Magic Johnson

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.

Bulls Talk Podcast: March is Nikola Mirotic's month

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: March is Nikola Mirotic's month

On the newest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill and Vincent Goodwill talk big Bulls win over the Bucks. 

The panel breaks down Nikola Mirotic's huge performance on Sunday and history of putting together a hot March. 

Later, Kendall tells how Magic Johnson motivated James Worthy and Vincent becomes the "Love Doctor." 

Listen to the Bulls Talk Podcast below. 

CSN Insiders Notebook: Magic Johnson returns to the Lakers organization

CSN Insiders Notebook: Magic Johnson returns to the Lakers organization

AN ARENA NEAR YOU – Welcome to another edition of the CSN Insider notebook with lots trade rumors, injury updates as well the latest on players on the floor putting in work while players in the background start to emerge for struggling franchises looking to shake things up. 
 
Our CSN Bay Area Insider Monte Poole writes about the Los Angeles Lakers reaching out to former Laker great Magic Johnson to take on a more official role with the team and help them navigate through what has been one of the worst stretches in the franchise’s illustrious history. 
 
MAGIC IS BACK  ‘TO HELP RETURN THE LAKERS’ TO BEING AN ELITE TEAM
 
One week after one Lakers legend, Kobe Bryant, offered his assistance to the team, franchise shot-caller Jeanie Buss turned to another legend in hopes of pulling the team out of its four-year tailspin.
 
She brought back Magic Johnson, who will serve as an adviser.
 
Johnson will work with ownership and coaches, and even mentor and study players on the roster or those who might be considered.
 
“Everyone knows my love for the Lakers,'' Johnson said in a statement released by the team. ''Over the years, I have considered other management opportunities, however my devotion to the game and Los Angeles make the Lakers my first and only choice.
 
“I will do everything in my power to help return the Lakers to their rightful place among the elite teams of the NBA.''

It’s a big job, as the Lakers are on a trajectory to win 26 games and miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season for the first time in franchise history.

CENTRAL DIVISION
 
PACERS RACING PAST BAD TEAMS, WON SIX STRAIGHT
 
One of the hottest teams no one is really talking about much is the Indiana Pacers. They have won six in a row, doing so by an 11.5 point per margin which is impressive; that is until you see who they’ve been beating up on. Of the six wins, only one (Houston) came over a team with a winning record. And at the time, the Rockets had lost two of their previous three. That’s why the Pacers are cautiously optimistic about their recent run of success. 
 
“We talked about the importance right now of being mentally tough and not being happy with what we’ve done the last couple of weeks,” Pacers head coach Nate McMillan told reporters after a recent win against Detroit.  “I just see us improving every game. Our focus mentally, as well as physically, is getting better.” – by A. Sherrod Blakely
 
VAREJAO BACK TO CLEVELAND?
 
When the Golden State Warriors waived Anderson Varejao, the rumor mill immediately focused on the veteran big man returning to Cleveland, the team that drafted him and later traded him away.
 
While there’s no doubt Cleveland could use him as an additional big man, the Cavaliers aren’t likely to jump on him immediately. 
 
For starters, he’s unlikely to clear waivers, not with a handful of teams still needing to get to the NBA salary floor which is $84.7 million. And even if he does, they couldn’t re-acquire him until Feb. 18 because league rules prevent players from returning to the team that traded them away for at least one year. 
 
A bigger need (at least in LeBron James’ eyes) for Cleveland is to acquire another playmaker. The Cavs aren’t eager to trade for one, but could land a good one (Rajon Rondo?) if a player is waived or becomes available after agreeing to a buyout. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

PACIFIC DIVISION

CLIPPERS STRUGGLE WITHOUT THEIR LEADER CHRIS PAUL

After losing star point guard Chris Paul to a ligament tear in his left thumb on Jan. 17, the Clippers lost six of their next eight games, with four of the six by double-digit margins.

So, yes, they desperately miss the man who orchestrates their offense and sets the tone for their defense.
 
“When you’ve got a guy out like Chris,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, “you don’t have a margin for error.”
 
When the Clippers opened the season by winning 14 of their first 16 games, there was growing belief they could push the Warriors for Western Conference supremacy. That hope is history. The Warriors have won nine in a row over LA, including three games this season.
 
“We’re playing and figuring out how to play without a guy who has the ball in his hands probably 80 percent of the time on offense,” said Blake Griffin, who after a five-week absence returned Jan. 31. “That changes a lot of things for us.” – by Monte Poole

KINGS BEAT THE BEST, BEATEN BY THE WORST
 
 The Kings joined rare company Saturday night. They are now one of just three teams who have beat both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors this season. To confuse matters, Sacramento has also lost to the Suns, 76ers, Magic, Lakers and Heat (twice).

