Bulls

NBA's Central Divison no longer a pushover

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NBA's Central Divison no longer a pushover

One of the keys to the Bulls finishing with the NBAs best record last season was their dominance of division opponents. The Bulls went 15-1 against Central Division foes, the only loss coming late in the season at Indiana.

Unfortunately, things will be a lot tougher this season, as both the Pacers and Bucks appear to be much improved. Dont forget, Indiana gave the Bulls a battle in their first round playoff series last spring, and theyve made some significant improvements to their roster. Armed with some serious cap room, Pacers President Larry Bird signed former All-Star power forward David West to a two year contract, and hes trying to bring in former 6th man of the year Jamal Crawford, who was one of the Bulls targets early in free agency.

Bottom line, Indiana figures to be a much stronger team this season. Theyll have plenty of offense with Danny Granger, West, possibly Crawford, point guard Darren Collison, promising second year man Paul George and 72 center Roy Hibbert. The Pacers also have quality depth with Tyler Hansbrough, George and combo guard George Hill, who was acquired in a trade with San Antonio before the lockout. Hill averaged 11.6 points for the Spurs last season, and hes started 48 games over the last two years in place of the often-injured Tony Parker. Look for Indiana to make an upwards move in the Eastern Conference playoff field, possibly challenging for a 5th or 6th seed.

Ninety miles to the north in Milwaukee, Scott Skiles should also have a much-improved team this season. The Bucks made a good trade just before the draft in June, acquiring Stephen Jackson, Shaun Livingston and Beno Udrih in a three-team deal with Charlotte and Sacramento. Jackson will provide a veteran influence and consistent scoring from the wing, something the Bucks didnt always get from former Fenwick H.S. star Corey Maggette last season.

The Bucks were decimated by injuries a year ago, losing point guard Brandon Jennings, power forward Drew Gooden and center Andrew Bogut for long stretches of the season. Bogut was considered one of the best young centers in the league before that terrifying fall late in the 2009-2010 regular season. Now that hes had another year to rehab that gruesome elbow and wrist injury, he should be closer to his pre-injury form. Dont forget, Bogut averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots in the season he was injured. And, Milwaukee added another shooter by signing free agent Mike Dunleavy, Jr. to a two-year contract.

The Pistons and Cavaliers dont look like playoff contenders, but Detroit will be better with Lawrence Frank running the show. Former coach John Kuester was extremely unpopular with the players, and everyone should benefit from a fresh start. There is talent on the roster with veterans like Tayshaun Prince, Ben Gordon, Rodney Stuckey and second year forward Greg Monroe, who came on strong late in his rookie year. The Pistons also added one of the top young guards available in the draft in Kentuckys Brandon Knight.

Clevelands roster is still a work in progress, but the Cavs did add the top player in the draft, Duke point guard Kyrie Irving. They are a long way from returning to playoff contention, but should be a lot more competitive.

So, how many wins can the Bulls come up with over a 66 game schedule? Im thinking somewhere in the 42-45 range, which should be good for a Top 3 seed in the East. What are your thoughts? Please post your comments in the section below.

Dont forget the Bulls start their pre-season schedule against Indiana Friday night. Well have the re-match against the Pacers on Comcast SportsNet Dec. 20th.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against LeBron and the Cavaliers

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against LeBron and the Cavaliers

Here are Three Things to Watch in the Bulls' Tuesday night tilt against the Cavaliers on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live.

1. LeBron James will be on your television

Love him or hate him, LeBron James is must-see TV. Now in his 15th NBA season, James has shown no signs of slowing down. Despite playing just one preseason game (against the Bulls), James has shown anything but rust in three games, averaging 25.0 points on 60 percent shooting, 8.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists in nearly 37 minutes. He's a threat every night to do something you've never seen on a basketball court, His Airness included. Justin Holiday and Paul Zipser will have their hands full against the game's best player.

2. Lauri Markkanen, Week 2

Small sample size alert! But through the season's first week Markkanen and Ben Simmons are the only rookies averaging a double-double (Dallas' Dennis Smith has played just one game, averaging 16 points and 10 assists). While the Bulls have struggled through two games, Markkanen's net rating is third best on the team and he leads the Bulls bigs in rebounds per game and rebound percentage. Markkanen has shown some versatility offensively, and his 7 free-throw attempts have been a nice surprise as well.

