Denver Nuggets

There's more questions than answers with Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen

There's more questions than answers with Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen

When the Bulls’ season ends in a couple weeks, there’s a good chance the biggest question will go unanswered, thus creating an uneasy feeling headed into the summer.

To the fault of no one, it’s possible we’ve seen the last minutes of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn together. Dunn is in a walking boot while LaVine’s knee tendinitis will keep him out for at least another week, and considering the way he’s played or been deployed, there’s not much for him to gain from playing again.

Markkanen could return in the next couple days if his back loosens up, but his greatest value in these final weeks was seeing how he meshed with his two co-stars.

The minutes they’ve played together haven’t provided any clear answers as to a pecking order, or even if there’s any effectiveness.

Yes, Markkanen has been a revelation and has more room to grow than the other two, while Dunn reclaimed his name after being labeled a bust following a disappointing rookie season.

And it’s probably unfair to judge LaVine on anything considering most evidence shows it takes at least 18 months to get back to full health from an ACL surgery. But given the objective of the season, the Bulls will likely walk away with an “incomplete” on their report card—and that’s probably optimistic.

The small sample size has shown moments but those moments have occurred when one was missing from the three. Dunn’s signature stretch was when LaVine had yet to debut, and LaVine’s flashes of control happened when Dunn was out with a concussion.

They’ve only played 12 games together and to the eye, it’s looked disjointed. The mismatch lineups certainly play a part in things looking so scattered, but even a closer look hasn’t shown more than a mixed bag.

According to NBA.com, the 3-man lineup has an offensive rating of 97.5 points per 100 possessions and a defensive rating of 119.2 points per 100 possessions. Even if you’re not into the advanced stats the way some are, it’s hard to ignore the numbers when the eye isn’t giving you much to combat it.

“I don't take too much into it just because of the fact Zach really joined the team full time with not many reps with that group,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Most of his contact practices were with Windy City. I am confident when we get all those guys together, especially this summer headed into training camp, we'll be a lot further ahead of where we were this year.”

Their collective plus-minus is minus-21.8 points and so much of that can be attributed to the trio not creating easy looks for each other. Dunn and Markkanen developed a decent chemistry, especially in December when Nikola Mirotic fueled a surge that saved the Bulls from temporary embarrassment.

“He was playing at such a high level,” Hoiberg said. “You look at his numbers during that stretch when I think we won 10 of 12, and went 15-11 I want to say in that six-week stretch in December and into January, and then unfortunately he had the bad concussion in the fall against Golden State.”

It also probably saved them from a sure-fire top three pick in the draft this summer, as they’ll resort to leaning on lottery luck to obtain a true franchise changer. LaVine was the centerpiece of the trade that delivered the trio to Chicago, and he’s admitted to frustration—which is to be expected given his recovery putting him behind from the start.

“I’ve had some parts where I’ve been frustrated, and I’ve had some parts where I’ve been happy with my play and the team’s play,” LaVine said earlier this week. “But I didn’t have any expectations really coming into it. I was excited to get back on the court and get back out here and playing, stuff like that. It’s been good overall just from the standpoint of me playing, and getting my rhythm back, getting with the team.”

LaVine and Dunn are in a unique situation where it appears both need the ball to be most effective, while also struggling to play without it. Will Dunn develop an outside shot respectable enough to allow LaVine easier driving lanes to the basket? And will LaVine find a way to make himself a threat off the ball to unlock a more deadly Dunn-Markkanen pick-and-roll?

He (Dunn) had a little bit of success, we put the ball in Zach’s hands a lot in that Minnesota game, and put Kris in the left corner where he did hit a couple shots playing off of Zach,” Hoiberg said. “Zach’s a guy that’s going to be a guy that has the ball in his hands quite a bit with the make-up of the team, and Kris has to be a guy that can be a reliable shooter.”

Markkanen will undoubtedly take another step in the offseason, even if he doesn’t play another minute this season. He doesn’t need to, anyways.

