New Lineup, Same Competitiveness

The NBA schedule makers have done it again. What more ideal way to begin after All-Star weekend in the United Center Thursday than the wonderful symmetry of the team that committed to failing more than any in NBA history, the Philadelphia 76ers, against the Bulls with their revised lineup in benching two starters and a rotation regular.

But don't confuse the shame of the 76ers' four years of purposely losing for draft picks with what the Bulls are doing.

Perhaps it's not the Bulls most prolific lineup for these last 25 games, but I wouldn't be shocked if the Bulls actually are better than they were in their 20-37 start.

"I understand where we are as far as taking a look at different players and who's going to fit with the team long term," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "So, absolutely, I understand the situation that this team is in. It doesn't change our preparation, it doesn't change every day we step on the floor. We have to have great effort and great competitiveness and I believe we'll do that."

The optics suggest the Bulls are joining a trend of teams playing out the season for losses to improve draft position.

It appears that way with management apparently directing Hoiberg to start Cristiano Felicio at center for Robin Lopez, who hasn't missed a game and is averaging a career high in points, and David Nwaba at small forward for Justin Holiday, also having his career scoring season.

Perhaps it's not fair to Holiday, Lopez and Grant, all of whom have played well this season, to lose their positions without cause. But the Bulls are just in the first season of assessing a roster. This sort of move couldn't have been a secret to anyone at some point. It appears Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine will keep their regular spots off the bench joined by Cameron Payne.

"I haven't played an NBA game in a long time," Payne said about a brief period on the court with the Bulls last season after being traded from Oklahoma City. "So just being out there on the court. It was awkward (last season) with the team we had already going into a playoff run and me just getting thrown in there. I'm glad we made the playoffs. Obviously, I didn't get to be out there like I wanted to, but we made the playoffs."

Hoiberg commended Payne for mimicking the role of Boston's Isaiah Thomas well in practices before the playoffs to help the Bulls to their 2-0 start. Payne also has had some good stretches with Windy City in the G-league.

This is not the disgrace of the 76ers during those four years between 2013-14 and 2016-17 until the Colangelos took control of the franchise.

To refresh, that was a team that traded All-Star Jrue Holiday for a player out for a year, Nerlens Noel, and proceeded to have a 26-game losing streak. They dumped their main veterans in Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes. They had the rookie of the year in Michael Carter-Williams and soon traded him. They selected Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in the draft knowing they probably wouldn't be with them for two years. They went on to start the 2014-15 season with 17 straight losses and had a record 27-game losing streak as a carryover into the 2015-16 season. Sure, Embiid is a star, but he was a third overall pick when they just began losing and were likely to have that spot, anyway.

No one can compare that four years with many of the biggest losing streaks and poorest play in NBA history and the Bulls in less than a third of a season taking a longer look at some young players.

Perhaps the Bulls would like to enhance their odds in the draft lottery.

But the Bulls said they will continue to play their three best players, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen. Not only that, the Bulls will remove minutes restrictions with LaVine from his knee surgery and Dunn from a recent concussion.

It's not only the first time all three will play together without restrictions, but it's just the fifth game the trio will be on the floor together.

That's not a way to lose.

Plus, I don't believe the Bulls lose much with Felicio and Nwaba starting and Payne off the bench for Grant.

They certainly will lose offense since Felicio and Nwaba are two of the poorest shooters on the team. And that may include the training staff. It probably would be better to play one off the bench—giving him the same minutes—and a better shooter like Valentine starting so the defense doesn't gang up on Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen.

Of course, the Bulls also want to see if they can shoot.

This is their chance to try.

Though Felicio isn't as good a rim protector and scorer as Lopez, he's more nimble. He's more active in pick and roll defense on the perimeter. Similarly, Nwaba is a better defender than Holiday since Nwaba this season was often drafted to play prime scorers like Giannis Antetokounmpo despite his height disadvantage. The Bulls with Dunn, Markkanen, Nwaba and Felicio probably will have one of their better defensive groups on the floor. Plus, LaVine has been much better in face up defensive situations.

