PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Brooklyn Nets vs. Chicago Bulls

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SEASON RECORDS

Brooklyn: 49-33, fourth seed in East

Chicago: 45-37, fifth seed in East

SEASON SERIES

The Bulls won 3-1, but one win came by one and another came by two.

KEY INJURIES

Chicago: Derrick Rose is out until he’s not, and at this point, the Bulls can’t really worry about him. They can, however, fret about Joakim Noah, who might miss Game 1, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Brooklyn: offense 105.0 (9th best in NBA), defense 103.6 (18th in NBA)

Chicago: offense 100.4 (24th in NBA), defense 100.3 (5th in NBA)

Differential: Nets +1.4 (12th in NBA), Bulls +0.1 (15th in NBA)

THREE KEYS FOR BROOKLYN:

Follow Reggie Evans’ lead: Playing a team as physical and hard-working as Chicago at least four games in a row will be a shock to the system for the Nets, but they can’t let it overwhelm them. They should look to Reggie Evans, who embraces physical play and even dishes out his share of physicality. If his teammates wilt under that pressure, this will be a long series for Brooklyn. If they embrace it, their talent will give them the edge.

Force feed Brook Lopez: Lopez is one of the league’s most skilled big men, and even against Chicago’s plus interior defense, Lopez should go to work in the post. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson have been playing through injury, and Lopez will be a real test for them if they’re not fully healthy. By force-feeding Lopez, the Nets should know early whether they have an advantage in this spot.

Tell Gerald Wallace not to worry about shooting: Wallace admitted he’s lost confidence, and it shows in his shot. But Brooklyn can’t afford to completely lose Wallace for this playoff run. The Nets have enough other players capable of making jumpers, namely Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. Let Wallace focus on defending, rebounding and passing. He can still be a positive player for the Nets as long as they don’t let his poor shooting completely take him off his game.

THREE KEYS FOR CHICAGO:

Pressure Deron Williams: The questions about Williams being out of shape have quieted since Avery Johnson was fired, but there’s no denying Williams struggled early in the season. If Williams upped his workouts to get back in shape during the season, perhaps he’ll run out of gas as he plays more than he has in a few years. It’s worth the Bulls’ effort to try to gas him. Either way, whatever the Bulls can do to get the ball away from the Nets’ playmaker – who especially excels in the halfcourt offense typically featured during the playoffs – the better.

Put Nets in position to foul: The Nets commit the second-fewest fouls per field-goal attempt, partially because they don’t always defend with great physicality. Neither Carlos Boozer nor Luol Deng take many free throws, but they’re both capable of getting to the rim more often than they do, and they might be able to do so in this series without a ton of resistance.

If all else fails, ride Nate Robinson: Robinson has had several great games late this season, though it’s an admittedly scary proposition to run the offense through him. But if the short-handed Bulls fall behind, a spark like Robinson might be their only hope. They can’t be afraid to jump on the back of the player who’s capable of lifting his game to near-elite levels if they’re in a pinch.

OUTLOOK

Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls have never been the lower seed in a playoff series before now, and this role seems to suit them well. The Bulls will rely heavily on a second-year player who snuck into the first round (Jimmy Butler), a much-maligned power forward (Carlos Boozer) and an undersized point guard few teammates wanted a year ago (Nate Robinson).

If Joakim Noah gets healthy – it might be too late for that, because the Bulls didn’t rest him enough during the regular season – and Taj Gibson stays healthy, Chicago has a very real chance. Heck, at that point, the Bulls might even be the favorite.

But that seems unlikely. Noah hasn’t looked right recently, and without him playing at full strength, the Bulls take a big hit. This series will swing on Noah’s health.

The Nets have all the talent money can buy, and their big-contract players give them a talent advantage over Chicago. But the Bulls have the coaching advantage.

PREDICTION:

Bulls in seven

Report: Rockets to be “aggressive” going after Jimmy Butler, do sign-and-trade with Capela, Gordon

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It is fully expected in league circles that come Sunday evening, when free agency opens, the Philadelphia 76ers are going to offer Jimmy Butler a five-year max contract at $189.7 million. Considering the Sixers are contenders, plus the facts Butler will be 30 next season and has a building history of injuries (not unexpected considering his hard-charging style of play), he may well jump at that offer.

The Houston Rockets are going to try hard to convince him to come to Houston with James Harden and Chris Paul.

That’s been reported for a while, but Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN added details and emphasis to that on Tuesday:

Once free agency starts on Sunday, the Rockets are planning to recruit Jimmy Butler to push the Philadelphia 76ers for a sign-and-trade deal that would allow the All-Star forward to join James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston, league sources tell ESPN.

The Rockets don’t have the salary-cap space to sign Butler, so they’d need the threat of the Sixers losing him for nothing to a team with the available room to motivate Philadelphia into a trade. The Rockets also would potentially need to make this a multiteam deal to satisfy the rules of base year compensation that would cover Butler’s outgoing salary…

Butler would be eligible to sign a four-year, $140 million contract on the way to the Rockets, but Houston likely would need to include two of these players — center Clint Capela, guard Eric Gordon and power forward P.J. Tucker — to make the financial deal work, sources said.

A few thoughts here:

• If Philadelphia balks at giving Butler a fifth guaranteed year on his new contract — which is reasonable, sources from other teams told me they would be scared of the fourth year of a max with him — that could push this closer to reality. If that fifth year is on the table, then Butler has a different choice to make.

• The other question here: Does Butler want out of Philadelphia? Because to head to Houston he would give up guaranteed money and leave a team clearly a contender for a more uncertain situation.

