Bulls

Central Division Notebook: Questions aplenty

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Central Division Notebook: Questions aplenty

Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010
12:41 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

During the first week of the NBA season, most eyes were watching the initial performances of the Miami Heat and their superstar trio, but moments like Golden State's Monta Ellis scoring 46 points in the Warriors' season-opener, Boston's Rajon Rondo notching 24 assists (with a triple-double, to boot) and the debut of Clippers' rookie Blake Griffin--coached by none other than Vinny Del Negro--have also attracted a fair share of attention. The Central Division isn't without its early-season highlights, as Cleveland's season-opening win over the Celtics, Derrick Rose's stint atop the league's scoring leaders and the first triple-double of Milwaukee point guard Brandon Jennings' young career have all opened eyes around the league. Here's a brief, team-by-team look at the Central with the season's second week underway:

Chicago Bulls

Through the preseason, it appeared that the Bulls (2-1) would have an equal-opportunity offense based on ball movement, in which any player on the team's deep roster possessed the ability to succeed, particularly Luol Deng. After the first two games of the season, Derrick Rose was leading the NBA in scoring, whispers that he had morphed into a shot-happy gunner were prevalent, Chicago was supposedly worse off than last season and Deng had pulled a disappearing act.

With Luol Deng's career-high 40 points in Monday night's home win over Portland (not to mention Rose's 13 assists, which tied a career-best mark), it's now evident that while the offense is still a work in progress, Rose wouldn't have to take 29 shots per game in order to keep the Bulls afloat until sidelined power forward Carlos Boozer returns. With eight newcomers on the roster and a new coaching staff, the adjustment period has been gradual, but power forward Taj Gibson bounced back from a rough preseason to recapture his rookie form (staying out of foul trouble is another story), sharpshooter Kyle Korver is becoming more comfortable (something of great importance, as he's the only true knockdown shooter on the team), rookie center Omer Asik seems capable of contributing immediately as an interior presence and second-year reserve James Johnson may have the opportunity to carve out a niche for himself as a versatile energy player off the bench.

Still, there's an undercurrent that suggests the early portion of Chicago's season is just about surviving through the upcoming annual circus trip until Boozer returns, as if this isn't the Bulls' true team and they'll get a pass for missing a key piece. Since he hasn't played much with his new teammates outside of a few training camp practices and isn't known for his defensive prowess--something Thibodeau stresses, regardless of what a player brings to the table, which the aforementioned Korver is learning--a completely seamless transition might be too much to ask for, although the presence of Joakim Noah--currently the league's second-leading rebounder, as well as an underrated offensive player and highly-regarded defender--will help the process.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Life after LeBron started out on a high note for Cleveland (1-2), which beat the team that ousted them in last spring's Eastern Conference semifinals, Boston, which was coming off a season-opening win over James' Heat. The Cavaliers have taken a scoring-by-committee approach under new head coach Byron Scott, with leading scorer Daniel Gibson averaging 15 points per game off the bench and 10 other players averaging at least 6.3.

There have been conflicting reports about whether perhaps their most valued asset, Anderson Varejao, is on the trading block or not, and Scott's use of the team's most established player, veteran forward Antawn Jamison--who is coming off the bench and playing just 21.7 minutes per night after being traded to Cleveland at last season's trade deadline in a deal that was supposed to push the Cavs over the hump--is regarded with some concern. Outside of Gibson, who is also averaging a team-leading six assists per contest, point guard Ramon Sessions, an offseason acquisition, has been producing in incumbent Mo Williams' absence, as has young big man J.J. Hickson.

Cleveland is in a tough bind, with few attractive pieces for other teams in trade scenarios and an absence of high-upside young players, with the notable exception of Hickson, who the organization reportedly refused to include in a ultimately-nixed deal with the Phoenix Suns for Amar'e Stoudemire. One can only speculate on truly how close that swap was to occurring or if Stoudemire would have been a better fit than Jamison, if the Cavs' season would have ended and what impact that would have had on early July, but it will certainly be a while before the team needs to trouble itself with thoughts other than rebuilding.

