Cristiano Felicio dunks

Bulls refocus on the future in final 25 games

The Bulls will get a look at younger players as Felicio, Payne and Nwaba to get bigger roles down the stretch

By Sam Smith

And so begins the Cristiano Felicio era.

It perhaps won’t be remembered that fondly in Bulls franchise history. The Bulls hope it to be a first splash of paint in the more appealing picture to come.

Bulls vice president John Paxson Tuesday told reporters that these last 25 games for the Bulls in clearly what is not a playoffs season will be devoted to further determining which other players will be part of the design for the Bulls future. It’s clear for three of those players, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine.

They will play together these last 25 games without playing time limitations for the first time all season after only playing in games together four times. The evaluation continues for the remainder of the roster. The Bulls believe they already can make judgments on most of the players on the current roster. But not all. So those players will move into the regular rotation

Thus Paxson said Felicio Thursday against the 76ers will get his first start of the season in place of Robin Lopez, who was the only Bulls player to start every game this season. Hello, Mr. Embiid. David Nwaba also will start, replacing Justin Holiday, who missed one start all season for the birth of his first child. Lopez and Holiday both have been averaging career highs in scoring. And with Nikola Mirotic traded Holiday leads the Bulls in three-point shooting.

Plus, Cameron Payne will back up Dunn at point guard with Jerian Grant out of the rotation for now. Presumably, Noah Vonleh will play some as well with Lopez and Holiday also out.

“I had mentioned before the break that we were going to be in an evaluating direction,” said Paxson. “The hard part from our standpoint is you can’t play 12 guys. Nine or 10 is the most. We’re going to start looking at blocks of games where we’ll be having a few guys who haven’t been playing much or at all have a significant role. The whole goal in our position is to evaluate what we have on this roster. The hard thing when you do things like this is you’re asking certain people to sacrifice roles and minutes. It’s veteran guys. That’s never an easy thing. As I told them, I, along with Gar, we’re entrusted with the future of the organization. So these last 25 games, we’re going to evaluate what we have on this roster by playing more the guys we haven’t seen much this year.”

It probably was an inevitability given the Bulls stated goal this season to reconfigure the franchise with the trade of Jimmy Butler last June. There were unexpected disruptions along the way with the preseason punch that put Markkanen into the starting lineup unexpectedly. He produced faster than expected, and with the development of Dunn the Bulls became more successful and competitive than expected. Even presumably by them.

There was considerable outside discussion about the best way to conduct this season. Some suggested to lose as many games as possible to secure the highest draft pick with this the last season before the odds of getting the top three picks change for the teams with the poorest records. But the Bulls also needed to find out about their three players from the Butler trade, draft pick Markkanen, Dunn and injured LaVine.

All proved impressive even as Dunn went through a pair of injuries, Markkanen was a rookie and LaVine was returning from serious knee surgery.

“The exciting thing for us is for the first time we’re going to have a healthy Zach, Lauri and Kris,” Paxson pointed out. “They’re obviously the core. Kind of what we’re talking about in terms of getting to know our players is guys like Bobby Portis and Denzel (Valentine), who will continue to have roles; we’ve learned a lot about them. In our position, we have to look at the big picture. And that’s what we’re doing.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no future with the team for players like Grant, Holiday and Lopez. Paxson said it just means the team knows enough about them. It doesn’t know enough about Felicio, who signed a four-year contract last summer and has been unproductive, and Payne, coming off foot surgery last summer. Nwaba has played more than either of those two, but the Bulls also want to see if he can develop more, especially his shooting.

“This is all going to be very fluid,” Paxson said. “But we need to get these guys on the floor.”

Which doesn’t make it any easier for the players going from being regulars to being regular fans.

But that’s also been the rule around the NBA in recent years during these late season periods. The Suns, for example, last season stopped playing Tyson Chandler for months. The Kings weeks ago started sitting veterans every game and then trading away George Hill. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said it benefits his team to lose.

“Having played, I was out of the rotation several times,” Paxson noted. “I know what it’s like to be asked to take a lesser role. Players have pride; so it’s hard. It’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37 with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”

There has been a distinction of sorts as teams like the Mavericks and Bulls were seriously competitive for much of the season. Just not that talented. Now with the playoffs out of reach, it’s not so much they are purposely losing. After all, all the players presumably will be trying hard. And the Bulls are playing extended minutes for their three best players. But the agreement apparently also includes not playing the team’s best lineups.

The Bulls picked up an option on Payne for next season. He played poorly after being acquired for Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson last February and then was hurt again. The Bulls especially want to see what he can do. Yes, the Bulls have to experience some Payne.

“We want to see him as a point guard, especially when you’re running with the second unit,” said Paxson. “His role is to get us into offense quickly and efficiently and make the right play with the ball. He hasn’t played in a long time. He got some G-league games in. Cam has to run our team. We saw once Kris Dunn got his confidence and swagger back, he did a great job of running our team. That’s what Cam has to do in a backup role.”

The Bulls currently have the eighth poorest record in the NBA. But they also are just three games from the worst record, a tie at 18-41 between Atlanta and Phoenix. So as there will be jockeying at the top of the standings for home court advantage and seeding, there figures to be at the bottom for those lottery odds. The Bulls have their own draft pick and New Orleans’. The Pelicans currently are eighth, a half game ahead of Clippers and a game and a half ahead of Utah. So it becomes a balance to compete. Because if players don’t play to win, they cannot be evaluated. So the irony, as well, is it’s to the benefit of the new regulars to play to win to show what they can do. Which all continues the curiosity of coaching these Bulls.

“I understand where we are right now as an organization,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “From my standpoint, it doesn't change our approach and that's the important message to our players is we need to go out and have great practices and have great competition and play extremely hard once we step on the floor for the games. So I get where we are and we're going to try to put a game plan together to try to give our team an opportunity to compete to win and that doesn't change.”

For Cris' sake, as well.

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