Bulls

Hoiberg adapting to NBA; Could Warriors break Bulls record of 72 wins?

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Hoiberg adapting to NBA; Could Warriors break Bulls record of 72 wins?

Fred Hoiberg has plenty of experience in the NBA after a 10-year playing career and a stint in the Timberwolves front office, so it’s no surprise he’s adjusted quickly to on-court adjustments and managing egos on a 15-man roster in his first season as Bulls head coach.

It didn’t take Hoiberg long to realize he had to balance out his rotation to get a mix of offensive and defensive oriented players among his starters and 2nd unit. So, after experimenting with a frontcourt of Pau Gasol, Niko Mirotic and Doug McDermott, Hoiberg put Tony Snell back into the starting line-up to give the Bulls a better defensive unit at the start of games. The result has been fast starts in wins over Indiana and Phoenix, with McDermott able to maximize his scoring ability against the other team’s reserves. Hoiberg says his starting lineup and rotation will change throughout the season, which only makes good sense given the depth on the Bulls’ roster.

Equally important has been the increased minutes given to front court veterans Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. We all know Noah is the heart and soul of this Bulls’ team with his on-court intensity and competitive spirit. Similarly, Gibson can also provide a spark with his shot-blocking ability and low-post scoring touch. The two vets complement each other’s games, and genuinely enjoy playing together. Hoiberg has increasingly used the tandem late in games for crucial defensive stops, and you can expect they’ll get even more time as the season progresses. The Bulls also have talented 6-11 rookie Bobby Portis in reserve if frontcourt injuries occur.

[MORE: Bulls last regular-season team to win at Oracle Arena, but improbable task lies ahead]

Hoiberg also discovered early on that veteran backup point guard Aaron Brooks isn’t ideally suited to run his pace and space offense. Brooks is a scoring point guard who fit well in Tom Thibodeau’s scheme, but doesn’t always push the ball up-court and look for open shooters in transition. So, as soon as veteran Kirk Hinrich was ready to return from a toe injury, Hoiberg elevated Hinrich to the number one point guard back-up behind Derrick Rose. Hinrich may not be as athletic as he used to be, but he’s still very coachable, and he’s done an excellent job so far of directing the offense at a fast tempo, while showing the ability to hit open shots from 3-point range. Brooks will either have to adjust his game to fit the system, or watch his playing time disappear.

Hoiberg also has made good use of veteran guard E’Twaun Moore, who barely played under Thibodeau. At 6-4, Moore has the size and athletic ability to play both guard spots, and he’s also showed a nice touch from the outside. The Bulls have gone with 3-guard line-ups on multiple occasions late in games to get their best defensive players on the floor. Another sign that Hoiberg is a quick study in maximizing the talent on his roster.

Granted, we’re less than a month into the marathon regular season, and injuries will alter how Hoiberg and his staff allocate minutes, but the early returns are encouraging.

COULD WARRIORS BREAK BULLS RECORD OF 72 WINS?

Outside of Kevin Durant’s upcoming free agency, this is probably the number one discussion topic in NBA circles. Given the strength of the top teams in the Western Conference, it seems pretty unlikely, but as long as Golden State keeps reeling off wins to start the season, the possibility of the Warriors getting to 70 or more victories can’t be dismissed.

But remember, the Bulls started off the 72-win season with a 41-3 record, so until Golden State can match or get close to that record, the odds are still very much against them. The West may not be quite as formidable as it was a year ago, but multiple games against the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Mavericks, Rockets and Grizzlies are bound to produce some losses, and a team that’s so reliant on 3-point shooting is bound to go through a slump at some point during the long regular season grind.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Golden State really doesn’t have a low post scoring option, but they’re still able to rack up points in the paint thanks to the penetrating skills of their All-Star backcourt and versatile forwards Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala. This is a deep team that’s also very underrated on the defensive end. My guess is they’ll come close to last season’s total of 67 regular season wins, but unless they can stay completely injury-free and escape with a few lucky wins like the one they got against Brooklyn last week, 72 is probably out of the question.

The Bulls handed Golden State one of its two home court losses last season, and they’d like nothing better than to knock off the Warriors at Oracle Arena Friday night.

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.

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”