Detroit Pistons

The Bulls' only divisional game of the young season was last Saturday's home-opening win over Detroit (0-3), an exciting comeback in which the Pistons once led by 21 points, were outscored 34-9 in the fourth quarter and had no answers for Derrick Rose, who tied a career high with 39 points. It wouldn't be surprising to see other stars rack up big numbers against the Pistons,who trot out aging Ben Wallace and similarly undersized Jason Maxiell at center, with draft pick Greg Monroe's finesse game initially appearing to require an adjustment period before being able to contribute.

Losing second-year forward Jonas Jerebko for the season before he even suited up was a widely overlooked development, as Jerebko's rugged style and versatility gave Detroit some frontcourt flexibility, although Tayshaun Prince's return to health after an injury-riddled 2009-10 campaign will help them compete. Likewise, a relatively injury-free Ben Gordon gives the backcourt some added scoring punch with Rodney Stuckey, veteran Rip Hamilton and Will Bynum, although a true point guard doesn't exist within that group.

The addition of a clearly hobbled Tracy McGrady doesn't help matters much, but reed-thin youngster Austin Daye will get opportunities to show off his unique shooting range, as the Pistons keep an eye to the future with the franchise's sale--and prospective move to a new downtown arena--to Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers and Little Caesar's Pizza owner imminent. Only in his second season, head coach John Kuester could already be on the hot seat, with even longtime top exec Joe Dumars feeling the rising temperature.

Indiana Pacers

A brighter future resides in Indiana (2-1), where the Pacers have to be pleased with early returns from two second-year players, prized offseason acquisition Darren Collison and Tyler Hansborough, who had his moments as a rookie before a terrifying bout with vertigo. While Collison is considered the team's point guard of the future and Hansborough has teamed with Josh McRoberts to solidify the power-forward position in the wake of Troy Murphy's trade to New Jersey in the four-team deal to get Collison, center Roy Hibbert is the Pacer who has opened the most eyes thus far.

At 7-foot-2, Hibbert possesses uncanny shooting range and passing ability and after a summer spent getting into better shape and being tutored by Hall of Famer Bill Walton, the Georgetown product began the season with a 28-point, nine-rebound, three-assist, three-block effort in a loss to San Antonio, and while he hasn't approached those same scoring numbers again, he's regarded as a sleeper Most Improved Player candidate. Franchise player Danny Granger continues to produce as a scorer, but his defense and all-around game will be closely monitored after a disappointing individual summer with USA Basketball exposed his underwhelming defense.

Granger is both Indiana's best player and biggest trade asset, and while he's not up in years, there's a school of thought that implies his All-Star campaign two seasons ago will be the high-water mark of his career and if the team doesn't improve this season, it may be wise to trade him now and start yet another rebuilding process with Hibbert and Collison as cornerstones. Analogous to Detroit's dilemma, head coach Jim O'Brien is under heavy scrutiny, but increasing blame is going to Larry Bird for assembling a roster that is taking too long to contend, even with the grace period given after the team's attempted transformation after the infamous "Malice in the Palace."

Milwaukee Bucks

Slow returns from injury for the likes of star center Andrew Bogut, former Bulls swingman John Salmons and offseason acquisition Corey Maggette are worth paying attention to in Milwaukee (1-2), a team that is dealing with bigger expectations than it's used to in recent seasons after a surprising run to the postseason. Considered the class of the division along:with Chicago, the Bucks also made significant additions in the summer, but a returnee--swingman Carlos Delfino, the recipient of an offseason contract extension--has paced them in scoring, with Maggette and second-year point guard Brandon Jennings not far behind.

