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The Chicago Bulls like to think they are one of the NBA’s up-and-coming teams
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, one that could challenge for a playoff berth next season.
They also admit there are many more boxes to check off first.
Led by forward Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls return a slew of young talent but the team lacks depth and key playmakers. Much will depend on Markkanen’s development along with that of swingman Zach LaVine, guards Kris Dunn, Cameron Payne and Denzel Valentine, and big men Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis. Like center Wendell Carter Jr. and forward Chandler Hutchison, the team’s first-round draft picks, all are 25 or younger.
Although the Bulls are nearly $40 million below the salary cap, executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said a significant move was ”unlikely” this offseason. Free agency begins this weekend.
”We have loads of (salary) cap space,” Paxson said Monday, when Carter and Hutchison were introduced at a news conference. ”What we don’t have are many open roster spots. We could add one player, but we’re not going to risk making a mistake on a longterm deal. At this point, we don’t feel any urgency to do something big.”
At the top of the to-do list is the somewhat murky future of LaVine, a restricted free agent whose athletic talents are sure to generate interest. Sixteen months removed from left ACL surgery, he averaged 16.7 points and shot just 38 percent in 24 games last season.
”Obviously, we want Zach back
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,” Paxson said. ”But there’s a free-agent process that we’ll follow. The fact that so many teams have limited cap space is in our favor. Until then, we’ll consider Zach to be a big part of our plans.”
For the Bulls to become relevant next season – they’ve reached the conference finals just once since the Michael Jordan years – LaVine and Markkanen will have to fulfill their star potential. The plan calls for them to be more active in the offense, which ranked 30th and last in field-goal percentage (.435) and 26th in points (102.9) last season.
As a rookie, Markkanen averaged 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds.
”We’ll allow Markkanen to make plays a lot more next season,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. ”If he rebounds the ball, we want the other guys running and let him bring the ball downcourt.”
Unable to trade up in the draft order last week, the Bulls made a safe pick in the 6-foot-10 Carter at No. 7 overall. The Duke product does his best work as a rebounder and rim protector but will require time to develop other parts of his game.
”I’m a very hard worker. I’m a winner also,” Carter said. ”I come in and do whatever I have to to help the team win. That will be an immediate impact.”
The 6-foot-7 Hutchison (22nd overall) possesses an intriguing mix of physical tools. At Boise State, he scored and drew fouls consistently. Both are areas of considerable need in Chicago.
While a lot has to go right for a team that finished 27-55 to make a quantum jump, the Bulls showed flashes when they won 10 of 12 games in December.
”That stretch last season is where the optimism comes from,” Holberg said. ”Since then, we’ve added two young, versatile players who fit for our roster very well. And Zach will have fewer restrictions. So there are a lot of reasons to be excited.”
As a veteran quarterback accustomed to ever-changing roles, there’s little Ryan Fitzpatrick hasn’t experienced during a 14-year NFL career.
He’s been a starter and a backup – several times.
Now, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are counting on him to help them weather Jameis Winston’s three-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
And then head back to the bench.
”I thought I had seen and been through it all
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,” said Fitzpatrick, who’s entering his second season with his seventh pro team. ”But another year, another different situation.”
Not that the 35-year-old is complaining.
Fitzpatrick signed with Tampa Bay before last season, knowing coach Dirk Koetter sought him purely as a backup.
”I’ve learned that you view it as a one-game-at-a-time opportunity. That’s just the way it is in this league,” Fitzpatrick said.
”In 2015, when I played with the (New York) Jets, I was a backup and ended up (playing) the whole year with the situation there,” he added. ”In 2016, I was a starter and I ended up getting benched three times. Every year is different. You have to take it game by game and just go from there.”
Fitzpatrick, who turns 36 in November, entered the NFL as a seventh-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2005.
In addition to the Bucs and Jets, he’s also played for the Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes for 26
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,991 yards, 173 touchdowns and 136 interceptions.
He’s one of just four players in NFL history – along with Vinny Testaverde, Gus Frerotte and Chris Chandler – to throw TD passes with seven different teams.
Winston, suspended following the league’s investigation of an allegation that he groped a female Uber driver during a ride in March 2016, will miss games against New Orleans, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to begin the season.
Fitzpatrick rejected the notion that his role is to ”save the season.”
”The season hasn’t even started yet. … It’s a cliche, but it’s one game at a time. You have to look at it that way,” Fitzpatrick said. ”Not even based off last year, talent-wise, looking at the team we have out here, I’m in the huddle on offense, and it’s a pretty exciting huddle to be in as a quarterback looking at some of those guys.”
With Winston missing three games and portions of two others because of injury, Fitzpatrick went 2-1 as a starter a year ago. Three seasons ago, he threw for a career-best 3,905 yards and 31 TDs with the Jets.
Koetter noted that Fitzpatrick has 119 career starts and said he has total confidence in the veteran’s ability to handle the offense.
”We’re fortunate enough to have him
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,” Koetter said. ”We saw what he could do when he was our starter last year for three games. There’s no reason for us to be afraid of Ryan playing quarterback for us. He’s going to play fine.”
And Winston, who’s allowed to practice during training camp and play preseason games, intends to do whatever he can help Fitzpatrick and No. 3 quarterback Ryan Griffin, a fifth-year pro who’s never taken a snap in a regular-season game.
”As a teammate first, I understand it’s about this team and I am going to be there for Fitz as much as I can,” Winston, entering his fourth season, said.
”But it’s also about getting Ryan (Griffin) ready as well,” the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner added. ”My influence on this team is going to be positive, and I’m going to be their best support system they have.”
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