Fred Hoiberg

Why the Bulls should draft Luka Dončić if they win the Lottery

Why the Bulls should draft Luka Dončić if they win the Lottery

Leading up to the NBA Draft on June 21 we'll be making 10 different arguments for the Bulls to select a certain player. We began the series with Arizona center Deandre Ayton, and now move on to the top foreign prospect in the class.

The NBA is changing at a rapid pace. Welcome back from the rock you’ve been living under the last 5 years, we’re glad to have you. We could reel off dozens of those changes, but let’s focus on passing and pace.

This past NBA season 23 teams averaged 22 or more assists per game. As recent as 2014 that number was 12 teams. Go back a decade to 2004 and that number drops to eight. Assist numbers are on the rise; the league average per team was 23.2 assists per game, the highest it had been since 1995 (23.5), and that number has increased each of the last five seasons.

Teams are making more shots but they’re doing it at a quicker rate, too: the league average pace has increased each of the last eight seasons, and the average team last season played at 97.3 possessions, the league’s fastest mark since 1991 (97.8). NBA.com’s statistics only go back to 2015-16, but consider last year 14 teams averaged 18 or more transition points per game; just two years ago that number was six.

And this passing isn’t strictly a point guard trend. Last season an NBA-record 54 players handed out 4.0 assists or more, and an NBA-record 86 players handed out 3.0 assists or more since the expansion to 30 teams. Are you getting the picture? Ball handlers and passers are as important as they’ve been in a long, long time, especially if they can push successfully in transition.

Luckily for the Bulls, should they defy the Lottery odds and select first, there’s a 19-year-old dominating in Spain who fits the bill exactly.

Luka Dončić has been in the basketball spotlight since 2012, when the 13-year-old (not a typo) signed a five-year deal with Real Madrid. Less than 3 years later he became the youngest player to debut for the club, the same year his current fellow draftees were ending their sophomore years of high school.

Fast forward a year to 2017 and Dončić was already making history. He was unanimously named the EuroLeague Rising Star, given to the league’s best player under 22; Dončić was 18. He was the youngest player in league history to win MVP of the Round honors (essentially Player of the Week), and he did it four different times. He won the award four more times this season, and he’s certainly in contention for EuroLeague MVP honors, which is unheard of for a teenager.

His most impressive run may have been the summer before this season, at EuroBasket 2017, when he and Heat point guard Goran Dragic led Slovenia to an unlikely gold medal. In the process Dončić scored 27 points against Kristaps Porzingis and Latvia in the quarterfinals and nearly triple-doubled (11 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists) in a semifinals win over the Gasol twins and Spain. Dončić, all of 18 years old, averaged 14.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists; he finished 13th in the tournament in efficiency (18.7), a tick below a Finnish power forward named Lauri Markkanen (18.8) – Markkanen dropped 24 against the eventual champion Slovenians.

Back to what he’s done this year, his PIR – the EuroLeague’s measure of efficiency – is 21.73, nearly two points higher than No. 2, the league’s leading scorer Alexey Shved. He’s averaging 16.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists in just 26 minutes per game. The 6-foot-8 guard has natural passing abilities and uses his still-growing frame to get inside and finish at the rim, converting more than 58 percent of his two-pointers this season. His 3-point numbers dipped, but his true shooting percentage (FG/3FG/FT) improved from .588 last season to .603 this season. He’s become a true scoring threat, allowed to flourish in part because teammate Sergio Llull missed essentially the entire year recovering from a torn ACL. His field-goal attempts more than doubled and he also increased his assist numbers.

He’s not super-quick or agile, and while his 3-point shot looks good it hasn’t yielded spectacular results. There are certainly question marks about how he’ll defend at the next level, and Real Madrid was more efficient defensively without him on the floor. His jumper can and will improve at the next level, and like all rookies he's still growing into his body. The defense could be considered a concern, but placed in the right system he could flourish – his IQ will serve him well where his athleticism can’t on that end.

It can be difficult to project how a prospect will acclimate to the NBA. Some guys simply can’t make the transition, for one reason or another, after illustrious careers at the preps and collegiate levels. That won’t be the case with Dončić, who has already dominated the second best league in the world, and he’s doing so at 19 years old. He won’t turn 20 until after next year’s NBA All-Star Break. He’s playing every night against 20-somethings, and he’s been doing it for three years. He’ll need to learn a new playbook like all rookies, but the acclimation process will be as smooth as any prospect’s in quite some time.

