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Chicago Bulls / NBA

Chicago Bulls / NBA (62)

Articles, interviews, and updates with and about the Chicago Bulls and other NBA teams.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014 10:31

With East Playoffs in Flux, Bulls Ready for Anyone

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If you asked NBA fans a month ago how the Eastern Conference Playoffs would play out, most of them would have had the same answer: It’ll end up in a showdown between the Heat and Pacers. While the Pacers and Heat are now locked into the 1 and 2 seeds, their clash in the finals is no longer a foregone conclusion. Both teams have stumbled to the finish, with Indiana going 9-13 since March 4th, and Miami not much better at 11-13 in the same stretch. Their struggles have cracked the door open for the Bulls, Nets and Raptors to spoil the party and upend one of the top seeds. There is still one tiny wrinkle: We don’t know who’s playing who yet. With one day left in the regular season, the 3rd-7th seeds in the East playoffs are still up for grabs, and the uncertainty has caused some teams to put up less than their best efforts to dictate their playoff matchups.

Tanking has been a big problem around the NBA over the past couple years. Just ask fans of the Bucks and 76ers how much fun their teams were to watch this year. Now it seems tanking has spread its way to the playoff teams. The Heat essentially punted the one seed by sitting LeBron James and Chris Bosh in an embarrassing loss to the Wizards on Monday, and the Brooklyn Nets are doing everything they can to lose their way to the 6-seed. The Nets have dropped 3 out of 4 and have talked about sitting several rotation players in their final game. Why are these teams making sure they get lower seeds than they could? They don’t want to play the Bulls. The Nets don’t want to face them in the 1st round, and the Heat don’t want to in the 2nd, but they might not have a choice if the Raptors lose to New York on Wednesday. The Bulls, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about what the rest of the East is doing. They don’t care who they play, they just keep grinding and keep winning. “We’re not changing,” mentioned Coach Tom Thibodeau on Monday night. “I think we’re playing very good basketball right now, so we’re not changing our approach.” That successful approach was on full display on Monday night.

The Bulls continued their strong April by handling the Orlando Magic 108-95 on Monday to improve to 8-1 over their past 9 games. They played without point guard D.J. Augustin, who was away from the team for the birth of his child, but it didn’t matter. Jimmer Fredette stepped in almost seamlessly to Augustin’s role and tallied 17 points in just over 30 minutes. “To come out and deliver like that without having played in such a long time, it just shows what kind of worker and professional guy [Jimmer] is,” commented Joakim afterwards. “He’s a hell of a player.” Jimmer was one of 6 Bulls in double figures in the game while Taj Gibson added another 8 points. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah tallied double-doubles (almost another triple-double for Jo at 18-10-8), and 4 of the Bulls 5 starters dished out at least 4 assists. That offensive balance is what makes the Bulls a real challenge to defend. “I thought the ball movement was terrific,” explained Thibs after the game. “I thought everyone was making quick decisions, high assists, low turnovers and everyone involved… Offensively, I love what we’re doing.”

The Bulls would like to ride this wave of momentum into the playoffs, but they still have one more stop in Charlotte to face the Bobcats on Wednesday. A win in Charlotte paired with a Toronto loss would put Chicago into the number 3 seed. A loss or Toronto win would put them into the 4 spot. Either way, their first round opponent will be Brooklyn or Washington, but the Nets and Wizards aren’t locked in to their seeds yet either. To the outside observer, there’s little benefit to winning the 3rd seed. The Bulls might still have to face off with the very talented and experienced Nets in the first round, and then battle the East favorite Miami in the second round. With the 4-seed, their second round foe would be the unraveling Pacers. The 4 seems to be the path of least resistance, but the Bulls’ players don’t seem too interested in that. “However the chips fall, it’s the playoffs, everybody’s good,” explained Taj Gibson. “We just take it one step at a time,” added Carlos Boozer. “We let everybody else do all the assuming they want to do. We’ll beat Charlotte on Wednesday, see who we match up with, and go from there.”

The one thing the Bulls do know is that they are playing some pretty solid basketball lately. If you had suggested that this team would approach 50 wins when they were 9-16, you’d probably have been laughed at, but they’ve rallied back all year. “We’ve got a good rhythm with our starters and our bench guys, and with guys like Tony and Jimmer, we’ve got guys we can go to if something happens,” explained Thibs. “You need everybody, and I love the makeup of our team. I think we have the right type of guys. They work extremely hard each and every day and they help the group move forward.” That makeup is a big part of why the Bulls aren’t concerned with their playoff matchups. They want to go out and beat whoever’s in front of them. “We’re not worried about anybody,” quipped Boozer. “I don’t think my teammates worry about whoever we match up with.”

Wednesday night will undoubtedly clear up a lot of the uncertainty surrounding the East playoffs, but there is no uncertainty with the Bulls. They know who they are and how they have to win games, and everyone is on the same page entering the playoffs. “We’re just focused on ourselves,” said Gibson, “Just getting ready to play some tough-nosed, rugged basketball. We understand the stakes. We understand what it’s about.” The Bulls aren’t burdened by the same expectations the Heat and Pacers face, but they aren’t concerned about that. “Expectations don’t help you win basketball games,” asserted Joakim. “We believe in ourselves, we believe in our abilities, and we believe…whoever we play, we’re going to be a tough out. We’re going to go out there and give ‘em hell. We’re hungry. We want this.” That attitude is why nobody wants the Bulls, but at least one team isn’t going to have a choice. I don’t envy that team (or the one who gets the Bulls after).

The calendar has turned to April, and in the NBA, that generally means the focus has turned to the playoffs. The Bulls, however, still have some business to take care of in the regular season. They’ve successfully turned their season around, but they’ve spent much of the last couple months attempting to chase down the Toronto Raptors for the East’s 3-seed behind East juggernauts Miami and Indiana. The road to get to this point has been a perilous one. There have been tough losses along the way to teams like the Spurs, Thunder, Nets, and most recently to the Trailblazers on Friday. Despite those L’s, the Bulls finally managed to pull even with Toronto by sweeping a home-and-home series from the pesky Boston Celtics.

The Celtics come out of the two games with a measly record of 23-51, but they didn’t make things easy on the Bulls. In game 1 in Boston, the Bulls needed just about every one of D.J. Augustin’s career-high 33 points to fend off the C’s 107-102. Joakim Noah played the role of distributor, dishing out 13 assists as the Bulls squeaked out the win. Game 2 on Monday night didn’t play out exactly the same as Sunday’s, but the results were the same. Noah took on more of a scoring load with 19 in the 2nd game while D.J. scored just 4 a night after his career-best game, instead sharing the ball and racking up 11 assists. The Celtics were down just 1 entering the 4th for the second straight night, but again it was the Bulls who performed best when the chips were down, outscoring the Celtics 23-10 in the final stanza to pick up a 94-80 win. Mike Dunleavy scored 22 to lead the Bulls in the victory.

Considering the drastic swings in statistics, it was clear the Celtics made some adjustments to not get beat by D.J. again, but the Bulls showed just how adaptable they are to different defensive approaches. “I don’t think you go into the game thinking about what’s going to…You don’t know what’s going to happen,” explained Noah. “Every game is different, and it’s all about finding ways to win, so we just try to be as versatile as possible.” It also helps when you have one of the league’s top defenses to fall back on in the 4th quarter of a tight game. “Nobody can get easy offense against Chicago,” lamented Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens after losing to them for the second time in as many nights. “They’re obviously, along with Indiana and another handful of teams, the elite of the elite defensively in this league. It’s as good a defense as I’ve ever coached against.”

Monday’s game was just another demonstration of just how tough the Bulls can be in the fourth quarter. “Our focus is different in the fourth quarter,” mentioned Augustin. “We just have to lock in, and the fourth quarter is winning time, so that’s what we pretty much do, just lock in.” The group they finish games with is exceptional on the defensive end and versatile on offense, and it’s been driving opponents nuts. Coach Thibs expounded on the matchup problems his finishing group (Joakim, Taj, D.J., Hinrich & Butler) can cause after the win: “That’s the advantage we have with the finishing group. We can put 2 point guards out there. We can put the ball in Jo’s hands, and we can put the ball in Taj’s hands. The job of those guys is to read what’s going on in the game, how we’re being defended. If someone has a hot hand, we’re going to try to go to that. If someone has a match-up, you try to go to that. If we can get 2 on the ball, we have to make the right play. Basically, that’s what we are trying to get accomplished.” Considering that the Bulls are 30-14 since the calendar turned to 2014, I’d say they’re getting that accomplished.

While the Bulls were busy dispatching of Boston on Monday night, the Toronto Raptors were taking some lumps from the Heat in Miami. With the Bulls’ win and Raps’ loss, both teams sit at 42-32 with just 8 games left to play. I think it’s safe to say that both teams want to get to that 3rd seed considering what’s happening with the rest of the East playoff picture. “I think it’s very important,” offered Mike Dunleavy on Monday. “We want to try to get as high as we can, not only with home-court advantage but also avoiding the first seed in the second round, if we’re fortunate enough to advance. We just want to get as high as we can.” With the way the Pacers are crumbling down the stretch (losers of10 of 16, including their last 3), they seem like the ideal second round matchup for any team with hopes of making the East finals. The Pacers are a shell of the team that started 46-13, and nobody wants to go through the Heat to get there. It would also be helpful to not have to play the red-hot Brooklyn Nets in the first round. The Nets have won 14 of 18 and have a boatload of playoff experience. The Washington Wizards would present a much more favorable matchup to both the Bulls and Raptors, but only one can have the luxury of facing them.

The schedule over the final 8 games seems to favor the Bulls despite having 5 road games left to Toronto’s 3. The Wizards are the only team left on the Bulls’ slate that currently boasts a winning record (38-36). Minnesota and Charlotte are close to .500 at 1 and 2 games under, respectively, and the Bulls also get Atlanta and New York down the stretch, the 2 teams battling for the East’s final playoff spot. It doesn’t help matters that the 5 best teams the Bulls have left are the 5 they get to play on the road, but Chicago should be favored in every game they have left. Toronto, on the other hand, has to square off with Indiana and Houston in their next 2 games, both of whom are at least 25 games over .500. Even with those games at home and Indy’s swoon, winning one or both of those will be a daunting task. The rest of the schedule for Toronto is pretty favorable, as they draw East bottom-feeders Philly, Detroit and Milwaukee (twice), but they also get two with the resurgent Knicks. I think the 3-seed is going to come down to which team slips up against a team they shouldn’t, and I think that team will be the Raptors.

You could say that over the next 8 games we’ll get a lot of insight into what the Bulls are made of, but don’t we already know what they’re made of? Hasn’t this team showed its resiliency and overcome enough adversity for us to know to not pick against them or count them out? I tend to believe they have, and that’s why I fully expect Chicago to enter the playoffs at seed number 3. They’ve got the right edge, the right mentality and the right focus to do what needs to be done for these final 8 games. “We’ve got a bunch of games coming up. None of them are going to be easy,” mentioned Taj Gibson. “We’re going into Atlanta, they won tonight. They’re fighting for their playoff life. None of these games are going to be easy, they’re going to come down to will and determination. We’ve got to get ready for this push.” If the Bulls’ play continues to live up to Coach Thibs mantra of ‘One game at a time,’ and they continue to play with their grinder mentality, the 3rd seed will take care of itself. After that, the real fun begins.

The NBA regular season is a grind. It’s grueling. The games keep coming, all 82 of them, and it doesn’t matter what time of day they start, if they’re back-to-backs, or how good the opponent is. In the NBA, if you don’t come ready to play, you can get beat by anyone. The Chicago Bulls, like many teams, have learned this the hard way. They’ve played much of the season short-handed with their best player out with injury and their second-best player shipped off to save money, and have seen on several occasions this year what can happen if you don’t play with the intensity level you need to. “When you’re playing short-handed, I don’t think you can underestimate how hard you have to play,” explained Coach Tom Thibodeau. “Your preparation, your readiness to play and your intensity all go a long way.”

What happens when the Bulls don’t come out with that readiness to play? They lose to Dallas by 22, or to Sacramento by 29, or to Miami by 14, or most recently, to San Antonio by 8 in a game that really wasn’t as close as the score. “We got our asses kicked,” lamented Joakim Noah after the Spurs game. “Every time we lose, Thibs always blames himself, but I don’t think it’s his fault. It’s everybody. We’ve got to be ready to play. I’m disappointed that they came out with the better edge tonight, usually that’s us.” Over the course of 82 games, these types of games are going to happen. Nobody goes 82-0, but what really has me excited about this Bulls’ team is how they respond to these bad performances.

Since the Bulls started turning their season around on December 19th, they’re 13-1 in games following a loss. They don’t let one bad game turn into 2 or more. After losing badly to Dallas, the Bulls went into the Grindhouse and beat a really good Memphis Grizzlies team. After the Sacramento loss, they won in Phoenix, and after the San Antonio loss this past week, the Bulls throttled the Houston Rockets, who had won 15 of their previous 18 games, by 24. “There’s no question we’ve got a resiliency to be able to do that,” mentioned Mike Dunleavy after the win Thursday. “We took a tough loss on Tuesday night, and to bounce back the way we did is great.” Dunleavy himself had a game on Thursday that really felt like a microcosm of the Bulls’ season.

Early on in the second quarter, Dunleavy took a really hard charge from Rockets’ forward Chandler Parsons. The contact not only drew a whistle, it drew blood…lots of it. Dunleavy had a gash above his right eye and blood just running down his face. He may as well have been making another remake of “Carrie.” He went to the locker room, got 10 stitches to close up the wound, and came back into the game to start the second half. The Rockets probably wish he hadn’t. Dunleavy didn’t score in the 1st half, but he set the nets on fire in the 3rd quarter, scoring 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting (3-of-4 from 3), and grabbed 5 rebounds in the frame as well. Mike’s resilient performance had his coach singing his praises after the game. “He’s a consummate pro. He plays hard every night and gives himself up for the team,” gushed Thibs. “That is the price of winning. He came back after the stitches and took another charge. When you talk about toughness-that’s toughness. You have to have mental toughness and physical toughness, and he has it.” It sounds almost as if Thibs could be talking about the whole team.

