Time for Bulls to add more horses to the stable?


Time for Bulls to add more horses to the stable?

It's only natural. Watching what, so far, looks like it could be an epic NBA Finals between the Thunder and Heat, the Bulls' front office should be thinking about ways to improve their team.

Even approaching a season with lowered expectations, if the Bulls want to compete in the ongoing NBA arms race, they have to think about adding additional firepower. The only problem is, with little financial flexibility this summer, the only way to do that is, as team general manager Gar Forman told Bulls.com recently, to "take a step back."

Now, Forman meant in the short-term, with Derrick Rose likely to miss the majority of next season and fellow All-Star Luol Deng also likely to start the season on the shelf. But the truth is, in order for the Bulls to be able to truly return to contending status in the 2013-14 season--realistically, there isn't a title coming next June--some upgrades need to be made.

Miami and Oklahoma City have the horses--two top-five NBA players on each side in league MVP LeBron James and scoring champ Kevin Durant, another pair of top-20 players, at minimum, in All-Star guards Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade, not to mention an underrated All-Star in Chris Bosh for the Heat and two of the league's best up-and-coming youngsters in the Thunder's Serge Ibaka and James Harden, the Sixth Man of the Year--and as much as the blue-collar Bulls are respected for the unselfish, defensive-oriented style of play, that's not the case in Chicago.

Even if Rose is back on the court ahead of schedule, which could be a possibility, and returns to form as one of the game's elite talents, the Bulls just don't have the individual scoring and athleticism needed to match the two juggernauts in the Finals, both of whom look to be formidable obstacles for any team trying to advance to the championship round in the near future.

Despite the Bulls' conference-finals defeat at the hands of the Heat last season, it appeared that a few tweaks were all that was needed to up the ante for a squad with such remarkable chemistry, a transcendent superstar and the defensive values of past title teams. After Rose's devastating injury and the first-round loss to Philadelphia, there was reason for optimism, especially with a streaking San Antonio group in the wayy of youthful Oklahoma City and Miami struggling with both Indiana and Boston.

Suddenly, things have changed, as the Thunder's talent overwhelmed the Spurs and the Heat--mostly James, to be honest, though Bosh's return from an abdominal injury certainly helped the cause--rose to the occasion and have come as close to reaching its potential in the nearly two years since "The Decision." In a copy-cat league, "Big Threes" are all the rage, whether teams form potent trios through free agency like the Heat or by drafting well, like the Thunder.

The Bulls don't currently have it and with their balance, they don;t necessarily need it, though their depth will surely take a hit this summer, as "Bench Mob" stalwarts Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson could be relocating come July. However, it's clear that minor upgrades to plug holes like outside shooting alone won't be enough to get back to being one of the league's upper-echelon teams when Rose is fully healthy and the time to start making changes might be now.

From the perspective of a fan or even a jaded journalist who enjoys quality basketball, it would be hard to see the Bulls break up their cohesive core, but with little money to spend in free agency, four eight-figure contracts and contract extensions looming for Omer Asik this summer and Taj Gibson the next, there's little choice but to make a trade in order to make a leap forward. While some certainly wouldn't shed a tear if the much-maligned Carlos Boozer was sent packing this summer, either through trade or amnesty, neither option is likely to happen, as the appetite for his contract around the league isn't strong and after all, without Rose and Deng to start the season, Boozer's scoring will be one of the team's offensive focal points when the Bulls' season begins.

Instead, two players central to the Bulls' identity as a selfless, hard-working bunch are team's biggest assets: Deng and Joakim Noah. Both have been speculated about in various reports that have the Bulls aiming to get a perimeter-playing lottery pick, whether it's North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, who claimed he met with the team during the league's pre-draft combine in Chicago recently, or the likes of Connecticut's Jeremy Lamb, Syracuse's Dion Waiters or Duke's Austin Rivers, the son of the Celtics head coach, while hopefully getting back a veteran point guard in return.

Now, this isn't to advocate trading either Deng or Noah, as Deng made his debut as both an All-Star and a member of the league's All-Defensive Team this season, while the unique Noah is one of the top players at his position in the league. But with the way the Bulls are hamstrung by hefty contracts, the question becomes whether or not either player is central to winning a title.

Examining the lottery teams in the upcoming NBA Draft, there are plenty of teams--from Charlotte, who picks second, all the way down to Phoenix, near the bottom of the lottery at No. 13 overall, though not all of those teams have a player available sufficiently capable of filling the Bulls' short-term point-guard needs--who could use either veteran more than an untested rookie, even in what's considered a deep class. Without knowing how much each team covets Deng or Noah, a chance to get into the top five or six selections could make sense, as top prospects like the aforementioned Barnes, a small forward, or Connecticut center Andre Drummond, could be considered worthy long-term positional replacements for either of the duo.

