Chicago Bulls

Banged-up Bulls are losing, but Fred Hoiberg optimistic as All-Star break approaches

Banged-up Bulls are losing, but Fred Hoiberg optimistic as All-Star break approaches

The All-Star break is days ahead for the Bulls, and it seems like they're waiting to be saved by the bell, limping and waiting on the standing eight-count.

Jimmy Butler went through practice, though his status is unknown for Tuesday's game against the Toronto Raptors — the cure-all to every Bulls ill, it seems — is still an unknown. Fred Hoiberg is more optimistic about his prospects than the rest of the injured brigade.

"He's sore, as I think everyone would expect," Hoiberg said following Monday's afternoon session at the Advocate Center. "But it was good to see him back out there with the guys. We'll see how he's doing tomorrow morning, put him through shootaround. I'm sure we'll put him through a workout before the game and then make a determination."

Nikola Mirotic's back spasms kept him out of practice, while Dwyane Wade (right wrist) and Paul Zipser (left ankle) went to get MRIs during practice. Wade's wrist looked swollen Saturday and Sunday from a hard fall he took Friday against the Phoenix Suns, and one wonders if taking these two games off and having an extended rest with the long time in between games will be the most prudent option, results pending.

When Butler, the Bulls' main piece, took an awkward step on a fast break in Oklahoma City while the Bulls were giving the Thunder a whipping, it looked as if the road trip would give them some much-needed straightening, and even playing well against the Houston Rockets made it look like it would be the start of a fruitful trip.

But unlike the Bulls' "Circus Trip" in November, the fruit turned sour shortly thereafter, and giving up 100 points in nine straight games (the first three in the streak came at home) shows a level of slippage and the attention to detail that has been sorely lacking. Getting trounced in resounding fashion by the woeful Suns and then allowing the never-ending Tom Thibodeau revenge tour to roll over the Bulls in Minneapolis makes Hoiberg look like he's one of the few with such positive thoughts.

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"You have to find a way to bounce back, get refocused these two important games before the break," Hoiberg said. "The big thing is getting off to good starts. When we didn't play well on the trip, that was the common theme. We had poor starts. We turned the ball over, it affected our transition defense and didn't close those games. It's about getting back to basics tomorrow, making the easy play, getting back in transition, rebounding."

Still, Hoiberg doesn't think his players have been worn down mentally by some of the drama, the dog days of the year or even the inevitable injuries.

"It seems like a long time ago that we have that game against Oklahoma City," Hoiberg said. "That's the message to the guys, we're fully capable of playing good basketball. You have to get off to good starts, take care of the basketball, rebound. It's basics, fundamentals we have to do better if you want a chance to win.

"It was less than a week ago, we were putting together good performances, so it's about getting back to what made that happen and again, we're capable."

State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

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USA TODAY

State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

2018 draft class is loaded at the top

Quietly, you can bet Bulls' front office executives John Paxson and Gar Forman had a little celebration after hearing that prep star Marvin Bagley III was going to graduate from high school early and enroll at Duke for the 2017-18 season, making him eligible for the 2018 draft.

Bagley, a 6'11 power forward from Los Angeles, is being compared to longtime NBA star Chris Bosh, right down to his smooth left-handed shooting touch. Bagley averaged 24.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and two blocked shots during his junior season for Sierra Canyon H.S. He's also fared well against NBA competition at the highly-regarded Drew League in L.A. this summer. Bagley’s physical tools are off the charts, and you can count on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski preparing him well for life in the NBA.

Most NBA scouts and execs expect the No. 1 overall pick to come down to either Bagley or Michael Porter Jr., who will play his one season of college basketball at Missouri. The 6'10 Porter averaged an amazing 34.8 points and 13.8 rebounds last season against Seattle high school competition. He's considered a more dynamic scorer than Bagley with more range on his jump shot. Some scouts believe he could quickly develop into one of the league's elite players with Kevin Durant-type length and shooting ability at the small forward position.

