Bears

Bulls' defense not up to usual standards

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Bulls' defense not up to usual standards

As I wrote in a previous column, the Bulls offensive problems early in the season really should come as no surprise. Without Derrick Rose in the lineup, they dont have anyone to break down a defender off the dribble or command a double team. That leads to a jump shooting offense that will be susceptible to long cold stretches.

And, outside of Nate Robinson, there really isnt any firepower to bring off the bench. Marco Belinelli still looks lost and Nazr Mohammeds impressive offensive play during the pre-season was obviously a mirage built on feasting against guys who are no longer in the league.

Whats most troubling about the teams 5-5 start is their substandard play on the defensive end, which is supposed to be the strength of a Tom Thibodeau team. The Bulls got off to a good start defensively, holding their first three opponents under 90 points. But theyve been terrible since then, allowing their last four opponents to top the century mark, something thats never happened before in the Thibodeau era.

So, what is the problem? Thibodeau would probably give you a lengthy explanation based on playing the system, making the proper rotations and doing a better job of closing out on shooters while controlling the defensive boards. The reality is this, the Bulls are starting three players with below average quickness for their positions, a liability thats hard to cover, even in Thibodeaus proven system.

Have you noticed the trend developing of Carlos Boozer, Rip Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich sitting on the bench for most or all of 4th quarters? Those are the three players who struggle to stay with their man defensively, and Thibodeau clearly would rather have Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Robinson on the floor to create more ball pressure, and give the Bulls a chance to get some easy baskets in transition.

The problem is, Gibson is suffering through a terrible offensive slump, even after all the extra work he put in this summer at the Berto Center and with the U.S. Select team. Maybe its the pressure of trying to live up to that big money contract extension, but Taj is really struggling right now, and the Bulls need him to get back to his normal productive self. Butler is a max effort player who is strong on the defensive end, but still has a tough time knocking down open jumpers.

Hinrich looked good during the preseason after putting in extra conditioning work over the summer, but hes never been a high-percentage shooter, and right now hes having a tough time staying in front of quicker point guards. Maybe the strained right hip is giving him more trouble than hes willing to admit, but lets be honest, this is Hinrichs 10th year in the league, and its asking a lot for him to defend lightning quick players like Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo.

Same story with Rip, whos having a tough time defending most NBA shooting guards at the age of 34. Hamilton has shown flashes on the offensive end, but all too often, we see him sitting on the bench in the 4th quarter with the Bulls trying to get some stops to rally from behind. Watching Jamal Crawford light up the Bulls in L.A. made me wonder again why the Bulls didnt go with their former player when they were shopping for a shooting guard before the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Crawford is only two years younger than Rip, but he has much more life in his legs, and is able to create a shot off the dribble, something this Bulls team is sorely lacking.

Its always dangerous to make conclusions off a 10-game sample size, and given the work ethic of this Bulls team and coaching staff, Im sure theyll come up with some answers as the season rolls on. But talent wins games in the NBA, and right now, the Bulls look a little short of that precious commodity on both ends of the floor.

Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?

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USA TODAY

Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?

Pre-camp depth chart

1. Danny Trevathan
2. John Timu
3. Joel Iyiegbuniwe

1. Roquan Smith
2. Nick Kwiatkoski
3. Jonathan Anderson

1. How good can Roquan Smith be?

Making sweeping observations from shorts-and-helmets practices in OTAs is often a fool’s errand, but Smith looked the part while running around the practice fields of Halas Hall after being drafted in April. His quickness and instinctiveness stood out — as they did at Georgia — and his football intelligence and work ethic were praised by coaches and teammates. 

“He’s learning well,” Trevathan said. “He’s doing a good job of learning. He’s learning the little things that you need to learn in this defense. Now it’s all about putting on a show and going out there and rocking.”

And that’s what’s going to be fun to watch in Bourbonnais: How does Smith play with the pads on? Chances are, the answer to that question will be “well,” setting the eighth overall pick on a path to being a mainstay of this defense for years to come. 

That’s not to say Smith doesn’t have plenty on which to work during training camp. But he left Georgia as a sort of “safe bet” in the draft, and nothing he’s done to this point has changed the view of him that he’s likely going to be a good one. 

2. Can Danny Trevathan stay healthy?

In terms of size and athleticism, Trevathan and Smith profile similar to NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the inside linebacking tandem that was the spine of the San Francisco 49ers defense during Fangio’s time there. But for Trevathan and Smith to reach that lofty bar — or even to come close to it — Trevathan needs to be more available than he was his first two years with the Bears.

This isn’t questioning Trevathan’s toughness — far from it. That he returned for Week 1 of the 2017 season 10 months after rupturing his patellar tending (an injury that can be a career-ender) was impressive, and that he was immediately productive upon returning was even more extraordinary. But Trevathan missed three games in November due to a strained calf, and coupled with a one-game suspension and the seven games he missed in 2016, the 28-year-old has only played in 21 of 32 games since signing with the Bears. 

