What the Bulls should do when the lockout ends

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The Bulls were one of the NBA”s best success stories last season. Nobody saw them as serious contenders coming into the year, but first-year head coach and defensive guru turned the Bulls into the league’s best defensive team, the Bulls’ bench mob made them perhaps the deepest team in the league, and Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP award winner in the history of the league. The Bulls finished with the NBA’s best regular-season record, and while they only managed to take one game off of the Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they clearly gave LeBron, Wade and co. all they could handle.

Now the Bulls have to make the leap from title contender to champion, which is even tougher than the leap from good team to title contender. Here are some ways they could do it:

1. Add some versatility to the offense

This was a point that came up over and over again  when the Bulls had trouble scoring during the playoffs, but the Bulls were never a great offensive team at any point last season. The Bulls finished 12th in offensive efficiency during the regular season, and were 8th out of the 16 playoff teams in post-season offensive efficiency. The Bulls’ plan was to grind teams down with their defense and depth, keep games close, and let Derrick Rose take over late in games. It worked until it didn’t — when Rose got locked down in the fourth quarter by LeBron James a few times in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls had no answers, and their fourth-quarter performances ultimately cost them the series.

Rose has room for improvement as an offensive player, especially from the perimeter. Early in the year, Rose’s improved jump shot was a big storyline, but eventually Rose’s jumper went back to being a weakness — Rose shot a career-low 38% on long twos last season, and while he made huge leaps as a three-point shooter, he still only made less than a third of his shots from beyond the arc. In the postseason, his jumper completely abandoned him, and he shot just 39.6% from the field and 24.8% from deep in the playoffs.

The Bulls and Rose need to find ways to generate offense when Rose isn’t able to get into the paint and convert at will if they want to win a championship in the next few years.

2. Plan for the postseason

Derrick Rose took home the MVP trophy, but Chicago’s group of defensive minded super-subs like C.J. Watson, Omer Asik, and even Kurt Thomas were just as important to Chicago’s regular-season success as Rose was.

However, when the rotations tightened for the playoffs, Chicago’s depth stopped being the asset it was in the regular season, and Watson, Asik, and Thomas barely saw the floor. From the day the season starts, whenever that might be, the Bulls have to start planning for teams like the Celtics and the Heat instead of trying to figure out a post-season rotation on the fly — playoff basketball is very different from regular-season basketball because of how much more important individual matchups become and how many more minutes the best players play, and the Bulls have to keep that in mind all season long.

3. Don’t forget what made you a contender

The Bulls had the best record in the regular season because they played a tougher, more swarming brand of defense than any other team in the league, outworked their opponents, and generally broke whatever team they played on a given night. They played like a team with something to prove all year long. If they rest on the laurels of their success last season, they could lose what made them so good — the fact that they played every game like a Game 7. If the Bulls stay hungry, they should be able to capture one of the top two spots in the East again. If they can then find new sources of offense and settle on a true playoff rotation, they could easily bring the NBA Finals trophy back to Chicago.

76ers take 1 big step (and a couple smaller ones, too)

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Even the NBA’s worst team has only a 25% chance of getting the No. 1 pick in the lottery.

The 76ers made their own luck.

Philadelphia finished with the league’s fourth-worst record, fell to No. 5 in the lottery, swapped picks with the Kings to move up to No. 3 thanks to a two-year-old trade then traded up to No. 1 by enticing the Celtics with a future draft pick (another pick acquired in that heist of Sacramento, a Lakers pick or one of the 76ers’ own).

Whew, that’s some Process.

No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz is the latest prize in the 76ers’ reverse engineering of the NBA’s system, joining Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. That’s an exciting young core that might be ready to lift Philadelphia from years of tanking to playoff contention.

To that end, the 76ers signed J.J. Redick to a one-year, $23 million contract. The 33-year-old has already shown signs of decline, but he’s an upgrade over any shooting guard on the roster. If their other young players are ready to make the leap, the 76ers didn’t want to learn the hard way they were a starting shooting guard short of reaching the postseason. In securing an immediate boost, Philadelphia essentially paid extra for flexibility. Redick’s salary will almost certainly outpace his production, the 76ers ensured no lasting negative effects beyond this season.

The same logic could apply to Amir Johnson, who signed a one-year, $11 million contract. But Philadelphia’s frontcourt depth and the dreary market for bigs make that deal less defensible – especially if Johnson’s salary could have been reappropriated for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who surprisingly became an unrestricted free agent) or paying Robert Covington more up front (as opposed to in future seasons, when the savings might matter more) in a renegotiation-and-extension.