International swingman Luka Doncic is also highly coveted by NBA teams. The 6'8 swingman has excellent shooting range, and is also capable of creating his own shot with outstanding ball-handling ability. Forget the stereotype of European players being mechanical and unable to compete athletically, Doncic is capable of being an 18-20 point scorer in the NBA and should go in the top five next June. He's considered one of the best international prospects in the last decade.

Two 7-footers also will hear their names called early on draft night 2018. University of Arizona freshman DeAndre Ayton averaged 19.8 points and 12 rebounds in high school last season, while Texas freshman center Mohamed Bomba has an incredible 7-foot-9 wingspan. Sure, the NBA has moved away from the traditional low post center, but teams are still looking to acquire agile big men like Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside. Depending on how they fare against top level college competition, Ayton and Bomba could round out the top five.

Other names to watch in the lottery portion of next year's draft include Texas A&M power forward Robert Williams, Michigan State's forward duo of Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., and the latest one-and-dones from John Calipari's Kentucky program, center Nick Richards and small forward Jarred Vanderbilt.

In case you missed it, ESPN released its preseason win total expectations for the Eastern Conference on Wednesday, and the Bulls were dead last with a projected record of 26-56. Now, I'm not sure a team with veterans Dwyane Wade and Robin Lopez and the three young players acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota will be quite that bad, but if you're going to rebuild, the idea is to get the best draft pick possible, and the Bulls appear to be on course for a top-five selection depending on how the lottery falls.

If the Bulls are able to land an elite talent like Porter Jr., Bagley III or Doncic in the draft, then use their $40-50 million in cap space to land a couple of quality free agents, the rebuild might not be as painful as some fans are fearing.

Last dance for LeBron in Cleveland?

Well-connected NBA writer Chris Sheridan dropped this bomb on Twitter Wednesday, quoting an NBA source, "This will be LeBron's final season in Cleveland. He is 100 percent leaving. Relationship with owners beyond repair." Don’t forget, Sheridan was the first national writer to report James was going to leave Miami to go back to Cleveland in 2014, so his reports definitely warrant a little extra attention.

Okay, we've already heard countless rumors about James planning to join the Lakers after next season. He's built a mansion in Brentwood, is close with Magic Johnson and will be able to bring another superstar with him to L.A. like Paul George or Russell Westbrook. Plus, the Lakers have a number of talented young players in place like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. and a promising coach in Luke Walton.

Add in the likelihood Kyrie Irving will be traded before training camp opens and LeBron's long-standing poor relationship with Cavs' owner Dan Gilbert, and you have the perfect formula for another James' free agent decision next July. Although, I'm not sure why LeBron would want to go West, where Golden State is positioned to dominate the league for another five seasons, with strong challengers like the Rockets and Spurs still in place. 

But if we've learned anything from watching James over the years, he's clearly a man who wants to align the odds in his favor. So don't rule out anything when it comes to James' free agent decision. If the Cavs make a home run trade for Irving, maybe LeBron decided to plays out his career in his home state. If not, look for him to find a team with the cap space to bring in another top star to run with him.

Back in 2010, the Bulls carved out the cap space to add two max contract stars, but lost out to Pat Riley in Miami. This time around they won't be on James' July travel itinerary.

One thing we know for sure. Where LeBron plays in 2018 will be the number one story throughout the NBA season.

Report: Bulls expected to reach buyout agreement with Dwyane Wade

Report: Bulls expected to reach buyout agreement with Dwyane Wade

Dwyane Wade's homecoming may not last much longer. 

According to Nick Friedell's ESPN report, the Bulls are expected to reach a buyout agreement with the 12-time NBA All-Star "at some point in the next few months." 

The news comes two months after Wade picked up his player option, choosing $24 million over earning less on a more competitive team. 

If Gar Forman and John Paxson indeed decide to buy D-Wade out, the "Three Alphas," which consisted of Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo, would all be out just one season after coming together. 

The buyout may also mean more ping-pong balls in next year's stacked draft