The Bulls need playmakers. Desperately. It’s as simple as that. Kris Dunn averaged 7.3 assists per 36 minutes and 12.3 drives per game, the latter of which ranked 15th in the NBA (and more than Jimmy Butler). He distributed, and his lack of finishing at the rim aside, proved to be a fine facilitator of the offense. As far as playmaking goes, Dunn is a valuable one. That’s about it.

Zach LaVine averaged 26.4 passes and 14.8 shots per game. Not ideal. Cameron Payne may prove to be more valuable than once thought of, and Denzel Valentine was an underrated asset both in transition, attacking the basket and passing with the second unit. But we’re discussing a rare talent of passing acumen, variety scoring and maturity. The ball doesn’t stick when the Slovenian is on the floor, and he automatically improves a Bulls offense that ranked 17th in transition points (16.7) and 28th in efficiency. Take the most dynamic offensive player in the class, insert him into the lineup and watch Lauri Markkanen find more open looks. Watch LaVine find more transition success (he shot 45 percent, 10th on the team). Watch the rest of the offense open up with fluidity, led by Dončić's ability to known when to distribute and when to attack.

And don’t worry about the Bulls already having a point guard. Dunn and Dončić can co-exist. The more ball handlers, the better. Ideally Fred Hoiberg would want more 3-point shooting in his backcourt, but the Bulls also aren’t prepping for the Eastern Conference Finals this offseason. Find the best player, add him to your team. And in a league where passing, pace and playmaking (alliteration!) are reigning supreme, it’s impossible to pass up a talent – and a more-or-less sure thing – like Luka Dončić.

The main takeaways from John Paxson’s news conference

The main takeaways from John Paxson’s news conference

He hated the tanking but deemed it necessary: The last six weeks of this season was a desperate, ugly slog meant to mitigate the exhilarating 14-7 stretch that revitalized the season.

However, that stretch came at a cost as the Bulls had to stay focused on their long-term objectives; getting the best pick possible in this coming June’s draft, evaluating young players and keeping costs down for the future.

It didn’t mean, though, that the finish was something easy for Bulls Executive-Vice President Paxson to stomach, even if it was for the greater good.

“We did this year what we felt was in the longterm best interests of the Bulls,” Paxson said. “It’s not a situation that any of us want to ever be in again; it goes against everything as a competitive person that you believe in; but it’s the way the system is set up.”

The Bulls are tied for seventh-worst odds with the Sacramento Kings, and the coin flip to determine who gets the upper hand in the lottery will be tomorrow. The system is undergoing minor changes next season, and perhaps full-fledged lottery reform is on the way.

But if it isn’t, one has to wonder if the Bulls will be in a similar position 12 months from now. Paxson doesn’t envision he’ll be addressing this issue, though.

“We feel we went about it the right way; our intentions were to see what we had and develop our young guys,” Paxson said. “But we didn’t ever want to ever be in this position again and honestly I don’t think we will and I think next year if we stay healthy.”

The Zach LaVine situation will be tricky: By the time LaVine heads into restricted free agency this summer, he’ll be 17 months removed from ACL surgery and not a strong sample size since to make teams throw max money at him.

Then again, it only takes one team among the usual suspects with cap space: Sacramento, Dallas, Atlanta and Philadelphia, among others. The Bulls haven’t traditionally thrown money at their restricted free agents so it’s not hard to see a standoff on the horizon.

He’ll want a max contract; The Bulls’ first offer will certainly not be that. But it’s hard to see the Bulls taking a pass on matching a market-based deal, even before it gets to the offer-sheet stage.

“Well, the market dictates a lot and how things go,” Paxson said. “I think the market has tightened up a little bit the last couple years since the (salary cap) spike. But we obviously value Zach a lot, and we think he’s a part of our future, but he has the opportunity to explore things.”

Speaking of LaVine: Paxson reiterated several times he’s seen how recoveries from ACL injuries go, given the organization’s experience with Derrick Rose and his initial ACL tear in 2012.

So while they understood LaVine’s performance wasn’t going to be indicative of what he can truly develop into, Paxson is expecting more from the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade that jump-started all of this.

“We need---and I mentioned this to our team after Fred spoke to them last night---Zach LaVine to be a better basketball player,” Paxson said. “We need him to have a great summer.”

