Lauri Markkanen

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Bulls blew the Jimmy Butler trade, and they’ll pay the price for years

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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.

Jimmy Butler was a one-man wrecking crew.

Now, the Bulls are just a wreck.

A half decade of frustration since Derrick Rose‘s injuries sent the franchise spiraling off course culminated in a lousy trade of the star wing, an intentional blowup after years of unintentional blowups.

The Three-Alphas idea was poorly conceived and predictably faltered. Fred Hoiberg has looked out of his element in the NBA, and his rosters haven’t fit his preferred style. Five straight first-round picks – Marquis Teague, Tony Snell, Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine – have produced little value in Chicago and stressed the Bulls closer to their breaking point.

But they still had Butler.

Butler has grown steadily as a player, approaching superstardom. Using win shares and teams’ actual wins, he accounted for more than a third of Chicago’s victories – a higher percentage of his team’s wins than anyone in the NBA, save the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns. But unlike Towns, Butler actually led his team to the playoffs. Butler could have again single-handedly carried the Bulls into the playoff race this season, which isn’t nothing.

Perhaps, the prospect of another early postseason exit was no longer appealing. Chicago has gone nine years without a losing record, but has advanced past the second round only once since Michael Jordan’s last championship, reaching the conference finals in Rose’s 2011 MVP season. There would have been nothing wrong with choosing to rebuild in aim of something bigger, and Butler – locked into a team-friendly contract for two more seasons – would have given the Bulls a huge leg up.

Instead, they squandered that elite asset.

Chicago traded Butler to the Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and moving up from No. 16 to No. 7 in the draft. That last aspect is the cherry on top of an awful trade. The Bulls didn’t even get an additional first-rounder! They gave up their own in a deal that still would have been awful if they hadn’t.

LaVine is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in February, a troubling injury for someone whose upside is tied to the athleticism he displayed while winning the last two dunk contests. Chicago will have him for only one year on his cheap rookie-scale contract before paying him market value (or so), either with an extension this summer or in restricted free agency next summer. Maybe the Bulls can get LaVine on a discount due to his knee, but they would be assuming real risk.

What did they see in him to make him the centerpiece of their Butler return?

LaVine has garnered attention by upping his scoring average in three NBA seasons – 10 to 14 to 19 points per game. Though LaVine’s efficiency is solid thanks to a smooth 3-point stroke, his heavy workload under Tom Thibodeau – 37.2 minutes per game, third in the NBA – contributed to LaVine’s impressive traditional statistic. He ranked 37th in points per game, but just 69th in points per possession, which is not so nice.

For all his athleticism, LaVine hasn’t really applied it to defending, rebounding or drawing fouls. His injury raises questions about whether he’ll maintain the athleticism necessary to make a jump. Just 22, LaVine still has time to blossom. But it’s worth acknowledging how one-dimensional he is.

Dunn, the No. 5 pick just last year, is actually older than LaVine. A rough rookie year was particularly disappointing, considering Dunn’s age. He has a way to go before his production warrants playing time, though he’ll see the court to develop – especially on this team.

Lauri Markkanen was a fine pick at No. 7, but the shooting big will have to majorly exceed expectations to make this a worthwhile package for Butler.

After surrendering with the Butler trade, Chicago looked directionless in free agency. Quickly securing Cristiano Felicio on a four-year, $32 million contract might have been commendable last year. In 2017 – a tighter market, especially for restricted free agents and big men – it’s a misread. Justin Holiday looks like decent value on his two-year, $9 million contract. Nikola Mirotic remains a restricted free agent.

Getting a second-rounder for paying a portion of Quincy Pondexter was a wise use of resources. Committing to rebuilding sooner and convincing Dwyane Wade to opt out of his $23.8 million salary would have created more room for similar salary dumps. We’ll never know whether Wade would have gone for that, but he might have.

