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20 in 20: What must Thibodeau do for success?

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20 in 20: What must Thibodeau do for success?

Friday, Sept. 10, 2010
2:22 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

A historic summer for the NBA has passed and for the Bulls, while they didn't acquire quite the star power many expected andor hoped for, optimism runs high, both within the organization and throughout the team's fan base. With the offseason coming to an end, the time to fully delve into the upcoming NBA season is here. Instead of a traditional season preview, issues both throughout the league and in Chicago will be probed daily here on CSNChicago.com up until the squad officially convenes for training camp toward the end of September.
3. What does Tom Thibodeau need to do to turn the Bulls into a contender?
There's no baseline for how Thibodeau, in his first head-coaching job since he was at Salem State in Massachusetts -- back before star player Derrick Rose was even born -- will fare. However, it's fair to assume the Bulls will have more of an identity than they did during the last two seasons.

That's not a shot at former Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro (who should be better at game management -- for various reasons, most notably having some experience under his belt -- among other aspects of coaching, with the Clippers), but as management referred to during both the hiring process and Thibodeau's introduction to Chicago, he's basically a basketball junkie, who, after years of being an understudy, has formed an idea of what he'd like to with his own squad. And of course, there's the defensive mindset everybody mentions when describing "Thibs," who is regarded as the architect of the current Boston Celtics' stout defense and has been closely involved with the defensive stylings of Jeff Van Gundy's teams in the past. In short, this is a very serious man who will put his nose to the grindstone and instill the same type of mentality in his players.

At the same time, he's basically a novice. The Bulls, as currently constructed, aren't a team composed of authority-challenging knuckleheads, but after experiencing at least a modicum of success -- whether in Chicago or in previous stops -- the players are conscious of what they feel constitutes the characteristics of a successful team. For the most part, they are a group that shares a strong work ethic, a single-minded devotion to winning and an ambition to be taken seriously as a true NBA contender.

In Rose, the face of the franchise and a hometown product, Thibodeau will have a prodigious and remarkably humble star to work with. One of the primary criteria he'll be judged upon is whether he can help develop Rose's game -- the mental aspect superseding the physical, as his gifts and weaknesses are so clearly evident and only his personal aspirations can control what he's capable of doing on the floor -- and take him from a youngster with vast potential to a league-wide, transcendent superstar.

Depending on whom you ask, Rose was either not given enough direction or was kept on a leash far too short during his first two NBA seasons. Regardless of whether he was put in the right situations most of the time, his game evolved to the point where he can be considered a legit go-to guy (remember when there was a "debate" last season about whether he could and should take over games?) and at the very least, a leader by example.

Now, his maturation process must continue with him developing from a point guard by nature of his position into a true floor general, who controls the game even when he's not putting up gaudy numbers. One would assume playing alongside the likes of Chauncey Billups for USA Basketball this summer will help speed up that growth, but it's one thing to sublimate your game when playing with a team of stars and quite another to do so for 82 games with your actual team. Thibodeau will share that burden, especially on the defensive end, an often-overlooked shortcoming that should probably be focused on as much as his outside shooting, particularly when one considers Rose's physical tools to be a strong defender.

While Rose's progress will be examined closely -- as mentioned, his natural skill development will take care of some things on its own -- perhaps more important, with Thibodeau's defensive background, is Joakim Noah's role. When evaluating the Celtics, point guard Rajon Rondo's quickness and ball pressure get the lion's share of individual attention, but the gambles he takes wouldn't be possible if it weren't for having the likes of Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins in the paint to erase some of his mistakes.

Like the Boston duo, Noah isn't necessarily a Dwight Howard-style shot-blocker, but his length, presence in the paint and adept help defense certainly anchored the Bulls' defense the past two seasons. As lauded as the now-departed Kirk Hinrich was for his defensive effort on the perimeter, Noah was Chicago's most important defender, as was evident during the Bulls' skid in his absence.

Noah won't have to be sold on defense -- or rebounding, for that matter -- but as a young player, he can still be further molded into more of a force, the type Chicago hasn't seen since the Dennis Rodman days. Conversely, his continued offensive development will be key.