The Rockets took notice of Dunleavy’s second half as well. “He got hit by Chandler, and he just came back with a different attitude,” mentioned Dwight Howard. That’s exactly what the Bulls do. They take a hit, and they come back with a totally different attitude the next game. They play with a chip on their shoulder and feed off of each other’s toughness and intensity. It’s usually Joakim that sets the tone, but Jo was happy to let Dunleavy do the honors on Thursday. “It shows a lot about the character of this team,” commented Noah. “I’ve never seen anything like that. To get rocked the way he got rocked, blood really coming down hard, getting 10 stitches, and then play the second half the way he played? I dig that sh*t.” He also jokingly added that, “It was good for Duke’s street credibility.”

All jokes aside, it’s the culture of the Bulls’ locker room that has really built their toughness and resilience. The players may take their cues in terms of intensity and attitude from Joakim Noah, but there’s no dominant alpha dog in the Bulls locker room. “We’re a team full of leaders,” explained Jimmy Butler. “Not one guy, not two guys, everyone has to hold everyone accountable.” That’s the mentality of a championship locker room. The league has seen plenty of great teams in terms of talent never really get over the hump and win a title because they don’t have that mentality. Are the Bulls a championship team in terms of talent? Probably not, but having that championship attitude in the locker room can really take them a long way.

As the season winds down, there’s no question in my mind the Bulls will continue to be a resilient bunch and keep grinding for the best seed possible for the playoffs. Their mental toughness is ingrained in their DNA at this point. Coach Thibodeau mentioned on Thursday that “every game is a test,” but the real test will come in the playoffs. The Bulls should be able to dispatch of anybody in the East not from Indiana or Miami, but the Pacers and Heat are different animals. In terms of talent, they are championship-level teams who can run them off the floor. I rest a little easier knowing that if the Bulls do get throttled in a playoff game by Miami or Indy, they’ll take that hit and come back with a different attitude and a sharpened up edge for the next game. “This team doesn’t take anything for granted,” explained Noah. “Just because you usually do it doesn’t mean that it happens. You’ve got to go out there and do it.” With Noah and company playing with that mentality, their showdowns with Miami or Indy in the postseason will be must-see TV.

Tuesday, 04 March 2014 10:08

Should the Bulls go after Carmelo Anthony?

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Coach Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls are doing it again. They aren’t just surviving without Derrick Rose, for a second straight season they are thriving without him. Joakim Noah is playing at a near MVP level, Taj Gibson is garnering mention for sixth man of the year, D.J. Augustin is enjoying a serious career renaissance and Jimmy Butler is on the brink of becoming a star player. The team just throttled the Knicks on Sunday for their 9th win in 10 games and Joakim Noah just became the 3rd Bull ever to have 5 triple-doubles in a Chicago uniform (Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen are the others). The Bulls’ season is really picking up steam. Somehow, though, the topic picking up the most steam in Chicago is the rampant rumor that the Bulls will target Knicks’ superstar Carmelo Anthony in free agency this summer. The Knicks are a mess this season, sitting at 21-40 and in 11th in the miserable Eastern Conference. They don’t have a 1st round draft pick in the June draft and they don’t really have much cap space to add better players around Melo if he were to return to the team next year. It’s not hard to see why Carmelo would want out of New York. The question is: Should the Bulls want him here?

On paper, adding Carmelo seems like an obvious choice. He’s been an elite scorer for his entire career, averaging 25.3 points per game (28.0 this season) and won the league scoring title in 2012-13 with 28.7 points a game. He’s a 6-time All-Star and a guy who’s been the best player on winning teams his entire career. In fact, 2014 will be the first time he’s missed the playoffs in his entire 11-year career (assuming the Knicks don’t miraculously make the playoffs). He’s even improved his game in the past couple of seasons, becoming a better 3-point shooter and rebounder. In order to make room for Anthony under the salary cap, the Bulls would likely have to shed the salaries of Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson. Most people are expecting the Bulls to use the amnesty clause to release Boozer this offseason regardless of what happens with Carmelo, so you’re basically talking about swapping Taj for Melo. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who would argue that Taj Gibson is a better basketball player than Carmelo Anthony. We’re talking about a 6-time All-Star versus a 6th man. Like I said, on paper this decision is an easy one, but the games aren’t played on paper.

It’s easy to look at the raw numbers and project Melo as the scorer who can complement Derrick Rose (assuming he returns healthy, of course) and take some of the defensive pressure off him, but the raw numbers won’t tell you how Carmelo will fit in with this Bulls’ team. The chemistry the Chicago Bulls have right now is something special. They pull for one another, they trust one another, and they have a ton of confidence. They have a great work ethic and they hang their hat on how hard they play, especially on defense. “For us, when you are short-handed, I don’t think you can underestimate how hard you have to play,” asserted Coach Thibodeau. “Your preparation, your readiness to play and your intensity all go a long way.” How much of that description of the Bulls sounds like it could also describe Carmelo? He has a ton of confidence. That’s about it. Rather than pull for his teammates, Anthony is more often questioning their effort. Bulls’ players Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson joked in the locker room after Sunday’s game that they overheard Melo during a 1st quarter timeout ask his teammates, “What’s wrong with y’all?,” and Boozer quipped, “Of course he’s not blaming himself. ‘Not me. What’s wrong with y’all?’” Melo claimed earlier this season that he accepts that fans are going to blame him for the team’s struggles, but it’s hard to believe that claim when he points fingers everywhere but at himself in team huddles and with the media.

“It’s getting harder to keep coming up with excuses about why this team’s struggling,” mentioned Carmelo Sunday. “At this point, I don’t have any answers towards it. As a team we have to have some sense of pride to go out there and compete. We’re just not getting it done. I’m sick of making excuses about this and about that. It’s frustrating. It’s embarrassing.” Carmelo isn’t the only Knick who’s fed up with the way things are going. J.R. Smith questioned the effort of some of his teammates last week, and when asked about Smith’s comments, Knicks’ forward Amare’ Stoudemire didn’t pull any punches. “We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror before we make statements,” retorted Amare’. “We’ve got to make sure that we are playing hard first. Take care of yourself, then others will follow suit. We’ve got to lead by example.” When was the last time you heard a Bulls’ player make excuses or point fingers at teammates? Even when the team was flailing to a 9-16 start, no one was blaming the struggles on Derrick’s injuries or anyone else in the locker room. They just kept working and striving to get it fixed. The Bulls’ locker room wasn’t exactly a happy place when they were dealing with their struggles early on, but there’s a difference between a downtrodden locker room and a dysfunctional one. The Knicks’ locker room is dysfunctional, and you can bet Carmelo Anthony isn’t exactly faultless in it getting that way. Granted, Carmelo might change his tune if he were on a winning team, but I’m not sure his style of play would be a great fit in the Bulls’ system.

Carmelo has developed a reputation over the years as a ball-stopper, meaning the ball stops with Melo. He’s only looking to shoot, not pass. His numbers back that up. Carmelo is averaging 2.9 assists per game this year and 3.1 for his career. When you draw as much defensive attention as Carmelo does, you almost have to be trying to not find open teammates to have such a low average. Of the league’s top ten scorers this season, only Melo and Blazers’ power forward LaMarcus Aldridge average fewer than 3 and a half assists per game. The Knicks as a team have a real problem with ball movement, and it’s something that’s frustrated Amare’ Stoudemire since he arrived in New York. “If you think about the top teams in this league, they all move the ball very well,” explained Amare’. “For us, we’re not quite there yet. Until we get there, it’s going to be a struggle. I’ve been saying that for years, so it seems like we’re not serious.” The Knicks are currently dead last in the NBA in the percentage of their field goals assisted on (52.7%), and they are a full 2 and a half percent behind the 2nd worst team. The Bulls on the other hand are 2nd in the league at 64.46%. Sharing the basketball is a big part of Chicago’s offense and it’s something Carmelo would have to improve on.

Melo hasn’t ever garnered much attention for his defensive game either, something that would have to change under Coach Thibs. Defense has to be a priority to play in Chicago. Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson learned that last year, as have Tony Snell and D.J. Augustin this year. More importantly, we just haven’t seen much of an evolution to Carmelo’s game. He’s never shown the ability to make his teammates better, and he really hasn’t improved much since he entered the league except in his ability to score. All in all, Carmelo would have to remake his game in a lot of ways to really mesh with the Bulls and be a good fit in their system, and I’m just not sure it’s something he can do after 11 years in the league.

The Bulls’ have really found a great mix as the team is constituted right now. Every player has a well-defined role, and everybody contributes. 7 of the Bulls’ 8 regulars scored in double figures in the win over the Knicks. “The balance has been big,” explained Thibs. “They know what to expect from each other. They are playing to their strengths and covering their weaknesses. They are sharing the ball, making quick decisions and playing strong defense. If you do those things, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win.” The players really sense how well the team is clicking too. “That’s the makeup of our team,” commented Boozer. “We just keep grinding, whatever’s in front of us, we just take on the challenge. The great thing about us is our attitude. We’re not reading your [the media] newspapers, we’re not reading all the good stuff about us, we’re staying hungry.” Joakim Noah echoed Boozer’s sentiment on Sunday: “We’re still not satisfied. We feel like we’re the hungriest team playing in the NBA.” I just don’t think adding a player and person like Carmelo Anthony into this mix would be beneficial.

In the end, it’s likely that Carmelo’s talent will win out. The Bulls are probably going to pull out all the stops to try and get Melo to Chicago. They vowed when they dealt Luol Deng that any money saved in that deal would be put back into the team, and Melo, at least on paper, is the logical way to do that. Who knows, maybe playing in a structured system like Thibodeau’s will be just what Carmelo needed to shed his ball-stopping reputation. Maybe Joakim Noah’s strong personality will help keep Melo in line in the locker room. Maybe Carmelo really can provide that second scorer the Bulls need alongside Derrick Rose to be able to get past the Heat. I tend to believe there’s a reason Carmelo Anthony is 23-43 in the playoffs and 3-10 in playoff series. The biggest problem isn’t Carmelo’s supporting cast. It’s his “me first” style of play. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t believe Carmelo Anthony will ever win an NBA title, and for that reason, I don’t want him in Chicago. I’d rather have Taj Gibson, who unlike Carmelo, believes in his team: “There’s no ceiling to what we can do.” Doesn’t that sound like a guy you’d want on your team?

For a long while this season, it really wasn’t fun to be a Chicago Bulls fan. The season was spiraling out of control in the wake of yet another season-ending Derrick Rose injury, and to compound the problem, the front office decided to ship off franchise cornerstone Luol Deng for no immediate return. Things were really getting bleak as the team dropped 13 out of 16 games in November and December to fall to a dismal 9-16 mark. Other names surfaced in trade rumors; talk of tanking was rampant from local sports fans and pundits, and the team failed to score 80 points in 4 out of 5 games during one particularly ugly stretch. Out of the despair surrounding the franchise, however, the Bulls have reemerged as a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are 18-9 since coming out of their early season tailspin, and a shockingly strong 13-7 since they jettisoned Luol. How have they turned things around? They’ve done it by leaning on their bigs.

Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah are playing at levels that we just haven’t seen from them in their careers, and it’s their improvement that has buoyed the Bulls’ season and has the team entering the All-Star break at 27-25, good for 4th in the East. That duo has been getting better as the season has progressed, and their impact was on full display this past week as the Bulls made mincemeat of Eastern Conference playoff contenders Atlanta and Brooklyn. Taj lead the team in scoring in both games (one that he didn’t even start), and Joakim had a ridiculous triple-double against Atlanta (19 pts., 16 reb., 11 assists), and nearly duplicated the feat against the Nets (14-13-7). It’s one thing to dominate the defensive end the way Joakim and Taj do, but this season it has been their impact on the offensive end that’s making the big difference. “When those guys get going down low, guys have to double-team,” explained point guard D.J. Augustin, “and it leaves me and Kirk wide open for threes, makes us able to penetrate, and opens things up for the whole team.”

There are plenty of Bulls’ fans who would say it was Augustin who was the catalyst for the Bulls’ turnaround, and there’s a case to be made for that. D.J.’s averaging 13.8 points per game, 5.7 assists, is shooting 42.4% from beyond the arc, and seems to knock down a big 3 down the stretch of every close win. He’s been a big piece of the resurgence to be sure, but it’s the balance provided by Noah and Taj that have made his strong play possible, not to mention the pressure Noah can take off the point guard as a ball-handler and playmaker. When asked why he and Noah play so well off one another, Carlos Boozer responded: “I just play off Joakim, our point-center, and go from there. He’s just a great passer. With Jo, when he gets the ball, if you can get to an open area he’ll find you. He has the mindset of a guard. He really does, and that’s why he’s always knocking on triple-doubles. He wants to be a playmaker and make plays for all of us. When we get the ball to Jo, our offense runs a lot smoother.” Joakim’s ability to play ‘point-center’ allows Augustin play off the ball more and find those open 3-point opportunities.

Statistically there’s no denying Joakim’s having his best season yet. He’s averaging career-highs of 11.9 points (tied with last year), 11.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. He had a career-long streak of 18 straight games with double-digit rebounds, and he also has 26 double-doubles thus far, just 7 behind his career best with another 30 games to play. I think he’ll set that mark as well. The reason Jo has taken it to another level this season: his health. “Last year, around this time, I was in a lot of pain,” mentioned Noah. “My feet were hurting. I felt like my body was breaking down. I’m healthy right now. I couldn’t be happier about that.” His coach couldn’t be happier about it either. He shared his center’s opinion as to why he’s playing his best basketball.

“He’s healthy, he’s gotten into rhythm,” asserted coach Thibs. “I think missing training camp set him back offensively. Defensively he’s been terrific all year, then offensively, I’d say the last 25 games or so, he’s been in a great rhythm. He’s doing a lot of great things for us and making plays. He’s comfortable on the perimeter; he’s comfortable in the post, dribble-handoffs, the pick-and-roll. [He has] the ability to make a quick decision, to read what the defense is doing-where’s the help coming from, where’s the open guy? So he’s making quick decisions and it forces the defense to run, and when you do that you’re going to get good shots. So, he’s running the floor and he’s playing great basketball right now. He and Taj have been terrific up front.”

