Bulls

Beyond the Arc: The amazing rise of Joakim Noah

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Beyond the Arc: The amazing rise of Joakim Noah

Monday, Oct. 4, 2010
10:08 PM

By Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

Remember when Joakim Noah was first drafted back in June of 2007? Fans and media members ridiculed the pin-striped seersucker suit and the wild hair. Sure, the guy was a part of two NCAA championship teams at Florida, but what kind of skills would he bring to the NBA? Yes, he played hard and was a good rebounderdefender, but did he have any kind of offensive game that would translate at the NBA level?

The concerns didnt go away when Noah got off to a shaky start in his rookie season as a limited minutes back-up to Ben Wallace and Joe Smith. Noah was too weak to hold his position under the basket and got pushed around by bigger and stronger NBA post men. And then came the infamous argument in Philadelphia with assistant coach Ron Adams. Head coach Vinny Del Negro suspended Noah for one game, but the players, led by Wallace and fellow-veteran Adrian Griffin, convinced Del Negro and then general manager John Paxson to double the penalty to two games. That had to be the low point in Noahs introduction to pro basketball, suspended by management and disrespected by his own teammates.

But to Noahs credit, he just got down to work on improving his game. He earned more minutes after Wallace and Joe Smith were traded to Cleveland, and had a positive finish to his rookie season. The following season he came back stronger and more confident, and started to establish himself as a difference maker on both ends of the floor. Noahs tireless effort and end-to-end hustle also won over the fans and some members of the media, who had labeled him as a first round bust the previous year.

The flashpoint for Noahs development came in the playoff series against Boston in 2009. Noah played brilliantly against the Celtics beefy frontline, and provided Bulls fans with an unforgettable memory with his steal and breakaway dunk to clinch a triple overtime win in Game 6. He had finally arrived as an NBA center, and had become a fan favorite at the United Center.

The improvement continued last season when Noah led the NBA in rebounding, before a battle with plantar fasciitis forced him to spend two stretches on the sidelines. But Noah recovered in time to lead the Bulls on a strong closing run to qualify for the playoffs, and he was outstanding in a five-game loss to Cleveland in the opening round. He earned recognition around the league as one of the emerging big men in the game, and possibly a future All-Star.

Now, Noah will be paid as one of the leagues top centers after agreeing to a five-year contract extension on Monday, reportedly worth 60 million. The Bulls never had any intention of including him in a trade offer for unhappy Denver superstar Carmelo Anthony. Hes highly valued by the front office and new coach Tom Thibodeau as the anchor of the defense and a rapidly-improving player on the offensive end. Derrick Rose is the Bulls best player, but Noah is the inspirational leader. You can look for those two guys to lead the franchise over the next decade.

Back to the drawing board

For all the talk about Carlos Boozer giving the Bulls their first legitimate low-post scoring threat since Elton Brand (and very briefly, Eddy Curry), Thibodeau and his staff will now need to re-design their offense to rely more heavily on Roses talents in the screen and roll game. Boozers broken hand will hurt the team in more ways than just the eight weeks hell be out of action. His work in training camp with all the young players like Noah, Taj Gibson, James Johnson and Omer Asik would have been invaluable to getting the Bulls off to a fast start. Sure, Boozer will be with the team, but he wont be able to scrimmage against the Bulls young post players.

Thibodeau wanted the Bulls offense to be inside-out, with Boozer getting the chance to make plays out of post-ups and high screen-rolls. Now, a lot of that low post offense will have to be put on hold until Boozer comes back. That could mean an expanded role for Kyle Korver, who is clearly the teams best shooter after setting an NBA record for three-point accuracy last season. Keith Bogans will start the pre-season opener in Milwaukee, partially because Ronnie Brewer has been battling a hamstring injury, but also because hes a good three-point shooter who can play off Roses penetration skills.

Dont be surprised if the Bulls make a trade for another proven outside shooter before the regular season begins. They have talked with the Trail Blazers about dynamic perimeter player Rudy Fernandez, but Rudy seems to have his heart set on getting back to Europe, not going to another NBA team that will offer more playing time than his current home in Portland. The Bulls coaches will also experiment with playing Rose and C.J. Watson together in the backcourt to create a faster, more attacking tandem.

And, Boozers injury means the return of Taj Gibson to the starting lineup. Gibson came out of nowhere to make the All-Rookie first team last season, and his versatility will help the Bulls survive Boozers absence. Johnson could wind up getting some backup minutes at power forward, as will veteran Kurt Thomas. Its not the ideal way to start a season with expectations of a division championship, but the Bulls should be okay.

What are your expectations for the first month without Boozer? Will the Bulls have a losing record heading into December? How many wins can they get on the brutally tough circus trip in late November? Please post your comments in the section below, and dont forget well have the pre-season games from Milwaukee and Dallas this week on Comcast SportsNet.

Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

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USA TODAY

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

Denzel Valentine corralled a rebound and casually dribbled up the right side of the floor, unaware of the final 5 seconds ticking off the clock in the third quarter. The second-year shooting guard moved toward the basket as the buzzer sounded, only realizing his gaffe as the red lights behind the backboard lit up. It was that kind of night for the Bulls offense, and one that highlighted carelessness, a lack of talent and obvious growing pains as the rebuild begins.

Fred Hoiberg’s group finished with more turnovers (20) than assists (18), shot 38 percent from the field and were doubled up on points in the paint in an ugly 87-77 loss to the Spurs on Saturday night. Adding to the issues were only nine free-throw attempts and 28 percent shooting from deep on a night where the Bulls played well enough defensively to earn a win.

But they couldn’t take advantage of a Spurs team playing without Kawhi Leonard. The ball stopped for long periods of time in the halfcourt, the fast break was non-existent and miscommunications were frequent, even when they didn’t result in one of those 20 turnovers.

“We had 20 turnovers that led to 23 points…that’s what kills you,” Hoiberg said. “A team goes on a run and they get easy ones, pick-sixes, you’re all of a sudden in a big hole. And obviously did not shoot the ball well today.”

The struggles came from across the board. Only Cris Felicio was turnover-less of the nine Bulls who played. The backcourt tandem of Jerian Grant and Justin Holiday combined for 11 of 32 shooting. Rookie Lauri Markkanen showed flashes with eight first-half points, but finished 5 of 14 and committed three ugly turnovers. Robin Lopez made the first 3-pointer of his career 630 games in, but a 29-year-old leading the way for a young rebuilding group could be deemed bittersweet at best.

It capped off a whirlwind first week for the Bulls, who dealt on the fly with the fallout of the altercation between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis. Losing Mirotic and Portis hurt from a talent standpoint, but it also threw a wrench into Hoiberg’s rotation and scheme. It thrust 20-year-old Markkanen into the starting lineup; Paul Zipser has shifted to playing more power forward (while also starting at small forward); Lopez is being asked to score more than ever, and at times be the primary option.

“With everything we’ve had going on the past week, with playing guys different positions that they haven’t played yet,” Hoiberg said, “we’re still trying to figure out exactly how we’re going to go out there and play. We’re getting stuck at times because guys are in the wrong spots.”

The Bulls opened Saturday night with a solid first quarter, scoring 21 points, assisting on nine of 12 baskets and committing just three turnovers.

The final three quarters couldn’t have been more different. The second unit again struggled like it did in allowing the Raptors a 20-2 second-quarter run on Tuesday. Even without Leonard the Spurs’ defensive length cut off passing and driving lanes, forcing the Bulls to dribble down the shot clock and turn to isolation basketball or contested 3-pointers.

The Spurs couldn’t pull away thanks to an inspired defensive effort by the Bulls, but the offensive stalling rendered it moot; the Bulls took 28 3-pointers and 37 shots in the paint, an ugly ratio when considering the nine free-throw attempts. The bench shot 7-for-19, but most of that came in garbage time.

“One thing we definitely need to work on is attacking the basket,” Lopez said. “I think there are times where we all get a little jumper-happy on the perimeter. I think we need to have a good balance.

We need to be aware of that. We’re a team that doesn’t have a lot of room for error so any time we concede the ball like that, we don’t get up a shot attempt, tat’s going to really hurt us.”

Kris Dunn may be closer than expected to returning to the lineup after dislocating his finger in the preseason. It would give the Bulls help on that dismayed second unit, knocking Kay Felder (3 turnovers in 15 minutes) out of the rotation. Once Mirotic and Portis return in November, Hoiberg will have more flexibility with his rotations as well as some insurance if frontcourt foul trouble arrives.

None are go-to scorers, and not even Zach LaVine's 19.8 points per game last season will save the Bulls once he's healthy. Season-long struggles like Saturday night are on the way for a young team searching for pieces of the future. That's expected, and in the long term it benefits them as more Lottery balls roll toward Chicago.

But in a season in which success will be judged not on wins and losses but improvement from game-to-game, but the Bulls have set the bar low in the season's first week.