NBA

From Bulls to Spurs, why NBA dynasties should be savored as they pass

From Bulls to Spurs, why NBA dynasties should be savored as they pass

The pandemic-induced NBA pause featured the running of the Bulls, an ESPN-produced treat that detailed “The Last Dance” and a 1990s dynasty to remember.

The NBA restart featured the elimination of the Spurs. A so-called “The Last Stand” if you will. Their record-tying, 22-season playoff streak died on the Disney World campus on Thursday.

Savor these streaks when they occur. They don’t come around often, even if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich reacted the way you thought he would about the dissolution of his dynasty.

“I don’t dwell on the past,” Popovich said. “I don’t know who won the baseball championship from year to year. Four years ago, I don’t know who won the NBA championship. That stuff is totally unimportant. What’s important is the moment. You do what you gotta do and you move on.”

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Just wait until the ever-reclusive Tim Duncan talks on the documentary that one day should come on the Spurs. Let’s just say Michael Jordan memes are probably safe.

Three Spurs who started Thursday’s loss to the Jazz weren’t even born the last time the franchise missed the playoffs. The run tied the 76ers’ streak from 1950 to 1971, which they began as the Syracuse Nationals before moving.

Us media types like to document such things. I mean, we watch sports to witness greatness, right? And what’s not great about this?

Five NBA championships. 10 Western Conference finals appearances. Six 60-win seasons. 13 50-win seasons. The passing of the torch from David Robinson to Duncan to Kawhi Leonard, with longstanding greatness from Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Popovich mixed in for good measure.

As "The Last Dance" reminded a whole new generation that didn't live it, the Bulls' dynasty ended off the court. Age, attrition, salary cap concerns and the natural evolution of power, money and ego combined to leave Jordan's jumper to win the 1998 Finals as the enduring memory.

The Spurs never possessed the megawatt, marketing starpower of an athlete like Jordan. Even with the international success of the NBA and players like Ginobili from Argentina and Parker from France, they never seemed to dominate headlines outside small-market San Antonio.

And unlike the tidy, separate three-peats amassed by the Bulls, they spaced out their five Finals triumphs in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. But like perennials popping, they always seemed to be there come spring.

These playoffs are taking place in August, September and October, a nod to the unprecedented nature of this pandemic-paused season. They will begin next week without Popovich and the Spurs.

But fear not: The last time they landed in the lottery in 1997, things worked out pretty well. They won it and drafted Duncan.

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For Bulls fans, Michael Porter Jr.’s breakout stings, but comes with silver lining

For Bulls fans, Michael Porter Jr.’s breakout stings, but comes with silver lining

However the NBA structures its bubble awards ballot — say “bubble ballot” ten times fast — Michael Porter Jr. should find his way in in some capacity.

The Denver Nuggets’ second-year wing (who’s technically still rookie-eligible) has fully burst onto the scene under the bright lights of ESPN’s World Wide of Sports Complex. Porter's started all seven of the Nuggets’ seeding games so far, averaging 22 points and 8.6 rebounds with 55.1/42.2/93.1 shooting splits in 33.3 minutes per contest. Minutes limits and defensive critiques have melted away with increased opportunity. His outside stroke, effortless athleticism and superhuman length have popped. The training wheels are off.

 

For Nuggets fans, Porter’s breakout is a coronation — a long-awaited glimpse at the potential final piece to a deep, talented and precocious roster vaulting to the highest echelon of contention. For basketball fans, the bloom of a potential star is always a thrill.

For Bulls fans, it’s pain. Dull, throbbing and all-too-familiar pain.

The answer to why requires a stroll down memory lane, all the way back to the 2018 NBA Draft Combine held in Chicago. Though he didn’t participate in any basketball drills, Porter's 6-foot-10, 3/4-inch height and 7-foot, 1/4-inch wingspan wowed for a wing of such innate bounce and tact. Kevin Durant comparisons abounded in the analyst pool. Meanwhile, the Bulls sat in on at least one of Porter's pro days, presumably expressing some level of interest. 

And if there was interest from the team side, it appeared to be mutual.

"I feel like I'd fit in great with those guys," Porter said (via Chicago Tribune) of potentially joining the Bulls. "They have a great core, a lot of young, athletic guys. And they're kind of looking for small forward."

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Indeed, the Bulls entered the 2018 draft with only Paul Zipser under contract in the way of traditional small forwards. The marriage of fit and talent was all too perfect. 

But injury flags stopped Porter from being a slam-dunk selection. After exiting high school the No. 1 prospect in his class, he missed all but three games of his freshman year at Missouri because of back surgery conducted in November 2017. That operation — a microdiscectomy of two spinal discs – invited valid questions regarding Porter’s durability, both in the long- and short-term. 

Despite inarguably owning the talent and skill set of a top five prospect, Porter fell past the Bulls, and 12 others, all the way to the Nuggets at No. 14. He sat out 2018-19 rehabbing his back and, pre-bubble, has been on a gradual ramp-up plan this season. The reasons behind his slip are completely reasonable; still, it’s one that has the potential to haunt many organizations for a long time.

The 2018 draft could go down as one of the more talent-flush in recent memory. Also selected in the top 14 that year: already-proven superstars in Luka Doncic and Trae Young, fast-rising wunderkins in Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and other incredibly promising talents from Mikal Bridges to Miles Bridges to Collin Sexton and beyond. There are no busts, in the conventional sense, from that lottery. Even Jerome Robinson helped net the Los Angeles Clippers Marcus Morris at the 2020 trade deadline.

So Bulls fans, and the team itself, shouldn’t kick themselves too hard about their selection of Wendell Carter Jr. (he belongs in the above paragraph, but I was waiting for the reveal) No. 7 overall. 

Yes, Carter has played only 87 games through two professional seasons — just 32 more than the injury-plagued Porter. But his defense has translated to the professional level, as has his advanced basketball IQ and rebounding prowess; already, he’s shown the potential to be stalwart at the most important defensive position in the game. 

What’s more, Carter averaged nearly a double-double in his second season, has proven a better-than-average finisher, and with necessary tweaks, him blossoming into a facilitating hub and outside shooting threat on the offensive end isn’t far-fetched. Toning down the team’s trapping coverages in the pick-and-roll could revive gaudy shot-blocking figures from his rookie campaign, though Carter can thrive in just about any defensive context. 

Subtler skills than that of Porter, to be sure. But valuable, still.

Now, a lot of the above is rooted in projection. Carter has yet to appear in more than 44 games in a season, and those offensive forecasts, specifically, might be optimistic. But lauding Porter requires a level of projection, too. Before the bubble, he had yet to play in 30 minutes in an NBA game, and was averaging 16.4 on the season. Held up against the flashes of brilliance, his development has been and may continue to be painstakingly slow-moving. Injury concerns persist for both, but, given the small sample size and the fact that Carter's injuries have largely been trauma-induced, Porter’s concerns remain greater.

Bottom line: Porter's ceiling is astronomical. Higher than Carter’s. That’s always been the case, and his successes will forever come with a little sting for Bulls fans. But it doesn’t make the Carter choice the wrong one (though the rationale of filling the wing need with Chandler Hutchison at No. 22 hasn't panned out). He's a promising, young two-way big, and continued progression feels a reaonsable expectation.

That won’t assuage all, and it’s fair if it doesn’t. Winning takes star power in this league, and outside of Zach LaVine, the Bulls are sorely lacking in that department. There, Porter could have been a salve down the road. And the process behind the choice — high-floor over high-ceiling, to oversimplify — is emblematic of a front office philosophy the Bulls and its fans are anxious to leave behind.

Which is why, as far as silver linings go, it should register as downright shimmery that the Bulls now employ an integral member of the front office that snared Porter as executive vice president of basketball operations in Arturas Karnisovas. Whatever your opinion on his handling of the Jim Boylen situation, Karnisovas’ solid standing in Denver’s collaborative, forward-thinking front office is well-documented, especially as a talent evaluator. That front office staffed the Nuggets’ current roster, which is dotted with multi-skilled pieces of every variety. 

The superstar, Nikola Jokic, was a second-round pick. So was key reserve Monte Morris, and fellow bubble standout Bol Bol. P.J. Dozier, who narrowly missed spearheading an unlikely victory for the Nuggets’ backups over the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday, was plucked off the G League scrap heap. Jamal Murray and Porter were lottery picks (Porter being the last in the lottery), but Torrey Craig was an undrafted find. Will Barton and Jerami Grant came aboard via shrewd, if unheralded, trades. Paul Millsap is the biggest free-agent signing in Nuggets history, and on the short list of their best.

Top to bottom, it’s a versatile, well-constructed roster — and done in admirable fashion, especially considering the team’s ability to retain talent. Porter is the final piece to title contention. 

Could he have been that for the Bulls? Possibly. One way or the other, his will be a career of countless variables, and it’ll never be entirely possible to say if everything would have broken the same in Chicago. 

But if the Bulls’ future ends up bright, it’ll be pointless to look back.

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Bulls mailbag (once again): What's Jim Boylen's status? Is anyone on roster safe?

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USA Today

Bulls mailbag (once again): What's Jim Boylen's status? Is anyone on roster safe?

It’s August. And we just set a record for most questions asked in a Bulls mailbag. You nutty people.

Christian J.: The front office has had all this time to watch games of Jim Boylen coaching to know deep down that he's not the right coach for this team. Do you think Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley will give pushback to ownership to get a new coach once the guy they want becomes available and do you think AK will question Michael Reinsdorf on agreement of full autonomy during his hire?

Karnisovas does own full autonomy. And the criteria for presenting a coaching change to ownership is the same now as it was when ownership hired Karnisovas. He’s free to make a change if he wishes, but was told to take time to get to know Boylen and evaluate him fully before doing so. That’s what Karnisovas and Eversley are doing. The Bulls may not be playing, but the 2019-20 season isn’t over yet. The Bulls, as of now, aren’t allowed group activities. So what’s the rush?

I feel like there’s this perception of the new management regime already at odds with ownership. That’s simply not accurate. To think the coaching situation wasn’t discussed during the interview process would be naïve, in my estimation. Nothing has changed. The evaluation process is ongoing.

And here’s the thing: This unprecedented offseason affording Karnisovas plenty of time for this critical decision seems consistent with the reputation of his personality anyway. He’s known as a thoughtful, deliberate decision-maker who tries to develop substantive, genuine relationships before holding people accountable. With no known timeline for the 2020-21 season set yet, he has that luxury regarding Boylen and his staff. Yes, Gar Forman was out early in Karnisovas' tenure, and some staff shuffling has occurred in recent months — though most of the latter were based on option deadlines.

This is a longshot hypothetical: But what if the 2020-21 season start date gets pushed to March — because that will allow for a full season of fans in arenas — and a previously unavailable coaching candidate becomes available that Karnisovas loves? Doesn’t it make sense for him to take time on this decision?

It seems fitting that, unless he has a burner account, Karnisovas isn’t on Twitter. In this day and age of immediacy and absolutes, I understand the angst for some fans regarding this decision. But Karnisovas is taking the long view, not the 140-character one. Or is it 280 now?

Austin C.: Do you think Arturas is going to fire Boylen? I’ve seen a lot of rumors going around that we are going to keep him because of financial concerns.

From the start, I’ve taken Karnisovas’ words at face value. He has said he’s going to take time to make this critical decision. Each time I’ve done some reporting on this story, it has appeared to remain in the evaluation stage for him. But there are plenty of signs pointing towards a '20-21 collaboration. Management and the coaching staff have met to discuss player development. They’ve talked draft and free agency. And they’ve had discussions about the offense. 

Since you’re asking for my prediction, my guess is this: With the 2020-21 season so uncertain — when does it start? Will it be 82 games? — and the roster likely to look largely the same, Boylen returns. Karnisovas and Eversley use the 2020-21 season to evaluate the staff and roster during game action. Then, potential big changes arrive during the 2021 offseason. That’s when the deals of Otto Porter Jr. and Cristiano Felício expire and significant salary cap space is possible. The contracts of Thaddeus Young — if he’s not dealt this offseason — and Tomáš Satoranský are easily movable or waivable because of partial guarantees. You have another season of Zach LaVine data to determine if he’s a building block or trade chip. And you solidify the coaching situation long-term.

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The money is only one layer to Karnisovas’ decision on Boylen. Let’s not forget, ownership hired Karnisovas and Eversley during a global pandemic. So it’s not like the financial outlook changed from then to now for ownership. It’s not like ownership has moved the goalposts on management’s autonomy. My sense is, given the daunting, long-term financial ramifications of the pandemic, ownership conveyed during the interview process that any coaching change recommendation would have to be a thoroughly presented one, possibly with a proven candidate.

Also, as I’ve written this several times, it’s not just Boylen’s contract that ownership would eat. Assistant coaches Chris Fleming — who Karnisovas likes and worked with in Denver — and Roy Rogers just finished the first of three-year deals. This is why, at least for now, Karnisovas and Eversley have worked to empower Boylen and his staff. To me, that’s leadership. Coaching development can be a thing, too.

Timothy G.: If the Bulls keep Boylen, do you think some Bulls players like Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen will demand a trade?

And to think: Just a year ago at this time, videos of Boylen cannonballing off a dock into a pristine Finnish lake alongside Markkanen surfaced via social media. And Boylen had crashed LaVine’s vacation, their relationship never better.

Neither player possesses a rock-the-boat personality. But I do think the LaVine situation, in particular, is worth monitoring.

This, to me, is where Karnisovas and Eversley have to do their work if they choose to retain Boylen. They’ve talked about creating a players-first organization. They are also both known for developing strong relationships with players. You can create a positive atmosphere for players even if not all decisions are popular ones.

So far, the Bulls have received strong buy-in for voluntary offseason workouts, including a trip to Chicago from LaVine. Markkanen, who typically spends his offseason in Finland, has been here plenty.

It’s also important to remember that this regime isn’t married to any players. As mentioned above, I see this regime using this season to evaluate the roster more fully in advance of potential significant changes during the 2021 offseason.

Drew S: Do you think the Bulls’ brass believes any player currently on the roster is untradeable?

Not one bit. In fact, very few players currently on the roster fit the description of the type of players that Karnisovas values most, based on his own words. Here’s what he said in April:

I already had a conversation with Jim kind of talking about what kind of style of play I would like, what kind of players I like. Obviously, I like high pace. Moving the ball. We were able to be a very good passing team in Denver. It’s a very entertaining brand of basketball. I like multi-positional players. I like guys with high basketball IQ that play off each other. But that takes time. Obviously, you’ve got a read-and-react kind of offense, which I like. So in the short term what needs to happen is we begin to establish a culture of who we are as a team.

In that vein, I’d expect a tweaked offensive system for the 2020-21 season. Conversations between management and the coaching staff along those lines already have taken place. But both Karnisovas and Eversley are also on record as saying they're intrigued by the young talent on the roster — particularly as to why certain players underachieved. So internal improvement, not wholesale changes initially, is likely where the focus rests for now.

Blake C.: If we assume Boylen is the coach for 20-21, what might a successful year look like? Trading emerging stars for draft equity a la the Celtics? Hoping for a big splash in free agency for 2021? Or clear improvement and a possible playoff berth?

I’d say a combination of the latter two. The first scenario involves another total restart. Best case scenario: You get internal improvement from a couple of the intriguing, young pieces on the roster as the new regime determines which players it’s keeping and which it’s not. You compete for a lower-level playoff spot. And you significantly improve the roster through 2021 free agency.

Even more ideally, this all occurs as the new regime adds impactful young pieces via the draft. Look at the Nuggets’ roster. It’s teeming with homegrown players who are making an impact. Karnisovas played a significant role in that.

Alejandro Y.: How can the Reinsdorfs be hurting for money when they own one of the most valuable franchises in the world? I was wondering if you could summarize the Reinsdorfs’ situation. The Lakers are a family-run franchise too, and they never plead money issues. We're not at that monetized level, but it's not far either, right?

The Reinsdorfs run a business and are free to operate it how they see fit. For what it's worth, I’ve heard of no layoffs or furloughs throughout the Bulls. Also: Jerry Reinsdorf is chairman of the organization. He has other investors to consider. As previously mentioned, money is only one layer to the Boylen decision.

As for your other point, I don’t cover the Lakers so I can’t speak to their dynamic. But I will say: To suggest that an organization that applied for, received, and quickly returned a reported $4.6 million "small business" loan during the pandemic never pleads money issues is amusing.

Marcus C.: Hey KC, I know you’re sick and tired of Boylen questions and people flooding your mentions. But rehiring Boylen over a couple million would be the last straw for me and many others. Not only is it a slap in the face to the players, but it’s also a giant middle finger to this fanbase. Are the Reinsdorfs so out of touch that they’re willing to tank all immediate and future goodwill over a few million (dollars)? Millions are unemployed, but Jerry expects us to feel bad for him and continue to support this. Do they really think fans will be understanding and sympathetic to this move? Not only will this hurt the team in the short run, but it’ll be disastrous long-term given the negative stigma that’s already plagued this organization. Why as fans should we care anymore if the owners only view us as potential revenue?

