On the latest Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill, Will Perdue, and Vincent Goodwill react to the Bulls loss to San Antonio and the ankle injury to Lauri Markkanen. The group will also discuss Paul Zipser’s role in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, and the potential for lineup changes vs the Thunder. Plus a lightning round Q+A with early season MVP, are the Pistons are for real?, and Kendall’s candid answer on the future of Illini basketball.
Cristiano Felicio first earned minutes two seasons ago as an unheralded big man with a soft voice, quick feet and soft hands that spoke volumes more than a low-toned voice.
Now he carries the same low-toned voice and is still low-key but has become enough of a commodity for the Bulls to reward him with a four-year contract worth $32 million, a deal reached in the opening hours of free agency.
As painful as this new direction the Bulls are traveling in expects to be, a decision on bringing back Felicio was as much a no-brainer for the Bulls as Felicio’s answer to what he’ll do with a pay increase that rises to $8 million annually from roughly $875,000 last season.
“I'm planning on getting my mom a house, and after that I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the money,” Felicio said on a conference call with media Thursday afternoon.
“It feels great. Since I got here, I thought the Bulls had a great organization and they've worked with me since Day 1 and they wanted me to continue to be here and working and putting the Bulls jersey on. So for me it was great to sign with them again because I'm very happy here and I'm glad that I'm coming back.”
Assuming the Bulls don’t unload starting center Robin Lopez, Felicio will continue his progression as a dependable rebounder and finisher around the rim, as he averaged 11 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes. With the raw numbers, Felicio averaged nearly 4.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in 15.8 minutes as a roller to the rim on pick and rolls.
Now he says he hopes to improve on his midrange game as the Bulls hope to employ Fred Hoiberg’s wide-open system next season. Wins and losses won’t matter as much as player development and with Felicio turning 25 on Friday, he believes he’ll progress as quickly in the seasons to come as he has in the first two years in Chicago.
“For sure I was surprised. Because like I said when I got here, nobody knew me,” Felicio said. “And for the first six, seven months I was just working, staying on the court trying to improve my game. So to be able to end the first season the way I did, for sure, was eye-opening to me for what I could do in the future.”
He had his best games of the year when the 2015-16 season wound down and the road was cleared with Joakim Noah out with injury and Pau Gasol headed for free agency.
Considering he came from Pouso Alegre, Brazil, not exactly a basketball hotbed for NBA prospects, the positive reinforcement was necessary.
“Everyone who's been with me since the beginning knows how hard I worked, how many "nos" I got in the beginning of my career, how hard it was for me to get to this point,” Felicio said. “Even when people doubted me, I tried not to listen to it and just keep working, keep improving.
“Now I've been here for a year or two, and to get this contract now is a blessing because I have been working since I was like 13. I've had really bad moments and moments when I thought I wasn't going to be able to go anywhere in the back of my head. My mom helped me throughout everything. My family was with me. And to be here now, coming from a city where sports is not even a big thing, it's unreal.”
Now he’s one of Hoiberg’s dependables, as the Bulls will have only a few holdovers from last season and still are engaged in contract negotiations with Nikola Mirotic, a fellow restricted free agent with whom Felicio shares an agent.
“Yeah, for sure they're going in a new direction,” Felicio said. “We have a lot of young guys, a lot of guys that are hard workers and I know a few of them from my last two years here. I'm sure it's going in a great direction. Not a lot of people are putting faith in us, but if we keep working, when the season starts I'm sure we'll have pretty good season.”
The parquet floor of the Boston Garden can be alluring to observers but unsettling to visitors as the youth of the Bulls will get thrown into the playoff water on the deep end without a life raft this weekend.
The team that the Bulls brass often touts as having so many players with three years of NBA experience or fewer, it’ll surely come into play in the first two games as the Bulls will try to steal a game in the Garden.
For that to happen, they’ll need to lean on the experience of the veterans who won’t be awed or overwhelmed by the atmosphere. Bulls guard Rajon Rondo spit out the clichéd line about the series not starting until a road team wins a game, but for these Bulls it holds as much truth as it does for most, as they’ll need some serious positive reinforcement.
The last time they walked into Boston on March 12, they were sent home smarting after a 20-point whipping during the period when the Bulls were trotting out 12 men in an attempt to “evaluate” players as opposed to trying to win.
Whether that game sticks out in their minds is anyone’s guess and despite some of the puzzling losses they’ve suffered since, they haven’t had their doors blown off since they started to find themselves shortly thereafter.
First-timers Jerian Grant, Paul Zipser and Bobby Portis look to be in line for serious reserve minutes, along with Nikola Mirotic going through the postseason for the second time and Cris Felicio getting back into the rotation recently after a lower back injury.
Denzel Valentine has been out of the rotation recently but as a 3-point threat he could be called upon at some point.
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The Bulls and Celtics tied the season series with two wins apiece, each winning on the other’s floor. The season opener was dramatic as Dwyane Wade punctuated his debut with a step-back 3-pointer that finished off a 105-99 win, as he scored 22.
“We weren’t the only team in the NBA to have a challenging season,” Dwyane Wade said. “This is what happens when you play in a challenging league. I’m proud of these young guys who have the opportunity to play in the playoffs.”
Wade has certainly had his share of battles with the Celtics over the years, both as a favorite and an underdog as a member of the Miami Heat. Rondo, of course, is a big part of recent Celtics lore, the point man for the 2008 title team and the others that were a conference fixture from that point on until the team was broken up after the 2012-13 season.
“I like this group, we have good, experienced guys,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Obviously with Wade and Rondo with their championship experience and Jimmy has played in some huge games.”
Hoiberg walking into the playoffs as a novice probably isn’t understated, either, but he knows enough to know the Celtics are not a club to be trifled with—as Isaiah Thomas is one of the best scoring guards in the league and the Celtics have plenty of wings to throw at Wade and Jimmy Butler in Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart.
“It’s obviously a very talented team, a very versatile team,” Hoiberg said. “They have skilled guys at all five positions on the floor, basically at all times. They have guys who can shoot it, make plays, put it on the floor.”
The Celtics are the No. 1 seed in the East, but certainly not the most feared—as long as LeBron James has working limbs, every conversation starts with him. But the Celtics have arrived as a threat a bit ahead of schedule at the top of the conference, almost trying to wait and season their young pieces while the James flame doesn’t burns slowly instead of being the towering inferno it’s been for the decade.
Come Sunday, the Bulls will find out if the Celtics are a bit premature with their arrival and if their young players are still in the incubator.