The wayward looks on the Bulls faces of their 135-102 drubbing at the hands of the Denver Nuggets said it all. Human nature is kicking in with this bunch, even if some of them have an opportunity to make names for themselves on an individual level.

The collective spirit has taken a few punches but by and large they’ve competed all season and should be commended. Wednesday night could be called an aberration of sorts.

“These guys are getting an unbelievable opportunity right now, to come out and prove they belong in this league, prove they belong in the rotation and prove they belong long-term with the organization,” Hoiberg said. “And we’re just obviously way too inconsistent with it. You can’t take it for granted. You got to go out, you got to fight, you got to scrap, do a lot of the little things. We’re not doing that.”

And even though Hoiberg is right, if everything revolves around Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen, how can the ancillary parts be truly assessed when they’re not out there to play off?

Denzel Valentine’s career night against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers last Saturday would be easier to place into context if he were playing alongside Dunn or LaVine or Markkanen, hitting eight triples by finding the open spots in the defense.

Instead, one could merely write it off as the same type of aberration as a 30-point loss to a Nuggets team desperate to stay in the Western Conference playoff hunt.

“It’s different because personally, I’ve been through a lot of roles: Starting, coming off the bench, back starting without those three guys," Valentine said. "It’s definitely been challenging but at the same time I have to come out and play better. And we can compete a little bit better.”

And even with 11 games remaining, the images produced won’t provide much answers for the true big picture.

NBA Buzz: It's never too early for a mock draft

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: It's never too early for a mock draft

The majority of the NBA universe is speculating about which players will be traded before the Feb. 8 deadline — but we already did that a couple days ago.

So, with the college basketball season past its halfway point, how about an early projection of what the 14 lottery teams might do with their first-round selections?

It's never too early for a mock draft.

1. Sacramento Kings: Marvin Bagley, PF, Duke. The Kings have been whiffing on lottery picks for most of the last decade, but taking Bagley would be a no-brainer. Sacramento is pretty thin up front after the DeMarcus Cousins trade last season, and Bagley looks like a multiple-time All Star with a variety of post moves and shooting range out to the 3-point line.

2. Atlanta Hawks: Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona. The Hawks have completely torn down the roster just a few short years after finishing with the best record in the East. They could use help at every position, but as we saw when the Bulls visited on Jan. 20, the Hawks have absolutely zero rim protection. Enter Ayton, an athletic seven-footer with an NBA-ready frame who should be able to anchor the Atlanta defense for years to come.

3. Orlando Magic: Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma. The Magic are another team in major need of a roster makeover, and after watching Elfrid Payton struggle for four seasons at the most important position in the modern game, isn't it time for an upgrade at the point guard position? Young leads the nation in both scoring and assists with Steph Curry-like shooting range. He would definitely be a big-gate attraction in the Magic Kingdom.

4. Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic, SG/SF, Slovenia. After riding international star Dirk Nowitzki to their only NBA title in 2011, how about bringing in the best player currently competing in Europe? Mark Cuban has never been afraid to take chances with personnel moves, and the highly skilled Doncic could turn out to be the best perimeter player in the draft. At the age of 18, his shooting and passing ability have drawn rave reviews from NBA scouts.

5. Memphis Grizzlies: Michael Porter, SF/PF, Missouri. Porter only played two minutes for the Tigers before leaving his first college game with what turned out to be a season-ending back injury. Still, scouts love his potential to play both forward spots at 6-foot-10, and if Porter decides to apply for the draft, it's hard to see him falling beyond this point.

6. Phoenix Suns: Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama. The Suns used to be drowning in point guards, but after trading Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe in recent years, their starter is now 5-foot-9 Chicago native Tyler Ulis. Sexton has tremendous scoring and ball-handling skills, showing up on the national radar after almost single-handedly beating Minnesota in a Thanksgiving tournament game when Alabama was forced to play with only three players for a good portion of the second half because of injuries and ejections.