Jennings recorded his first career triple-double in the Bucks' first win of the season over Charlotte, and despite his flashy demeanor and coming onto the scene as a rookie with an early-season 55-point outing, the former Rome resident (Jennings famously played in Italy for one season after high school) seemingly has a bond with Milwaukee head coach Scott Skiles, a former NBA point guard who has pushed Jennings to successfully play tough defense and limit his turnovers. Even with upgraded talent and intriguing depth, the Bulls' neighbor to the north still fly under the radar a bit, but "Fear the Deer" has a chance to get more national buzz if the chips fall right in Milwaukee.

Perhaps the biggest questions about the Bucks deal with whether the team's new faces--Maggette, former Bulls big man Drew Gooden, young swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts, rugged power forward Jon Brockman and top draft pick Larry Sanders--can not only adjust to Skiles' system (journeymen Gooden and Maggette are the two singled out most often), but additionally, will the old regime be able to co-exist with them, knowing minutes and shot opportunities will likely decrease in the spirit of the greater good. But most important is Bogut's status, as his gruesome fall and subsequent season-ending litany of injuries that resulted from it late last season led to an arduous rehab process, and while Bogut has acquitted himself well thus far with per-game averages of 12.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.67 blocks, Milwaukee needs him to be the quietly dominant interior force of last season.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms 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.

Bobby Portis apologizes to teammates as Bulls continue to deal with all-around complicated situation

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AP

Bobby Portis apologizes to teammates as Bulls continue to deal with all-around complicated situation

The mending hasn’t yet begun for the Bulls, but perhaps a good sign in moving forward from the Bobby Portis punch that delivered a concussion and broken facial bones to Nikola Mirotic is that it isn’t being ignored.

Fred Hoiberg is being tight-lipped about where matters stand, but he did at least say Portis returned to practice and apologized to the team Friday afternoon. Hoiberg wouldn’t reveal the contents of Portis’ apology and Portis didn’t address the media, but it’s clear things aren’t business-as-usual at the Advocate Center.

“Bobby was back at practice. It was good to have him back in here,” Hoiberg said. “Obviously, everybody’s looking forward to having Niko back in here, as well, hopefully soon.”

When asked about Portis’ spirit, Hoiberg deflected and preferred to talk about what adjustments the team will have to make in the immediate future, especially with rookie Lauri Markkanen having to go against Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge in the home opener Saturday night.

“That’s the biggest thing we have to do as far as preparing until we get our guys back, is throwing different lineups out there and hopefully getting better with our execution,” Hoiberg said.

Justin Holiday admitted that things aren’t normal, saying the actual games to start the season won’t serve as a welcome distraction because this isn’t something that can just be treated trivially.

He wouldn’t venture into getting into his teammates’ head, saying “Bobby came into today like Bobby. We’re not quite sure what he’s thinking mentally. We can’t assume that.”

But one thing that can’t be assumed is a sweeping under or pretending.

“I mean I don’t necessarily think this is a situation for us to get past,” Holiday said. “I think it’s a situation that obviously (needs) to be brought to the forefront. It’s a situation that needs to be taken care of for those two to be able to come together and be brothers again. I don’t think we’re trying to get past it.”

Holiday has been a leader during this early time, so his words and definitive tone were noticeable.

“They say sometimes you need time to heal,” Holiday said. “Again, we have to think about both situations in this. One guy is trying to get back healthy. And again, I don’t know. I wish I did. I wish we could just fix this the right way, but that’s not the case.”

It’s complicated all around, with no real precedent.

For Hoiberg, his handling has two faces. Since Portis is able to practice but has to sit out seven more games on a team-mandated suspension, he has to walk the line of incorporating Portis in daily drills and activities but also has to prepare a team that wasn’t prepared for two power forwards being out for an extended period.

That was on display Thursday as Quincy Pondexter likely played that position for the first time in his career, and it’s highly unlikely Paul Zipser practiced there at all with the depth the Bulls had until now.

