Daniel Gafford’s phone blew up Monday night with congratulatory well wishes following his 21-point performance in his first game of meaningful NBA minutes.
But the Bulls’ rookie acted more like somebody focused on his next opportunity than addicted to social media or electronic devices.
“I put it on ‘Do Not Disturb’ because I was trying to get sleep at the same time,” Gafford said following Tuesday’s practice at Advocate Center. “I was real sore from the game because I’ve been traveling a lot. I wanted to make sure I got the rest I needed for practice today.”
Gafford’s travel has been of the G League variety — bus rides, not five-star accommodations. More performances like his outing against the Bucks, though, and Gafford’s G League assignments may be over.
“What would help me is just try to remain consistent. I did that game, but I’ve got to be ready for the next,” Gafford said. “Enjoy it until midnight and then get ready for the next game the next day.”
The longer Gafford talked, the more his basketball IQ and willingness to learn and be coached came out.
On setting good screens: “Fighting through that fatigue, it was just a mental thing. Just making sure I got contact on the screens because the coaches were telling me they were trying to slip up under my screen because I wasn’t really setting them. So I had to make sure I hit guys when I was coming up to set screens to get bottom hip so I could make sure I was getting guys open because that can help them. But at the same time it can help me as well.
On feedback from coaches: “Mostly it was just on the pick-and-roll with opposing teams. Just making sure I be up at the level to where guards don’t get downhill as much. Just make sure I’m up to where I can help our guards get back from where they’re setting screens. And be better on defensive rebounding.”
On feedback from teammates: “They were just talking about my dunks, really, pretty much. They were patting me on the back, telling me, ‘Good job' and telling me whenever I get my chance again, come out and do the same thing.’”
Ah, yes, those dunks. What did the United Center rims do to Gafford anyway? The six rim-rattling slams he threw down on the night were enough for him to field a question as to his favorite.
“Oh, the one-hand lob that I caught,” Gafford said. “I didn’t think I was going to catch that. I thought it was going to get some of the rim and come out. But it went down for me and I appreciate it for that.”
DANIEL GAFFORD FOR ROOKIE OF THE YEAR pic.twitter.com/lIXJzdnezQ— Bulls Talk (@NBCSBulls) November 19, 2019
Gafford said his wrist “feels good” after all that rim wrecking because he’s “used to it.”
And somewhere, fellow Arkansas product Bobby Portis is smiling. Not only was there a #freeDanielGafford movement on Twitter, a la #freeBobbyPortis from Portis’ rookie season with the Bulls, but Gafford also dropped a third-person reference. Portis used to do that, too.
“Go out there and play Daniel Gafford basketball,” Gafford said, when asked for his mindset.
Coach Jim Boylen said Gafford plays “with a pure heart.” With 20-20 machine Andre Drummond in town with the Pistons Wednesday, expect Gafford to get more rotational minutes.
And as for that “Do Not Disturb” sign on his phone, it worked.
“I slept good,” Gafford said.
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The Bears are not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but at 4-6 in a loaded NFC, they effectively are. Both 538 and Football Outsiders give the Bears about a 1 percent chance of playing into January.
So what’s left to play for over the final six games of a cripplingly disappointing season?
“At the end of the day you gotta think of it, guys are playing for their jobs,” tight end Trey Burton explained a few weeks ago, before he was put on injured reserve. “The minute you take a play off is the minute they’re going to put somebody in to fill your spot.
“And then also, I know from experience when you’re a younger guy and maybe you’re undrafted and maybe you’re on the practice squad, you’re itching to play. You want to play as much as you can. And so the coaches are watching that too and might give him a shot.”
The Bears do have a rather large core of players that will return in 2020 based on their contracts. Khalil Mack, Cody Whitehair, Bobby Massie and Buster Skrine all have dead cap numbers larger than their 2020 cap hits (meaning: They’re not going anywhere). Roquan Smith is not in danger of losing his job, nor is Eddie Jackson. Guys like Charles Leno Jr., Eddie Goldman and Kyle Fuller will be back in their current roles, too, based on their contract statuses.
But that does leave a fairly large chunk of the roster needing to stay motivated over the home stretch of 2019 to either keep their jobs, or grow their roles in 2020. Consider this a roadmap to watching the Bears the rest of the season, unless you still believe in the 1 percent chance this team can run the table and make the playoffs.
Mitch Trubisky is an obvious choice here, which we covered on Monday. So we’ll highlight seven other players here whose final six games will have a significant impact on the Bears’ plans this offseason:
WR Allen Robinson
The Bears could save $13 million against 2020’s cap if they were to cut Robinson before the third and final year of his contract, but he’s been the team’s best receiver and is a guy they love having around Halas Hall. More likely at stake for Robinson is a contract extension, which could lower his 2020 cap number — giving the Bears some flexibility — while keeping the 26-year-old in Chicago for the long term.
While Robinson had a rough night against the Los Angeles Rams last week — he was blanketed by ex-Jaguars teammates Jalen Ramsey and dropped a pass — he’s been one of the only players on the 2019 Bears to play better than he did in 2018. A strong finish to the season would only help him land a deservedly-large payday sometime next year.
The Bears, too, could save $4.5 million in cap space by releasing Taylor Gabriel, but doing so would remove the only legitimate downfield threat from the Bears’ roster. Over eight games, Gabriel is averaging more yards per reception than he did last year (11.9 to 10.3) and already has doubled his touchdown total from 2018.
