MIAMI In many ways, the 2011-12 campaign has been an improvement for the Bulls from the previous campaign, at least in certain areas. While injuries have prevented Derrick Rose from reaching an MVP level again, the improved health of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, the development of further depth and consistency within the Bench Mob, Luol Deng making his debut All-Star appearance and adding a legitimate scoring threat at the shooting-guard position in Rip Hamilton, all represent progress.However, at the tail end of the regular season, its clear that something is missing. Perhaps this reads like a knee-jerk reaction after a disappointing loss to the Heat, but whether or not last seasons squad was a true title contender in hindsight, the veritable bullying of the Bulls by the Heat wouldnt have occurred a year ago, not with the likes of Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans around.Say what you want about Bogans lack of offensive firepower and though the Bulls post-player rotation have remained relatively healthy throughout the year (knock on wood), Thomas would have been an excellent insurance policy, but more significant to any on-court contributions theyd provide would be Miamis knowledge that the two veterans wouldnt permit the flagrant fouls, whether called by the officials or not LeBron James bone-crushing, dirty screen set on the diminutive John Lucas III, while it was officially a non-call, was as bad, if not worse, than the called flagrants committed James Jones and Dwyane Wade wouldnt be happening, at least not without some sort of retribution.This isnt a judgment of the Bulls front office for not re-signing the pair, as the Bulls league-best record cant be second-guessed at this stage of the game. But whether its Bogans, Thomas or another non-nonsense veteran that opponents respect, if not fear payback if one of the Bulls was targeted on the floor, the team simply lacks anybody with an enforcer-type quality.By no means is on-court violence being advocated, but as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said after the humbling defeat, I just want them to respond. Hamilton, while not the player whom opponents fear from a brute-force standpoint, comes from a background his former employer, the Pistons, were known as one of the leagues most physical teams during their title-contending heyday explained it best.When youre fighting and youve got aspirations and dreams and you want to win a championship, youre going to do anything and I felt as competitors, thats what were going to do to help our team win, he said. When somebody tries to put you on your heels, you never get on your heels. Youre going through them the whole game. You dont allow anybody to go through you. Weve just got to do a better job of putting our foot on the gas and responding, and not allowing them to do different plays where were on our heels.Hamilton himself was the victim of one of the aforementioned flagrant fouls committed by Miami, as longtime nemesis Dwyane Wade outright shoved him afterwards, Wade admitted he didnt even try to be covert, as he felt Hamilton was getting away with fouling him and wanted to direct the officials attention to the situation prompting one of the handful of skirmishes, in which the Bulls were reacting to the Heats actions.Its part of the game, man. Its one of those things that happen in the heat of the battle. Youre going to have plays like that, two people just trying to outwill each other, trying to fight, Hamilton explained about the incident with Wade. He knows what Im going to do, I know what hes going to do, so its one of those things where, Im not going to give you the edge, and hes going to do the same thing with me. I didnt think he was going to back down, he didnt think I was going to back down, so its all part of the game.Anything happens in a game. Anything happens in the heat of the battle. Its one of those things that just happened, he continued. I didnt even know they called a flagrant foul. I thought they called a technical, but its part of the game. Thats what playoff basketball is about.Its one thing for isolated incidents, like the situations with Hamilton and Lucas or center Joakim Noahs angry response to Jones foul, to briefly fire up a team. Its another to maintain that mentality throughout the course of a game, without losing focus or control, yet letting the opposing squad know that there wont be any of that going on, not without severe repercussions.I think weve got to get better. Thats what the playoffs are going to be about. I know what youre going to do, you know what were going to do, said Hamilton, one of the few Bulls in the locker room when the media was allowed to enter. When somebody pushes their foot on the gas and tries to push us back, weve got to push even harder.Thats the game. When youre playing in the playoffs and you know one game can send you home, thats what youre going to get. Youre going to get an ugly game, added the veteran shooting guard, who answered all the time, when asked if the physical tone set Thursday evening would persist in potential future matchups with the Heat. Ive been in many ugly games in my career and thats the game that you want to be in. You want to be in a dogfight.As far as intense game, yes, it goes without saying that the Bulls have the mental toughness and dont shy away from physical play allowable under the rules. But judging from the Heats approach and honestly, going back to the first-round series last spring with upstart Indiana, in which the Pacers, even with Thomas and Bogans present, displayed a similar mindset, especially in defending Rose, though they didnt have the talent to translate it into wins, at least at that point in time it wouldnt be surprising to have other teams attempt the same course of action (after all, it was a nationally-televised, high-profile affair) in the future.With three games remaining in the regular season before the playoffs begin, the Bulls have enough on their hands with Roses uncertain health status and even without him at 100 percent, they should be capable of surviving a first-round matchup, especially if they maintain the Easts top seed and face the free-falling 76ers, as the Carmelo-Anthony Knicks could pose problems for even the stiffest of competition. But beyond the opening round, where the likes of Boston and Indiana could lurk, and assuming they return to the conference finals, another anticipated showdown with the Heat, it wouldnt be surprising to see their mettle tested again.
