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Chicago Bulls / NBA

Chicago Bulls / NBA (66)

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

Let's get into it, shall we?????

SACRAMENTO KINGS

Head Coach – Mike Malone

We are in the “Age of Aquarius” for the Kings, as they officially have a long-term home (staying put in Sacramento, for now), a new arena, and a bunch of young, talented players ready to grow and mature into superb NBA players. Whether that growth happens this year or even as members of this Kings roster is a huge question.  As for now, all questions about this team begin and end with the name DeMarcus Cousins. Fresh off a medal-winning summer, and many, many hours with coaches like Coach K and Coach Thibs of the Bulls, it will be interesting to see which DeMarcus shows up this season. Will it be a freshly matured, well-behaved team leader, or the guy full of immature antics, un-fulfilled promise, and 12 year-old behavior tendencies. Give him this much, he has matured to a point as where once upon a time back he would have decimated any guy that elbowed him like he was hit this summer, UFC style. Sure a near brawl almost broke out at the end of the game, and sure you could see his fist balled up and body all coiled up, ready to strike….but he didn’t. That’s a good sign. Also a good sign is Cousins coming into camp in the best shape of his career. We aren’t talking Derrick Coleman/only 15 pounds overweight great shape of his career, but actually IN SHAPE! Cousins put up averages of 23ppg and 12rpg from the center position last season, and could improve on those numbers as he is clearly the primary source of scoring for the Kings. Realizing he’s just about the most talented big man at the center position, he needs to take advantage of this. But again, it all starts with maturity. The Kings have another player on the edge of stardom in Rudy Gay. RG1 and Cousins spent the summer playing together, which should help their chemistry, as well as play style. While Gay is a good player, in the past he threw up way too many shots, generally sticking to the awful isolation breakdown play which routinely ended up in bad mid-range shots that went everywhere but in the basket. A summer spent with other superstars and great coaching may fix that, as pressure is off of gay to prove himself as the man on this team.

Filling out the rest of the line-up should be interesting. Who starts at point guard? Darren Collison was brought in as a replacement to Isaiah Thomas because he’s stronger defensively (ok, sure, nevermind the 15ppg difference between the two), yet 2nd year guard Ray McCallum came on strong at the end of last season and had a very strong summer league. Not  only might he compete for  a bigger role, but ultimately win the starting position outright. However collision is a much better in-game leader and will probably get the nod. Another thing holding McCallum back will be the signing of Ramon Sessions, a veteran guard who can score for point guard positions. Also a big question is who starts at the 4. Currently starting is the talented and athletically-gifted Derrick Williams, who performs well if given lots of floor time. However, he’s a little too small to handle taller NBA 4’s and doesn’t give you the defensive and rebound effort this team really needs at that position. Jason Thompson could, but he’s needed more as a back-up 4 and 5. And then the log jam begins…Reggie Evans and Carl Landry, both another year older, slower, virtually similar offensively-challenged yet off the chart hustle and rebounders. Landry could give the team a big lift, as he needs a big rebound from last season’s disaster of a season. The Kings signed Eric Moreland off his performance in summer league, and could find himself spending more time with the big team rather than the Kings’ D-League affiliate.

At 6’9 Moreland showed great rebounding skill while defending the basket very well. He’s a above average shot-blocker for his position, yet his offensive gave mimics Thompson, Evans, and Landry. But his youth and shot-blocking ability could keep him around. Also returning is Omir Casspi, who has the size, but is much better as a role player. Rounding out the crew of misfit toys is Ben McLemore and Nick Stauskas. Both lottery picks, both with high expectations and explosive offensive games, who fits where and how is a huge question. McLemore had a very interesting season, very up and down. He never lived up to the expectations that come with being as high of a draft pick as he was, but he’s young and the team went through a lot of line-up issues, playing with or behind a struggling Marcus Thorton.  Given some team consistency he could develop into a solid shooting guard, and help make up some of the points gone with both Thomas and Thorton. Stauskas also brings a very interesting game to the table. He’s smart, athletically gifted, and can shoot the ball well, but is he capable of guarding true NBA shooting guards and small forwards? Is he athletic enough? Does he have the scoring capability that McLemore has shown? Guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Line-up:

PG – Collison                       SF – Gay                    C- Cousins

SG – McLemore                 PF – D. Williams         6th – Stauskas

 

Minnesota Timberwolves

Head Coach – Flip Saunders

They should just rename this team the Timberlakes already….just my opinion. Anyways in the land of 10,000 lakes and his royal purpleness , Prince, the Wolves took a huge step in the right direction in trading Kevin Love. In getting number 1 pick Andrew Wiggins it gives the team a lot of excitement, especially when teaming him with last years’ number 1 pick Anthony Bennett. Bennett has gotten in much better shape and had a solid summer league, which could make his minutes at power forward more productive than he did in his time in Cleveland. Neither are finished products by a long shot, but it gives this franchise the needed boost of optimism and excitement desperately needed. The Wolves also had their own draft pick this year, taking the extremely athletic  Zach LaVine. Also a far from finished product, LaVine doesn’t even have the game of either  Bennett nor Wiggins, yet there’s a ton of potential there for this youngster to grow. His game could be something special, or he could just be another average dude in the dunk contest. Besides being called the best athlete in the 2014 draft, the more interesting thing about LaVine comes in that many think he has point guard capabilities, and might get some looks in the 1 spot.Hmmmm, interesting. The Wolves also feature a slew of young role players in big 6’11 Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, Chase Budinger, and Glenn Robinson III. What if anything they can contribute will be helpful, but it’s their veteran core that’s really their strong point.

Let’s talk about the R & R Express. Ricky Rubio isn’t the super exciting, flashy 20 point scoring point guard many envisioned years and years ago.

What he has become is a solid 10ppg 9apg who is coming off a season-ending knee injury in 2013, played every game in 2014, and grabbed 2 steals per game. Plus he’s got a new shooting coach to help him become more of a threat from long distance. He’s getting better year by year, and remember, he’s only 23 years old! Plus now you’re teaming him with some young, athletic finishers???? Nice! Rubio has a solid guard to help his development in Mo Williams, who can also play with as long as behind Rubs. Plus JJ Barea is still around. And while many people are ready to just hand over the starting shooting guard job to Wiggins, please remember that last season starting guard Kevin Martin averaged 19ppg. Sitting behind him is the always scrappy Corey Brewer. Brewer is a versatile guard/forward who plays good defense and has developed a small offensive game. Getting these two off the floor will be difficult, which will give Wiggins some room to learn and adapt. Same can be said for Bennett, as Thaddeus Young was brought over from Philadelphia. Young’s game has already developed and he puts up solid numbers at either forward spot. The big man at center Nikola Pekovic is a tough match-up for most teams. 17ppg with 9rpg, he solidifies the 5 spot, however he has yet to play an entire 82 game season. With his back-up, the youngster Dieng still developing, the Wolves brought in Ronny Turiaf to give them some protection around the basket.

