Thaddeus Young

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Are the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls the future of the Eastern Conference?

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

This season, the Eastern Conference shapes up to be a showdown between Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Joel Embiid. Two long and athletic teams that know how to defend. Both have questions — how will the losses of Jimmy Butler for the Sixers and Malcolm Brogdon for the Bucks impact them? — and there are teams like Boston and Indiana hanging on the fringes trying to get in the conversation, but the East is shaping up as a two-team race at the top.

The other question in the East: Who’s got next?

The Bucks and the Sixers are relatively young, they should be at the top for years, but what young teams are on the rise in the East and look like they could be coming for the Bucks and Sixers in a few years?

Atlanta and Chicago.

There’s a long road still to travel still, and plenty that can derail these teams, but the Hawks and Bulls have the potential to make that elite status. Let’s look at them.

ATLANTA HAWKS

Talent wins in the Association, and for Atlanta it all starts with the potential of Trae Young and John Collins. In our summer rankings series of “The 50 Best Players in Five Years” series, we ranked Collins 24th in the NBA and Young 10th in the summer of 2024. NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh put it this way:

“I made the declaration earlier this summer that Collins and Young ould be this generation’s Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash. I stand by that. Collins may not be as strong and polished offensively as Stoudemire, but they play with the same force around the basket. Every time Collins dunks, you wonder what the basket ever did to him to deserve that assault.”

Young plays with a flash and style you just can’t take your eyes off of. He has shooting range out to the parking lot, impressive and improving handles, and the kind of court vision that cannot be taught. He must become a better defender, he’s got to score more efficiently around the rim, and the calls for him to be an All-Star in his second NBA season, at age 21, may be jumping the gun, but Young is poised to be one of the faces of the league.

The chemistry with Young and Collins can be everything for this team, and the foundation of a contender.

Around them they have Kevin Huerter as a potential long-term backcourt mate with Young, they added a solid young center who suddenly could hit threes last season in Alex Len, and on the wing they drafted a couple of guys with potential in DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish, hoping at least one of them develops into the No. 3 guy next to Collins and Young. (A lot of teams were not as high on Hunter as the Hawks heading into the draft, but Reddish could be a steal at No. 10.)

Those young players have landed in one of the best player development systems in the NBA — that’s why Lloyd Pierce was brought in as coach last season, and he delivered. He has found a great balance of letting guys learn and accountability, the kind of tough-but-fair teacher everyone respected in school. The Hawks are building something that feels real and lasting.

Is this the year they make the leap? Last year they had 29 wins, and the usual trajectory would have the Hawks mid-30s this season, which in the East likely keeps them on the fringes of the playoff chase most of the season. But a leap is coming, one up above .500. Maybe this season, more likely the following season, but it’s coming. The potential trajectory for this team looks like a rocket to the moon.

CHICAGO BULLS

Let’s be upfront here: I have less faith the Bulls eventually can reach the upper echelons of the NBA than I am the Hawks, and the primary reason is I don’t trust fully GarPax in the front office. Yes, they have built an impressive young team with potential, but if I told you in four years the front office had screwed up the chances, would anyone really be shocked?

But make no mistake, this team has potential.

That starts along the frontline — Lauri Markkanen is very good at basketball. He averaged 18.9 points a game and nine rebounds a game, shooting 36.1 percent from three, all at age 21. He’s entering his third NBA season and we could see a leap in his game. Next to him is second-year man Wendell Carter, who averaged 10.3 points and seven rebounds a game, and more importantly, was the kind of rim protector any good team needs in the modern NBA. Together, that’s a very good frontcourt of the future, one that fits the modern game.

Scoring on the wing comes in bunches from Zach LaVine, who showed he more than a dunk contest guy. He took more than five threes a game and shot 37.4 percent, he is a good passer who keeps the ball moving, and is at least trying on defense. Next to him is a quality wing in Otto Porter, who averaged 13.9 points per game last season, shot 40 percent from three, and could become a free agent next summer (although don’t bet on him opting out of $28.5 million).

The point of the future will be Coby White, who has a world of potential but it’s going to take a few years of work to get there.

This summer the Bulls made two pickups that — in my mind — will vault them into the playoffs this season. One is point guard Tomas Satoransky, who Washington let walk (one of their confusing moves) and will be the guy that knows how to start plays, hit threes, defend, and just go get a bucket now and again when they need it. He played well for stretches with the Wizards when John Wall was out. The other quality pickup is Thaddeus Young, who was critical to the Pacers’ defense last season, plus he just is a glue guy on the offensive end who can be a backup four and give them quality minutes (don’t be shocked if he closes games for Jim Boylen at times).

The Bulls have a young but reasonably well-rounded roster, and while they won 22 games last season they could be in the high 30s this season and pushing for a playoff spot in the East. It’s a big leap.

Bulls fans hope just one of many.

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-

Pacers deconstruct playoff team to build similar-level playoff team

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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 2018-19 Pacers built a strong identity.

They were balanced and persistent despite relying on numerous players with expiring contracts. Indiana won 48 games, showing no signs of internal strife while deal with Victor Oladipo‘s injury. In a situation where many players would’ve turned toward individual goals, the Pacers stuck together.

But Indiana came undone this summer.

