The calendar has turned to March and the madness is about to begin. Yes, that might have been a reference to college basketball but that still doesn’t change for the NBA. Last week I covered the Eastern Conference.
The playoffs bracket in the West is closer in terms of playoff positioning, but the Los Angeles Lakers sit at the top led by all-time great LeBron James. Can we consider LeBron a legend even though he is still active? We can get to that next week when I’ll be diving into some of the more debatable topics this league provides its fans.
Previewing the Western Conference Playoffs
The Lakers have a sturdy 5.5-game lead on the Los Angeles Clippers who many consider the favorite to come out of the West. The Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Dallas Mavericks are all separated by 5.5 games. These last few weeks could help win homecourt advantage for certain teams that thrive in there home arena.
Home-court advantage is going to be critical. If Denver gets home court over the Thunder (which would happen if the playoffs started today). Both teams are significantly better at home than on the road. Think about if Oklahoma City stole home-court advantage and was able to win their first-round series. That could change the outlook on the franchise.
The current seventh-seeded Mavericks actually boast a 21-11 road record, so they could play spoiler in a series. Luka Doncic is built for the playoffs. They might lose their first-round series, but there will be fireworks because of the Mavericks averaging 116 PPG, which ranks third in the NBA.
Last, Not Least
Other potential suitors for that eighth and coveted spot are the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, and New Orleans Pelicans. All of these teams sit no more than four games back. The most compelling story is the upstart Pelicans who are led by rookie sensation Zion Williamson. But we have to respect what Memphis has done here. Their schedule after the all-star break was second in difficulty, and with a little over a month to go, they have a solid three-game lead. The Grizzlies are led by another rookie sensation in Ja Morant.
Look at the top-seeded Lakers. They have two of the top-five players in the league. Some are here to argue that Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best in the league and I have no qualms about it. I would be remiss to say that LeBron is still the number one player in the world given his incredible IQ, distribution, and understanding of the game and what needs to be done to win a title.
Still Up There
At this point, we are tired of LeBron and it skews our view on him in terms of greatness. In any best-of-seven series, the Lakers will have an all-time great as the best player on the floor. But will his supporting cast be able to do enough to get him to the finals?
The number-one threat to the Lakers returning the NBA Finals is the Clippers. After an intense six-game series where the upstart Clippers pushed the Warriors to the brink with inspiring play, free-agency ended with them having acquired the defending Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, a two-way superstar who could help the Clipper reach the promised land. The Clippers have the star power and defensive prowess to wear the Lakers down and are 2-0 against their cross-town foe.
But this reporter has seen this before. Who remembers when the 2011 Chicago Bulls went against the Lebron James led heat? Yes I know, we have different levels of stars. And Leonard and George are lengthy defenders who can combat LeBron. But when it comes down to it in a best-of-seven, give me LeBron.
Keep an Eye On
The Nuggets and Rockets are third and fourth in the Western Conference. The Nuggets main question still remains. Do they have the star power to get to the finals? Simple answer. No.
Denver is a good team, don’t me wrong. But right now they would face the Thunder in the first round; no easy out. In the second round, they would face the Clippers. They don’t have the bodies to guard the likes of Leonard and George. The athleticism of the Clippers would be too much.
The Rockets are a gimmicky team trying to beat you by spreading the floor and being unconscious from the three-point line. They have the superstar power to get to the Western Conference Finals but those stars haven’t punched their ticket to finals since 2012. That was when James Harden and Russell Westbrook were with the Thunder.
How It Plays Out
Throughout a seven-game series, the Rockets will be worn down. If they come out of the first round, they’ll be minced meat for either the Lakers or Clippers. The bottom-four teams in the playoffs have young (to a degree), up-and-coming teams that will have their title window soon. Just not quite yet. The Thunder are the surprise of the season.