Line-up:

PG – Rubio                      SF - Wiggins                   C – Pekovic

SG – Martin                    PF - Young                     6th – Bennett

 

Utah Jazz

Head Coach – Quin Snyder

Rebuilding is the word used a lot around two places in sports these days, the Chicago Cubs and the here in the Utah Jazz organization. In an organization primed with youngsters who are, wanna be’s , can be’s, and might be’s, the Jazz have been slowly gathering pieces, hoping they work out, hoping they mess with other valued pieces, or hoping the development of those players doesn’t take a decade to happen. The franchise has made Gordon Hayward the face of the organization, and while he may not have reached superstar status yet as far as winning or numbers put up, the Jazz are counting on his development and leadership to be the biggest influence on the team. Hayward is a lead by example guy. So far he’s been the model example. But in order to move on this team needs more.

The “more” part comes in how point guard Trey Burke and guard Alec Burks keep growing. Burke had a pretty successful rookie season. It wasn’t rookie of the year numbers, but 12ppg and 6apg isn’t anything to sneeze at.

It is very interesting the Jazz used their 2014 lottery pick on Dante Exum, a super athletic point guard by trade that many are truly curious about. He’s got an unknown skill set, and being so young his development could take a few seasons to come around. That’s what happened to Burks, who finally got some seasons and some time on the court to finally get his game together.

The Jazz also grabbed Rodney Hood from Duke, a small forward with good shooting range and a solid NBA body built for the rigors of NBA battle. Plus grabbing sharp-shooter Steve Novak as a long-range threat doesn’t hurt. He’s a good guy in the locker room and on the bench to help mentor young players.

Where the team needs its biggest development is in the post. Derrick Favors has so much potential and its finally starting to show. With no veterans ahead or beside him to rely on, Favors has had to step up and play like a man. Favors is on the verge on being a double-double guy and locking down the power forward position for many years to come. Playing besides him these days are Enis Kanter and Rudy Gobert. Kanter is another player who just needed time and patience to get his game together. While he’s still got a ways to go, it’s a start. Figuring out how and when to shoot will help, as when Kanter takes more than 10 shots a game the team suffers, even more the poor rim suffers. Things may change as Rudy Gobert will be looked upon to get more minutes. His performance this summer was unexpected as well as inspiring, and if he can translate that to the NBA season then look out.

Line-up:

PG – Burke                   SF – Hayward                  C – Kanter

SG – Burks                   PF – Favors                      6th – Exum/Hood

 

Phoenix Suns

Head Coach – Jeff Hornacek

Impressed by those 48 wins last season? Well don’t fret, you won’t have to worry about that this season, as you can fully expect the Suns’ star to come crashing down hard. And it won’t be for lack of talent. Talent-wise, the roster is filled with young up and comers, and kids with a huge upside in front of them. Unfortunately a much more talented Western conference is in front of them, and this mess with Eric Bledsoe won’t help matters in any way (unless he gets traded for a talented swingman). So let’s talk about the “Suns of Anarchy”.

Goran Dragic is the main cog in this machine. A solid 6’4 point guard who seems to be getting better and more of a leader with each season he gets comfortable, the teams offense runs around him. Not through him, but around, as he’s the guy who keeps things moving and steady. Not a superstar, don’t look for any 50 point games from him, but his steadiness and leadership is something that any team could use.

The Suns are attempting to keep him happy by signing his brother Zoran, as Goran will be a free agent next season, but don’t look for him to go anywhere. Plus is Zoran makes any impact this season it will be impressive as he’s competing in a crowded backcourt. The Suns drafted Tyler Ennis as a guard of the future. He can play the 1 or 2 right now (more 1 than 2) but he’s got “right out the gate” talent. The team then signed Isaiah Thomas during the off-season.

Thomas is a small point guard with big game scoring potential.  I guess now is a good time to talk about the other starting guard, one Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe is one of the most exciting players in the NBA, however just how happy will he be in Phoenix as he didn’t get the kind of contract he wanted, yet the Suns did re-sign him to a good deal. When healthy Bledsoe brings with him wins! The team plays so much better with him in the line-up, and he gives them scoring no other guy on the roster can give them. Gerald Green can play the 2 or 3, but again isn’t a superstar, and his minutes may drop with all these talented guards on the roster, including the developing Archie Goodwin and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Safe to say this team would give their left arm for a shooting guard or small forward over 6’6 in height.

PJ Tucker is a do-everything hustle machine who likes to hoist up 3’s. Great. He’s also the team’s emotional and locker room leader, and just may be the heart and soul on which a non-defensive team is built upon to hustle and actually play defense! He fits well with Anthony Tolliver, who is also another big man who shoots 3’s. In fact of all of the shots Tolliver took last season only 60 of them weren’t 3’s, and we’re talking almost 400 shots taken! They both better be ready to step up as they will have to make up the points gone with Channing Frye’s departure. Frye may have suffered of defense and hustle, but he was a shooting gem for the Suns. The more exciting news comes in the post with the Morris bros. While Marcus develops into a solid NBA forward, it’s Markieff who’s taken advantage of the moment and stepped up. He is closing in on consistent double-double numbers and should lock down the starting 4 spot for years to come. The main competition he’ll have will be from draft pick TJ Warren, who was a beast in summer league. The great news is with these 3 big men there should be no issues. Speaking of big men, mentioned earlier were Tucker and Tolliver, but also add another draftee Alec Brown to the mix. Brown joins Alex Len ad developing big men at the 5 spot, both who’ll sit behind the vastly improving Miles Plumlee. Miles showed why many feel he could be the best player out of the Plumlee clan (he has two other tall, gifted brothers, one in the NBA and the other at Duke) and won’t have such a log jam of post players in front of him this season. Plumlee needs a breakout season if this team is to get anywhere near that 48 win total again.

Line-up:

PG – Dragic                   SF – Tucker                  C – Plumlee

SG – Bledsoe                PF – Morris                  6th – Thomas

 

Los Angeles Lakers

Head Coach – Byron Scott

See, I believe in yesterday, much like Paul, George, Ringo, and that other dude did. And yesterday, the Lakers were a good team. They were always contending, a lock for the play-offs, and had one of the NBA’s best players. This was a given. Jack sitting courtside, Diane Cannon and her huge hair going crazy, cheering….Arsenio sitting courtside doing whatever it is Arsenio does. Ah….yesterday. Golden banners with championships flying high…hey, wasn’t Byron Scott on some of those teams?

 Well Scott is back with the Lakers, this time as head coach. Yesterday is just a dream now, but the future isn’t too shabby. Might have a few nightmares in between (the D’Antoni era for one) but things are looking better, starting with the healthy return of the Black Mamba. But let’s focus on B Scott. If you remember despite his numerous firings from badly mis-managed franchises, Scott is a very good coach. He’s an even better coach with a talented roster, and believe it or not there is talent on this roster!