The saving grace of this offseason: Chicago should be bad. Really bad. Maybe worst-in-the-league bad. That’ll net a high draft pick, unlike the Pacers, who are trying to win a moderate amount after their own flop of a star trade.

But the Bulls could also remain bad for years as they try to build back up. Their young core is lacking, and they don’t have a single extra first-rounder.

They never should have been this destitute after starting the summer with Butler.

Offseason grade: D-

Report: Cavaliers were close to trading for Jimmy Butler on day they ousted David Griffin

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LeBron James is reportedly frustrated with the Cavaliers’ offseason.

It’s not just the moves the Cavs made, but the moves they didn’t – like trading for Jimmy Butler.

Perhaps, LeBron is being unreasonable. How often do teams as constrained as Cleveland was – deep into the luxury tax, multiple future first-round picks already owed, aging roster – trade for a relatively young star?

But the Cavaliers were pursuing Butler when they parted ways with general manager David Griffin, which certainly didn’t help their chances of nabbing the Bulls wing. Did dropping Griffin cost Cleveland getting Butler?

Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:

Further exacerbating James’ frustration is the Cavs were close to making a deal for then-Chicago Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler the day Gilbert decided to mutually part ways with Griffin and Redden, two people familiar with negotiations told USA TODAY Sports.

Griffin reportedly left the Cavaliers plans for a Butler trade, but Chicago obviously sent him to the Timberwolves instead.

We’ll never know what would have happened if Cleveland kept Griffin. It’s easy to imagine the Cavs beating the piddling return the Bulls got from Minnesota in a three-team trade involving Kevin Love.

But it was already easy to imagine several teams offering more than the Timberwolves did. Maybe Chicago is just that infatuated with Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen. I’m also unsure Love’s value around the league – especially to teams who could flip the young players the Bulls coveted.

How close teams were to a deal is often overstated by one side that thinks it was close to a deal. The other team might have disagreed but not fully conveyed how far it was from accepting.

But, to a certain degree, perception matters here. If LeBron believes the Cavaliers could have Butler if they kept Griffin, that’s a problem for Cleveland.

Top 15 Free Agents still on the market

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The pickings are slim — the biggest names and best players have been snatched up.

Also, the market is now tight — teams have spent most of their money and now are just rounding out their rosters. There are no more massive contracts to be handed out.

Still, there are some players who can help teams still out there. Here is our list of the Top 15 free agents still available. We’ve broken the list down to unrestricted (the top 10) and restricted (top 5) where the team has the right to match any offer.

TOP 10 UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

1) Pau Gasol. He remains the best player still on the board as an unrestricted free agent — he is still a fundamentally solid big who can score inside, make smart passes, and defend the rim all with a high IQ. There is also no drama here. He will re-sign with the Spurs, he opted out only to help them make moves in free agency. In the coming days, he should re-sign with San Antonio, likely for something around the $16 million he opted out of.

2) Derrick Rose. The music has stopped in the point guard market, and Rose is the one standing without a chair. He’s the best point guard left available, but the market is tight now and he’s going to get a short deal with a team for the minimum or little more. Rose put up solid numbers last season in New York and on paper he looked like an average NBA point guard, but he’s still a defensive liability and is not versatile offensively (nor is he much of a jump shooter). Rumors on where he will land have slowed way down.

3) Shabazz Muhammad. He’s had a couple respectable seasons for the Timberwolves, last season averaging 9.9 points per game and shooting 33.8 percent from three (he was Minnesota’s leading scorer off the bench). He’s not a great defender, but he has improved. He reportedly has drawn some interest from the Knicks, Hawks, Bucks, and Nets but no deal has been forthcoming.

4) Andrew Bogut. There’s an obvious injury risk here — the 32-year-old’s last season ended with a fractured tibia, and he has a history of missing chunks of the season. That said, in a tight free agent market for big men he is the best one on the market when healthy. He is a smart defender, a very good passing big, and he’s an efficient scorer. Cleveland tried to pick him up last season for a reason (then had to waive him after the injury), another contender should consider the move.

