Bulls

How would the Bulls fare in a shorter season?

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How would the Bulls fare in a shorter season?

The dire situation the NBA is in has finally become a reality, or soon will be, if a deal between the league's owners and the union isn't reached by Monday, which would cancel the first two weeks of the regular season.

While it can't be ruled out that the two parties will reach an agreement, it appears more and more likely that, at the minimum, games will be missed.

For a minute, let's ignore discussions of basketball-related income and decertification and think how a shortened slate would affect the Bulls.

Of course, when an agreement is finalized, there will be a truncated period of free agency and while a priority for the organization should be to acquire a shooting guard, for the purposes of this piece, let's focus on the current roster.

Would another year in league Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau's system, assuming the talent is healthy, allow the Bulls to advance to another Eastern Conference Finals appearance, and then take another step or two? And how would Chicago's top competition fare?

If Thibodeau's workaholic schtick seemed like an act, this offseason should put any doubts to rest.

Instead of taking an extended vacation, the Bulls' coaching staff has been mostly holed up in the Berto Center all summer, examining game tape and going over concepts in preparation for the season, whenever it arrives. One benefit of the prolonged layoff is players can tend to nagging injuries, although during the last NBA lockout, some came back extremely out of shape.

With his rookie-season jitters out of the way and a second go-around with a team full of new faces a year ago, Thibodeau will undoubtedly better understand how to utilize his personnel for both their individual strengths and limitations.

For a man often depicted as rigid, his play-calling was more creative than many observers give him credit for and while a premium will still be placed on defense, look for Thibodeau to put even more of an emphasis on transition offense, catering to Derrick Rose's open-court speed.

As for the reigning MVP, expect him to improve his conditioning--never a weight-room fanatic, the lockout gives him an opportunity to further strengthen his already-chiseled frame, so as to better hold up under the rigors of the postseason--and to continue to hone his outside shooting.

One thing Rose has hinted at is developing a post-up game and while that could come into play against smaller point guards (Rose himself insisted "it's coming along" back in June, while Thibodeau commented during their second-round series against Atlanta, "it's better than you think"), an emphasis on regaining consistency in his mid-range pull-up jumper that was an underrated weapon his second NBA campaign and seemed to be forgotten down the stretch of last season might be more realistic.

Rose's offseason improvement is almost a given at this point and barring injury, the self-motivated floor general should return from California--or overseas, if the lockout continues--even better than the last time we saw him play.

A negative to the current situation is the fact that he's unable to communicate with Thibodeau--who would surely be in his ear about becoming a better defender--and the rest of the coaching staff, but competing against the likes of Russell Westbrook and other peers is at least a reasonable stop-gap.

The Bulls player for whom this offseason might be most important is Carlos Boozer, he who garnered so much derision and frustration from fans due to his playoff struggles. Remember, though, Boozer had a truncated training camp and nagging injuries throughout the regular season, which affected both his conditioning and chemistry with teammates.

Now, this isn't to say Boozer will morph into Ben Wallace defensively next season--thankfully, he won't turn into Ben Wallace offensively either--but if he rehabs his aches and pains, focuses on conditioning and regains even some of the bounce in his step witnessed in his Utah days, those boos in the United Center will turn back into "Booz."

Boozer and center Joakim Noah turning into a dominant and consistent post tandem will definitely ease some of Rose's scoring burden, making the Bulls much more formidable deep into the playoffs.

Speaking of Noah, his health questions looked to be answered during his stint with the French national team this summer. Sporting a bulked-up body and more of a willingness to launch his "Tornado" jumper, just the fact that Noah remained active this summer was an encouraging sign.

Continued refinement of his back-to-the-basket game, constant work on his conditioning and yes, confidence in his free-throw line jumper will be key for the center moving forward. Knowing his winning background and pride, Noah will enter next season with a lot to prove.

For Luol Deng, another Bull who played internationally this summer--leading EuroBasket first-round play in scoring for Great Britain--it appears he's figured out his personal secret to good health.

After playing for the national team the last offseason and embarking on a rigorous workout regimen, coupled with a hectic multi-continent travel schedule, he played in every game last season and quietly had one of his best individual campaigns as a professional.

It's been more of the same for Deng this offseason and knowing Thibodeau's predilection for having him play extended minutes, it's probably a wise decision to get accustomed to little rest before the work stoppage ends. Having added three-point range to his arsenal last season, expect Deng to become better as a shot-creator off the dribble after functioning as Great Britain's primary ballhandler.

Backup center Omer Asik also played internationally, playing a significant role for Turkey--despite the fact that they didn't qualify for the 2012 Olympics--and displayed flashes of offensive development, while allaying concerns about the effects of his leg injury suffered in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Meanwhile, Taj Gibson has been mostly training on the West Coast (like Rose, understudy C.J. Watson and sharpshooter Kyle Korver) and with time to rehab, it's safe to assume he'll continue to make strides as a player, especially in his jump shot, post moves and getting stronger.

First-round draft pick Jimmy Butler is at a disadvantage, as the lockout meant he didn't get to participate in summer-league action, but judging from his Big East career at Marquette, he'll be willing to work.

Veterans like Watson, Korver, swingman Ronnie Brewer, incumbent shooting guard Keith Bogans and big man Kurt Thomas (again, assuming the latter pair are back) are far enough into their careers where significantly changing any aspects of their games isn't to be expected, although Brewer and Bogans, in particular, will likely focus on being 100-percent healthy for the season. Consummate pros all, it would be a surprise if that group isn't ready to play when the lockout ends.

Being a fairly young team, the Bulls' fresh legs would be a boon if there's a shortened schedule, consisting of more back-to-back affairs, less practice time and a shorter training camp than a typical NBA season.

If general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president don't elect to make major changes, the familiarity and chemistry developed last season will also help ensure that the Bulls are better off than squads incorporating rookies, players acquired in trades or in the free-agency period that will likely occur just after the lockout ends.

However, since defense is the hallmark of Thibodeau's system--Rose's explosiveness and playmaking, the keys to their offense, won't just disappear--and the systematic style in which he teaches it takes time, even as a refresher course, that process will have to be sped up. Of course, the Bulls' defense improved gradually as time went on last season, so all isn't lost if they're not clicking seamlessly from the outset.

As for the opposition, the team that ended their season, Miami, is talented enough to be dominant in spurts, as witnessed last spring. But the chemistry issues the "Big Three" of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, evident from early in the regular season to the Finals loss to Dallas won't be helped by a long layoff.

Still, with the Heat's athleticism and a chance for role players like Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller to return to health over the offseason, a shorter NBA season will clearly benefit the defending Eastern Conference champs.

Boston, on the other hand, is a team with an ever-closing championship window. A long break perhaps isn't the best thing for the aging Celtics, as veterans Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen try to hang on to put one more banner up in the Boston Garden.

With the results of the midseason Kendrick Perkins-for-Jeff Green trade now appearing unfavorable, this could be a team that maneuvers to make another acquisition if the ship is sailing in the wrong direction early.

Both New York and Orlando seem to be at least another star player away from making a serious run.

Depending on how the new CBA looks, the Knicks may be poised to make a run at a superstar next summer (possibly the Magic's Dwight Howard, if not Hornets point guard Chris Paul), but for the time being, Mike D'Antoni is probably hoping an extended break helps Chauncey Billups channel the player he was four years ago.

Since their Finals appearance a couple years back, the Magic seem to be regressing and still haven't found the right players to build around Howard, who's due for free agency in less than a year.

In the West, reigning champion Dallas has to be considered the odds-on favorite, but a roster boasting the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and a recently-untested Caron Butler doesn't bode well for a shortened schedule, although many didn't think the Mavericks would fare all that great with a regular slate.

Oklahoma City, meanwhile, is equipped with an able-bodied young roster, and if two-time scoring champ Kevin Durant's summer progress don't deceive the eyes, the alleged chemistry issues with floor general Westbrook were overblown, youngsters like James Harden and Serge Ibaka continue to develop and Kendrick Perkins' knee is up to par, the Thunder could take another quantum leap.

It feels strange mentioning the Lakers as almost an afterthought, but Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom aren't spring chickens, there's never any guarantee center Andrew Bynum will remain healthy, the team still needs to address significant holes and if Phil Jackson couldn't motivate that squad in his last hurrah, it's hard to imagine that Mike Brown--bringing a defense-first mentality and reportedly, an emphasis on feeding the ball inside, which will surely delight Bryant--can, but the Lakers do have the player who should be most popular (or hated, depending on your opinion) amongst NBA fans right now--point guard Derek Fisher, the president of the players association.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's 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.

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”