Let’s start from the bottom this time (thanks, Drake) and tell you about the post. Despite all the rage Carlos Boozer was just another rat caught in a cage last season in Chicago, a cage that apparently didn’t allow defense in it. You can still expect the Booze-cruise to knock down that jumper and give you a solid rebounding effort, but he’s not the player he once was. Even still, Boozer is a great fit for LA. His personality and leadership will be a big boost for the Lakers and their fans. And despite his limited defensive efforts in Chicago, his game may get the appreciation its been missing the last few years. Because Boozer only gives you half a game, this will give 2014 draftee Julius Randle a lot of time to develop and get plenty of minutes, much like the Boozer/Gibson combo did in Chicago. Randle is the future, and will have time to watch and play behind the veteran Boozer. If you’re wondering who’ll play the 5 spot, well so is the rest of the Lakers organization. Jordan Hill will get the start by default. He’s a solid NBA role player at the 4 and back-up 5, but not made for primetime. There is hope that signing Ed Davis will turn into a huge steal for the team, as he’s young enough and big enough to grow into the position. His game has steadily gotten better year after the year, and this could be his chance to show that he’s more than an NBA lottery bust. Robert Sacre and Ryan Kelly are also solid reserve big men who’ll give you all of what they have. Kelly has shown the most potential of the two, as he’s s got quite the jumper and a quick step, despite numerous foot injuries. Plus he’s easily the best shooter/scorer of the group. While not the solid NBA-sized center the team is looking for, Kelly could be a great fit with his shooting, adding another wrinkle to the “hard in the paint” game of Boozer and Randle.

There’s nothing to be said about Nick Young that numerous highlights and lowlights of last season can’t already tell you. He’s…unique. He’s got game, no question, he’s even got a hot girlfriend. But the Swag daddy may need to do be a bit more serious about his game this year with the mamba returning.  Now Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry were big surprises last season, and hopefully they’ll continue to show that same growth from last season. Both could flourish under new coach Scott. Steve Nash isn’t the MVP point guard he was years past, as bringing in a little “Lin-sanity” to LA could help take some pressure off his declining game.

What Nash has left is yet to be seen, but he deserves a great send-off to a magnificent career with a solid, healthy season. The team also has high hopes for Jordan Clarkson. See, lots of talent on this roster. Sure it’s not off the charts dream team material, but its stil a good roster.

None of that matters if Kobe isn’t healthy. None.  Nothing.  Zilch. Nada. Everything in LA moves as Kobe does. Over-achieve, under-achieve…nothing. This team will go only as Kobe does, and if it has to move itself lord help them.

While they won’t move to far, as the West is pretty frickin’ good, a dream season for this roster would see them competing for a play-off spot.

Line-up:

PG – Nash/Lin                 SF – Henry                       C – Davis

SG – Bryant                    PF – Boozer                      6th – Young

 

Houston Rockets

Head Coach – Kevin McHale

I’m calling it now, welcome to the world of the also rans, Houston! Since when does a franchise’s run at success get determined by the loss of two non-superstar players? When those players provide many of the intangibles that lead a team to many of the wins they have achieved in the past, well then yes. See, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons weren’t superstar players, but what they gave the team on and off the court can’t be made up by small moves. And replacing them won’t be an easy task, as now you’re asking your superstars to do more, while asking players who’ve done less to give you much more. Is it possible? Sure. But with the moves the Rockets made this off-season, I’m betting against it.

So Patrick Beverly officially has taken over the starting point job. That’s great. He’s got a lot of heart, and defensively he’s a beast. He drives other guards crazy. He’ll need to shoot the ball better, and learn that he has teammates to pass to, as he is among the worst player’s in the NBA as far as assists go. Jason Terry will also test what’s left in the tank this season. He can play both guard spots, but can he still hang with the bigger, stronger, faster guards like Rose, Westbrook, Paul, etc??? Isaiah Canaan has the back-up job for now. He’s a good shooter, a much better shooter than Lin was, so this could be there only upgrade in a weird way. Speaking of upgrade, Troy Daniels will get significantly more minutes this season. He’s also a big time shooter/scorer, and will be relied on heavily in whatever minutes he can take away from James harden. While harden is still a top 5 guard and tremendous scorer, the only thing people will remember about him from the summer is his ungodly defensive effort. There might as well have been a chair on the court playing in his place while on defense. But he is a franchise piece of this team, and can carry then to at least 25 to 30 wins. As far as the rest of the guards, Francisco Garcia is on the roster, as is Nick Johnson.

Johnson could spend a lot of time in the D-league, however he’s amazingly talented and athletic, has NBA game, and probably the only guard on the roster outside of Beverly who knows what defense is.

Trevor Ariza has been brought in to replace Parsons, and it won’t be easy. A very capable replacement, but he can’t give you what Parsons could. Great defense, good shooter, good finisher, he’s built on grit. Where as Parsons could blow games open with above-average scoring ability, Ariza will fight and scratch for points and respect the entire game. As the saying goes, there’s easier ways to win games, and the easy way just went to Dallas. Robert Covington could be a huge boost off the bench this season, as he’s big enough to play both forward positions, as well as being a great shooter. He was the d-league rookie of the year, and if the Rockets plan to do anything this season they will need a guy like Covington to step up.

Terrence Jones is their starting 4, and will need to improve on his numbers from last season. He needs to become more of a stronger, steady presence in the post, as well as develop more of a long range shot to compete in the West. D-Mo had a really good summer and is expected to really bring his game up this season. Big enough to play the 4 and 5, Motiejunas will be pushed to carry a much larger role than past seasons, as the only other back-up center is Joey Dorsey.

Speaking of the center position, Dwight Howard will have to truly carry the franchise on his back this year. Gone are the cast of super-friends he came into last season, this year it’s truly a Batman/Superman movie. Now going with the movie theme, the Batman/Dark Knight trilogy was very successful (in Oklahoma City), yet the Superman movies and the reboot seemed to struggle. Sure the last one was successful, but wasn’t fulfilling. Hopefully this next Batman/Superman idea lives up to the hype. We are expecting the development of new key characters, yet the focus will still be on the stars. And let’s face it, it’s still Superman’s show.

Line-up:

PG – Beverly                  SF – Ariza                      C – Howard

SG – Harden                  PF – Jones                     6th – Motiejunas

 

Memphis Grizzlies

Head Coach – Dave Joerger

Poor Dave Joerger has to deal with one the craziest owner in sports, and that’s saying something considering what’s been going on with NBA owners in the past 12 months. In any event, The Grizz have put together another roster of scrappy veterans and young hopefuls to plug in the holes left by dreams unfulfilled of play-offs past. Facts are as good as the Grizz are they do not have enough talent to get them through the glass ceiling.

They are always going to be good but not great, play-off contenders but never conference winners. The ability to change that can happen, maybe with a trade, a great draft pick, but with this current roster another year of good not great seems to be in the cards.

Getting solid production and good shot selection out of any guard besides Mike Conley will continue to be an issue. Conley is rounding into a solid NBA point guard if not potential All-Star.  But the drop off from Conley to their back-ups is remarkable. Beno Udrih and Nick Calathes could both see lots of minutes in the backcourt, with the hope their defense and shooting skill takes a big step forward this season. At the other guard spot will be Tony Allen (hustle, defense) and Courtney Lee (shooting….probably). Allen seems to be getting better offensively as he gets older, which would be a great match with his defense, and bringing in Lee for his shooting ability could be a boost. Lee’s numbers have dropped off is recent years, but maybe he can gain some sort of comfort with his new teammates and find his stroke again. Jordan Adams is also around, but may not be able to crack the rotation. He’s got great shooting range and is a good scorer, but breaking through the 2 or 3 spot won’t happen unless disaster strikes.