While new addition Carlos Boozer is a pretty well-rounded offensive player, Noah -- an underrated passer, even without being a major scoring threat -- is likely to be Chicago's best interior passer, something made even more important with Brad Miller gone. Rose racks up assists by virtue of his outstanding dribble penetration and Boozer is sure to draw at least the occasional double team, but Noah's court vision and ability to find teammates out of the high post will open things up for slashers like Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer, post players Boozer and Taj Gibson and shooters like Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson. Thibodeau's ability to take the team's vocal leader's game to the next level -- especially if Noah comes back with more refined post moves and is able to knock down the elbow jumper (don't worry about how pretty it looks; by the end of last season, he was able to be a threat from 15 feet out) on a more consistent basis -- will make his debut season in Chicago much easier.

Now, in Boozer, Thibodeau faces a different sort of challenge. Offensively, the Alaska native brings everything the Bulls need -- a low-post scoring threat with the ability to play physically, rebound at a high level and even knock down outside jumpers -- to the table in a power forward. Defensively, however, Boozer's willingness to play with the same type of effort has been questioned -- and that was under tough-as-nails Jerry Sloan in Utah.

Thibodeau, though, has seen this kind of situation before. When the Celtics formed their "Big Three," Ray Allen wasn't known as the most committed defender. Now? Maybe he won't make the league's all-defensive team, but his determined effort against some of the league's best shooting guards can't be impugned.

While it would be a stretch to say Boozer's job would be in jeopardy if he wasn't a stout defender here in Chicago, last year's starter at his position -- first team NBA all-rookie team selection Gibson -- has already made a name for himself on that end of the floor. Perhaps that will serve as motivation for Boozer, but Thibodeau's task will be to mold him into, if not a standout, at least a solid defender in the team concept.

In the case of Deng, Thibodeau has to be excited. Maybe some Bulls fans don't appreciate everything the product of Sudan is capable of doing (just a few years ago, many observers considered him one of the league's up-and-coming players at his position and even overall), but the long and versatile small forward has plenty for Thibodeau to work with.

With the presence of Boozer, he'll have less weight on his shoulders as Chicago's third option, so Deng's offense won't be the issue. Neither will his defense, even though quicker small forwards will always give him issues. The problem with Deng -- outside of injuries, which are beyond his control -- has been consistency.

Not to overdo it with Celtics comparisons, but prior to the arrival of the aforementioned Garnett and Allen, Paul Pierce -- while clearly in a higher tier than Deng at their shared position -- was viewed by many as a player who showed up when he felt like it, as evidenced by the Celtics' dismal performance prior to the arrival of his fellow superstars. Say what you want about Pierce now -- and I'm sure most Chicagoans will -- but he comes to play, even on days when his shot isn't falling or he doesn't get the touches he feels he deserves.

If Thibodeau can tutor Deng on how to make an impact every night, even when his scoring isn't impacting the game, watch it coincide with increased team success. Not that Deng doesn't do that on occasion already, but with the additions the team made, it will be even more important for him to grasp that concept now.

As far as the team's reserves and role players, they are already tailor-made for Thibodeau. Mature, defensive-minded veterans like Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans, active, live bodies like Gibson and Brewer and players with games catered to specific roles like the sharpshooting Korver and backup point guard Watson make it clear that the Bulls are a well-balanced group -- they could probably use another outside shooter and maybe another big man, but that's another story -- pending chemistry.

Chemistry -- that's the one thing that can't be evaluated before the season begins, particularly with so many new players on the team. It can be assumed that while Thibodeau is known for his defensive strategy, after all these years as an assistant, he probably has developed some theories he'd like to try out on the offensive end, especially with his notorious habit of watching tape (it's likely he caught a few Bulls games here and there, even before he got the job) deep into the night, and it's been reported that he's worked with and observed many of his new players in the Berto Center this offseason, so familiarity is building.

In a few weeks, it'll be time to put everything into action for training camp, then the preseason and subsequently, the real thing. Will the Bulls win a championship this upcoming season, as Boozer suggested is possible? It's doubtful. But with the pieces he has at his disposal and a mind that's been chomping at the bit for this very opportunity, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Bulls challenging for the opportunity in the near future.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

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USA TODAY

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

And here you thought the Bulls wouldn't be competing for anything down the stretch. Yes, the Bulls will miss the postseason for a second consecutive season, and the post-Jimmy Butler rebuild is off and running with a Lottery selection (and potentially two) on the horizon.

