NBA Buzz: Bulls could be in the middle of an Eastern Conference shake-up

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NBA Buzz: Bulls could be in the middle of an Eastern Conference shake-up

With the Eastern Conference semifinal series looking like toss ups after the opening games, there's a lot more at stake for the Bucks, Raptors, 76ers and Celtics than just a spot in the conference finals.

All four teams, along with the No. 5 seed in the East, the Indiana Pacers, have a number of key players headed to free agency in July, and those decisions could significantly alter the balance of power in the conference.

Let's start with the top seeded Bucks, who will have three starters (Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon) hitting the open market (Brogdon is restricted), along with former Bulls' forward Niko Mirotic and potentially backup point guard George Hill, who has a non-guaranteed $18 million dollar contract for next season. Middleton will have a number of teams bidding for his services after an All-Star season, while Lopez also should have plenty of suitors with his new-found 3-point marksmanship. And, don't be surprised if some team makes an aggressive contract offer to Brogdon to force the Bucks into a tough decision on whether to drive up their luxury tax bill to keep the former Rookie of the Year.

Toronto has been very careful in monitoring Kawhi Leonard's workload this season, hoping to convince the free agent-to-be that the best choice for his future is north of the U.S.-Canada border. Most NBA analysts have the Clippers as the top team on Leonard's wish list, but that might change if the Raptors are able to get to the NBA Finals. Leonard has said next to nothing about his upcoming free agency, so he’s the ultimate wild card when the clock strikes midnight on June 30th. Danny Green and Jeremy Lin are also unrestricted free agents, while Marc Gasol has a $25.6 million dollar player option he's likely to exercise for next season.

Philadelphia will have starters Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick heading into free agency along with reserves T.J. McConnell and Boban Marjanovic. No one knows what Butler will do, with the assumption that 76ers general manager Elton Brand will prioritize signing the younger Harris this summer, even though Butler is the better overall player.

The former Bulls' All-Star could be a target for both New York and both Los Angeles teams, while the sharp-shooting Redick could be priced out of Philadelphia if Butler and Harris return. Remember, the Bulls signed Redick to a free agent offer sheet years ago, so he could be on John Paxson and Gar Forman's wish list, depending on what they do in the draft.

Celtics' stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford both hold player options for next season. Irving will definitely shop his services, with both the Knicks and Nets rumored to be on his list of possible destinations. Horford is due $30 million dollars for next season, but could opt out to negotiate a long-term deal with the Celtics. Would Horford consider leaving Boston if Irving bolts? And, keep an eye on restricted free agent Terry Rozier, another player the Bulls are high on. Boston has two other upcoming free agents in veterans Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes.

Indiana could have a dramatically different look next season with starters Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Darren Collison and Wesley Matthews all unrestricted free agents, along with top reserves Tyreke Evans and Cory Joseph. The Pacers have a ton of cap space, but Indianapolis has never been a big draw for free agents and no one is sure when star guard Victor Oladipo will be ready to play next season after suffering a serious leg injury in January.

So, with the top teams in the East facing significant losses this summer, which teams are poised to make a jump in the standings? We've all heard the rumors of Irving and Kevin Durant possibly joining forces with the Knicks. And what if that long-suffering franchise also cashes in on a 14 percent chance for the No. 1 overall draft pick and brings Zion Williamson to Manhattan as well? All of a sudden, they go from the worst team in the NBA to a possible top 5 seed.

Brooklyn is also hoping to use its massive cap space to attract an elite free agent after making a surprising run to the playoffs this past season, and they'll be trying to recruit the Durant-Irving combo as well. But the Nets will have to devote some of their spending power to re-signing All-Star guard D'Angelo Russell, who is a restricted free agent.

Orlando will continue to develop its young frontcourt of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, but could lose All-Star center Nikola Vucevic in free agency. The Magic will be in the market for an upgrade at point guard after getting by this season with Bulls' cast-offs D.J. Augustin, Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams.

Detroit sputtered to the No. 8 seed this past season, but they're locked in to a middling roster featuring bloated salaries for Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, while Washington is starting over after trading Otto Porter Jr. to the Bulls and likely having to play next season without star guard John Wall, who's rehabbing from Achilles tendon surgery.