The numbers support the coach’s assertion about Noah’s hot streak. Since the team hit rock bottom at 9-16, Noah has averaged a ridiculous 12.6 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists over 26 games. Those are All-NBA 1st team type numbers for a center. Handling Joakim is enough of a handful for most teams, but when you throw in the way Taj Gibson is playing this season, the Bulls’ frontcourt just becomes overwhelming. Taj has always been a nightmare to deal with on the glass and as a defender, but the quantum leap he’s made on the offensive end is astonishing. Gibson’s numbers have been excellent. He’s averaging 12.9 points per game, almost 4 points better than his previous career-high (and with just 8 starts in 52 games), and he’s shooting 72.5% from the foul line, easily the best mark of his career. The numbers don’t do him justice though. When you watch him play, it’s obvious just how far his offensive game has come.

“I’ve come a long way,” ceded Gibson after the win over the Hawks. “It’s tough when you come from college to the NBA; guys are really physical. I had to add a lot of weight to my body. I worked on my post game and my jump shot. There are things that you need to work on in the NBA, but the main thing is confidence. You can work out 100 hours a day, but without confidence it’s nothing.” Coach Thibodeau and the Bulls have helped build up Taj’s confidence, and it’s paying major dividends for the team. At this point, it’s hard to argue that Taj shouldn’t be starting ahead of Carlos Boozer. In his 8 games as a starter, Taj is averaging 19.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.8 bgp, and is shooting 49.6% from the field. Although Thibs isn’t ready to make Taj his starter, he couldn’t help but heap praise on Taj as he explained why Boozer will continue to start:

“For us to achieve the things we want to achieve, we need Carlos and we need Carlos to play well. He’s a huge part of our team. With our depth up front, we really have 3 starters, and they all have to sacrifice for the team. That’s one of our strengths. That’s also the value of Taj. I know Taj can play great as a starter and I know he can play great coming off the bench. It doesn’t take him 5 minutes to get going and get adjusted. As soon as you put him in his motor is running and he is ready to roll. Taj can play short minutes or he can play long consecutive minutes. He’s in great shape and has prepared himself well. You can’t say enough about all the things he’s doing for us. He’s hitting his jump shot; he’s posting with strength; he’s commanding the double-team; he’s hitting the open man; he’s guarding every position on the floor; he’s making great effort; he plays for the team. Did I leave anything out?”

I can’t say that I agree with Thibodeau’s decision to continue to start Boozer over Taj, but I do think he’s well aware of the impact Gibson has had on the team’s fortunes. There have been contributions from just about everyone on the roster, from D.J. to Hinrich to Butler to Dunleavy to Boozer, but it’s the play of Joakim and Taj that have made the difference. The inside presence they provide opens the game up for everyone else. It’s why the team has had such balanced scoring, and it’s why they’ve gotten back to their winning ways. The second half of the season won’t be easy. The team is still short-handed, and won’t be getting back Derrick Rose or Luol Deng any time this season, but just like the past couple Bulls’ teams under Thibodeau, this group doesn’t seem to want things to come easy.

“We’re enjoying the grind,” mentioned Noah. “I like our mindset going into every game. There’s a toughness about us and I’m proud to be a part of that.” If they can keep that mental edge, the Bulls will be just fine in the second half and should find themselves comfortably in the top 4 teams in the East. I’m not delusional enough to think that this team is going to beat Miami or Indiana in the playoffs, but I have no interest in writing off this iteration of the Chicago Bulls just yet. With the way these guys play for each other and battle through adversity, anything is possible in the postseason. That’s why they play the games. It’ll take everyone if the Bulls want to shock the world, but without the exploits of Jo and Taj, we’d still be talking tanking.

The Bulls 2013-14 campaign has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride thus far. There have been some pretty excruciating lows with the injury of Derrick Rose and the trade of Luol Deng to Cleveland, but Monday night’s game against the L.A. Lakers was certainly a high point. The teams battled back and forth all night and seemed destined for double-overtime, but Taj Gibson and the Bulls needed just 0.9 seconds to change that destiny. Coach Thibodeau drew up the perfect inbound play and Mike Dunleavy was able to find Taj Gibson headed straight to the basket for a game-winning layup that left his hand a tenth of a second before the horn sounded. “They drew up a great play,” commented Lakers’ coach Mike D’Antoni. “It was designed well and they executed it well.” After hitting the biggest shot of the night, Gibson was predictably all smiles. “Thibs just wanted me to attack the basket, try to dunk it or try to get fouled,” explained Taj. “He told me ‘use your left,’ and they [the team] always try to crack jokes on me in practice about trying to use my left and today I proved them wrong. It was my first buzzer beater and it feels good.”

The Bulls’ 102-100 victory was their was their 8th win in 10 games since the calendar turned to 2014, and it got them back to a .500 record (20-20) for the first time since November 27th. The Bulls’ season seemed to be spiraling out of control after D-Rose’s injury as the team dropped 13 out of 16 games after he was injured (counting the game he was hurt in). Luckily, they managed to find a dynamic point guard to replace Marquis Teague as the backup and help get the season back on the rails. D.J. Augustin spent much of the last season and a half riding the pine in Indiana and Toronto after a promising start to his NBA career in Charlotte. The Bulls took a chance on D.J. after he was waived by the Raptors last month, and the move has paid big dividends. After some predictable growing pains in his first few games as a Bull (Chicago lost first 4 games after acquiring D.J.), the team and Augustin have really hit their stride of late.

D.J. entered Monday’s tilt with L.A. averaging 16.2 points, 7.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals over his past 5 games, and he had his biggest game of the year on Monday. Augustin set a season-high with 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting (5-of-7 from 3), and chipped in 4 assists and 4 rebounds. He hit several clutch 3’s down the stretch and his recent play is a big part of the reason the Bulls’ season has turned around. When D.J. was asked why he’s played so much better in Chicago than he did in Toronto, his answer was a simple one: “I’m getting an opportunity. When I was in Charlotte, I played the same way I’m playing now. The last two years in Indiana and Toronto, I didn’t get an opportunity. When I get an opportunity, I think I play pretty good.” As long as Augustin keeps playing the way he’s been lately, the opportunities will continue to come, but he wasn’t the only Bull who was really impressive on Monday night.

Monday was the final day for fan voting for the NBA All-Star Game, and Bulls’ center Joakim Noah made a pretty strong case for himself to anyone who was voting at the last minute. Noah was already having another standout season, but the way he controlled the paint against L.A. was a joy to watch. Jo ended the game with 17 points, 21 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals. He also smothered Pau Gasol in the overtime period and forced him into 1-of-4 shooting and 2 turnovers in the extra session. “Joakim battled the whole game,” gushed Thibs after the game. “Gasol is such a tough matchup and the Lakers spread you out with their shooting. Jo is doing a lot of different things. You’re asking him to make three, four, five efforts and then get back into the post. You can’t say enough about what he’s doing for our team.” I think an All-Star selection would be a good start. Noah clearly has earned it.

The Lakers came out shooting well early against Chicago, connecting on better than 50% of their first half field goal attempts and 43% of their 3’s as they built a 3-point halftime lead. In the second half, the game turned into more of a slugfest. Neither team ever really took control of the game, but the Bulls seemed to be in position to win in regulation. They were up 3 with the ball but turned it over out of bounds with 10.7 seconds to go. Nick Young managed to get fouled by Joakim Noah on a 3-pointer with 4 seconds left and hit all three from the charity stripe to force the overtime period. In the extra frame, the Lakers built a 5-point lead early on, but D.J. Augustin hit a 3 to tie it up with 2:33 to go. In the closing seconds of OT, it appeared that Nick Young had again extended the game with a baseline jumper to tie it up with 6 seconds left, but all he did was set the stage for Taj’s game-winner.

Gibson finished the game with 12 points, 6 boards and 2 blocks. Mike Dunleavy scored a quiet 12 points, and Jimmy Butler did a nice job stuffing the stat sheet with 13 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and a block. The only thing the Bulls didn’t do well on Monday night is shoot the ball, knocking down a paltry 38.2% of their field goal tries. If they had shot the ball a little better, they likely would have won comfortably. Nick Young paced the Lakers with a game and season-high 31 points. It was the second straight game that Young set a season-high in points after serving a one-game suspension for throwing a punch at a Suns’ player (Goran Dragic). Young scored 29 on Sunday against Toronto. Pau Gasol also had a strong game for L.A. despite his shaky overtime performance. The tall Spaniard finished with 20 points, 19 rebounds, 5 blocks, 3 steals and 5 turnovers. Most of the turnovers were costly though, with 4 of them coming in the game’s final 10 minutes.

For the Lakers (16-26), the loss was nothing new. Los Angeles has dropped 13 of their last 16 games after a 13-13 start. The problem has been health. L.A. has been playing without Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Steve Blake, which leaves them with a rotation featuring Pau Gasol and a bunch of kids. Nick Young and Gasol are the only regulars over 26 years old, and Young is 28. The Lakers have certainly shown more fight over the past few games, but until the vets get back it’ll be all about developing the youngsters for L.A. The recent addition of Manny Harris from the L.A. D-Fenders of the D-League could provide a spark. Harris was averaging 30.6 points per game for the D-Fenders in 13 games.

Unlike the Lakers, the Bulls’ recent strong play seems sustainable. They’ve finally dug themselves out of the hole created by the post D-Rose slump. The addition of Augustin and his rapidly increasing chemistry with the rest of the team have the Bulls looking like a team to be reckoned with again. I’m not saying that they can hang with Indiana or Miami in a playoff series, but I don’t think there’s any other team in the East that they aren’t capable of beating. If they hadn’t traded Deng, they might even have been able to give the Heat or Pacers all they could handle. It’s finally becoming fun to watch the Bulls play again this season, because let’s face it, Bulls games were pretty ugly for a while there. I’m excited to see how the rest of the season plays out. There might be a couple more deals coming next month at the trade deadline, but I doubt the Bulls do anything drastic. Speaking of Bulls’ deals, Chicago heads to Cleveland Wendesday night to take on Luol Deng and the Cavs.

It’ll be the first time that Deng will play against the Bulls in his career, and you can bet there will be some emotion involved. Many of the Bulls looked to Deng as a friend and mentor, so facing off against him will be a different experience. “I love Lu,” mentioned Taj Gibson. “I’ve learned so much from that guy. It’s going to be a weird feeling looking at him in the opposite jersey.” It might be even tougher for coach Tom Thibodeau, who hasn’t been shy in the past about heaping praise on his now former star forward. “I know how fierce a competitor he is,” explained Thibs, “so I know he’s going to be trying to beat us, and we’re going to be trying to beat him, and then after the game we’re going to visit. I have a lot of respect for him, all the stuff he did for us, what he did for me personally, but that friendship aside, we’re coming up there and we’re going to be ready.” We’ll find out Wednesday just how ready the Bulls are to face Lieutenant Deng. It should be a good one.

The group of men who have been chosen first overall in the NBA draft is an elite fraternity. They almost always walk into a broken down team with an entire franchise and city’s hope resting squarely on their shoulders. Not everyone has lived up to the expectations that come with the territory. For every LeBron James there’s a Greg Oden. For every Allen Iverson there’s a Kwame Brown. Monday night at the United Center, two men who have thrived as top overall picks squared off for the first time in their burgeoning careers. Any hype swirling around Monday’s Bulls-Cavs game focused on the showdown between Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving, but both players struggled to make their impact felt. It was the Bulls’ defense that took center stage down the stretch in a 96-81 Chicago win.

The strong finish was a welcome sight for Bulls’ fans, who have watched the team be badly outplayed down the stretch in losses to Indiana and Philadelphia. It’s safe to take your finger away from the panic button now that the team has pulled back to .500 at 3-3. Rose certainly ended up with the better statistical night of he and Irving, but the real hero of the matchup was the Bulls’ team defense on Kyrie. Irving ended with a respectable line of 16 points and 4 assists, but he shot just 5-of-19 from the floor and committed 3 turnovers. He didn’t make his first field goal until the final minute of the 3rd quarter. “Every time I’ve played against the Bulls, Coach Thibodeau just does an excellent job of corralling me into a little bit of space,” explained Irving, “and they do a great job of loading up and making it tough on me.” Derrick Rose echoed that sentiment, mentioning that, “It’s really not me going out there and trying to play him a certain way. It’s the team.”

Despite a somewhat lopsided final score, Chicago really struggled to put the Cavs away in this game. They played from ahead for the majority of the game, but every time it seemed like the Bulls were on the cusp of breaking it open, the Cavaliers would do just enough to stay in striking distance. In the first quarter, the Bulls got up by 6, but C.J Miles drilled a triple in the closing seconds of the quarter to cut it to 3. In the 2nd quarter, the Bulls pushed the lead all the way to 12, but Dion Waiters cut it back down to 7 with back-to-back buckets in the final minute of the half. A Jimmy Butler layup at the buzzer pushed it back to 9 at the break. The 3rd quarter was more of the same. The Bulls came out hot and got in an offensive rhythm, building up a 13-point lead 4 minutes into the half, but the offense sputtered after that, allowing Cleveland to creep back in once more. Tristan Thompson and Andrew Bynum got going with 10 combined points on a 16-8 Cavs run that cut the lead to 5. The spurt carried over into the 4th with Kyrie Irving heating up, and Cleveland got within 1 at 68-67 with 10 minutes to go. They were never able to get over the hump and take the lead, however.

Cleveland had 2 chances with the ball down just 1, and failed on both opportunities. First it was a Kyrie Irving miss from 6 feet, then an Anderson Varejao offensive foul that stymied the Cavs’ efforts. That was the last chance the Cavs would get to pull ahead. Carlos Boozer knocked down a midrange jumper to open the lead to 3, then after a Chicago stop Mike Dunleavy managed to get fouled on a 3-pointer and knocked down all three shots from the charity stripe. The next couple minutes turned into the Rose and Dunleavy show. Rose made 2 explosive layups and Dunleavy knocked down a couple big shots including one from beyond the arc and another 2 shots from the free throw line as the lead ballooned to 11. Rose’s second layup sent him to the bench with a tweaked hamstring, but it didn’t matter in this game. The damage was done. The Bulls managed to hold on for a 15-point win.

