Bulls

Know your enemy: La Russa, Sveum and The Cubs Way

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Know your enemy: La Russa, Sveum and The Cubs Way

ST. LOUIS When Tom Ricketts began looking for a new executive to run baseball operations last summer, the Cubs chairman wanted a sense of how the other 29 major-league teams ran.

Staffers analyzed how teams spent their money and where they got their returns. The Red Sox model had fascinated Cubs executives, so it was no surprise that Theo Epstein became the target.

But the Brewers stood out for being so resourceful in building that homegrown core. The Yankees made headlines for signing big-name free agents, but they probably didnt get enough credit for developing their own talent.

Maybe one day the Cubs will get their renovated version of Wrigley Field, Sheffield Avenue closed off on gamedays and a PBS documentary, just like Fenway Park.

But if this works, the Cubs wont be one-dimensional, simply stealing from the Red Sox. They already went behind enemy lines to hire first-base coach Dave McKay, who spent 26 seasons on Tony La Russas staff and will receive his World Series ring on Saturday at Busch Stadium.

On some level, The Cubs Way will borrow from the Cardinals.

Thats the reason Im here, McKay said. I remember (former Cardinals pitching coach) Dave Duncan and I talked last season when we were in (Chicago. We saw some) article where Mr. Ricketts was talking about the plans.

We were saying to each other (were) worried about it these guys are going to get good fast.

No one knows how long that will take. But McKay says first-year manager Dale Sveum reminds him a lot of La Russa, the future Hall of Famer.

Ive even told Tony: Hes got a lot of you in him, McKay said. (Its) the attention to detail, routines, making sure that they get the message. I really think these Cubs are on the right track. Im happy to be a part of it. I think there are some big things to happen here.

When Sveum interviewed for the Cubs job, he could say that he played for La Russa, Jim Leyland and Joe Torre near the end of his big-league career, a point where he was thinking about managing. That time around the As in 1993 left an impression.

(La Russa) was always ahead of the game, Sveum said. Hell push the envelope. Hell try things that I dont think other managers (would).

Watching a guy like that, you learn, and I think a lot of people learned in the postseason about (how he used) a bullpen. (He) kept going to them and it probably won them the World Series.

Sveum recalled how La Russa put him in left field one day, even though he had never played the position before.

The thing with Tony was he always gave the bench players an opportunity. But hed always put them in situations where they were going to succeed.

Sveum laughed: Meaning me, because I was always on the bench. You feel good about yourself, except when one day I had to face Randy Johnson and he struck out 17 that day or something like that.

He just (put) faith in people: Oh, just go out there and you cant screw it up that bad. But, sure enough, when you do that, the guy you put in the lineup would get two hits that day. (He) had a great feel all the time for what his role players could do off certain pitchers.

So Sveum will get inside players heads, push his team to run the bases aggressively and hammer away at fundamentals. Utility man Joe Mather who spent a decade in the Cardinals organization recognized the methods.

Our camp this year, the feel, Mather said, resembled a lot of what Tony liked to do over in St. Louis. I feel like theyre trying to attribute a lot of the really good things and good ideas that St. Louis had here. Its a great place to start.

The Cardinals made the playoffs nine times in the 16 seasons McKay worked with La Russa. Thats the sustained success the Cubs are talking about.

The organization as a whole doesnt have enough impact talent yet. The new collective bargaining agreement shredded the financial advantages Epstein had planned to exploit in the draft and internationally. Its still too early for players to start tuning out Sveum.

But at Clark and Addison, there is finally a sense of stability, and that could go a long way.

Everything I feel like always starts from the top, Mather said. Thats going to be our owners, down to Theo, down to Dale. Theyve really taken a lot of responsibility and put themselves in the position to be accountable for everything. They set up a good program for this organization.

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

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USA TODAY

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

It’s what every fan base deserves, along with players on a roster where tough conversations must be had to set a course for the present in order to secure a better future.

Transparency.

It’s ugly and while not aesthetically pleasing to the eye, everyone can see what the Bulls are doing for the remainder of the NBA season. For the paying customers who still fill the seats at the United Center, it’s a “cry now so hopefully you laugh later” proposition.