3. Don't forget: The Bulls swept the Cavaliers last year

OK, so expecting a victory Tuesday night in Cleveland isn't smart. The Bulls will be underdogs just like they were in each of the four games last season, all of which were Bulls winners. It was the first time in 52 division series that LeBron James had been swept, which is pretty remarkable considering the Bulls were the No. 8 seed and the Cavs coasted to a third straight NBA Finals. We're not over here predicting a win. But just remember: the Bulls have fared well against James in the regular season.

Zach LaVine not sweating contract extension, anxious to get back in uniform

Zach LaVine not sweating contract extension, anxious to get back in uniform

The Zach LaVine timeline for a Bulls debut remains the same, although he’s ahead of schedule in every metric of his return from ACL surgery this past February.

It doesn’t mean he isn’t angling for more work and pushing his limits to learn the offense he’ll be featured in, along with taking contact “here and there,” in his words. He’s supposed to wait nine months from the day of his February 14 surgery before taking contact, which would put him at a November 14 practice before the Bulls go to Oklahoma City.

“I should be doing contact really soon. It all depends on them,” LaVine said in his first public words since media day several weeks ago. “I’m pushing them as hard as I can, but at the end of the day we still gotta be careful. I feel great. I’m doing everything I was doing before. I’m pretty sure I can do contact, but we’ve got to stick to that schedule. But every day I’m just getting back, trying to as close to 100 percent as I can before I come back.”

LaVine was at Air Canada Centre getting a workout in before the Bulls opener against the Raptors and has gotten in heavy workouts on the off days with the assistant coaches in the meantime.

Sticking to the schedule will be on both LaVine and the Bulls, although both sides could be tempted to cut corners a bit. It would be human nature for the Bulls to show the NBA world their centerpiece from the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night, as well as LaVine to want to be the frontline player he feels he deserves to be.

“Yeah, it’s definitely hard. I don’t like missing games,” LaVine said. “Before the injury I didn’t really miss any games. I think I missed one or two in my career, so it really sucks just sitting there, not being able to help. I try to help as much as I can from the sideline. You know, give a little advice here and there, but yeah it hurts.”

He’s also in line for a big-time extension, having passed the deadline for extensions for players in his 2014 draft class. He’ll have to wait until the summer, especially since it didn’t make sense for him to extend unless it was a max deal.

“Obviously, I want to be here for a long time,” LaVine said. “And I feel the deal is going to get done, either then or next summer. I don’t have any fear in that. I think I know I’ll be in black and red for a little bit longer. I’m very happy and looking forward to that day as well. The main concern is just getting back on the court, get my legs ready and try to help the team as much as possible until then.”

LaVine was averaging a career-high 18.9 points as a third option behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but will be featured in Fred Hoiberg’s offense as a first and maybe even second option, too—especially seeing how anemic the Bulls offense has looked in the first two games.

“With the team that we have and the system that (Fred Hoiberg) put in, we’re going to get up a lot of threes,” LaVine said. “When we’re on we’re going to blow some teams out with those threes. When we’re off, as the last couple games have shown, it’s going to be a struggle to score sometimes, but I think that’s where I can come in and help, and I can’t wait to get out there and start playing.”

Never lacking for confidence, LaVine hasn’t been deterred by the losing or even the unfortunate Bobby Portis-Nikola Mirotic incident from last week.

“We’re building something here. People understand we’re going through a little bit of that process,” LaVine said. “But we’re going to play and win. When I’m on the court, I’m trying to win. Wins and losses do happen. We can always take positives from both of those. That’s how you grow.”

As for Mirotic, LaVine hasn’t spoken to him but has sent texts—as it seems many of the Bulls have reached out to their teammate over the last several days.

“It was unfortunate. That’s what happens when two players are battling I guess,” LaVine said. “I don’t think either of them were in the wrong. It was just something that happened, an altercation. Men are men sometimes. We never should have that happen. But I think we’ve moved past it. Bobby’s in a good spot. We’ve all tried to contact Niko. I think we’ll all be able to move forward.”