LaVine played 24 games and Paxson said there were things he liked in that sample. But while he mentioned others in the way of internal improvement like Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis, it was clear his initial message was aimed at LaVine becoming a more complete player before the start of next season.

“We knew he wasn’t going to play for us right away and we knew we were going to get him back at some point, but I think he answered some questions for us,” Paxson said. “He had some really good moments, but he has a ways to go, but again that’s his responsibility to work and become a better player.”

Pleased with Hoiberg: Fred Hoiberg’s first two years were littered with questions at various times surrounding his job security and aptitude for the high-pressure, high-stress cauldron of NBA coaching. So while it wasn’t a surprise to hear Paxson confirm Hoiberg would return to start his fourth season, he elaborated on the type of team best-suited for Hoiberg’s style.

It wasn’t an intentional shot from Paxson but the inference was clear: Younger teams are better for him.

“I think Fred just kind of got his feet underneath him more this year,” Paxson said. “This group, the way he wants to play, pushing the basketball. Just from my observations watching practices and games, you could see that comfort level.”

Will this experience bode better for Hoiberg when this team’s talent level begins to turn the corner? Paxson wasn’t asked that directly but there’s not many young teams that actually win much—especially if there’s no unicorn capable of lifting all tides.

“I think every year as a coach you gain experience and you learn things,” Paxson said. “So I’m sure you’ve talked to Fred about what he’s learned over this year as opposed to last year. Again, I thought Fred and our staff did a tremendous job of keeping our group together.”

It wasn’t an easy task, especially after the Bobby Portis-Nikola Mirotic incident and subsequent 3-20 start; Some of the roster changes management wanted to see implemented in the last six weeks and the general upheaval of the roster considering there was little continuity with new players coming in and out of the lineup.

“I know Fred enjoyed coaching this group,” Paxson said. “I think this you go back to last summer. Fred and our guys set the tone when our guys came back and they just had the everyday attitude of working. That needs to carry over and it will. Our guys need to continue to buy in which we believe they will.”

Overselling? Not quite: The general thought about the Bulls revolves around a belief that with two first-round draft picks in a deep class, the Bulls should be back in playoff contention in short order.

Whether it was a tacit acknowledgement of the gaffes Gar Forman has made at times or merely wanting to keep expectations at a modest level, Paxson would not get himself caught up hyping the sum of the parts.

Teams like Philadelphia and Boston are set up for the long run if LeBron James leaves Cleveland and heads west. The Bulls have the salary cap space to do some things but Paxson was pragmatic about not being too hasty.

“I don’t know how far away that is. You never know what other teams are going to do but all we can do is worry about ourselves,” Paxson said. “When we went on the path that we did last summer, we’re not just going to go out and try and sign some older players that fill a need. We have to remain patient and discipline in the approach we have.”

The expectation is to play more competitive basketball this time next season and if it results in the playoffs, he won’t turn his nose at it.

“We’re going to be a better basketball team. And we’re going to be young, we’re going to be athletic, we’re going to be more skilled,” he said. “And for coaches and players, their goal has to be every year to be as good as they can be. Be a playoff team, be whatever you can be.”

Three pieces/Markkanen: The timeline of injuries and organizational objectives interfered with the Bulls being able to see Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn all on the floor at the same time.

He didn’t duck the belief someone would have to emerge among the three, but stated if they all make the expected improvements this offseason, it’ll be a problem he’s glad to have.

“That’s one thing we have to find out,” Paxson said. “That was part of the deal when we made it. We need to find out how those guys play together. That’s why I said this summer is important. We need them all healthy so we can have a good training camp and find a way to get them playing the right way together.”

Paxson would hedge and watch himself on a lot of things, but Markkanen seemed to be the exception. Calling Markkanen a “cornerstone”, he’s excited about the strides Markkanen can make with a summer in Chicago or at least under the guidance of the Bulls’ strength and conditioning coaches.

“We loved him in the draft, obviously, but we didn’t know what we had,” he said. “I’m incredibly impressed with the poise he plays with. He rarely gets outside of himself. But Lauri, like Zach and Kris Dunn and all our guys, he has so much room to grow.”

The expectations for a significant jump next season appear to be as high for Markkanen as it is for LaVine.

“With his size and his ability to shoot the ball, he should be able to get in areas on the floor where he can really dominate a game,” Paxson said. “He’s a young man and just one year in the league, but he at least from my seat, he exceeded expectations. So yeah, we’re lucky. We feel very lucky he was part of that deal we made last summer.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”