Bulls

Sam: An early glimpse around the NBA

312713.jpg

Sam: An early glimpse around the NBA

Friday, Nov. 12, 2010
4:21 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

After Blake Griffin's stellar debut performance, many observers seemed prepared to hand the 2009 NBA Draft's top pick the Rookie of the Year award some he would have won if not for missing his entire "true" inaugural campaign. While most of that had to do with the former Oklahoma star's prodigious blend of power, athleticism and skill, some of it was due to 2010 No. 1 overall draft choice John Wall's woeful shooting night in Washington's decidedly non-competitive season-opening blowout loss at the hands of Orlando.

Fast forward to the present, and although Griffin has remained productive for an initially (let's give ex-Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro some time to turn things around) dysfunctional Clippers squad, he hasn't received consistent opportunities although the recent injury to center Chris Kaman could change that.

Meanwhile, Wall--who makes his Chicago regular-season debut Saturday night--is coming off his first career triple-double (a 29-point, 10-rebound, six-assist effort, with six steals and only one turnover, to boot) in Washington's victory Wednesday. Although his team isn't exactly a contender, not only has Wall's shooting been better than advertised, but he's been dynamic defensively (the speedster's already recorded a nine-steal outing) and doing the "Dougie" aside, has displayed a mature approach beyond his years.

The fact that he'll have the ball in his hands the majority of the time (despite ex-primary ballhandlers Gilbert Arenas and former Bull Kirk Hinrich alongside him) means that although his rookie mistakes will be magnified, Wall will also have more chances for success. Of course, it's still extremely early to make any definitive judgments and Griffin should develop into a fine player, but logic and evidence both point to Wall making the bigger immediate impact.

Dilemma in Philly

The No. 2 pick in the draft, Chicago product Evan Turner, has had an uneven start to the season thus far. New 76ers head coach Doug Collins has been tinkering with his early-season rotation to try to find a balance between playing veterans and creating opportunities for his talented youngsters, like Turner.

Perhaps the best thing that could have happened to the former Ohio State star was Springfield, Ill., native Andre Iguodala, one of the NBA's ironmen, recently missing games with injury. Philly fans had been previously clamoring for Turner to see more action, but playing the same position as the team's star isn't quite the recipe for more minutes as a rookie.

Besides being swingmen and hailing from the same state, Turner and Iguodala share other similarities. Both are versatile, yet ball-dominant talents, who aren't proficient outside shooters.

Iguodala's name has come up in numerous trade rumors as of late (most recently, relocating to New Orleans to join up with Chris Paul; speculation of him being a key piece in a potential Carmelo Anthony deal also hasn't yet ceased), but regardless of his reported discontent, something has to give, as the Sixers have been seemingly stuck in neutral for the past few seasons, ever since deciding to let veteran point guard Andre Miller walk in free agency.

Not only does Turner need more playing time, but the team's reins have seemingly been foisted upon second-year point guard Jrue Holiday by Collins, top executive Rod Thorn and the organization in general. Add reserve guard and scoring machine Lou Williams to the mix, and that's way too many perimeter guys who prefer playing on the ball.

The situation doesn't end there, as the once highly-regarded Thaddeus Young can't seem to find a niche (already shifting between forward spots, Young--one of many class of 2007 draftees that didn't receive an extension--has been supplanted by veteran and ex-Bull Andres Nocioni, a Sixers offseason acquisition) after a promising start to his career. Couple that with talented young big man Marreese Speights languishing in Collins' rotation--despite the underwhelming play of center Spencer Hawes, who came to Philly from Sacramento with "Noce"--and it's almost a sure bet that a move is made by the February trade deadline.

Look on the bright side--at least former Bull Elton Brand looks to have regained a semblance of his former self under Collins, making his hefty and virtually untradeable contract appear a lot better.

Just Like Clockwork in Utah

After a rocky start to the season--All-Star point guard Deron Williams almost tearing off rookie Gordon Hayward's head in the midst of the team getting blown out was surely the Final Four hero's "welcome to the NBA" moment--the Utah Jazz are rolling. Was there ever any doubt that they would eventually do so. Well, just maybe.

Losing what seemed to be half of the team to the Bulls in the offseason (not to mention second-year swingman Wesley Matthews to Portland, after the Trailblazers made an overwhelming offer to the former undrafted free agent) was a huge blow, although salvaging the summer with the highway robbery of big man Al Jefferson from Minnesota eased the pain a bit.

