NBA Buzz: Where do Bulls fit in the new look East?


While the NBA universe waits for Kawhi Leonard to decide where he’ll be playing basketball next season, most of the major free agents have already made their choices. So, here’s a very early look at how the Eastern Conference race could shape up for the 2019-‘20 campaign. 

If Kawhi decides to run it back in Toronto, the Raptors will clearly be the favorites to earn the top seed. Marc Gasol picked up his contract option, and Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Fred Van Vleet, Norman Powell and a healthy O.G. Anunoby will all be back, with Danny Green also likely to sign on for another run if Leonard stays.

Milwaukee lost valuable combo guard Malcolm Brogdon to Indiana in free agency, but the Bucks did re-sign all-star forward Khris Middleton, versatile guard George Hill and 3-point shooting big man Brook Lopez. Plus, they’re bringing in Brook’s twin brother Robin to add size off the bench and veteran shooter Wesley Matthews to provide perimeter scoring. (I can even imagine how much fun Milwaukee beat writers will have following the antics of the Lopez twins!) Don’t expect the Bucks to win 60 games again next season, but they should be a top 3 seed.

If Leonard does bolt for his native Southern California to join the Clippers or Lakers, Philadelphia just might be the team to beat in the East. Sure, they lost former Bull Jimmy Butler to Miami in a complicated four-team sign-and-trade deal, but the Sixers added one of the best clutch big men in the game in Al Horford, and they also picked up explosive scorer Josh Richardson in the Butler trade.

Philadelphia’s starting line-up of Joel Embiid, Horford, Tobias Harris, Richardson and Ben Simmons might just be the best in the league. The Sixers still need to add depth, but they project as a versatile team at both ends featuring the kind of size we haven’t seen in the NBA for some time.

Boston began last season as the overwhelming favorite in the East, but wound up as the fourth seed, thanks to a disconnect between star guard Kyrie Irving and young wing players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who led the Celtics to the conference finals the previous season when Kyrie was out with an injury. Irving is now in Brooklyn, and Danny Ainge moved swiftly to replace him with three-time all-star Kemba Walker, who figures to be a much better fit as the Celtics’ featured player. Ainge also picked up veteran big man Enes Kanter at a bargain price to replace Horford and Aron Baynes up front. It will be interesting to see if the chemistry improves enough to keep Boston in the race for one of the East’s top playoff seeds.

Brooklyn had the best free agent haul of any team, landing Kevin Durant, Irving and center DeAndre Jordan. Of course, Durant won’t be able to play next season while rehabbing his Achilles injury, but the addition of Irving and Jordan to one of the East’s big surprise teams of a year ago should mean another playoff berth for the Nets. Head coach Kenny Atkinson will design a system to utilize Irving’s play-making skills while also getting the most out of young wing players Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Taurean Prince.

Indiana should also be a good bet to return to the postseason. The Pacers re-shaped their starting line-up with Bogdan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison out, replaced by Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren. Domantas Sabonis figures to move into the starting lineup alongside talented young center Myles Turner. And, with underrated coach Nate McMillan calling the shots, the Pacers should have enough firepower to earn a five or six seed.

So, now it gets interesting. Orlando re-signed Nik Vucevic and Terrence Ross after earning the seventh seed in the East last season, but they didn’t really do much to improve the roster. Detroit picked up former Bulls’ star Derrick Rose to split point guard minutes with Reggie Jackson, but basically they’re coming back with the team that earned the eighth and final playoff spot a year ago.

Could the Bulls realistically make a run at the seventh or eighth seed in the East? First of all, it’s asking a lot from one of the NBA’s youngest teams to make the jump from 22 wins to the 40-42 it would take to make the playoffs next season.

Secondly, the Bulls will have to prove they can stay relatively healthy for a full season after going through the injury epidemic that undermined the first two years of the post-Butler rebuild.

Third, can lottery picks Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. take significant steps in their development? Markkanen looked like an all-star in February when he averaged 26 points and 12 rebounds, but the Bulls will need that kind of production on a nightly basis to become a playoff contender. And, Carter Jr. will have to be more of a threat on the offensive end after being a somewhat reluctant shooter in his injury-shortened rookie season.