Bulls Executive-Vice President John Paxson addressed the media Tuesday and said what we all knew to be true, what everyone knew what was coming.

He didn’t stand up in front of cameras and tape recorders and ask, “Do you like Brazilian music?”

They’re tanking.

They’re putting a little bit more sugar to go with it but it’s old-fashioned ‘tussin for the next several weeks.

All of this is due to sight unseen—unless you watch college basketball or cue up European basketball highlights.

When you see Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson take two hard dribbles from the top of the key, spin and dunk while being fouled, it makes sense.

When Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton help on a driving guard to cut off a lane, recover to block a 3-point shot and run the floor for a layup in a six-second span, it makes sense.

When Duke’s Marvin Bagley III seals his defender with one arm, catches with his left hand and finishes on the opposite side of the rim with ease, it all makes sense and kudos to the Bulls for not trying to fool a smart public with useless rhetoric.

Every loss counts, of course, but the key thing about the NBA is this: No matter where a team picks, bad franchises make the worst of a good opportunity and good franchises make the best of any situation.

If the Bulls are the latter, it’ll show itself whether they pick fourth or second or sixth. This draft’s best player went 13th, Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. Lauri Markkanen is in competition for best player after Mitchell and he went seventh.

This was inevitable from the moment the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler on draft night. Although Kris Dunn has turned out to be a revelation and Markkanen could be a superstar, none of the micro wins should take away from the macro vision of this franchise, chief reason why Paxson has reasserted himself in the last year.

Paxson just framed it in the vein of long-term evaluation in announcing Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup, while Jerian Grant will see his playing time cut for Cameron Payne.

“Seeing some of our young guys play consistently, we’ve learned a lot about them,” Paxson said. “The hard thing when you do things like this is you’re asking certain people to sacrifice roles and minutes. And oftentimes, it’s veteran guys. That’s what we’re asking some of our vets to do right now—sacrifice some time on the floor and roles they’ve been very good in. That’s never an easy thing.”

Lopez and Holiday have been good soldiers through this process, especially helping navigate a fragile locker room after the crazy start to the season when Bobby Portis had enough of Nikola Mirotic in a practice and unleashed holy hell on a season that was supposed to be a quiet, boring losing season.

“I know what it’s like to be asked to take a lesser role,” Paxson said. “Players have pride. So it’s hard. I don’t take that lightly at all. It’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37 with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”

Lopez has had a solid season, with career-highs in scoring and assists. Holiday’s scoring has nearly doubled this season and he’ll garner some attention around the draft in the trade market.

But with the Bulls being eighth of the eight bad teams, they need to get Super Bad (with a nod to James Brown) in the next several weeks. It’s not that the rebuild is steps ahead, it’s that other teams are better at being incompetent than the Bulls—and they’ll also be doing whatever’s necessary to secure a draft position.

At least the Bulls’ competence has come in the form of long-term answers. Certainly at the end of the year, one can lament Zach LaVine saving the Bulls from losses to the Timberwolves and Magic with late-game plays that cements the belief he could be a front-facing player—especially with restricted free agency coming this summer.

If Payne happens to be a useful NBA player in the process, it’s gravy but the Bulls aren’t really expecting it.

Fred Hoiberg has been pumping up Payne publicly by referencing him playing the role of Isaiah Thomas in the playoff preparation last spring, but he hasn’t played NBA level basketball in over a year.

And when he was on the floor, for that ill-fated period after last year’s deadline when Hoiberg was playing 11 guys without a real plan to win, Payne looked overmatched and overwhelmed.

“We want to see him as a point guard, especially when you’re running with the second unit, and the way Fred wants to play, play with pace, defend your position, compete every night and stay within yourself,” Paxson said. “His role is to get us into offense quickly and efficiently and make the right play with the ball.”

Felicio has taken a step back in terms of his development after steady improvement over the last two years, but in the big picture they’re casualties in the NBA’s cost of doing business.

And if you believe it’s anything else besides what you’re seeing, you might believe Paxson is truly asking if you like Brazilian music.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”