“We have to get our guys ready to play positions that they haven’t played,” Hoiberg said. “We’re getting them in here early. We’re getting a group in to work on our execution. Quincy not only hasn’t played in two and a half years but I don’t know if he has ever played the 4.

“You just have to do the best with what you have.”

Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'

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USA TODAY

Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'

Quincy Pondexter’s trade to Chicago makes him a newcomer. His birth certificate makes him a veteran. But it’s his story that makes him worth listening to.

Even in the eye of team chaos, Pondexter’s debut with the Bulls had such a special meaning that when he entered the game to start the second quarter, he thought he would come to tears.

Having been out of basketball the last two years after knee surgeries went bad, Pondexter came close to dying in a New York hospital in January when his organs began to fail after a MRSA infection.

Catching MRSA can often lead to death.

“It wasn’t looking good,” Pondexter said. “It was tough. I prayed. My family was there close to me. Being able to play basketball again in less than a year is crazy. It’s all God. This journey has been amazing.”

His journey took him from being in New Orleans, where his knee troubles started, to being an addition to the Bulls in a trade months ago when the Bulls picked up cash and a second-round pick from the Pelicans.

Pondexter joined high school teammate and close friend Robin Lopez on a team needing some leadership, and due to the punch Bobby Portis threw to Nikola Mirotic Tuesday afternoon, it put Pondexter in position to get on the floor as a backup power forward behind rookie Lauri Markkanen.

If the Bulls were smart, they’d probably put Pondexter in a room to talk to his teammates about his struggles, especially the two teammates who may have to share the same floor in several weeks.

“The competitive nature of our team has been really terrific and we wouldn't want to trade that for anything,” Pondexter said. “It hurts those two guys aren't here right now. But we love them and we love what they brought to this team.

“I think my age on my ID solidifies me as one of the veterans. When you do things the right way, that's what it means to be a veteran. Show up first, last one there. That's what it means to be a veteran. Establishing myself there and doing things that are right, the guys have followed and listened and embraced me and I love it.”

No word on whether Pondexter got teary-eyed when he got a breakaway steal and dunk for his first points since the 2015 playoffs, when the Pelicans were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Warriors.

“I know I’m going to get emotional on the court later on and probably tear up,” Pondexter said after the morning shootaround. “I told Robin that a thousand times. People don’t know what you’ve been through. There are a lot of times they’re not there besides your close family and friends. I appreciate them carrying me through this whole process.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg can relate to Pondexter, with Hoiberg’s heart ailment cutting his career short. When the Bulls coach speaks about the frailty of the game and how precious things are in the NBA, Pondexter is living, breathing proof.

“I’m really really happy for Quincy. For a time there, his life was in danger with his infection. I know he’s really excited to get his career going again,” Hoiberg said. “I never got that opportunity to get back out there. I tell these guys to cherish it ever day. You never know when it can end. All of a sudden. For Quincy to get this chance, it’s awesome.”

Pondexter, with the straightest of faces, called basketball his “obsession” and he felt happy to get back on the floor, if even for a few minutes.

“I love it to death. It’s my life,” Pondexter said. “Basketball is what got me through it---my family and basketball. It was like, ‘How can I make this story even better? Do I quit?’ No. I watched so many inspirational movies, 'Hacksaw Ridge.' They get you through tough times because you say, ‘That’s going to be me.’ I’m going to be able to inspire someone down the road. That’s really helped me.”

A hamstring injury slowed Pondexter in training camp, which would explain his lack of explosive lift in the season opener.

No one was really sure if the Bulls would hold onto him for the season, but it’s clear he holds value beyond the box score. When he finished his media session, Lopez turned to Pondexter and said, “Now you’re stuck with me”, putting his arm around his teammate.

“Being able to play after two and a half years, it feels like hundreds of surgeries, getting traded to this organization. It's been a lot,” Pondexter said. “I wouldn't trade any of that for this moment right now and how I feel in my heart. I can't wait to get on this floor and play with my teammates and try to do something special. The journey is worth it.”