Charlotte could lose All-Star guard Kemba Walker in free agency, which would send that franchise into rebuild mode. Meanwhile, the arrow is pointing up in Atlanta, where the Hawks could add two top 10 draft picks to their young nucleus of Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and Taurean Prince.

Where does all of this leave the Bulls?

Well, a lot depends on what happens in the draft lottery on May 14th. If the Bulls are able to land Williamson or dynamic point guard Ja Morant, their prospects for a double digit win bump look a lot brighter. Getting one of the top two players in the draft will also shorten their shopping list with the approximately $20 million dollars of cap space available. Maybe a player like Redick or Ricky Rubio would give the Bulls serious consideration with a potential star like Williamson on board.

If the Bulls draft Morant, they could possibly use their cap space for frontcourt depth and another 3-point shooter to strengthen their bench unit.

As always, staying healthy will be the key to the Bulls contending for a playoff spot next season. October injuries to Lauri Markkanen, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis and Kris Dunn pretty much ended their chances for an improved finish in 2018-19, and we really won't know what one of the NBA's youngest teams is capable of until all the players are healthy and productive.

Still, with the potential exodus of star power from the East's best teams, the conference standings could be in for quite a shake-up next season.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

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Over in the Western Conference, the Clippers are poised to make a significant roster upgrade after surprising most NBA analysts by grabbing the final playoff spot, even after trading their best player, Tobias Harris, to Philadelphia.

The Clippers have the potential to offer two maximum contracts to the elite free agent class, and they obviously have a lot to sell with an overachieving young team, a popular coach in Doc Rivers, a passionate owner in Steve Ballmer and one of the best executives in league history in Jerry West.

As I mentioned earlier, the Clippers are considered the favorite to sign Kawhi Leonard if he leaves Toronto, and they could also make a run at Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and Kemba Walker. Rivers did an excellent job nurturing young guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet and Jerome Robinson, while getting the most out of veterans Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley. The Clippers won’t be able to keep everyone if they go all-in on free agency, but their future looks brighter than the cross-town Lakers.

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The Phoenix Suns were the first team this offseason to fill their head coaching vacancy, reportedly hiring Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach Monty Williams to a five-year deal.

Williams interviewed twice with the Lakers but instead opted for a chance to coach rising star Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, last year's No. 1 overall pick. That could open the door for the Lakers to hire LeBron James’ head coach in Cleveland, Ty Lue.

The Lakers have also interviewed Jason Kidd and Chicago native Juwan Howard, but at the moment it looks likke it's Lue's job to lose. Along with the Lakers, the Cavaliers and Grizzlies both have head coach openings.

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The upcoming NBA draft lottery is probably the most anticipated since 2003 when James was preparing to enter the league straight out of high school. Williamson has all the qualities teams are looking for in a franchise player, and whichever team is lucky enough to get him will suddenly see a huge jump in ticket sales, marketing dollars and most likely, wins next season.

The other reason this year’s lottery takes on so much importance is the huge drop-off after the top two players, Williamson and Murray St. point guard Ja Morant. Teams picking 3rd, 4th and 5th this year will wind up with players nowhere near the caliber of the 2018 selections in those spots, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young. Matter of fact, one NBA scout told Bleacher Report’s Sean Highkin that the players chosen after Williamson and Morant would have had a tough time cracking last year’s top 14 lottery picks.

The lack of elite players in this year’s draft could lead to some unexpected picks in the top 10 with teams potentially considering high upside choices like Oregon big man Bol Bol, USC wing Kevin Porter Jr. and Guinean-born, French forward Sekou Doumboya over the more well known collegians like Cam Reddish, Jarrett Culver, De’Andre Hunter, Romeo Langford and Rui Hachimura.

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NBA Buzz: Former Bulls will be a big part of 2019 free agency madness

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NBA Buzz: Former Bulls will be a big part of 2019 free agency madness

With over half of the league’s players heading into free agency come July 1, it’s not surprising to hear a number of ex-Bulls will be waiting to see what they’re worth on the open market.

Let’s start with the biggest name, four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler, who will be looking for a max contract, preferably a five-year offer from his current team, the Philadelphia 76ers.

