Don't expect Bulls' lineup changes to lead to a higher draft pick
It's possible the Bulls may go all out to try to lose games the rest of this season in a bid to earn a higher draft pick.
But the moves they announced Tuesday -- starting David Nwaba and Cristiano Felicio instead of Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez, and making Cameron Payne the backup point guard -- won't do much to extinguish the Bulls' ability to win games.
Since the Bulls' turnaround began on Dec. 8, Holiday and Lopez are the team's fifth- and sixth-leading scorers, respectively. That's not including Nikola Mirotic, who was traded to New Orleans on Feb. 1.
The Bulls plan to keep using Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, the team's key rebuilding blocks. That is an encouraging proposition, since those three have been on the court together for just three games this season and those were LaVine's first three games back from ACL surgery.
Forward Bobby Portis has become one of the league's better sixth men. Since Mirotic was traded, Portis has averaged 13.9 points and a team-best 7.9 rebounds. Denzel Valentine hit a shooting slump before the break, but Paul Zipser has found his touch, shooting 48 percent from 3-point range in the past eight games.
So if losing is the goal, this new lineup won't help much. Coach Fred Hoiberg may need to pull the wrong strings and he has said he won't do that.
"It doesn't change our approach," Hoiberg said. "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. We're going to try to put a game plan together to give our team an opportunity to compete to win."
The Bulls will do their best to not admit to tanking. The NBA announced a $600,000 fine Wednesday for Dallas owner Mark Cuban, who admitted on a podcast the team was planning to lose as much as possible the rest of the way.
Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson insisted the lineup changes were about player development, and that's defensible. Payne hasn't played this season due to foot surgery. Nwaba was one of the Bulls' best players early in the season and has tailed off a bit. The Bulls invested $32 million over four years on Felicio and would like to see him contribute.
The lineup changes are a little awkward in the sense that Holiday, Lopez and Jerian Grant are under contract for next season. It's possible any or all three will resume their previous roles next year.
Holiday talked about his plight Wednesday before practice. The Bulls resume play after the all-star break on Thursday against Philadelphia at the United Center.
"Being a competitor, I want to play and win games," Holiday said. "I still will get that opportunity to a certain extent. I guess in this situation, how I react and carry myself in this will be a good leadership situation for the young guys to see and follow the example of if it does happen to them."
Paxson didn't say how long the lineup changes would be in effect. Hoiberg has praised Holiday and Lopez all season for their leadership, so it seems likely the Bulls will try to keep both players engaged during the final 25 games.
At the all-star break, the Bulls (20-37) had the league's eighth-worst record. They are just 3 games ahead of Atlanta and Phoenix, tied for the worst record at 18-41, but the Bulls are in danger of moving ahead of slumping New York (23-36), which has lost eight in a row.
When Dunn turned the corner and started playing well, the Bulls went 14-7 from Dec. 8 to Jan. 15. So far in February, LaVine is averaging 22.5 points. Markkanen made 100 3-pointers faster than any player in NBA history.
Unless the Bulls keep those three on the bench, they figure to only lose ground in the race for more draft lottery chances.
Bulls game dayBulls vs. Philadelphia 76ers at the United Center, 7 p.m. Thursday
TV: NBC Sports Chicago
Radio: WSCR 670-AM
Outlook: While the Bulls are changing lineups, Philadelphia (30-25) is making a playoff push, with five straight wins before the all-star break. Joel Embiid has been dominant, averaging 23.7 points and 11.1 rebounds while playing in a career-high 44 games so far. Rookie of the year candidate Ben Simmons is averaging 16.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists. SG J.J. Redick contributes 16.9 ppg and the Sixers picked up ex-Bulls SG Marco Belinelli just before the break. The Bulls beat Philadelphia 117-115 at the UC on Dec. 18 when Embiid didn't play, and lost 115-101 on the road Jan. 24 with Embiid scoring 22 points and Simmons reaching a triple-double early in the third quarter.
Next: Minnesota Timberwolves at the Target Center on Friday, 8 p.m.
-- Mike McGraw