5) JaVale McGee. He may be unhappy that the Warriors didn’t offer him more money after last season, but with the market drying up he may need to decide whether he wants to chase another ring or move on. McGee brings some athleticism at the five, some rim protection, and a guy who can finish at the rim.

6) Gerald Henderson. He was solid for the Sixers last season, averaging 9.2 points and 2.6 rebounds a game, shooting 35.3 percent from three. With their backcourt getting crowded, the Sixers waived Henderson, and at this point he’s not going to get close to the $9 million he was going to make last season. There has not been much buzz about where he may land.

7) Matt Barnes. He picked up a ring last season after getting picked up by the Warriors, and at age 37 the feisty forward is still an above replacement level player. Barnes helped the Warriors through the Kevin Durant injury last regular season and still has something in the tank. He’s not going to get more than one year at the veteran minimum level, but at that price there are teams who could use him.

8) Ty Lawson. There’s not a lot of teams looking to add a point guard, but Lawson will get a call from someone. He was above replacement level for the Kings last season and averaged 9.9 points per game, however, he does not space the floor with his shooting. He’d make a respectable backup point.

9) Boris Diaw. The market for the veteran forward is pretty small, and Diaw is now 35, but he could certainly help a team looking for a guy who can provide versatile minutes off the bench, smart passes, and some high IQ play. Plus he comes with his own espresso machine. Diaw averaged just 4.6 points per game and had a PER of 9 last season in Utah, yet they considered him part of the stabilizing veteran influence that helped that team take a step forward.

10) Tony Allen. Grit n’ grind is dead in Memphis, but if another team is looking for a defensive guard who can come in and help them get some stops, Allen is still on the market. His lack of shooting is well known, but there are still teams that could use him. He said he didn’t want a lot of money but wanted to be taken care of by the Grizzlies, now with the market tight he may not get more than the minimum

TOP 5 RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

(Note: The market is very tight for all of these guys, there are no max offers out there, and frankly no more $20 million ones either. These guys mostly have to negotiate with their teams.)

1) Nerlens Noel. He and his agent seemed to think that a big offer sheet — the kind we saw last summer for guys like Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson — would be on the way for Noel, setting up his big payday. Instead, there has been nothing. Part of is that other teams knew Dallas would just match, but part of it was also a tighter market this summer. Noel is a rangy, defensive-minded center who Dallas traded to get at the deadline last season, they see him as part of the future of the franchise. All the money for a massive offer has dried up, and Dallas can play hardball and offer a deal that is in the mid-teens in millions per year. Noel will want north of $20 million per year, but considering his injury history he’s not likely to take the qualifying offer and bet on himself.

2) JaMychal Green. Even more than Noel, this is the guy I thought some team would max out and try to poach, but nothing has come down the line for him. There was this odd note on the Fourth of July…

But since then nothing. Crickets. With Zach Randolph gone there is a bigger role for Green in Memphis, expect him to reach a deal eventually.

3) Mason Plumlee. Last summer his brother Miles Plumlee got a four-year, $52 million deal, and Mason is going to get nowhere near that. The summer of 2016 has proven to be an outlier — everyone got paid, and this year teams sobered up. Denver has the rights for Plumlee, who would be the backup to Nikola Jokic, and with a tight market the Nuggets will get to keep this Plumlee at a very affordable price. The only question now is the number.

4) Nikola Mirotic. Stretch fours are in demand across the league, the fact that Mirotic has had no offer sheets speaks to his inconsistency. He’s a stretch four who shot just 34.2 percent from three last season and doesn’t defend well. He did average 10.6 points and 5.5 rebounds a game, he has some strong showings in the final six weeks of the season, but those seem the aberrations. The Bulls will play hardball, but with No. 7 pick Lauri Markkanen being unimpressive at Summer League, the Bulls will want Mirotic back and ready to play.

