Bulls

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

After the Bulls traded for veteran center Robin Lopez and signed guards Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in free agency,  the starting lineup for the 2016-17 season was 80 percent complete with Jimmy Butler moving over to small forward. The only real question remained: will Nikola Mirotic or Taj Gibson start at power forward?

Arguments can be made for both players, but early in camp it appears Mirotic will have the edge, based on his three-point shooting ability. The Bulls need to create floor spacing for their wing players (Wade and Butler) who are most effective driving to the basket, and Mirotic has the ability to knock down the three (.355 for his career, .390 last season). Mirotic is also an underrated defensive rebounder with decent size at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds.

Mirotic got off to a fast start last season in a starting role, but eventually went to the bench after a late November-early December shooting slump. His second NBA season was also sidetracked by an emergency appendectomy in late January that caused him to miss almost six weeks of action. Mirotic finished the season strong, and went on to play a lead role with his former Bulls teammate, Pau Gasol, on Spain’s national team at the Rio Olympics. Mirotic will be a restricted free agent at season’s end, so he has a lot riding on establishing himself as a bonafide NBA starter.

It's a similar story for Gibson, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and is looking to land one more big contract when he turns 32-years-old next June. Gibson is known for his relentless work on the boards and his ability to defend power forwards and centers. He’s also 100 percent healthy after dealing with the after-effects of ankle surgery last season. But given the Bulls’ spacing issues, it makes sense for the coaching staff to go with Mirotic alongside Wade, Rondo and Butler, and to pair Gibson with young perimeter threats like Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine and Isaiah Canaan on the second unit. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg could use Gibson in a backup center role, with McDermott getting minutes at power forward in small ball lineups. Gibson will play, but don’t be surprised to see his name come up again in midseason trade rumors.

So, where does that leave 2015 first-round draft pick Bobby Portis? Portis looked good in Las Vegas Summer League play, showing off improved low-post skills and a consistent three-point shot. But unless Portis has a big preseason, it’s hard to imagine him getting consistent rotation minutes early in the season. Portis could earn some time as a stretch five backing up Lopez, but those minutes might also go to Gibson or second-year center Cristiano Felicio. Portis worked hard all summer, and should be a better all-around player in his sophomore season, but he faces an uphill battle to earn regular minutes. It will be interesting to see how many of the Bulls young players wind up logging time with the Bulls’ new D-League team in Hoffman Estates. Portis might not be involved as a No. 1 draft pick, but Felicio and second-round selection Paul Zipser might want to get familiar with the trip out to the Sears Center.

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The other major training camp battle involves the backup point guard spot behind Rondo. The coaches have a wide variety of options, starting with former Notre Dame star Jerian Grant, who came over in the Derrick Rose trade with the Knicks. The soon to be 24-year-old Grant is the son of long-time NBA player Harvey Grant and nephew of former Bulls star Horace Grant. The Bulls were interested in selecting Jerian Grant in the 2015 draft, but he went off the board a few picks before their turn in the first round.

Grant was a big-time scorer at Notre Dame, but struggled to get on the court in his rookie season with the Knicks. After Kurt Rambis replaced Derek Fisher as head coach of the Knicks, Grant finally got some consistent playing time, averaging 16.8 ppg over the last four games of the season. He’s not a great three-point shooter, hitting just 22 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, but his ability to get to the basket and create open shots for teammates would give the Bulls consistent point guard play throughout the game.

Canaan was signed late in free agency to give the Bulls another long-range shooting option. He hit 36 percent of his 3’s with Philadelphia last season, averaging 11 points a game. The 25-year-old Canaan figures to be specialist with the Bulls, much like Aaron Brooks who could score points in bunches, but didn’t excel at running a half-court offense. Even though Canaan only stands 6 feet tall, he’s really a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, much like Brooks, D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson and C.J. Watson who proceeded him.

6-foot-6 Spencer Dinwiddie was considered a potential lottery pick at Colorado before suffering a devastating knee injury that dropped him into the second round. Dinwiddie didn’t get a lot of playing time for Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, but he’s completely healthy now and showed during Summer League play he’s capable of scoring over smaller point guards in the post. His size, scoring ability and defensive skills might push him ahead of the other candidates when all is said and done.