The Bulls’ 4th quarter dominance came in 2 areas: on the defensive end and on the glass. They held the Cavs to just 6-of-19 shooting for the quarter and outrebounded them 14 to 6. They also turned 4 Cleveland turnovers into 8 points. The shooting of Dunleavy was a big plus, but the Bulls simply smothered the Cavs on the defensive end. This is exactly what Bulls’ fans are used to seeing. The defense dominates one end of the floor, and Rose dominates the other. One out of two isn’t bad while Rose rounds back into form, and he doesn’t seem that far away. Cavs’ coach Mike Brown wasn’t pleased with the way his young team handled Chicago’s defensive pressure. “When we hit adversity tonight, we didn’t handle it well,” lamented Coach Brown. “Chicago got up in us. They tried to take us out of our stuff. We hit a little bit of adversity and we didn’t do a good job of handling it. Mentally and physically they just did what they wanted to with us.”

For the night, the overall numbers weren’t all that lopsided aside from the final score. Both teams shot around 41%, the Bulls were +3 on the glass and both teams scored 16 2nd chance points. The one area the Cavs were demolished was in turnovers and points off them. Chicago scored 29 points off 20 Cleveland turnovers, and the Cavaliers scored just 9 off of 11 Bulls’ TOs. “We just didn’t execute,” mentioned Cavs’ guard Jarrett Jack in reference to the turnover struggles. “We need to learn like in baseball to hit singles and not go for homerun passes all the time.”

Tristan Thompson led the way statistically for Cleveland, tallying 14 points and 13 rebounds. It was Thompson’s 5th double-double in 8 games this season. Kyrie Irving did lead the team with his 16 points, but it was Thompson’s play that kept the Cavs in the game in the 3rd and into the 4th. 2nd year guard Dion Waiters was the worst offender in terms of turnovers with 6 on the night, but he did add 13 points, 2 boards, 2 assists and 2 blocks. C.J. Miles scored 9 points off the bench and Anderson Varejao scored 5 and grabbed 6 rebounds. Matthew Dellavedova scored his first 2 NBA points in the game, and struggling number-1 pick Anthony Bennett was left on the bench in this one. Bennett has made just 1 field goal thus far in his young career.

The biggest surprise from Cleveland on Monday night was the play of Andrew Bynum. In a little bit of gamesmanship on the part of Mike Brown, Bynum wasn’t announced as a starter until right before tipoff, and Cleveland tried to get him going quickly. They fed him in the post early and he scored 7 of their first 10 points, but it was clear that his knees are still a bit of an issue. He was limited to just 21 minutes for the game, and didn’t play at all in the 2nd or 4th quarters. Bynum ended up with 11 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists, but also committed 3 turnovers, 2 of which were bad miscommunications in which he threw the ball to no one. It will take some time for him to get adjusted to playing with his new team. “We just don’t know how to play with a guy like that yet,” commented Brown. “Every time he touched the ball on the block, something good happened. When they double-teamed, he kicked the ball out for a 3. I’d love to establish him down low, and that’s what we wanted to do tonight.” We’re just 6 games into the season, so the Cavs have time to adjust to the big man, but it will all hinge on the health of Bynum’s knees. He did say he was contemplating retirement a couple weeks ago.

The Bulls were paced offensively on Monday by Carlos Boozer’s 17 points. Boozer has been much more consistent on the offensive end than Bulls’ fans have been used to, averaging 18 points a game (his highest mark as a Bull). He shot 7-of-11 for the game and added 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Luol Deng struggled with his shot but still scored 12 points and added 5 boards and 3 dimes. Joakim Noah was limited by foul trouble, but still wound up with 10 points, 6 boards and 3 steals. The bench made a big impact in this one as well. Taj Gibson (9 pts, 8 boards, 3 blocks) and Kirk Hinrich (6 pts, 3 boards, 7 assists) made several clutch plays, but the bench star in this one was Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy scored 15 points (10 in the 4th), grabbed 4 rebounds and dished out 2 assists. His big shots in the 4th were the key to Chicago blowing the game open, and it was fitting since his college coach (Coach K, Mike Krzyzewski) and his Duke players were in the building watching. Boozer and Deng also played their college ball at Duke. Dunleavy seems to be finding his niche with this team quickly.

As for the Derrick Rose, his stat line wasn’t overwhelming. He scored 16 points on 8-of-21 shooting, but he had a season-high 7 assists and more importantly, a season-low zero turnovers in the Bulls’ victory. He was starting to flash the speed and explosiveness that make him the star that he is when his night was derailed by a tweaked hamstring. Rose was pulled with 3:15 to go, but it seems to be more of a precaution. Coach Thibodeau said that “it appears to be minor,” and Derrick agreed in his postgame comments. “Just a minor sprain, nothing serious,” explained Rose. When asked if he expected to be ready to play Friday, Derrick answered: “I should be. It’s really not that big at all.” The injury took a little bit of the thunder out of the D-Rose vs. Kyrie matchup, but they will certainly square off again.

Cleveland appears to be on the right track as a team. In a very top-heavy Eastern Conference, they should be able to find their way to a playoff spot over some lackluster competition, but the key to getting there will be integrating Bynum and keeping him healthy. It’s amazing that this team might not need much of a contribution from the number 1 overall pick to make the playoffs, but that is the case right now. Kyrie and Dion Waiters are an imposing backcourt, and when they go small and bring in Jarrett Jack along with those 2, it’s very difficult to match up with. They also have great versatility in the frontcourt with Thompson, Varejao and Alonzo Gee along with Bynum, but it all depends on health. Varejao missed most of last season, Irving has had his own injury issues, and Bynum’s struggles are well documented. One thing the Cavs aren’t short on is confidence, at least as far as their point guard is concerned. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” asserted Irving. “We’re all basketball players here. It’s what we get paid to do, so we’ve got to figure it out, and we will.” I agree with Kyrie and fully believe the Cavs will still be playing beyond 82 games.

As far as Chicago is concerned, it’s nice to get back to .500, but that is obviously not the goal. Everyone in the locker room was spitting out the same company line about improvement. “The big thing is to concentrate on our improvement,” mentioned Thibs. “We’ve got to just keep improving,” claimed Joakim. The Bulls are never satisfied after a win, and that’s a good thing. They managed to clean up the turnover issues that have been plaguing them, even if only for one game, but in order to keep piling up wins they know they need to continue to work and to get better. The upcoming schedule is daunting, with 7 of their next 9 games on the road. Things are starting to come together, but they need to show an ability to put together a full 48 minutes of good basketball. They played Indy even for 3 quarters before getting crushed in the 4th. They were dominating Philly into the 3rd before falling apart. They were crushed by Miami in the 2nd quarter. They have to start playing more consistently from start to finish in each game.

“We’ve just got to stick with it,” mentioned Dunleavy when asked when the team would be able to put together a full 48 minutes. “It’s not an easy thing to do, probably the toughest thing to do in this league. There are a lot of great teams, so to think you’re going to go out and put it on people for 48 minutes every night….You’d like to do that, but it’s not maybe realistic. We’ve just got to keep grinding at it, keep thinking we’re going to do it. We will.” With drill sergeant Thibs in charge and Derrick Rose rounding into form, I’d expect the Bulls to start putting full games together sooner than later. The league better take their shots at the Bulls while they can. The D-Rose revival tour is coming. Soon.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013 02:34

NBA Eastern Conference Preview

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When the East is in the house OMG!!! Miami is still the top dog when it comes to the NBA, and they made some key  pick-ups that could keep them on top for a lot longer if they pan out. But are they ready for "The Return"? Did Brooklyn's addition of KG and The Truth move them a step closer to a title? Or are Melo and the Knicks ready to take the thrown? here's your Eastern conference preview!

 

 

  

Toronto Raptors

Head Coach - Dwayne Casey

Toronto is an interesting little place to be in the NBA. How so? Well when mentioning a franchise the first name you mention is hip hop star Drake becoming the team ambassador, well that’s interesting. He’s looking to give the club a make-over, everything but the name of course. Well some good roster moves also help with that make-over. So here’s what we got - Kyle Lowery worked hard to show people he wasn’t some chubby chipmunk trying to play point guard. He’s gotten faster, improved his jumper, and overall just looks like a much better player. This will do him well considering his back-up DJ Augustin somehow went in the opposite direction. There is a good chance my first step could blow past DJ, thats how bad he looked defending players.

Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan are your starters at the 2 and 3. These two are the leaders of the team, the stars, the scorers, the reason people are coming to see raptors games. That won’t change. This team will only improve with the development of DeRozan, who has gotten a lot better. He’s using his size to take advantage of smaller guards, which will happen a lot. Terrance Ross has its moments. Sometimes he looks like he’s ready to be a really good player, shooting 3,s, big dunks, great defense. And then he has his nights where you think he left his game in the locker-room…the locker- room at the practice facility. Landry Fields his recovering from injury, but he’s also a solid 2/3 the team needs. Steve Novak, a 6’10 3 point specialist from the Knicks will be a big help on the perimeter. So far so good, right?

Tyler Hansborough comes over from Indiana with a chance to claim the starting 4 spot and become the fan favorite he’s meant to be. No one works like Psycho T, and now that he’ll actually have time minutes to work with he could have a breakout season. Team fights is not an option here as the Raptors has the scariest bench since Friday the 13th. If you saw Amir Johnson and Quincy Acy anywhere in the world besides a basketball court you’d run in the other direction. They are big scary rebounding, dunking, screen-setting montsers with interesting facial hair. Austin Daye can play 3 positions, including shoot the 3, while Aaron Gray is your back up center. Jonas Valancuinas is the starting center. If this team is going to contend for the play-offs they will need a big season from Jonas, as offensively he’s the only scoring threat in the post.

However its never a good sign when your mascot gets injured in the pre-season.

Best line-up:

Lowery - pg        Gay - sf           Valancuinas - c

DeRozan - sg       Hansborough - pf        6th - Ross

 

 

Washington Wizards

Head Coach - Randy Whitman

There’s so much potential here. There’s a promise of the play-offs, which could happen. There’s a great veteran presence mixed with some excellent talent. Just a matter of it all coming together. The team is led by point guard John Wall, who is on he verge of being one of the league’s best point guards. The Wizards will go only where he takes them. Eric Maynor is a solid back-up, while backcourt mate Bradley Beal has shown to be a good compliment to the things Wall does. He needs to improve his outside shooting a bit more for the Wizards to really be successful. Josh Childress can also play 2 and 3, a long-armed athletic defender who has more to offer than what he’s shown last season. Rookie Glen Rice jr. could also give you some minutes.

Otto Porter was drafted to fill the small forward spot, unfortunately he starts the year off with an injured hip. Al Harrington brings a veteran presence and can fill the void for a while, just as Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster can. Chris Singleton gives you more bodies off the bench, but nothing too special. Same goes for Garrett Temple.

Martin Gortat was brought in at the end of pre-season and will grab the starting center spot. He's a mobile big man with a high reboung and field goal percentage, which benefits the wizards trendously. This means Nene will get the start at power forward or can play some back-up center. The Wizards are expecting a bounce-back year from him. Kevin Seraphin will get minutes backing up both spots, as will Trevor Booker, both hard knocks rebounders.

Best Line-up:

Wall - pg           Porter - sf         Gortat- c

Beal - sg         Nene - pf           6th - Ariza

 

Charlotte Bobcats

Head Coach – Rod Higgins

Alright, let’s get into it. Kemba Walker may not be the best option for point guard, but he’s the best option here. He’s pretty steady, can shoot, and attacks the rim well, plus he stays healthy. Ramon sessions is looking for a home and just may have finally found one. He’s more of a scorer, but still a good back-up pg. Gerald Henderson has proven to be a solid, serviceable shooting guard who can also play some 3. His numbers seem to get better every season. Ben Gordon arrives as the team’s best 6th man option in years, plus he can play some point if necessary.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist gets the start at small forward, with Jeff Taylor backing him up. again, Henderson can also fill in at 3, so there’s no big loss either way. In the post is where things get messy. so lets just rule out Bismack from the equation. he’ll be lucky to see the floor. Step your game up! Josh McRoberts is the key back-up at the 4 and the 5. how and where Higgins decides to play Al Jefferson and Cody Zellner. Jefferson can play either position, while Zellner still has to fill out, but as of now he’s listed as the 4. Hmmm. Brendan Haywood and Anthony Tolliver are also in the post, sitting on the bench somewhere. as for Bismack…don’t hold your breath.

Best line-up:

Walker – pg          Kidd-Gilchrist – sf         Jefferson – c

Henderson – sg       Zellner – pf           6th - Gordon

 

Orlando Magic

Head coach – Jacque Vaughn

What an interesting web being weaved in Orlando. First off, hey fake Superman, are you really surprised they didn’t retire your jersey? You caused more headaches than games you won in Orlando, I cant wait for the great reception you get when you return. Go get another coach fired. Sorry, I lost it for a second.

The starting line-up is very interesting. Jameer Nelson and Aaron Afflalo will be your starting guards. Nelson is nothing special, just an above average point guard running point. Afflalo has his moments of great. usually the team’s leading scorer and best defender, he’s great trade bait. The forward spots are the most intriguing. Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless, both 6’9, came into the league playing completely different positions. Both long and big, Harkless is now getting minutes at the 3 and occasionally the 2, while a beefed-up Harris has made the move from 2 to 4. Harkless needs to develop a better shot to stick at 3, while Harris is to slow to guard 3’s but too quick for any 4’s that would guard him. He was the team’s best player at the end of the season, so expect him to continue down that path. Starting at center is the steady Nikola Vucevic. Big Nik was 2nd in rebounding last season, as well as breaking Shaq’s record for double doubles in Orlando.

The bench is made up of an interesting crew. There’s veterans who are there to guide and lead the youngsters. Jason Maxwell and Glen Davis are small 4’s who bring energy and strength off the bench. Andrew Nicholson had a respectable 1st year, and will be counted on to provide more. being a 6’9 power forward who can shoot the 3, he provides a very interesting match-up problem the better he gets. E’twaun Moore was off to a good start at back-up point before he got injured. the real star of the show is the 2nd pick in the draft Victor Oladipo . Full of energy and a great shooter, he’ll come off the bench, but should make Afflalo expendable by mid-season. A very under-stated game until you seem him play, is a cornerstone of the new magic.

Best line-up:

Nelson - pg       Harkless - sf        c - Vucevic

Afflalo - sg         Harris - pf          6th - Oladipo

 

Philadelphia 76’ers

Head Coach – Brett Brown

New head coach, new general manager…man, it was all good just a week ago. remember when Doug Collins was running things, they beat the Bulls, even got Andrew Bynum…the future was looking good, just a year ago.