After trading Westbrook and George, everyone thought the team would tank to hopefully draft their next superstar. That is not the case. Chris Paul and company are having a fantastic season and look to ruffle some feathers in the first round. Utah is a defensive dynamo led by Rudy Gobert. Unfortunately, they do not have enough pop to get to the finals. Hopefully, they’ll see Donovan Mitchell pop in the playoffs again. The Jazz are just hoping to advance to the second round.
As for the Mavericks and the Grizzlies, the only thing I want to see is the blossoming of Doncic and Morant. These two young players are on another level, and I hope to see them raise their game in the playoffs. Doncic has been in big moments for nearly a decade and you can tell in his early career he has the makings of being something special. He is currently averaging 28.5 points per game, 8.8 assists, and 9.3 rebounds.
One for the Road
Ja Morant is the Rookie of the Year in my opinion. Trust me I love Zion just as much as the next guy. But Ja has been nothing short of special for this upstart Memphis bunch and a playoff appearance in his rookie season is nothing but a sign of great things to come.
It is March and that can only mean one thing. The basketball world will come into the focus with the NCAA tournament and the NBA playoffs to follow shortly after. These are all the things I am looking for in this year’s playoffs. If you read last week’s article I chose the Boston Celtics, and for this week. I believe the Lakers will meet them in the NBA Finals, and the winner will be in next week’s article.
If you have anything you want to discuss you can hit me up on twitter @illiniRyan7
Draft Lottery Unlucky for Bulls, Fans
The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery came and went with a whoosh. But it definitely left its mark on the NBA. That mark will create ripple effects across the entire Association. For some teams, that ripple is looking like a positive. For many other teams, though, the lottery created more questions (and problems) than before.
Can’t Always Get What You Want
The sky is falling! No, that is not a reference to beloved fictitious character Chicken Little. It is, instead, the cries of Chicago Bulls fans everywhere in the wake of landing the number seven overall pick in the NBA Draft in last night’s Draft Lottery. ‘Landing’ is the appropriate word because you have to fall to land. And being projected for the fourth slot only to land the seventh is a fall far greater than the mere three-slot difference would suggest.
Part of the reason the results are so deflating is because the consensus is that after the top three (Duke’s Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett or Ja Morant of Murray State) there are no clear cut, must-take players. Some even say that the cutoff is the top two. That isn’t to say that the other players won’t be fine pros. It is to say that if there is a generational talent among the field from four on, it wasn’t on display while they were in college. In other words, they are more likely role players than franchise cornerstones.
The other kicker is the seventh pick represents a near-worst-case for the Bulls draft odds. The reform of the NBA’s lottery flattened out the odds for the bottom three teams to get the top pick and the results were immediately apparent. The Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies both jumped at least six spots, as did the draft’s biggest winner, the New Orleans Pelicans. Meanwhile, Horace Grant’s reaction as the Bulls name was read is representative of Bull fans everywhere.
No need to cry (anymore) over spilled milk. Instead, the attention of the Chicago brain trust has certainly turned towards producing yet another surprisingly solid pick at a less than ideal draft slot. They have plenty of experience at this slot in particular, too. Both Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen (who was actually drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves) were picked in the seven-slot. And we have seen players like Donovan Mitchell (13th overall in 2017) come off the board at the end of the lottery and surprise.
So which prospects offer both the potential to exceed expectations and availability at seven? Bleacher Report currently has Chicago taking Coby White out of North Carolina, though pairing him in the backcourt with Zach Lavine would have opposing guards licking their offensive chops. Prior to the acquisition of Otto Porter, many in See Red Nation were clamoring for Duke wingman, Cam Reddish. The 6’8” forward was stifled in college playing alongside two other marquee talents, though, that’s not an issue in the Windy City.
