NBA Buzz: Draft intrigue heating up

Mark Schanowski
NBC Sports Chicago

With just over a week to go until the NBA Draft, speculation is running wild over where the top prospects might land. Outside of Deandre Ayton going to Phoenix with the No. 1 overall pick, opinions vary dramatically among draft analysts.

The top of the draft is basically divided into two tiers. Ayton, International guard Luka Doncic, Duke PF Marvin Bagley III, Texas center Mo Bamba, Michigan St. PF-C Jaren Jackson Jr. and Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr. make up the top tier.

The second tier includes wing prospects Kevin Knox, Mikal and Miles Bridges, point guards Trae Young and Collin Sexton and Duke big man Wendell Carter Jr.

So, with the Bulls holding the seventh overall pick, what are their chances of landing one of the top 6 prospects? Actually, pretty good, if you believe all the speculation linking Young to Orlando at No. 6.

The only point guards on the Magic roster are journeymen D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack after Orlando traded former lottery pick Elfrid Payton to Phoenix last season. And, after years of wallowing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, the Magic's front office of Jeff Weltman and John Hammond would love to make a splash by adding a player with box office appeal like Young.

Now, all bets are off if a player Orlando ranks higher than Young is still on the board at 6, and at this point, that could be almost anyone, including Doncic, who appears to be dropping in the eyes of some talent evaluators because of his lack of elite athleticism. Trades could also impact the selection order, with the Knicks reportedly looking to move up from 9 for a chance to get Porter.

The Clippers are another team to watch on draft night. Doc Rivers currently holds the 12th and 13th picks, and would love to move into the top 5 for a shot at Doncic or Porter. The Bulls could also look to make a move if a player they really covet starts to slide, but right now it sounds like they'll be content with making their picks at 7 and 22 to add two more young players to the rebuilding effort.

Plenty of intrigue surrounding what Sacramento and Atlanta will do at picks 2 and 3, respectively. Bagley had an impressive workout with the Kings on Monday, and according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Jackson had a "monster workout" in Phoenix over the weekend. Several teams have reportedly inquired about what it might cost to acquire a top 3 pick, and any potential deal could impact which of the top tier players (if any) falls to the Bulls. 

Dallas holds the fifth overall pick, and Mark Cuban has said he's willing to move down for the right combination of assets. The Mavericks need a big man, and it's possible both Bamba and Porter will be available when they're on the clock. But Cuban would like to challenge for a playoff spot in what could be Dirk Nowitzki's final season, so Dallas could deal the pick if the right veteran becomes available.

With so many moving parts, it's almost impossible to know which group of players the Bulls will be choosing from at 7. You can bet the front office has already done its own mock drafts, trying to figure out every possible scenario, but at this point it's too early to get a clear read on how the selections will fall.

Who knows, maybe Cuban will fall in love with Carter Jr. over the next week, creating another unexpected scenario. One thing's for sure, John Paxson and Gar Forman don't figure to get a lot of sleep on draft eve, trying to figure out if a trade or trades will alter their master plan.

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After Golden State's four-game demolition of the Cavs, NBA observers are already bracing for another "Summer of LeBron." It's fair to conclude James has already decided there isn't enough talent on the Cleveland roster to beat the Warriors, and even if he stays, the Cavs might drop behind a healthy Boston team in the Eastern Conference pecking order next season.

So, where does LeBron wind up? I took a shot at handicapping the field, making the Lakers the early favorite. Magic Johnson's pitch figures to resonate with James, particularly considering LeBron is already involved in the entertainment industry with his company involved in a variety of television projects. What better place to pursue his basketball and business interests than Los Angeles?

Long-time James' friend and teammate Dwyane Wade offered some insight into LeBron's upcoming choice on a recent national radio show when he said the decision this time around will be based more on family and lifestyle factors than purely basketball reasons. Make of that what you will, but LeBron already owns two mansions in the Los Angeles area, and the idea of finishing his career wearing the purple and gold and trying to add another banner to the rafters at Staples Center might hold a lot of appeal.

And, don't forget, the Lakers are trying to free up cap space to add two max free agents this summer. Whether that's Paul George, "banana boat" buddy Chris Paul or even rehabbing DeMarcus Cousins, the Lakers could suddenly have a roster that will be extremely competitive, even in the loaded Western Conference.

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Remember Wojnarowski's comment from last week about the Bulls possibly being "sneaky" in free agency next month. Well, unless George gets frozen out of L.A. by a LeBron signing and starts shopping his services, don't expect any kind of major move by the Bulls this summer.

They could go the route of the Lakers and 76ers and sign a veteran to a one year, overpriced contract just for the purpose of holding cap room open for 2019. Philadelphia paid J.J. Redick a whopping $23 million last season, while the Lakers gave Kentavious Caldwell-Pope $17.7 million, just so they would have money to throw at LeBron, George and the other top free agents this summer. The strategy might pay off perfectly after the turbulent season James just went through in Cleveland, but it hardly suggests fiscal responsibility or a fool-proof plan for success.

Paxson isn't going to throw money at veteran free agents just to win 3-5 more games next season, and there's also the issue of preserving court time for all the young players on the roster. After adding two more young guys in next week's draft, the Bulls figure to have the league's youngest team in 2018-19, and all of those developing players need minutes that would be reduced by bringing in a highly-paid veteran through free agency.

Rest assured the Bulls aren't planning to go through another painful tanking season, but the front office wouldn't mind one more trip to the lottery as they search to add a big-time star to their young nucleus of Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis. 

So, don't hold your break waiting for a "Woj-bomb" involving the Bulls on July 1st.

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One of the Bulls' long-time rivals just hired accomplished head coach Dwane Casey. The Pistons will pay Casey somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million over the next five seasons to try to get the most out of a capped-out roster that features big men Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, along with enigmatic point guard Reggie Jackson. Former coach Stan Van Gundy wasn't a big fan of playing young guys, and the Pistons traded this year's No. 1 pick to the Clippers in the Griffin deal, so it's up to Casey and his staff to get more production out of recent first rounders Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard and Henry Ellenson if Detroit plans to contend for a playoff spot next season.

Casey could win coach of the year honors after leading Toronto to a franchise-record 59 wins this past season. But Raptors management had seen enough after Casey's team got embarrassed in a four-game sweep at the hands of long-time nemesis Cleveland in the conference semi-finals.

You'd think after making a bold move like firing Casey, Toronto President of basketball operations Masai Ujiri would want to bring in a big name coach to maximize a talented roster. But after losing out to Milwaukee in the recruitment of former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, Ujiri decided to promote long-time assistant Nick Nurse to the top spot.

Granted, Nurse is well respected in NBA coaching circles and won a pair of championships in the Developmental League, but what new philosophy will he implement after five seasons of coaching alongside Casey?

The Raptors are saddled with a number of big contracts and now will have to contend with a pair of rising powers in their own division in the Celtics and 76ers. The city of Toronto fell in love with a hard-working team that improved just about every season, but now the fans can get back to their customary winter pastime of cheering on the Maple Leafs.

That sound you're hearing is the championship window slamming shut in Toronto.

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