Bulls

In Rose's absence, Deng steps up assist game

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In Rose's absence, Deng steps up assist game

No disrespect to C.J. Watson, but when replacing a player like Derrick Rose, it takes a village. In the Bulls Tuesday night win over Sacramento, a surprising source, All-Star small forward Luol Deng -- not fill-in Watson, usual third-stringer John Lucas, who had a strong outing off the bench in a backup role, or newly re-acquired veteran Mike James, point guards all -- led the Bulls in assists, handing out a career-high 11.

As versatile as Deng is on the floor, one knock on him throughout his career has been although hes an effective slasher, he isnt the most proficient ballhandler for his position. Dengs offensive game is primarily based on getting to the basket or setting up pull-up jumpers off one or two dribbles, as well as moving without the ball, finishing in transition, spot-up shots from long range and when he has a mismatch, posting up smaller defenders.

In the offseason, Deng starred for Great Britains national team in the FIBA EuroBasket tournament and while the squad struggled, he got valuable experience as a primary ballhandler, being the teams focal point. Additionally, prior to the lockout, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau encouraged him to further develop that aspect of his game.

Its something we spoke about. The first thing Thibs said to improve after taking the Bulls head-coaching job was my three-point shooting, extending my range a little bit. Then, last year, it was I wanted to handle the ball more and the two things last year was the ballhandling and the post. I know I havent been in the post as much, but if its needed, Ive been working on that, still work on that with Griff and I work on my ballhandling a lot with Griff, but I got a chance to handle it a lot with the national team, Deng explained after the Bulls Wednesday-afternoon practice. Its definitely helped us a lot, especially when I rebound and I push it. Were a lot faster coming down the floor and trying to get easy baskets.

Added Thibodeau about the first-time All-Star, who hell join, along with Rose, in Orlando on Feb. 26 as the Eastern Conferences head coach: He was terrific, played an all-around game, played very good defense, scored, he play-maked and he was leading, and thats what we count on him every game. Whatever the team needs, he provides.

We like some of the stuff that hes been doing lately and we wanted to go to it more, and its an option that we have. Hes a very unselfish player, so if theres two players on him, we always want him to hit the open man, he continued. Jo was playmaking, too. We like the versatility of both Jo and Luol to make plays.

As for the Bulls starting point guard, Rose wasnt at the Berto Center with his teammates, who had a light practice, reviewing film and shooting, according to Thibodeau. Instead, he was seeing a back specialist about his recurring lower back spasms.

Still day-to-day. Hes still not quite ready, so well see where he is and each day hes gotten better. Were encouraged by that, said Thibodeau. Hes off-site getting treatment right now. Hes doing well."

The coach, however, wouldnt speculate about his superstars return.

Hes just doing his rehab right now, so well see.

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

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USA TODAY

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

The theme of the 2018-19 NBA season will be: “old faces in new places”. Like a season-long game of the NBA on TNT crew’s “Who he play for?” game, this year will be about fans trying to get used to the idea of LeBron James in purple (I won’t call it ‘Forum Blue’)-and-gold, DeMarcus Cousins being on a championship-contending franchise and Kawhi Leonard being the new face of Toronto.

The Warriors are still the easy favorite to make it four NBA championships in five years, but they will be tested perhaps more than any year before in a loaded Western Conference, where even the lowliest of teams (here’s to you Phoenix and Memphis!) made solid offseason moves geared towards winning games.

Over in the now-LeBron-less East, there is hope amongst at least four-to-five teams that they could actually have a shot to win the conference. The Pacers still have budding superstar Victor Oladipo, the Sixers still have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the Raptors and Bucks made head coaching changes that could lead to deep playoff runs. But with the rest of the Eastern conference being stuck between lottery contention and middle of the pack, expect the half-experienced, half-youthful Celtics to takeover as East juggernaut.

But whether or not your favorite franchise is aiming for a high draft pick or a postseason berth, there is tons to be excited in a 2018-19 NBA season that will surely be an intriguing one. Check out Week 1 of our NBA Power Rankings right here.

Deadline passes as Bulls, Bobby Portis fail to reach agreement on contract extension

Deadline passes as Bulls, Bobby Portis fail to reach agreement on contract extension

The Bulls and Bobby Portis were unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension by today’s deadline, which will make the power forward a restricted free agent next offseason.

According to The Chicago Tribune’s K.C. Johnson, Portis’ agent Mark Bartelstein and Gar Forman had “lengthy face-to-face negotiations” on Monday prior to the deadline. The two sides weren’t able to come to an agreement.

The negotiations – and lack of a deal – come after a summer and training camp in which Portis continued to show progression. After beginning the preseason coming off the bench Portis quickly played his way into the starting lineup alongside rookie Wendell Carter Jr. Portis finished five preseason games averaging 17.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals in just 22.4 minutes.

Portis, the 22nd pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, has seen his role increase each of his three seasons. He made a jump last season in Year 3, averaging 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in 22.5 minutes. He was one of three players, including DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Love, to average 21 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 3-pointers per 36 minutes.

Though the Bulls certainly had the room to sign Portis to an extension, there were obvious reasons on both sides to wait on a deal. For starters, the Bulls will still be able to match any deal Portis receives in free agency next July, much like what happened with Zach LaVine and the Sacramento Kings. The Bulls maintain their abundance of cap space for the 2019 offseason, when they’ll be able to offer a max contract to the top-tier free agents, and they get to see if Portis makes another jump.

For Portis, it’s a case of him betting on himself. If the Bulls came in with a number he wasn’t satisfied with – to help keep their max cap space – he now finds himself on a contract year playing for his next contract. Still only 23 years old, Portis should cash in in July.

Two players from Portis’ draft class were able to cash in. Pacers center Myles Turner signed a reported four-year, $80 million extension and Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. agreed to a four-year, $45 million deal. Portis likely would have fallen somewhere in between those two deals had an agreement occurred.

The Bulls are hardly in an easy situation with Portis. Though they value the versatile power forward, Lauri Markkanen is entrenched at the position for the foreseeable future and the team just spent last year’s No. 7 overall pick on center Wendell Carter Jr. Portis realistically is stuck behind both those players, though he certainly has starting level NBA talent.