But when Jefferson reportedly arrived to training camp out of shape, a closer examination of the roster revealed unproven commodities (Hayward, backup center Kyryl Fesenko and second-round pick Jeremy Evans) and possibly over-the-hill fill-ins (such as Raja Bell and Earl Watson) in key roles, a handful of unimpressive early losses appeared disastrous to some observers.

Then came Utah's last three games, in which the Jazz overcame double-digit halftime deficits to wind up victorious, most notably in a early-season classic against the Heat, in which power forward Paul Millsap went for a career-high 46 points. Williams is obviously the team's leader--and also the player who many believe is the best point guard in the NBA, although a healthy Chris Paul is staking claim to his former throne--and Jefferson was the squad's big-ticket acquisition, but Millsap's emergence from reliable reserve to prime-time player could be the formula needed to keep the Jazz in contention.

Now out of currently sidelined Bulls power forward Carlos Boozer's shadow, Millsap is relishing his new role and thriving in it. In a stacked yet wide-open Western Conference (sans the two-time defending champion Lakers), Utah wasn't even viewed as the best team in Northwest Division entering the season--that title went to young Oklahoma City--but at the end of the day, who really wants to bet against the grit of the blue-collar Millsap, the brilliance of Williams, a still-adjusting Jefferson (who possesses the best low-post offensive game this side of Pau Gasol) and Jerry Sloan, the league's longest tenured coach, who puts all the pieces in place while running his vaunted flex offense? Exactly.

BoshHeat

Not to pile on the guy in the wake of his possibly misinterpreted "good cable TV" comments (out of context or not, the remarks still lacked foresight), but Chris Bosh is having a devil of a time adjusting to the spotlight's glare in Miami--on and off the court.

It's unfortunate that Bosh, a likable guy by all accounts, has been roped into the "villainy" surrounding the Heat, but it shouldn't shock him. More concerning, however, should be his role in the Heat's disappointing start.

Bosh is an established talent, but even in Miami's wins, his inside presence and impact on the glass has been almost non-existent. Observers can point to the Heat's gaping holes at point guard and center, the team's unimaginative, mostly halfcourt style of play or the fact that either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade alternately dominates the ball while the other four players on the court simply watch, but when Bosh's backup--Udonis Haslem, at two inches shorter and making a fraction of his salary (the Miami native and longtime Heat player opted to return to the franchise for far less money than he could have commanded elsewhere on the free-agent market)--is more of an inside force, the scrutiny toward Bosh is justified.

Never known as a great defender during his Toronto days, Bosh did establish himself as a double-digit rebounder with the Raptors. There's been no sign of that in Miami.

Additionally, while the slender Bosh is much more comfortable playing a finesse game and facing the basket than posting up, sometimes sacrifices (such as the financial ones made by James and Wade in signing for less than a maximum free-agent contract; it was argued in July and can certainly be argued now that Bosh is a borderline max player and should receive less money) need to be made--unless Bosh (and the Heat coaching staff) considers himself truly incapable of playing more with his back to the basket.

Regardless of how it happens, Bosh must make an impact for Miami to realize its vast potential. But short of a complete game transformation, how would that take place?

Bosh isn't Dennis Rodman (nor will the Heat eclipse the 72-win Bulls team for which "The Worm" was a key component), but perhaps a focus on performing like the 2008 Olympics of himself would do the trick. On the star-studded "Redeem Team," he was an integral, if underrated player, who knew he wouldn't receive a lot of offensive touches, instead concentrating on offensive rebounding, running the floor in transition and being active on the defensive end. That version of Bosh was willing to do the dirty work, make the hustle plays and even mute his skilled offensive game for the ultimate reward: winning.

James and Wade were on that squad, too, but the magnitude of their skills and stardom allowed them to play virtually the same games they do in the NBA, even with a group full of remarkable individual talents. James functioned as the alpha-dog all-around player and lead facilitator (even putting supreme floor generals Paul and Williams in supporting roles), while Wade was the same relentlessly attacker he's always been, taking turns with fellow scoring machines Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony.

And those are the roles the duo will eventually play for the Heat, if they are to reach the success that's expected of them. Of course, chemistry and offensive flow will need to develop, team defense can't be overstated and the squad's role players must be consistent (and improve, namely at--again--point guard and center), but options No. 1 and 1A will almost certainly do what they've always done.

It's up to the (distant) third fiddle to swallow his pride, step to the challenge--something he was accused of not doing as the leader of some mediocre Raptors teams--and block out any and all distractions. This is what he--more so than Wade, who stayed put, or even James, whose every move was analyzed long before "The Decision"--wanted, since he had the option to be the top option or at least a much closer second in other free-agent scenarios.

