NBA Buzz: Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic show importance to Bulls' offense

NBA Buzz: Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic show importance to Bulls' offense

With another disappointing Bears season now in the books, it’s time to focus some extra attention on what’s going on around the NBA, so here’s our first edition of NBA Buzz for 2017. We start with the roller-coaster ride otherwise known as the Bulls' 2016-17 season.

It might sound a little strange to place so much importance on Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic, a pair of third-year reserve forwards, but the reality is the Bulls’ offense has an entirely different look when those two players are turning in productive minutes.

Take Wednesday's game against Cleveland for example. With Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade struggling from the field in the first half, it was McDermott and Mirotic combining for 26 points to rally the Bulls and turn an early 13-point deficit into a six-point halftime lead.

Then with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, Fred Hoiberg turned to McDermott and Mirotic as floor spacers to open up driving lanes for Butler, and Butler responded by scoring 10 straight points to clinch a meaningful road win.

The Bulls' offense simply has better options with 3-point threats on the court. I'm sure you've noticed we don't see a lot of Robin Lopez in fourth quarters, and the idea behind that is to rely on a quicker lineup with an additional 3-point shooter (either McDermott or Mirotic, sometimes both).

When the Bulls were starting games with Lopez, Taj Gibson and Rajon Rondo, defenders could pack the paint to protect against drives by Butler and Wade and dare the other three to shoot mid-range jumpers. Michael Carter-Williams is also a subpar shooter, but his height and ability to finish at the rim gives the Bulls another option they didn't have with Rondo and a threat opposing defenses can't ignore.

It's no secret the Bulls' front office had been counting on a major step forward by McDermott and Mirotic in Year 3 of the their NBA careers, and maybe we're finally starting to see that progression. Mirotic has been much more aggressive since not playing in two games last month, and McDermott is showing more versatility to his offensive game since returning from the league's concussion protocol, including three post-up baskets in the win over Charlotte.

Butler has increased his scoring average to a career-best 25 points per game, and Wade is still a reliable scoring option in his 14th NBA season. But Wade turns 35 on Jan. 17, and Butler ranks sixth in minutes played at 36.6 per game. The Bulls need to identify and rely on more options to share the scoring load on a team that currently ranks 23rd in points per game. Giving McDermott, Mirotic and Carter-Williams bigger roles in the offense should ease the burden on Butler and Wade and help the Bulls get to the playoffs in a tightly bunched Eastern Conference.

As we move closer to the halfway point of the NBA schedule, here are a few of the stories that have caught my attention.

Westbrook, Harden battle for MVP

It's easy to forget these guys were actually teammates in Oklahoma City for three seasons before ownership's refusal to pay any luxury tax led to the trade that sent Harden to Houston. Of course, you can argue how the high-scoring trio of Westbrook, Harden and Kevin Durant would have co-existed in OKC, but remember they did get to the 2012 Finals, where they lost to Miami, and at that point, all three players were still trying to figure out just how good they could be at the NBA level.

Fast forward to January 2017, and Westbrook and Harden are each trying to become the first player since Nate "Tiny" Archibald in the early 1970s to lead the league in both scoring and assists. Westbrook is currently first in scoring and second in assists, while "The Beard" is first in assists and fourth in scoring. Right now, Westbrook probably has a better shot to complete the league-leading double, and his flirtation with Oscar Robertson's distinction of averaging a triple-double for the season stamps him as the favorite to capture his first MVP award.

Mike D'Antoni enjoying career revival in Houston

I have to admit I was pretty skeptical when D'Antoni first announced he would play Harden at point guard in his pace-and-space, 3-point dominant offense. Harden has always been a cold-blooded scorer, sometimes at the expense of his teammates. But now he's fully embracing the share-the-wealth mentality, getting the ball to capable 3-point shooters like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza. Harden is averaging right around 12 assists per game, and his leadership has taken the Rockets to the third-best record in the West. And how about that 53-point, 16-rebound, 17-assist game on New Year's Eve against the Knicks, the first time in the history of the league a player had 15 or more rebounds and assists in a 50-point game.

