Quincy Pondexter

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Three questions the Chicago Bulls must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 41-41 getting the eight seed, lost to Boston in the first round.

I know what you did last summer: Chicago traded away Jimmy Butler for a handful of magic beans Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and they swapped first round picks with the Timberwolves (that they gave up their No. 16 pick in that trade is inconceivable). The Bulls used that draft pick on Lauri Markkanen They let Rajon Rondo walk, re-signed Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio, picked up Quincy Pondexter and Justin Holiday.

THREE QUESTIONS THE BULLS MUST ANSWER:

1) When does Zach LaVine return and how does he look? LaVine is an explosive athlete — remember the dunk contest? — who scored 18.9 points per game last season because of that gift. Then he tore his ACL. There is legitimate reason for concern. LaVine is young, he could well bounce all the way back, but traditionally this is not a fast process.

The latest projections are LaVine will start contact in practice in mid-November, which could have him back around Thanksgiving if there are no setbacks. However, expect the Bulls to be cautious with him, and restrict his minutes when he does return. Usually with ACLs it takes players time — like months, maybe a year — after returning to the court to really truly trust the knee again, not think about it, and play like their former selves.

LaVine is a restricted free agent next summer, so how he looks when he does bounce back will directly impact his paycheck next season. The Bulls will want to keep him after getting him for Butler, the only questions are at what cost, and can he continue his upward trajectory after his return.

2) Who plays point guard? This is the worst point guard rotation in the NBA. (I see you waiving your hands Knicks fans, but Ramon Sessions and the promise of Frank Ntilikina is a clear step better than anything in Chicago.) All three of their current options are poor.

The Bulls front office wanted Cameron Payne as part of the Taj Gibson trade with OKC, but he is going to miss at least the first month of the season with his third injury to the same foot in a couple of years. He hasn’t been terribly impressive when on the court and may not be in the NBA next season.

That leaves Kris Dunn and Jerian Grant as the Bulls point guards. Dunn probably gets the first crack at the job, but he was terrible this past season — he shot 37.7 percent overall and 28.8 percent from three, turned the ball over on 21 percent of his possessions, didn’t run the offense well or get to the foul line. His PER of 8.1 last season suggests guy who should be bouncing between the NBA and G-League. He also didn’t look good in very limited Summer League action, either. On the upside, he can defend a little. Fred Hoiberg has a lot of development work to do here, but after last season I wonder if Dunn is as explosive as advertised. Look at it this way: Tom Thibodeau used the No. 5 pick on Dunn, then after one season was willing to trade him away. Dunn is going to get his chance, but he’s going to have to be a lot better for this to work out to the Bulls.

My guess is, like last season, eventually Hoiberg will be Forced to turn to Grant. He played respectably for the Bulls last season in tandem with Rondo (a little below NBA average, but he shot 37 percent from three), at least until the playoffs when Rondo went down and Grant was so bad Hoiberg had to turn to Isaiah Canaan (who Chicago didn’t even bring back). Grant struggles on defense. Bottom line, there are no good options at the point for the Bulls, and that is going to drag their team down.

3) Can Fred Hoiberg develop young talent? The Gar/Pax front office hand-picked Hoiberg out of college as a guy they could work with, who cared about analytics, and a guy who would bring a more modern style of play to Chicago. That hasn’t gone smoothly. To be kind. Now Hoiberg sees his job change to one more about developing players for the future rather than trying everything to win now. He comes out of the college ranks where he did develop players — he still serves as the Bulls’ shooting coach — but can he translate all of that to the NBA level? He’s got a couple a season to prove he can. (Whether Bulls fans should fear Gar/Pax as the architects of this rebuild is another question.)

At the top of the list, how does Hoiberg grow LaVine, Markkanen, Bobby Portis, Paul Zipster, and Denzel Valentine?

Outside of LaVine and Markkanen, how much can any of them grow? They may be rotation players.

Markkanen was a controversial pick, a European big man who can shoot the three, those kinds of players have a mixed history of adapting to the NBA game. Markkanen was unimpressive in Summer League in Las Vegas (he averaged 14 points and 9 boards a game, but shot 29.3 percent and was pushed around by the likes of Ryan Kelly), but the challenge for Hoiberg is to get him in spaces where he can be confident with his shot, then develop his all around game. It’s going to take time. Markkanen did play well in EuroBasket, if you want some silver lining.

The Bulls are tanking this season, they are going to be one of the handful of worst teams in the NBA, and in the final season before lottery reform they should have a very high pick in a draft expected to have serious talent at the top. (The Bulls second-round pick goes to the Knicks via the Thunder.) Starting this season with LaVine (when healthy) and Markkanen, Portis, and Washington, we’ll see if Hoiberg is up to this new developmental. He’s not on the hot seat (yet), but if these players don’t grow it will get warm.

Report: Dante Cunningham re-signing with Pelicans

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An intriguing battle emerged late in free agency over Dante Cunningham.