Trevathan is confident he can improve his production in 2018, given he wasn’t able to participate in last year’s offseason program practices. He’s entering his third year in Fangio’s defense and feels better prepared after going through OTAs and minicamps this year. It’s just now about him staying on the field to make sure that work pays off.

“I’m more comfortable with this defense, I’m more comfortable with the guys and the calls that we make,” Trevathan said. “I take pride in being correct and working my tail off and making the defense better. And the more that I can be out there — which I plan on being out there a lot — it’s going to help us tremendously.” 

3. How big a role will Nick Kwiatkoski have?

The Bears didn’t draft Smith because they felt like they absolutely needed to upgrade over Kwiatkoski, who’s acquitted himself well in 25 games since being picked in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. But Kwiatkoski has dealt with some injury issues, and for as solid a player as he may be, the Bears’ defense needed (and still needs) more great players. Drafting Smith gave the Bears a shot at adding a great player.

It also leaves Kwiatkoski in the same spot he was in a year ago, when the Bears entered the 2017 season with Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman as their unquestioned starting inside linebackers. Smith still has to earn that starting spot, but the safe bet is he will, relegating Kwiatkoski again to reserve duties.

And that’s a positive for the overall health of this defense, having a player good enough to start ready to play if needed. But it also raises this question: What do the Bears do with Kwiatkoski if he’s one of their four best linebackers, but isn’t one of their two best inside linebackers? 

So for the purposes of watching training camp practices, seeing if Kwiatkoski gets any reps at outside linebacker will be an interesting storyline to follow. 

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

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USA TODAY

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

WASHINGTON, D.C. — How could someone like Kyle Schwarber play the villain?

The fan favorite who’s always quick with a smile — or an Uncle Sam costume on the Fourth of July — Schwarber doesn’t fit the mold of a loathsome target of boos. But he made quite the heel turn in the minds of Washington Nationals fans Monday night, and of course he knew it was coming.

Schwarber went from getting cheered by the legions in attendance at the Home Run Derby to getting booed when he took on, and eventually lost to, hometown hero Bryce Harper in the final round.

“I was down in the tunnel saying, ‘If we get to the finals, Harp, they’re all going to be against me. I think they’re all going to be against me,’” Schwarber said Monday night. “And then I went out there and got booed after they all got pumped up for me. That’s just the beauty of it, and I was happy for Bryce that he won it in front of the home crowd.”

Harper delivered an incredibly memorable baseball moment Monday night, catching up to Schwarber’s 18 home runs with a ridiculous display of repetitive power to win a Home Run Derby for the ages. The format of this event, revamped a couple years ago, made for a dramatic and hugely entertaining evening. Harper smacked nine homers over the final 47 seconds of the final round to tie Schwarber, then bested him in bonus time. Unsurprisingly, the home crowd was going ballistic for their boy.

But earlier in the night, it was Schwarber getting all the cheers, when he made his own last-second comeback to beat Philadelphia Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins in the second round. Schwarber was pumping up the crowd, pumping his fists and screaming while putting on a show of his own to catch and pass Hoskins' 20 home runs and advance to the finals.

How quickly the locals forgot.

By the finals — during which Schwarber looked understandably exhausted — the crowd had turned on him, trying to get every advantage for Harper.

“As soon as I got done with that round, I told myself that he had it,” Schwarber said. “I knew that he had the home crowd behind him, and I knew that he was a very prolific power hitter with a great swing. For him to come in and do that and started getting down to the wire, all of a sudden he started racking them up one at a time. You kind of just accept your fate there.”

Perhaps the night could’ve ended differently for Schwarber had he listened more closely to the advice of his teammates, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras, who were quick with Gatorade, a towel and words of encouragement on Monday. Baez hit 16 home runs in his own first-round appearance, though Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Max Muncy knocked him out.

“I was just telling him to slow down,” Baez said. “He was kind of rushing a little bit, that’s why he was jumping to the ball.”

“They were actually giving me really good advice that I didn’t take because I was really dumb-headed,” Schwarber said. “‘Make sure you take some pitches and get the pitch that you want.’ At the end, I felt like I was swinging at everything. I was just running out of gas. I felt like I had to put up as many swings just to try to put a couple out.”

Schwarber was totally content with losing out to Harper’s home-field advantage. Though as his homers flew out deep into the right-field seats Monday night, you couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if Schwarber was instead taking aim at Sheffield Avenue and getting his own home-field advantage from Cubs fans.

The North Side hasn’t played host to the All-Star Game since 1990, so perhaps Schwarber will still be slugging the next time the Friendly Confines are the site of the Home Run Derby.

“That’d be really cool one day if the All-Star Game’s at Wrigley,” Schwarber said, “and to participate in the Derby, that’d be fun.”