• As noted by Woj, Philly would only agree to a sign-and-trade if Butler told them he was leaving anyway so the Sixers might as well get something for him.

• Under the new CBA, Butler can sign “only” a four-year, $140 million contract for a sign-and-trade, he cannot get that fifth year and the larger raises the Sixers can offer then trade that contract to Houston. A sign-and-trade can only be for what the team receiving the player could have signed him for as a free agent.

• Jimmy Butler, James Harden, and Chris Paul all in one locker room with a lame duck coach. What could possibly go wrong?

• If Butler forced this to happen, it would not be the worst result ever for the Sixers. Eric Gordon would be a great fit (especially if J.J. Redick leaves in free agency) and Capela could be platooned with Joel Embiid up front, or traded for another player the Sixers see as a fit. Capela has real value around the league.

• Houston, however, would be giving up a lot to go all-in for the season the Warriors are down due to injuries (and maybe defections). This trade would hurt Houston’s depth and make them top heavy (how did that work for the Warriors this past Finals?), but with that big three they would need to be mentioned among the contenders in the West, no matter how the rest of free agency shakes out.

 

Cavaliers still look to trade, waive J.R. Smith before Sunday; He may ultimately be a Laker

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The math is simple: J.R. Smith is set to make $15.7 million next season, however, if he is waived before Sunday, the Cavaliers team — or whatever team he is a member of — only has to pay $3.9 million of that. For a team looking for salary cap savings in this fiscal year, that’s about as good a deal as can be found.

Which is why the Cavaliers listened to trade offers for Smith on draft night, but they didn’t jump at anything reports Chris Fodor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The Cleveland Cavaliers entered Thursday night hoping to trade JR Smith, but turned down a few offers that would have returned a first-round pick, league sources tell cleveland.com…

As of now, the Cavs are still trying to make a deal, according to sources familiar with those conversations, but it’s complicated and it has to be the right move, as general manager Koby Altman laid out when recapping the NBA Draft late Thursday night.

“We’re definitely going to investigate what we can do there,” Altman said. “There’s a pain threshold of doing it, going into the tax, which we would have to do in terms of taking back money and the rest of the NBA knowing that we’re in the tax and my job would be getting us out of the tax.”

Those savings are why the Cavaliers may choose to just waive Smith themselves (in a trade they need to bring back $15 million or so in salary, so to pay the tax they need to get a player they really want). Cleveland understandably built a team on expensive, shorter contracts for veteran players around LeBron James — it helped bring them the 2016 title. Now they are still paying a price for that as they want to rebuild around youth, and Dan Gilbert doesn’t want to pay the luxury tax for a team that won 19 games last season.

One way or another, J.R. Smith is going to be a free agent.

Expect him to land with his old friend LeBron James and the Lakers, reports Chris Haynes at Yahoo sports.

That makes sense. However they go about filling out the roster, the Lakers are going to have a number of minimum contract players on the bench and they will want veterans who can play with LeBron. J.R. Smith may be in decline (he shot 30.8 percent from three last season), but he fits that bill and can still make a few plays. Kyle Korver is in that same mold, someone Haynes points to as a fit with the Lakers.

Still, the guys taking the minimum are doing it for a reason, which means the Lakers can’t miss on other players they spend real money on this July. GM Rob Pelinka doesn’t have a

Masai Ujiri: DeMar DeRozan and I put aside differences and embraced in February

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Still bitter about being traded (to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard), DeMar DeRozan said in January he had no reason to speak to Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

DeRozan’s stance apparently softened when San Antonio played in Toronto in February.

Ujiri:

When San Antonio came here, I’ve never said this to anybody, but something unbelievable happened. DeMar came into our locker room, and to show you the class human being he is, he came up to me, and he hugged me, and he asked me how my family was doing.

It meant a lot for him to come and give me a hug. At the end of the day, this is life. Time heals things. And one day – I know I’m confident that one day, we’ll both sit down and talk about this.

Time heals nearly all wounds. Winning heals most wounds.

Ujiri has both on his side, and he didn’t even need the Raptors’ championship to get embraced by DeRozan. Ditto with Kyle Lowry, who rebelled in solidarity with his friend DeRozan but ultimately reconnected with Ujiri.

I always thought those days would come, and I share Ujiri’s optimism he and DeRozan will eventually have lengthier conversations. They’ve been through much together. Toronto’s title makes it even more difficult for DeRozan to hold a grudge. At some point, he will get on an even-better page with Ujiri.

As expected, Dallas reportedly set to offer Kristaps Porzingis max contract extension

Associated Press
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At his introductory press conference in Dallas, Kristaps Porzingis was asked if he planned to stay with the team as a free agent (there had been rumors he would take the one year, $4.5 million qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent, a rumor met with eye rolls around the NBA). Mark Cuban jumped in before Porzingis could answer the question:

“I can answer that for you. Yeah, he does.”

Dallas is about to put its money where Cuban’s mouth is and offer Porzingis a five-year max contract, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This was expected the day they traded for him. Dallas is betting big that Porzingis, coming off a torn ACL that cost him a season, can return to the form of an All-NBA level big man who plays 70+ games a season. The hope is in Porzingis and Luka Doncic the Mavs have their core for the future, their next Steve Nash/Dirk Nowitzki pairing.

Expect Dallas to be aggressive chasing free agents this summer as well, they have been linked to Kemba Walker and Kevin Durant, although as long shots. Patrick Beverley and some other mid-level role players could be in Dallas future, and turn them into a dangerous team.