7. Boston Celtics: Mohamed Bamba, C, Texas. The Celtics continue to stock up on young talent by virtue of all the great trades made by general manager Danny Ainge in recent years. Boston has just about every position but center covered, and now they get a chance to add a defensive anchor with a 7-foot-9 wingspan. The Celtics are poised for a long run as the beasts of the East.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers: Jaren Jackson Jr., PF, Michigan State. Power forward really isn't the Cavs' biggest position of need, but if LeBron James leaves in free agency, Cleveland could be heading into rebuild mode. Jackson has a soft shooting touch from 3-point range and is quick off his feet as a shot blocker. He could team up with Kevin Love on a new-look Cavs team post-LeBron.

9. Bulls: Mikal Bridges, SG/SF, Villanova. With four starting positions already covered (assuming Robin Lopez remains on the roster), the Bulls would have the luxury to add another shot creator on the wing. Bridges is tall enough to play the small forward spot and has a lightning-quick first step to get to the rim. He also is shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line and 50 percent overall. Adding Bridges to a lineup that features Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn would give the Bulls a young and versatile unit capable of playing with tremendous pace.

10. Charlotte Hornets: Kevin Knox, SF/PF, Kentucky. The Hornets could be ready to push the reset button after watching their veteran-laden team underachieve this season. Charlotte will be looking to trade the big contracts of Nic Batum, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, which means they could be in need of a versatile frontcourt player with high-end scoring potential.

11. Utah Jazz: Wendell Carter, PF, Duke. With Derrick Favors likely to leave in free agency, the Jazz could definitely use a young power forward with Carter's ability to score inside. Carter has played in Bagley's massive shadow at Duke, but he figures to get more touches and shot attempts in an NBA offense. The Jazz have had pretty good luck drafting power forwards in the past with Karl Malone and Paul Millsap.

12. New York Knicks: Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State. Bridges surprised a lot of NBA executives with his decision to return to Michigan State for his sophomore season considering he was a likely lottery pick last year. Bridges has become much more than just a spectacular dunker, adding a more consistent 3-point shot to his offensive arsenal. He could be an excellent fit in New York alongside Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter.

13. Detroit Pistons: Hamidou Diallo, SG, Kentucky. Diallo hasn't really stood out on a young Kentucky team, but his physical tools are off the charts. He's a great finisher at the rim but needs more consistency with his outside shot. The Pistons could be in need of a shooting guard with Avery Bradley heading to free agency.

14. Denver Nuggets: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky. Another talented young athlete who gets kind of lost in a somewhat dysfunctional Kentucky offense. The Nuggets are ready to move on from the Emmanuel Mudiay experiment, though Gilgeous-Alexander offers similar concerns as a raw, underdeveloped prospect.

Around the Association

The big news this week involves the Milwaukee Bucks' decision to fire head coach Jason Kidd, who originally came to Milwaukee because of his longstanding friendship with Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry. Kidd signed a contract extension in 2016 and has a good relationship with All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So why the change? Clearly, Kidd and his staff have not done the best job of developing the talent on the roster. The Bucks made an early season trade with the Suns to acquire point guard Eric Bledsoe, giving them another shot creator to go along with the Greek Freak. They've also loaded up on long athletes over the years, drafting frontcourt players John Henson, Thon Maker and D.J. Wilson, while also adding point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who was the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year. And the Bucks starting lineup features a third proven scorer in swingman Khris Middleton, with Chicago native Jabari Parker expected back next month after completing his second ACL rehab.

With the Bucks scheduled to move into their new downtown arena next season, ownership is clearly not satisfied with a team hovering around .500 and in danger of missing the playoffs. Assistant coach Joe Prunty will take over for now, but the names of David Fizdale and Monty Williams have already surfaced as leading candidates to replace Kidd.

