Chicago Bulls

Thunder bigs too much for Bulls with ailing Jimmy Butler

Thunder bigs too much for Bulls with ailing Jimmy Butler

Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter grabbed a rebound after a Bulls miss at the elbow and swiftly dribbled downcourt before throwing a bounce pass 20 feet between two defenders to Alex Abrines for a layup.

When Abrines came up short, Kanter swooped in for a tip-in layup and galloped back the other way as if he didn’t do something guards are supposed to do with the dribble, as if his swift finish was something reserved for athletic swingmen.

And he’s the backup center for the Thunder.

That was the gaping hole in talent with the frontcourt positions, with the Thunder throwing their girth, speed and athleticism around the United Center floor.

Oh yeah, and they have Russell Westbrook, the NBA’s version of Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil.

That, along with Jimmy Butler’s illness meant the Bulls were no match for the Oklahoma City Thunder, falling 109-94 Monday, dropping them back to .500 mark before they head to Washington D.C. and New York for two road games.

Butler was a game-time decision with flu-like symptoms before the game, only mustering up a groggy “I’m good” when spotted in the locker room an hour prior to tipoff.

Butler started but missed all six of his shots in 29 minutes, scoring one point with seven assists on the day he was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

“We appreciate him going out and giving it a shot,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg while adding neither Butler nor Dwyane Wade (scheduled rest) will play against the Wizards Tuesday in Washington D.C.. “It says a lot about him as a competitor. But he was obviously struggling and they sent him home after we took him out in the third quarter.”

Without him, the Bulls were seemingly rudderless against a team that was probably a bad matchup on a good day, shooting just 40 percent and being outscored 60-36 in the paint.

[SHOP BULLS: Get a Jimmy Butler jersey right here]

The Thunder jumped on the Bulls from the onset, as starting center Steven Adams and Kanter picked the Bulls apart on the interior, going 12 of 15 in the first half for 26 points and nine rebounds.

“That was the key to the game,” Hoiberg said. “We talked about their bigs being the best rim runners in the league, going down and getting deep position in transition.”

They were just too much for Robin Lopez, Taj Gibson and whomever the Bulls had in uniform, taking big leads before the half while getting Gibson and Nikola Mirotic in foul trouble.

They could’ve used Mirotic with Butler being little more than a decoy but he picked up silly fouls in the first half before being pulled and playing a handful of minutes in the second half before Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg called in the available reserves for garbage time in the last 10 minutes as the Bulls trailed by 22.

“Those guys, Adams and Kanter, they are good,” said Wade, who led the Bulls with 22. “Very underrated for what they do. They get nasty down there. They came in and kicked our butts tonight. We weren’t prepared for the fight the bigs were bringing.”

Wade gave the Bulls their only real spurt, leading an 18-4 charge in the second quarter, hitting a few long range jumpers and putting fellow Tom Crean disciple Victor Oladipo in the torture chamber for some insided scores.

Wade added six assists and four rebounds, and Michael Carter-Williams had 15 points in 25 minutes.

Adams led the demolition with 22 and five rebounds, while Westbrook tried for another triple-double but finished a rebound short with 21 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds in 33 minutes. Kanter had a double-double with 20 points and 11 boards in 27 minutes as the Thunder shot 57 percent and led by 25 in the second half.

It was a glimpse of life without Jimmy Butler and although extreme, it sure was ugly.

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