NBA executives understand why top players skip combine

NBA executives understand why top players skip combine

The NBA Draft Combine is a battleground of sorts for two different yet equally understandable ends of a spectrum, with the draft a matter of weeks away.

There’s the top players who don’t see the need in going through the drills, measurements and competition are on one side, while the executives and scouts who’ve made the trek to Chicago would ideally like to see every available player put on a jersey and go through at least some of the drills.

But prospective top picks Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson and most of the consensus top 10 weren’t in attendance. Fultz came to Chicago but wasn’t at the combine and it presents an issue of sorts.

It was highlighted by Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant blasting the usefulness of the combine as a whole, considering he couldn’t bench press 185 pounds as a skinny teenager from the University of Texas before the 2007 draft.

Durant went second overall and is on his way to a Hall of Fame career, so his words about the memories from what seems to be a humiliating experience holds some weight.

Teams also sit down with players through the week to get a feel for them, something that isn’t guaranteed after the combine considering players can refuse to work out for a team because it isn’t a desirable destination or if they believe the team won’t be in a position to draft them.

CSNChicago.com spoke to several league executives and scouts in attendance, and while the opinions varied, they certainly understood the position players — or more specifically, their agents are in, at least in terms of the workouts.

“I want to see guys compete,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “Even if he misses every shot, going against a guy who’s a mid-round pick and watching how they handle the competition tells you part of their mental makeup. Their body of work won’t be discounted over two days here.”

A Western Conference President agreed but said if he had a son or a client who’s slated in the top 5, he would advise him against coming to the combine.

“It can’t do anything but cost you money. That’s the honest truth,” he said. “We have better just done all of our homework when it comes to making the right selection. It’s on us.”

“I don’t care if they play or do the 5-on-5 stuff,” a longtime executive from a playoff team said. “They’ve done enough through the year, but every team should have physicals from every player available in the draft, whether they work out and play or not.”

It sounds rather simplistic but every team has its own criteria for physicals and if a player refuses to work out for a team, the team is without valuable information that could aid it in selecting or passing up on a top prospect. The NBA doesn’t mandate universal physicals for incoming players and due to college prospects not being members of the players union, it puts the league in a tricky position it can’t control.

Agents can sometimes protect their clients from damaging information getting out, which is why players sometimes slip late in the draft process if a medical evaluation is red-flagged.

Former Celtic forward Jared Sullinger’s back was red-flagged before the 2012 draft, and he went from a lottery selection to being picked 21st. Bulls first-round draft pick Denzel Valentine was thought to be a top-10 selection last year before his knees were deemed a concern for the top teams, as he slipped to the Bulls toward the end of the lottery.

“Tell me one thing they get out of it?” queried a Western Conference executive. “If I was an agent, and I have a guy like Josh Jackson (Kansas), what good is it that Josh Jackson comes in? He’s gonna go in the top 2-3 anyways.”

“He’s not gonna play. None of them are gonna play. He’s gonna interview where he’s (likely) gonna go.”

The draft lottery is next week, where teams will know where they’ll be slotted for the June 22 made-for-television extravaganza. In a spirited conversation between the executive and a former coach, they both seemed to sit on the same side of the fence, while also acknowledging their interests at the same time.

“Here’s the problem the league has, it’s taking control away from them and they don’t like it,” the executive said.

The coach responded.

“If the physical is gonna hurt the agent’s client, why would he give it access to everyone?”

The executive continued.

“And he’ll slide 10 spots and lose out on guaranteed money. But for me, oh yeah, I wanna see everything. I’m not mad at the agents. Everybody’s talking about how it should be, it’s self-serving interests for us. You want access to as much as you can get.”

The 4 biggest takeaways from the Bulls' season-ending press conference

The 4 biggest takeaways from the Bulls' season-ending press conference

The four biggest takeaways from the Bulls’ season-ending news conference where Executive Vice President John Paxson and General Manager Gar Forman addressed the media:

Run it back

The inconsistency with the playing rotation and the young players on the roster hasn’t dissuaded the Bulls’ brain trust from the path they began last season — sort of. The “10 players with three years or fewer experience” we’ve heard repeatedly from General Manager Gar Forman wasn’t spoken but it was in the air. They’re still very high on Cameron Payne, the centerpiece of the midseason trade that sent Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City. And with Bobby Portis, Nikola Mirotic, Denzel Valentine and more on the roster, they’re not ready to cut bait on inexpensive talent in the near future.