Speaking of disaster, when your line-up features Vince Carter and Tayshaun Prince as the starter and back-up small forwards on your team you can bet opposing stars like KD or LBJ are just licking their chops. It’s not 1997 anymore, younger legs may be required. Still the Grizz are betting on the veteran experience to come through and keep the ship from sinking despite the holes being found in the boat. Quincy Pondexter has shown that he can knock it down from long range, but he’s not in their long term plans as a starter, which is why tweeners Earl Clark and Michael Beasley were brought in. They are both very athletically gifted, but their careers have been so up and down, whatever you get from them will be a positive, at either position. Clark is so long and athletic and can give you so many thing offensively and defensively, while Beasley…well, there’s too much potential there. The game comes easy to Beasley. Can this be the place where we see his rebirth?

Zach Randolph is the centerpiece of this franchise. That’s fantastic, but he finds himself beat down and beaten up as a lot of the load is thrust upon his back. A quality back-up would be a great idea, but instead Jon Leuer has that role. While Leuer is an ok forward and can hit the 3, he just doesn’t give you anything close to the presense Z-Bo does. There is a hope within the organization that rookie Jarnell Stokes could fill that role and make an impact, but that’s TBD so far. The Grizz do have one of the league’s best centers in Marc Gasol, along with a decent back-up in Kosta Koufas.

The Grizz started last season horribly and had to play catch-up all season long. If they are to stay in the crazy, Western conference race they need to get a good jump out the gate early.

Line-up:

PG – Conley jr.            SF – Prince             C – Gasol

SG – Allen                  PF – Randolph          6th – Carter/Lee

 

New Orleans Pelicans

Head coach – Monty Williams

This is a very interesting team. They are so young, so talented, so much potential, yet seemed to get derailed by injuries last season. But this roster is filled with talent, starting with the big man Anthony Davis. “The Unibrow” has shown that he’s ready for primetime, and could find himself in talks of the NBA elite. Davis has the offensive and defensive game to play either post position, which you’ll notice is a trend on this team. The organization got Davis a huge boost down low with the addition of big man Omer Asik. “The hammer” is a big body down-low who knows his way around the basket, as well as a tough rebounder. Starter material, this team has so much versatility he may come off the bench. Ryan Anderson’s return may be the cause of Asik’s sub status, as he’s returning from a season-ending injury. A new, reborn Anderson can hit the 3 better than most NBA players and gives their post play a dimension very few teams have to offer.

On the other end of the spectrum lies the key to everything. Tyreke Evans is a special player, yet he will miss the first 4 to 5 weeks. Ouch. Jrue Holiday is also returning from injury, while it seems Eric Gordon is always returning from some sort of injury. If these three players can stay healthy for any lengthy period of time the pelicans could be trouble. The development of Austin Rivers and Jimmer Fredette and what they can bring to this team is a big mystery. If the team continue to show injury issues, their play will be counted on even more, and its at a put up or shut up time in their career. John Salmons leads a roster full of role players, like Luke Babbitt, Jeff Withey, Darius Miller, and Donte Christmas.

If they can stay healthy there’s a chance they could make the play-offs. If not, well the 2015 draft should be filled with another top Chicago-area post player (hello Cliff Alexander or Jahlil Okufor).

Line-up:

PG – Holiday               SF – Evans           C – Asik

SG – Gordon             PF – Davis            6th – Anderson

 

Denver Nuggets

Head Coach – Brian Shaw

Denver boast one of the deepest rosters in the NBA. Without question they are a talent-rich team, however they are also an injury-heavy team. Some blame last season’s crash on the departure of George Karl, which is truly possible, but ultimately injuries did them in. The Nuggets go into this season with one of the top backcourts in the West with Lawson and Affalo. Both are very good guards hitting their prime, who can play major minutes if necessary. Luckily this is a roster where it won’t be. Randy Foye proved to be more than capable at either guard position, and the same might be said about rookie Gary Harris. Harris has the potential to be a break-out player in years to come, but for now Denver can afford to take their time with him. Also returning from injury is the explosive Nate Robinson.

Speaking of explosive (and returning from injury) it’s safe to say Denver’s season got off to a really bad start right at the beginning when Danilo Gallinari’s surgery was found to be sucky and he sat out the year. A healthy Gallanari changes everything, as he has tremendous scoring ability inside and out. And while Wilson Chandler is a good player, he can’t give you the intangibles Gallinari gives you (like his extraordinary shooting ability).

Lots of questions come from the post spot, well except one, and that’s mr. Faried. He is a beast and coming into his own. The game seems a lot easier and he looks more comfortable after playing for team USA this summer, and locks down the 4 spot. Now here comes JJ Hickson and Javelle McGee, botH guys over 6’11 who can play (and start at) the 4 or 5. Now because they missed time last season, this gave Timofey Mosgov time to learn on the job, and he performed better that imagined. And then there’s the rookie Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic has game….and over time it could turn into big time game. But because of the log jam at the 4 and 5 he may be given more time to learn and develop on the bench. But make no mistake, when he gets it together the Nuggets will be trouble.

Line-up:

PG – Lawson                    SF – Gallinari                 C – McGee/Hickson

SG – Affalo                     PF – Faried                     6th – Chandler

 

Portland Trailblazers

Head Coach – Terry Stotts

22-4. that’s how “Rip City” got out of the gate last year. 22-4. Many knew it would be hard to substain that pace in a conference so deep with talented teams, and indeed the Blazers did fall back to earth. But they showed signs of what could be, or what could have been. Sticking to the old theory of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, not many changes were made to the 2015 team. Counting on the maturation of players like Myles Leonard, CJ McCollum, Will Barton, and Thomas Robinson, they brought in veteran players to keep the car moving. Steve Blake and Chris Kaman are more than capable back-ups who can give the team exactly what they’ve been lacking depth-wise in the post and on the perimeter. Dorrell Wright has much more to contribute to this team than he showed last season, and could give the team a much-needed lift with his athletism and three-point shooting.

Robin Lopez played every game again last season, becoming a much-needed defensive anchor for the Blazers.

While there are big bodies to give him a rest, it’s the addition of Kaman that will be huge. Wesley Matthews had a solid year at the guard spot, but his versatility and game would be much better suited coming off the bench, while small forward Nic Batum may have peaked offensively, while not getting enough credit for what he does defensively.

But we know who runs this ship. Lillard and Aldridge are the stars of this team, if not stars in general. Both have unbelievable talent, but there seems to be something lacking…a killer instinct missing to want to just take over and be the best. While its hard to question the heart of a player, just how much they really want it can always be brought up, and many times it has seemed if best isn’t something Aldridge is willing to fight for. But with a team so talented, and players with the talent level of both Aldridge and Lillard, it would be hard to stop them if they did.