And now the race for the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery is on, with 23 to 27 games left in the regular season and a whopping seven teams within 1.5 games of each other for the worst record in the league. The Bulls are currently sitting 8th in the reverse standings at 20-37, 3.0 games behind the league-worst Suns and Hawks. And in what's largely considered a seven-man draft, Fred Hoiberg and the boys have some work to do to improve their chances of moving into the top-5 or top-3 of the draft.

Yes, the Bulls were sellers at the deadline, dealing leading scorer Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans. And they lost eight of their last 10 games before the All-Star Break while promising extended minutes for players like Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and even Cameron Payne. All those signs point to a franchise with a full and clear understanding that losses right now mean much bigger wins in June. But it's not as easy as it sounds. The Bulls aren't the only team looking to secure losses, and those other teams may have easier paths of doing so. Here's why.

For starters, not all these clumped-together records were built equally. Yes, the wins and losses all count the same at the end of the day, but if we're projecting how each team may finish the Bulls are certainly poised to play better than the teams around them. In fact, the Bulls are still playing .500 basketball (17-17) since their infamous 3-20 start. Unsurprisingly all seven teams ahead of the Bulls have worse records, as do the New York Knicks (11-24 since Dec. 8), who are just two games behind the Bulls, have lost eight straight and are without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL). Remember, there are teams chasing the Bulls, too.

The Bulls have a seven-game win streak to their name and won 10 games in December; of the teams with worse records than the Bulls, only the Mavericks have a seven-win month this season.

And let's remember, too, the Bulls have gone 17-17 while missing Zach LaVine in 20 of those, Kris Dunn in 11 others and Lauri Markkanen in three. Those three are all healthy now (LaVine likely won't play in back-to-backs, but the Bulls have just three of those sets left) and while they have an ugly -18.8 net rating in four games, the Bulls are 2-2 with all three on the floor and have losses against the top-seeded Raptors and defending champion Warriors. It's safe to assume Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen will all benefit and improve from playing with one another. And while Nikola Mirotic was a large part of the Bulls' success (they went 14-11 with him in the lineup), the trade has opened up more minutes for Bobby Portis, who's quietly averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds since the Mirotic trade. No, Portis isn't Mirotic, but the dropoff isn't all that significant, especially when considering the defensive end.

What's this all mean? That the Bulls have the best top-end talent of any team in these tank standings, and arguably the most talented overall roster. It sounds laughable, but we're not comparing them to the Rockets and Celtics. Perhaps Orlando's core of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic (when healthy) comes close, but the Magic also just sold their starting point guard Elfrid Payton for pennies on the dollar. They're clearly in tank mode, and the rest of that roster is a nightmare. Dallas has some nice pieces, but also plenty of shutdown candidates as the season nears its end.

And that's another angle to this. The Bulls really don't have any players who may rest late in the season. Then again, phantom injuries could arise and LaVine might sit down the stretch for precautionary purposes. But Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, the team's elder statesmen at 29 and 28, respectively, aren't exactly tipping the scale between wins and losses. As long as LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, Portis and Denzel Valentine are seeing 28+ minutes, the Bulls are going to be in good position. Teams like Atlanta and Sacramento are already resting veterans, and Memphis could do the same with Marc Gasol if the Lottery balls depend on it. It's a good thing the Bulls don't have this luxury, as they're leaning on their young talent, but it also means the team isn't going to get much worse.

The biggest hurdle for the Bulls, however, is going to be their remaining schedule. Marvin Bagley fans might want to stop reading. Only four teams in the NBA will face an easier remaining schedule than the Bulls, and none are ahead of them in the race for the top pick. The 76ers, Hornets, Warriors and Heat have easier schedules, and then it's the Bulls, with a remaining SOS of .474. Here's how that compares to the seven teams the Bulls are looking up at in the tank standings:

So the Bulls have an easier schedule than any team in front of them, and the Knicks. And looking at the Bulls' remaining schedule (far right column), it's clear that the three games against the Nets (which includes what should be a fun home-and-home in the season's final week) and two games against the Grizzlies will loom large. It also wouldn't surprise anyone if the Bulls picked up random victories over teams like Boston (March 5), Cleveland (March 17), Milwaukee (March 23) or Houston (March 27). They have a way of playing up to their opponents (see: Minnesota).