“We know change is a part of this, but we don’t want to change without knowing exactly what we have,” Paxson said. “And I don’t feel that we’ve given our young kids a chance to see. Again, we know we’re on the line for that. Players develop, don’t develop. We scout them. We drafted them. We traded for them. That’s part of the job. But we have to give them an opportunity.”

Some would say they’ve seen enough for the Bulls to decide who can play and who won’t, but it’s clear they don’t feel like the young players have been given enough of an opportunity to show how they fit going into the future. Internal improvement seems to be the biggest factor for the summer as opposed to wholesale roster turnover.

“They've each committed to being in here all summer and putting in the work,” Forman said. “Being with our strength and conditioning coaches, being with our coaches on skill development and those are decisions we have to make.

“We certainly feel we have a young core of players that have a chance to get better and we're gonna need to add to it. Are we good enough, are we where we want to be? Obviously not. We're 41-41, a 500 team.”

With Nikola Mirotic, they sound like a front office ready to commit to a restricted free agent who’s only showed small glimpses but nothing sustainable. Before his usual March bloom, the Bulls couldn’t get as much as a future second-round pick for Mirotic on the trade market.

Perhaps that’s why they feel it would be best to hold onto him in the meantime, giving him yet another chance to prove himself. Dwyane Wade has a player option for $23.8 million, and the Bulls sounded like they’re expecting him to take it going into next season, where he’ll turn 36 in the middle of the 2017-18 campaign.

They’d probably be better served bringing in another veteran to lessen the dependency on Wade, but that doesn’t seem to be a main focus with the cap space they hope to maintain for the future.

Non-committal about Jimmy Butler, again 

Butler completed another season where he made massive improvements statistically and with his skill set, becoming more of a playmaker with the ball in his hands.

He’s entering the third year of a five-year, $92 million deal and he’ll soon be eligible for a much larger payday if the Bulls would want to commit to him after his contract expires following the 2019-20 season, but the trade rumors have dogged Butler and the Bulls since the middle of last season.

Given the chance to firmly commit to Butler as a franchise player they’ll build around, Paxson and Forman again hedged their bets, as a loaded draft is around the corner and they know Butler will be sought after by more than a few teams.

“Jimmy is far and away our best player. He’s an all-NBA type guy,” Paxson said. “We talked about last year, look our job, you always have to keep things open.”

The Bulls resisted trade offers for Butler at the trade deadline last season and then last June on draft night, the day after they traded Derrick Rose to the Knicks. The longer it goes on with Butler, especially if the Bulls are focusing less on bringing in proven talent and more on the current course, one wonders if this is a frustrating situation waiting to blow as Butler doesn’t want to waste his prime years on a team that isn’t anywhere near ready to truly compete in the Eastern Conference — a conference that aside from LeBron James, doesn’t have many teams that would scare a player like Butler if he had sufficient talent around him.

“We’re going to sit down with Jimmy again. It’s going to happen,” Paxson said. “We’re going to talk to him and we’re going to define to him, with him our thoughts, those types of things. That’s not for today. But we respect Jimmy, we respect his opinion and we will sit down and talk with him.”

Same with Fred Hoiberg, kinda

The boos and chants of “Fire Hoiberg” from a disapproving United Center fan base was the last image in anyone’s head of the Bulls’ second-year coach as they were unceremoniously wiped out of the first round against the Boston Celtics.

Paxson and Forman have said Hoiberg has improved but still left the impression they’re expecting more from him as time goes on. He’s entering the third year of a five-year contract where he’s making $5 million annually, but there’s still questions about his command of the locker room and his ability to make the best of whatever roster he’s given.

“I think Fred’s challenge this offseason is to find ways to be a better leader,” Paxson said. “I think he showed progress in that area. The team did rally around him at times. But again, that’s part of the process, too. We made the commitment to him. We support him.”

Wade said he felt Hoiberg showed improvement through the year, but one wonders if that was Wade throwing Hoiberg a life preserver after a finish to a season where he clearly wasn’t the only problem or question mark headed into the offseason.

“Dwyane said some positive things about Fred, that he saw growth in Fred. I mentioned to you last year that I view young coaches in this league as like young players,” Paxson said. “They have to develop and grow, too. I’m not gonna get into the specifics about things we’ve seen. We have a lot of discussions throughout the year about issues we have, things with him, but that’s for us internally to have and to talk about.”

Endorsement of Rondo

If it was one thing that was crystal clear about the front office, it was their wholesale support of Rajon Rondo and the likelihood he’ll be back next season for the second year of a team option, as Paxson said “there’s a good chance or a really good chance that we bring Rajon back”, citing his influence in the locker room as a main factor.