Isaiah Thomas playing like the Hall of Famer with the same name

Not many people expected the 5-foot-9 dynamo to be a difference-maker in the NBA. Heck, not many people expected Thomas to be in the league after Sacramento selected him with the last pick in the draft back in 2011. But Thomas' career has taken off since a trade to Boston at the 2015 deadline. He currently ranks fifth in scoring and turned in a 52-point game against Miami last week. Thomas is one of the toughest covers in the league, with blazing speed on the fast break, quick crossover moves and deep 3-point range. Celtics' general manager Danny Ainge has been looking to add a star-quality player to his roster for the last several years. Turns out he already has one in the diminutive and dynamic Thomas.

Celtics fans courting Gordon Hayward

Speaking of stars, did you see Celtics forward Jae Crowder's angry reaction to Boston fans cheering for Utah's Gordon Hayward in a recent game at TD Garden? It's no secret the Celtics will be pursuing Hayward in free agency this summer, and they feel like they've got a decent chance to steal him away from Utah, considering Brad Stevens used to coach Hayward at Butler. But since Crowder and Hayward play the same position, you can't blame Crowder for wondering about his future. He tweeted after the game in all caps.

By the way, Crowder scored 21 points in the Celtics' win.

Sixers future looking brighter

NBA writers had a lot of fun ripping former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie for tearing down one of the league's traditionally strong franchises and going with a complete rebuild. Hinkie is gone, but "The Process" he began is starting to make sense. 2014 first-round pick Joel Embiid is showing everyone why Hinkie was willing to draft a 7-foot center with foot problems and just wait for him to get healthy. Embiid can score from all angles with Hakeem Olajuwon-like moves in the post and shooting range out to the 3-point line. The Sixers also drafted a few other promising young players in Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric and Chicago native Jahlil Okafor, and they're still waiting for 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons to take the floor. It might be another year or two before the Sixers get back in the playoffs, but the young talent on the roster should make Philadelphia fans understand what "The Process" was all about.

Greek Freak is the talk of the league

Have you seen the latest issue of Sports Illustrated with a cover story on Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo? Bulls fans know how good Giannis is after watching him lead the Bucks to three straight wins in the season series, but the rest of the NBA universe is just starting to take notice. Antetokounmpo is averaging almost 24 points, nine rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals, which is a stat line we haven't seen since blocks and steals became official stats. Antetokounmpo is unquestionably headed to the All-Star Game and is one of the top 20 players in the league. Now the question is: How long will it be before Antetokounmpo joins the likes of LeBron James, Durant, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and Westbrook as a First-Team All-NBA performer?

The SI story went on to detail Antetokounmpo's amazing work ethic that includes driving to the team's practice facility for late-night drills after a bad game still wearing his sweat-soaked uniform. Giannis vows to improve his 3-point shooting (28 percent for his career), and once he accomplishes that, good luck trying to guard him.

The Bucks also have another outstanding young forward in former Simeon star Jabari Paker, and they're hoping to get sharp-shooting guard Khris Middleton back from injury just after the All-Star break. When LeBron finally starts to slow down, watch out for the Bucks as a rising force in the East.

Stat of the week

I'm thrilled to have CSN's stats guru Chris Kamka (a.k.a. The Cruncher) on board for another season of NBA Buzz. This week, Chris has some interesting facts about Butler's 52-point explosion against the Hornets on Jan. 2 at the United Center.

Fifty-plus-point games at the United Center:

— 57 points, Jerry Stackhouse, Pistons (April 3, 2001, vs. Bulls)
— 55 points, Michael Jordan, Bulls (April 27, 1997, vs. Bullets)
— 53 points, Michael Jordan, Bulls (March 7, 1996, vs. Pistons)
— 52 points, Jimmy Butler, Bulls (Jan. 2, 2017, vs. Hornets)
— 51 points, Michael Jordan, Bulls (Jan. 21, 1997, vs. Knicks)
— 51 points, Ray Allen, Celtics (April 30, 2009, vs. Bulls)
— 50 points, Jamal Mashburn, Mavericks (Nov. 12, 1994, vs. Bulls)

With his 52-point game, Butler became the second player in Bulls history with multiple 50-point games. Jordan had 38, including playoff games. Butler had the first 50-point, 10-rebound, five-assist game in United Center history and was the first Bulls player with multiple 40-point games over a six-day span since Jordan did it in April 1998.