But things always change when expectations are not met. Which brings us to…
WR Anthony Miller
Miller has not improved on a solid rookie season, and has gone through stretches where he’s been invisible in the Bears’ offense this year. Whether that’s his fault, the fault of the quarterback or a combination of the two is difficult to tell without knowing the exact details of Trubisky’s progressions or Miller’s routes. But guys with 23 catches, no touchdowns and less than 300 yards 10 games into a season don’t usually have much job security.
Miller will be on the team in 2020, the third year of his rookie contract. But without a strong finish to the season — which means not only production, but avoiding drops and poorly-run routes — he’ll be in danger of losing the starting gig he’s had in the Bears’ 11 personnel-heavy offense the last two years. That could mean increased competition from 2019 fourth-round pick Riley Ridley, or with the Bears bringing in a receiver via free agency or the draft to battle him for snaps and targets.
OL James Daniels
One of the more glaring disappointments for the 2019 Bears was the ineffectiveness of moving Daniels to center, the position at which he excelled in college. Daniels struggled with getting the Bears’ offense in the right protections — something Trubisky struggled with, too — leading to him being flipped back to left guard and Cody Whitehair taking over at center again.
The Bears’ offensive line, ideally, would have Daniels at center and Whitehair at guard. The Bears flipped those two before Week 10 in an effort to save their lagging season, and if they’re hoping to get the best evaluation possible of Trubisky over the final six games of the season, will not switch them back (it hasn't resulted in any running game improvements).
But what if the Bears determine Trubisky’s injury is enough to sit him for a few games, or the rest of the season? Chase Daniel can make protections at the line, and putting Daniels back at center would help give the Bears a better evaluation of where their offensive line needs to improve in 2020. Because that group has to be better, and just getting an upgrade at right guard may not be enough to fix what’s ailed Harry Hiestand’s group.
This is all to say that, even though Daniels is a talented former second-round pick, his cheap contract could make him a target for competition in 2020.
OLB Leonard Floyd
Floyd’s $13.2 million fifth-year option is guaranteed for injury only, and that’s a lot of money for someone with only three sacks so far in 2019. Floyd, of course, does a lot of other things the Bears like — he’s good against the run, he can drop into coverage, etc. — but while Khalil Mack has been consistently double- and triple-teamed, Floyd has not won his one-on-one pass rushing matchups, allowing teams to continue to over-commit to blocking Mack without any negative repercussions.
Floyd has been the league’s second least-productive pass rusher among edge rushers with at least 200 pass rushing snaps this year, per Pro Football Focus. He has not developed his athletic and physical tools into being the kind of do-it-all defensive force the Bears thought he’d be when they drafted him in 2016, and while it’s not easy — or cheap — to find edge rushers, Floyd may be running out of time to convince the Bears he’s worthy of that salary in 2020.
CB Prince Amukamara
Amukamara is in the same realm as Robinson and Gabriel, in that he’s been an effective player but doesn’t have much dead money left on the contract he signed before the 2018 season. Cutting him would save $9 million in cap space, though his ability to play physical press coverage without getting penalized much (he’s only had one flag thrown against him since Week 3) is not easy to replace. He’s only allowed one touchdown this year, per Pro Football Focus.
Also, only six players with at least 250 coverage snaps have been targeted less than Amukamara, a nod to how well he’s played in coverage.
Still, Amukamara does not have an interception this year, and had a multi-year drought before a pick-six in Week 2 of the 2018 season. Perhaps the Bears look to sign him to an extension to lower his 2020 cap number and give him a little more security in the future. But $9 million is a lot of cap space for a team needing changes that’ll be up against it this offseason, so a strong finish to 2019 would go a long way toward Amukamara staying in Chicago in 2020 and perhaps beyond.
S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
One of the few impending free agents on this roster, Clinton-Dix signed a cheap one-year prove-it deal with the Bears in March and has largely made good on his end of the “prove it” part. He only has four missed tackles this year — never more than one in a game, per PFF — and has a pick-six on his resume. Quarterbacks have a 43.8 passer rating when throwing Clinton-Dix’s way, seventh-lowest among safeties with at least 200 snaps in coverage.
Clinton-Dix has set himself up for a multi-year contract this offseason, especially given how shallow the safety market looks to be in comparison to 2019’s. He just needs to continue playing at a good level over the final six games to earn that contract, even if it’d be a surprise if it were with the Bears.
PK Eddy Pineiro
Pineiro’s job may already be on the line after he missed two kicks against the Los Angeles Rams and seemed to lose the trust of coach Matt Nagy in the first quarter of the Bears’ 17-7 loss on Sunday. While Nagy said the Bears won’t bring in competition for Pineiro, the Bears need to be thinking about who their kicker will be in 2020.
The Bears may see Pineiro’s rookie year — in which he’s made 70.6 percent of his field goal attempts and missed one PAT — and see the value of patience, as the franchise did 13 years ago when Robbie Gould made 77 percent of his kicks (and only three of eight from 40 or more yards) as a rookie. Or they may look at what he’s done and determine he’s not someone Nagy can trust in 2020, setting off a fresh cycle of kicker questions in Chicago.
Every miss will bring questions about Pineiro’s future in Chicago from here on out, but every made kick will help bolster his case for at least sticking around for a competition in 2020. Few players may have more on the line in the immediate future than Pineiro.