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Chicago’s Implosion: What’s the End Game?

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It’s been a rough season so far for the Chicago Bulls. The roller coaster bottomed out last week with the indefinite benching of Rajon Rondo; he’s since met with Bulls management and has threatened to demand a trade. His woes, though, are just a small piece of this disturbing puzzle in the Midway.

The Busted Bulls

After missing the playoffs last year, the retooled Bulls aren’t faring much better in 2016–17. They sit at 18–18 and on the fringe of the playoff picture. The addition of Dwyane Wade has been met with fanfare, but any positives brought on by his veteran presence have been neutralized by Rondo’s.

A poison on every roster he’s joined since his Boston days, Rondo’s 37 percent shooting and stat-hunting play have made him hard to watch. His defensive effort has made him unplayable.

Any skeptic worth his weight in keyboards could see Chicago’s struggles coming a mile off. A team already lacking in shooting doubled down in the off-season, signing Wade—who only recently discovered the three-point line—and Rondo, who has refused to develop a jump shot through 11 NBA seasons.

The result? Chicago’s effective field goal percentage, which factors in that threes are worth more than twos, is the worst in the league at 47.3 percent. Hilariously, Rondo has been replaced in the starting lineup by Michael Carter-Williams, who might be the only other NBA point guard without a jump shot.

Even with these flaws, though, the Bulls had a nice start to the season. They have good wins on TNT against Boston and San Antonio, and were 8–4 midway through November.

Jimmy Butler, to his credit, has played to an All-Star level through all the commotion. His 25.2 points per game is four points better than his average last season, culminating in a 52-point outing against Milwaukee on Monday.

His true shooting percentage—a measure of efficiency that includes twos, threes, and free throws—is a career-best 59 percent, even as his usage has gone up (24.4 percent last year to 27.6 percent this year). He’ll be in New Orleans in February, no questions asked.

The problem isn’t Butler, it’s everyone else. The Bulls are cratering, and it seems like nobody knows how to right the ship.

Does management have a clue?

Dating back to Jerry Krause’s roster explosion in 1998, Chicago’s management team has never been a league darling. General Manager Gar Forman and Vice-President of Basketball Operations John Paxson have been in their current structure since 2009, and in recent years, they’ve done more harm than good.

In 2015, after the contentious firing of Tom Thibodeau—who was more or less blamed for the broken bodies of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah—the Bulls hired Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg to inject offense. Chicago’s players rejected his mantra. They played last season halfway between Thibodeau’s slow, defense-first play and Hoiberg’s speedier ideal. The Bulls missed the playoffs.

To refresh the page, Forman and Paxson let Rose, Noah, and Pau Gasol walk. The guys they brought in to play Hoiberg’s faster offense? Rondo and Wade, two players on the wrong side of 30 who’ve never played at a high pace.

After all this, Paxson is still saying that they need to improve athleticism. I mean, he does realize who they have on the roster right? Some of the quotes from Paxson’s state of the franchise address in December have the air of infallibility:

“We’ve wanted to play with a little more pace, a little quicker. In this day and age, if you’re not advancing the ball quickly and you’re allowing defenses to set up and you’re fighting clock, that becomes an issue.”

Yes, that was a quote from the man who signed Rondo. There’s more:

“The area we really do need to improve is with our athleticism. That’s been evident this year as well. We’ve got some vets that know how to play, can score, but you know when you look around the league and how the game is now, that’s an area we have to address.”

I applaud the transparency, but the insane part of all this is that it’s Hoiberg—not Paxson or Forman—that’s carrying the tab for this entirely new, deeply flawed roster. Despite being given a useless hand, Hoiberg is nonetheless the only NBA coach talked about as a possible mid-season firing. It’s enough to make your head spin.

What adjustments can be made?

That’s the bad news. The good news? The Bulls play in the Eastern Conference, where a couple good weeks can have you hosting a playoff series, and a couple bad ones have you spending May by the pool.

Save a possible tweak or two, Chicago is stuck with the roster they’ve got. Assuming they get appreciably better when Rondo walks/is traded/is benched indefinitely, here are two ideas for Bulls coaching and management to get better this year.

Maximize Jimmy Butler

As the team’s best player by far, Fred Hoiberg needs to get the most possible out of Jimmy Butler. A wing in the classic sense, Butler is adept at smoothly getting into the lane and creating mid-range jump shots. His favoured areas are just outside the paint, where he has an array of moves to get shots off.

Hoiberg, though, bogs down Butler’s ability to drive by pairing him with a similarly-minded player in Wade and non-shooters in Michael Carter-Williams (or Rondo) and range-limited bigs in Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez.

The Bulls’ starting lineup looks stone age compared to the rest of the league, and it hurts Jimmy Butler most. Here’s a novel concept for Hoiberg: surround your superstar with players that make him better.

Here’s a look at Butler in his 52-point game against Charlotte, going bananas in a lineup with more shooting.

Next to Doug McDermott at shooting guard and Nikola Mirotic at power forward, Butler buried the Hornets and prompted CSN to follow his highlight package with a shot of Jordan’s retirement banner. He earned the comparison.

In fact, the Bulls best three-man lineup by net rating is Butler, McDermott, and Mirotic. No other triplet really comes close. When those three are on the floor together, the Bulls effective field goal percentage shoots up to 51.4 percent, a mark that’d be 12th best in the NBA.

In a lot of ways, this makes sense. McDermott and Mirotic aren’t exceptional shooters when compared to the rest of the league, but they don’t have to be when playing next to Butler. Opposing defenses observe the threat of shooters more than players like Carter-Williams, who they can forget entirely. Even the idea that McDermott can make a three (37.1 percent on the year) or Mirotic (31 percent) benefits the Bulls. When defenses stay at home, Butler has more room to operate. His pick and rolls with Gibson and Lopez become more potent and he can worry less about double-teams. He can be a superstar.

The solution, of course, is not to bench Dwyane Wade. He has value the same way Butler does, in drawing defenses to create shots for himself and others. The solution is for Hoiberg to find effective ways of staggering Butler and Wade throughout the game.

In Toronto, Kyle Lowry leads a bench unit that’s become one of the league’s most potent offensive units. This is no accident—Lowry, a drive-first guard who demands attention, is better when he’s surrounded by shooters. Hoiberg needs to do the same for Butler, and bring the Bulls into today’s NBA.

Trade Gibson for a point guard

The Toronto Raptors are in the Paul Millsap sweepstakes, but if they fail, the Bulls may want to engage them in discussions around Taj Gibson—who will be a free agent at the end of the season.

The 31-year-old Gibson is quietly having a career year, with 12 points per game coming on a career-high 53.2 percent shooting and 6.9 rebounds. He’s a physical presence the Raptors simply don’t have at the power forward spot, giving them rebounding, defense and rim protection, something the Raptors’ current frontcourt has to do by committee.

In exchange, the Bulls could ask for Cory Joseph. The human opposite of Rondo, Joseph is a team-first point guard who won’t hunt for stats. He’s still developing his outside shot, which can be a bit stiff, but can knock it down with time and space. That makes him a nice off-ball fit for Butler and Wade for the reasons mentioned earlier.

The Joseph-Gibson swap could happen straight up, and benefits both teams. In the famous words of Twitter dot com: who says no?

What happens next?

We’ve established that the Bulls are a hot mess. We’ve prescribed some fixes for improvement. The end game for Chicago, though, is anyone’s guess.

The Wade-Butler duo has been a net positive for the team, and perhaps provides a foundation to build on with some subtle tweaks. The Bulls may be struggling now, but they still have All-Star talent. They need to find a way to translate that into wins—whether it’s through coaching adjustments or front office moves.

John is a sports writer hailing from the flat part of Canada. He's an editor and podcast host at SB Nation's Raptors HQ, with other sports work published in The Classical. As a freelance reporter, he's covered sports at every level in Winnipeg: from the NHL's Jets and CFL's Blue Bombers, to CIS basketball and hockey at both major universities. In his spare time, John writes too seriously about music and posts good-to-okay photography on Instagram.

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Lonzo Ball: The New Face of the Lakers

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Lonzo Ball is the new face of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. The new savior. The Big Baller Brand is now here to stay and LaVar Ball’s family’s future is set. But is that enough?

Lonzo Ball is a great kid and athlete who knows his talent will take him to another level. The major question mark that remains is whether or not he will take the Lakers there as well. He has the platform and skillset to do so, but with that comes the added pressure from the city and league to basically become part of the next version of Kobe and Shaq. It’s too strainful for a young kid—a rookie—to achieve.  

Magic Johnson, the recently named President of Basketball of Operations for the Lakers, is taking an aggressive approach to get this team back into playoff contention his first year in. One of his first moves was sending D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick. Brook Lopez is definitely an upgrade at center, but has a couple of years already under his belt.   

