LeBron James

State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

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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.

Jimmy, D-Rose, Embiid, LeBron, Lonzo: 10 most intriguing games on the Bulls' 2017-18 schedule

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Jimmy, D-Rose, Embiid, LeBron, Lonzo: 10 most intriguing games on the Bulls' 2017-18 schedule

The Bulls had as busy an offseason as any team in the NBA, which means there will be plenty of headliner games on their 2017-18 schedule, which the league announced Monday.

Here are 10 that all fans should have circled on their calendars:

1. Feb. 9, vs. Minnesota: This may be one of the most anticipated games featuring non-contenders of the season. Draft night's blockbuster deal that sent Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick to the Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick is just the tip of the iceberg. Tom Thibodeau is still at the helm, and Taj Gibson signed with Minnesota in July. On the other end, Dunn and LaVine (assuming he's ready to go by then) will get a chance at revenge on the team that traded them. Butler jokingly said he's going to try to score "like 5 points" against the Bulls, but our guess is he's especially up for this game. It's also the Bulls' only scheduled nationally televised game of the year. Long live the #TNTBulls.

2. Dec. 4 vs. Cleveland: It's always a big game when LeBron James comes to town for the first time, and for the last seven seasons that's meant the Eastern Conference champions arriving with him. But there's an added twist this year, as quite the familiar face will be joining King James in Chicago. Derrick Rose signed a one-year, veteran's minimum deal with the Cavs. It remains to be seen whether he or Kyrie Irving will start at the point when these teams meet, but it's sure to be awkward when Rose and LeBron run a fast break to perfection. This sure ain't 2015 anymore.

3. Dec. 18 vs. Philadelphia: We Trusted the Process, and now the Sixers look like legitimate contenders for a playoff spot in the East. And although Joel Embiid has been in Philly for two years and Ben Simmons for one, the Bulls didn't see either in their matchups last season. Expect that to change in December, when the Bulls get a dose of what a successsful rebuild looks like. With Embiid, Simmons, No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and a host of other young talent in the mix, the Bulls will get all they can handle with this group. They'll also get the blueprint for how they should proceed with their own rebuild.

4. Oct. 21 vs. San Antonio: It's the home opener for the Bulls, and in recent years that's meant good news. Winners in eight of their last nine openers at the UC, the Bulls will have their hands full when Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs come to town. Then again, the Bulls have managed to beat Gregg Popovich's group at the United Center in each of the last three seasons. They also had All-Star Jimmy Butler in those three matchups. The results may look different this time around, but recent records sure are on the Bulls' side.

5. Nov. 4 vs. New Orleans: It's always fun when hometown superstar Anthony Davis returns to Chicago. Last year The Brow dominated at the United Center, going for 36 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks in 39 minutes. Davis is back, and he's bringing DeMarcus Cousins with him this time. He's also bringing free-agent acquisition Rajon Rondo, who spent last season with the Bulls. Rondo originally was in the Bulls' near-future plans before they entered a rebuild, and it should be plenty of fun to watch him play against the young players he mentored last year. The last impression Bulls fans have of him was his absurd Games 1 and 2 against the Celtics, so expect Rondo to get a rousing applause in his return.

6. Nov. 24 at Golden State: There's never a fun time to play the Warriors. But this matchup is going to be brutally difficult. The Bulls begin their 2017 season playing 11 of their first 17 games on the road, and it ends with a trip to the defending champs' home court. The Warriors have been prone to ugly losses against lesser teams, but this might look something like last year's game in Oakland did (no Jimmy Butler, no Dwyane Wade meant a 31-point loss). Still, it's always incredible to watch this Warriors offense work, so it's making the list.

7. Oct. 19 at Toronto: So the Bulls no longer have their ridiculous winning streak against the Raptors that had spanned 11 games and four seasons. But this is the team's season opener, marking the official start of the rebuild in a place where they've had success in the past. It's unlikely Zach LaVine will be ready, but the Bulls will get to unwrap new toys in Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen and watch the development of guys like Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and others. From the Warriors to the Hawks to the Cavs to the Bulls, a season opener is a season opener. This one will be fun.

8. Nov. 21 at Los Angeles Lakers: You'll be hearing plenty about this, but Lonzo Ball is going to be must-see all year. He's the most exciting rookie point guard we've seen in quite some time, and the Lakers seem to be building something serious around him. Like Philadelphia, the Bulls can learn something from LA's rebuild that has seen them add players like Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Ivica Zubac and Kyle Kuzma. This game will be a solid test for the young Bulls, especially if they're still without Zach LaVine. But all eyes will be on Lonzo. 

9. Jan. 8 vs. Houston: There's a new superteam in town, and they're bringing their act to the Windy City right after the calendar flips to 2018. Chris Paul and James Harden have teamed up to form what should be one of the most fun offenses in the league to watch. There's a shot Carmelo Anthony is part of this roster by then, adding more intrigue to the game. Assuming the new-look Rockets (they also added PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute) hav worked out all the kinks this far into the season, this one could get ugly.

10. Nov. 19 at Phoenix: We're tossing this one on the list for a few reasons. There's an outside chance Kyrie Irving is the starting point guard by this time. Also, a Jimmy Butler trade certainly could have gone down with the Suns this offseason. It's a little game of "what if" when watching players like Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss or Dragan Bender, who could have been part of a rebuild. Past that, CSN's digital department is #TeamSuns, so it's making the cut.

NBA economic reality could speed up Bulls rebuild

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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.