25-year-old forward basically represents the Bulls’ big strike with their available cap space. And, in the small sample size we saw Porter on the court with the Bulls other foundation pieces, Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine, the results were encouraging. The Bulls had the 9th best offensive rating in the 15 games that Porter played before his season ended early because of a shoulder injury.

Bulls’ head coach Jim Boylen raved about the Porter acquisition, telling me, “I read an article that said it was one of the best, biggest trades in the last 5 to 10 years in the league. We got positional size. We got positional expertise. We got a high character guy. When he comes in the game, it just calms us down. He makes the right play, a good decision. He makes a tough shot that stops their run. He has a feel for that, which is a big skill. He understands our defense and can play in his gaps with his length, 7-foot-2 wingspan.”

But it’s what Porter contributed on the practice court and in film sessions that really impressed his coach. Boylen says Porter routinely reinforces his coaching points and has been important in getting the younger players to buy in to the culture he’s trying to create. “Some guys haven’t been coached hard. Some guys haven’t been told the truth. When I tell these guys the truth, he (Porter) understands that’s what has to happen. They need that. We need that. I’m not caring for them if I’m not doing that to them, and he understands that. Not everybody does.”

Porter returned the compliment, telling reporters before the final home game, “He (Boylen) cares very much about the Bulls’ organization and about his players, and about growing and being together. I think that’s very important that the guys understand what he’s trying to say as far as everybody needs to be on the same page. We have one goal in common and that’s to win a championship, and guys have to buy into that.”

Porter went on to say, “That’s something I was able to see and understand what he (Boylen) wants. Once the guys started to see me following that model, I think that’ll continue to help us, and they’ll continue to understand what it takes. How much hard work you have to put into it.”

Boylen has big plans for Porter in his first full season with the Bulls, saying the 6-foot-8 forward will play a critical role with his 3-point shooting and ability to create in pick-and-roll situations. Boylen also plans to use Porter at power forward on occasion with Markkanen sliding over to center, giving the Bulls their best offensive lineup. And, with Wendell Carter Jr. returning next season to provide added rim protection, Porter’s defensive versatility will become an even more impactful weapon.

Porter shot 49 percent from beyond the arc in his 15 games with the Bulls, giving the team much better offensive spacing for Markkanen and LaVine to attack one-on-one coverage. The six year NBA veteran saw enough to believe a healthy Bulls’ team can challenge for a playoff spot next season. “I just have confidence in my guys. I’ve seen what we’re capable of doing, and we still didn’t have everybody. Just imagine if we did.”

Porter unleashed a hearty laugh and a big smile at the end of that last statement. Let’s hope a productive offseason has Bulls’ fans smiling with anticipation about what lies ahead.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

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Two of the Bulls’ division rivals head into the offseason with some uncertainty after suffering first round playoff sweeps. The Indiana Pacers hope to have All-Star guard Victor Oladipo back at full strength for the start of next season after he suffered a serious leg injury in January, but they’ll have multiple players heading into free agency, including starters Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison.

The Pacers could look to upgrade at point guard by using their cap space to pursue three-time All-Star Kemba Walker, who’s hinted at testing the market after seeing his Hornets fall short of the playoffs once again. That could mean saying goodbye to Collison and top reserve Cory Joseph, both of whom could be considerations for the Bulls if they look to add a veteran point guard in free agency.

Collison turns 32 before the start of next season, which could put him outside the Bulls’ timeline, but the durable Joseph might be a possibility. Joseph has contributed off the bench for quality teams in San Antonio, Toronto and Indiana, and he’ll turn 28 in August.  The former University of Texas star has played in at least 79 games in each of the last five seasons, and could help a rookie point guard like Ja Morant or Darius Garland learn the ins and outs of life in the NBA.

Collison would also be a more affordable option than established starters like Collison, Ricky Rubio or Patrick Beverley.

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The future is also looking a little murky in Detroit, where the Pistons were drummed out of the playoffs by Milwaukee, losing all four games by at least 15 points. Granted, All-Star Blake Griffin sat out the first two games and was limited in the final two because of a knee injury, but the Pistons looked outclassed in every area.

Griffin has three years left on the max deal he signed with the L.A. Clippers and he’s been dogged by injuries throughout his career. Plus, the Pistons are still waiting for high-paid starters Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson to live up to their contracts on a more consistent basis. With little salary cap flexibility, the Pistons are basically locked into their roster for the foreseeable future. Dwane Casey did an excellent job in leading Detroit to the playoffs in his first season as head coach, but the challenges facing him could grow even more difficult in the years ahead.

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Still, the situations in Indiana and Detroit pale in comparison to what’s going on in Phoenix. After finishing with the worst record in the Western Conference again, the Suns promoted long-time NBA player James Jones to head of basketball operations. Jones initially said he was planning to retain head coach Igor Kokoskov, since he was involved in the hiring process last year. But Monday night, Jones changed his mind, firing the well-respected, long-time NBA assistant after just one season.

That means the Suns will have their fifth different coach in the last five years when they report for training camp in September. Phoenix has received permission to interview the hottest coaching candidate on the market, 76ers assistant Monty Williams, but Williams is also under consideration for the Lakers’ job, along with Tyronn Lue, Jason Kidd and Chicago native Juwan Howard.

The Suns have a number of talented young players on the roster, including high-scoring shooting guard Devin Booker, 2018 No.1 overall draft pick Deandre Ayton, 2018 lottery pick Mikal Bridges, 2017 No. 4 overall pick Josh Jackson and 23-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr., but to this point they’ve been unable to show any upward mobility in the standings.

Phoenix is in desperate need of a starting point guard and would love to add Morant if the lottery combinations fall their way. Right now, the Knicks, Suns and Cavaliers all have a 14 percent chance to land the top pick in the upcoming draft, but as we’ve seen so many times in the past, high draft picks don’t always translate into immediate success.