That is the issue at hand. Even though the Bulls have a glaring need for a point guard but if it isn’t Morant there is no clear-cut answer for their lead guard. Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland (the second-ranked point guard) has questions after tearing his meniscus a mere five games into the season. The reality is beyond picks one and two, teams will be either reaching to fill needs or trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
The other option that has to be on the table is trading the pick. Rumors have already been swirling about the Bulls perhaps shipping the selection west to the Lakers in exchange for Lonzo Ball. The move would upgrade the point guard spot that the front office clearly doesn’t see Kris Dunn as a fit for. Outside of that, though, not many options readily present themselves. That is a credit to how the Bulls have fleshed out 3/5 of their roster. It also pigeonholes the expected return on any trade involving the draft pick. Anything other than a point guard is an unnecessary luxury.
If the Bulls feel they are really a veteran point guard away from competing in the East, a trade for the Grizzlies’ Mike Conley could be on the horizon. Trading the pick for a guard who will be 32 before the first tip of the 2019 season is…less than ideal. And that is before taking Conley’s exorbitant salary into account. The benefit to going after a vet is that it would allow Dunn to stick around and, hopefully, learn how to be a more effective floor general. That route just might not be viable through trade.
A third, and admittedly less appealing, option exists. The Bulls could trade back with another team should a player that team covets slides. That would potentially allow the Bulls to still pick a player they like, only at a more palatable slot. It also would bring in more draft capital for the future. That cannot be undervalued because, while it is not impossible, it is unlikely that they find a franchise-altering talent where they are currently slated to pick. Of course, that path would be asking for more patience from a fan base that is already clinging to fond memories of championships from 21 years ago.
Sports fans are familiar with this concept. It is often called basketball hell. When in this state, teams are neither good enough to compete for a championship nor bad enough to have a legitimate shot at the top incoming draft talent. The lottery (and its reformation) is supposed to quell tanking, but the Pelicans played their best player, Anthony Davis, 30-plus minutes once over the star big man’s final 15 games. Other than that he didn’t clear 25 minutes. News flash: they were tanking. Alas, the Bulls have gone from Ja Morant or Garland and rounding out their starting five to BPA/who knows without doing a thing. Impressive.
Bulls Break(down) Came Long Before All-Star Weekend
CHICAGO, IL — The Chicago Bulls hit the break with no All-Stars, a record of 14-44 (good for 13th in the East) and a myriad of issues. But the reality is their breakdown occurred long before the NBA annual mid-season hiatus.
They came into the season with questions of talent and roster fits. Coaching was an issue that has only been exacerbated by Jim Boylen taking over for Fred Hoiberg. And the front office’s greatest strength has become their biggest detriment.
Chicago entered the 2018-19 season with renewed hope of future success. They were entering the second year of their latest rebuild – there have been several in the past 15 years – and it finally seemed like they were starting to repair their image in the eyes of free agents with the signing of Jabari Parker.
Well, that rebuild is still stuck at square-one as the ‘core’ has not had significant enough time playing together to truly evaluate if they actually play well together. And Parker has been shipped out for Otto Porter after the Bulls apparently forgot who they were signing.
Injuries have hurt as every member of the Bulls young nucleus has missed significant time throughout the season. It has not always looked like a functioning unit even when they do all play, though. And the tea-leaves suggest who management sees as the next domino to fall.
The Bulls top-two scorers, Zach Lavine and Lauri Markkanen (Porter has only played in four games as a Bull) both thrive with the ball in their hands. Kris Dunn is an attacking, downhill type of player who lacks a consistent outside shot, as evidenced by his .339 average on 1.8 attempts per game.
Because they lack consistent outside shooting from the point, defenses are able to clog the lanes, preventing the drives off shot-fakes that (should) make both Lavine and Markkanen dangerous. This is also the reason there has been renewed talk of moving Lavine to point, a position he has played with success in the past.
That makes sense if the Bulls were to select a guard such as RJ Barrett or Cam Reddish in the draft. But signs seem to point to them looking at Ja Morant of Murray State. Bulls boss John Paxson has not committed to Dunn and Morant’s buzz is building.
The sophomore is a better athlete and scorer than Dunn. He is not necessarily a better shooter, but he is certainly a more willing participant, particularly from three-point range. Morant’s numbers are far superior to any that Dunn has put up even in college.