Line-up:

PG – Lillard                 SF – Batum                     C – Lopez

SG – Matthews            PF – Aldridge                 6th – Kaman/Blake

 

Golden State Warriors

Head Coach – Steve Kerr

Ok Steve, I know what you’re doing, and it’s not going to work. Nope. See, the thing is the team you played on had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. And no matter how much you believe in Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry they are not Scottie and MJ. You can’t just surround them with role players and turn out 6 titles. It would be nice, I’m sure, Luc Longley/Andrew Bogut…who can really tell the difference? But no. Cut it out. Despite what high hopes you have for this team when it comes down to actual talent GSW can’t keep up. But if they can make up for that in superstar play and great teamwork…well that would be something to see.

So let’s talk about the other guys. Shaun Livingston is a 6’7 point guard who can play 3 positions, and really is a great fit for the Western conference and GSW-type gameplay. Great pick up there. What this team needs is the emergence of Harrison Barnes. He has the size and ability to make an average bench into a great bench, but he needs to take charge. Brandon Rush is a great outside shooter, as players like Draymond Green and Marreese Speights scrap and fight harder than most starters on most NBA teams. The team has some serious questions to answer in if they plan to keep undrafted wunderkinds Aaron Craft and James McAdoo around. Both can give the team a huge boost in talent, but can that talent transition from summer league to actually making the big team?

David Lee and Andrew Bogut are still down in the post area, as well as the shooting guard spot being held by Andre Iguodala. All three are great defensive players and solid NBA starters, who mesh well with the Splash bros. Speaking of which, Klay Thompson has a chip on his shoulder. He wants to be thought of as one of the NBA’s elite players and get a huge contract.

Well you can talk about it but Kerr wants him to show it. And the world wants Stephen Curry to show it, as he seems to be coming into his own as not only a star, but a must watch NBA superstar.

Line-up:

PG – Curry                     SF – Thompson                C – Bogut

SG – Iguodala              PF – Lee                            6th – Barnes

 

Oklahoma City Thunder

Head Coach – Scott Brooks

This was a tough one. I find it hard for a team to constantly go into a season thinking no major changes need to occur especially after their season ends tragically every season. Basically the Thunder has said that they are extremely confident they can win an NBA title with Westbrook and Durant. Fine. But that hasn’t happened. You can patchwork a roster together all you want but with more talented players matched up against your developing or less talented players each night, it’s asking a lot of your superstars.

Unless Lamb, Adams, and Jackson have finally made the turn into night in, night out NBA starters or at least starter potential, well the Thunder is just walking in place. While they play a tremendous fast-paced team game, the team is still relying on the same scorers, and needs more baskets from a different source. Adding Anthony Morrow as a long range threat is a huge plus, as its something the team hasn’t had. Plus getting more inutes for a developing Adams and Perry Jones and less for the offensively troubled perkins would be a step in the right direction. But after that it’s just the same old show.

The Thunder will have to have solid healthy years from both Durant and Westbrook if they plan on making it to the finals again. But if there’s any kind of breakdown, well the league has figured out the Thunder, and the end could come sooner than later for their play-off run much sooner than they thought.

Line-up:

PG – Westbrook               SF – Durant                   C – Perkins

SG – Lamb                       PF – Ibaka                   6th – Jackson

 

Dallas Mavericks

Head Coach – Rick Carlisle

I am a believer. Usually teams with this much talent look so good on paper and something happens. Disaster strikes. Injuries. DUI’s. TMZ. Social media. It’s always something. Remember that whole Lakers Shaq/Payton/Kobe/Malone thing? Yeah, it’s always something. And that super-talented team you had so much hope for ends up sitting at a lottery table with the Cav’s owner for another year. Not this year. You see, I believe in the Mavs. I believe in Dirk. I believe is Monta. I just believe dammit.

Now Dirk isn’t the player he used to be. Fine, we all know that. But he still has game. Plus he’s surrounded by a wealth of talent where-in he doesn’t have to carry the whole load. Monta Ellis is one of the fastest guards in the NBA, if not one of the few guys in the league who can drop 40 points on you without a second thought. He’s now got the savvy Chandler Parsons to take double-teams off of him, as there’s no way you can leave both Dirk and Parsons open for shots. Dirk will have plenty of help down in the post with the return of Tyson Chandler, backed up by Brandon Wright. Size and defense - always a good thing.

The point guard position is an interesting one. The team traded for Raymond Felton, while signing Jameer Nelson, and re-signing Devin Harris. How that all pans out, well guess we’ll find out together. All are solid point guards, but who plays what and when and where…oh boy. Lesser questions remain for the rest of the bench as the team signed the versatile veteran Richard Jefferson, and Aminu Al-Farouq, who is looking to be a defensive-minded player in the mode of Scottie Pippen. Jae Crowder also gives the team young legs and explosiveness. The Mavs also brought in forwards Charlie Villanueva, Greg Smith, and Ivan Johnson. How those dominos fall during training camp and early in the season will be a story in itself. All solid big men, but there’s only one ball and 15 roster spots.

Line-up:

PG – Harris/Felton             SF – Parsons                      C – Chandler

SG – Ellis                             PF – Norwitzki                  6th – Jefferson/Wright

 

San Antonio Spurs

Head Coach – Greg Popovich

Understand, just because they aren’t picked first here doesn’t mean they can’t win it all, again. They have proven that “to be the man, you still have to beat the man”, and they have reigned supreme as the man to beat for over a decade now. Popovich is the best coach in the NBA, and gets the most out of a team less talented than most in the league. But his players play his game to a tee, which is why another championship banner will go up when the season starts.

Ginobili, Parker, and Duncan. It starts and ends there. Pop knows just what they can and cannot do at this point in their careers, and it’s remarkable. Parker played at a level that had many speaking his name in MVP talks, while rumors of the Duncan reign of terror coming to an end were sadly exaggerated. Duncan turned in a fine bounce back season, while the 3rd member of the trio stepped up big when they needed him. Manu was excellent at times, especially in the play-offs. What surrounds them is a very interesting group of talent. Danny Green can be your everything one night, and then seemingly disappear the next, much like a boy you meet on a Saturday night in Wrigleyville.  Kawhi Leonard isn’t allowed that luxury, as he’s stepped his game up to become one of the teams’ most dependable players. The same can be said for Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw, who’s career has seen a re-surgence since teaming with Pop.

The rest of the cast consist of “the man known as Belinelli”, who was a great addition to the Spurs last year, as was the play of both point guards Patty Mills and Corey Joseph. Matt Bonner is also back for another go around. The biggest newcomer of the bunch mighty be rookie Kyle Anderson, a big man with swingman game and good shooting range. He’s definitely in the Coach Pop mode, and if he can break in the line-up could give the Spurs more young legs to count on.

If the West still plays it safe and doesn’t step its game up the Spurs could easily run away with the conference title again and another trip to the finals.

Line-up:

PG – Parker                SF – Leonard                C – Splitter

SG – Green                 PF -Duncan                  6th – Ginobili

 

Los Angeles Clippers

Head Coach – Doc Rivers

Well last year sure was fun, wasn’t it? After a more than interesting end of season and summer they just might be ready to actually play basketball again in Lob City. If that’s the case then look out as the Clippers have one of the most talented rosters in the league. The new late show may be taking over showtime in 2015.

