Freed Bobby Portis pleased with Bulls, who need more from him down the stretch

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At one point, Bobby Portis believed the Bulls drafting him No. 22 overall last year was his “worst-case scenario.”

For one, he thought he’d be a lottery pick – “everyone thought I’d be a lottery pick,” Portis says – and falling out of the top 14 picks reduced his rookie-scale contract by more than $4 million. For another, Chicago was already overflowing with big men: Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic. Portis didn’t want to get buried on the bench.

But in his first season with the Bulls, Portis has done a complete 180.

“They make their rookies earn their stripes,” Portis said. “I feel that’s the best thing that could’ve happened to me.”

Portis is playing a somewhat surprisingly key role for Chicago, which is making a last-ditch effort to extend its playoff streak to eight straight seasons. Just 21, Portis is the Bulls’ youngest player by nearly three years.

“Bobby, he’s obviously going to be a huge part of the future of this franchise,” Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg said.

Yet, it’s Portis’ present that matters more than most expected.

Portis began the season outside the rotation, the “Free Bobby Portis” days. He showed so much promise early, the Bulls altered their lineup to get him more minutes. When Noah suffered a season-ending injury, Portis joined the rotation for good. Mirotic’s injuries only increased Portis’ role.

But the Bulls have been outscored by 9.0 points per 100 possessions with Portis on the court – easily the worst mark for any player on the team, let alone a rotation player. Portis has shot just 4-for-18 during a three-game losing streak – to the Knicks, Knicks and Magic no less – that has dropped Chicago to 36-36 and two games out of playoff position.

You get the sense the Bulls would prefer not rely on Portis at this critical time if they had other options.

Portis is averaging 6.9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game – nice, though hardly unprecedented, marks for a rookie.

Seven other rookies – Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner, Nikola Jokic, Willie Cauley-Stein and Justise Winslow – are averaging at least five points and five rebounds per game this season. In the last 25 years, 147 rookies have averaged 5-5 (minimum: 40 games).

But none of them have done so in as few minutes per game as Portis’ 17.7.

And it’s not as if Portis barely meets the thresholds to join a group that’s far outpacing him. In the 147-player sample, Portis is fairly middle of the road in scoring and rebounding per minute.

Simply, most rookies who show as much ability as Portis get a greater chance to grow it during games.

Portis isn’t on most teams, though. The Bulls are a veteran bunch, and their interest in player development over winning now is limited. That’s especially true with their depth in front of Portis.

But Portis isn’t deterred.

“Everything is really based on adversity – how you take it and how you deal with it,” Portis said. “It’s not about wanting to be the guy so good. You have to get through the crowd to get to the top.”

Portis knows plenty about adversity after his tough upbringing. Rather than run from the challenges he has faced, he confronts them head on.

Before each game, Portis imagines someone hitting his mom and then directs his anger at his opponent. Extreme? Yes. But it works for Portis, whose demeanor has impressed his veteran teammates.

“He’s a guy that competes, brings a lot of energy, has confidence in himself and his game,” Gasol said. “Very intense, very energetic.”

Said Jimmy Butler: “The kid can play. He don’t play like a rookie. He isn’t scared not of nobody.”

As Portis adds polish and eliminates some of the rookie mistakes that plant him on the bench now, his role should expand – maybe rapidly. Noah will be a free agent, and Gasol will likely opt out this summer.

The Bulls could do worse than to rebuild around Butler, Doug McDermott, Mirotic, Portis, a top-10-protected draft pick from the Kings and Chicago’s own first-rounder.

Portis is skilled for a hustle player. He rebounds hard, and has shown some shooting ability. His energy on defense will go a longer way, with his 6-foot-11 frame and solid mobility, once he better understands the scheme.

There’s something intriguing about Portis as the second-best floor-spacer in a big-man combo. He won’t strain defenses as a stretch four. But as a stretch five next to Mirotic with the opponent’s second-best perimeter-defending big on him? That could work.

