Bulls

Bulls playoffs: A test all around

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Bulls playoffs: A test all around

There will be no grades handed out for this year's playoffs--it will only be passfail for the Bulls. Anything less than an Eastern Conference title will be considered a failure. But, the test doesn't extend just to the players and whether or not they have what it takes to win it all. This will be a test for coach Tom Thibodeau who, despite being in the running for his second straight Coach of the Year award, may be feeling the most pressure. His intensity has helped the Bulls to the top overall seed two years running, but the question remains if his approach translates into championships, and at this point, that's all that matters.

A story surfaced last month that the second year Bulls coach was unhappy the team hadn't offered him a contract extention yet. Thibodeau's current deal includes a team option for 2012-2013. While the report was downplayed, don't think Thibs is a lock to return, this year's playoffs could be his passfail test.

As for the players, Derrick Rose's increasing unhappiness may be amplified depending on how the Bulls perform in the playoffs. The effects of that are unknown, but changes could be in store if the Bulls make an early exit.

The test for Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah is to redeem themselves from last year's poor performances. The two have to prove that they not only can be reliable, but they can be difference makers in the playoffs. If not, Bulls GM Gar Forman will be forced to consider his options.

Now that he's healthy, Richard Hamilton has an equal amount of pressure on him since he was brought in as the so-called missing link, the one who was going to make the difference between a series win over the Heat or another disappointing ending. If Rip can't shine the way the Bulls expected him to when they signed the former Piston over the winter, the passfail falls to Forman and his ability to upgrade the team from last year.

The fates of CJ Watson, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver could all ride on the postseason. All three have team options for next year, and all three could be gone.

So, as college students across the country cram for final exams in the month of May, the Bulls will be taking their test every other night with the stakes arguably higher.

Season in Review: Otto Porter shoots the lights out in small sample size

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USA TODAY

Season in Review: Otto Porter shoots the lights out in small sample size

Over the next month we'll be recapping each of the Bulls' individual 2018-19 regular seasons.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Shaq Harrison | Ryan Arcidiacono

Midseason expectations: Otto Porter Jr. arrived in Chicago the same night the Bulls posted a 126.3 offensive rating in a 125-120 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. Maybe that was foreshadowing for how the offense would look two days later when Porter made his Bulls debut. That was the expectation, at least, that Porter would infuse life into a stagnant Bulls offense, space the floor and give the Bulls some versatility on the defensive end. Given the Bulls were 12-42 when Porter arrived, the expectation was that he’d gain some chemistry with Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen heading into the 2019-2020 season when he’d have an entire offseason to figure out a defined role.

What went right: How about 49 percent from beyond the arc? Again, it was a small sample size, but Porter connected on 39 of his 80 3-point attempts in 15 games with the Bulls. Perhaps a change of scenery and leaving that nightmare of a John Wall-less Wizards offense, was exactly what he needed. Past his lights-out shooting, Porter showed a knack for distributing that he rarely showed in Washington.

Consider that Porter had 40 assists in 15 games with the Bulls, half of the 80 assists he had with the Wizards in 41 games. He had a career-high eight assists for the Bulls in a March game against the Pistons, three more than his high in Washington last season. Porter is never going to initiate offense but playing well in pick-and-roll action and keeping the ball moving around the perimeter only adds to his value.

What went wrong: Pegged as two-way player when he arrived in Chicago, Porter didn’t do all that much on the defensive end. The Bulls were 1.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Porter sat than when he played. It’s a small sample size, and the Bulls defense was a mess regardless of who was or wasn’t on the floor, but it’s hard to pick out any real significant defensive plays that Porter made in his 15 games.

The Stat: 111.5

We’ll disclaim here that it was just a 17-game sample size, but that’s still more than 20 percent of the season. In the 17 games between Porter’s acquisition and when he was shut down for the remainder of the season, the Bulls’ 111.5 offensive rating was ninth best in the NBA, better than teams such as the Warriors, Hawks, Sixers and Nuggets.

What’s more, their turnover percentage (13.3%, 13th), effective field goal percentage (53.0%, 11th) and offensive rebound percentage (26.1%, 15th) were all top half of the league. It was their best stretch of the season, and it was no coincidence that it came while Porter was in the lineup and healthy. Small-ish sample size? Yes. Still promising? Yes.

2019-20 Expectations: A lot. No, the Bulls didn’t give Porter that massive contract. But it’s going to stick with him as long as the Bulls are paying him. Expectations are clear: Continue to be an elite 3-point shooter and move the ball – whether it be around the perimeter or in pick-and-roll action – once the defense shifts.

Speaking of defense, Porter will be tasked with changing the narrative in Chicago. The Bulls need to improve their defense if they’re going to have any change of competing for a playoff spot and much of that responsibility will fall on Porter. He’ll routinely be guarding the opponent’s best wing and will need to hide Zach LaVine at times. It’s a tall order, but it comes with the territory while making $27 million per year.

Why fixing penalty kill is crucial for Blackhawks in 2019-20

Why fixing penalty kill is crucial for Blackhawks in 2019-20

Just how important is special teams in the NHL?

Of the 16 teams that qualified for the postseason, 14 clubs had at least one special teams unit that was ranked in the top half of the league and 12 teams had at least one unit ranked in the top 10.

The Blackhawks finished the season with the 15th-ranked power play and 31st-ranked penalty kill. The Blackhawks' 72.7 percent kill rate is the lowest the league has seen in 30 years.

“The penalty kill is something that clearly has to be better," GM Stan Bowman said. "That was a big disappointment this year, no question about that. So we have to devote some resources to that. Some of it might be players, if we get some players that have that kind of experience or have a history. Part of it is tactically can we find ways to be better. We have a lot of time now to study it and put a lot of our focus on that.”

Jeremy Colliton did not rule out getting external help to improve the PK.

“We’re going to look at everything, for sure," he said. "We’re going to look at obviously tactically and we’re going to look at the personnel and how we’re using guys and try to put them in the best situation we can. And maybe that’s new, different guys who weren’t getting the opportunity. Or maybe that’s someone from outside.”

The Blackhawks did manage to fix their power play issues this past season. When Colliton became head coach on Nov. 6, the Blackhawks power play was near the bottom of the league. By December, the man advantage was dead last, cashing in on fewer than 12 percent of their power plays.

Colliton made Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and Erik Gustafsson his top power play unit and from Dec. 20 till the end of February they were the league's best unit, converting on 35.2 percent of their power plays.  

Gustafsson’s addition to the power play was a major factor in the unit's improvement.

"A big part of our power play progression and transformation from being at the bottom to being in the top group," Bowman said of Gustafsson. "I was really pleased with that and we're going to need him next year for sure.”

If the Blackhawks penalty kill can make strides like the power play did, Colliton’s crew will likely be playing at this time next season.

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