DeMarcus Cousins missed a triple-double by just one assist in Sacramento’s overtime win over the Warriors on Saturday night. The All-Star big man is averaging 6.5 assists per game over his last 22 contests.

Injuries are piling up for the Kings. Both Omri Casspi (right calf) and Garrett Temple (left hamstring) are out until after the All-Star break. They join Rudy Gay on the injured list, who is done for the season with a torn left Achilles. – by James Ham

WARRIORS BID FAREWELL TO VAREJAO
 
The Warriors this week said goodbye to a member of their family, waiving center Anderson Varejao. Though he rarely played, the cheerful and engaging veteran had become very popular among his teammates and coaches.
 
“It was really difficult,” coach Steve Kerr said.
 
“He’s always a part of our squad and our journey the last two years,” Stephen Curry said. “We woke up and it was business as usual until we got a text from coach saying that he had made the decision. It caught everybody by surprise.”
 
Varejao joined the Warriors last after a whirlwind week last February. He was traded by Cleveland, where he spent 12 seasons, to Portland on Feb. 18 and then released hours later by the Blazers. The Warriors signed him on Feb. 22.
 
Varejao, re-signed in July for the veteran’s minimum, played only 92 minutes over 14 games this season.
 
“Anderson basically embodies everything that we’re all about: the passion, the intelligence, the team-oriented approach to everything, the work ethic,” Kerr said. “He hardly ever played, but he worked his tail off every day, set a great example. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever been around, and that’s incredibly valuable for a team. That’s something we’re going to miss.”
 
Varejao, 34, will ponder his options and decide if he wants to continue playing. – by Monte Poole
 
BOOKER BREAKS SUNS LOSING SKID
 
 Devin Booker broke the heart of Kings fans Friday night with a 20-foot bank shot at the buzzer over the outstretched arms of Matt Barnes. The shot gave the Suns a two-point victory and snapped their five-game losing streak. Booker finished the game with 33 points and backed that up with 31 in the Suns loss to the Bucks on Saturday night. Over his last two games, the sharpshooting wing has dropped in 9-of-16 from long range. … Rookie Dragan Bender has missed two straight games with a contusion on his right ankle.- by James Ham
 
SOUTHWEST DIVISION

POPOVICH ACHIEVES ANOTHER COACHING MILESTONE
 
 After back-to-back losses last week, the Spurs have rattled off three straight wins and look primed for a deep playoff run. With their victory over the Nuggets on Saturday, Gregg Popovich surpassed Jerry Sloan for most wins with one team in NBA history. He now has 1,128 regular season victories as the head coach of the Spurs. … Pau Gasol is out until after the All-Star break after undergoing surgery on his left hand, but he is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation.- by James Ham

REPORTS: FERRELL INKS TWO-YEAR DEAL
 
OK, so let me get this straight. Yogi Ferrell wasn’t good enough to stick with the Brooklyn Nets (they’re the only team in the NBA that still has a single digit win total this season), but can lead the lottery-bound Dallas Mavericks (although his play is making that more and more unlikely) to becoming one of the hottest teams out West?
 Ferrell, who has reportedly come to terms on a two-year deal with the Mavericks instead of having him sign another 10-day contract, has led the Mavericks to four straight wins which has put them within striking distance of being in the back-end of the playoff picture. 

As of Sunday, they were 10th in the West but only two games outside of the eighth and final playoff spot that’s currently being held down by the Denver Nuggets. 

“Our guys love him and we are thrilled by how well he has been playing," Mavs owner Mark Cuban told ESPN via the Dust messaging app.

In his four-game career with Dallas, Ferrell has averaged 17.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists while shooting 52 percent on 3’s. – by A. Sherrod Blakely
 
ROCKETS HONOR YAO
 
The Rockets commemorated Yao Ming’s Hall of Fame career by retiring his number to the rafters. Ming was honored with a halftime ceremony. Among those in attendance wereHakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Tracy McGrady, Dikembe Mutombo and Shane Battier.
 
"I feel old to see that," Yao said, via ESPN.com. "The guys up there, Rudy T (Tomjanovich) was my coach, and then to have a statue for Hakeem. I remember my first game for the Rockets was when we retired his jersey. We watched it in the locker room and I remember saying that was motivation to play hard."
 