Lopez will provide a much needed veteran presence with a great IQ for the game at his position. The only downfall is that a couple of years under his belt doesn’t really transfer to great experience, but simply wasted miles on his body. He isn’t as quick as he used to be and doesn’t even rank in the top 10 centers in the league. In fact, Bleacher Report had him last season at exactly 15 out of the top 30 centers in the NBA. While he is has improved by adding the three-point range to his arsenal, there is no doubt that he is nearly past his prime, and although he can still contribute on a nightly basis, who knows how much and what effect it will have with Lonzo Ball running the point.  

Ball has great court vision that has been often compared to that of LeBron James. Combined with his passing skills, he is a true PG with tremendous upside in the backcourt. With that being said, he will only reach a certain extent. His full potential is years from being maximized and people are buying into it early on. In fact, the pressure for him to lift a sub .500 team to the playoffs for the first time in five years is daunting. 

These are Lonzo Ball’s stats during his rookie—and only—year at UCLA: 

  • 14.6 Points
  • 7.6 Assists
  • 6.0  Rebounds
  • 1.8 Steals
  • 0.8 Blocks
  • 55.1 FG%
  • 41.2 3P%

He did a tremendous job maintaining that statline and even added a triple-double in the NBA Summer League, earning him the Summer League MVP.  

Don’t get me wrong, Ball seems ready for the challenge and is definitely a one-of-a-kind talent mirroring that of Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, but he is not an All-Star or MVP—at least, not yet. These way-too-early predictions that he is the Lakers’ new savior are farfetched. He has yet to face the elite NBA offensive threats and superstars that have been at it for 10-plus years. Defensively speaking he will not be able to keep up. Not in his first year. He still needs NBA experience and a more rounded roster to be able to reach the playoffs.  

He is off to a good start, but being named NBA Summer League MVP doesn’t necessarily mean a spectacular season is coming as some think it does. Especially if you consider the previous Summer League MVP winners.

Year Nat. Player Pos. Team
2012 Damian Lillard (co-MVPs) PG Portland Trail Blazers
Josh Selby (co-MVPs) PG Memphis Grizzlies
2013 Jonas Valančiūnas C Toronto Raptors
2014 Glen Rice Jr. SG Washington Wizards
2015 Kyle Anderson SF San Antonio Spurs
2016 Tyus Jones PG Minnesota Timberwolves
2017 Lonzo Ball PG Los Angeles Lakers

With the exceptions of Damian Lillard in 2012 and Jonas Valanciunas in 2013, the past five Summer League MVP winners have gone on to produce very mediocre NBA careers. All I’m saying is, don’t read too much into NBA Summer League. It’s the pre-preseason that no one really watches or cares about.  

The NBA season is nearing—exactly a month away—and my somewhat harsh criticism of Lonzo Ball isn’t too cruel. I am just not ready to jump on the Ball bandwagon following LaVar’s prophecies of his son being the Lakers prodigal son. He won’t be. Again, at least not yet. He needs to earn his spot and the transition will surprise him his first year in. It will hit him hard, but, despite my concerns, eventually Lonzo Ball will become a future NBA All-Star and a daring NBA point guard.  

Not yet though, and until then all we can do is prepare for his official NBA debut. Until then, we can enjoy and bask in his newly released rap single paying tribute to his little brother LaMelo Ball.  

If the NBA doesn’t end up being his calling in life, at least he has a back up career in mind.

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MELO-dy Cool

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Carmelo Anthony has been traded away from the New York Knickerbockers to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

You probably knew this before you laid eyes on these words.

It honestly doesn’t matter much who the Thunder traded away for “Melo” and who the Knicks received, because they weren’t anywhere near Melo’s overall value. But, it matters that Melo himself is gone and away from New York City, and for all his accolades, he honestly had a major part to play in his exodus.

Melo altogether is a player that both outplayed and underplayed his own potential. No one that saw him at Oak Hill Academy as a high schooler could for-sure say that he’d be a superstar, and everyone that saw him at Syracuse University might say he was a can’t-miss by then.

And he didn’t miss on most of what he’s teased, he’s delivered in a lot of ways; but, the reason why he didn’t work out in New York was because he was selfish to a fault in the key places that required compromise.

