Ryan Arcidiacono

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Bulls closer to emerging from post-Jimmy Butler plunge

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NBC Sports’ 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 Bulls were good, not great, and heavily reliant on Jimmy Butler when they traded him for young players 2017. Of course, they were going to stink.

Chicago went 27-55 in 2017-18 – its worst record since those ugly years right after Michael Jordan’s second retirement.

“We did this year what we felt was in the long-term best interests of the Bulls,” Bulls executive John Paxson said after that 2017-18 season. “It’s not a situation that any of us want to ever be in again. It goes against everything as a competitive person that you believe in. But it’s the way the system is set up.”

Chicago was even worse last season, 22-60.

Whether or not they knew it, the Bulls dug a deep hole by trading Butler. This summer, Chicago took key steps back toward ground level.

A big reason the Bulls grabbed a shovel in the first place: There are lottery picks down there. Last season’s losing netted No. 7 pick Coby White, who both presents good overall value and fits a need at point guard.

Lauri Markkanen (No. 34 on our list of 50 best players in 5 years) is the big prize from the Butler trade. Zach LaVine is again on the right track after arriving from the Timberwolves with a torn ACL, though his expensive contract raises questions about his value. The expected losing in 2017-18 also got Wendell Carter Jr. in last year’s lottery.

But the other player acquired for Butler, Kris Dunn, never seized the starting point-guard job. Now, White steps in to provide positional balance with the young core.

In a few years, we’ll see whether that works out.

But the Bulls aren’t content to wait that long. With a couple savvy signings, they gave themselves a chance to compete for the Eastern Conference playoffs as soon as next season.

Tomas Satoransky can help now (likely as starting point guard) and later (ideally as backup point guard after being surpassed by White). Chicago gave him $30 million over three years and relinquished second-round considerations in a sign-and-trade with the Wizards, who never appreciated him enough.

The Bulls also signed Thaddeus Young (three years, $43,635,000 with the third season unguaranteed). He’s quite good. At 31, he probably won’t remain this good when Chicago’s young core comes around. But Young could help sooner than later. At that price, the Bulls get plenty of value with the veteran.

Chicago made a few other small moves looking toward the future – drafting Daniel Gafford (No. 38), re-signing Ryan Arcidiacono (three years, $9 million with a team option), signing Luke Kornet (two years, $4.5 million). Maybe one of those low-cost swings connects.

The Bulls’ rebuild is hardly assured of working out. Neither is their attempt to win moderately now.

But Chicago has a reasonable chance of both succeeding after a helpful summer.

Offseason grade: B-

Trae Young scores 49 but it’s not enough, Zach LaVine’s 47 lifts Bulls past Hawks in 4 OTs

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ATLANTA (AP) — The Chicago Bulls are playing their best basketball of the season at a time many might have thought the focus would be shifting to the NBA draft lottery.

The wins are making Lauri Markkanen hungry for more.

Markkanen made three free throws to give Chicago the lead for good, Zach LaVine scored a career-high 47 points and the Bulls overcame Trae Young‘s career-high 49 points to beat the Atlanta Hawks 168-161 in four overtimes Friday night.

Each team set franchise records for points in a game.

Markkanen finished with 31 points and 17 rebounds. He snapped a 159-all tie by making the three free throws after he was fouled by Alex Len.

“It was great fun,” Markkanen said. “It should make us feel more hungry. We can do it.”

The Bulls (18-45) have won five of six but still rank only 13th of 15 Eastern Conference teams – one spot behind Atlanta (21-42).

LaVine said the game was exhausting.

“I’ve never been part of a game that long,” LaVine said. “… I airballed one because I was so damn tired.”

LaVine was impressed with Young, the rookie who had his third straight game of setting or matching his career scoring high after back-to-back games with 36 points.

“Trae Young is an incredible talent,” LaVine said. “You can already see. He has the `it’ factor.”

Young’s tiebreaking, step-back 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds remaining in regulation forced the first overtime. The rookie’s last-second layup tied it at 140 to force the second overtime.

Young had 16 assists, eight rebounds and nine turnovers. Otherwise, his line was very similar to LaVine’s.

Young made 17 of 33 shots including six 3-points. LaVine made 17 of 35 shots with six 3s. Each played almost 56 minutes.

“That was a fun game to play, probably one of the most fun games I’ve played in my career,” Young said. ” … I’m proud of the way we fought. We came up short but I love the way we fought.”

Young and DeAndre Bembry had turnovers in the final 30 seconds of the third overtime, preventing the Hawks from an opportunity to snap a 155-all tie.

Ryan Arcidiacono‘s 3-pointer forced the third overtime.

De’Aaron Fox should be running away with Most Improved Player

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CHARLOTTE – When De'Aaron Fox was about 6 years old, he watched “Freddy vs. Jason.” The horror movie stuck with him for years.

“All through elementary school, I wouldn’t leave doors open if it was nighttime,” Fox said. “I would make sure I closed every door.”

Now, Fox is only opening doors – for himself and the Kings.

The second-year point guard is the NBA’s breakout player on the league’s breakout team. His speed and energy have invigorated Sacramento, which could end a 12-season playoff drought.

But to truly appreciate Fox, you must understand his rookie season.

“It wasn’t good,” Fox said.