Portis’ ability on the glass would also complement Mirotic well, though Portis would have to improve as a rim protector.

But before anyone gets ahead of themselves the Bulls have 10 – they hope crucial – games remaining. Playing the Hawks, Pacers, Rockets and Pistons this week could determine Chicago’s playoff fate.

Whether he’s playing or riding the bench, Portis has learned to embrace his situation.

“Everyone’s story is different. This is my story,” Portis said. “This is what is going to make Bobby Portis who Bobby Portis is.”

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

Jae Crowder does salsa dance in Suns-Lakers Game 6
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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.


Is Matisse Thybulle ready for a big step forward with 76ers?

Pregame of Philadelphia 76ers vs Miami Heat
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Matisse Thybulle brings a valuable NBA skill to the table — he is an elite perimeter defender. Two-time All-Defensive Team in three years in the league.

But when the 76ers got up against Miami in the playoffs, Thybulle’s role shrank dramatically. While Doc Rivers needed his defense, Thybulle’s lack of an offensive game became a problem — the Heat largely ignored him and helped off him, allowing Miami to muck up the Philly offense (he was limited in the Toronto series because he was not vaccinated and could not play in road games). The 76ers tried to solve that problem this offseason by bringing in DeAnthony Melton, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker — solid role-playing defenders who can contribute on offense, too.

Thybulle wants to be part of the solution, too, and told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer he spent the summer focused on his offensive game.

“I’m really proud of what I did,” Thybulle said of his offseason. “I’ve worked harder than I’ve worked. And I had a meeting with [Sixers coach Doc Rivers] early this week and was telling him I feel more bought in than I’ve been before.”

No doubt Thybulle put in the work, we will find out soon if it paid off — and if that will get Thybulle paid.

Thybulle is entering a contract year — the 76ers can extend him up until Oct. 18, after which he would become a restricted free agent next summer. Thybulle said his goal is to remain in Philadelphia (and he’d like an extension).

“At this point, I would always want to stay in Philly,” he said. “And if it’s up to me, that’s always going to be my choice.

“But considering that I’ve realized the reality of how far out of my control it is, if I do get traded or something does end up happening, I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the day.”

With a win-now Sixers team, Daryl Morey may be in a wait-and-see place with Thybulle, letting the market set his price next offseason. If he signs now, it will likely be on a team-friendly deal (but maybe one that still works for the 25-year-old).

If Thybulle gets on the court this season and shows an improved offensive game, one where he can make teams pay for helping off him, his price goes up and there may be multiple teams bidding for his services next summer. And Doc Rivers would be happy in the short term.

It’s up to Thybulle to prove it now.


Markelle Fultz will miss start of training camp, at least, with broken toe

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The basketball gods continue to turn their backs on Markelle Fultz.

A torn ACL had limited him to 26 games over the past two seasons, but he was healthy and ramping up to a larger role this season with a young and interesting Magic team. Then came the news he fractured his left big toe during a training session. As a result, he will be out for at least the start of training camp, the team announced. From the official announcement:

“He has been placed in a walking boot and his return to play will depend on how he responds to rehabilitation and treatment. Fultz suffered the injury during a preseason workout prior to returning to Orlando and imaging confirmed the fracture.

He will not need surgery, according to the team.

Fultz was set to split point guard duties with Cole Anthony, this injury means RJ Hampton could see more run at the point for now. Fultz should be able to return either during the end of the preseason or early in the season.

Fultz was the No.1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft but never found his footing with the 76ers (in part due to injury). However, since getting out of that spotlight and allowed to develop in Orlando he’s been a solid rotation point guard when healthy. Last season in 18 games he averaged 10.8 points and 5.5 assists a game, and while he’s still not an efficient shooter he can run a team.

How Anthony and, eventually, Fultz will work off the ball as rookie Paolo Banchero gets the opportunity to create more offense will be just one of the interesting things to watch with this Magic team this year. We’ll have to wait a little while to see Fultz.