Expectations run high for Rose, Bulls


Expectations run high for Rose, Bulls

Coming off a league-best 62-win regular season campaign a year ago, expectations are high for the Chicago Bulls. Windy City native Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in league history, Tom Thibodeau garnered NBA Coach of the Year honors in his first season as a professional head coach and with the recent acquisition of veteran shooting guard Richard Hamilton, a three-time All-Star, the team plugged what was regarded as its biggest hole.

However, after a disappointing Eastern Conference Finals defeat at the hands of Miami, several questions were raised about the squad's potential. Rose having to shoulder so much of the scoring load, prized free-agent signee Carlos Boozer's postseason ineffectiveness and center Joakim Noah's offensive output were chief among concerns for a group poised to contend for its first title since the Jordan era.

For casual observers who hadn't studied the Bulls -- who went under the radar for much of the season -- their formula of gritty hustle, their hometown hero's spectacular play and a stifling defense just didn't seem like enough to truly develop into a champion. With all due respect to fans and so-called expert naysayers alike, they're wrong.

Chicago's consistent defensive effort, in a second year under Thibodeau, should only get better as evidenced by Friday's preseason opener against Central Division rival Indiana. The up-and-coming Pacers were held to 2-of-23 shooting in the second quarter after scoring a gaudy 33 points in the opening period, as well as a paltry 17-of-66 mark for the final three stanzas. Yes, it was only an exhibition contest, following a prolonged offseason due to the NBA lockout, but the Bulls' defense was already in midseason form.

Additionally, the notion that Rose has a non-existent supporting cast on offense is a misguided theory. While the product of the City of Big Shoulders does indeed carry on immense burden on his 23-year-old back, it shouldn't be ignored that underrated small forward Luol Deng is coming off perhaps the best all-around season of his career. Most importantly, he played in all 82 regular season games and ranked third in the league in minutes per game, no small feat -- and for all the commotion about Boozer underachieving, the power forward put up numbers fairly similar to his averages in Utah, where he was a two-time All-Star for the Jazz.

Now, Noah's production certainly tailed off after he returned from a two-month injury layoff -- prior to that, he appeared to be headed toward his first All-Star Game appearance as one of the NBA's top rebounders with excellent passing ability for a big man and providing a scoring threat with his patented, unique "Tornado" elbow jumper. His worth can't be accurately judged by his nightly point totals; rather, his dominant work on the glass, ability to keep up with Rose in transition and defensive presence are his hallmarks.

Last season's fifth starter, rugged shooting guard Keith Bogans, was vastly unappreciated for his contributions, which mostly consisted of toughness, veteran leadership and physical defense. But even the most ardent Bogans fan is aware that the team's perimeter firepower needed an upgrade, something Hamilton, one of the premier mid-range artists in the game -- although not necessarily a prolific shooter from deep range -- should be able to provide, along with his championship experience.

Joining the organization's newest addition in helping to spread the floor is holdover reserve Kyle Korver, one of the league's top marksmen. Fellow backup swingman Ronnie Brewer (Rose's starting backcourt mate for the time being, as Hamilton learns Thibodeau's complex system) gives the team some size, athleticism and active defense on the wing. Backup point guard C.J. Watson excels at defensive ball pressure and instant offense.

But perhaps the best-kept secret in the league is the young post tandem of Taj Gibson and Omer Asik, a formidable, paint-protecting duo on the back line of the defense that also possesses some scoring capability, particularly Gibson, who started for the Bulls during his first-team NBA All-Rookie debut campaign as well as at the beginning of last season, when Boozer was sidelined by injury. The only missing piece for the "Bench Mob," the nickname for Chicago's potent second unit is big man Kurt Thomas, the league's oldest player, who migrated to Portland as a free agent. Extremely underrated, Thomas was able to rack up DNP's for months seemingly, then start in place of either Noah or Boozer, and the team wouldn't miss a beat.

And then there's Rose. More significant than his MVP season was his personal development -- as a more vocal team leader, an improved outside shooter, a savvier penetrator, more intelligent defender and overall clutch performer. It's something that hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates, who once treated him like a precocious little brother with gobs of talent and now regard him as a player they expect to take over contests on a nightly basis, if he so chooses.

The understanding and appreciation of each member of a team's individual abilities is such a rare and special thing to observe, but the Bulls seem to have it down to a science, as very seldom will a player march to the beat of his own drum. When they're seen yelling at each other, the purpose is usually to encourage, not chastise. In a truncated season because of the lockout, the Bulls' cohesiveness and chemistry, on and off the court, will serve them well, especially when it's considered how self-motivated they are as a unit by the quest to win a championship.

That starts and ends with Thibodeau, who is so consumed by the singular goal of winning that his obsessive, workaholic nature immediately spread amongst his charges upon his arrival in Chicago. It's not a shock to know that Thibodeau is in his Berto Center office from almost daybreak to the wee hours of the night -- if not on the court, working out a player himself -- just as it's unsurprising to see various players hanging around late for extra repetitions or to see the team, en masse, eating out together on the road.