So here we are, already in mid-rebuild mode. what the hell happened? oh well, here’s what we got:

So the 76’ers drafted a new point guard…clearly not needing the young all-star point guard they already had. Michael Carter-Williams will run the show in Phili, with only Tony Wroten and Darius Morris challenging him for a back-up role….wow, three unproven players running the offense, that’s a good idea. Thankfully Evan Turner can run point, too, along with being asked to do everything else.

Your shooting guard and small forward options are the old and often-injured Jason Richardson, James Anderson, and Evan Turner, who is now the face of the franchise. Turner will have the go light all day long as right now this is his team to lose. Khalif Wyatt, Royce White (no planes for Royce, please) and Rodney Williams are also on board, and both will be given significant time to show that they belong. Thaddeus Young will play the power forward spot, even though he’s a much better 3. he needs to rebound and not get thrown out of the post. this will also give guys like Arnett Moultrie and LaVoy Allen a chance to grow. Kwame Brown gives them a veteran look off the bench who can play either 4 or 5.

Spencer Hawes will man the center position until rookie Nerlens Noel arrives. Noels injured his knee in college and may just sit out the year, which is fine. He has no true offensive gave, but has a defensive presence much like Dikembe Mutombo had. He can use the time to recover and learn the game as he’s also looked upon as the future of Phili.…a future filled with lottery rips and high draft picks.

Man, it was all good just a week ago….

Best line-up:

Carter-Williams – pg        Turner – sf        Hawes – c

Richardson – sg          Young – pf            6th – Noel

 

Atlanta Hawks

Head Coach – Mike Budenholzer

It will be an interesting season in Atlanta. Hopefully they didn’t trade away any draft picks because they should get a pretty high pick after this season. My buddy Jason Goff just moved to Atlanta, now working pre-game for the Hawks, and luckily for him he gets to emerse himself in some god-awful basketball. Why awful?

Kyle Korver is currently your starting small forward. There’s nothing great about that whatsoever. Korver is a good player, and a great shooter, however any small forward at an all-star level is circling date they get to play the Hawks, as Korver’s defense isn’t…eh, well let’s not call it defense. Jeff Teague wanted a bigger role in the offense, and almost left town. Expect more of a scoring output from Teague this season, His backcourt mate will be Louis Williams, a former point guard who sill out recovering from 2013’s season-ending injury.

Derrick Schroeder wowed many during the summer, and will be looked upon to fill both back-up guard roles, if not take the starting spot while Williams gets healthy. The Hawks expected more from John Jenkins this summer and were only under-whelmed. Hopefully this his shooting touch finds its comfort zone and he becomes the player most think he can be.

The post has a lot more answers than the backcourt, thankfully. Al Horford is still the team’s best player, and unfortunately still the team’s starting center. Paul Milsap comes over from Utah to solidify the power forward position, with Elton Brand coming off the bench. That’s an interesting trio. The team is also expecting big things from Mike Scott, who impressed with limited minutes last season. The hawks are also hoping for contributions from Shelvin Mack and Jared Cunningham.

It’s no secret the hawks will be counting on their outside shot falling and muscling ownership of the post. If that doesn’t happen every night, and it won’t, well that lottery draft can’t come soon enough.

Best line-up:

Teague – pg         Korver – sf          Horford – c

Schroeder – sg         Milsap – pf          6th – Williams/Brand

 

Milwaukee Bucks

Head Coach – Larry Drew

Fear the Deer! It’s interesting, because the Bucks are not a bad team. Infact, defensively they have the potential to be something special. They have a weird dynamic of players who do many different things, while at the same time all very similarly above average. I’ll explain what I mean.

Look at the front court. Larry Sanders and John Henson are both long defensive-minded young forwards you don’t really wanna challenge near the rim. Add rookie Giannis Antetupounmpo to the mix with his athletism, mixed with the rebounding skills and production of Ersan Iyasova, along with 6’ll Ekpe Udoh, and the Bucks have one of the best young posts in basketball. But who’s gonna score?? The Bucks also have Zaza Pachula at center, who is a better than average back-up.

Caron Butler comes home…finally. I expect a very productive season from Butler, who’s finally in familiar surroundings. Khris Middleton was a great scorer the season he spent at Texas, and with development could turn into a good player. Until that happens, the Carlos Delfino is back. Delfino loves Milwaukee and had his best seasons with the Bucks shooting-wise. Gary neal also comes to the Bucks, a good defender and another good shooter.

The Brandon Jennings era is officially over, however the OJ Mayo movement has begun. Mayo will be given the freedom to become the leader of this team. He has the green light to score, while his new backcourt mate, Brandon Knight, will be happy to help facilitate.

Knight is also a young,. skilled guard with potential, who won’t take as many bad shots as Jennings did. He also won’t put up the points Jennings did. The Bucks also brought back former team leader Luke Ridnour to teach and develop Knight, and will probably get more of the minutes during crunchtime.

Best Line-up:

Knight – pg          Butler – sf         Sanders – c

Mayo – sg         Henson – pf         6th - Iyasava

 

Cleveland Cavs

Head Coach - Mike Brown

Uncle Drew has some new friends to play with. Once LBJ left Cleveland I guess the Cavs felt they had nothing else to lose. Drafting Kyrie Irving has turned out to be a five-star move. Irving has stepped his game up each year, and is making strides to become a yearly all-star weekend member. Can he carry this team to the next level? Who knows, but he’ll have some help in trying.

Smart move bringing back coach Mike Brown. This team is very athletic and offensively gifted, so bringing in a defensive-minded coach is great for these youngsters. Irving will get a lot of help from the vastly improved Dion Waiters. He will fill that2 guard spot perfectly, giving the Cavs two big scoring threats. Another huge move was bringing in Jarrett Jack, who’s just been incredible the last few years. A great outside shooter and leader, he can play each guard spot. Matthew Dellavedova was brought in as a back-up to the back-up.

The return of Brown mixes with the emergence of some overly-athletic small forwards who seem to produce for him. Earl Clark strived with the Lakers when brown was coach, and its said that Alonzo Gee responds really well to Brown’s coaching. Both aren’t stars and won’t be asked to carry the scoring load, but they produce. Somehow they contribute. Also add CJ Miles to that mix. Clark can also play the 4, while Miles can line up as a guard, all great things to have on your bench.

What contributions the team gets from Carrick Felix or Sergey Karasev will have to be seen.

Now here comes the fun part. The Cavs had the 1st pick of the 2013 draft and chose Anthony Bennett. Bennett could play the 3, although he’s not in shape enough, nor ishe ready to play 3. He’s a 4 at the moment, but he has potential down the line to be a successful 3. For now another draft pick, Tristian Thompson is having a great pre-season and has the job.

Anderson Varejao was a very productive center before he got injured. His field goal percentage and rebounding ability. Along with his energy, was a huge plus to the cavs. Now that he’s healthy expect that same kind of play…until Bynum shows up. The team to a risk on Andrew Bynum and so far it looks like it may pay off. He’s getting healthier, in better shape, and could actually be in the line-up before too long. Bynum is a game-changer, a 20 ppg type player. Mix him with this offense, knowing you don’t need to rush him back….things are looking up.

Best line-up:

Irving - pg       Bennett - sf         Bynum - c

Waiters - sg       Thompson - pf         6th - Jack/Varejao

 

 

Detroit Pistons

Head Coach - Mo Cheeks

If Detroit thinks they can get away with the garbage they’ve been throwing out there during pre-season then it’s going to be an ugly season in the motor city. Singler at starting shooting guard? Really? Come on.

So don’t be surprised if Greg Monroe gets traded. They already have Andre Drummond signed at center, plus with bringing in Josh Smith, who’s a better 4 than 3. Bring some more talent to this team. Since we’re focused on the post, Jonas Jerbas and Charlie Villanueva are also down there, along with Josh Harrelson. Look for Tony Mitchell to get some time.

Kyle Singler is a very productive sub who can play the 3 or 4...and apparently the 2? Yikes. The Pistons signed Luigi Datome, the former Italian league MVP. He’s a tremendous shooter who just needs to adjust to the American game.

The backcourt is the fun part. Brandon Jennings was brought in to help take the Pistons into a new era. Jennings is a scorer and his play alone could elevate Detroit’s overall play. To help Jennings become a more complete point guard they called on former champion and team captain Chauncey Billups, who can play either guard spot if necessary. The fact that there are finally two official point guards (well three including Will Bynum) means Rodnet Stuckey can focus primarily on scoring and defense, that is once he gets back from breaking his thumb. The Pistons also drafted ketavious Caldwell-Pope, who has a great shot, can defend very well, and will fight for that starting spot by the All-Star break.

The Pistons will be good, but they have to get healthy and finally click as a team, which probably won’t happen til late in the year.

Best line-up:

Jennings - pg      Smith - sf        Drummond - c

Stuckley - sg       Monroe - pf        6th - Singler

 

Boston Celtics

Head Coach - Brad Smith

Many people expect Brad Smith to fail. They expect Danny Ainge’s dream of rebuilding and getting back to the top to fall flat. Unfortunately it won’t happen with this roster. While there’s work to be done, the Celtics have put together an interesting bunch of veterans and youngsters who can still compete for a play-off spot in the east.

It all starts with Rondo. When he gets back that will change everything. Will he be traded for more talent? Remains to be seen. But until then he’s the starting point and the best player on the team. Rondo leads the charge for a solid group of guards. Avery Bradley is a great defensive guard, however he’s shown to be a better 2 than 1.Phil Pressey has looked good in pre-season and can also play point. The team also has Jordan Crawford, along with Courtney Lee. Lee is a solid guard who’s game seems to be in decline. If only MarShon Brooks could play any kind of defense he’d take that starting job, but unfortunately brooks only knows the Bill Murray style of play: no defense allowed.

Keith Bogans is a great veteran presence on the bench, and he can hit the 3 for you, but he won’t get much time with Gerald Wallace and Jeff Green in front of him. Both play the 3 and can play the 4 in a small line-up. Brandon bass is a tough rebounded and solid 4. He can score a little, however he won’t be able to contain Jared Sullinger for long. Sullinger has shown he’s a monster in the post this pre-season, and also showed signs of it last season. A little consistency and the job is his for keeps. This makes things interesting for bass and Kris Humphries, who since his dabble in reality tv has seen his game go from prime time to late nite infomercials. He’s now a solid bench player. Still a good rebounder and good defender, he’ll get time at the 4 and 5. He’ll probably get the start at 5 for now, but expect rookie Kelly Olynyk to be the starter before long. Olynyk has had a great summer, and just like Sullinger will grab that spot for keeps with a little consistency.

Best Line-up:

Rondo - pg          Green - sf          Olynyk - c

Lee - sg            Sullinger - pf          6th - Wallace/Humphries

 

5. New York Knicks

Head coach – Mike Woodson

Mike Woodson will have his hands full this year. The Knicks have a reason to be confident as basketball-wise they are loaded with talent. They could be one of the most talented if not toughest teams in the league. From top to bottom the Knicks can compete. At point guard Raymond Felton will start, with no Bibby, or Kidd, or any other golden age point guard. Felton is a solid guard who can shoot and play good defense. He’s exactly what a team like this needs, unselfish and plays defense, not many mistakes. Behind him are big shot Beno Udrih and Pablo Prigioni, both experienced, both good shooters. None of these guys are going to put any fear in the heart of DRose, but hey, they are solid.

Imani Shumpert is a great guy to have on your whether he’s starting or off the bench. Shumpert is a good scorer and takes it to the hole relentlessly. He generally starts but it may be tough to keep JR Smith on the bench any longer. JR is quickly becoming a star and the 32 guy on this Knicks team. A scoring machine, JR needs to get his off-court antics together, as he’s already going to miss time.

Tim Hardaway jr was drafted over the summer and he can play the 2 or 3. He’s looked good this summer and should get significant time. The Knicks also picked up Chris Douglas-Roberts off the free agent market.

CDR is a 6’7 shooter and will land a job somewhere if he doesn’t stick here. James White is also on the roster just in case the And 1 guys stop by and want a dunk contest. But this team revolves around Carmelo Anthony. Akll that free agent talk needs to stop as NYC is where he belongs and he needs to carry this team if they really expect to compete for the top spot. Melo has the potential to make this team great,but he has to get his mind on this season and not the next.

You’re not going to out-tough the Knicks down low. Amare Stoudamire is back and healthy, while defensive juggernaut Tyson Chandler will still man the 5 spot. If any one of them misses time or gets in foul trouble there’s Andrei Bargnani and Kenyon Martin. And if that doesn’t fit into your diet how about a healthy dose of Metta World Peace, who will get time at the 3 and the 4. Whoa.

The Knicks are still trying to figure out who to keep between Cole Aldrich, Josh Powell, or Toure Murry, all serviceable players, but the core of this team is set and ready to make big moves this season.

Best Line-up:

Felton – pg        Anthony – sf        Chandler – c

Smith – sg         Stoudamire – pf           6th – Shumpert

 

4. Brooklyn Nets

Head Coach – Jason Kidd

Is Brooklyn in the house? Without a doubt, although it seems like Boston lite these days. You may be able to move teams but you can’t change colors per say, so the nets resemble what the Celtics looked like last season somewhat, and its not just because the team’s top guys are KG and Paul Pierce. They still have that now or never feel…maybe its because of new coach Jason Kidd. Who knows. Either way pierce is trying to change that in trying to get everyone to defer to Deron Williams as the guy.

Williams is the guy. It’s his team and finally he has some real players behind him. Joe Johnson will play the 2 and will be looked upon to score more than he did last season. Jason terry also made the trip from Boston to play 6th man again, while Shaun Livingston will be the back-up point guard. Tyshawn Taylor is also on the roster but how much time he actually gets will be shocking. This is clearly a veteran-ran team.

Paul Pierce and KG reclaim the 3 and 4 just like they did in Boston. They give the Nets a toughness they were missing in the past. And unlike in Boston, KG and Pierce won’t be relied on to carry the team, as they can play the 4th and 5th options. Andrei Korlenko is the 1st option off the bench at both positions, a solid player and even better defender. The Nets also have Alan Anderson and Reggie Evans on the bench. Look for Evans to get lots of time as KG really wants him as his wingman.