With about $15 million in cap space remaining, the 76ers will likely still renegotiate-and-extend Covington once they can in November. He fits well into a deep crop of solid assets beyond the big three: Dario Saric, Richaun Holmes, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jahlil Okafor, Justin Anderson, T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskas, Furkan Korkmaz (the No. 26 pick last year who signed this year), all Philadelphia’s own future first-rounders plus one extra (from either the Kings or Lakers – or both, if if Philadelphia’s own pick is conveyed to Boston). The 76ers even added to the pool this summer with a couple draft-and-stash selections – No. 25 pick Anzejs Pasecniks and No. 36 pick Jonah Bolden (who I’m personally quite high on).

That grouping alone would be envy of many teams. And then there are still Embiid, Simmons and Fultz – the trio that will determine how quickly the brighter days ahead arrive in Philadelphia.

The 76ers’ revival is built on Embiid’s back – and feet and knees. He could be a generational player, but injuries have already cost him 215 games in three years and limited him to just 25 minutes per game in the 31 he has played.

Though it’s the one that looms far beyond, Embiid’s health isn’t the only potential pitfall this season. Rookie point guards – whether it be Fultz or Simmons – rarely lead good teams. It’s a position that typically requires fine-tuning.

Still, this is just the start in Philadelphia. Making the playoffs this season would be nice, but bigger goals down the road appear attainable either way.

The 76ers were in great shape entering the summer. They’re in even better shape now.

Offseason grade: B

Report: Wizards signing Donald Sloan

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The Wizards look like they solved their backup-point-guard problems with Tim Frazier.

But they also looked like they solved their backup-point-guard problems with Trey Burke and then Brandon Jennings last year – and look how that turned out.

So, even after trading for Frazier, Washington is still trying to increase stability behind John Wall.
CSN Mid-Atlantic:

The Wizards added some depth to their backcourt on Thursday by signing veteran guard Donald Sloan to a one-year deal, CSN’s Chris Miller confirmed on Thursday night.

The 29-year-old Sloan has played for the Hawks, New Orleans Hornets, Cavaliers, Pacers and Nets in a five-year NBA career. He spent last season in China.

Sloan isn’t much of a scorer, and he’s only a decent distributor. But he makes up for it with all-around adequacy, highlighted by his rebounding for his position.

The veteran will compete with second-year Sheldon Mac, whose salary is just $50,000 guaranteed, to be Washington’s third point guard.

Report: Knicks sign Nigel Hayes to partially guaranteed deal

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Nigel Hayes became a cult hero at Wisconsin for bringing a “BROKE COLLEGE ATHLETE ANYTHING HELPS” sign to GameDay and soliciting Venmo donations, challenging the stenographer in a press conference and “accidentally” calling a stenographer beautiful in front of a hot mic.

After going undrafted, Hayes and his colorful personality are headed to New York, where Knicks fans are starving for fun.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Could Hayes stick into the regular season? The Knicks have just 14 players with guaranteed salaries, leaving one more spot for a player on an standard contract. Chasson Randle has an unguaranteed salary that becomes partially guaranteed around the time training camp opens. The Knicks could also sign other players, though they’re down to just minimum exceptions.

Hayes – a 6-foot-8 forward – has a chance, but he’s most likely ticketed to New York’s minor-league affiliate after being waived by the parent club.

Who is betting favorite to win Rookie of the Year? Lonzo Ball? Ben Simmons? Depends.

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The Rookie of the Year race is wide open heading into next season.

It’s that way every year — if you had predicted Malcolm Brogdon was going to win a year ago, you would have been laughed out of the room — but this coming season has a deep pool of elite talent who will be in position to put up numbers, the usual formula for winning the award. Lonzo Ball, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Jayson Tatum all have a real shot — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Who is the betting favorite? Depends on where you do your betting.

The William Hill’s Nevada sportsbook (which works with a number of Las Vegas casinos, such as the SLS), has these odds (hat tip ESPN):

Lonzo Ball 9-5
Ben Simmons 5-2
Dennis Smith Jr. 4-1
Markelle Fultz 13-2
De'Aaron Fox 8-1
Jayson Tatum 8-1

The Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas has Simmons as the betting line favorite at 9-4

The online betting site Bovda.lv has this line

Lonzo Ball 9-4
Dennis Smith 3-1
Ben Simmons 5-1
Jayson Tatum 5-1
Markelle Fultz 8-1

Traditionally, Rookie of the Year goes to a guy who has the ball in his hands, is aggressive, and puts up raw numbers. It celebrates scorers. All of the guys on that list can do that, although Ball will be judged more on his passing and how he helps turn the Lakers into an up-tempo team. In addition to the guys on that list, Josh Jackon in Phoenix will get numbers, as might John Collins in a rebuilding Atlanta. There are sleepers down the board with a chance.

This year a whole lot of guys fit the traditional mold of a guy who can win the award, more than are mentioned here. It’s going to be a wild ride.