Let’s start with the bench, which is lead by 6th man of the year (again) and super-guard Jamal Crawford. Realistically Crawford can play either guard spot, although he primarily is a scorer. Hometown boy Jordan Farmar, brought in for his shooting ability and leadership, makes a great back-up for Chris Paul. Bringing in Spence Hawes was also a great addition. Getting DeAndre Jordan some help down low, as well as being a big man who can shoot will help them dramatically on offense. The bench also has “Big Baby” Glen Davis, who needs to be more of a man and less baby. 

The team has proven they can play with or without him, especially with the additions of Ekpe Udoh and Chris Douglas-Roberts, who give the Clippers added dimensions offensively and defensively, not to mention more size to an already tall roster. Plus don’t count out veterans Hedo Turkoglu, Chris Wilcox, and 2nd year man Reggie Bullock.

As for the starters, Lob City begins and ends with Chris Paul. He’s the man who drives this plane, a superior point guard and leader, if not one of the elite players in the NBA. In the past Paul could carry and lead a team if he had to, but these days he’s given way to the athletic god known as Blake Griffin. Griffin has the potential to be the best power forward in the NBA by far. He’s big, rebounds like a bear, and his scoring has improved steadily. Plus those dunks…..jeez! DeAndre Jordan has also come a long way, getting his offensive game to almost match his defensive skills. Becoming less of an offensive liability, Jordan is one of the conference’s best centers. The Clippers need more from the often-injured JJ Reddick. He’s a great shooter and big time scorer, but that needs to translate more on this team and not what he has done in the past. Matt Barnes is a scrappy defensive pest who can shoot the 3, but would be more served coming off the bench. Until that happens he will do just fine as the starting 3.

A drama-free off the court year would keep things in the right direction, as would a lack of injuries. If the Clippers see a majority of their stars healthy then this could be the year Lob City makes its way into the finals.

Line-up:

PG – Paul                  SF – Barnes                        C – Jordan

SG – Reddick               PF – Griffin                      6th - Crawford

It was all good a week ago...or more like a year ago. At this point before the 2013-2014 season we were knee deep into "The Return",, the Indiana pacers were looked upon as NBA title finalists, and the division featured a rest of young up and comers that the NBA elite would feast on at the botton of the Eastern Conference. That was then, and alot has changed since then....

D. Rose has been injured again, had surgery, and is in the midst of "The Return part II". Milwaukee got a big time draft pick (Chicago hometown kid Jabari Parker), changed ownership and coach, and bet the farm that coach Jason Kidd & franchise player Parker can change their fortunes around. Detroit has new management and a fast rebuild in mind, while LBJ has returned from South Beach in an attempt to bring a title to his hometown. Despite grabbing the number one pick in the 2014 draft, Cleveland is all in on LBJ's return and plan on bringing in Kevin Love to back him up. Any team LBJ is on that has remotely any talent instantly becomes a title contender, especially if that talent is Kyrie Irving. So what about those Pacers?

Well they were already in turmoil when the 2014 play-offs arrived. And getting handled by Miami only created more problems. Lance Stephenson exiting originally had only a good side to it due to his antics and off the court issues, however it now creates more of a hole with the season-ending injury to Paul George. Stephenson was at least talented enough to score. He was a player with heart who could inspire the team. His loss, along with the loss of danny Granger, who would have been perfect in this role without George, tear this franchise apart. So how do the Pacers patch-up an already huge hole?

The Pacers tried to make due with the loss of Stephenson by signing big guard Rodney Stuckey and versatile guard/forward C.J. Miles.  Both have scoring potential and give the team depth, but only on a team with a superstar like George. Damjan Rudez was signed out of from Croatia, he's a stretch 4 with 3 point ability, but his impact in the league is TBD at best. One way to help would to bring in some veteran depth, like former Pacer stars and frontcourt monsters Al Harrington and Jermaine O'Neil. They would fit very nicely with the current rotation of Hibbert, Scola, and West. Harrington could had depth with his shooting ability. Speaking of old Pacers, don't forget Metta World Peace (Ron Artest) is still available. That would be a very interesting return to Indiana in itself.

Other possible free agent options include James Anderson (a shooter, starter in Philadelphia last season) Michael Beasley, Shannon Brown, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Jordan Hamilton, and Jordan Crawford. Crawford would be a big pick-up as he has huge scoring potential. There's also veterans such as Shawn Marion, Ray Allen, Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin, and Lamar Odom sitting on the sidelines. There are no game-changers left, and outside of a shocking trade for Kevin Love, the only other trade option possible to help the club would be for the disgruntled Eric Bledsoe from Phoeenix. He's unhappy with his contract and the Suns and Bledsoe arent getting any closer. A trade for the exciting scoring guard seems like the likely option.

But enough about the team over the border, what about our Bulls?

Trurthfully the idea of signing Carmelo Anthony sounded good, even looked good on paper, but would have decimated the team's roster. The team upgraded on the front court, and a player like Pau Gasol gives them more versatility at both power forward and center, something Carlos Boozer didnt provide. Rose seems stronger, healthier, and from all accounts, better than he was when he was the league's MVP...but its just summer, let's wait and see if they say that in January. But the real surprise may come from the team's draft pick-up, Doug McDermott. Dougie McBuckets was a monster during summer league and played so well he got invited  to play against the the US team this summer. Many think he can win the starting small forward spot outright, and with his scoring ability and shooting he just may do it. A young hungry starting 5 of Rose, Butler, McDermott, Gibson, and Noah may be the best in the Eastern Conference.

 

Not many people saw this coming. Why would they? It was easy to get caught up in the narrative that had been sweeping through the Windy City since January. After a horrible start to the season, complete with another D-Rose injury and the Luol Deng trade, fans in Chicago were treated to a rag-tag team that embodied the blue-collar, hard-working identity that the city prides itself on. The Bulls battled their way out of the depths of despair, and rode their gritty play to an Eastern Conference best 36-16 mark after January 1st. Despite a lack of a superstar player and offensive firepower, the city embraced and started to really believe in this Bulls’ team again. When the playoff seeds were finally set, it was hard to look at the bracket and not see a pretty clear path for the Bulls to get to the Eastern Conference Finals for another showdown with the Miami Heat. They avoided the red-hot Brooklyn Nets in the 1st round, and were set to face the crumbling Indiana Pacers in the 2nd. There was just one key fact that people were overlooking, or were just unaware of: the Washington Wizards are a really good basketball team.

Chicago entered their first round series as an overwhelming favorite despite it being a matchup of a 4-seed vs. a 5-seed. The Wizards’ guards were too inexperienced. Nene would struggle to score against the Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah. They just didn’t have the mental toughness to out-will the Bulls at the end of games. It took just one game for the Wizards to dispel those notions. Beal and Wall were terrific for all 5 games, Nene was almost automatic inside, and the Wizards consistently showed more fight and energy than the Bulls throughout the series. It was jarring to watch for Bulls fans. “I think they knew what we were facing,” said Wizards’ coach Randy Wittman about his players after closing the series. “I told them, if we want to have a chance, we have to be the more physical team.”