That said, great team chemistry might not be enough to knock off LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat, if the teams match up again in the playoffs. But with the improvements the Bulls have made, the burning desire to avenge their failure, guidance from the ultra-focused Thibodeau, a defense that requires near-flawless offense to overcome its vise-like grip on scorers and the brilliance of Rose, it wouldn't be wise to bet against them.

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music


John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

It’s what every fan base deserves, along with players on a roster where tough conversations must be had to set a course for the present in order to secure a better future.


It’s ugly and while not aesthetically pleasing to the eye, everyone can see what the Bulls are doing for the remainder of the NBA season. For the paying customers who still fill the seats at the United Center, it’s a “cry now so hopefully you laugh later” proposition.

Bulls Executive-Vice President John Paxson addressed the media Tuesday and said what we all knew to be true, what everyone knew what was coming.

He didn’t stand up in front of cameras and tape recorders and ask, “Do you like Brazilian music?”

They’re tanking.

They’re putting a little bit more sugar to go with it but it’s old-fashioned ‘tussin for the next several weeks.

All of this is due to sight unseen—unless you watch college basketball or cue up European basketball highlights.

When you see Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson take two hard dribbles from the top of the key, spin and dunk while being fouled, it makes sense.

When Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton help on a driving guard to cut off a lane, recover to block a 3-point shot and run the floor for a layup in a six-second span, it makes sense.

When Duke’s Marvin Bagley III seals his defender with one arm, catches with his left hand and finishes on the opposite side of the rim with ease, it all makes sense and kudos to the Bulls for not trying to fool a smart public with useless rhetoric.

Every loss counts, of course, but the key thing about the NBA is this: No matter where a team picks, bad franchises make the worst of a good opportunity and good franchises make the best of any situation.

If the Bulls are the latter, it’ll show itself whether they pick fourth or second or sixth. This draft’s best player went 13th, Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. Lauri Markkanen is in competition for best player after Mitchell and he went seventh.

This was inevitable from the moment the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler on draft night. Although Kris Dunn has turned out to be a revelation and Markkanen could be a superstar, none of the micro wins should take away from the macro vision of this franchise, chief reason why Paxson has reasserted himself in the last year.

Paxson just framed it in the vein of long-term evaluation in announcing Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup, while Jerian Grant will see his playing time cut for Cameron Payne.

“Seeing some of our young guys play consistently, we’ve learned a lot about them,” Paxson said. “The hard thing when you do things like this is you’re asking certain people to sacrifice roles and minutes. And oftentimes, it’s veteran guys. That’s what we’re asking some of our vets to do right now—sacrifice some time on the floor and roles they’ve been very good in. That’s never an easy thing.”

Lopez and Holiday have been good soldiers through this process, especially helping navigate a fragile locker room after the crazy start to the season when Bobby Portis had enough of Nikola Mirotic in a practice and unleashed holy hell on a season that was supposed to be a quiet, boring losing season.

“I know what it’s like to be asked to take a lesser role,” Paxson said. “Players have pride. So it’s hard. I don’t take that lightly at all. It’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37 with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”

Lopez has had a solid season, with career-highs in scoring and assists. Holiday’s scoring has nearly doubled this season and he’ll garner some attention around the draft in the trade market.

But with the Bulls being eighth of the eight bad teams, they need to get Super Bad (with a nod to James Brown) in the next several weeks. It’s not that the rebuild is steps ahead, it’s that other teams are better at being incompetent than the Bulls—and they’ll also be doing whatever’s necessary to secure a draft position.

At least the Bulls’ competence has come in the form of long-term answers. Certainly at the end of the year, one can lament Zach LaVine saving the Bulls from losses to the Timberwolves and Magic with late-game plays that cements the belief he could be a front-facing player—especially with restricted free agency coming this summer.

If Payne happens to be a useful NBA player in the process, it’s gravy but the Bulls aren’t really expecting it.

Fred Hoiberg has been pumping up Payne publicly by referencing him playing the role of Isaiah Thomas in the playoff preparation last spring, but he hasn’t played NBA level basketball in over a year.

And when he was on the floor, for that ill-fated period after last year’s deadline when Hoiberg was playing 11 guys without a real plan to win, Payne looked overmatched and overwhelmed.

“We want to see him as a point guard, especially when you’re running with the second unit, and the way Fred wants to play, play with pace, defend your position, compete every night and stay within yourself,” Paxson said. “His role is to get us into offense quickly and efficiently and make the right play with the ball.”

Felicio has taken a step back in terms of his development after steady improvement over the last two years, but in the big picture they’re casualties in the NBA’s cost of doing business.

And if you believe it’s anything else besides what you’re seeing, you might believe Paxson is truly asking if you like Brazilian music.

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


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 the second time in three seasons, 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.