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Donovan Mitchell adjusting to elevated expectations

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Donovan Mitchell quickly won over fans in and outside Utah with his electrifying play. Despite not being an All-Star, he stole the show at All-Star Weekend, charismatically building his platform and winning the dunk contest. He unleashed an insurgent Rookie of the Year campaign. He led the Jazz to playoff-series victory. He signed a lucrative endorsement deal and got a signature shoe.

Donovan Mitchell has made it.

And that makes him uncomfortable.

“I’ve never really come from a position where I’m not the underdog, if that makes sense,” said Mitchell, whose stature rose quickly for a player who initially intended to return to Louisville for his junior season and was still just a mid-first-round pick in 2017. “I haven’t really had that in my life.”

Mitchell is having another fine year, averaging 20.4 points per game. But he doesn’t look quite as sharp as last season, when he established himself as a co-franchise player with Rudy Gobert for the Jazz.

The future in Utah with those two can still be extremely bright. The ascent will be just be bumpier than hoped.

Some of Mitchell’s difficulties are unavoidable. He’s the go-to scorer on a defensive-first team – a tremendous burden.

Of the nine regularly playing guards with usage percentages above 30, only two have their team allow fewer than 105 points per 100 possessions with them on the floor – Mitchell and Russell Westbrook. Relatedly, Mitchell and Westbrook have the lowest true shooting percentages among those nine:

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(That’s Zach LaVine barely poking out behind Kemba Walker.)

The Jazz and Thunder have built systems around putting defensive-minded personnel on the floor, positioning players to get back on defense, gumming up spacing and expecting their top guards to produce anyway. It’s a big ask, one that depresses Mitchell’s and Westbrook’s individual efficiencies but works to the betterment of the team.

Westbrook was a seasoned star in his ninth season when Oklahoma City gave him that role following Kevin Durant‘s departure. Mitchell got it as a rookie and is continuing with it in his second season.

At times, Mitchell has tried to defer. His teammates urged him to keep shooting. This team was built to feature him, and a couple months of relative struggles don’t change the bigger picture.

Mitchell is the only Jazz starter who can reliably create for himself. Mitchell and Ricky Rubio are the only starters who can reliably create for others. Mitchell and Joe Ingles are the only starters who can reliably space the floor from distance. Utah starts a pair of traditional bigs in Gobert and Derrick Favors. So much falls to Mitchell offensively.

Opponents have adjusted to Mitchell more quickly than he has developed his game. They blitz him more often on pick-and-rolls. They shade toward him more quickly as he drives. They stunt off him more often rather than completely leave him to help.

Ever since Mitchell torched Dwane Casey’s Raptors for 25 points early last season, the coach – now with the Pistons – has emphasized Mitchell in scouting reports.

“There’s certain things we want to live with and certain things we don’t want to give up,” Casey said. “And him sashaying from end of the court to the other, one slot drive, one dribble to the rim – those are the things we’ve got to take away.”

Mitchell isn’t getting to the rim as often as last season, settling for more floaters. His catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage has also fallen from 41% to 30% – concerning because that should be more defense-agnostic.

“The season might not go the way I want it to this year, for me personally,” Mitchell said.

He’s figuring it out as he goes, but not quickly enough to maintain the sky-high expectations set for him entering the year. At least the Jazz (20-21) are winning a reasonable amount amid a tough early schedule that will soften. Team success, Mitchell says, is his priority.

This is a learning season for both Mitchell and Utah about how to best deploy him.

The Jazz will have an opportunity to reconfigure this summer. They could waive Derrick Favors ($16.9 million unguaranteed salary), renounce free agents Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh and open a projected $31 million in cap space.

Maybe Mitchell just needs more complementary offensive pieces, and that’d be the cash to get them. Or maybe continuing to emphasize defense while riding Mitchell offensively is the right formula.

This season has provided plenty of reason to reel in the Mitchell hype. It has not produced many doubters in him.

“He may have some growing pains,” Casey said. “But it’s there, and you never forget how to swim. He’s going to be a great player in our league for a long time.”

Magic: Mo Bamba out for playoffs, undergoing post-coronavirus evaluation

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba contracted coronavirus, fell out of shape, recovered, joined the Magic in the bubble then struggled to contribute on the court.

Now, he’s departing the bubble for good.

Magic:

The Magic are huge underdogs in their first-round series against the Bucks. This doesn’t really change the equation. Bamba had already fallen from the rotation, which is now comprised of Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch at center.

But it raises thorny long-term questions.

Bamba was the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Though he has underwhelmed so far, the Magic were still hoping he’d grow into a quality NBA player. Bamba at least improved from his rookie season.

His progress has obviously been halted. For how long? Will he face lasting effects?

Everyone is trying to get to the bottom of these difficult questions.

Reported Bulls coaching candidates: Kenny Atkinson, Stephen Silas, Darvin Ham, more

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The Bulls fired Jim Boylen. 76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner for the job, but Chicago will conduct a full search.

Who else is in the mix?

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

The broad search is expected to include former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas, Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and 76ers assistant Ime Udoka, among others, sources said.

Atkinson is the only former head coach on that list. Like Tyronn Lue for win-now teams, Atkinson is the top available coach for rebuilding teams. (If fired by the 76ers, Brett Brown could supplant Atkinson.) Atkinson had a strong record of player development before Brooklyn shifted priorities.

The Bulls – with Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and a high first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft – could use someone like him.

But Atkinson could have options, and Chicago might not be the most desirable opening.