He received no Rookie of the Year votes. He didn’t make an All-Rookie team. He made the Rising Stars game only as an injury replacement.

The Kings went 27-55 and played even worse with Fox on the court. He played below replacement level. His poor shooting and distributing in such a big role proved destructive toward winning.

Now, Fox is arguably the best player in his draft class, in the running with Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell.* Fox received deserved All-Star consideration this year. Sacramento is 30-27 and at its best with Fox on the floor.

*Last season’s Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons, was drafted the prior year.

Fox is lightning quick with the ball and a pest defensively. With his shot now falling, he looks to be in complete control.

He leads the Kings’ up-tempo attack while keeping them organized. With Fox on the court, Sacramento plays like the NBA’s fastest, best-fastbreak team all while maintaining the equivalent of a bottom-five turnover rate.

Fox’s improvement is one of the biggest – not just in this season, but in NBA history.

His box-plus-minus leap from -4.4 to +0.9 is telling.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus (center) from a previous career high (left) to the listed season (right) since the NBA began tracking turnovers in 1973-74 (minimum: 1,000 minutes each season):

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Why isn’t Fox the overwhelming favorite for Most Improved Player? I suspect because there’s a belief second-year players are expected to improve.

I’m just not sure why that matters to voters.

Nobody punishes James Harden in the MVP race because he was an established star expected to be good. Nobody punishes Luka Doncic in the Rookie of the Year race because he was a polished young player expected to be good. Nobody punishes Gregg Popovich in the Coach of the Year race because he was an all-time great coach expected to be good.

“Even if it’s expected, if you improve, it doesn’t matter what the expectation is,” Fox said. “You expect Steph Curry to win MVP, right?

“I don’t think it should matter.”

Fox shouldn’t clinch Most Improved Player just yet. If he stumbles down the stretch, others could catch up.

It can also be tricky to compare Fox to players who didn’t play as much in previous seasons. Fox demonstrated his dismal production over a large, reliable sample last season. How does that compare to players like Wizards center Thomas Bryant, Nuggets guard Malik Beasley and Bulls guard Ryan Arcidiacono? Their lack of prior playing time indicates less prior ability, but perhaps they were erroneously looked over and haven’t improved as much.

Fox is a safe choice for Most Improved Player. We know he was bad last season. We know he’s good this season.

But the Kings didn’t know Fox would develop like this. They took a chance entrusting him with such a large role as a rookie, letting him work through his mistakes.

The payoff has come unusually quick. This level of responsibility is still a lot for a second-year point guard – especially one on a good team.

Fox (24.6 usage percentage, 32.6 assist percentage) is one of just 14 current players who, in his second year, started most of his team’s games at point guard while posting usage and assist percentages above 23. Here are all 14, sorted by team’s winning percentage that season (players who changed teams in-season are listed by their teams’ combined record while they were on each roster):

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Players marked in purple also met the 23%-23% usage-assist thresholds while starting as rookies. All three heavily burdened second-season point guards to lead their teams to winning records – Damian Lillard (2014 Trail Blazers), Russell Westbrook (2010 Thunder) and Fox – had big roles as rookies. It clearly prepared them.

Obviously, that prerequisite doesn’t guarantee second-year success.

But it’s a good bet with someone as talented and driven as Fox.

“People might be surprised by the jump I’ve made, but I’m playing the way I think I should play,” Fox said. “And I think I should be playing even better.”

Kris Dunn to miss 4-6 weeks for Bulls with knee injury

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Kris Dunn is trying to convince the Bulls he can be their long-term point guard.

This won’t help.

Mark Strotman of NBC Sports Chicago:

Dunn will still have plenty of time to show he’s continuing his progress from last season. But this narrows the window to prove himself before becoming extension-eligible next offseason.

Dunn’s injury also increases the chances Chicago (0-3) will have its pick of point guards in the draft next year. In the meantime, the Bulls will turn to a hodgepodge of Cameron Payne, Ryan Arcidiacono, Tyler Ulis and now Shaquille Harrison.

Bulls sign Shaquille Harrison, waive Omer Asik

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Kris Dunn, the Bulls’ clear top point guard, has yet to play this season due the birth of his child. Even when he returns, Chicago’s other point guards – Cameron Payne, Ryan Arcidiacono, Tyler Ulis – are uninspiring, even as backups.

So, the Bulls added Shaquille Harrison, whom the Suns waived after agreeing to sign Jamal Crawford.

Bulls release:

The Chicago Bulls have signed guard Shaquille Harrison.

In a preceding move, the Bulls waived center Omer Asik.

Harrison is a nice pickup, one of the better free agents available and someone who plays a position of need. The Bulls could use several swings at finding long-term point guards, and the 25-year-old Harrison is a potential fit.

Waiving Asik is an interesting move. Asik was injured, and this could end the 32-year-old’s career. But Chicago loses the ability to trade his contract. Just $3 million of Asik’s $11,977,527 2019-20 salary was guaranteed, which could have been useful in a salary-accepting trade.

Instead, Asik will count $11,286,516 against the cap this season and $3 million after that. The Bulls can either pay the entire $3 million next season or stretch it to $1 million each of the next three seasons. Stretching the money would indicate Chicago still plants to be aggressive in free agency next summer. Paying all it once would suggest a more patient rebuild.