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.

Kris Dunn thinks Zach LaVine could be 'a good defender in this league'

Kris Dunn thinks Zach LaVine could be 'a good defender in this league'

We all know what Zach LaVine is capable of doing on the offensive side of things. But what about his defense?

It's no secret that LaVine has had his fair share of struggles on defense, but Kris Dunn thinks highly of his 23-year-old teammate and what his potential is at the other end.

"On the defensive end I just told him, 'You're as fast as me. You're more athletic than me. There's no way you shouldn't be a good defender in this league. You could be one of those guys who could be dynamic in the passing lanes because you're so athletic and fast.'" Dunn said of LaVine. "And personally, I like to score. If you get in a passing lane, that's a dunk for yourself and because you've got so much bounce that's when you get the crowd on their feet — maybe do a windmill, a 360, something.

"But I think he's been going a good job on the defensive end. It's not going to be easy. We all got to learn and I think we're all trying."

Improving his defense would obviously be a big step forward for LaVine (and the Bulls), and he knows it. 

“I think I had a lot better focus on the defensive end,” LaVine said when assessing his preseason. “I had some mistakes too, but I wanted to go out there and just really hone in on being more focused down there. I felt like I did OK with that. Still some areas I want to get better at, definitely off-the-ball I think I did a lot better than I had before.’’

LaVine and the Bulls travel to Philadelphia to face the 76ers on Thursday night in their season opener. You can watch Bulls Pre- and Postgame Live on NBC Sports Chicago before and after the game for highlights and analysis.

Trust the Rookie: Wendell Carter Jr. draws Opening Night start against Joel Embiid, Sixers

Trust the Rookie: Wendell Carter Jr. draws Opening Night start against Joel Embiid, Sixers

In a five-game span Wendell Carter Jr. saw preseason action against Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Myles Turner. The 19-year-old rookie had his share of expected ups and downs but performed well enough that Fred Hoiberg officially announced him a starter for the team’s season opener tomorrow night.

His reward for all that hard work? A matchup against All-Pro center Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’ll be an eye-opening experience for the Duke product, who just a year ago was readying himself for his first season of college basketball and a season-opening matchup against Elon. It’s safe to assume Embiid will pose a few more problems than did Phoenix center Tyler Seibring.

“Joel Embiid was one of my role models growing up,” Embiid said before practice Wednesday. “He was someone I always wanted to pattern my game after. Just to go up against him is a remarkable feeling. He’s a very physical player. He’s a very talented player. I’m going to be able to stack up and see what all I need to work on to last in this league.”

While it’s no easy task against a talent like Embiid, who was named All-NBA Second Team last season, Carter’s most important job will be staying out of foul trouble. Carter piggy-backed an impressive Summer League with a preseason that included averages of 7.0 points and 5.6 rebounds in 21.1 minutes. But those numbers also included 7.7 fouls per 48 minutes. He racked up 17 fouls in five games, and had at least three in each.

Embiid only went to the line five times in Tuesday’s season-opening loss to the Celtics, but that was primarily against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Al Horford. Embiid won’t face as much resistance against Carter, putting the pressure on the rookie to stay on the floor.

“He’s going to have to navigate that without using his hands,” Fred Hoiberg said. “We have to be all five aware. It’s just not a one-man problem with Embiid. We have to have great awareness of him and try and mix up coverages and hopefully make him take tough shots, knowing that he’s going to hit some of those. You just can’t get deflated when he does.’’

The decision was a mere formality – Bobby Portis will start at power forward – after the frontcourt combination played considerably better in the Bulls’ final two preseason games. Though Jabari Parker was initially slotted in at power forward following Lauri Markkanen’s elbow sprain, Portis’ impressive preseason forced Hoiberg’s hand. Portis averaged 17.0 points and 5.8 rebounds and shot 55 percent from the field in just 22.4 minutes.

“It’s all about combinations out there and we felt like Bobby gave us a great start with the way he was playing,” Hoiberg said. “And then we kind of changed things up with that second unit and put the ball in Jabari’s hands, so it was more that in trying to get guys out there with the right combinations.”

Lopez may have an expanded role if Carter gets into foul trouble early, while Parker will be the facilitator on a second unit that doesn’t have much in the way of a point guard. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the frontcourt will play out once Markkanen returns in roughly a month; if Portis and Carter continue playing well, Hoiberg could opt to keep them together on the second unit and put Lopez back in the starting lineup.

But for at least Opening Night – the Bulls also get Andre Drummond and the Pistons on Saturday – it’ll be the seventh overall pick getting his NBA feet wet with a matchup against arguably the best center in basketball. But’s it a role he’s earned, and on a Bulls defense looking for any sort of improvement, Carter is the player who can anchor it.

“His defense is always going to be important for us. He’s the guy that’s the anchor in that starting unit at the rim,” Hoiberg said, “and he’s done a really solid job of making perimeter guys taking contested shots when he gets switched off, or staying vertical at the rim and trying to make a big finish over the top of him, so yeah, again it’s a great challenge, great opportunity for Wendell.”