Quote of the week

Back to Antetokounmpo. Since he grew up in Greece, he didn't know much about the history of the league when the Bucks drafted him as an 18-year-old in 2013. So, check out this quote from the Lee Jenkins story in SI about Bucks head coach Jason Kidd.

The first time Kidd benched him, Antetokounmpo was irate. "I was like, 'Let's see what this guy did in his career, anyway,'" Antetokounmpo recounts, and called up Kidd's bio on his phone. "I saw Rookie of the Year, NBA championship, USA Olympic gold medal, second in assists, fifth in made 3s, blah, blah, blah. I was like, 'Jesus freaking Christ, how can I compete with that? I better zip it.'"

Pretty funny stuff, and great awareness for such a young player. By the way, Antetokounmpo is currently in position to be an All-Star starter after the first returns in the fan balloting, ahead of established stars like Butler, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. Yes, it's good to be the Greek Freak, who's planning to do some big things in his adopted home of Milwaukee.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Will the Bulls make the postseason?

Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000), Brian Hedger (nhl.com) and Jason Goch (SB Nation Radio) join Kap on the panel.  The Bulls beat the Pistons in a game with huge playoff implication.  So could they actually make the postseason?

The Blackhawks are closing in one division title but what’s their biggest weakness?

Plus Theo Epstein’s a really great leader, Kyle Hendricks is going to have to wait a while to pitch plus DeShone Kizer loves the band “Chicago” but will he play here?

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

If you've been watching the NCAA Tournament closely, it's apparent this June's draft will include a number of elite prospects, maybe the best top 10 talent since the LeBron, Melo, Bosh, Wade draft in 2003. 

Washington didn't qualify for the tournament, but NBA scouts seem to be in agreement that Washington point guard Markelle Fultz will be the No. 1 pick. The 6-foot-4 freshman has the size and ball-handling ability to play either guard spot, and word out of Boston is Fultz will be the pick if the Celtics get the first choice in the draft lottery.

UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball put on quite a show in the Bruins' win over Cincinnati on Sunday, finishing with 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. The 6-foot-6 Ball reminds scouts of a young Jason Kidd, showing amazing court vision and passing skills with the size to see over the top of smaller defenders. And don't caught up in his unusual shooting form. Ball can knock down shots, hitting almost 56 percent from the field this season and 42 percent beyond the 3-point line.

The other consensus top-3 prospect is Kansas small forward Josh Jackson. The 6-foot-8 Jackson is an Andrew Wiggins clone who has amazing quickness and finishing ability. Jackson improved his draft stock with a sensational performance in the first two games of the tournament. If the Bulls decide to trade Jimmy Butler in a deal for one of the top picks this June, the rangy 20-year-old Jackson would be an ideal replacement. If he ever gets a consistent jump shot, look out. We could be talking about a 25 points per game scorer.

Since Fultz, Ball and Jackson appear to be the kind of players NBA teams build around, the Bulls could potentially negotiate with the teams holding the top 3 picks for the best possible Butler deal. Right now, the Nets (pick will be swapped with Boston), Lakers and Suns own the worst records, and if the order isn't changed by the lottery, the Bulls could obtain a quality package centered around this year's first-round pick and a quality young player from any of the three teams.

Here's a look at how the lottery selections could fall based on the draft order as of March 23.

1. CELTICS (from Brooklyn)  Markelle Fultz  PG   Washington
2. LAKERS                              Lonzo Ball        PG    UCLA
3. SUNS                                  Josh Jackson   SF    Kansas
4. MAGIC                                Jayson Tatum   SF     Duke
5. 76'ers                                  De'Aaron Fox     PG    Kentucky
6. KINGS                                  Malik Monk         SG    Kentucky
7. KNICKS                               Dennis Smith      PG   N. Carolina St.
8. TIMBERWOLVES              Lauri Markkanen  PF    Arizona
9. KINGS (from Pelicans)       Frank Ntilikina      PG    France
10. MAVS                                 Miles Bridges    SF    Michigan St.
11. HORNETS                         Jonathan Isaac   SF    Florida St.
12. BLAZERS                          Justin Jackson   SF    N. Carolina
13. PISTONS                           John Collins      PF     Wake Forest       
14. BULLS                                OG Anunoby     SG-SF   Indiana  

Alright Bulls fans, I'm sure you're asking, why would the Bulls want to draft a player coming off a serious knee injury? Well, the Bulls haven't done all that well drafting productive older players from major programs, so why not roll the dice on a 19-year-old who could develop into the next Butler?