Andre Blanche will get lots of time. His game has matured being around actual professionals. He’ll back up Brooke Lopez, who if healthy will have this team all to himself to be the big dog. He could become the league’s best center if he stays healthy, as no other big man in the East can handle him.

Best line-up:

Williams – pg         Pierce – sf         Lopez – c

Johnson – sg         Garnett – pf         6th – Terry

 

3. Indiana Pacers

Head coach – Frank Vogel

In wanting to get better they just may have gotten worse. So here’s what happened: The Pacers are convinced they have the firepower to take out the Heat. Great. Yes they have some tremendous athletes, however this team is not as close to the promised land as they think. The return of Danny Granger to his true form would help, but losing the energetic Psycho T doesn’t. While having Luis Scola on your bench is a great addition, Hansborough brough a toughness and energy that Scola doesn’t have. Also bringing in CJ Watson isn’t going to help. Both the Bulls and heat have proven they can rattle CJ when it matters.

Paul George is becoming one of the league’s best players. He can carry this team for only so far, whoever he’s gotten a lot better and needs to be more aggressive. Chris Copeland and Solomon Hill are both good players but nothing special. Same goes for starting point guard George Hill. And Lance Stevenson should help them emencely, since he can play up to 3 positions.

The core of this team is set, yet they aren’t as deep as the Knicks or athletic as the other two top teams on the East. The one advantage they may have is the 7 foot Roy Hibbert manning the middle. Depending on what day you wake up, depends on which Roy Hibbert you’ll get. While his inconsistencey sucks, he was an all-star. Plus his partner in the post is David West, a big tough power forward with a little jump shot to match.

Best line-up:

Hill – pg        George – sf        Hibbert – c

Granger – sg        West – pf         6th – Stevenson/Scola

 

2. Chicago Bulls

Head Coach – Tom Thibodeau

This team is one of the few teams that can match if not beat Miami. They aren’t intimidated and completely believe they are better than the Heat. And that’s completely true, if they stay healthy. And all of that starts with the point guard, the return of Derrick Rose. Rose returned this pre-season and looked to be getting back to the MVP form he once was in before the injury. Now stronger with a better 3 point shot, a motivated Rose is a very dangerous Rose.

The Bulls supporting cast is better than ever. Back are Boozer, Deng, and Noah, all former all-stars. Jimmy Butler has won the starting 2 spot and his development over the season should be something to watch. He continues to get better. His play moves captain Kirk Hinrich to the bench where he’s a great two-way guard. Giving the bench even more depth is the addition of 3 point ace Mike Dunleavy jr. Taj Gibson is used to being the best player on the bench but not this year. This team has depth. Nazr Mohammad is the back up center and actually looks alive this year, while Maquis Teague is still developing as a point guard. He had a tremendous summer league. The Bulls also drafted Erik Murphy and Tony Snell, two very active youngsters who defend very well and can shoot.

Yet it all falls on the health of the team and DRose. Is he ready to lead his team past the Heat?

Best line-up:

Rose – pg         Deng – sf        Noah – c

Butler – sg        Boozer – pf         6th – Hinrich/Gibson/Dunleavy

 

1. Miami Heat

Head coach – Erik Spoelstra

To be the man you gotta beat the man, and until someone beats Miami, they will remain the top team in the NBA. The Heat still has one of the best rosters from top to bottom. Loaded with deadly shooters, the heat did something remarkable and re-stocked the post. With guys like James Jones and Rashard Lewis just waiting in the wings, and youngster such as Eric Griffin.

The bench is very good. Shane Battier is still a great defender and a tremendous 3 point shooter, backed up by “Jesus Shuttlesworth” himself, Ray Allen. Norris Cole is the back-up pg, while the post is covered by Birdman! Birdman! Chris Anderson. And then it gets scary…the Heat took a flier on center Greg Oden. If Oden can get and stay healthy, and this is a big if then the Heat may have found a huge diamond in the rough. Oden could change the way you play against the heat. The heat also brought back their former lottery pick Michael Beasley. If Beasley can get his head straight with Miami, he could be a great option in the post.

And then there’s the starters. Chambers and Haslem have been around forever, and they do their job, which is contribute when you can and stay out of the way. Bosh played a lot more at center and it definitely helped in the end. DWade is getting a ton more help off the bench, but when healthy is still one of the best guards going. As for King LBJ, well don’t be surprised if he gets MVP #4 on the way to title #4.

Best line-up:

Chambers – pg        James – sf         Bosh – c

Wade – sg          Haslem – pf         6th – Allen/Battier/Birdman

Thursday, 10 October 2013 23:47

NBA Western Conference Preview

Written by

We all know the best the NBA has to offer is in the East, but what’s going on with the Western Conference. Well here’s a who’s who of the West and who to expect from the best teams in the West.           

                                                                                      

Sacramento Kings

Head coach - Michael Malone

The Kings are clearly in franchise rebuild mode 2.0. Trading away your best player, moving then not moving to Seattle, new big name owner - not to mention the wholesale changes made on the roster - yeah, rebuild mode 2.0 sounds just about right.

Let’s look at the positives, which is tremendous guard play. Greivis Vazquez is a tremendously underrated point guard who has the size to play small forward if necessary. Greatly unselfish, Vazquez’ versatility only opens doors for explosive players like Isaiah Thomas and Jimmer Fredette. The Kings drafted Ray McCullom, a 6’3 point guard, along with Kansas freshman and lights-out scorer Ben McLemore. Many consider McLemore the most talented player in the 2013 NBA draft, and he will be looked upon to provide big . The Kings will also be looking for bigger numbers from starting shooting guard Marcus Thornton. Thorton is a solid starting shooting guard, a veteran who McLemore will have a hard time beating out to start...this year.

Things get messy from here on. DeMarcus Cousins has been compared to Derrick Coleman a lot, and if he got his head on right could be the best big man in the NBA. He can shoot, he’s quicker than most 4 or 5’s, and around the basket he can be just a monster. However his mind seems to be on everything else rather than being a professional. With the addition of Shaq to the organization, not just as an owner but as Cousin’s mentor, might Cousins finally get on the right track? The Kings also offer some big questions on who to play with Cousins. With no true center, do you go with the worker bee Carl Landry? Or how about long-time King and the versatile 6’11 Jason Thompson. Then again how do you keep the 6’9 greyhound Patrick Patterson off the court? No matter how you play it the Kings will get good production off the bench, especially with veterans Landry, John Salmons, and Luc Mbah a Moute on the roster.

The Kings aren’t going anywhere this year. New coach Michael Malone (who also brought along dad Brendan as an assistant) has one job, and it’s not winning. That job is develop these young kids and help turn Cousins into the All-Star he could/should be.

Best Line-up:

Vazquez - pg     McLemore  -sf      Cousins - c

Thornton - sg    Patterson - pf    6th - Thomas

 

New Orleans Pelicans

Head Coach - Monty Williams

I know you’ve been dying to talk Pelicans, so let’s get into it. The New Orleans backcourt looks as messy and as talented as any in basketball. Eric Gordon returns from injuries and can be a big-time scorer, while Jrue Holiday was thought to be the new face of the 76’er franchise. He was an all-star last season, which makes this trade absurd. Austin Rivers, a 1st round pick from last season, can play either position for periods of time, although he’d love to just be a scorer, but that’s not going to get him on the floor. He needs to pick up things defensively if he wants to stay on the floor this year. A good pre-season has helped the chance of him playing more this season improve. He's had a great summer and has taken steps in the right direction.

Tyreke Evans comes in from Sacramento and can play any of the guard spots or the 3, where he’ll probably end up getting the most time. Evans improves this team 100% with his versatility and scoring ability, plus he’ll make the Pelicans a fun team to watch run. Anthony Morrow has also been known to score points in bunches at the 2 or 3.

Anthony Davis comes back this season and heads a pretty big front court. While Davis isn’t a huge scoring machine, he has the tools to become a complete player someday, while his defensive skills are already better than any of his teammates. Speaking of defense, don’t say that word to loudly around Ryan Anderson. Anderson is a big time shooter and another scorer, providing another option most teams don’t have. The Pelicans still have Jason Smith and Al-Farouq Aminu as very talented options. The sky is the limit for Aminu, who’s still developing his game. New Orleans also drafted Jeff Whitey out of Kansas, who could give them some minutes down in the post.

Best line-up:

Holiday - pg     Evans - sf     Davis - c

Gordon - sg      Anderson - pf    6th - Aminu

 

Denver Nuggets

Head Coach - Brian Shaw

The Denver Nuggets had an incredible 2013 season. Everything seemed to go right, well except the play-offs. There was no one superstar that stood out, it was a complete team effort, and made for some of the most exciting basketball in recent history. They had the 2nd longest winning streak in the NBA and didn’t have a LeBron or a DWade on their roster. Head coach George Karl could do no wrong. That was then. This is now, and now features a new head coach (Brian Shaw) and a lost to free agency All-Star shooting guard (Andre Iquodala).

So the big reason the Nuggets are so successful is because of how big they are. JaVale McGee is an athlete freak, despite his weekly Shaqtin’ A Fool appearances. McGee can jump out of the gym, block shots into the crowd, and dunks like a madman. That’s it. That’s his job. He doesn’t really have a great low post game, which is why playing him at the 5 doesn’t benefit you much unless its run and gun, which is the Nuggets game. Denver decided to use Kenneth Faried at the 5, a smaller version of 1992 Shaq. At 11 points, 10 rebounds a game, Faried was a dunking machine. He grabbed rebounds like old school Dennis Rodman, and played with an energy and intensity many opponents just weren’t ready for. JJ Hickson comes into Denver, capable of playing the 4 or 5, making the Nuggets even more of a solid dunking, shot-blocking machine. Danilo Gallinari missed the end of the season with an injury, however he was the team’s 2nd leading scorer. At 6’10 he’s always a match-up problem, plus he’s probably the team’s best shooter. Add Darrell Arthur to the mix and you have one big, tough front line.

Make no mistake Ty Lawson makes this team go. As the team’s leading scorer, Lawson is one of the league’s fastest point guards, and on a team that loves to run that’s a huge bonus. He’s developed a solid three point game, and showed tremendous leadership during the play-offs.

Plus it helps to have veteran leader Andre Miller backing you up, giving the Nuggets arguably the best pg tandem in basketball. Questions arise in who will play the 2, as current Nuggets options are all solid bench players. Wilson Chandler can do it, however he came off the bench last season. The Nuggets would love for Evan Fournier to finally develop, as he’s shown tremendous skill, plus adding the versatile vet Randy Foye helps them tremendously with their 3 point %.  But for now the job lies with Chandler. Is he capable, can he play unselfish enough to not take the ball out of Lawson and Gallinari’s hands? The Nuggets also signed Nate Robinson, who had a tremendous year off the bench playing the role of DRose for last year’s Bulls team. Robinson is not a starter, however, and gives you much more of a boost off the bench.

Best line-up:

Lawson - pg     Gallinari - sf      McGee - c

Chandler - sg     Faried - pf     6th - Hickson/Robinson

 

Phoenix Suns

Head Coach - Jeff Hornacek

The Suns are in trouble. Gone are the days of Thunder Dan, KJ, or Tom Chambers. There’s no Larry Nance nor Charles Barkley leading the post game. Infact, there’s not much of anything really. And that’s the question that needs to be answered early on for the Suns. Who will take the lead and be the Suns go to guy? They are hoping it’s Eric Bledsoe. Brought over off the bench from the Clippers, the suns ae counting on Bledsoe’s display of talent when filling in for Chris Paul to help lead them back in the righ direction. Bledsoe showed signs of superstardom in limited minutes, and the word of mouth about his game has been off the charts. How that plays out for an 82 game season we’ll have to see. Expect Bledsoe to be matched up with steady point guard Goran Dragic. Dragic was the only truly consistent thing about the Suns last season, and will be counted on to do the same. Trying to keep up with the Suns guards will be interesting, as they have some of the more versatile players in the NBA in PJ Tucker and Gerald Green. Who steps up and gets playing time will be a season-long experiment.

Even more questions arise in the front court. Emeke Okufor is a solid center. His defense is incredible when he’s healthy, and he loves to rebound. But the Suns drafted Alex Len, who by all accounts, is the more talented product. But his time will come. Channing Frye has returned from some heart issues that had him miss last season entirely. Playing these two together could be interesting as Frye is a great 3 point shooter, while Gorat is big enough to command a double-team. The Morris twins are finally together again, which hopefully means they’ll get production from both instead of just one. The Morris boys can play the 3 or 4 and played well together in college.

A reunion may be just what the doctor ordered. Miles Plumlee is still developing but is a great center for the Suns style of bball. PJ Tucker’s energy and hustle could have him playing a lot of minutes at the 3 and 4, as he helps tremendously on defense as well.

Best Line-up:

Dragic - pg      Green - sf       Okufor - c

Bledsoe - sg      Mar. Morris - pf      6th - Frye

 

Memphis Grizzlies

Head Coach - Dave Joerger

You really have to convince me this team got better somehow. With no major additions, a new coach, and nothing to show from the draft, how does this team keep up with the elite in the Qwest? Admittedly your frontcourt is bad, bad news. Defensive player of the year Marc Gasol along with Zach Randolph…yeah that’s a problem. Add long-armed shooter Tayshaun price and you’ve got yourself the best defensive threesome in basketball down low. Kosta Koufas was the starting center for most of the year in Denver, and playing him at the 5 could move Gasol to the 4 on occasion, a very scary thought. Koufas had a very good year in Denver, and should only improve playing with Gasol. Look for Jon Leuer to play a much similar role to last’s year. He’s a big body who seems to be getting better the more he plays. Ed Davis could be key if he fulfills his potential. Davis could be just what the team is looking for to fill in spots next season.

Mike Conley and Jerryd Bayless are back, along with Tony Allen. The Grizzlies got a drop dead shooter in Mike Miller, stealing him away from the Heat. Quincy Pondexter also returns, making their outside shooting game much improved from last year. Whatever the Grizzlies get from rookies Franklin and Calathes will be a bonus. Defensively this team should be very good, but offensively they could look as ugly as a pig in make-up.