Now is the time to put up or shut up for Bosh, because it definitely won't get any easier from here, as premature calls for him to be traded (it won't be future Hall of Famers James or Wade, Haslem can easily step in for him and nobody else on Miami's aging and inflexible roster would bring back any value) will surely grow louder. The Heat is truly on.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms 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.

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

22752696_10155487323821858_1170167000_n.jpg
USA TODAY

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

Denzel Valentine corralled a rebound and casually dribbled up the right side of the floor, unaware of the final 5 seconds ticking off the clock in the third quarter. The second-year shooting guard moved toward the basket as the buzzer sounded, only realizing his gaffe as the red lights behind the backboard lit up. It was that kind of night for the Bulls offense, and one that highlighted carelessness, a lack of talent and obvious growing pains as the rebuild begins.

Fred Hoiberg’s group finished with more turnovers (20) than assists (18), shot 38 percent from the field and were doubled up on points in the paint in an ugly 87-77 loss to the Spurs on Saturday night. Adding to the issues were only nine free-throw attempts and 28 percent shooting from deep on a night where the Bulls played well enough defensively to earn a win.

But they couldn’t take advantage of a Spurs team playing without Kawhi Leonard. The ball stopped for long periods of time in the halfcourt, the fast break was non-existent and miscommunications were frequent, even when they didn’t result in one of those 20 turnovers.

“We had 20 turnovers that led to 23 points…that’s what kills you,” Hoiberg said. “A team goes on a run and they get easy ones, pick-sixes, you’re all of a sudden in a big hole. And obviously did not shoot the ball well today.”

The struggles came from across the board. Only Cris Felicio was turnover-less of the nine Bulls who played. The backcourt tandem of Jerian Grant and Justin Holiday combined for 11 of 32 shooting. Rookie Lauri Markkanen showed flashes with eight first-half points, but finished 5 of 14 and committed three ugly turnovers. Robin Lopez made the first 3-pointer of his career 630 games in, but a 29-year-old leading the way for a young rebuilding group could be deemed bittersweet at best.

It capped off a whirlwind first week for the Bulls, who dealt on the fly with the fallout of the altercation between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis. Losing Mirotic and Portis hurt from a talent standpoint, but it also threw a wrench into Hoiberg’s rotation and scheme. It thrust 20-year-old Markkanen into the starting lineup; Paul Zipser has shifted to playing more power forward (while also starting at small forward); Lopez is being asked to score more than ever, and at times be the primary option.

“With everything we’ve had going on the past week, with playing guys different positions that they haven’t played yet,” Hoiberg said, “we’re still trying to figure out exactly how we’re going to go out there and play. We’re getting stuck at times because guys are in the wrong spots.”

The Bulls opened Saturday night with a solid first quarter, scoring 21 points, assisting on nine of 12 baskets and committing just three turnovers.

The final three quarters couldn’t have been more different. The second unit again struggled like it did in allowing the Raptors a 20-2 second-quarter run on Tuesday. Even without Leonard the Spurs’ defensive length cut off passing and driving lanes, forcing the Bulls to dribble down the shot clock and turn to isolation basketball or contested 3-pointers.

The Spurs couldn’t pull away thanks to an inspired defensive effort by the Bulls, but the offensive stalling rendered it moot; the Bulls took 28 3-pointers and 37 shots in the paint, an ugly ratio when considering the nine free-throw attempts. The bench shot 7-for-19, but most of that came in garbage time.

“One thing we definitely need to work on is attacking the basket,” Lopez said. “I think there are times where we all get a little jumper-happy on the perimeter. I think we need to have a good balance.

We need to be aware of that. We’re a team that doesn’t have a lot of room for error so any time we concede the ball like that, we don’t get up a shot attempt, tat’s going to really hurt us.”

Kris Dunn may be closer than expected to returning to the lineup after dislocating his finger in the preseason. It would give the Bulls help on that dismayed second unit, knocking Kay Felder (3 turnovers in 15 minutes) out of the rotation. Once Mirotic and Portis return in November, Hoiberg will have more flexibility with his rotations as well as some insurance if frontcourt foul trouble arrives.

None are go-to scorers, and not even Zach LaVine's 19.8 points per game last season will save the Bulls once he's healthy. Season-long struggles like Saturday night are on the way for a young team searching for pieces of the future. That's expected, and in the long term it benefits them as more Lottery balls roll toward Chicago.

But in a season in which success will be judged not on wins and losses but improvement from game-to-game, but the Bulls have set the bar low in the season's first week.