The Pelicans and Timberwolves were desperate at small forward, and Cunningham rare contributor at the position still available. New Orleans even traded a second-rounder and cash to dump Quincy Pondexter and get far enough below the hard cap to take advantage of Cunningham’s Bird Rights.

That’ll pay off.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

It’s not the $3,106,500 Cunningham opted out of, but a $2.3 million salary beats his minimum ($2,106,470), which is all Minnesota could’ve offered.

That’s a great rate on someone who might be the Pelicans’ starting small forward, considering Solomon Hill‘s injury. Even if he plays behind Tony Allen on a team that starts small on the perimeter, Cunningham will reduce the time New Orleans must rely on also-rans.

Cunningham is probably better at power forward, but he can defend either position. He also has become a good enough 3-point shooter to credibly play small forward.

For the Pelicans, he’s a huge upgrade at a bargain price.

Pelicans trying to keep up with all the problems they’ve created for themselves

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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.

The entire operation could have cratered if Jrue Holiday left in free agency, as the Pelicans would have had only moderate cap space to replace him.

That didn’t happen.

Otherwise…

Years of roster mismanagement caught up to New Orleans, which had its meager wing depth eviscerated when Solomon Hill suffered a long-term injury. Complicating matters, the Pelicans had already hard-capped themselves by signing Rajon Rondo and Darius Miller to a combined salary above the taxpayer mid-level exception. Holiday used his leverage to get a massive contract – worth up to $150 million over five years – that pushed New Orleans close to that hard cap.

Rondo might be a decent value as a $3.3 million backup point guard. But his ego complicates the situation, and the Pelicans will start him at point guard – pushing Holiday to shooting guard, where the team’s third-best player will make less of an impact.

Miller washed out of the NBA two years ago after three seasons in New Orleans. The former second-rounder went overseas and then drew a salary above the minimum. I’m curious to see what the Pelicans see in him now.

In a pinch on the wing – where Hill, best at power forward, was already playing out of position – New Orleans sent a second-rounder and cash to the Bulls to dump Quincy Pondexter. Presumably, the injury problems that have kept Pondexter from playing the last two seasons meant he couldn’t help the Pelicans on the wing this season. Otherwise, this deal was a farce. But it allowed the Pelicans to sign Tony Allen and presumably one other player. Re-signing Dante Cunningham would help, but even he is better at power forward than small forward.

Allen is still a strong defender at age 35, but he’s a poor shooter. Rondo generally has been, too.

Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins will have to be comfortable from deep for this team to have adequate spacing. The situation behind those two stars is woeful.

New Orleans spent a lot of time picking around the edges at point guard, though. In addition to re-signing Holiday and signing Rondo, the Pelicans traded effective backup point guard Tim Frazier (on a reasonable $2 million salary) to the Wizards for the No. 52 pick. Then, New Orleans essentially dealt the Nos. 40 and 52 picks and $800,000 to move up to No. 31 for injured point guard Frank Jackson, who’s already hurt again. The Pelicans also signed Ian Clark (defends point guards, handles the ball and distributes like a shooting guard). Combo guard E'Twaun Moore returns, too.

Between Davis, Cousins, Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, New Orleans is paying $57,396,659 this season to players most effective at center.

Meanwhile, small forward is a wasteland.

This is not the team I’d want to send into battle during Cousins’ contract year. Lose him, and how will that color Davis’ long-term view of the franchise?

The Pelicans keep bandaging major wounds, and it’s already catching up to them. The difficult situation entering the offseason must be taken into account.

They started the summer in a jam. Then, they got jammed.

Offseason grade: C-

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-

Rumor: Pelicans interested in Iman Shumpert, but deal unlikely

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The New Orleans Pelicans are desperate for help at the three.

Solomon Hill — who is better as a small-ball four — was set to play the three, but he is now going to miss most or all of the season with a torn hamstring. The Pelicans are so desperate they worked out Josh Smith, Chase Budinger, and Martell Webster. They need a three who can defend.

Iman Shumpert isn’t that, but he’s close enough that there is interest, according to Basketball Insiders.

A source told Basketball Insiders last week that the Pelicans were among the teams interested in Cleveland Cavaliers forward Iman Shumpert. Since acquiring Jae Crowder from the Boston Celtics in the Kyrie Irving trade, many speculated that Shumpert could be expendable.

Shumpert has been shopped around for a while (but did not ask for a trade, despite reports).

The problem is making a deal. Shumpert is owed $10.3 million this season (with a player option for $11 million next season) and the Pelicans are creeping up on the hard cap they created for themselves. They just traded Quincy Pondexter to the Bulls in a move to create some salary cap space, but the Pelicans would need to send out just about as much salary as Shumpert is owed. Omer Asik fits perfectly as a salary, but there is no way the Cavaliers take him (plus Asik has three years left on his contract, so Cleveland would be adding an extra year of salary). If the Pelicans threw in sweeteners they could try to get a third team to take on Asik, but good luck with that.

The Pelicans have to be looking at guys like Matt Barnes and Shabazz Muhammad, although landing them will not be easy either. That just makes more sense than a Shumpert trade.