The wild card in the backup point guard derby is this year’s first-round pick Denzel Valentine. Even though he played a wing spot at Michigan State, Valentine was the floor general for Tom Izzo, and is an exceptional passer with outstanding court vision. Since playing time behind Wade & Butler might be limited, Valentine could wind up running the point on the second unit, with Butler on the court as the primary initiator on offense. Valentine’s shooting ability gives the Bulls another floor spacer, and at 6-foot-5, he’ll have size advantage over smaller backup point guards.

Boiling it all down, Hoiberg and his assistants figure to do a lot of experimenting during the preseason to find out which players execute best together. But once the ball goes up for real on Oct. 27, Hoiberg has to decide on his best 9 or 10 players for a consistent regular-season rotation. Matchups could dictate which backup point guards find the floor, but even this early in camp it’s pretty obvious the Bulls are intrigued by Valentine’s potential, and he should get consistent playing time in his rookie season.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Recap of the NBA 2020 All-Star game in Chicago

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Recap of the NBA 2020 All-Star game in Chicago

David Haugh, Alex Maragos and Chris Bleck join Kap on the panel.

0:00 - The NBA All-Star Game is over and the city was the biggest star of the weekend. The guys weigh in on the thrilling finish and if the rule changes saved the All-Star game.

5:30 - Michael Jordan was not in the "House That MJ Built." Should his Airness have had more of a presence?

9:00 - Michael Reinsdorf and John Paxson spent the weekend asking some of the sport's heavy hitters about how to fix their front office. Will the changes work?

13:00 - Jesse Rogers joins Kap from Cubs camp in Mesa to talk about Javy Baez's comments about not being ready to play some days. They also discuss Kris Bryant's candid comments about his contract and his future with the Cubs.

18:00 - The guys weigh in on Tom Rickett's comments on the state of the team's baseball budget.

26:00 - Chuck Garfien joins Kap from Sox camp in Glendale. They talk about the excitement level with everybody in camp, the team's thoughts on the Astros scandal, the chances Nick Madrigal breaks camp with the team and the Carlos Rodon's progress from Tommy John surgery.

Listen here or in the embedded player below.

 

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NBA Power Rankings: Spirited Elam ending caps off a successful All-Star weekend

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USA Today

NBA Power Rankings: Spirited Elam ending caps off a successful All-Star weekend

The city of Chicago is drawing rave reviews for putting on a tremendous show at All-Star weekend. Sure, it was brutally cold last Thursday and Friday, but once inside the venues, the participants and spectators were treated to some spectacular entertainment.

The weekend ended with the most spirited All-Star game competition we’ve seen in decades... maybe ever. Not many people had heard about the Elam ending which establishes a target score to win the game rather than a typical timed format. It had received positive reviews during the summer TBT (The Basketball Tournament) which is a winner take all team competition involving players representing their former universities. Chris Paul suggested to NBA commissioner Adam Silver that the format could be a big hit for the All-Star game, and boy was he right.

The 10 players on the court competed with the ferocity normally saved for the NBA Finals. We got to enjoy the world’s best players completely locked in on the defensive end, refusing to give any ground, and going at each other with bone-jarring screens and physical back to the basket pounding.

Some analysts feared the 24 points added to the leading team’s total to establish the target score would result in a fourth quarter that would be over in just a few minutes. Instead, the greatest players in the game battled for almost 45 minutes, with the pressure to get to the target score resulting in missed free throws by normally excellent shooters and a blown uncontested lay-up by Team Giannis’ Kemba Walker.

Team LeBron wound up winning by two, anks to a made free throw by Chicago native Anthony Davis to reach the target score of 157, and when it was over, all the players talked about how much fun it was to compete under the new format.

Yes, the 24-point idea came about to honor the memory of Kobe Bryant, and you know that Bryant would have loved the way his brothers competed with all their will and talent. Matter of fact, my only concern was that the players were competing TOO hard. For example, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s chasedown block of LeBron James in the closing minutes was spectacular, but can you imagine if either superstar had been hurt by tumbling to the ground after meeting at the rim?

You can expect some tweaks to the format in future years, and it’s probably unlikely the players will compete with the same kind of physicality we saw Sunday night, given the special circumstances involved with the whole weekend serving as a tribute to Kobe.

But it looks like the NBA has found a format that will re-energize the All-Star game, and that will be the biggest takeaway from a very successful weekend in Chicago.

Now, a look at this week’s power rankings as the schedule resumes on Thursday.