Lastly, what kind of impact will Jim Boylen and a revamped coaching staff have on the team’s fortunes? Admittedly, Boylen had a lot to learn after taking over from Fred Hoiberg in early December. But with the benefit of a summer of individual work with players at the Advocate Center and a full training camp, we should get a much better understanding of the types of systems Boylen wants to implement at both ends of the court.

The Bulls did well in the draft with speedy point guard Coby White and old school center Daniel Gafford, then followed that up in free agency with commitments from high character forward Thaddeus Young and athletic 6-foot-7 guard Tomas Satoransky. There’s no question the roster will be more talented and deeper than at any point since the Butler trade.

Still, the Bulls aren’t the only team hoping to jump into the playoff race next season. Miami should be a postseason contender after adding Butler to a veteran group that includes Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk and former Illini center Meyers Leonard. The Heat also picked up a pair of wing shooters in the draft in Kentucky’s Tyler Herro and Stanford’s K.Z. Okpala.

Atlanta added top ten draft picks De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish to an exciting young team led by Trae Young and John Collins, so there’s no reason to think the Hawks won’t be in the race for one of the final playoff spots in the East as well.

I think it’s safe to eliminate the Knicks, Cavs, Wizards and Hornets. All of those teams are either in the early stages of rebuilds or mired in organizational dysfunction (hello James Dolan!).

So, when training camps open in late September, keep your fingers crossed for the Bulls to avoid injury and get off to a solid start in the regular season. Jumping to 35 wins seems totally reasonable. Getting the extra five to eight wins they’ll need to contend for a playoff spot is all dependent on good health, development from the young core players and a little luck.

Around the Association

This is the time of year when everyone likes to pick winners and losers in the roster building process. Brooklyn blew every other team away with their free agent trifecta, but how about the job done by David Griffin, the new head of basketball operations in New Orleans?

First of all, Griffin made the best possible trade for unhappy superstar Anthony Davis, sending him to the Lakers for three good young players in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, plus three future first-round draft picks. The trade could wind up being as successful for New Orleans as the one the Celtics pulled off with Brooklyn for aging stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce years ago.

Griffin did have the amazing good fortune of his franchise winning the draft lottery in the year a transcendent player like Zion Williamson was available, but he also turned that Lakers pick (No. 4 overall) into the eighth and 17th picks via a trade with Atlanta to add promising young center Jaxson Hayes and intriguing combo guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

The Pelicans were able to add young veterans Derrick Favors and Stanley Johnson for bench depth, and then pluck one of the league’s best shooters, J.J. Redick off the free agent market on a two-year, $26 million dollar contract while the Sixers were tending to other business.

It’s never a good thing to be forced to trade one of the top 10 players in the game, but Griffin will enter next season with a starting line-up of Zion, Ingram, Redick, Jrue Holiday and Jahlil Okafor, backed up by Hayes, Favors, Johnson, Alexander-Walker, Hart and ex-Bulls guard E’Twaun Moore. Not a title contender, but definitely a team that could make a run at a playoff spot in the West.


Another team earning rave reviews out West is the Utah Jazz. They started the off-season by trading for veteran point guard Mike Conley just before the draft, then added sharp-shooter Bogdan Bogdanovic and solid veteran rebounder Ed Davis in free agency.

Bringing in two more offensive weapons to go along with star Donovan Mitchell was at the top of the front office’s to-do list. Now, head coach Quin Snyder can run out a starting line-up of Mitchell, Conley, Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles and Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, with Davis, Royce O’Neale, Dante Exum and rookie Justin Wright-Foreman in reserve.

With Golden State taking a step back this season after losing Durant in free agency and Klay Thompson rehabbing from the ACL tear he suffered in the Finals, the West is as wide open as we’ve seen it in half a decade. Teams like Utah, Denver, Portland, Houston, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, the Clippers and the Lakers all feel like they can win a conference championship if things break right.

Unless, of course, Kawhi decides to team up with LeBron and A.D. to form the next super team in L.A. That superstar trio might very well be the best the league has ever seen and would make the Lakers an overwhelming favorite to win a championship next season.

James is undoubtedly one of the top players all time, but his ability to stack the odds in his favor everywhere he goes is almost as impressive.


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