In fact, it seems almost as if they were a bigger fan of Rondo as a voice and guiding force than Hoiberg.

The biggest event of the season was clearly following a January loss to the Hawks, where Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler called out the young players, followed by Rondo unleashing on Instagram the next afternoon in defense of the young players, criticizing the leadership of Wade and Butler.

“To be candid with you, when we had that incident where Dwyane and Jimmy spoke up in January, when he stood up for our young guys, that empowered them a little bit,” Paxson said. “It might be small but there was some growth with our young guys. Because they felt they had a voice as a young player and for us that was important.”

Considering the Bulls nearly exiled Rondo in January to him becoming the most important player as the Bulls looked ready to upset the Celtics in the first round just two weeks ago, it’s a turn of events not many saw coming.

“To a man, our young people loved Rajon. He was great in the locker room,” Paxson said. “He was great off the court with these guys. He took them under his wing in a lot of ways, and he was responsible for a lot of the good things that came from them. We have a lot of respect for Rajon, especially how he believes in the game. He used to drag guys into the weight room, and he held them accountable in a lot of ways.”

Dwyane Wade would like clarity on Bulls' direction before making decision

Dwyane Wade would like clarity on Bulls' direction before making decision

If there’s one thing that’s been in short order for the Bulls over the last year or so, clarity would be first on the list.

So Dwyane Wade would certainly like to have a little of that before heading into the summer of evaluating his place with the franchise and whether or not he’ll pick up his $23.8 million option for next season.

The Bulls’ front office signed players like Wade and Rajon Rondo last summer for the “now”, and then traded dependable veteran Taj Gibson for the “future”, along with management’s repeated flirtations with the prospect of trading Jimmy Butler for the last two years.

The only thing consistent about the Bulls’ front office strategy has been the inconsistency and their desire to have flexibility in the future. For the now, they’ve positioned themselves to have flexibility to go in one direction or the other, to be contenders or hit the button on a rebuild that could take years to recover from.

Wade has called his experience a mostly positive one, although there’s been some hiccups in his return home to Chicago. After Friday night’s series-ending loss to the Boston Celtics, Wade called it a “weird season” and seemed to echo the same big picture feelings Saturday.

He also seemed to shoot down the thought of being a prime recruiter for the franchise even if he does opt-in, considering his role in bringing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami to help the Heat win two championships and get to the NBA Finals in each of the four seasons they were together.

“It happened at a time in Miami where it just so happened one of my good friends is one of the best players to ever play the game of basketball on the planet (James),” he said. “This is now. It's a different time. It's all about the picture that's presented to everyone here and what the goal and future is gonna look like. It's not just about, 'oh we have Dwyane'. Dwyane ain't gonna play that much longer, not forever.”

Wade had five 30-point games in 59 games this season, being on pace to play 71 before breaking bones in his right elbow in mid-March. His numbers weren’t too dissimilar from last year in Miami, with the exception of more 3-point attempts at the urging of the roster construction.

Repeating that type of performance in Year 15 is feasible, one would think, even if he’s closer to the finish line than starting blocks.

“If I could say anything, if there’s one word I could pull out it’s just different,” Wade said. “I expected it to be different. I only played in one organization my entire career, but the biggest thing is I came here and I was embraced. Not only by the city, by up top. I was embraced by the coaches, the players, and it was some good moments and some bad moments, just like every season. But I don’t regret my decision at all.”

Wade has at least a month or so before he believes he has to truly think about what he’ll do, and let management know that in exit interviews at the Advocate Center Saturday afternoon.

“We just talked face to face and touched bases,” Wade said. “We really left it at as we would touch base in a few weeks. No matter where I’m at in the world, we’ll fly and meet somewhere and talk about it.”

Somewhere, he’ll also have a conversation with the player he came to Chicago to pair with in Butler, as one can’t help but think their futures are inextricably tied. If Butler goes in some trade, one would think Wade wouldn’t be gung-ho about signing back on to play with Romper Room.

Being on a team where he’s not as depended on nightly for it to be successful could factor in, as he was the second-best player behind Butler. One wonders if he would be better served as the third-best option or even fourth—meaning he would likely be on a team contending for a championship if he were to fall on the pecking order.

“I have a great luxury. I don't need to ring chase, but I can,” Wade said. “It's a great luxury to have if I want to do. Or I can be a part of passing down my knowledge to younger players. It's either way. Whatever I decide, I'm going to embrace whatever role I have on a team. That's sometimes being the second option. Sometimes I'm going to be the first. And sometimes this season, I had to be the third or fourth.”