Problem is, Butler will turn 30 before the 2019-20 season begins with a lot of mileage on his body playing for Tom Thibodeau in both Chicago and Minnesota. Watching him play for the 76ers lately, it appears Butler is now the fourth option in the offense behind Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and newly-acquired Tobias Harris.

Butler is averaging 13.7 field goal attempts with Philadelphia, the lowest total since his third season with the Bulls in 2013-14. He often goes for long stretches without being a primary option in half-court sets. Will Butler be happy to continue taking a back seat to three other players in Philly for the rest of his career? That will be one of the interesting story lines around the league this summer.

Sixers’ general manager Elton Brand, the former Bulls’ Rookie of the Year, told reporters after completing the Harris trade with the Clippers that he hopes to sign both Harris and Butler to long-term contracts this summer. But Harris is younger (26) and is enjoying his best season, while committing five years to Butler would take him through his age 34 season.

Ultimately, how the 76ers fare in the upcoming playoffs could play a big part in helping Brand decide whether to offer max contracts to both Butler and Harris. Don’t forget Simmons is also eligible to an extension of his rookie deal. It’s very possible the 76ers will have to make a hard choice on which free agent they want to invest in.

We know Butler spends a lot of time in California during the offseason, and both the Lakers and Clippers have cap space to offer max deals, as do the two New York teams, the Knicks and Nets. Is Jimmy still interested in partnering with Kyrie Irving? Would he be willing to be LeBron’s co-star with the Lakers? Safe to say Butler will be a big part of the free agency intrigue come July 1.

So will his former backcourt mate with the Bulls, Derrick Rose. After rejuvenating his career with a tremendous season as a sixth man for the Timberwolves, Rose hits the open market again after playing on veteran’s minimum contracts the last two seasons.

What is Rose worth on the open market after averaging 18 points and 4.5 assists in his age 30 season? Given the fact Eric Bledsoe just signed a four-year, $70 million extension in Milwaukee, you would have to think Rose will be looking for at least a $10 million average on a multi-year deal. He could stay with the Timberwolves, but after outplaying starter Jeff Teague all season, it’s hard to imagine Rose would be comfortable taking another smaller contract with Teague staring at a $19 million player option.

The Bulls are in the market for a veteran point guard to either compete with Kris Dunn or mentor a young draft pick like Ja Morant or Darius Garland, and the door appears to be open to a Rose return on both sides. But given Rose’s injury history and drama-filled first run with the Bulls, the front office might decide to go a safer route in looking for a veteran point guard.

Rose could seek a bigger contract with a team in need of a starting point guard like the Magic or Suns, or he could try to find a back-up role with a legitimate championship contender. Still, don’t be surprised if you hear reports of Rose being interested in coming back to the Bulls this summer.

Former Bulls big men Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Niko Mirotic and Pau Gasol all hit free agency this summer. Gasol is near the end of the line at age 38, and will probably stay in Milwaukee if the Bucks are interested in keeping him around next season.

Similar story for Noah, who has played well in a reserve role for Memphis. Noah just turned 34 and worked hard during the offseason to get his body ready to compete again. The former NBA Defensive Player of the Year is beloved in Chicago, and if the Bulls decide they can’t afford to bring back Robin Lopez, it’s possible they could ask Noah if he’s interested in a mentor role with one of the league’s youngest teams.

Actually, Taj Gibson might be a better option as a veteran backup big. Gibson is quietly having another solid season in Minneapolis, averaging 10.7 points and 6.6 rebounds while shooting .567 from the field. Gibson’s lack of 3-point range will probably limit the interest he receives on the open market since he turns 34 in June, but the Bulls need a backup for Lauri Markkanen and bringing Taj back on a team-friendly two-year deal can’t be counted out.

Mirotic will also be a free agent, but I don’t think the Bulls will show any serious interest. Mirotic has been saddled with a backup role everywhere he’s been, and he’ll be looking for more minutes and a long-term contract at around $15 million per season. The Bulls weren’t going to pay Bobby Portis that kind of money to be a backup, and they won’t offer that to Mirotic either. Still, as the prototypical “stretch four” that teams covet, Niko should find plenty of interest this summer.

