Chicago Bulls

Thunder feed off 'catalyst' Russell Westbrook in his latest MVP-type performance

Thunder feed off 'catalyst' Russell Westbrook in his latest MVP-type performance

There was a time when Russell Westbrook’s gaudy numbers would make headlines around the league. But these days, with the Thunder point guard averaging a triple-double nearly halfway through the NBA season, his nightly spectacular box scores have become commonplace, if not expected.

There’s no real answer any of the other 29 teams can give on how to stop the MVP frontrunner, and the shorthanded Bulls became the latest team to realize just that. But where Westbrook is making his biggest impact of late – and perhaps the one attribute that makes him the likely candidate to take home MVP honors – is his ability to improve those around him, and it’s what allowed the Thunder to win in convincing fashion Monday in Chicago.

Westbrook was surgical in his 33 minutes against the Bulls, though he finished relatively short of his lofty averages with 21 points, nine rebounds and 14 assists. The league’s leading scorer could have done more damage against his primary defenders in Michael Carter-Williams and an ailing Jimmy Butler. But where Westbrook can be guilty of forcing too many shots at times – he attempted 31 and 34 shots in losses to Charlotte and Houston last week – he was patient against a Bulls defense that he realized early had no answer on the interior.

Westbrook routinely found himself in the middle of the Bulls defense, ready to finish (he went 3-for-4 in the paint), drop off a pass to one of his two talented bigs, or kick out to an open 3-point shooter. More times than not Westbrook made the right decision, and the end result was Oklahoma City shooting 57 percent from the field and handing out a season-best 30 assists in the runaway victory.

“I really felt like Russell was an incredible catalyst today from the start,” head coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “Passing, getting everybody involved. It was good to see our ball movement like it was.”

Westbrook wasted little time initiating the offense from as many different spots on the floor as he could. His four first-quarter assists went to four different players, and by halftime he had attempted just nine shots while handing out seven assists. His most important sequence came in the third quarter, after the undermanned Bulls had cut the deficit to 10, 67-57 with a 7-0 run.

Westbrook responded on the following nine Thunder possessions – spanning just over 4 minutes – with five assists and a layup, part of a 17-7 run that pushed the lead back out to 20 and ended any real threat of a Bulls’ comeback.

In that nine-possession stretch Westbrook did his damage in the halfcourt, through pick-and-rolls and in transition. He picked his spots, getting out on the break against a Bulls defense they knew would crash the offensive glass. Westbrook also noticed the Bulls defense collapsing on him each time he drove to the lane off pick-and-rolls. That made it easy to drop passes off to Steven Adams, who had four of his team-high 22 points in that stretch.

“My head is always on the game,” Westbrook said of his third-quarter spurt. “I just find and pick my spots and see what’s open, see what’s not. And at that time (the Bulls) were collapsing a lot so I tried to make some passes.”

Westbrook’s heady decision making – he had just three turnovers, his second fewest in nearly a month – also put the rest of the Thunder offense on the same page. Oklahoma City spent much of the night playing out of the post, where Adams and Kanter combined to shoot 20-for-25 and hand out five of the Thunder’s 30 assists. The Thunder outscored the Bulls 60-36 in the paint, and also held a 25-4 advantage on fast-break points.

“That’s the type of dude he is, and it trickles down from there,” Adams said. “When the main dude on the team holds himself to that standard it trickles down on everyone else.”

It’s also resulting in wins. Whereas two years ago when Westbrook arrived in Chicago as a one-man wrecking crew in the wake of Kevin Durant’s season-ending injury, he’s now finding a balance of doing it all himself and relying on the talent he has around him. The results are evident, as Oklahoma City leaves Chicago with a 23-16 record that is just 2.5 games out of the No. 4 spot in the West. Performances like Monday’s also have given Westbrook the chance to go after his own personal numbers once a victory is secure.

Head coach Billy Donovan inserted Westbrook back into the game with the Thunder up 22 points with 8 minutes left, citing the Bulls’ come-from-behind victory over the Raptors two days earlier. Westbrook ultimately fell one rebound shy of his 18th triple-double, just missing out on another individual accomplishment in a season full of them.

But as Adams noted after the game, Westbrook is now getting everyone involved, and both he, Kanter and Victor Oladipo – his main supporting cast – are playing their best collective basketball of the year.

“What’s good is he’s really taking on the leadership role to where he’s getting everyone involved and he’s really trying to do that really well. Whether he does (put up a triple-double) we’re not gonna be like, ‘sign my poster’ or something like that when he gets a triple-double. It’s just another night.”

