How they can win it all: The Chicago Bulls

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Coming into this season, the Heat, The Lakers, and The Celtics were supposed to rule the NBA. After 82 games, the Chicago Bulls are coming into the playoffs with the best record in the league. They don’t have as much championship experience as some of the other top contenders, but they’re talented, young, hungry, and ready to bring a title back to Chicago. Here’s why they can win it all:

1. Defense:

The Chicago Bulls are the best defensive team in the league. They hold teams to 97.3 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league. They hold their opponents to the lowest three-point percentage in the league. Only Orlando allows a lower proportion of offensive rebounds. They rank #3 in the league in blocks, steals, and charges taken per 100 possessions. They rarely commit defensive fouls. They are a defensive powerhouse.

The Bulls don’t have one dominant defensive force like Dwight Howard or Kevin Garnett, but they have an absolute defensive mastermind on the sidelines and a plethora of athletic and aggressive defensive players who can execute Thibodeau’s defensive rotations perfectly. They fly around screens. They trap ball-handlers. They close out the three-point line without selling out. They collapse in the paint and load up the strong-side while still being able to recover. They play defense. They love defense. Their 2nd unit is even more dominant defensively than their starting unit. They live to break the wills of their opponents. Any team that wants to get past Chicago is going to have to figure out a way to score on them consistently, and that proved to be a nearly impossible task this season.

2. Derrick Rose

He’s going to win the MVP award. Forget about if he’s the best player in the league for a second and focus on what we definitely know he is. He’s unstoppable when he drives to the basket, he’s an excellent passer and floor general, he can make a momentum-shifting highlight play at the drop of a hat, and he’s become a dangerous three-point shooter. He’s not afraid of the big moment, and he’s fearless in crunch-time, but he knows to pass the ball if that’s the right play. He’s young, he’s a physical specimen, he’s got the skills, he’s going to win the MVP award, and he’s ready to take the final step. Get ready.

3. Depth

Do the Bulls have A Dynamic Duo? A Big Three? A Fantastic Four? Maybe. Rose is definitely a superstar, Joakim Noah is a force on the boards and on defense, and Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng are reliable players who can drop 25 efficient points on any given night. Do they measure up to Boston, Miami, San Antonio’s, or Los Angeles’ top players? It might not matter.

The Bulls may not have as much star power as some other playoff contenders, but they have what every coach and general manager should want his team to have: A 10-man rotation full of players that every coach in the league would want on his roster. Ronnie Brewer makes life hell for his opponents when he plays defense, can finish around the rim, and makes some of the best off-ball cuts in the league. Omer Asik is a defensive dynamo who chases after every loose ball and rebound like his life depends on it.

Kyle Korver is one of the purest shooters in the league and rarely makes a dumb play. Taj Gibson’s length, athleticism, and defensive instincts make him one of the best backup power forwards in the league. C.J. Watson can make open shots, run the offense without incident, and plays textbook-perfect defense on opposing points. Laugh at Keith Bogans all you want, but he knows what his jobs are and he does them well. When Kurt Thomas is asked to do something, he does it. Every one of the Bulls’ players knows what his role is, has confidence in his game, and executes his role to perfection. Having role players that just take up space and role players that know what they need to do to help their team win has decided many a playoff series, and no team has a more capable cast of role players than the Bulls.

The Bulls have the tools to go all the way, and they have the right mentality to do it. They proved just how good they are in the regular season; now they’re just 16 wins away from removing all doubt about their ability to be champions.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: I could never see myself playing for Los Angeles

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All-Star Weekend was (at least) an implicit recruiting tool for the Lakers and Clippers. The host teams could show off Los Angeles – the beautiful weather in middle of winter, the nightlife, the glitz and glamour.

LeBron James‘ praise drew the most attention:

I think L.A. is a perfect place to host All-Star Weekend. It’s one of the few cities that we have in our league that can accommodate all of this. And when I mean all of this, you have over 200-plus countries that’s covering the game. You’ve got so many people from all over the world coming to watch our game and just be a part of All-Star Weekend. And we know the traffic. We understand that. But traffic is traffic and — but L.A. can accommodate that. It’s built for stars. It’s built for entertainment. It’s built for cameras and bright lights, and it’s a great place for it.

Of course, we already knew LeBron was partial to Los Angeles. He has a house there.

But not every All-Star raved about the city.

Bucks forward Antetokounmpo, via Matt Velazquez Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“I could never see myself being out there,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s great for two, three days but it’s a little bit — things are going a little bit crazy.

“Of course, because of the All-Star Game, there was a lot of people there. … In Milwaukee — I love Milwaukee — it’s low-key. I can walk down the road, down the streets without anybody bugging me — nobody interrupts my conversation or anything. I love how quiet and calm Milwaukee is.”

The Bucks ought to appreciate this outlook. Antetokounmpo once said he wanted to stay with them forever, and – as rumors swirled about his future in Milwaukee, he tweeted, “I got loyalty inside my DNA.” But he has since explained how important it is for a team to do right by its star player, supporting him with a winning supporting cast.