Yao is one of only six players in the Rockets franchise to have his number retired. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this past September.  – by Jessica Camerato
 
NORTHWEST DIVISION
 
‘ISO JOE’ SCORING POINTS WITH JAZZ AS A PASSER
 
When the Jazz brought Joe Johnson in this summer, the idea was that the 15-year veteran would bring scoring and leadership off the bench at the wing position. 
 
Well he can still get buckets in bunches, for sure. 
 
But injuries and just a general evolution of the game have led to him playing more at the power forward position, and in doing he’s become more of a playmaker. 
 
In a recent win over Milwaukee, Johnson had 14 points, six rebounds and five assists off the bench with a lot of Utah’s offense being run through him.

“It's almost like we sometimes forget about Joe until he makes a great shot, or in this case has a great game," Utah head coach Quin Snyder told reporters after the game. "With the injuries on the wing, the opportunity for Joe to play minutes at the four hasn't been as prevalent. But the times that he's done it, he's done it very well. When he plays the four for us, he's a playmaker more than a stretch. He's known for creating shots for himself, but he's taken that threat and created for other people." – by A. Sherrod Blakely
 
LAVINE (ACL) OUT FOR THE REMAINDER OF THE SEASON
 
The breakout season for Zach LaVine has ended after the third-year guard suffered a torn ACL injury last week. The injury occurred during Minnesota’s 116-108 loss to Detroit on Feb. 3.
 
LaVine, better known for his above-the-rim exploits, displayed the kind of growth you like to see in a player striving to prove there’s more to his game than just highlight plays. 
 
In 47 games this season, the two-time Slam Dunk champion averaged a career-high 18.9 points while shooting a career-high 45.9 percent from the field. – by A. Sherrod Blakely
 
JOKIC’S STRONG PLAY OF LATE IS NO JOKING MATTER

It’s understandable how a big man can get overlooked when your rookie season coincides with that of Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and New York’s Kristaps Porzingis. But the days of not knowing who Nikola Jokic is, well they’re not going to last much longer. Not with the way he has been giving teams the business, blending in a solid offensive game that’s built around a strong knack for knocking folks around at the rim for rebounds. In the Nugget’s last 25 games (they are 13-12 in that span, and were 9-16 before), he has been a near double-double machine with a 19.9 points, 9.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists while shooting 62.5 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from 3-point range. – by A. Sherrod Blakely
 
THUNDER HOLD GROUND IN THEIR CHASE FOR THE PLAYOFFS

 
The Thunder hold a comfortable 6.5 game lead over the Denver Nuggets for the seventh spot in the Western Conference playoff chase and they are just three games out of the four seed. There is much to be decided in the final 30 games of the regular season. … Enes Kanter is out an estimated two months with a broken right forearm. Joffrey Lauvergne has been hit and miss filling in for Kanter, but he dropped in 16 points and eight rebounds in the Thunder’s big win over the Grizzlies on Friday. … the Thunder recalled Josh Huestis from the Oklahoma City Blue on Sunday. The third-year forward has played in just one game this season with the Thunder, but he’s averaging 13.9 points and 6.1 rebounds in 22 games in the D-League. – by James Ham

ATLANTIC DIVISION
 
PASSING OF THE TORCH
 
For 15 years, the Boston Celtics were Paul Pierce’s team even after Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came aboard. After he was traded to Brooklyn in 2013, they became the post-Big Three/Pierce Celtics. 
 
Well Isaiah Thomas has made this his team, and Pierce is behind that changing of the guard 100 percent. 
 
Before Pierce’s final game at the TD Garden on Sunday (he’s retiring after this season), he had a chance to sit down for dinner with Thomas on Saturday. 
 
Pierce praised the two-time all-star for the player he was becoming, and the role as the franchise’s leader he was stepping into. 
 
“He’s taken the torch, man,” Pierce said. “He’s … the city is proud of him for what he’s doing. You know, I keep up. I’ve been watching him. And especially where he’s come from. I mean, he’s been on like three or four different teams and now he’s finally established himself as an NBA MVP candidate, all-star. Just the route that he took: he wasn’t projected to really be much in the NBA as a small guy, and so he’s … he’s taken a different route than a lot of us and he definitely could carry the torch in his time here.” – by A. Sherrod Blakely
 
LOPEZ ON THE TRADE BLOCK?
 