Well, you don’t have to. That’s your choice as a fan. Also, fans may not be allowed into arenas next season. So there’s that.

Your larger point is a valid counterpoint, though. Retaining Boylen would not be welcomed by a loud segment of the fan base. (I covered the player dynamic in a previous answer.) It would affect, at least in the short-term, some of the goodwill created by the managerial changes.

But what if the team stayed healthy and improved? What if Boylen tweaked the offense and, focusing strictly on coaching, showed growth? Winning changes everything. And if he’s retained and it went off the rails, could management make a change then, perhaps on an interim basis?

I disagree retaining Boylen would have disastrous long-term impact, though. I expect a new-look Bulls organization to more fully take shape by the 2021-22 season.  

Oscar, Sydney AUS: Howdy. Firstly, why are fans so fickle? Obviously it’s frustrating when your team has not been successful in recent times. But when you really look at it, the Bulls actually have a decent core of promising young talent that ended up losing a bunch of close games while having key guys out all year. With that said, my actual question is if things get back on track and Markkanen returns to form next season, do you see the Bulls re-signing Wendell Carter Jr. the following year after signing Markkanen to what you would assume would have to be a relatively significant contract?

I think you paint a slightly-too-rosy picture of all things Bulls. They have a long way to go. Yes, injuries hurt them. Yes, they have some intriguing young pieces and were in a ton of close games. But the roster isn’t exactly flush with two-way players. And the intriguing pieces they do have need to show they can thrive together.

I’m less worried about the Carter-Markkanen fit than some. I think they can complement each other well. They both are willing passers with high basketball IQs. Carter may be undersized, but he can be an effective rim protector with his wingspan and instincts. He needs to learn how to avoid foul trouble.

@BullsNationOZ, via Twitter: I’m sick of everyone asking for Jim to go. Steve Kerr would only get five more wins out of this roster. Now, a new coach would be great, but the more pressing issue is this roster.

As I said, a lot of work remains. And actually, that’s another thing to consider regarding the coaching situation: Might management want to wait to bring in its hand-picked choice until the roster is more to its liking? Just a thought.

Shannon R.: Due to financial ramifications of the pandemic and the draft class being considered as weak, it’s been reported/speculated that teams may be willing to sell their first-round picks. Do you think there’s some truth to that?  What do you think would be easier to sell to ownership — firing Boylen or buying an additional pick? If I had to choose, I’d choose an additional pick.

I don’t think it’d be an either/or, but if I had to choose, I’d agree with you.

Wilfred B.: From the very start of when the Bulls hired AK and Marc Eversley we have heard from them and Michael Reinsdorf that they wanted to modernize the front office to get with the times. Apart from the two hires at the very start, we haven't heard much on that front and how they are building out the front office and what hires they are making. Do you have any insight into that process and do you know if they have decided on who's worth keeping and who's not from the past regime?

From what I’ve been told, they plan to build out the player development department. As for the timeline on that, I’m not sure. I do know the coaching staff has been asked for input on player development philosophy.

Karnisovas and Eversley are using holdovers like Brian Hagen and Jim Paxson and Steve Weinman for draft meetings and analytics projects. Karnisovas is on record as saying he plans no additional front-office changes this offseason. They do need to hire an athletic trainer

@thegeorgeyou, via Twitter: There’s no winning in the NBA without a superstar. We can draft well, but the only realistic path to contention is signing Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis. Do you think the Bulls will be players this offseason or in 2021?

Is Nikola Jokic a superstar? Karnisovas worked for the Nuggets when that franchise nabbed him in the second round. But your larger point remains: The Bulls need to upgrade the roster. As it stands, it’s filled with intriguing young pieces, but no superstars as of yet. LaVine is the closest to All-Star level.

As for free agency, the Bulls project to have cap space in 2021, not this offseason.

Matt A., Australia: Assuming Otto opts in, which we all agree is pretty much a given, what free agents do you see the Bulls going after this offseason?

Given the injury history of Porter and Chandler Hutchison, I’d guess wing depth will be a focus. Moe Harkless, Wesley Matthews, Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III and Jae Crowder are names that make sense at the price point for teams that will be using exceptions, like the Bulls.

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