Serge Ibaka

NBA Buzz: The Bulls may have found a keeper in Cristiano Felicio

NBA Buzz: The Bulls may have found a keeper in Cristiano Felicio

We're taking a break from the breathless NBA trade rumor mill to write about an unqualified success story for the Bulls' front office and coaching staff.

Second-year center Cristiano Felicio just keeps getting better, and it's exciting to think about what his ceiling might be. You've probably heard the story by now: Felicio grew up in Brazil playing soccer like most young athletes in that country. But as Felicio kept growing, it was suggested he might want to switch to basketball.

After limited exposure to professional basketball in Brazil, Felicio found out he wasn't eligible to pursue a college scholarship in the U.S., so he focused on finding an opportunity to try out at an NBA training camp. The Bulls saw enough potential in the raw, 6-foot-9 athlete to bring him to camp in September 2015, and he impressed enough in preseason games to earn a spot on the 15-man roster.

Felicio didn't play much early in the season behind veterans Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah, but once Noah went down with a season-ending shoulder injury Felicio got his chance and impressed with his active play on both ends.

Year 2 began with Felicio in the rotation as the back-up center, but then he disappeared in November, barely playing over a stretch of 13 games. Now he's back as the second-team center and often is on the court in the Bulls' fourth-quarter lineup. Felicio is averaging 4.8 points and 4.9 rebounds in 15.7 minutes, but you can see the potential is there for so much more.

Felicio's ability to run the court and fly in for put-backs and tip dunks energizes the entire team, and he's already built a nice chemistry with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo on alley-oop passes at the rim.

So, what's the ceiling for the 24-year-old Brazilian? I asked Fred Hoiberg after practice on Wednesday.

"I think the sky's the limit for Cris. He's a guy that, just the way he moves his feet for a guy that size, allows us to change our ball-screen coverages," Hoiberg said. "He's getting more comfortable on the offensive end, I think he's built nice chemistry with Dwyane and Rajon in that second group, picking and choosing his times to roll to the rim and also finding guys on the perimeter. He's also built a nice chemistry with Doug (McDermott) as well, trying to find him with screens coming down in transition. The big thing is, you can see he's getting more comfortable every time he's out there. He's a big part of this team."

Starting center Robin Lopez added: "I've seen nothing but great things from him, honestly. Every time he's inserted into the lineup he does really good things for us."

So, give credit to the Bulls' scouting staff for discovering an unpolished diamond like Felicio. He's still raw offensively, and tends to rush his jump hooks and floaters in the lane, but the potential for improvement is there. Felicio has a nice touch at the free throw line, and with time and repetition, should be able to develop a consistent mid-range shot.

The danger for the Bulls is what might happen in free agency this summer. Teams around the league have taken notice of the agile and springy big man, and he could be in high demand in a new NBA that emphasizes small lineups and versatile bigs. 

Since the Bulls signed Felicio originally as an undrafted free agent, they'll be limited in what kind of contract they can offer him under the little known "Arenas provision" in the league's collective bargaining agreement. That's the same provision that allowed Houston to swoop in and steal Omer Asik from the Bulls after the 2011-12 season. While the "poison pill" option has been removed in the current CBA, if a team wants Felicio badly enough they could come in with an offer that the Bulls are unable to match.

Still, after all the disappointments the Bulls have had with their recent first-round draft picks, turning an unknown free agent like Felicio into a productive rotation player is a big positive for the front office.

Trade chatter continues around the league

Speaking of the center position, the Bulls have been linked in trade talks involving Philadelphia's second-year big man Jahlil Okafor, but that interest may have been overblown.

The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor writes the 76ers may have held Okafor out of their road game in Charlotte earlier this week just to try to flush out better offers, adding the only serious trade proposal came from the Pelicans, offering back-up center Alexis Ajinca and a first-round draft pick. O'Connor writes the Bulls likely aren't interested in trading for the Chicago native, who is an old fashioned back-to-the-basket center that doesn't defend, rebound or pass very well.

Okafor returned to the Sixers for Wednesday night's game in Boston, and unless general manager Bryan Colangelo gets some better offers, he might wind up finishing the year in Philadelphia.