Here are Three Things to Watch in the Bulls' season opener against the Toronto Raptors tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live.
1. Pace and Space
The Bulls offense had a distinctly different feel to it this preseason than in years past. Yes, the lack of Jimmy Butler certainly had something to do with that. But it’s evident that Fred Hoiberg is getting closer to coaching the brand of basketball he’s most comfortable with. The proof is primarily in the 3-point shooting. To put it lightly, the Bulls have been chucking from deep.
Here are some of the raw numbers. The Bulls averaged 32.8 3-pointers per game in the preseason, which ranked fifth in the NBA. And it wasn’t just one or two players taking outside looks. The Bulls had seven players attempt 3.4 triples or more per game. They ranged from point guard (Grant) to shooting guard (Valentine) to small forward (Zipser and Holiday) to power forward (Mirotic, Portis and Markkanen). These long-distance shots are coming from all over.
That could be a reason that the Bulls’ pace was way up from last year’s regular season. Now, pace (how many possessions a team averages per game) doesn’t necessarily mean a team is running fast breaks and hoisting shots at the earliest opportunity. But what it does mean for the Bulls is they’re getting quick open looks from beyond the arc. Their pace in the preseason ranked 12th in the NBA, but at 105.2 possessions it was much quicker than a year ago (97.72). It’s still preseason, so all paces are up around the league, but you can tell this Bulls offense looks different.
2. The Holiday Season
You’ll probably be sick of “holiday” puns by the end of the month, but it’s Opening Night so let us slide by just this time. There was optimism when the Bulls signed Justin Holiday that the 28-year-old could be a rotation player and a fill-in while Zach LaVine recovered from ACL surgery. Never an efficient offensive player, the Knicks were much better defensively with him on the floor last season, and on a Bulls team losing Butler there was a need for a wing defender.
And if the preseason proved anything it’s that Holiday is going to be more than a rotation player. That’s not saying all that much on a Bulls roster void of premier talent, but Holiday is likely the Bulls’ best healthy player at this point. He was stellar in the preseason, averaging 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He shot 57 percent from beyond the arc and averaged a team-high 29.3 minutes. Holiday simply looked the part.
Expect Holiday to lead the Bulls in field goal attempts most nights, and expect him to defend the opposition’s best player (DeMar DeRozan tonight). Again, this isn’t to say he’s necessarily a building block for the future or is going to make fans forget about Jimmy G. Buckets. But it’s nice to know the Bulls seemed to have hit on a free agent this offseason. Holiday enters the regular season with plenty of confidence.
3. Looking for progress
Unless he explodes in a good way, it’ll be too early to tell this year whether Lauri Markkanen is a piece of the future. He’s 20 years old and needs to put on muscle and learn the NBA before we decide what he’ll be. The same can’t be said for the other Bulls’ first-round picks.
Valentine is just in his second season, but he’ll also be 24 years old in less than a month. Drafting a college senior in the first round means he needs to be ready to play right away. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case. Valentine had an up-and-down preseason: He made 46.2 percent of his 3-pointers, but he only took 16 2-pointers in 112 minutes, showing a lack of diversity to his game. The speed just isn’t there. Perhaps Kris Dunn’s injury will allow him to facilitate some. Defensively, he still needs to show improvement. This will be a big year for the second-year guard. Now is his time to show he can be part of the rebuild.
Lastly, Jerian Grant wasn’t a Bulls first-round pick but when you deal Derrick Rose (albeit the non-MVP version) you need to have something to show for it. Grant looked the part in preseason and probably would have won the job over Dunn even if Dunn didn’t dislocate his finger. But Grant, as a combo guard, could be part of the team’s future as a reserve that gives Hoiberg options in the backcourt going forward. He was good in the preseason and will get his chance to shine in a starting role. What he does with it will be something to watch for, and he gets a big test tonight against Kyle Lowry.
It was supposed to be an uneventful and culture-resetting season for the Chicago Bulls, but that ended the moment Bobby Portis’ hand connected with the sweet spot on Nikola Mirotic’s face.