Do you remember how he got to Kings County in the first place? He forced a trade to the Knicks from his then-Denver Nuggets, a team that was teasing with talent abundant, but not unlike today, stuck in the mighty Western Conference. With title contenders like the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers at that time of the NBA, the 2010–2011 season, the Nuggets just weren’t going to make the noise they wanted to make. Melo was a free agent-to-be at the completion of that season, and it was likely that he’d leave. His time with the Nuggets, a very successful time, had run its course. The change was coming, and he was catalyst to the change he wanted to see in his world. Nothing wrong with that.

The problem was that Melo didn’t want to wait for New York. He wanted New York then and there, and it didn’t matter how it was going to happen.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks weren’t in a position to compete for a title during that season, something he long wanted to bring to New York upon his eventual arrival.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to gut their team’s best assets in a trade for the Brooklyn-born, Baltimore-raised native. It didn’t matter that if he waited until the season was over, he could be playing with a young and promising Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov (a revelation upon his arrival to the States from Russia), amongst others.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to sacrifice draft picks for him, instead of keeping them upon signing later.

It didn’t matter to Melo.

And so, when he arrived in New York, in early 2011, he received the adulation and praise of a prodigal son. Sure, the team lost some valuable talent and depth, but surely Melo would will the Knicks into wild success — just like he did in Denver, right?

And sure enough, after he rebuked the Linsanity of 2012 when Jeremy Lin became an overnight NBA superstar and balked at the prospect of Lin’s resigning, he gained some success.

The 2012–2013 season saw Melo as the closest thing to being an MVP candidate that anyone had ever seen from him as a professional in an 82-game season, but not before being totally indifferent to former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s wishes for him to play more at power forward to stretch the offensive side of the ball for the Knicks and the defenses of the opposing league teams. D’Antoni quit before the end of the 2011–2012 season, because of Melo’s loathsome resistance to D’Antoni and the coach’s embrace of Lin.

A big aspect of Melo’s failure to bring glory to Manhattan was his resistance to doing what has made him a legend in USA Basketball. Having won multiple gold medals as a stretch-four shooter, that he refused to embrace that positioning as an NBA pro limited the ability of his teams to win.

As a four, Melo, who had gained grown-man weight from natural maturity and strength and conditioning, didn’t have to be the cavity in his team’s defense as he struggled as a man-to-man defender. Moving from his formerly-natural small forward slot could allow him to defend more ably and allow someone more fleet of foot to stop the dominant wings that Melo often matched up against. Becoming something different and better in a new place would’ve allowed him the opportunity to be greater than anyone had known him to be in an NBA uniform.

But, he refused and rebuked such a change.

And one last thing: Injuries and front office politics aside, Melo was loyal to the Knicks organization through and through. But, he had a choice to go.

So, to recap, Melo forced a trade to New York that gutted the talent of the roster, and then he refused to change to a position that would behoove him and the team in the journey to championship gain.

Well, he also had a chance to leave for greener pastures and become a Chicago Bull, where he could experience more success with a front office committed to his development and surrounding talent. He didn’t want to do that, and that’s fair. New York was home, but if he was going to win in New York, seeing as to how being the way that he’d always been wasn’t helping — that is shoot-first, ask questions and defend later — why return to The Big Apple if you aren’t going to change?

He saw what being a score-only wing was giving his teams — it gave his teams very little success for the vast majority of 14 years. Sure, his Nuggets and Knicks made the playoffs (not so much New York) much of the time, but he said he wasn’t playing for that.

In the end, Melo and the Knicks not working out could be seen before he even became a Knick, when Melo stomped his way out of Denver to play immediately for New York when it would’ve behooved him to stay put for two more months.

Championship or bust, they say.

He couldn’t really compromise too well for the chip, it appears.

In the end, Carmelo Anthony — despite years of league-leading jersey sales, runway appearances, and bright lights on the New York City streets with LaLa — was a big, fat, shining, New York bust.

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Reloaded Raptors Banking on Young Guns

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Masai Ujiri is a smart guy.

No matter which conference your team is in, you’re either stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out the Warriors, or you’re stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out LeBron James. For Ujiri’s Raptors, the latter is the elephant in the room. So when the offseason came, the club had some decisions to make that would indicate the direction of the franchise’s future, both immediate and long-term.