The Pacers lost four playoff starters: Thaddeus Young (signed with Bulls), Bojan Bogdanovic (signed with Jazz), Wesley Matthews (signed with Bucks) and Darren Collison (retired). Cory Joseph (signed with Kings) and Tyreke Evans (banned) also departed.

This is only the second time in since 1985 (as far back as Basketball-Reference tracks postseason starts) a team lost four players who started every playoff game the prior season.

In 1999, the Magic signed-and-traded Penny Hardaway to the Suns, traded Nick Anderson to the Kings, traded Horace Grant to the SuperSonics and traded Isaac Austin to the Wizards. Orlando was clearing salary for 2000 free agency and eventually landed Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. Between, the Magic even went a surprisingly strong 41-41 in 1999-00 behind scrappy additions John Amaechi, Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins and rookie coach Doc Rivers.

Indiana is making no such willing step back.

The Pacers added several helpful players this summer: Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday and T.J. McConnell. The goal is clearly to build on consecutive 48-win seasons.

Indiana got much younger in all the roster turnover.

The big prize was Brogdon, but he came at a substantial cost. The Pacers guaranteed the 26-year-old with a history foot trouble $85 million over four years. They also sent the Bucks a first-rounder and two second-rounders in the sign-and-trade for the restricted free agent. Brogdon is a good player, but that’s a lot.

Warren arrived via trade from the Suns in a much easier call. Phoenix sent Indiana the No. 32 pick just to take the 25-year-old forward. With $35.25 million and three years left on his contract, Warren is probably slightly overpaid. But he might not be. The high second-rounder (which the Pacers flipped to the Heat for three future second-rounders) more than covers the difference.

Signing Lamb to a three-year, $31.5 million contract looks like good value. A 27-year-old wing with his offensive talent is usually much more expensive.

Another helpful wing, Holiday came even cheaper. He settled for the room exception after the market dried up.

McConnell ($3.5 million guaranteed next season, $1 million of $3.5 million guaranteed the following season) will fill a role in the backcourt. The size will depend on second-year Aaron Holiday‘s readiness for the rotation and Oladipo’s return from injury.

A healthier Oladipo was always bound to make the Pacers better. The new younger talent – including No. 18 pick Goga Bitadze – gives Indiana a chance to create something for the long haul.

Still, the Pacers had a winning formula the last couple years. They’ve disrupted it. That’s uneasy, even as there’s no guarantee the departed veterans would’ve maintained their production as they aged.

I’m also not convinced the new lineup has staying power. Indiana plans to start Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, both players who should primarily play center. Those two work together fine for now, but they’re better off apart.

That said, the big-man pairing can also help the Pacers maintain their culture of toughness and defense. Coach Nate McMillan and work with this group.

Only Indiana’s roster has changed. The reasonable expectation for this team hasn’t.

Offseason grade: C+

Team USA cuts Thaddeus Young, Bam Adebayo after scrimmage

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Team USA had its Blue vs. White scrimmage on Friday night, with the more senior Blue team taking home the victory, 97-78 during the outing in Las Vegas.

After the game was over, the team decided to make a few cuts as it tries to whittle down its roster for the upcoming 2019 FIBA World Cup in China.

Among the cuts were Chicago Bulls forward Thaddeus Young and Miami Heat big man Bam Adebayo.

Via Twitter:

Good news from Las Vegas has come for Kings fans, who will see their Marvin Bagley added to the potential list for China. De'Aaron Fox has been a star during his time with Team USA thus far, and appears to be a lock by many accounts to make the team for the World Cup.

This is going to be an interesting outing for everyone involved. There aren’t a lot of NBA superstars on this team, if you could count any. But there is a lot of young talent, and it could open up the USA for a whole new generation of players looking to play internationally.

Meanwhile, opposing countries smell blood in the water and they are certainly circling the upcoming tournament at the end of August as a means to hoist victory over the United States.

Mason Plumlee added to Team USA player pool (Montrezl Harrell, too, but he’s already out)

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The story of Team USA’s 2019 FIBA World Cup roster in a nutshell: USA Basketball announced Montrezl Harrell and Mason Plumlee were added to the player pool. Less than an hour later, Harrell put out word he probably wouldn’t play.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Many stars swiftly turned down Team USA for this year’s FIBA World Cup. More accepted an invitation to try out then withdrew. Now even Harrell is out.

Who’s in?

Here are the players slated to attend training camp, with rough positional designations:

Point guards

Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics)

Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)

Combo guards

Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz)

Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics)

Wings

Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks)

Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)

Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)

Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings)

Big forwards

P.J. Tucker (Houston Rockets)

Thaddeus Young (Chicago Bulls)

Kyle Kuzma (Los Angeles Lakers)

Centers

Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks)

Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons)

Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers)

Julius Randle (New York Knicks)

Mason Plumlee (Denver Nuggets)

Plumlee is an odd addition (except considering his connections). That’s so many centers – especially because USA Basketball also invited Harrell, another center. It seems original selections Lopez, Drummond and Turner could hold down the position.

The Americans could use more backcourt depth. J.J. Redick, who just signed with the Pelicans, might provide it.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

As an excellent outside shooter, Redick could fill a valuable role.

USA Basketball also announced the select team, a group of young players that practices against the senior squad:

At this rate, maybe a select-team player or two will make the final World Cup roster.