Scouts raved about Anunoby's potential heading into his sophomore season at Indiana. At 6-foot-8, Anunoby has good positional size to play both the small forward and shooting guard spots and figures to be a plus-defender from Day 1 in the NBA. Right now, his rehab from right knee surgery and lack of a consistent jump shot are the biggest concerns, but looking at mock drafts in the 13-20 range, do the Bulls really want to take a project big man or a mystery international player? 

Even if it takes a couple years for Anunoby to reach his ultimate potential, he seems like a good choice in today's position-less NBA. Plus, in the Bulls' current position, they need to take some chances and try to get lucky in landing a future star.

Two other athletic possibilities who are projected as late 1st round picks right now are SMU junior swingman Semi Ojeleye, a 6-foot-7 bundle of energy and muscle who should be able to contribute right away, and Oklahoma St. point guard Jawun Evans, one of the fastest players in the college game who could ignite the Bulls' fast break after Rajon Rondo moves on.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

If the Bulls are going to make a late season run to the playoffs, they'll have to find a way to pass two of the league's hottest teams. Milwaukee has won eight of its last 10 games to pull into a 6th place tie with the Pacers, while Miami has been one of the league's biggest surprises over the last two months, going from an 11-30 record on January 13 to 35-36, and a game and a half lead over the Bulls and Pistons for the final playoff spot.

Both late surges are surprising, especially the job Erik Spoelstra has done in Miami. After the controversial departure of Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley decided to hedge his bets for the future and signed a number of journeyman veteran types like Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Derrick Williams and Willie Reed to short-term contracts.

Williams was released and signed on with Cleveland, but Spoelstra and his staff have done a masterful job in piecing together a roster with a lot of duplication into a consistent winning team. Hassan Whiteside has continued to improve, averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds, while the guard rotation of Waiters, Goran Dragic, Ellington and Tyler Johnson has been especially effective.

Bulls fans will remember James Johnson as a guy who arrived from Wake Forest with a lot of potential, but went on to bounce around the league with little success. Now that he's finally in optimal physical shape, Johnson is averaging 12 points, 5 rebounds and 3.5 assists off the bench while doing a strong job on the defensive end.

Spoelstra probably won't win the Coach of the Year award, but it might be his best job yet after losing Wade and Chris Bosh, then seeing promising second-year forward Justise Winslow go out with a season-ending shoulder injury.

It's been a different story in Milwaukee, where the Bucks got off to a fast start behind the amazing rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo to All-Star status. A mid-season slump dropped the Bucks out of the top 8 in the East, and when Chicago native Jabari Parker suffered another devastating ACL injury, it appeared Milwaukee was heading towards another trip to the lottery.

But Bucks' coach Jason Kidd got Khris Middleton back from a hamstring injury, and inserted rookies Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup. All of a sudden, the Bucks took off with Antetokounmpo getting back to his early season production, and the bench unit of Greg Monroe, John Henson, Michael Beasley, Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry becoming a real strength.

It's unlikely either Milwaukee or Miami will be a threat to Cleveland and Boston in the opening round of the playoffs, but the hard work and persistence of those coaching staffs should not be overlooked.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Yet another example of the Bulls' maddening inconsistency under Fred Hoiberg over the last 2 seasons is the number of impressive wins offset by blowout losses.

These numbers courtesy of CSN's stats cruncher, Chris Kamka.

Bulls 20+ point wins and 20+ point losses

(with Fred Hoiberg as Head Coach)

                 20+ point wins             20+ point losses

2016-17              6                           7
2015-16              3                           7

total                      9                          14
========================================
(With Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach)

2014-15              7                           1
2013-14              7                           4
2012-13              5                           5
2011-12             14                          0
2010-11              8                          1

total                     41                         11

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

I'm pretty sure Hoiberg was being sarcastic when asked early in the week if battling for one of the final playoff spots in the East is "fun".

The coach's response? "It's miserable." 

Hoiberg won't get a lot of argument from Bulls fans who see their team stuck in the middle among the 30 NBA franchises right now. That's the worst place to be in professional sports, with no hope of contending for championships and little chance of getting a franchise-changing talent in the draft.