Ujiri and Toronto GM Bobby Webster were somehow able to re-sign Kyle Lowry for a three-year deal instead of the five years that Lowry desired, and then managed the same with Serge Ibaka. This effectively put the Raptors on a three-year timeline until the next big shift in the franchise. For these upcoming three years, the Raps will stay competitive with their tried-and-tested core, and they will simultaneously cultivate young talent around their stars.

It’s a great formula. LeBron is going to be 33 years old this December, and by the time Lowry and Ibaka’s contracts are up, he will be entering the twilight stage of his career. Suddenly, the East could be wide open again. Ujiri knows it, and he wants to be ready for it.

But what about the present? The Raptors lost a couple of their veteran role players this summer in the re-signing of their core, including Patrick Patterson (an advanced analytics darling), and P.J. Tucker (a terrific perimeter defender). The team also traded away DeMarre Carroll—who was never able to return to his Atlanta peak—to Brooklyn in order to shed his contract, as well as Cory Joseph to Indiana, who snagged them sharpshooter C.J. Miles—swiftly signed to a three-year deal, no less—as a return.

These changes have left the Raps with a squad that, outside of the starting lineup, is quite young. None of their bench players have played more than three seasons in the NBA, and their total average age is about 23 years old. A number of them have yet to see significant minutes, with Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, and newcomer K.J. McDaniels being the exceptions.

The regular season is a marathon, not a sprint, and the keys to racking up wins in order to put yourself in a good position come playoff time are chemistry and consistency à la the Spurs. If the Raptors are to continue their regular season success of the last few years, then they’ll need their young guns to step into formerly veteran roles and rise to the challenge.

Thankfully, a few of them already seem prepared to break out and have impactful seasons. Both Powell and Wright gave the team some fantastic minutes last year, especially in the playoffs. Norm in particular was a standout, putting the league on notice with his athleticism and tough defensive play. He was part of the best lineup the Raptors had in the postseason (a +5.3), and the team’s offensive rating shot up from 101.7 to 107.9 when he was on the floor compared to when he wasn’t.

In the first round against the Bucks, Powell went for 55/91/92 per cent shooting, averaging 12.4 points per game and torching his opponents. He was a key cog in helping the Raptors win that series and fully earned Dwane Casey’s trust, which is not an easy thing to do for a young player.

Wright didn’t get quite as much time to shine with CoJo being the primary backup point guard, but when he was on the floor he scrapped defensively and showed in flashes that he was able to run the team. His length and effort have been the two most noticeable qualities when watching him so far, and his nose-to-the-grindstone mentality is one that Casey must love.

Siakam is another high-energy guy, and good for a few minutes a game, although playing him for a substantial amount of time isn’t a great idea since he’s undersized and a below-average rebounder. Jakob Poeltl should get more run, and like Wright—though less frequently—he showed instances of strong play, both on the boards and around the basket.

Perhaps the two most interesting youngsters are the newcomers: Raptors 2017 draft pick OG Anunoby and K.J. McDaniels. Anunoby has been touted as an excellent defender, a grinder, and he already has an NBA body that should allow him to guard multiple positions on the floor. Unfortunately, he’s recovering from an ACL tear and therefore it’s possible he doesn’t even play this season. Still, this is the kind of player you get excited for as a fan and as a coach—he’ll likely be impactful right away, at least in one aspect.

As for McDaniels, he’s spent time bouncing around the league during his three seasons. He’s already played for Philadelphia, Houston, and Brooklyn, and has never had a chance to get comfortable. He’s another player with defensive potential—he’s got some pretty sweet block highlights—but has yet to find any sort of consistent shooting. If he can’t show Toronto something this season, he may be on the move again.

And finally, as we ask every year, is this the season when Bruno Caboclo breaks loose and starts going Brazilian Kevin Durant on the rest of the league? My answer: Unlikely. It may be hard to believe, but Bruno is still one of the youngest guys on the team at 21 years old. His time in the D-League—now the G League—can only be good for him, but his scoring dropped off significantly last season compared to the year prior, when he was putting up double-figure numbers almost every game. There’s still a lot of time left for Bruno to prove himself, and as such it’s tough to imagine that time being this season.

It’s difficult—though intriguing—trying to judge a group of players who don’t have an extensive NBA resume as of yet (I feel for you, Philly fans). Even if one has seen a player be productive in spurts, it’s impossible to know whether or not they’ll be capable of handling a bigger role long-term without actually seeing it. For the Raptors in particular, Powell is probably the only young player that the team has a good grasp on.

So let the experiment begin. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

And remember: It’s all part of the three-year plan.

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