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Considering he’ll be 36 next January with 14 years of NBA wear and tear on his body, that paycheck might not be enough to keep him around.

“Well, obviously it is a Dwyane Wade decision. Jimmy is, you know, a huge component in me being here. You know, what’s his future like? But at the end of the day it is a me decision,” Wade said. “But everyone knows that Jimmy’s my guy, and I’m here because of our conversation [last summer]. But a lot of it depends on the whole big picture. Not just one piece. Jimmy’s a big piece, but it’s a big picture as an organization. Just want to make sure we’re all on the same page.’’

But on the other side, he also arrived in Chicago due to perceived disrespect from a Miami Heat franchise that didn’t pay him what he deemed worthy. Opting out after one year of a big deal to face an unknown market is a risk considering the salary sacrifices he made with the Heat.

“I don’t really go with the signs, I’m not a predictable person, I don’t think,” Wade said. “I don’t know. It’s not a bad thing for me. I’m in a good situation. Whether there’s a lot of options or not, I’m in a very good situation. As a player, you can decide what you want to do. And I have a lot of money to decide if I want to take it or not. It’s not a bad thing, because I worked my butt of for it over my career, so no rush in my mind.”

That’s where the clarity comes in, as Wade indicated the front office said it wants a clear path moving forward. On a team that had so many young players thrust into prominent positions then shuffled out of them, one wonders if they’ll pick a few to grow with and then try to replace the rest with veteran reinforcements to maximize Butler’s prime and Wade’s time.

Either way, the limbo is a bit old, it seems from all parties involved.

“Yeah, we definitely talked. We said it to each other. I think they want a defined vision and view of where they're going too,” Wade said. “And as players, with player options, you want that too. I want that. I want it smack dead in my face. Of how it's gonna be. And from them, too. What their thought of my role or position could be here. All of it. It's not just one-sided. It's definitely from both sides.”

“I look forward to the opportunity where we sit down and have that face to face about what both sides wanna to do. Either way it goes, whether it’s me here, not here, it'll be something that's mutually talked about. I'm a firm believer in talking to people, and I will never make a decision and not tell them I'm making a decision, whether I come back or not, I'll definitely talk to those guys and be very open about where my mind is and what I'm thinking and I want them to be the same way.”

Communication was a big part of the Wade experience this season, whether he returns or not. He seemed to be more invested than people would’ve expected earlier in the season, before the Jan. 25 loss to the Atlanta Hawks where the Bulls blew a 10-point lead in the final three minutes.

Wade and Butler called out their teammates in the postgame, followed by Rondo crafting an Instagram post the next day calling out Wade and Butler. It was a firestorm of the worst kind.

Some would’ve called it necessary considering Wade’s standing in the league but the Bulls believed otherwise, fining Wade and Butler and then benching the two the next game against Miami.

It seemed to sting Wade, who believed his opinions were valued by the organization because of his experience, and that type of pushback had never happened to him in Miami.

“As a player, obviously I want to use my voice the way I want to use it,” Wade said. “As an organization, they didn’t appreciate the way that it was said _ not what I said, but the way I said it. As I told Gar, I respect the decision on whatever they decided to do. I respected it, just like what I decided to do when I said what I said. My biggest thing with my message was just wanting to _ you can always look back on it and say, yeah, I could have done this, I could have done it differently.”

He tried to laugh it off in his media session but it clearly bothered him, at least in hindsight.

“You’ve got young guys, their whole career is in front of them,” Wade said. “I do things a certain way. I’ve done it in Miami. It’s just the way it is. I would do it again if I’m put in that position. But I respected their decision to fine me. I didn’t like the benching part. But I definitely respected their decision to fine me. It’s their organization. And what they decide from at the top, you live with it.”

But the difference between how Wade saw things and the young players dealing with inconsistencies was a direct result of how the team was put together and the fact the Bulls had a young coach in Fred Hoiberg who’s still learning his voice.

His level of patience in any process—even franchise purgatory—has to be speculated about. Most believe he wants to play two more years and evaluate his career from there.

“Losing, like I said, it’s never easy, especially when you’ve won championships before. Whenever you lose it always sucks, but you sit back and reflect on the positive, you look at the things that came out of it, and there’s always some good, more than bad. When you’re playing basketball for money at the top level, it’s not all bad. I definitely don’t regret my decision of being here this season.’’