Chicago Bulls

Bulls Take a Big Step Forward with Win Over Cavs

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Bulls Take a Big Step Forward with Win Over Cavs

Thursday, November 5th

by Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

Before the season began, Cleveland was the popular pick to be the Beast of the East, after adding Shaquille O'Neal in a trade with Phoenix, and Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon as free agents.

But the Cavs have been so-so at best in the first week, while Boston looks like the class of the league at 6-0. Still, winning at Cleveland is no small feat, especially when you consider the Cavs had the best home record in the NBA last season at 39-2.

Talk about showing poise under pressure, the Bulls made big plays on both ends of the floor down the stretch, with the Cavs making the key mistakes. Okay, maybe LeBron James did get fouled on that drive to the basket in the closing seconds, but so what? The Bulls played great defense on the King, forcing him to take a tough off-balance shot. Luol Deng has quite a history with James, going back to their high school days, and he didn't back down in guarding LeBron with the game on the line. James finished with 25 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, but thanks to the Bulls' alert defensive rotations, he only got off 17 shots, which is about 8 to 10 less than the Cavs' coaching staff would like to see him take. Both teams shot only 41 percent from the field, and who would have thought the Bulls would be able to win a game in Cleveland with the final score in the 80's. Vinny Del Negro and his staff talked a lot about improving the Bulls' defense during training camp, and apparently all that hard work is paying off. This was a game won on the defensive end.

On the other end of the floor, the Bulls looked better at times against the Cavs, thanks to pushing the ball in transition whenever possible. My pre and post-game show partner, Kendall Gill, says the Bulls are a much more effective team when they run the floor and look for good shots early in the shot clock, instead of holding the ball and letting opposing teams set their defense. Both Rose and Kirk Hinrich did a good job of forcing the tempo against Cleveland, allowing the Bulls to get quality shots against a team with superior size and strength.

LEBRON STILL THE KING IN CLEVELAND

Wouldn't it be something if the Bulls could convince LeBron to leave Cleveland next summer, and team up with Derrick Rose to make the Bulls the team to beat in the Eastern Conference for years to come? Yes, the summer of 2010 has already been dubbed the "Summer of LeBron", because of James' upcoming free agency which could dramatically alter the balance of power in the NBA. The Bulls should have enough room under the salary cap to sign one maximum contract free agent, and even though LeBron has never been mentioned in connection with Chicago, it's fun to dream.

The Bulls had a chance to witness first-hand what an overwhelming talent James has become Thursday night in Cleveland. The reigning M.V.P. ran the court like a gazelle, and threw down fast break dunks with his head above the rim. It's awfully tough to guard a 24 year old monster who's more powerful and faster than just about anyone else on the floor. Add in the fact he's become a dangerous long range shooter and hard-working defender, and you have the best basketball player on the planet right now. Fans in Cleveland are trying to enjoy THIS season with the possibility of LeBron and Shaq bringing the city its first NBA championship, but the thought of losing James to New York or Miami or yes, even Chicago, is never too far from their minds.

DENG IS BACK

One huge positive for the Bulls so far has been the play of Deng, now in his 6th NBA season. Deng's last 2 years were short-circuited by a series of injuries, but he looks like he's back to the form that had NBA personnel people calling him a future all-star after the 2006-2007 season. Watching Luol attack the offensive boards Tuesday night against Milwaukee had to bring a smile to Bulls fans everywhere. He's never been known as a powerful offensive rebounder, but time and again he battled taller Bucks' players to get 2nd chance opportunities in a game the Bulls really needed to win. The 20 rebounds he pulled down were a career high, and the leadership he showed in bringing the Bulls back from an 18 point deficit is also a very positive sign for the season ahead.

Deng said throughout the pre-season that he felt fine physically, and there were no after-effects from the right leg stress fracture that caused him to miss the end of last season and the playoffs. But until Luol could go out in the regular season and show he could compete without fear of getting hurt again, it was only natural for fans and maybe even his teammates to be a little apprehensive. We all know the Bulls have a number of issues they're dealing with right now, starting with Rose's nagging ankle injury, so having a healthy Deng is crucial for the team to keep its head above water during a very difficult stretch of the schedule. Deng might not average 20 points a game, but his ability to hit the mid-range jumper and attack the basket gives the Bulls an offensive weapon they didn't really have down the stretch last season. And, his offensive rebounding prowess allows Vinny to go with a smaller line-up at times that will have Rose and Kirk Hinrich in the backcourt and John Salmons and Deng at the forwards.

It's easy to criticize the Bulls' offense right now, with so many of their top shooters struggling to make open jumpers. Rest assured that will improve in time. Salmons, Hinrich and Rose are just too good to shoot below 40 percent from the field. Once the outside shooting gets better, the Bulls will be able to attack opposing defenses in a variety of ways. November is probably the toughest month on the schedule, so the goal is to just stay close to .500. If they can accomplish that, they're set up to make a strong push the rest of the way.

What do you think about the state of the Bulls right now? Where do they fit in the Eastern Conference power rankings? Please leave a comment in the section below, or drop me an e-mail.

Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre and post game studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.

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