5) Alex Len. You can’t blame him if he saw Meyers Leonard get four-years, $41 million last season, and Bismack Biyambo get $72 million, and Len thought his payday was coming. As with a lot of guys on the restricted free agent market this year (and still on this list) that big offer sheet from another team never came, now their home team can play hardball. He was solid last season averaging 8 points and 6.6 boards per game, but if Noel and Plumlee aren’t getting offer sheets, neither is Len. He’s going to have to reach a deal with the Suns or play for the qualifying offer and test what will be a tight market next summer.

Top of the draft board shines at Summer League

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The depth and quality of the 2017 NBA draft had teams tanking at the end of the regular season in hopes of vaulting into the top three picks.

With the huge caveat being that it was only summer league action, those at the top of the draft made quite a first impression.

Summer league play was set to end on Monday night after Portland played the Lakers in the Las Vegas league championship game. Over leagues played in Orlando, Salt Lake City and Vegas, many of the top 10 picks gave their teams plenty to feel good about before heading into the league’s quiet period for the next two months.

No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball owned Vegas with a pair of triple-doubles to help the Los Angeles Lakers reach the title game. Top pick Markelle Fultz showed off his wide array of scoring tricks in Utah before sitting out much of Vegas with an ankle injury and No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum of Boston was drawing comparisons to Paul Pierce while dominating both in Utah and Nevada.

The competition these rookies will face will increase exponentially when training camps open in October. And there is a long list of summer league standouts – Nikoloz Tskitishvili, anyone? – who never amounted to anything in the NBA. But for struggling franchises like the Lakers, Sixers, Suns and Kings, seeing some real promise from their youngsters the first time they step on the court is encouraging.

“Every day, Magic and I say: `How are we pursuing excellence?”‘ Lakers GM Rob Pelinka told reporters in Vegas on Sunday, referring to new Lakers president Magic Johnson. “To win the Summer League (would be) a step in that direction.”

Whether the Lakers achieve that goal or not doesn’t mean the suffering of the last four years is over. Far from it.

The real test awaits in a couple of months. But for several franchises that are in the business of selling hope right now, business is good.

Here are some other takeaways from summer league action:

PACKED HOUSE: Buoyed by Ball and the Lakers, the Vegas Summer League enjoyed record attendance numbers, including multiple sell-outs of Thomas & Mack Center.

What started as a gathering of a few teams 13 years ago has turned into a full-fledged event under the guidance of coaching agent Warren LeGarie and Albert Hall. Sponsors are lining up to get in on the action, fans crowd the concourses looking for autographs of the next big things and established stars like LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas and John Wall sit courtside to watch the games.

ESPN and NBATV televise the games and over 500 media credentials were given out for the Las Vegas site alone.

The Vegas tournament has grown to include 24 teams and is also home to the league meetings, where owners gather to consider rules changes and other orders of business for the season ahead.

“I told Mayor Goodman that we should get a commission for the NFL and the NHL following in our footsteps,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last week. “We were here when some leagues weren’t even taking advertising in Las Vegas, and we’re proud to be here. I feel our Summer League has become a fixture in Las Vegas, part of the permanent summer calendar.”

OTHER STANDOUTS: Fultz, Tatum and Ball weren’t the only youngsters to have strong showings in summer league.

Dennis Smith Jr., the No. 9 pick by Dallas, may have been the best player in Las Vegas, averaging 17.3 points and 4.2 assists per game for the Mavericks and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell averaged 28 points per game in just two games for the Jazz.

Sacramento’s De'Aaron Fox, the fifth overall pick out of Kentucky, displayed his athleticism and defensive instincts for the Kings. Josh Jackson, the No. 4 overall pick by Phoenix, averaged 17.4 points and 9.2 rebounds in Vegas and played with a competitive fire that intrigued many scouts leading up to the draft.