Dealing with any team drafting lower than Portland at No. 6 and it would likely come down to taking the best shooting guard on the Bulls' board, whether that's Lamb, Waiters or Rivers, as Barnes--his meeting with the Bulls certainly created a buzz, but it could be part of a trend, as the Kentucky small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist claimed he met with the Thunder, who also have a late first-round pick and wouldn't be in the mix for the top prospect; whether it's shrewd Thunder GM Sam Presti just trying to get an audience with a player who fits their culture and could be on the free-agent market in a couple of seasons or gauging whether a deal needs to be made to get value out of Harden or Ibaka before one potentially walks as a free agent remains to be seen--and Drummond likely wouldn't be available, though these things can be fluid leading up to the draft, as evidenced by Ohio State power forward Jared Sullinger's recent medical "red flag," something that has historically caused prospects to slip on draft night, due to lingering back issues. Regardless, any of those names are projected to make more of an immediate impact than Will Barton, Doron Lamb, John Jenkins or anyone else the Bulls would take with the 29th overall pick, even if that rookie was thrown in the fire.

But is it worth it? For a struggling lottery team, yes, as Deng's professionalism, versatility and winning ways would overshadow both his contract and the chance that he doesn't start the regular season on time if he has wrist surgery after the Olympics, while Noah's infectious energy, passion and ability as a mobile seven-footer is capable of helping any franchise.

There are pros and cons to both players, things Bulls fans have learned to accept, but for other teams, whether it's Deng coming off the books after the 2013-14 season or Noah locked into four more years of his deal, it's more about the value they bring and the foundation they provide moving forward. That's why, if the Bulls are seriously considering a swap, they must maximize what's received in return--two trades that have been speculated upon are Noah and the 29th pick to Sacramento for Tyreke Evans and the fifth pick (an unlikely scenario, even if Evans, the former Rookie of the Year), and Deng and the 29th pick to Toronto for veteran point guard Jose Calderon, who has one more year left on his contract, and the eighth pick--and minimize the loss of one of their core players.

Though it would take away from the Bulls' strong frontcourt rotation, Noah would be easier to part with, as the Bulls are expected to match any offer for Asik--who is reportedly coveted by several teams, including Boston and Cleveland--and Asik, at least as a defender, is regarded as one of the league's more underrated young big men. Deng, on the other hand, has no natural replacement and as much hand-wringing has been done over finding a temporary fill-in for Rose, the Bulls must find a starting-caliber forward to begin the season with their other All-Star potentially on the shelf, assuming he remains in Chicago, although keeping the fact that his contract is up in 2014 in mind, a decision to cut ties prematurely could make sense from strictly a business standpoint alone.

Standing pat and waiting for Rose to get healthy and plotting moves for the summer of 2013's loaded free-agent class is also an option, but it's got to be hard for the Bulls to resist the temptation to tinker when watching these magnificently-played Finals and seeing all of the top-tier studs on the court. The stakes are raised now, as the organization's singular focus can't just be beating the Heat; any contending team must also think about having enough weapons to also take down the Thunder, as the youth of that team pencils them for multiple Finals appearances.

Rose, when healthy, is obviously in that realm of elite players, while Deng and Noah are probably a level below and the rest of the current roster under contract, including the likely-to-return Asik and Gibson, a high priority the following summer, are solid complementary pieces. But without the present flexibility to bring in talent and a season approaching in which challenging for a championship doesn't seem feasible, a deep draft featuring teams with high picks looking for established veteran talent could be the best way to plan for the future, acquire some room to maneuver financially and bring in some scoring punch, especially with names like Evans--pie-in-the-sky theory or not, the young guard is the type of talent the Bulls should aim for if trading one of their big pieces, as he can create for himself, provide some assistance at point guard and with one year left on his rookie deal, basically have an extended tryout to see if he buys into the Bulls' defensive-oriented scheme before hitting free agency--available.

When it comes down to it, an evaluation of whether to be patient and stay the course, believing that Chicago is a more attractive free-agent destination in 2013 than it was in 2010, or jump-starting the process now, without fully blowing it up, is what will determine the Bulls' level of activity leading up to the draft and then, free agency. But it's clear that with the high level Miami and Oklahoma City are playing at--James finally entering that other stratosphere when it matters most, while Durant continues to raise the bar--the Bulls need more horses.

Watch Lauri Markkanen and Cristiano Felício brave a haunted house

USA Today

Watch Lauri Markkanen and Cristiano Felício brave a haunted house

Lauri Markkanen is 7-feet tall.  Cristiano Felício is 6-feet-10. It’s safe to say they’re big guys, which would lead you to believe they wouldn’t be scared by much.