Payne was a higher draft pick than Grant. Payne has had several injuries that set him back, but he's probably a better scorer than Grant. It seems apparent the team is asking him to facilitate more, which slowed Grant at times. Both are more natural scorers, but not tall enough to be shooting guards. As a left hander, Payne has a unique ability to get shots playing like former NBA player Brandon Jennings, also not much of a facilitator. So Payne could be tentative in that role like Grant was. Grant was at his best scoring recently with Dunn out.

The NBA is changing the odds for the draft lottery starting in 2019 to lower the odds for the teams with the worst records. It's obviously a referendum on the actions of the 76ers that cast a cloud on competitiveness in the NBA. The NBA saw that before with the Bulls involved, through it was the actions of the Houston Rockets that were the most egregious.

Draft picks weren't as highly valued in the 1960s and 1970s even as they obviously produced top players. Teams often preferred veterans rather than the risk of young players. It led to the so called Stephen Rule of not trading away consecutive No. 1 picks when Cleveland gave up so many draft picks to become competitive after expansion. But once it became clear the impact of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird with top picks (Boston got Bird sixth when five teams didn't think it was worth waiting for the fifth year senior), the draft became more popular.

In the 1983-84 season, it was a race for the top pick for Hakeem (nee Akeem) Olajuwon. No, not Michael Jordan. Houston had gotten Ralph Sampson the year before as the No. 1 pick and he was on the way to being transcendent, a 7-4 player with long shooting range, rare for that era. Though there has been second guessing about why Houston didn't trade Sampson and could have selected Olajuwon and Jordan in the 1984 draft, the conventional wisdom at the time was a team had the best chance of being dominant with two big men. John Lucas said the they would revolutionize the game. Sort of like three-point shooters have now.

Boston had Parish and McHale, the Knicks tried various combinations with free agent Marvin Webster and then Bill Cartwright. Houston believed with Olajuwon they'd solve the puzzle. So they basically played competitively for three quarters and then would bench Sampson. The Bulls did their part benching their best player, Reggie Theus, and then trading him for little during the season. The Bulls lost 14 of their last 15 games. Houston lost 15 of their last 20. Indiana, however, had the worst record in the East by one loss over the Bulls. They flipped a coin with Houston for the top pick. The 76ers had the Clippers pick also from a trade, that for World B. Free. The Clippers were last, but on the final day of the season had their best game and beat playoff bound Utah while the Rockets lost and snuck into last and the coin flip with Indiana by one game.

If Indiana won the flip, they would have taken Olajuwon for Portland and the Rockets would have taken Jordan.

The 76ers because of the strong North Carolina connections with Billy Cunningham coach were probably the only team that was considering passing Olajuwon for Jordan. Dean Smith was lobbing them heavily. But with that last day Clippers win, the 76ers pick fell to fifth with Dallas moving to fourth with the pick it obtained from, of course, Cleveland. Three of the top five draft picks went to winning teams from previous trades.

So the Bulls nudged ahead of the 76ers to fall into Jordan.

Isn't luck great!

Portland with Indiana's pick wanted the big man since they had Clyde Drexler. The Pacers certainly would have taken Jordan with their pick No. 2.

But the losing down the stretch was so obvious and embarrassing to the NBA, the league that summer ended the coin flip in favor of the draft lottery. Similarly, the 76ers recent malevolent actions regarding competition drove the NBA to its new draft lottery format starting next year.

According to league insiders, it was new commissioner Adam Silver's top priority last summer.

Say what you will about the Bulls plans and purpose for their last 25 games, but it hardly seems like a lack of competitiveness. It's certainly going to be a lot better than those first 25 games.

Bad for the future? Perhaps. But the prestige of the game does matter. By the way, John Stockton was 16th in that 1984 draft.