Dunn is not without his strengths. For one he is a hard-nosed competitor, a theme we will circle back to later. Conversely, Morant is not without question marks. ‘Why did he bloom late’ and ‘is he good enough to take over Duke trio Barrett, Reddish, and (likely top-pick) Zion Williamson’ being chief among them.
Two Coaches, One Season, Zero Solutions
When Chicago fired Hoiberg and elevated Boylen, Paxson cited ‘lack of competitive spirit’ by the players, adding it was not about wins and losses. The problem with that is even those who wanted Hoiberg gone knew he was not working with a full complement of assets.
Frame that with the Bulls regression post-Fred and their extremely early commitment to Boylen for the 2019-20 season and you get a glimpse into how they have become the butt of jokes around the Association. Such turmoil – Paxson has hired and fired five coaches – is a never a good look.
More damning is the blatant pattern that the hiring and subsequent firings have shown. The hard-coaching grinder followed by the more laid back, players coach and then back again. There is no right answer as to which is the better style, but the Bulls seem to be off in their pairing of coach and roster.
As noted, even his staunchest detractors would say Hoiberg was never really given a chance. He came from Iowa State as a first-time NBA head coach but was saddled with a veteran squad. Then the Bulls get the makings of lineup suited for Hoiberg’s pace and space offense but two months after firing him.
Boylen is more in the mold of Tom Thibodeau. Longtime NBA assistants with ties to top-tier coaches, brought in to tighten the reigns. The difference is Thibs came from outside, whereas Boylen has been with the Bulls since 2015. If he was not effective as ‘bad cop’, how can he be so as ‘top cop’?
That is what makes the commitment to him for next season seem so premature. You pay him as your head coach, sure. But if you have already gained a reputation for organizational instability in such a critical area, why paint yourself into that corner?
In fairness, the last time the Bulls had success with a coach like Boylen, he (Thibs) was given time to mold the team in his image. Perhaps the biggest thing working in the current coaches favor is, despite the early uprising, Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr were not among those upset by the coaches tactics.
Chicago is clearly banking on the hope that if they were able to get a meeting with a free agent, they could wow them in person. Their interactions with media and the stories going around about their perception signal a change in their situation changing anytime soon in that regard.
Paxson Both Problem and Solution
For years the Bulls front office has gotten the most out if their draft positioning. That is the result of sound scouting and player development. But it is also a necessary function of their reluctance to bottom out to maximize their potential in the draft.
They have been competitive for the better part of Paxson’s tenure, no doubt. But with only one appearance in the Conference Finals since MJ left town, something has to give. That does not mean a change in the people running the show, though there are many with that perspective. It does mean a change in approach.
Chicago has had a positive offensive rating (relative to the rest of the league) four times in the last 21 years. They have had a positive defensive rating 11 times over that same time frame with Paxson in control for the vast majority.
Paxson has shown a clear ability to identify players but he and his coaches have had tumultuous relationships by their end. It can not continue to be everyone around without assessment of the person bringing these coaches in.
Again, that is not to suggest Paxson remove himself from the position. But perhaps the best move would be to identify executive talent well as he does draft prospects. He then needs to get out of the way. Who knows if he is micromanaging, but he does more harm to himself than good with surly press conferences and interviews
They also need to dedicate themselves to rebuilding this thing from the ground up. They need to do whatever possible to get a top-three pick. They have avoided the temptation to pivot towards a playoff push, but they do not take it far enough.
Robin Lopez should have been bought out after failing to find a trade partner for him. But for whatever reason, maybe competitiveness, not only has the Bulls brain trust not moved him, they will not and have not sat him or reduced his playing time. That could be a costly mistake.
Then there is Doug Collins. The one-time Bulls coach and NBA lifer returned to the organization in 2017 as a Senior Advisor. Fans hoped he would be able to help, even if it meant sitting on the sidelines again. At some point, though, he too will cease to be thought of as separate from the madness on Madison Ave.