So, which players could be on the move before the February 23 deadline? The Lakers, Magic and Nuggets look like motivated sellers right now. The Lakers have to turn over their first-round pick to Philadelphia if it falls outside the top 3, and also would have to send a 2019 first-rounder to Orlando. But, if the Lakers tank the rest of the season and slide into the bottom of the three, they keep a premier pick in this year's loaded draft, and they would only owe the Magic a pair of second-rounders in the future.

That means embattled Lakers' general manager Mitch Kupchak is open for business, willing to sell off any and all of his veteran players. No one is touching the long-term deals Kupchak mistakenly handed out to Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, but the Lakers should draw interest on perimeter shooters Lou Williams and Nick Young. Don't be surprised if the Cavaliers come calling for Williams, who's been on a scoring tear lately, averaging 21 points over his last 10 games. Williams just might be the dynamic playmaker LeBron James has been asking for. 

After trading Serge Ibaka on Tuesday, the Magic still have the for-sale sign out with Rob Hennigan trying to save his job as general manager. Orlando was expected to contend for a playoff spot in the East after acquiring Ibaka from Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and lottery pick Domantas Sabonis, but the trade hasn't gone well for the Magic. 

Head coach Frank Vogel hasn't been able to get his team to play consistent defense, and now Hennigan is trying to shake things up to save the season. Elfrid Payton, Mario Hezonja, Jeff Green C.J. Watson and Nikola Vucevic are all available for the right price.

A different story in Denver, where the Nuggets currently hold the 8th seed in the West, and would love to add a veteran star to their young mix. Denver just acquired center Mason Plumlee from Portland to back-up emerging star Nikola Jokic, and they're willing to deal Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Will Barton, Jameer Nelson and former DePaul star Wilson Chandler to get the right player.

Carmelo Anthony told reporters on Wednesday he expects to be with the Knicks after the trade deadline, but that doesn't mean other teams will stop calling. Anthony grew up in Baltimore and would be a great fit on a Wizards team that has a 27-9 record since December 4. Not sure if Washington has the assets to pull off that kind of a deal, but it's definitely worth a try with Cleveland suddenly looking a little more vulnerable in the East. 

Similar story with Boston, where Danny Ainge is still sitting on that treasure trove of draft picks from the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trade with Brooklyn. With Kevin Love now out six weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery, Washington playing great basketball and Toronto just acquiring Serge Ibaka, will Ainge step forward with his best offer to try to pry Jimmy Butler loose from the Bulls?

Unless Ainge is willing to offer both of the Brooklyn picks he holds (1st rounders in 2017 & '18), plus a pair of players to match salaries, there likely isn't any chance of a deal getting done between the two teams before the deadline. But you can bet those talks will be revisited once we get closer to the draft in June.

As for the Bulls, don't expect much in the next week. There's a chance they'll find a new home for Nikola Mirotic, and Gibson could go if a contending team offers a late first-round pick, but don't expect any blockbuster deals. With the front office still looking to get younger and more athletic players in the mix, first-round picks will be at a premium, and those types of trades normally get done just before the draft.

Stats of the Week

With the Bulls running their current winning streak over Toronto to 11 games on Tuesday, our stats "cruncher", Chris Kamka came up with these interesting notes.

The last time Bulls lost to Raptors (December 31st, 2013)

- Luol Deng was Bulls leading scorer (16).  He played 2 more games with Bulls then was traded
- Jimmy Butler's career PPG was 7.3 at the time

Jimmy Butler's unique game
- Tuesday's game is the only time (1983-84 to present) a Bulls player had 15+ FT made and 12+ Assists in a game   (Butler finished with 19 pts. & 12 assists, making 15-19 FT's)

And, when the Bulls are good, they can be VERY good.

Most 25+ point wins through first 50 games of a season in Bulls history

8       1971-72
5       2016-17   --->  5 of 25 wins this season have been by 25+ points
5       2006-07
5       1996-97
5       1990-91

Those five wins:
                                              Score                   Margin of Victory
Oct 31        at Brooklyn          118-88                 30
Nov 7         vs Orlando          112-80                 32
Nov 15       at Portland          113-88                 25
Dec 19       vs Detroit             113-82                 31
Feb 1         at Oklahoma City 128-100             28

Quote of the Week

Finally back to the quirky Robin Lopez, who had this response to my question about whether he ever discusses trade rumors with his twin brother Brook: "No, he once told me he would trade me to a high school team for a bag of Cheetos, but that's about it."