When it comes to discussing the league's worst teams, the Bulls might simply be too good. And their schedule might simply be too bad. That's certainly a good problem to have when considering the franchise's rebuild has gone quicker than most expected, even if it means fewer chances to secure a top-3 pick. Then again, the Bulls did fine selecting 7th overall last season in grabbing Markkanen, so perhaps a top-5 pick isn't necessary. It might not even be an option.

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

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USA TODAY

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler was absent from the scoresheet of the All-Star Game, unless you count a “DNP-Coaches’ Decision” as activity. Whether due to the All-Star festivities of the weekend or even the grinding minutes he plays under Tom Thibodeau, it wasn’t truly surprising to see him want to have a night off of sorts.

But what was mildly surprising was the reflection he displayed on Saturday at All-Star Media Day in reference to his time with the Chicago Bulls. Usually, Butler’s armor is up because of his feelings surrounding his draft-night departure.

“I learned a lot in Chicago,” Butler said. “Just all through the season and life in general. What to do, what not to do and how to adapt to any situation that you’ve been in. I’ve done that to the best of my abilities. I have a ways to go in that.”

It’s clear he’s still grasping the weight of his words as the best player on a team, or at least, the player whose words impact everything around him.

“A people pleaser? No, I just didn’t say much,” Butler said. “Now I just don’t care. I never talked whenever I was in the league at an early age. It really didn’t matter, nothing I did was gonna make or break us when it comes to losing a game. Now it does and I have a lot to say. Half the time it’s not the right time or right way to say it but it’s okay.”

Whether it was the battles with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or the internal struggles in the Bulls’ locker room through his ascension from bench warmer to rotation player to impact player to now, a legitimate star, he’s modifying his approach—just a tad.

“I’ve never been the best player on my own team. I was in Tomball,” he joked, in reference to his beginnings in small town Texas. “I wasn’t in junior college. At Marquette I wasn’t. I’m probably not now. In Chicago I wasn’t. You just pick up on it, watch others and learn.”

He admitted to writing in a journal and reading self-help books now that he’s in Minnesota. The novel he’s reading now, “Faith, Forward, Future” is authored by Chad Veach, a Los Angeles pastor and the subtitle of the book says “Moving past your disappointments, delays and destructive thinking.”

Whether he started the book following a slow start with the Timberwolves in November, where his nightly numbers looked like one of a high-level role player, he took some self-evaluation before leading the charge since, playing like an MVP candidate with 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49 percent shooting since the start of December.

“It’s relatively new. Yeah, basketball is still basketball but it’s hard when somebody else is coming in and roles change overnight,” Butler said. “You gotta see where you fit in with the group. At the end of the day you gotta win. I didn’t feel the way I was playing was our best opportunity to win games.”

Bringing along the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Towns being a fellow All-Star for the first time, has been a process.

“I’ve never actually had to be a leader,” Butler said. “I just always done what I was supposed to do, didn’t say much and played hard. Now you know, everybody wants to call someone a leader.”

He disputes taking a softer hand, especially as Towns and Wiggins seem to struggle with sustaining concentration at critical moments. The Timberwolves won’t be able to make those mistakes during the playoffs, but he’s being more selective with his words.

“I’m not soft,” he said. “If I see something wrong, I speak on it. If you don’t like it, oh well. You’ll get over it.”

One thing he could take a bird’s eye view of was the aftermath of LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s comments to the “Uninterrupted”, where they were criticized by cable news hosts for speaking out against President Donald Trump.

No stranger to criticism, Butler would likely have the same approach if he dipped his toes into that arena.

“I like it. You got the right to say what you want and you speak on what you think is right,” Butler said. “Good for them. And they are magnified in a very big way. They embrace it and they’re doing the right thing, I’m all for it.”

And if the day comes where he doesn’t stick to sports, Butler’s directness and lack of diplomacy would certainly cause an interesting reaction.

“I don’t care. Whatever I believe in, I believe in,” Butler said. “Everybody else does it. You see everybody on Twitter and the Internet doing it and saying what they want to say. We just have a different job than the person to our left and right.”

Well, not quite a warm and fuzzy Jimmy Butler.