Maybe Antetokounmpo will eventually leave the Bucks, but it seems unlikely that’d be just to reach a bigger market. Milwaukee can’t change its location. The Bucks can somewhat control whether they put a winner around Antetokounmpo.

Still, other teams will try to poach Antetokounmpo – like Joel Embiid‘s 76ers. Antetokounmpo, via Velazquez:

“He told me I should trust the process and come play for Philly,” Antetokounmpo said with a chuckle, drawing a laugh. “That was my reaction — I just laughed.”

PBT Podcast: What to watch during stretch run of season

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Are the Cleveland Cavaliers for real? And by “real” do you mean best in the East or threat to Warriors?

Who is going to make the playoffs in the West? Is Utah going in? Portland? The Los Angeles Clippers?

Is James Harden going win MVP? Is it Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year?

Those are just some of the storylines as the NBA races down the stretch run of the season (most teams have around 25 games left). Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down all the things to watch from the end of the season, including if Detroit can climb up into the postseason, and how the top of the East is going to shake out.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Suns, Hawks say they won’t change strategy to tank

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Phoenix shut down healthy players in a transparent bid to tank last season. But Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said not to expect a repeat.

Scott Bordow of azcentral:

Wednesday, McDonough told azcentral sports that the Suns won’t approach the final 23 games of this season the same way. In other words, Phoenix isn’t tanking in order to improve its chances of landing the No. 1 pick in the May 15 draft lottery.

“We’re planning on doing what we have been doing, that’s playing our young players. For us, that’s not a change,” McDonough said. “… We want to continue to have them improve and get minutes and try to win as many games as we can.”

The Mike Budenholzer-coached Hawks also won’t sit their top players.

Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Some other teams near the bottom of the standings have publicly proclaimed they will favor youth over experience for the final four-plus weeks of the season, but Budenholzer said he will stay the course.

“I think we’ve been a mix of young and veteran guys all year,” he said Wednesday. “I think the way we progressed through the season — of course when you start the season you think it could be a little different — (but) right now but I think the way we’ve played, and the way we continue to play, won’t be that much different.”

To some degree, McDonough and Budenholzer are just trying to avoid a Mark Cuban-esque fine. The NBA discourages most talk of tanking.

But Phoenix and Atlanta don’t need to change their rotations to tank. They’re already good at losing! Both teams are a league-worst 18-41.

Some teams will get more serious about tanking down the stretch. The Suns and Hawks are already there. That doesn’t make them more virtuous than the Mavericks.

Still, this is a tight race for the top of the lottery. Four other teams have just 18 wins. Another has only 19, and one more has only 20. If the Suns and Hawks need to get worse to improve draft position, I wouldn’t put it past either team.

By the way, that headline can be read a couple different ways. That’s intentional.

Report: Kyrie Irving requested trade after ‘sloppy’ discussion by Cavaliers’ front office

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The Cavaliers reportedly explored trading Kyrie Irving in June. He requested a trade in July.

Since dealt to the Celtics, Irving has said he’ll never pinpoint his precise reason for leaving Cleveland. But he also said the Cavs “didn’t want me there.”

Did the Cavaliers push him out?

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

On the day of the NBA draft back in June, just days after Cleveland parted ways with former GM David Griffin, a robust Cavs contingent made up of front-office personnel, coaches and team support staff members held an impromptu, “what if?” discussion about Kyrie Irving’s future, multiple team sources confirmed to ESPN.

The discussion, characterized as “small talk” by one source familiar with its content, was less a formal straw poll of what the Cavs should do with their All-Star point guard should trade opportunities present themselves, and more a thought exercise anticipating what the market could bear for a player of Irving’s caliber.

The talk got back to Irving, multiple team sources told ESPN, and that served as the tipping point that led to Irving formally requesting a trade a little more than two weeks later.

“It was sloppy,” one league source familiar with the draft-day discussion told ESPN, adding that any talk about trading a player of Irving’s ilk — however informal it might be — should be handled strictly between the GM and owner, because of the sensitive nature of its content.

While Altman was involved in the meeting, he and Mike Gansey — at that point officially the head of the Cavs’ G League team — were only keeping the ship afloat on an interim basis and had yet to be formally elevated to their current roles as GM and assistant GM, respectively.

This is one spin on the story. Yet another: Irving initially requested a trade before the draft and considered requesting one in 2016.

Both sides are trying to blame the other for the disintegration of their relationship.

It can be difficult to read how serious the draft-day discussion was. Maybe Irving interpreted ut correctly. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just used it to justify a trade request he wanted to make anyway.

What’s more clear: Communication hasn’t been as strong between the front office and players under general manager Koby Altman as it was under Griffin. McMenamin:

While the Cavs were struggling in late December through early January, LeBron James questioned Altman’s absentee status on a long Cleveland road trip, team sources told ESPN.

Altman helped repair that relationship leading up to the trade deadline, looping LeBron in on discussions that culminated with three trades. LeBron appears more invested in the Cavaliers, just in time to keep him next summer.

But some mistakes can’t be fixed before it’s too late. Maybe those Irving trade talks in June were one of them.