“It’s disappointing,” lamented Kirk Hinrich. “That’s the word, disappointing. It always ends too quickly. We did not expect this to be the end. Give them credit, though. They outplayed us in this series.” Mike Dunleavy echoed his teammate’s sentiments: “We couldn’t secure a rebound to win a game. It was like that all three games here. They just beat us down the stretch.” It says a lot about how far the Wizards have come that they’ve been poised and mature enough to finish off games the way they have. “A couple of years ago, with the guys that were here, we never could have won a game like this,” said Coach Wittman after game 5. “Now this team believes in defense, what we do, and how we do it. That is how we won this game. Offensively we were not stellar. We pulled it out, we grinded it out. I’m really proud of those guys.”

Most pundits will point to the Bulls’ shooting woes and offensive droughts as the reason they were bested in this series, and there’s at least some validity to that, but their field goal percentage was only about 1 percent below their regular season average. They did suffer long scoring droughts in just about every game, and struggled with bad turnovers, but the biggest reason for the Bulls early exit was their slow starts. They let the Wizards get out in front in every game and dictate the tempo. It makes it very hard to win when you have to dig out of a hole in each and every game. “I thought for us that was the difference,” asserted Coach Wittman. “In all five games, we had really good first quarters, which got us into the game. We gained control in a lot of the games with the way we played in the first quarter. Tonight was another example of that.” The Bulls trailed entering the 2nd in all 5 games, twice by double digits and were down by 8 in game 5. “When you get in that type of hole, you spend so much energy trying to get out of it,” explained Thibs after the game 4 loss in D.C. “The important thing is to play from a lead, and we did everything you don’t want to do. You get down 14-0 [or substitute scores from games 2 & 5], and you’re giving them great confidence. Then it takes a lot to slow that down.” The Bulls weren’t able to correct their slow starts, and it led to the demise of their season. Just like that, the entire city had its aspirations of a deep Bulls playoff run washed away and replaced by the bitter taste of disappointment, but were our expectations actually realistic? Should we really be disappointed?

For all of the grit, effort, hustle and toughness the Bulls played with this season, they might be the least skilled offensive team in the league. Without Derrick Rose, the only rotation guy really capable of getting his own shot is D.J. Augustin, and that goes out the window when you defend him with length or a double-team. The best scoring big on the roster is Carlos Boozer, who prefers to shoot 12-15 footers rather than go into the post, and when he does go inside he’s as soft as pile of blankets. I’ve never seen a guy with his size and strength be so weak going to the rack. The rest of the team is riddled with offensive shortcomings, from Jimmy Butler’s inconsistent shooting to Joakim’s lack of touch around the rim. The point is, it’s a minor miracle that the Bulls were able to put together the regular season record they did. They lost what many believed were their best two players early in the season. They were forced to turn Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy, guys who wouldn’t see 20 minutes per game on most teams, into starters. They pulled D.J. Augustin off the league scrap heap. On paper, this isn’t a playoff team. If you told me in October that this is the roster the Bulls would finish the year with, I doubt I’d have expected much more than 30 wins. We were spoiled by what the Bulls did this season, and we shouldn’t let a premature exit from the playoffs dampen our view of how special this season really was.

“I’m proud of the team,” said a reflective Coach Thibodeau after the series concluded. “I thought they gave us everything they had. There was nothing left. That’s all you can ask for as a coach. This team has climbed out of a lot of holes all year long. We were 12 and 19 and they didn’t make any excuses. They fought as hard as they could and they came up short in the end.” When asked what he’ll take away and remember most from this season, Thibs had this to say: “How they wouldn’t quit. We took a couple big hits the last couple years, actually the last 3 years. The lockout year, Derrick missed half of that season, we fought like crazy that year. He missed all of last season and this season, and then with the trade of Luol…we were 12 and 19, you’re sitting there saying, ‘what are we going to do?’ These guys fought like crazy to make sure we had a good season. When a team commits to playing as a team, playing together and playing for each other, and give you everything they have, there is nothing more you can ask for. A lot of people would have just laid down, and our team didn’t do that.” It’ll be difficult for Bulls’ fans to appreciate the regular season the team put together while the sting of the playoff defeat is so fresh, but the players should leave the season with their heads held high and no regrets.

The Bulls will undoubtedly look different when next season rolls around. There are a number of different directions they could go in. D.J. Augustin and Kirk Hinrich are both free agents. There’s talk of making a run at Carmelo Anthony in free agency, using the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer, and trying to persuade Nikola Mirotic to come over from Spain. Whatever moves the front office makes, the culture that has been built in the Bulls’ organization has them poised for success. “Obviously we were shorthanded this year, but I think we’re positioned well,” asserted Thibodeau. “How we surround Derrick will be critical, and not only Derrick but also Taj and Joakim. We’ll see how things unfold, but I think the foundation is in place. We have great character on our team, and that’s a huge plus. I think that goes a long way.” Hopefully, watching the Wizards advance to the Eastern Conference Finals spot that they had their sights set on will only cause the Bulls’ to come back with more fire and hunger next season. You can be disappointed in how the season ended for Chicago, but don’t lose faith in the Bulls. Their championship window isn’t closed; far from it. It might just be opening.



One missed free throw. That’s what game 2 between the Bulls and Wizards came down to. After 53 minutes of wild momentum swings, befuddling calls by officials, and crazy loose ball scrambles, it was one missed free throw by Kirk Hinrich that put the final nail in the coffin and put the Bulls down 2-0 to the Wizards in their first round series. It was a fitting end, for a team that couldn’t score a point for a stretch of 7:38 in crunch time, to lose because they couldn’t put the ball in the basket when they needed to. The Bulls suffered offensively late in game 1 as well, scoring just 6 points over that game’s final 5:58 as they blew a 13-point second half lead, but they sunk to new lows in game 2. The Bulls were outscored 14-4 over the final 6:58 of regulation to force overtime, and then allowed the first 6 points in the OT session. They just weren’t able to recover in time to pull out the win. It was a game the Bulls had to have, and one it looked like they were going to have, but unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way.

“It feels like we’re a fingernail short every time,” lamented Taj Gibson. “A couple loose ball plays here and there, a couple of tough calls, but you’ve got to just play through it.” For most of the night, the Bulls did play through it. They came out flat to start the night as the Wizards scored the first 7 points and jumped out to a 17-point lead late in the first behind Bradley Beal and John Wall, but Chicago kept fighting and managed to get within 7 by halftime. D.J. Augustin hit several clutch shots as the gap closed and had 14 points by the half. Chicago finally got over the hump and took their first lead of the night with about 5 minutes left in the 3rd, and it looked like they weren’t going to give the lead back as they built it up to 10 points, but then the bottom fell out on the offense. Bradley Beal hit a few clutch shots on some scramble plays late in regulation, scoring 11 of Washington’s final 16 points in the 4th. “He made some big shots for us,” mentioned Wizards coach Randy Wittman after the game. “I was asked before the game if I was worried with what he shot in game one. I always tell our guys: If you’re taking the right shots, I never worry, make or miss. You have to continue to take that shot and take it with confidence. He was very confident tonight. He stayed aggressive and made some big plays for us down the stretch.” Beal rebounded from a 3-of-11 shooting performance in game 1 to score a game-high 26 on 9-of-19 shooting in game 2. Despite his strong finish, it was a Beal missed free throw that set the stage for the most controversial sequence of the night.