Now a light is shining on an unwilling franchise and rightful questions are again being asked about what led to the event, rather than the result.
Mirotic will be out four-to-six weeks with facial fractures and a concussion to boot and Portis was suspended for the first eight games of the season, leaving rookie Lauri Markkanen to man the power forward spot against the likes of Serge Ibaka and LaMarcus Aldridge his first two games.
Welcome to the NBA, kid.
It’s likely he received his wake-up call when he saw his teammates exchange friendly fire, though, considering the witnesses said Mirotic and Portis had been at it for awhile before Portis took one swing to conclude matters.
“Both players owned responsibility in the incident itself but only one player threw a punch. And that punch connected. For us, that is inexcusable,” Bulls Vice-President John Paxson said. “It’s not who we are.”
But when there is no discernable identity, and there’s a coaching staff who’ve witnessed these two go at it for well over two years you have to ask if this is who the Bulls are.
Not in the way of fighting but a team that collectively stands by idly while a situation builds and builds before it explodes, then is forced to clean up the carnage while having to explain and react to an unnecessary event.
Jimmy Butler, gone. Ditto for Derrick Rose. Tom Thibodeau? Dumped too before he picked up what the Bulls didn’t want in Butler on draft night, jump starting this process of the Bulls headed to Parts Unknown.
All have been blamed at some point for the state of affairs. Rose’s knees, Butler’s mouth, Thibodeau’s unwillingness to bend.
Butler took a tongue-in-cheek shot directly across the bow of his former franchise when asked about the incident involving his former teammates, saying “All I know is I’m not to blame for this one”, a nod to the narrative surrounding his trade to Minnesota.
Now who’s left to blame and what happens from here is anybody’s guess.
“When’s the right time to step in? I saw it on the best teams I played on, where you had that competitive spirit,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You have to have it to have any chance at all. So sure, looking back on it, would we have handled the situation differently? Maybe. I don’t know.”
Both Paxson and Hoiberg expressed the rightful disappointment in Portis while also saying Mirotic had a hand in what occurred. Portis will ultimately bear the responsibility, with his eight-game suspension coming at the worst possible time as his option for next season hasn’t been picked up yet, as it’s hard to see he and Mirotic sharing the same space in a locker room whenever Mirotic returns.
And if he is still around, it’ll be on the players to keep a team from splintering — as if the expected losing won’t be depressing enough.
“As teammates, we're certainly supporting Bobby and supporting Niko,” said Robin Lopez, a de-facto leader on a young roster. “We're going to let them know that what they did, the way they messed up, wasn't right, but we're definitely supporting them.”
Lopez, along with many others, said the confrontation has been brewing for some time, that the pushing and shoving wasn’t anything new. From a human standpoint it’s understandable to sense tension as Portis has been itching for playing time for two years after playing behind veterans, anxious to cement himself on a team that drafted a player at his position four months ago.
Mirotic came in as a golden boy of sorts, handed a starting spot by Hoiberg two years ago and given every chance to snag a starting spot last year before Taj Gibson aggressively stepped in.
His up-and-down performances were rewarded with a $12-plus million deal this offseason and although players usually don’t count each other’s money, they take note of who’s favored and who isn’t.
Mix in competition and ego days before the season began and it’s not surprising something was on the horizon.
But it’s up to a coaching staff to step in, as assistant coach Randy Brown did before the parties were separated in the hope things would settle down.
They didn’t, and now Hoiberg will start yet another season having his aptitude to coach a professional team questioned before he can call an official play or lay out a rotation — because Portis laid Mirotic out on the Advocate Center floor.
Hoiberg desperately wants to change the narrative surrounding his first two years, eager to prove his system can work and that he’s capable of commanding a team that plays hard and organized on a nightly basis.
Whether this is an omen or a random event, it certainly doesn’t bode well for Hoiberg to his detractors.
He stood to the side while Paxson addressed the media, appearing both bewildered and shocked he was having to address such a rare situation a little more than 24 hours before his season-opening cleanse was to occur.
“I’m very disappointed in what happened,” Hoiberg said. “Now, my job is to not let this moment derail us. My job is to get these guys prepared to go out and fight and play as a group, and I’m confident our guys will do that. They’ve shown that going all the way back into late August.
“I’m confident our guys will rally around each other. I’ve seen how much these guys care for each other, and we’re going to go into Toronto tomorrow as a group. We’re going to learn from this. We’re going to grow from this. We’re going to compete, I promise you that.”
It’s clear the Bulls want to extricate themselves from the past couple years and now recent events, but when things are swept under the rug they have a funny way of reappearing at the weirdest times.