Which led me to the obvious follow-up question of what would it be like if he was ever traded FOR his brother, a Lopez twin swap, "I think whoever got Brook would be sorely disappointed. That's quite the presence to have to follow."

Robin then dropped the mike and walked away, interview session over.
 

Taj Gibson pouring his heart out for Bulls as trade rumors swirl

Taj Gibson pouring his heart out for Bulls as trade rumors swirl

The trade season has started in the NBA with the deal of Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors, so ears were perked up all through the Bulls’ morning shootaround when news made its way through the Advocate Center.

Oh, to be a fly in the mind of Taj Gibson, a man who’s been in the center of trade talks for the Bulls for years. He and Jimmy Butler have been in the middle of trade talk from the start of the season.

With his contract expiring this summer and the trade deadline a week away, the calls will get more intense and the Bulls will likely have a decision to make on their longtime forward.

And Gibson seems to be accepting of his fate, no matter what it is.

“Of course it's gonna get hotter,” said Gibson to CSNChicago.com about the trade talk. “No matter what happens, you're still in the NBA. You're still getting paid a lot of money to play basketball. People don't understand that. They think it's bad half the time. No it's not. It's the same paycheck, just on a different team.”

The same deal the Raptors gave the Orlando Magic for Ibaka — swingman Terrence Ross and a first-round pick (the lesser of the Raptors’ own pick and a pick the Clippers have to convey from a previous deal) — the Bulls had discussed for Gibson last season, sources tell CSNChicago.com.

The exact parameters of such a deal this season were vague but the Bulls were discussing a deal involving Gibson for a first-round pick with the Raptors. However, league sources tell CSNChicago.com that Ross wasn’t involved in these discussions.

Ibaka, like Gibson, will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and the Raptors were trying to nail down that power forward spot long-term along with trying to deal with the upcoming free agency of All-Star guard Kyle Lowry.

“I’ve been hearing the chatter for years. But you never know,” said Gibson when asked if he knew the Raptors were interested in him. “I just keep my head straight, focus on the team I’m on at the moment because if you start looking at other teams and other stuff, it kinda gets tricky as hell.”

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It’s almost like Gibson has become numb to the speculation, but for someone who cares as much as Gibson does, the thought of “will I be traded or won’t I?” is a natural one.

He tries to keep the amount of real estate it takes up in his head to a minimum, though.

“I can't. I can't (focus on it),” Gibson said. “It's like how Melo's (Carmelo Anthony) going through it right now. You just can't. You just gotta focus on your teammates, your family, have good people around you. Been going through this for eight years, teams trying to get you. It's tough, every year. You never know what's going to happen. Stay professional, stay in the gym, do whatever you can to take your mind off it.”

Gibson admitted that task “is tough” because his everyday life can be littered with random people asking him questions he doesn’t have the answer to, he doesn’t feel the need to run and talk to the front office over every little rumor that he happens to hear about.

“I leave that to my agent and the higher-ups. My agent, (Chicago-based) Mark Bartlestein, let him handle what he gotta handle. We have a good rapport,” Gibson said. “So whatever happens, happens.”

Well aware of the uncertainty surrounding things, it would be understandable if he had a hard time staying emotionally invested with the Bulls franchise — especially seeing how former mates and close friends were shipped out without much fanfare — but he insists his emotional wiring is different.

“No, it’s not,” Gibson said. “Because I care about everybody in the organization. I care about all the young guys, players that fall through here. It's bigger than basketball. I’m real unselfish. I want everybody to get their minutes, get their money and take care of their families, so I’ve never been like that.”

Gibson found himself smack dab in the middle of controversy a couple weeks back, through no fault of his own when Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade voiced their frustrations with the direction of the team after a collapse against the Atlanta Hawks.

Then Rajon Rondo started a fire only matched by Spike Lee in “Do the Right Thing” with his Instagram post, calling out Wade and Butler.

Then came the team meeting that Friday morning before shootaround before the Bulls’ lifeless 100-88 loss to the Miami Heat, where Gibson’s team looked like it didn’t know who was on the other side of the floor that night.

The reason was because so many emotions were spilled out in that morning meeting the Bulls had very little to give in terms of game preparation and performance. And the man who arguably unleashed more emotion than anyone in that meeting was Gibson.

“I was drained because I gave my heart in that meeting,” Gibson said to CSNChicago.com in Oakland after the Bulls lost to Golden State last week. “In general, I just gave my heart. Letting everybody know I loved them.

“I just poured my heart out. It got testy.”

Gibson sat as he watched the young players air out their grievances to Wade and Butler. And during a moment where he felt like he needed to be heard, Gibson spoke his mind and heart as the longest tenured Bull.

As the one player who could see exactly how and why all sides felt the way they felt.

“Both sides were just going, just talking. I stood up and voiced how I felt,” Gibson said. “It got reciprocated and everybody was like, ‘you know what? (He’s right)’ Because I put up with a lot. I've been putting up with a lot. It's crazy, I can put up with a lot but I can't put up with my teammates battling each other.”

“I was like a guy in the middle, the bridge because they felt like I had experience to tell, speak to Bobby (Portis) and them like I didn't get minutes (early), I should've started (years previously) I felt. I wanted to start early, I wanted to play well and I didn't get my chance. I stayed with the team, I sacrificed. I gave examples and then I gave examples of guys who were leaders, how I loved playing with them.”

Gibson wanted to clear up a perception from the meeting he feels wasn’t conveyed properly in the time after: that the players were jumping on Wade for not practicing more.

It may have been Rondo’s shot in his social media post, but Gibson said they wanted Wade to share more of his knowledge and NBA wisdom. If anyone had the right to ask for more investment from a veteran like Wade, only Gibson had the credentials to do so.

“I was pissed off because it was never about practice. The young guys, they just look up to D-Wade. Dudes love D-Wade,” Gibson said. “That wasn't what I meant, it wasn't what anyone else meant. It was about...wanting to learn more from him. More knowledge. D-Wade is great, has been great.”

Gibson talked about playing with Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, leaders he loved to follow because of their passion and example. He talked about competitively hating Wade before becoming his teammate and now loving the fact he gets to call a champion and former rival a friend.

Same with Rondo, a man who calls Gibson’s name after a rebound more times than a mother calling her son to get home when the street lights come on during a hot summer in Fort Greene, New York.

“Like I hated them (before) but I'm ready to run through a wall, do whatever I can to help them. And that I appreciate them,” Gibson said. “I told them, I broke down in that meeting, I gave it up to everybody because I understood life is too short. Everyday, people are leaving the league and never coming back. There's not that many veterans anymore. Days are numbered, it's only a matter of time, you gotta take what you can get out of it. I'm playing with a Hall of Famer in D-Wade, I told him I appreciated him. Straight up.”

In the time since, Gibson said he’s having some of the most fun he’s had in his career — even as uncertainty and controversy swirls around the present and his own future.

“For real. Jimmy's coming in, dapping everybody up,” Gibson said. “D-Wade is in every huddle, giving his word, giving his input. Even when I got my technical in Sacramento, (Wade said) ‘Taj we need you. Be smart'. That's winning basketball.”

The meeting, as tense and emotional and cathartic as it was, Gibson believes it was necessary and helpful for all involved, not just for the present, but for the young players who’ll need to understand how the NBA works.

“Because it brought guys back to reality,” he said. “At times when you're losing games and you got the city on your back, playing in Chicago is like playing in New York or LA. Once people get in your ear and you're losing games and people booing you, you can't look around, you wanna point fingers. In that meeting it was deep. A lot of love.”

It may have been some tough love, but the love was certainly evident from Gibson’s emotions. Gibson said general manager Gar Forman was taken aback by his words and sentiments and even admitted himself, “that (bleep) took a lot out of me. But they respected it because it came from the heart. (I) gotta be the voice of reason. It's hard on my heart because I care about my teammates and I really love the game. Love the game.”

So no matter if and when that call comes in the next week, Gibson will be prepared no matter the circumstances, but until then he seems to be savoring every aspect of this experience in Chicago with the Bulls and his teammates — even if most aspects of this can be painful and draining.