Udoka, Silas, Ham and Unseld are all rising assistants who have earned head-coaching consideration. Interviews should help determine whether they’re ready for that step.

PBT NBA All-Bubble Awards

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and Rockets star James Harden
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The NBA will announce seeding-game awards tomorrow.

But the play-in is already set. Other playoff matchups are already set. The final seeding games today are just glorified scrimmages.

So, why wait to name the top performers in the bubble?

Here are our picks using the same format as the league – a Most Valuable Player, two five-player teams (no positions) and a coach:

Bubble MVP

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

Kurt Helin: It isn’t simply that Damian Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game. It wasn’t how he got those points, with ridiculously deep threes and driving layups. It was when he did it that makes him bubble MVP: When the Trail Blazers had a rough outing (as did Lillard) and looked like they might fade from postseason contention, he came back next game and dropped 61. Then 51 the game after that. Then 42 in the final bubble game with the playoffs on the line. Lillard was the ultimate leader and willed his team to the play-in series, and that’s what makes him MVP of the seeding games.
Dan Feldman: James Harden was more consistently good and even sometimes great. But nobody hit higher levels than Lillard, who stepped up in the biggest moments to lead Portland into the play-in with the eighth-place advantage. Lillard set an emotional tone for a team constantly vulnerable of falling from the playoff race, and he delivered on the court with brilliant offense. He wasn’t perfect, but he went to great lengths to ensure the Trail Blazers met their goal. That’s the bubble MVP.

All-Bubble teams

First team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)
Devin Booker (Suns) James Harden (Rockets)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Devin Booker (Suns)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) T.J. Warren (Pacers)
James Harden (Rockets) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

Second team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Jayson Tatum (Celtics) Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
DeMar DeRozan (Spurs) Paul George (Clippers)
Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)

Kurt Helin: It was difficult leaving Antetokounmpo off the first team, he played brilliantly but his team was in cruise control (plus he took himself out of the last game by headbutting Moe Wagner). A few players such as Fred VanVleet and Michael Porter Jr. also almost made the cut.

Dan Feldman: Lillard, Harden, Booker and Warren were first-team locks. Antetokounmpo was absolutely dominant when he wanted to be, which was limited with the Bucks locking up the No. 1 seed early. Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet were among the contenders for the final second-team spots.

Coach of the Bubble

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Monty William (Suns) Monty William (Suns)

Kurt Helin: Every young team talked about it heading into the restart (and developing teams not invited to the restart begged for the same opportunity): Using the bubble games as a chance for a young core to grow and take a step forward. Except teams like Sacramento and New Orleans didn’t do that. Phoenix, behind Monty Williams did — they became the story of the bubble at 8-0. Devin Booker exploded and got himself in MVP talk, Deandre Ayton played brilliantly, and the Suns came from six-games back of Memphis to almost make the playoffs. Williams set the Suns up to be a playoff team in the West next season.

Dan Feldman: Phoenix went 8-0! That alone is pretty darned impressive, and the context reflects even more favorably on Williams. The Suns entered the bubble with the lowest playoff odds among the continuing 22 teams. Needing to make up 2.5 games and – more significantly – jump four (!) teams, Phoenix could have easily arrived unmotivated and ripe for distraction. Instead, Williams had the Suns playing fearlessly, cohesively and joyously. Williams even leaned heavily on his young players rather than his veterans, taking excellent advantage of a player-development opportunity and positioning Phoenix to ascend next season.

Bulls fire coach Jim Boylen

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Maybe the Bulls, despite a report otherwise, never actually planned to keep Jim Boylen for financial reasons. Maybe they did plan to keep him but saw the intense negative reaction to that report among Chicago fans.

Either way, Boylen is gone now.

Bulls release:

Chicago Bulls Executive Vice President – Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas announced today that Jim Boylen has been relieved of his duties as head coach.

MICHAEL REINSDORF: “No one could question Jim’s passion for our team and our organization. We sincerely appreciate his tireless efforts and contributions during his time with the Bulls, and we wish him and his family the very best.”

ARTURAS KARNISOVAS: “After doing a comprehensive evaluation and giving the process the time it deserved, I ultimately decided that a fresh approach and evolution in leadership was necessary. This was a very difficult decision, but it is time for our franchise to take that next step as we move in a new direction and era of Chicago Bulls basketball. Jim is a great human being that cares deeply about this organization and the game of basketball. I want to thank him for his professionalism and commitment to the franchise.”

A formal coaching search will begin immediately.

76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner to become Chicago’s next coach. A full search could yield other candidates. However, the Bulls must overcome a reported poor reputation among coaches and possible financial limitations in these economic times.

Chicago still has other problems, but Boylen was one. His tenure began with a near-mutiny when he took over for Fred Hoiberg during the 2018-19 season. To his credit, Boylen improved while on the job. But coming from such a low starting point, he often looked in over his head.

His players continued to dislike him. His signature coaching move was ill-timed timeouts. His record was just 39-84 (.317).

Firing him should have been obvious, especially once the Bulls hired Arturas Karnisovas as team president. Let Karnisovas hire his own coach.

Chicago’s roster is lacking, though not necessarily hopeless.

Zach LaVine is more near-star than All-Star – not an ideal centerpiece – but the 25-year-old could continue to improve. Youngsters Coby White, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. have had too many downs to feel great about their futures, though enough ups to at least be intrigued. Veterans Otto Porter, Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky have underwhelmed but have prior records of success.

A new coach will have pieces to work with.

Karnisovas has more work ahead to upgrade those pieces.