Portland’s Caleb Swanigan was consistent throughout and San Antonio’s Bryn Forbes had a pair of 35-point games to give the Spurs another promising young talent in the pipeline as they wait to hear from Manu Ginobili on his future.

FLIP SIDE: Just as we shouldn’t read too much into the successes of summer league, so to should the struggles be taken with a grain of salt. But Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls’ No. 7 overall pick who came over in the draft-night trade that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, shot just 24 percent (6 for 25 on 3-pointers) in Las Vegas, not a great sign for a 7-footer billed as the best shooter in the draft.

Sacramento’s Buddy Hield, the centerpiece of the trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans in February, shot just 35 percent in three games in Las Vegas, a mark was aided by a binge of six 3s in his final game against the Lakers. Not what you want to see from a second-year player who will turn 24 in December.

 

Bulls’ GM Gar Forman says no buyout talks with Dwyane Wade yet, no regrets about starting rebuild

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LAS VEGAS — Lauri Markkanen. Denzel Valentine. Kris Dunn. Paul Zipster.

That core of the roster the Chicago Bulls have brought to Las Vegas for Summer League is one GM Gar Forman hopes will be at the core of a team playing and winning in the United Center in a few years. The Bulls finally stopped years of half-measures and went all in — they traded Jimmy Butler and set out to rebuild with Forman is at the helm. Even if the fans in Chicago don’t trust him and John Paxson in that role.

 

“We needed to take a step back in order to start this rebuild, and the key now will be player development,” Forman said Monday after the Bulls Summer League loss. “This group continuing to develop, continuing to work hard, and the fans seeing progress with this group over the next year or two.”

One guy not part of that future: Dwyane Wade. Forman said there have been no buyout talks with Wade or his agent. So far.

The 35-year-old former All-Star is owed $23.8 million this season, and that’s a lot for the Bulls to eat. Coach Fred Hoiberg said recently he expects Wade to start the season with the Bulls, but nobody around the league expects him to finish it there. The only question on the buyout is when and for how much.

Forman wanted to focus on the future, the rebuilding process going forward. He said that Zach LaVine, the athletic wing coming off an ACL injury who was traded to Chicago as part of the Butler deal, is working hard, but the team isn’t going to rush him back — he kept using the word cautious over and over.

“We see this as a big window move, as far as bringing in Zach at 22 years old,” Forman said. “He’s been fantastic, he’s been in our gym working out with our athletic performance staff, he came out here (to Las Vegas) to spend some times with our young kids, and work with our staff.”

There are a lot of teams in the East going into a rebuilding space right now, making it that much harder to get the high draft picks and pull off the moves needed to successfully rebuild. Fans and some media members love to suggest rebuilds, and it looks great when you get the No. 1 picks the Timberwolves did, or can develop players like the Warriors, but there are a lot of Orlando or Sacramento “rebuilds” out there as cautionary tales.

Can Forman and the Bulls pull this off? We all know the answer you get if you ask most Bulls fans.

It’s going to take time. LaVine relied on his athleticism and is coming off an injury that may rob him of a little of that. Markkanen has shown in Vegas that he may have the pieces in his game, but it’s going to take some time to see if he can pull it together. Is Valentine ready for the larger role coming his way? There are a lot of questions.

“I think we’ve got great, great things, and we have very passionate fans, that’s one of the plusses of being in Chicago, is that they’re very passionate about the Bulls,” Forman said. “We understand it’s always hard when you’ve had a level of success and you’ve got to take a step back and go into a new direction, as far as a rebuild is concerned. We know that it’s going to be a process, we know that there are going to be ups and downs in that process, but we think the trade gave us a step in the right direction as far as heading that way. 

“We got three young players that we really like, and we continue to be a team with flexibility. The big thing for us now is to integrate these young guys in, to continue to develop the young guys that we have from the previous year, continue to keep our flexibility where we can add assets.”

That all sounds good. But does Gar/Pax have the eye for talent, and do the Bulls have the player development chops, to pull it off?