Veteran swingman Justin Holiday will also be an unrestricted free agent this summer, but he could be looking at a contract similar to the $4.4 million he made this season after struggling with his shooting after the trade to Memphis in January. The Bulls are set at the small forward spot, so don’t look for a third tour of duty in Chicago for Holiday.

Around the Association

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers have decided to put contract talks with Carmelo Anthony on hold while they wait to see if they’re still viable playoff contenders in the West. The Lakers stumbled out of the All-Star break with bad losses to the Pelicans, Grizzlies and Suns and it’s looking more and more like LeBron James will miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2004-05 season.

All kinds of speculation on who will replace Luke Walton on the bench as soon as the season ends, but you can be sure James and his agent Rich Paul will have a big say in what changes are made this summer. The Lakers will try to re-engage the Pelicans on a possible Anthony Davis trade, and they do have cap space to add an elite free agent, but recruiting players to join one of the league’s glamour franchises hasn’t been easy for most of the last decade.

Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka will have their work cut out for them convincing free agents the Lakers can be title contenders, even with King James on the roster.

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Yahoo Sports is reporting the Golden State Warriors plan to sign veteran free agent center Andrew Bogut, now that he’s finished his season in Australia. The Warriors had been waiting to see what developed with Bulls’ big man Robin Lopez, but neither Lopez nor the Bulls were interested in pursuing a buyout.

Lopez is hoping to stay in Chicago after this season, but as mentioned earlier, the fact that seldom used backup Cristiano Felicio makes $8 million per season will probably end any chance the Bulls have at negotiating a team-friendly contract with RoLo. It’s hard to project the Bulls paying Lopez somewhere around $10 million to play 15-18 minutes a night behind Wendell Carter Jr.

As for Bogut, he was a part of the Warriors’ 2015 championship team and is popular with the coaching staff and some of the key players. He won’t be asked to play significant minutes for Golden State with DeMarcus Cousins, Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell already on the roster. Basically, it’s just a low risk insurance policy as the Warriors get ready to compete for a third straight NBA title, and their fourth in the last five seasons.

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Fred Hoiberg's firing was a long time coming, and inevitable after Jimmy Butler relationship deteriorated

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Fred Hoiberg's firing was a long time coming, and inevitable after Jimmy Butler relationship deteriorated

On Saturday night the Bulls got back Lauri Markkanen after a nine-week absence from a sprained right elbow. Markkanen, 21, will be the key piece as the Bulls move forward in their rebuild, a 7-foot do-it-all forward who is built for today’s NBA.

Markkanen will be the one to lead the Bulls into the next chapter of their rebuild, and if the Bulls contend in the next few years it will be because of what Markkanen, the face of the franchise, was able to accomplish.

Fred Hoiberg won’t be a part of that future. The former Iowa State coach, who found myriad success coaching up and producing young talent at the collegiate level, won’t be the one to bring the Bulls into their newest era, whenever that may be.

The Bulls relieved Hoiberg of his coaching duties on Monday morning. There are multiple reasons to point to as to why Hoiberg was let go, but buried beneath it all is the fact that this day was eventually coming as soon as his relationship with Jimmy Butler began to deteriorate.

When Hoiberg was hired on June 2, 2015, Butler had just completed his first All-Star campaign. A month earlier he had been named the league’s Most Improved Player, and a month after the Bulls announced Hoiberg as their head coach Butler signed a five-year, $95 million extension.

It appeared to be a match made in heaven. Gar Forman and John Paxson had found a hidden gem in Butler, the 30th pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, and subsequently got their head coach in Hoiberg to lead the team into the future.

The happy marriage lasted all of 25 games. Butler, in the wake of a 16-point loss to the New York Knicks, told reporters that players “probably have to be coached harder” by Hoiberg. At that point the Bulls were 15-10, but the season never fully recovered from there. Butler continued his All-Star play, while also struggling to share that leadership role with Joakim Noah and share the backcourt spotlight with the hometown hero Derrick Rose.

The Bulls missed the postseason that year, going 7-7 down the stretch that included two losses to the would-be 32-50 Knicks, and a 22-point loss to the eventual 35-win Orlando Magic.