In a preseason outing to 13th Floor Haunted House in Chicago, Lauri and Felício showed that height doesn’t mean you’re immune to spooks (especially when Benny the Bull is let loose in the haunted house control room).  

Watch them try to maneuver their tall frames through cobwebs and zombies in the video posted to the Bulls’ Twitter here.

Viewers beware, ghastly ghouls and frightened NBA stars await you.

Despite all the screaming, the Bulls players sounded like they had a fun night. Lauri even responded to video on Twitter saying that while maybe he got scared a little, he ultimately had a good time.

Hey, if they can face-off against monsters and chainsaw mascot maniacs, taking on the other teams in NBA won’t seem so bad!

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Five observations from Bulls' preseason, including Zach LaVine's focus

USA Today

Five observations from Bulls' preseason, including Zach LaVine's focus

The Bulls blew through four preseason games in seven days, a pace coach Jim Boylen acknowledged by resting his starters for one.

But now it gets real. Wendell Carter Jr. made his debut Sunday in Toronto after sitting the first three games with a bruised tailbone, but the second-year big man only played first-half minutes.

Thursday’s preseason finale at the United Center against the Hawks is an opportunity to extend minutes, set rotations and square off against a young, rebuilding team looking to make a similar jump. Here’s what the Bulls’ preseason has shown so far:

Zach LaVine is playing with a proper edge

The preternaturally gifted scorer often is accused of being an empty calories player, spouting empty words. Those who are around LaVine on a daily basis see his work ethic and care factor and say otherwise.

LaVine has made no secret of his desire to represent the Bulls at the 2020 All-Star game at the United Center. But through three games---he sat with the other starters last Friday in Indiana---he isn’t trying to get there with a head-down, selfish approach.

LaVine has shown leadership, an improved commitment at the defensive end and his 23.3 points in 23 minutes proves he still scores in bunches. Boylen deserves some of the credit for LaVine’s focus, challenging him to be a better two-way player. Veteran Thaddeus Young also has been in LaVine’s ear. But LaVine put in the work and is playing like a man on a mission.

Coby White is fearless

The first-round pick said all the right things about playing with confidence when the Bulls used the No. 7 selection on him. But so many 19-year-olds have uttered similar sentiments and then looked overwhelmed.

White isn’t that. His speed and scoring ability have demanded a rotational role. And who cares if he’s not a point guard yet, with just five assists in 105 minutes? His ability to push the ball and play off it will be critical for a second unit that will feature the defensive-minded Kris Dunn.

White still needs to eliminate his tendency to take long 2-pointers and learn to finish better. And the point guard knowledge needs to come eventually. But for now, unleash him and let his athleticism do the trick.

Boylen and the Bulls are playing like a modern NBA team

In the three games the regulars have played, the Bulls have attempted 38, 37 and 49 3-pointers. The 49 3-pointers versus the Raptors would’ve represented a franchise, regular-season record.

After taking over for the fired Fred Hoiberg last season, Boylen drew widespread criticism for his publicly stated plan to slow down the offense and build it back up with proper fundamentals. Furthermore, last season’s roster, particularly down the stretch as the Bulls fielded gloried G League lineups, didn’t lend itself to perimeter shooting.

The additions of Tomas Satoransky, Luke Kornet and White help. So does a more versatile roster with multiple ballhandlers. This approach isn’t going away this season.

Carter needs to stay on the court

The defensive-minded big man consistently draws praise from coaches and teammates for his communication skills and ability to read the court. There also are raves for his offensive potential.

However, it’s getting to the point where the Bulls need to see it consistently, not talk about it. Between thumb surgery limiting him to 44 games in an otherwise promising rookie season and now Carter showing some rust---and some nice plays---Sunday in Toronto, consistency and reliability needs to follow.

After all, Carter never fully mastered the art of avoiding foul trouble last season. His interior defense and rim protection will be critical for a team challenged in both areas.

The Bulls need to broaden Lauri Markkanen's offensive game

The good news is Markkanen shot 44.4 percent from 3-point range in three games. The bad news is over half of Markkanen’s shots have come from behind the arc.

Markkanen is too talented---and too much a matchup nightmare---to be relegated to a spot-up shooter. During his dominant February stretch last season, Markkanen displayed a dribble, drag-step move that seemed unguardable. Offseason talk centered on his bulking up for more post play.

This is where Markkanen’s rebounding is so essential. He has the ability to push the ball up the court himself. There’s nothing wrong with Markkanen shooting 3-pointers. But he’s at his best in motion, with multiple offensive options at his disposal.