The Nets are in a jam when it comes to draft picks and they could look to regain a few at the trade deadline. One player who could lure in those picks in Brook Lopez. The big man is the Nets’ most appealing asset stat-wise and only has one year left on his contract after this season at $22.6 million. Lopez leads the Nets in scoring (over 20 points per game) and blocks. He has played his entire nine-year career with the franchise and has been mentioned in trade talks throughout that time. - by Jessica Camerato

INJURIES CONTINUE TO SET BACK THE SIXERS
 
The Sixers were clicking in a 10-5 month of January. They had locked into tighter rotations and players were gelling with more specified roles. That momentum has been halted by injuries. It started with Joel Embiid (right knee contusion) and then Robert Covington suffered a right hand contusion. That's two starters right there. During their current four-game road trip, Jahlil Okafor (who had started in place of Embiid) was sidelined by right knee soreness and Nerlens Noel came down with an upper respiratory infection. The Sixers were left lacking both defense on the perimeter and at the basket as a result. It remains to be seen when these players are cleared to return. – by Jessica Camerato
 
RAPTORS LOOKING TO UPGRADE BACKUP POINT GUARD TOO?
 
There has been a lot of talk about the Raptors’ search for another big man. But they’re also in the market for better play from their backup guards, too. Corey Joseph has been Kyle Lowry’s backup and while he has shown himself to be a decent shooter, his defense this season has left a lot to be desired. And as we all know, it’s a team’s defense that more often than not factors heavily in their ability to navigate from one round of the playoffs to the next. Joseph isn’t the only option they have in-house.

If Joseph’s defense continues to be a problem, Toronto head coach Dwane Casey may turn to Fred VanVleet who is smaller in size, but has shown the ability to be a solid defender and decent playmaker. 

The Raptors also have Delon Wright from Utah. The second-year guard has not seen any action with the Raptors this season. His 6-foot-5 frame gives Toronto some flexibility when he’s on the floor defensively. He would be an ideal defensive-minded point guard which could certainly compliment Kyle Lowry’s game. But his shooting needs lots of work, and as we’ve seen more and more with the league these days, teams want guards who are at a minimum, adequate shooters. Wright isn’t there yet. – by A. Sherrod Blakely

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

IBAKA ON THE MOVE? 
 
Their offseason restocking of the roster hasn’t worked for the Orlando Magic, and apparently Serge Ibaka who was traded from Oklahoma City last summer, could be traded again.
 
Ibaka is making $12 million in the final year of his contract and while he has posted solid numbers in Orlando he hasn’t been a difference-maker in the win column.
 
One team listed as having “interest” in Ibaka – the Wizards – is incorrect. They already have a starter power forward in Markieff Morris who is significantly more affordable, better because he has a post-up game, playing the best basketball of his career and is under contract through 2019.
 
Ibaka will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and will command a hefty raise that’s out of their price range.
 
Just like with Ryan Anderson last year at this time, the Wizards weren’t going to gamble with picks or rotation players for a rising unrestricted free agent who they’re not willing to enter a bidding war to retain. Ibaka wouldn’t start for the Wizards in such a scenario which would be problematic and they don’t have attractive enough assets on the bench they’re willing to part with to facilitate such a deal.
 
The Wizards are waiting for Ian Mahinmi to return to action, which should occur before All-Star break, to determine their next move. If the backup center isn’t able to be effective coming off platelet-rich plasma therapy to both knees, they’ll be in the market for a big to slot behind Marcin Gortat, 32, who is playing a career-high 34.5 minutes. – by J. Michael
 
HARDAWAY BENEFITS FROM KORVER TRADE
 
The trading of Kyle Korver has done wonders for Tim Hardaway, and his stock is at the highest of his career.
 
Coach Mike Budenholzer still keeps him coming off the bench because of the offensive spark, but Hardaway has been exceptional. He scored a career-high 33 points in a 20-point comeback over the Houston Rockets. He's averaging 17 points as a starter.
 
Hardaway is making $2.2 million so keeping him restricted won’t be a problem for Atlanta. They’re in the thick of the playoff race and thin at guard so unloading him for a player of comparable salary doesn’t add up. There are plenty of teams that believe they are one bench scorer away from reaching the next level and because of that players such as Hardaway always will create interest. – by J. Michael
 
PLUMLEE: ‘BREATH OF FRESH AIR’ IN TRADE TO HORNETS
 
A trade with the Bucks brought in Miles Plumlee and his $50 million contract to back up Cody Zeller.while Roy Hibbert was shipped out of Charlotte.

Plumlee was averaging 2.6 points and 1.7 rebounds in 10 minute.

“It’s no secret I wasn’t really playing there, so it was a big breath of fresh air,” Plumlee said. – by J. Michael