With the game knotted at 91 with 53 seconds left in regulation, Beal missed a free throw to start the Bulls’ final possession before the extra frame. Hinrich missed a long jumper with 32 seconds left, but Gibson corralled the offensive board. With just over 10 seconds to go, Augustin missed from 11 feet, and it was Gibson again chasing down the loose ball, this time sprawling out on the floor near the sideline to come up with it. Taj wrapped up the ball, looked up at referee Bennie Adams and yelled “Timeout!” 3 times as Wizards’ forward Nene jumped on top of him and wrapped his arms around reaching for the ball. Adams blew the whistle, and then put his thumbs in the air signaling a jump ball. The crowd was in shock, but not nearly as much shock as Gibson. Things got worse on the actual jump ball. As the ball was tossed up, Nene grabbed Gibson by the arm, held him down and then pushed him out of the way before going up to tip the ball to a teammate. The whistles stayed silent. Even a day later, Gibson is still shocked by the no-call. “He just pushed me out of the play,” explained Taj at Wednesday’s practice. “I didn’t know you could do that. Can you do that? He took my whole arm and just threw me. I didn’t know that was legal. You look at the film and he hits [referee] Joey [Crawford] in the face while he does it, so I don’t know what to say.” If Nene had been whistled for the foul, it would have put Gibson at the line for 2 free throws in a tie game with 10 seconds left, and also would have sent Nene to the bench with 6 fouls. Instead, it was the Wizards who had a shot to win in regulation, but Beal missed a fade away jumper on the baseline at the buzzer.

In the extra session, it was pretty clear the Bulls were rattled by the way they finished the 4th. Their offense was rushed and their shots weren’t dropping. The Wizards scored the first 6 points in OT, and seemed to have the game won when John Wall knocked down 2 free throws to make it 101-95 with just 42 seconds left, but the Bulls made one last push. A quick bucket by Joakim and an offensive foul by John Wall on the ensuing inbound gave Chicago new life. Noah nearly had a 3-point play opportunity on the next play as he was fouled going to the rim, but his shot was just off the mark. He did hit both foul shots and the Bulls had trimmed a 6-point deficit to 2 in just 8 seconds. The defense clamped down at the other end, got a miss from Beal and called timeout to set up the final play. On that final play, Kirk Hinrich found a lane to the basket and managed to draw a foul on Nene with just two seconds left, but like Noah moments earlier, he narrowly missed connecting on the shot to set up a 3-point play. Needing both free throws, the air went out of the building when Hinrich missed the first one. He missed the 2nd on purpose, but the Bulls were unable to secure the rebound and the buzzer sounded. “I went up there thinking I was going to knock them down,” commented Kirk. “Tonight, I just couldn’t do it. However, I really felt like I should have made the layup.” Hinrich was a 76% free throw shooter during the regular season.

“It’s really disappointing,” said Augustin. “It’s a tough loss. I feel like we played hard and I think we all left it out there on the court, and just not to get the win really hurts you.” It’s a tough pill to swallow for Bulls’ fans, but the team now has to head to Washington for 2 games trailing in the series 2-0. It would be easy to blame the loss on the officials, especially with the way Nene assaulted Taj on the jump ball, but that would be a cop out. The Bulls lost this game because they couldn’t score when it counted most. The Wizards’ defense was surprisingly stingy, and they showed some real grit and mental toughness to not fold when they were down by 10. “I think we did a great job staying calm and composed,” mentioned John Wall. “Early in the season, we would get rattled and guys would try to make plays one-on-one on their own. Tonight, we trusted in our offense like we’ve been doing.” If the Wizards aren’t going to get rattled on offense, the onus will be on the Bulls to find ways to keep scoring. They won’t be able to just build a lead and rest on their defense, which is what it feels like they’ve been trying to do.

The Bulls spent all season relying on their offensive balance to keep defenses guessing, but the Wizards haven’t been fooled. When the Bulls offense is humming, they usually have 6 or 7 guys in double-figures and a high assist number. In game one, they had 7 guys with 10+ points but just 13 assists. In game 2, the assists came up (23), but the balance disappeared. Only 4 Bulls reached 10 points, and bench guys Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin were the top 2 scorers, at 25 and 22 respectively. Augustin was the only Bull putting pressure on the Wizards’ defense, but Washington found a way to slow him down with Trevor Ariza late in the game. “He’s so long,” mentioned D.J. “It was tough to score on him, even to get open. I think it was a good strategy by them.” Thibs and the Bulls didn’t find a way to counter Ariza in game 2 and it cost them dearly. They’ll have to make adjustments in game 3, or this series might not make it back to Chicago. The problem with that is that Thibodeau seems stubbornly committed to his closing group. When asked how to fix the late game offensive woes, Thibs made no mention of personnel: “The fourth quarter and overtime are going to be different. The intensity of the game changes during that time. You’ve got to be ready to respond. You’ve got to screen better, you’ve got to make quick decisions, and you’ve got to make plays.” One reporter asked if he’d consider changing rotations for the next game, and Thibs was noticeably bothered by the question. “We look at everything,” he answered and then muttered loudly to himself “Unreal.”

Thibodeau’s attitude at the postgame presser makes it pretty clear he doesn’t plan on mixing things up as far as the rotation goes. It’s going to fall on the usual group to play better. The biggest key to game 3 might be how Jimmy Butler plays. He was a non-factor in game 2, and can’t be again in Washington if the Bulls want to win. Butler played all 53 minutes and scored just 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting and struggled to contain Beal down the stretch. That won’t cut it next game. Carlos Boozer had a brutal game on Tuesday too, but he doesn’t play nearly as many minutes as Butler, and he doesn’t play much if at all in the 4th. The pressure will be on Jimmy to step it up. He’s capable, but with the amount of minutes he plays, who knows how much extra juice he has in the tank.

The Bulls are in a position they’ve been in before. They’ve been through a ton of adversity over the past couple years but they’ve shown an enormous amount of resiliency along the way. They’re down and just about counted out, but they’re not going to throw in the towel just yet. “It’s the playoffs; it’s a twelve round fight,” asserted Gibson. “Nobody’s really knocked out right away.” Coach Wittman knows the Wizards still have some work left to do to make it to the 2nd round. “Nothing is guaranteed,” mentioned Wittman. “We’ve got 2 wins, you’ve got to get 4. We have to continue to understand why we won these games and how we went about doing it. In game 3, we have to play harder and with more intensity.” It’s easier to say that when you’re up 2-0 than to actually go out there and do it. The Bulls will be fighting for their playoff lives on Friday night at the Verizon Center. It’s always tough to match the intensity of a team that desperate, especially one with as much playoff experience as the Bulls have. It’s going to be a dogfight, and one I expect both teams to be ready for. “We understand going on the road and playing with that ‘dog mentality,” commented Taj, “and now we have to go and play with that same ‘dog mentality that they came in here and played with. First things first, we’ve got to go get one.” If they don’t get that one, it’s going to be a long summer for Chicago.

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.

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