In reality the Bulls’ rebuild began that offseason. So, too, did the countdown to Hoiberg's dismissal. It was masked in the head-scratching signings of Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, stopgaps that the Bulls believed would help them remain competitive while also keeping their options open long-term; both contracts were two-year pacts.

This, of course, did Hoiberg no favors. The collegiate head coach who had earned his billing as one of top X’s and O’s guys in the game thanks to his pace and space offense, was suddenly looking at a backcourt of Butler, Wade and Rondo, three guys who needed the ball in their hands to be successful and between the three of them hadn’t once been truly effective 3-point shooters.

The results were hardly unexpected. The Bulls finished 21st in offensive efficiency, 28th in 3-pointers and 29th in 3-point attempts. Hoiberg’s sparkling offense on paper was relegated to Butler and Wade isolations, the bench contributed next to nothing – remember Tony Snell for Michael Carter-Williams? – and they never found consistency in the rotation.

Two events during that 2016-17 season should have spelled doom for Hoiberg. The first came on January 26 after the Bulls let a 10-point lead slip away at home to the Atlanta Hawks. Wade and Butler both lashed out at teammates after the game, with Wade telling reporters “I don’t know if they care enough,” and Butler adding that “we don’t play hard all the time” and “I want to play with guys that care.”

That night Rondo posted an Instagram picture of him with Celtics teammates Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, writing that “my veterans would never go to the media” and that “if anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.”

At that point it was become clear that Hoiberg had lost the locker room. The Three Alphas experiment had gone completely haywire, and it was a minor miracle the team was able to respond from that self-inflicted adversity and win three of its next five games, eventually squeaking into the postseason before losing in six games to top-seeded Boston.

The truth was results didn’t matter by that point. It was becoming more and more clear as that season wore on that Butler wasn’t going to be – and almost couldn’t be – part of the team’s future. The wheels were in motion to eventually deal Butler, who that offseason would still be a hot commodity with two team-friendly years left on his deal.

Let’s not forget, too, that the Bulls dealt Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott before the trade deadline for Cameron Payne and expiring parts in Joffrey Louvergne and Anthony Morrow. If a .500 team in a weak East selling its biggest veteran presence (Gibson) and best 3-point shooter (McDermott) at the deadline wasn't a clear sign of things to come, what was?

So Hoiberg and the Bulls entered a rebuild. It was propped up as the franchise defining a direction, and on the surface the acquisitions of Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen – and subtractions of Wade (bought out), Rondo (team option not picked up) and Butler – it looked like the Bulls were playing to Hoiberg’s strengths, getting him the pieces he needed to succeed. Hoiberg admitted as much at the introductory press conference for the three pieces of the Butler deal, saying “it’s an exciting time for me to be able to grow with these guys.”

Once again, perception was reality. The moment Hoiberg failed to connect with Butler the clock began ticking. What was branded as a learning year – it was a full-scale tank – where wins and losses weren’t going to be the barometer was really a waiting game. Roster turnover is part of a rebuild, and so too is coaching staff turnover.

To Hoiberg’s credit, he performed better with a roster full of players more suited to his skill set. The Bulls cracked the top-10 in 3-pointers made per game, assists per game and pace. The efficiency wasn’t there, though that’ll happen when Cam Payne and Cristiano Felicio are both playing 24 minutes each night.

As if Hoiberg’s fate hadn’t already been sealed, the Bulls’ ridiculous string of injuries early this season was the final nail in the coffin. Losing your starting point guard, power forward and sixth man before Thanksgiving would be tough on any team in the NBA, let alone the youngest team in the league.

Hoiberg was once thought to be the one to usher in a new era of Bulls basketball. He inherited a playoff team with leadership, talent and some up-and-coming young talent.

But once the Butler drama began – and perhaps there was no way he could have stopped that – and it was clear the Bulls were going in a different direction, it marked the beginning of the end. The Bulls were on a crash course for a full-scale rebuild, and after three-plus seasons of 115-155 basketball that same voice couldn't continue to lead that next charge.

Now they’ll turn to Jim Boylen, a highly respected man inside the Advocate Center who had done much of the heavy lifting the past three seasons on the coaching staff.

He’ll be asked to get the most out of this young group, a beginning point to his NBA head coaching career that perhaps would have allowed Hoiberg to find more success had he started there.