Best Line-up

Conley - pg      Prince - sf      Gasol - c

Allen - sg       Randolph - pf       6th - Koufos/Bayless

 

Utah Jazz

Head Coach - Tyrone Corbin

This is what a youth movement looks like, people. The Jazz will be in the draft next year, hopefully with a high pick, maybe a franchise-changer. If you are a Jazz fan appreciate the growth in your team this year, watch as players get better, and that once in a while surprise big win they get every other week or so.

Gordon Haywood will be relied on for scoring. He’s the team leader, lines up at the 3, but can play the 2 if Corbin decides to get big and play Marvin Williams at the 3 instead. Williams started a lot at the 3, and with no proven shooting guard this is a logical option with the game on the line.

Trey Burks was brought in to be the new point guard of the franchise. Burke is a proven winner with unlimited talent. There is no solid back-up for Trey, as John Lucas III shoots more than he’ll ever pass the ball, so it’s all on Trey. Brandon Rush was the NBA’s best 3 point shooter at one point, and with some actual minutes under his belt who knows what he can do. This opening will also let Alec Burks finally get some minutes.

He’s shown potential in the past and finally his time could be here. The Jazz also added Richard Jefferson to the roster, who could play either the 2 or 3. If Jefferson claims the 2 job that would greatly benefit the Jazz.

The Jazz need something from Derrick Favors. He’s been given enough time to hide behind Al Jefferson and Paul Milsap, but those days are over.  If he falls short Jeremy Evans has also been looking for his moment in the sun. The same goes for Enis Kanter. Kanter has shown great potential, and finally being a starter could bring in the big numbers most people are expecting. Andris Biedrins comes in to back up the center position. Not the best post up center, nor is defense his thing, but he can run.

The Jazz are in the hunt for a point guard while Burks recovers from surgery. Not a good way to start the season.

Best Line-up:

Burke - pg     Haywood - sf      Kanter - C

Jefferson - sg      Favors - pf      6th - M. Williams

 

Los Angeles Lakers

Head Coach - Mike D’Antoni

Believe in the Lakers. Ok, well, you can only believe for so long, but it’s hard to imagine a Kobe Bryant team falling on such hard times. It all started with Dwight Howard, who clearly was a cancer to the LA system. He destroyed chemistry and left a distasteful residue with the organization they are still recovering from. Call it good/bad timing with Kobe returning from injury. Sure he’s coming back, however a determined and motivated Kobe is the deadliest mamba of all.

The Lakers need a trade. They need a power forward like Miley Cirus needs an STD test. As of now they are playing Jordan Hill next to Pau in the starting line-up, which is fine, but matched up against high quality power forwards in the league, not a good match-up. Think of Hill as a poor man’s poorer Horace Grant without a jump shot. He can rebound, you don’t need to run any plays for him, and he’ll clean up garbage around the rim, but he can only play for so long. Gasol will be the starting center, with Chris Kaman coming off the bench. This is great news, if both weren’t injury prone and old. However it plays well if healthy near play-off season. It would be nice if rookie Ryan Kelly developed into anything during the season as he has a tremendous versatile game that could help, however he’s still recovering from foot surgery and hasn’t even put on a shoe during training camp. When he’ll be available is anyone’s guess. Once again, this team needs another big man!!!

What the Lakers lack in size they make up for everywhere else. Steve Nash is hungry to prove he’s not done. He’s motivated to have a “Nash-type” year, which at one point meant holding up an MVP trophy. The Lakers will limit wear and tear on Nash by having both Steve Blake and the re-discovered Jordan Farmer on the roster.

Farmer did a remarkable job backing up Deron Williams last season and could be just what the doctor ordered. Still in his 20’s and a good shooter, Farmer is very familiar with how the Lakers run. He’s bff with Nick Young, who is comes back home to LA as the starting 3. Young is hungry, aggressive, and extremely talented, probably one of the best running mates Kobe has ever played with.

Young can be a big-time scorer, and will take some of the pressure off of his teammates as he has no problems shooting. Jodie Meeks also returns, a streak scorer who plays well with Kobe.

It will be very curious to see what if/if anything the Lakers get out of Robert Scare and Elias Harris. Anything at all they can give you at the 4 would be great. They same goes for Wesley Johnson. Johnson has not lived up to any of the hype he got before he was drafted, and has under-achieved in two NBA stops so far in his short career. He still can score and has a ton of potential, unfortunately he’s already banged up early in pe-season. Xavier Henry has yet to develop, yet he could be the key to a good season. He was sitting on the end of the pre-season bench un-noticed when he broke out in game 1 for 29 points, and has maintained a good scoring average since coming off the bench. 

Best Line-up:

Nash - pg     Young - sf       Kaman- c

Bryant - sg      Gasol - pf      6th - Henry/Hill

 

Minnesota Timberwolves

Head Coach - Rick Adleman

If you’re a fan of the NBA then you love watching the Wolves play ball. They are a quick, in your face, big shot-taking, fight for every rebound, awesome passing team. This team is based on which Kevin Love comes to the arena. An injury-plagued 2013, if he plays anything like he did in 2012 then the Wolves are going to the play-offs. Love can score inside and out, and no one can rebound with him down low when motivated. Put him next to surging center Nikola Pekovic and you may have the league’s best center/power forward combo. Pekovic continues to get better and stronger, while butting up impressive numbers each season. The problem comes in the back-ups. Besides Ronny Turiaf, there is no other true big. If Robbie Himmell makes the team he’s only 6’8 and coming off 2 knee injuries. Chase Budinger is the next biggest at 6’9, but he plays the 3. Derrick Williams has the same issues at Budinger (except Budinger always seems to be injured, just like he is at this moment), which is good if you wanna play an inside outside game with another big man, but that doesn’t happen too often. This also brings into question, who’s starting at the 3??

Corey Brewer is a long-armed defender with solid skills, but not starter skills. But he’s a great defensive short minutes starter. Shabazz Muhammad is on the roster. He could get some time as he’s an amazing talent, or he could sit the bench because he’s such a headcase. If he gets his head on straight he’s got way too much talent not to find somewhere to play on the floor. They Wolves also brought in Kmart from Oklahoma City. Martin is a solid shooting guard and a tremendous upgrade at the guard position.

The fun comes with the point guards. We all know Ricky Rubio is a human highlight reel. How far his ceiling goes is up to him, but right now he’s a steady great passing point guard, and should be 100 percent after last season. JJ Barea comes back as the fiesty back-up known for making tough lay-ups and getting up in opponents faces.

Gritty, tough….just what this team needs. Also what the team needs is solid back up guard Alexev Shved. Shved is a tough guard who provides scoring off the bench, capable of playing either spot. Dante Cunningham also is on the roster

Best Line-up:

Rubio - pg      D. Williams - sf      Pekovic - c

Martin - sg       Love - pf      6th - Budinger

 

Portland Trailblazers

Head Coach - Terry Stotts

Rip City is filled with potential. There’s so much untapped talent and youth….you can literally see the “what if” signs above the arena. Lets start in the backcourt and work our way up, shall we?

Damian Lillard was easily the best rookie the NBA had last year. Can he carry a franchise? Probably not, but he’s a great lead option on a team filled with great options. Having Mo Williams as a back-up is a brilliant move for a young team needing veteran leadership. The same goes at shooting guard. Wesley Matthews is a veteran guard who plays well with Lillard. He’s a good defender and can score, however the Blazers are hoping 2013 draft pick CJ McCullom will be the future at the 2. He’s super athletic and a good scorer, yet he’s still young, and currently rehabbing a broken foot. Matthews is a great bridge til he’s ready.

Nic Batum returns at small forward, and he’s a solid player who’s game needs to elevate if the Blazers want to do anything in the West. Dorell Wright was signed in the off-season, an athletically-gifted 6’9 forward who can run, dunk, and shoot the 3 very well. The Blazers were desperately in need of a real center, and while Myles Leonard is a quality scoring center with a bright future, defensively he’s nowhere near what the team needs. This changes with Robin Lopez coming to town. Williams put up 11ppg/9rpg as a starter in new Orleans last season, and should clog up the post instantly.

This could be the year Thomas Robinson breaks out. After a very weird, well-traveled rookie season, Robinson is motivated to make teams start taking notice of what they missed. He makes for a great back-up to LaMarcus Aldridge, who if healthy, is an elite power forward. Aldridge finally gets the defensive help he needs along with a bench that can take a lot of the load off of him late in games. Rip City gets deeper and defensively better, along with bigger…..man, what if???

Best Line-up:

Lillard - pg      Batum - sf      Lopez - c

Matthews - sg      Aldridge - pf       6th - M. Williams      

           

Dallas Mavericks

Head Coach - Rick Carlisle

Oh boy, this is not what rebuilding looks like. It’s more like a team trying it’s hardest to hold on to some sort of hope that they are just a couple of pieces away, and the mavs are not a couple of pieces away.  You can keep trying to patch up holes with boxes, but the pieces just wont fit very well. What does that mean? Well read along…

There’s no part of Dirk Norwitzki that should be in the post banging for rebounds, unless he wants to, and trust me, he doesn’t. Dirk would much rather be one of those  old small forward dudes, barely playing defense, running…ok, jogging down court hitting screens to get open to shoot because he has the all clear shoot whenever sign. Unfortunately the Mavs already have a bench full of those guys, and their power forwards are all under-sized, well at least compared to Dirk.

Playing at center are Samuel Dalembert, Bernard James, and Fab Melo. Dalembert is durable center. He’s not going to blow you away at any point, but he will fill clog up that post, grab some rebounds, foul hard, and change some shots. Bernard James also does the same thing to a lesser degree. He’s still learning the game and isn’t as talented as Dalembert, but there’s potential there. Fab Melo is…well, until prove otherwise about a season away from the And 1 circuit.The Mavs also have Brandan Wright, who should be the starting 4 but can play a lot of the 5. You will see Wright on the floor during some of their better line-ups.

So the Mavs signed DeJuan Blair away from the Spurs. Blair works hard. He’s a big body who shoots a high percentage and hustles like a mofo for rebounds. But he’s a bench player. Same goes for Jae Crowder, who plays more 3 than 4. Also undersized and not starter material. Remember those guys I mentioned already playing Dirk’s spot? Well one of them is Shawn Marion. Shawn will probably get the starting nod only because he plays better defense that our 6th man, Vince Carter. Neither guy are the same player they were a decade ago…hell, they aren’t even the same players they were 2 years ago. But there’s still talent in both. VC can play 2 or 3, while Shawn can play more 3 or 4.

The point guard situation got a solid answer fima;y with the arrival of Jose Calderon. Jose is like a poor man’s Steve Nash, which is perfect for a team like Dallas. Picking up Devin Harris was also a huge move, as Devin is a solid guard, who can play either position in a pinch. He’s starter worthy, but having him as an option on the bench is a tremendous plus. Unless this season goes straight to hell you will not see Shane Larkin. Who you might see a bit of is Gal Mekel, the Israeli league MVP. Mekel may stick just because of his shooting ability alone.

While the biggest signing in my opinion may be Calderon, its hard to argue that Monta Ellis isn’t the best signing of the summer. Ellis is a big time shooter who can handle the ball well. His addition takes a ton of scoring pressure off Dirk, and easily makes the mavs one of the better backcourts in the league. Wayne Ellington is a solid back-up guard who will get minutes on hard work alone.

It’s hard to tell just which may the season may fall with this team. If healthy and shots fall they have enough talent to make the play-offs and even possibly get out of round one. But that’s if every ball falls right.

Best Line-up:

Calderon - pg      Carter - sf        Wright - c

Ellis - sg       Norwitzki -  pf     6th - Marion/Harris 

            

Golden State Warriors

Head Coach - Mark Jackson             

Steph Curry spent the end of the 2013 season and the play-offs showing the league why he could be one of the league’s best guards in the next few years. Dropping 50 in the garden, an incredible play-off run, you couldn’t stop Curry. Look for more of that to be on display this season. This season Steph has a true backcourt running mate in Andre Iguodola, who wil be counted on by Mark Jackson for more of he defense than offense. Iggy loves to run and can score, but he’s so athletic and easily one of the team’s best defensive players. Currently Tony Douglas is the back-up pg, he’s ok…he can shoot the 3, likes to run, but is he a starter if Curry goes down? No.

Klay Thompson is the league’s best shooter, outside of Curry. Thompson could start at guard too, but he’s built for the 3. Thompson is ready to put up big numbers, as he’s in the perfect system to just let it ride every night. Now here’s where things get complicated….Harrison Barnes comes off the bench to play the 3 or the 4. The Warriors are small, always will be small, but for a team that runs and shoots the ball so well a back-up like barnes isn’t so bad. Then again, last year’s back-up in the post was Carl Landry, and Mark Jackson would kill for another Carl Landry.

All-star David Lee is back and healthy, same goes for center Andrew Bogut. Lee will feast in an offense like this because he’s not asked to do much but rebound. Everything else you get from him is extra, and luckily for GSW he has a little jumper, can run very well, and can score a bit. Bogut is better than advertised. Before he got that major arm injury Bogut was one of the top centers in the East. Even an average Bogut playing for the Warriors is better than 75% of most centers in the West. Jermaine O’Neil was brought in to back-up Bogut, a very high quality back-up if he’s healthy.

Filling out the rest of the roster are  Draymont Green and Kent Bazemore , both versatile, not game-breakers, but their contributions throughout the season can’t be measured.  Mareese Sprieghts was brought in for more beef in the post. GSW aren’t as deep as they were last season, so they need to be healthy if they want to do anything this season. And if they are healthy by play-off time the deadliest thing you want to see is a team that can shoot like the Warriors.

Best Line-up:

Curry - pg      Thompson - sf      Bogut - c

Iggy - sg        Lee - pf       6th - Barnes  

         

San Antonio Spurs

Head Coach - Greg Popovich

It’s ok to say it now, one bad coaching decision lost the Spurs, the best team in the NBA last season, the NBA championship. It’s ok, the team is back mostly a full strength here to try it again. Last season Tony Parker was just untouchable.. He was the league’s best point guard by far. Cory Joseph and Patty Mills are respectable back-ups as a pair, mostly because the Spurs play great team ball. Ginobilli is back as the 6th man, and is a good ball handler, which takes pressure off the back-ups if parker does go down. And if Ginobilli misses any significant time again no worries the Spurs signed Marco Belinelli.  No systems fits belineli better than the Spurs. After a strong season Danny Green proved in the play-offs that he is a guard that needs attention. He could start at the 2 or the 3.

