Freb Hoiberg

Improving Cristiano Felicio glad to continue developing with Bulls

Improving Cristiano Felicio glad to continue developing with Bulls

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.”

Bulls will depend on leaders to help youngsters get acclimated to playoffs

Bulls will depend on leaders to help youngsters get acclimated to playoffs

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.

Play to win or play to develop and evaluate?

Play to win or play to develop and evaluate?

Dwyane Wade was cooking, fresh after a two-game absence and his body was giving him a little extra life, so he was going to continue this hot streak shortly after re-entering in the second quarter of Friday night’s game against the Rockets.

As Cameron Payne looked to inbound the ball to Wade after a turnover, Wade pitched it back to Payne to run the show—perhaps sensing his teammate needed a confidence boost after going five minutes without touching the ball.

A few seconds later, Payne and Wade were running back on defense after a Payne turnover when the point guard jumped in the air to pass and the ball wound up in the hands of a Rocket defender.

Rajon Rondo’s usually-poked out chest and forward-looking shoulders slumped down, and Wade grimaced a bit in frustration once play stopped. Several minutes later, that one play meant nothing as the Rockets went on an amazing 33-2 run that made the game a laugher and questioned the Bulls’ appetite for making the playoffs.

“We’re doing everything we can to compete to win, at the same time we have some young guys we wanna get on the floor. It’s a balance,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It’s guys, we want to get them out there and see how they play then make a decision in the second half.”

The seemingly impossibly vague task was laid out when the Bulls traded Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City for Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow.

Gibson was the third dependable nightly player on the roster along with Jimmy Butler and Wade. For a locker room that wants to make the playoffs, it was a gut punch. For the organization, it was deemed a necessary move to evaluate players like Payne, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine moving forward.

If one is keeping count, it makes Payne the third “point guard of the future” since Derrick Rose was traded before the draft, as Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams were the first two candidates.

When Hoiberg plays every active roster player except for the banished Nikola Mirotic in the first halves of games, it seems clear the business of basketball is getting in the way of winning.

“Hell yeah it’s hard. Absolutely. I want to win,” Rajon Rondo said to CSNChicago.com recently. “That’s what we’re here to do, is win. I had one goal when I came here: that’s to win. Business or not, that’s part of it.”

As much as it could help the Bulls in theory to “know what they have” going forward, it seems like getting a playoff berth would help the future prospects as much as anything.

“When you develop a business or have a brand, you want it to win, you want it to sell. You want it to do well,” Rondo said to CSNChicago.com. “I don’t think we do it to experiment or go different from that.”

Rondo was part of a 24-win Celtics team his rookie year, with Paul Pierce, Al Jefferson and Delonte West as the three leading scorers. Guys like Kendrick Perkins and Tony Allen were on the roster, developing but not impact players.

That June, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were added and the next June, Boston won the NBA title. Rondo had to deal with those personalities in his second season and figure it out on the fly.

But even he can’t say whether that miserable rookie season had any bearing on how he developed the next year and beyond, whether playing losing basketball did more good compared to watching winning basketball.

“There’s no exact answer, you gotta learn through experience,” Rondo said to CSNChicago.com. “We go out there, we’re in sixth place (tied at that point in the East)…I don’t feel like…I feel like we should be trying to move up.”

Now on the outside looking into the playoff picture, it wasn’t that way after the Bulls beat the Golden State Warriors on national TV. One could say the Bulls had an inside track at staying at the sixth spot ahead of Indiana and Detroit as opposed to the free fall since.

“(We should) continue to try to move up in seeding versus experimenting,” Rondo said.

Experimenting like Carter-Williams going from barely playing at all to being thrown in early against the Rockets because of his relative success against James Harden in their first meeting.

Experimenting like Grant being subbed out for Carter-Williams at the 8:45 mark of the first quarter against the Rockets after being the only one with a pulse two nights before in the fourth quarter against the Orlando Magic.

Grant only played 12 minutes against the Rockets, so was his lack of playing time related to matchups or evaluations?

Which brings things in Hoiberg’s direction, as it doesn’t seem like he has specific directives aside from knowing he has to play the young guys so they can be evaluated.

And to be clear, even before the recent alterations to the roster, there were plenty of gripes from the locker room about the lack of consistency in terms of player rotations and accountability from the start of the season.

One wonders if players can be evaluated or grow when there’s no consistency. With this process, how are the young players learning much of anything?