The San Antonio Spurs have long been held in high regard as the NBA's model organization. But now ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright are reporting there's a growing disconnect with star forward Kawhi Leonard over the handling of his rehab from a quad injury. Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season because of the injury, and according to the report, he wasn't always on the same page with how the rehab process was done. Leonard is currently sidelined again because of the same injury, and the Spurs aren't sure when he'll be ready to play again.

Spurs general manager R.C. Buford denies there is any problem between the organization and its star player, but it's definitely a situation to watch considering Leonard can opt out of his current contract following the 2018-19 season. If the Bulls decided not be active in this summer's free-agent market, is there a chance they could make a run at one the NBA's top 10 players with a max offer in 2019?

While the Bucks have been one of the league's most disappointing teams this season, the Washington Wizards aren't far behind. Washington currently holds the fifth seed in the East, but that has more to do with the quality of the conference rather than the Wizards' outstanding play. Washington players recently decided to hold a clear-the-air meeting, but things didn't go exactly as planned.

According to the Washington Post, the meeting actually had a negative impact on team morale. John Wall said, "We had our team meeting. A couple guys took it the negative way, and it hurt our team. Instead of taking it a positive way like we did in the past and using it to build our team up, it kind of set us back a little bit."

Wizards leading scorer Bradley Beal added, "Honestly, it was probably — I won't say pointless, but we didn't accomplish what we needed to accomplish in that meeting. We just need to win ballgames. Like I told the guys, it doesn't matter how many meetings we have. We can have a meeting after every game, but if we're not mentally prepared for each game, we're going to lose again."

And that's exactly what happened. In the next game after the meeting, the Wizards got pounded by the Hornets, 133-109. Clearly, there's a lot of work to do before Washington can be considered a legitimate threat in the East.

Speaking of bad team meetings, how about Wojnarowski reporting the embattled Cavs got together before practice on Monday and actually questioned the legitimacy of Kevin Love's illness after he only played three minutes in a blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder? According to the report, Love had to explain to his teammates why he left the arena before the game was over and then missed practice the following day. The Cavs might eventually get their act together before the playoffs, but it sure doesn't look good now.

Quote of the Week

Former Cavs coach David Blatt felt blindsided when he was fired and replaced by Ty Lue midway through the team's 2015-16 championship season. Blatt eventually went back to Europe to resume his coaching career, and he directed one of the teams in a Turkish BSL All-Star Game on Sunday.

When asked about his goals for the game, Blatt offered this classic that resonated on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean: "I hope we don't give up as many points as the Cavaliers gave up last night."

Very funny line after the Cavs were torched for 148 points in that loss to the Thunder, which matched a franchise record. Problem is, Blatt's All-Star squad gave up 151 in losing their game. You know what they say about karma.

Following Lauri Markkanen's record-breaking night, Damian Lillard needs to get back in the recording studio

Following Lauri Markkanen's record-breaking night, Damian Lillard needs to get back in the recording studio

On "They Sleep," Dame D.O.L.L.A., more commonly known as two-time NBA All-Star Damian Lillard, raps: 

I was taught to play for keeps but never keep it to yourself,
Real recognize real and I only see myself

Pretty cool line for a part-time artist, but one he may need to adjust after Thursday's Bulls-Nuggets game. 

That's because Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen surpassed one of Lillard's records when he drilled his first 3-pointer of the night: 

Maybe he can go with something like: 

I was taught to play for keeps and no one should ever doubt me,
Real recognize real and I only see myself and Lauri

We'll work on that. 

Other then breaking a record and possibly rewriting music, Markkanen busted out of the worst slump of his young career, scoring 20 points to pace the Bulls. He didn't live and die with his outside shot, rather staying aggressive and attacking from the tip. 

Another key piece in the Jimmy Butler blockbuster deal, Kris Dunn, followed up his best game of the season with an efficient 19 points on 9-for-11 shooting. He would've also had the game-winning bucket if it weren't for Will Barton's layup with 3.2 seconds left. 

A loss when your two building blocks play well? That's pretty much a win.