Kawhi Leonard is the teams most athletic player, not to mention their best defensive player. His ceiling is high and you can’t hide him on the bench anymore. Unfortunately he’s not big enough to play 4, which would really help,  but hey, what team doesn’t need a great 3 man. Sam Young is a great average player to have on your team. Nothing spectacular, just a good player. Same goes for forward/center ff Ayers. Corey Magettee has been making a great impression in pre-season. He gets to the free throw line a lot, which Pop loves. Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw are also back this season to take turns playing both post spots.   

Thiago Splitter made huge strides last year, finally getting a ton of minutes starting. He’s a good steady center who works hard. As for the franchise, well Timmy had a rebirth last season. Pop knew just when to rest him, keep him healthy and rested, and Timmy came through with a remarkable season. They’ll need more of that this year to repeat their run at the top of the West. The Spurs did prove that when healthy and at their top game they could beat anyone, including Miami. Maybe just a few smal adjustments will get them back to the top.

Best Line-up:

Parker - pg     Leonard - sf     Splitter - c

Green - sg     Duncan - pf     6th - Ginobilli          

 

Houston Rockets

Head Coach - Kevin McHale

Let’s just get into it: The Rockets have the most interesting guards in the league. I think people were expecting “Linsanity” to take over last season, and instead should be happy with an average point guard who needs to dish more than try and take over. If Lin understands his role, and it sounds like he just might now that harden and Howard are around, then he can be a very dangerous option. He penetrates well and can hit big shots. But put pressure on his shoulders and he’s a turnover/defensive liability problem. Patrick Beverly comes in not afraid of anything. He’s got nothing to lose and plays very hard, which is why he gets so much time. The fact that Aaron brooks just sits on the bench as just an option is scary. Brooks is a very good player, and a great person to have if one of your guards goes down. Now you’ll match any of these guys up with James Harden, who is fighting his way to the top of the NBA’s to shooting guards list.

Harden is trying to show he’s one of the NBA’s elite, and winning this season would help plead his case.

Chandler Parsons is the man behind “whats causin’ all this“. Chandler openly recruited Howard to come to Houston, and his game has taken off each season he’s been in the league. After a great play-off run, Parsons has even more confidence in his game and is starting to play like it. Reggie Williams, Francisco Garcia, and Ronnie Brewer are versatile back-ups that can all play the 2 and 3. Each brings something different to the table - Brewer is best defensively, Williams can shoot and get to the rim the best, while Garcia handles the ball better and has a great outside shot.

The question has been who will be the starting power forward? Terrance Jones is spending the pre-season proving his case the hardest, as he’s worked so hard this off-season and put up good numbers so far. Greg Smith was steady last season, but nothing overly impressive. He did his job, and he’ll contribute in many ways. Omir Casspi needs a bounce-back season. He’s a good shooter, but seems to get lost when it comes to post play and rebounding. Marcus Camby is injured again, but he’s more or less another coach anyways.

Omer Asik had good numbers last season as the starter. He monitored the post and pushed and shoved anyone or anything that moved out of the post. He’s generally upset because he thought the starting center spot was his and he played hard to keep it. And then Dwight Howard arrives to town. Plans change. Donatas Motiejunas shouldn’t be ruled out of the race to be power forward. Danatas has respectful numbers last season, however his taken off this off-season. He was the MVP of the Las Vegas summer league and playing like a giant dragon on an island filled with smurfs. If he doesn’t start he’s a great option to back-up the 4 or 5.     

As for Dwight, well I never believed in Superman, and after what hes done in Orlando and now LA, I doubt I ever will. Now that he’s finally got his wish its definitely put up or shut up time for Mr. Howard.                                       

Best Line-up:

Lin - pg     Chandler - sf      Howard - c

Harden - sg      Ross - pf      6th -  Beverly/Asik   

        

Oklahoma City Thunder

Head coach - Scotty Brooks 

Things have changed a bit for the Thunder. Gone are the high-scoring shooting guards of the past. Around for this ride are a bunch of “what if’s“, “let’s hope“, and ’he needs to step up”… The Thunder are hoping to get a much better season out of perry jones, as well as Hasheem Thabeet. They also brought in big steven Adams, officially making them the tallest bench in the world. With Russell Westbrook still on the sidelines for a while, the Thunder need reggie Jackson to keep playing at a high level until he returns. Derek fisher can also run the ship until Westbrook returns, but if they want to contend in the play-offs they’ll need a healthy RW, nothing less.

Thabo will stick as the starting shooting guard. He fits this team like a glove, and defensively he’s the best guard on the team. And now we get to Jeremy lamb, who a lot of weight falls on this year. He had a great summer league, and will be given the time to show what he’s got. Ryan Gomes was brought back from God knows where. He can play the 3 or 4 as he’s big enough, while still having quality skills. He’s a good bench player to have as he will produce for you somehow. He’s much like Nick Collison, who plays the 4 or 5 off the bench. Solid defender, solid player, can start in the post in a pinch.

Do you really need to talk about KD? I mean, he’s KD. He needs to carry this team, ala 1990’s Jordan and stop deferring to other players.

Kendrick Perkins did a lot of looking in the mirror lately and accepted that he needs to step his game up and get right. Still a solid center, the Thunder need more from him than some of the awful numbers he put up in the play-offs. There’s also the expectation that serge Ibaka is ready to step up as the 3rd or 4thscoring threat on the team. Serge could elevate his game and his team by becoming more of threat with the ball, something he’s been working on. Expect Ibaka to pick up some of the slack while Russ is gone.

Best Line-up:

Westbrook - pg     Durant - sf       Perkins - c

Sefolosha - sg        Ibaka - pf      6th - Lamb

 

Los Angeles Clippers

Head Coach - Doc Rivers

Let’s take this position by position: Chris Paul is the man that’s not secret. He’s the 2nd best point guard overall in the league and has been given the weapons to really show off his skills. LA native Darren Collison has come home to be the back-up. Darren needs to sit back and learn how to lead, and he’s with two great leaders in Rivers and Paul.

JJ Reddick just got injured. That’s fine, he’ll be back soon. JJ is one of the league’s best shooter, and if you haven’t noticed, being wanted by the best team in the West has given JJ a ton of swagger. He’s walking around these days like 2Chainz. Willie Green will take a lesser role now that the team has added a shooter like JJ, but he’s still a capable defender and scorer. Reggie Bullock got drafted out of UNC and has some serious game. He’s a long-armed defender which Doc loves, not to mention he gets to the free throw line and he can shoot. Unfortunately for him there’s JJ and Jamal Crawford in front of him. Many felt like Crawford had a all-star worthy 1st half, and as the league’s undisputed best 6th man, he gives the Clippers crazy firepower.

Jared Dudley has a stranglehold on the 3 spot. Dudley’s game keeps getting better, and so does his jumper. He’s become a good shooter, along with his athletism, and that’s something the Clippers lacked last season. You will also see a lot of matt Barnes. Rivers loves what he brings defensively, and he’s still moving very well.

Blake Griffin needs to come out and play up to the superstar billing he’s gotten in the past. He needs to develop more offensively, become more of a weapon, cause a double-team, taking pressure off Paul and opening things up more for the shooters. This team will only go as far as Griffin develops. Antwain Jamison comes into the perfect situation. This offense is made for him, and as the back-up for Blake expect Jamison to get enough time to stay healthy, but enough minutes to be productive. Lou Amundsen is a good post to take up space on the bench. He works hard, that’s all we can ask.

Ryam Hollins and BJ Mullins are bought 7-foot long-armed whackers. They will hit you if you come into the post. They will make their lay-ups and put-backs, look to block shots, and foul the crap out of you. They are the less-developed product that was DeAndre Jordan, solid back-ups but not long-term starters. Jordan however, keeps getting better. He’s with a coach that will push him to get better, not to mention he’s determined to become something more than a big dunking shot blocker.

Doc rivers is the kind of coach who gets the best out of his players mentally and on the court. Let’s see if guys like Griffin, Jordan, and Paul all take heed. The Clippers have enough talent to make it to the finals, but are they mentally ready for it?

Best line-up:

Paul - pg      Dudley - sf         Jordan - c

Reddick - sg      Griffin - pg      6th - Crawford

And the D. Rose era part II officially starts NOW.

With the opening of media day for the Bulls you quickly learn just from the tone of many of the players that they not only can't wait to start the season, but have a huge chip on their shoulder. Quickly overlooked as one of the best teams in the league, it wasn't that long ago that the Bulls not only had the NBA's best player, but also the best record in the NBA. Even though the lost Rose to a knee injury all of last year, the Bulls still sent two players to the 2013 All-Star game, while having one of the better records in the Eastern Conference. On any given night the Bulls proved they could beat anyone, and often times seemed just one player away from taking their place among the elite. This is where all the D. Rose hate comes from...but as proven by many other athletes who have rushed back too soon after an injury (hey fantasy football league owners, how's the RGIII pick working out for ya right now?) sometimes its better to be safe than sorry. When many critics or so-called experts speak of who the best teams in the league are right now the Bulls are generally not one of the first teams mentioned. And that my friends lies the motivation for potentially a very exciting season. That else did we learn from media day?

Derrick Rose looks like the bigger, stronger version of D. Rose. Maybe its from doing some insane work-outs in LA this summer, or scrimmaging with ninjas and dragons (don't ask) in China, or maybe its from hitting the weights every day for the past two years. Whatever the case Rose made sure he got much stronger to avoid all those nagging injuries he got getting hacked while driving strong to the basket in the past. Plus when you're a little insecure about your legs after an injury, well you wanna make sure they are strong, healthy, and bigger than ever. And by the looks of things it might take Shaq himself falling of Rose to cause injury. He looks so much stronger than in the past, which, combined with a much improved 3 point shot, and that stealth-like quickness, its bad news for the rest of the league.

"I'm going to play the same way," said Rose at the start of media day. "The only thing that has changed is probably my jump shot, that I can shoot a little further. But the biggest thing is my confidence level. I'm way more confident in my game and in my craft.

"I worked the whole year, trained my body a whole year, and going out there and showing people that I'm the same player, a more efficient player, that's what I'm trying to prove.''

Just who will be your starting 2??? here lies the question of the Captain and the Butler. D Rose feels so much more comfortable running with Captain Kirk Hinrich, mostly because Kirk took care of Rose his rookie season. He's un-selfish, loves to play defense, and provides a veteran comfort level that Rose can appreciate. He also can shoot the ball well, which also gives his teammates confidence in him. The problem comes in the emergence of Jimmy Butler. Generally a 3 who can play the 2 according to match-ups, Butler proved at the end of last season and in the play-offs that he's hungry and ready for more. You couldn't get him off the floor in the  Miami series, and his defensive game took major strides toward All-Star worthy. Butler's game improved so much that Richard Hamilton and Nate Robinson both took a back seat to him in the play-offs, and became completely expendable this off-season whenButler showed he could knock down the corner 3 without hesitation. It's a matter of chemistry however, as Rose and Butler have never been paired together in a game so it's unsure just if they can work together. But with both's aggressive court nature it will be fun to watch and see what happens.. Oh btw, guess who Butler spent most of his summer in LA working out with?

Luo? Are you still with us? The Bulls announced that they will not be talking future contract until season ends with Luo Deng, the team's starting small forward and 2nd best player. This causes issues, many, many issues. First of all you don't need this type of media headache all season. The last thing Deng needs to be worried about is his contract all season. Plus, let's be honest, Deng is your 2nd best player and consistently best defensive player. Despite being banged up a lot the past two years, he rarely missed any games, and it took a damn spinal tap for him to miss those! For a team that doesn't offer many true scorers eliminating Deng from the equation so fast is not a good start, unless you plan on trading him.

How are the bigs? Playful, cranky, healthy, zen'ed out, skinnier....you decide which is which. The team is looking to take some of those heavy minutes off these guys by signing another big soon, besides center Narz Mohammad.  Joakim Noah comes into camp healthier than ever, no longer dealing with the foot issues that have plagued him the past 3 seasons.

"I'm 100 percent healthy and I'm so excited for this year," Noah said. "We've got a lot of work to do, but I feel like this is our time."

The talk of the afternoon was the possible addition of 6'9 forward Indiana product D.J. White coming into training camp, while last year's free agent signee Malcolm Thomas and Dexter Pitman will also be fighting for a spot. Thomas had a good summer camp, but let's see if that translate over to the regular season. The Bulls will also bring former Duke star Dahntay Jones, Kalin Lucas, and Patrick Christopher. They will need to sign just one more player to make the league requirement.

Did we rebuild the bench mob? Not quite, however it could be consistently one of the better bench's the team has had. Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich/or Jimmy Butler will be the first faces you see off the bench, along with free agent signee Mike Dunleavy jr. Hinrich can play the 1 or 2 easily. Dunleavy is a big dude. Like 6'9 big, and you don't realize that until you see him. Being able to play the 2 and 3 , plus with his size I'm sure a little bit of 4, Dunleavy provides help for a struggling 3 point game. Last season he hit a career high 43% of his 3's. Nice! The Bulls were one of the league's worst 3 point shooting team last season, yikes. Mohammad comes back as your back-up for Noah, and anything the rest depends on the youngsters.

What youngsters? Are the rookies really going to play? Again, the Bulls were one of the league's worst 3 point shooting teams, so they made sure to find some aggressive players in the draft who can put the ball in the basket. Tony Snell is an aggressive 2/3 who can shoot very well. While much won't be made of him, look for the rookie from Florida Erik Murphy to be a huge surprise this season. Not only can he bang down low but has surprising shooting range the team loves. Murphy mad waves in summer league and could be a big boost down low. Speaking of summer league, point guard Marquis Teague needs to make his stand this season as well. Teague looked out of place last season, however a strong summer has given the coaches some optimism that he could spell Rose a lot more this season. But the Bulls aren't completely sold on that, which is why they are looking to bring in some guard competition from Roger Mason jr, Mike James, and Chris Wright.

We'll get our first glimpse at part II of the D. Rose era and the 2013 Bulls on Oct. 5th as they open up the exhibition season on the road against division rival Indiana.

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