“Just no consistency at all… Our team overall. It’s difficult,” Rondo said. “We are losing some games in the fourth, some games we should win…I don’t know if we’re doing analytics, what we’re doing as far as who we play, who’s not. Everybody has to be ready when their name is called.”

It seems unfair to ask Hoiberg to play virtually everybody with the intent of player evaluation, as even the worst teams aren’t stock full of unproven talent. Some players are highlighted and pressed forward, others are left behind.

Even Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics was disgusted with the notion of coach Brad Stevens still tinkering too much with the rotation, this deep into the season.

But the Celtics are in a position where playoff seeding doesn’t matter as much as getting players ready for the postseason.

The Bulls don’t have that luxury, in terms of playoff positioning.

“You’re right,” Hoiberg said when presented with the notion hardly any team plays 12 players in a competitive game, leaving it to interpretation, like everything else in this Bulls season.

“I think it is a goal…for the majority of us,” said Rondo on the notion of winning. “I don’t know what the business side of it is. I’m not involved in it. We don’t know, we try to play with what we have and try to win. But the business part of it has the most control.”

Choosing his words very carefully, a notion repeated by Wade nights later, Rondo was asked if he was confused.

“It’s not confusing, it’s frustrating,” Rondo said. “I feel like I know what it is. I know what it is, but I don’t have all the answers, I may be wrong. But there’s no consistency.”

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Laughter is common in the Bulls locker room after games, probably more therapy than apathy considering the state of affairs. Given the last performance and result, along with this four-game losing streak that can increase to six in the next 72 hours, it’s easy to say the laughter is from players who are just happy to collect checks and are anxious to play out the string, but players didn’t get to this level by just mailing it in.

Cards, dominos, video games. You name it, this collection of players want to win.

Competition is in their blood and they’ve been wired that way since they were teenagers.

It’s not exclusive to the Bulls; You put five guys in a game and put five players in front of them, they’re gonna try to win.

But with the objective being as such, they feel pretty powerless to the inevitability of things as they seem destined for a lottery appearance they don’t want.

“Yes,” Wade said when asked if it’s hard to play 12 during a game. “But we’re players. It’s tough because guys don’t know how many minutes they’re gonna play. Mentally it’s tough. You got younger guys, it’s hard to bring them back. You stick with it. No matter who coach puts out there on the floor. He’s trying to figure it out as well.”

“Guys in the locker room are fine. Some guys don’t know when they’re gonna play, some guys don’t know how much so it could be a little challenging. Especially young guys, when you’re trying to develop mental toughness, it could be tough. It’s the hand we’re dealt and we gotta find a way to play it.”

When Wade was asked if he signed “in Chicago to play on a developmental team”, Wade wouldn’t wade into those treacherous waters that got him fined and benched a couple months ago.

“I’m not really gonna go there. I’m not getting in trouble no more. Not gonna do it man, not gonna do it,” Wade said. “I sit in a locker, I got a jersey. I don’t wear a suit. It’s not my job. My job is to play. And try to give confidence and lead along the way. We took a smack tonight. I’ll be there against Boston trying to lead my guys in the next game.”

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In theory, you can develop young players under the scope of white-hot NBA playoff pressure. Giving out free reign with no expectations isn’t the reality of professional basketball, nor is playing 12 guys in what should be a competitive exercise.

It’s a meritocracy, not little league where everybody gets a chance at bat.

Just doling out minutes sets a bad standard considering nobody this side of the recent vintage Philadelphia 76ers, a team that embarrassed the league with their tanking efforts—and years later, they’re no closer to contention; In fact they’re worse off than if they had played things honest and made a true effort at competing.

Bulls GM Gar Forman has said repeatedly that you don’t want to establish a losing culture by sinking all the way to the bottom like the 76ers have in the attempt to rig the lottery system.

While that’s agreeable, this way has just as many kinks when the young players are supposed to learn on the fly from the veterans but the veterans are becoming so disenchanted with the process there’s no way for the youth on the roster to progress.

And with as much growing that Hoiberg has to do in terms of his command in holding a team accountable and figuring out how to best coach at this level, the “everybody plays” mindset isn’t exactly a fertile learning ground for him, either.

It’s clear he’s struggling with this, playing the entire roster save for Mirotic in the first half when trying to figure out who’ll play in the second half of games.

He doesn’t allow himself to have any wiggle room as far as feel and at this stage of the season, the time for juggling ended long ago.