NBA economic reality could speed up Bulls rebuild

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USA TODAY

NBA economic reality could speed up Bulls rebuild

In case you missed it this morning, ESPN's Tim McMahon and Bobby Marks collaborated on an excellent piece detailing how the irresponsible spending by NBA teams last summer could impact a star-studded free agent class in 2018.

Which is music to the ears of Bulls' front office executives John Paxson and Gar Forman, who are hoping to be a major player on the free agent market next year.

The ESPN report projected only nine teams having cap space to bid on a free agent class that could include Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas, Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Avery Bradley, Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wilson Chandler, Danny Green, Enes Kanter and Greg Monroe, along with restricted free agents like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic, Marcus Smart, Rodney Hood, Julius Randle, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon and Clint Capela.

Bad summer not to have any spending money.

But that's exactly what Paxson and Forman were anticipating when they chose not to get involved in the reckless spending triggered by the league's new TV deal last summer. We all know about some of the terrible contracts handed out including a four-year, $72 million deal to Joakim Noah, four years, $64 million for Timofey Mozgov and Portland spending almost $150 million to lock up reserves Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner for four years.

The Bulls signed Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo and Isaiah Canaan last summer, but avoided any salary commitment beyond two years. Both Rondo and Canaan were bought out of the team options the Bulls held for next season.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are now in such a deep luxury tax hole that they basically gave Crabbe away in a trade with Brooklyn earlier this week, immediately waiving the player they got back, power forward Andrew Nicholson, under the league's stretch provision. Portland figures to be one of at least 10 teams paying the luxury tax for the 2018-19 season.

I know what many of you are thinking, "Why will 2018 free agency be any different than in years past?" Yes, the Bulls missed out on primary targets James, Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010, and they failed to land Anthony in 2014. But with so many teams capped out, the Bulls will face less competition in pursuing the players they want most next summer.

We've all heard the rumors about James wanting to finish his career in L.A., and it's unlikely Durant, Westbrook, George or Paul would have any interest in coming to Chicago. But the Bulls could get significantly better right away in a weakened Eastern Conference by adding one or two players from a list of unrestricted free agents that could be looking for a new situation, including Cousins, Jordan, Bradley, Thomas, Caldwell-Pope, Kanter, Chandler and Green. They also could use their cap space to make a massive cap offer to a restricted free agent whose team is already in the luxury tax.

Of course, the Bulls have decisions to make with their own roster as well. They still haven't re-signed Niko Mirotic, and any contract beyond one season will reduce their cap space next summer. Plus, the key player coming back in the Jimmy Butler deal, shooting guard Zach LaVine, will be a restricted free agent next summer, and if he comes back 100 percent from ACL surgery, could command a multi-year contract starting at $20 million or more.

The Bulls have contract options on the rookie deals of Bobby Portis, Kris Dunn, Cam Payne, Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine and Lauri Markkanen, while Paul Zipser's $1.5 million salary is not guaranteed for 2018-19.

Paxson said the Bulls are committed to re-building through the draft, and the hope is they'll wind up with a top 3 pick after next year's lottery to grab a franchise changing talent like Missouri's Michael Porter, Jr., International star Luka Doncic and 7-footers DeAndre Ayton of Arizona and Mohamed Bamba of Texas.

Looking at the big picture, if LaVine comes back 100 percent, Dunn emerges as a legit starting point guard and Markkanen shows potential as a stretch 4, the Bulls rebuild could move quickly. Adding one of the top players in next year's draft would be the first step, then Paxson and Forman would be armed with somewhere between $40-50 million dollars in cap space to pursue an impact free agent or two.

Bulls fans remember how long it took to re-build the team after the end of the Jordan era in 1998. Jerry Krause couldn't land a major free agent, and the Tyson Chandler-Eddy Curry experiment failed badly.

Let's hope Paxson and Forman have more luck this time around. At least they'll have a built-in advantage when the 2018 free agent market opens for business next July with the Bulls projected to have more cap space available than any other team in the league.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Why Bulls fans should not feel like they 'missed out' on trading for Kyrie Irving

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Bulls Talk Podcast: Why Bulls fans should not feel like they 'missed out' on trading for Kyrie Irving

On the latest Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill, and Kevin Anderson break down the Kyrie Irving trade rumors, Derrick Rose’s move to Cleveland, and Kendall’s appearance in the ‘Big 3’.

Kendall shares what it was like when he wanted out of Charlotte, and how Rose to the Cavs only works if Kyrie is gone.

The trio also explains why Bulls fans should not feel like they ‘missed out’ on trading for Irving. Plus behind-the-scenes of KG’s hometown return to the court.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: