Bulls

NBA Buzz: The indecipher-a-Bulls

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NBA Buzz: The indecipher-a-Bulls

If you're feeling frustrated by the Bulls' maddening inconsistency this season, just think about how John Paxson, Gar Forman, Fred Hoiberg and the assistant coaches are feeling. They're watching the same games we are.

The Bulls currently own an 8-0 record against Top 6 squads San Antonio, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Toronto and the L.A. Clippers, but they've lost at home to under .500 Minnesota, Charlotte, Phoenix, Brooklyn and a Washington team playing without three injured starters. 

I know a lot of Bulls fans would like to see the front office make a series of trades before the Feb. 18 deadline and start over, but the reality is staying the course is probably the best strategy right now.

Pau Gasol has come to symbolize the fans' frustration, with his offensive production counterbalanced by an often-times indifferent approach on the defensive end. Young forwards Niko Mirotic, Tony Snell and Doug McDermott have failed to take advantage of additional playing time and a more patient approach from the coaches.

And, then there's Derrick Rose, who's played much better since abandoning the protective facemask in December, but still ranks near the bottom of the league in most of the advanced metrics for the season.

So, what should the front office do? Because of Joakim Noah's season-ending shoulder injury, the Bulls lost the extra big they could have used in a deal for an upgrade at the small forward spot like a Trevor Ariza, Rudy Gay or Tyreke Evans. Don't kid yourself, despite all of Noah's contributions to the organization, on and off the court, he was the most tradeable player on the roster.

[MORE: Bulls stun Cavaliers, spoil Tyronn Lue's NBA coaching debut]

Now, when the front office looks across the Eastern Conference landscape, which team is significantly better than the Bulls. Cleveland? Sure, but they're dealing with internal issues and might be looking to change the locker room dynamic with a trade of their own. Toronto? The Bulls are 2-0 against the Raptors. Atlanta? Yes, the Hawks have been a tough match-up for the Bulls over the last two years, but does that roster intimidate anyone. Miami? The Heat's veteran roster looks good on paper, but they're dealing with a mid-season injury crisis, and you never know how healthy Dwyane Wade will be by the time the playoffs roll around.

So, if you're in Paxson's or Forman's position, why blow up the roster now when the Bulls are still a Top 4 team in the East? The front office always planned to make changes this summer, when Gasol and Noah are likely to leave as free agents, and the Bulls could have a pair of first round draft picks, and potentially close to $20 million in cap room to look for immediate help in free agency.

And, for those advocating trading Taj Gibson for a better small forward, remember if both Gasol and Noah leave at the end of the season, trading Gibson would leave the Bulls with only Bobby Portis and Mirotic as returning big men next season (along with end of the bench guys Cameron Bairstow and Cristiano Felicio). Plus, Gibson is an underrated player on this team, doing the physical work on the defensive end and on the boards that would be very difficult to replace. And, he's signed for next season at a manageable salary.

My advice? Buckle up and enjoy the ride. Rose is putting up solid stats since Christmas Day, finally pushing the ball with the pace that Hoiberg is looking for. Jimmy Butler is an All-Star, and one of the best two-way wing players in the league. And, even though Gasol can drive you crazy with his approach to pick/roll defense, he's still one of the top offensive big men around. If the Bulls can get consistent production from Mirotic and Portis in the second half of the season (I know that's asking a lot), they still might be the second best team in the East behind Cleveland.

And, rest assured the front office knows the roster needs a lot of work to get Hoiberg the type of players he needs for his system. That heavy lifting will come this summer.

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ALL-STAR RESERVES

The NBA will announce the reserves for the Feb. 14 All-Star game in Toronto during a special pre-game show on TNT this Thursday.

Here are the players I would select, starting with the East. Coaches are required to vote for three frontcourt players, two guards and two wild card picks. My East frontcourt reserves would be Pistons center Andre Drummond, Heat power forward Chris Bosh and Hawks forward Paul Millsap. Butler and Washington point guard John Wall are the backcourt choices, with Boston's Isiah Thomas and Toronto's DeMar DeRozan as the wild card picks. DeRozan gets the last spot by virtue of his nearly 23 PPG scoring average and the fact the game is in Toronto, so why not give the Raptors two All-Stars.

Those who just missed the cut in the East: Pau Gasol, Kevin Love, Reggie Jackson, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Nik Vucevic, Kemba Walker and Hassan Whiteside.

For the West, I'd take Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins, the Warriors do-everything forward Draymond Green and Chicago native Anthony Davis in the frontcourt, with Houston's James Harden and Golden State's Klay Thompson at the guard spots, and Portland's Damian Lillard and Clippers' point guard Chris Paul as the two wild card selections.

Honorable mention in the West goes to Blake Griffin (missed too many games because of injury), DeAndre Jordan, Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, Marc Gasol, C.J. McCollum and Andrew Wiggins.

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AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

Now, that LeBron James has succeeded in undermining head coach David Blatt to the point general manager David Griffin had to fire him (see the revealing inside story of James' efforts from Yahoo sports Adrian Wojnarowski), maybe it's time for James to put on his GM hat and start working on the roster.

The Cavs own the best record in the East, but not all is well in Cleveland. Love has dropped back to the third banana role with the return of Kyrie Irving, and apparently he's not too happy about it, even with new coach Tyronn Lue's assurances that he'll get Love more touches in his offensive scheme.

Love was awful in the Cavs blowout loss to Golden State last week, scoring just three points on 1-5 shooting from the field, and the Warriors attacked him on pick and roll plays throughout the game.

Afterwards, James called out the entire team, "We've got some inexperienced guys that haven't played enough meaningful basketball games where they can fall back on. When it gets a little tough sometimes, it's not like they can kind of fall back on previous experiences to try and help them get through it."

Love then fired back with an obvious shot at James: "We have a lot of things to get better at. That's going to take a lot of guys looking themselves in the mirror and it all starts with our leader over there and dwindles on down."

Remember last summer when James went to Los Angeles to re-recruit Love to sign with Cleveland before he entered the free agent market? And then early this season, James said the Cavs' offense would run through Love in an obvious attempt to keep his sensitive, stat-happy teammate happy.

Say what you want about James, his only goal right now is to add to his total of NBA championships, and if Love doesn't want to fit in with the program, James might go to the front office and suggest a trade might be in the team's best interests. Cleveland made two significant in-season deals to jump-start their second half run to the Finals, and if James has concluded the Cavs can't beat the Warriors or Spurs as currently constructed, anything is possible.

After all, we know who's actually calling the shots in Cleveland.

When is the league's competition committee going to change the rule that allows teams to foul poor free throw shooters intentionally? Detroit's Andre Drummond set an NBA record by missing 23 free throws in the Pistons' win over Houston last week. Rockets' interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff had his player foul Drummond five times in the span of nine seconds in the third quarter to put Detroit into the bonus, and the strategy worked temporarily as Houston took the lead thanks to all of Drummond's misses. But Detroit eventually pulled away and won the game, 123-114.

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Afterwards, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy was incredulous, "That's the game the league wants, so that's what fans get to watch." Drummond wound up shooting 13 of 36 from the free throw line, and sat out the final five and a half minutes.

Of course, Houston is very familiar with the hack-a-bad free throw shooter strategy since opposing teams routinely send Dwight Howard and Clint Capela to the line. The Clippers endure it almost nightly with DeAndre Jordan. Heck, the Bulls even tried it against Indiana big man Ian Mahinmi last month.

The larger issue involves how the strategy affects the paying customers. No one wants to watch bad free throw shooters go to the line over and over again and slow the pace of the game to a crawl. Coaches around the league detest the strategy, but they'll still employ it to help their team make up a deficit.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has already said he won't act unilaterally to change the strategy, but there are two easily enforceable options to fix it. The NBA could go to the college rule where an intentional foul means two free throws and possession, or they could implement a rule where the team that's received an intentional foul can choose between shooting the two free throws or maintaining possession with a reset 24 second clock. Either idea would end the boring, time-consuming hack-a-bad free throw shooter immediately, while still allowing teams to extend close games late by fouling while making a legitimate play on the ball.

Back to that Houston-Detroit game, did you catch James Harden's stat line from that game? Harden's became the first player to have at least 33 points, 17 rebounds and 14 assists in a game since Wilt Chamberlain had 53 points, 32 rebounds and 14 assists for Philadelphia against the Lakers on March 18, 1968, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

And, congratulations to former Bulls' center Tyson Chandler, a player I always enjoyed covering during his time in Chicago. Chandler pulled down 27 rebounds in the Suns' upset win over Atlanta on Saturday, tying the previous franchise record held by Paul Silas. Charles Barkley is next on the list with 26.

Earlier in the column, I mentioned the possibility of the Bulls owning 21st round draft picks this summer. The second one would come from Sacramento, by virtue of the Luol Deng trade with Cleveland in January of 2014, if the Kings fall outside the Top 10 picks.

Right now, Sacramento is playing its best basketball in years, led by the unlikely combo of mercurial talents Cousins and Rondo. Cousins, in particular, has been dominant, collecting over 30 points and 10 rebounds in eight of his last 11 games, including a career-high 48 point explosion in the Kings' win over Indiana on Saturday.

Any chance of Sacramento trading Cousins is gone now that he's established himself as the league's best center. If George Karl has any more issues with Cousins going forward, you can bet General Manager Vlade Divac will choose Boogie, and let Karl quit if he’s not happy.

The Kings had won five straight games heading into the new week to take over the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, which means they would have to convey the No. 15 pick to the Bulls. A lot could change between now and mid-April, but barring an injury to Cousins, Sacramento looks like the team to beat for that last playoff spot. The Bulls will take on Cousins and the Kings in Sacramento on Feb. 3.

(Video courtesy of NBA.com)

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STATS OF THE WEEK

Here's more of the outstanding work by Comcast SportsNet's stats whiz, Chris Kamka.

Kobe Bryant has played in a regular season game against:

- Robert Parish (born 8/30/1953)

- Rashad Vaughn (born 8/16/1996)

The youngest player in NBA this season (Devin Booker) has not yet played against Kobe. He was born four days before Kobe Bryant's 11/3/1996 NBA Debut.

Oldest Bulls players with 30+ point game

35 years, 196 days:  Pau Gasol 1/18/2016 at DET

35 years, 165 days: Pau Gasol 12/18/2015 vs DET

35 years, 117 days: Michael Jordan 6/14/1998 at UTAH (playoffs; Jordan's last game with Bulls)

The Bulls' 1-20 shooting from three-point range against Golden State was their worst (minimum 15 attempts) since Nov. 9, 2004 (1-21).

Steph Curry is well on his way to a second straight MVP award.

- 18 times this season a player has made 8+ threes in a game.  Warriors have 10 of them (eight for Stephen Curry, two for Klay Thompson)

- From 1985-86 to present, nobody has more games with 8+ threes than Stephen Curry (18).  J.R. Smith is next with 14.

- This season Curry has 20 games with at least five three pointers made.  He has NO games this season with zero three pointers made.

- Curry has made at least one three pointer in 113 consecutive regular season games (last time without one: Nov. 11, 2014 vs Spurs). Including playoffs, his streak is at 134 games (hit a three in all 21 playoff games last season).

Highest Road PPG - last 20 seasons

33.8 — Kobe Bryant (2005-06)

33.4 — Stephen Curry (2015-16)

32.7 — Allen Iverson (2005-06)

32.0 — Kevin Durant (2013-14)

31.8 — LeBron James (2005-06)

31.5 — LeBron James (2008-09)

31.2 — Michael Jordan (1996-97)

31.2 — Tracy McGrady (2002-03)

31.0 — LeBron James (2009-10)

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WARRIORS PURSUIT OF 72 WINS

Bulls fans had a chance to watch the juggernaut that is the Warriors last week at the United Center. It seemed like Golden State's players were pumped up by seeing the 72 wins designation on the Bulls' 1995-96 championship banner hanging from the rafters, because they played an almost flawless game, including 38 assists on their 50 made field goals. After watching their demolitions of the Bulls and Cavs, it's hard not to like their chances of getting to 72 wins this season. And, Golden State catches a small break for Monday's showdown against San Antonio, with the Spurs deciding to rest Tim Duncan.

With all that said, I'm bumping their chances to 50 percent, up from 40 percent just a week ago.

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KERR STILL HAS THE MAGIC TOUCH FROM 3 POINT RANGE

Former Bulls' guard and 1997 Finals hero Steve Kerr finally made his return to the bench last week after a long rehab dealing with complications from offseason back surgery.

And, while running the Warriors' shootaround the morning of their game in Cleveland, Kerr made a 3 pointer that even Steph Curry would have a tough time matching.

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QUOTES OF THE WEEK

James following the Cavs' 132-98 humiliation at the hands of Golden State: "Against the top teams, you want to play well, and we haven't done that. We're 0-3," James said of Cleveland's record against Golden State and San Antonio. "Tonight was an example of how far we have to go to win a championship."

Butler following the Bulls' 125-94 blowout at the hands of Golden State: "We're too worried about offense too much at times. We don't play defense, we don't rebound, we don't get back. It's not the bigs, it's on everybody. When we're not guarding, we're not a very good team."

Maybe the NBA should just cancel the finals and award the title to the Western Conference champion.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.