Bulls quiet, patient amid NBA free agent noise


Bulls quiet, patient amid NBA free agent noise

Never mind the old adage of confusing activity for productivity, the Bulls' lack of aggressiveness on the free-agent market, at least on its face, appears confounding. As the free-agent frenzy around the league continues at a feverish pace, fans in Chicago have to wonder if other teams are passing them by, though it must be noted that no free-agent signings can become official until July 11 and teams of restricted free agents that have agreed to offer sheets from other clubs have three days to match, as in the case of Bulls backup center Omer Asik's deal with Houston.

But even if one were to defend the slow-and-steady approach Bulls management has taken, consider the following:

Miami, the defending champions, added all-time sharpshooter Ray Allen and is considered the front-runner for veteran center Marcus Camby.

Boston, despite losing Allen, re-signed future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass, while adding sixth man Jason Terry and, according to reports, are close to bringing back forward Jeff Green, all on the heels of a draft that netted the Celtics potential steal Jared Sullinger and shot-blocking center Fab Melo to address their size issues.

The Nets retained elite point guard Deron Williams and acquired All-Star counterpart Joe Johnson via trade, while bringing in underrated blue-collar type Reggie Evans, re-signing small forward Gerald Wallace, getting reputed marksman Mirza Teletovic from Europe, courting Bucks power forward Ersan Ilyasova and still staying alive in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes.

And the Knicks, the league's original Big Apple representative, bolstered their point-guard situation by signing veteran Jason Kidd and according to reports, plan to match the Rockets' back-loaded offer sheet to phenom Jeremy Lin.

Even the likes of Philadelphia have been active in the first week of free agency, re-signing center Spencer Hawes and power forward Lavoy Allen, exchanging instant-offense guards, with Nick Young in and Lou Williams out, and according to reports, the 76ers plan to amnesty veteran Elton Brand. Toronto acquired point guard Kyle Lowry via trade and signed swingman Landry Fields to an offer sheet, if motivated to foil New York's plans for Steve Nash andor Lin, not to mention center Jonas Valanciunas, a first-round pick a year ago, who will make his NBA debut next season.

Washington jettisoned overpaid Rashard Lewis for veteran frontcourt help in the form of Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. Atlanta freed itself from the albatross of Johnson's contract and simultaneously at least put them in the running for Howard or even Pau Gasol.

And even Indiana, in a precarious position after All-Star Roy Hibbert received a max-contract offer sheet from Portland, re-signed point guard George Hill, reportedly is a leader for scorer O.J. Mayo and have a backup plan for Hibbert in the form of free-agent center Chris Kaman.

And that's just the Eastern Conference. Without running down the moves of teams in the West -- the Lakers are positioned to be a true contender again after acquiring Nash, while the Clippers (added Jamal Crawford, re-signed Chauncey Billups), Minnesota (signed Bulls target Brandon Roy, acquired swingman Chase Budinger in a draft-day trade and are in talks with the likes of Nicolas Batum, Jordan Hill and Greg Stiemsma), Phoenix (signed point guard Goran Dragic and small forward Michael Beasley; the Suns also have agreed to an offer sheet with shooting guard Eric Gordon, though the Hornets will reportedly match) and Houston (though with the widely-panned Asik offer, losing both point guards in Dragic and Lowry and a confusing draft, the busy Rockets still have a lot of work to do) aren't being wallflowers either.

Meanwhile, the Bulls have done...nothing. Well, that's not quite accurate, as general manager Gar Forman refused to even acknowledge the existence of an offer sheet to Asik last Monday, when draft pick Marquis Teague -- who has been virtually sequestered at the Berto Center since arriving in Chicago, getting daily instruction from the entire coaching staff in an effort to speed up his learning curve -- was formally introduced. But while there's no question the Bulls are doing their due diligence, the front office's relatively passive approach to free agency is in stark contrast to the daily, constant flood of updates about which players have agreed to play where, made especially jarring when the Bulls' rivals -- and in the case of Brooklyn, potential soon-to-be rivals -- make splashy attempts at trying to upgrade their rosters.

Talks with Kirk Hinrich continue, as the erstwhile Bull spends his offseasons in his north-suburban home, minutes from the Berto Center and has met with various Bulls officials multiple times, most recently Friday at the team's practice facility. But although the Bulls have presented Hinrich with an offer -- between the league veteran's minimum and somewhere upwards of 2 million per season, according to a person with knowledge of the situation -- the veteran guard has other suitors and while he longs for a return to the franchise that drafted him, Chicago isn't his only option. Milwaukee, not a long trip from the north suburbs, is also negotiating with Hinrich and according to a source, the Bucks, coached by former Bulls head coach Scott Skiles, who coached Hinrich in Chicago, offered the Iowa native a contract worth upwards of 4 million a year.

Other potential point guard additions include veteran Derek Fisher, combo guard Jerryd Bayless, whose qualifying offer was rescinded by the Raptors, and young journeyman Jonny Flynn. But the Bulls' patience could pay off in the long run, as the glut of point guards on the market could yield a high-value talent -- out of Ramon Sessions, Raymond Felton, Jordan Farmar, Delonte West, whose agent the Bulls have contacted, according to a person familiar with the situation, and others of that ilk, somebody will likely get the short end of the stick in terms of offers, perhaps making Chicago a more viable, if not financially fruitful, option -- as time passes.

The two point guards that backed up and often, filled in for, Derrick Rose last season, C.J. Watson and John Lucas III, look less and less likely to return to the team. The market will dictate the feasibility of their returns: Watson's 3 million team option would only make sense if the Bulls can't find an upgrade or even passable replacement for less, while Lucas, despite his loyalty to the Bulls, would find it hard to pass up the security of a guaranteed, multi-year deal; drafting Teague could have ended the Bulls stint of the diminutive fan favorite, as he will clearly have an advantage over the rookie because of his knowledge of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau's system.

The search for Rose's temporary replacement is obviously a major concern, but the Bulls have other holes to fill, most notably on the wing, as swingmen Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer could also be relocating. The latter almost certainly will have to find a new NBA home, as Jimmy Butler has been earmarked to fill his role and while Korver's departure isn't definite yet -- his 5-million team option aside, the Bulls need shooters -- he has also received interest from other teams, such as the Nets, according to a source, where he would be reunited with close friend and former teammate Williams.

The aforementioned Roy agreeing to terms with the Timberwolves takes one option off the board for the Bulls -- although it remains to be seen how he'll effective he'll be in the wake of his previous knee issues -- but there are still other shooting guards available to back up incumbent Rip Hamilton. Michael Redd, a name that has intrigued the organization in the past, is reportedly being considered, as is Courtney Lee, whose qualifying offer was rescinded by the Rockets. But Lee, an Indianapolis native, could be waiting on his hometown Pacers, who likely consider him a contingency plan if they miss on Mayo, a player likely out of the Bulls' price range. Athletic swingman Gerald Green, who played for the Nets last season after a hiatus from the NBA, is another possibility, as first reported by the New York Post, and has met with the Bulls recently, according to a source.

Of course, if the Bulls decide not to match Asik's offer sheet -- sentiment in the organization has wavered back and forth, according to an individual with knowledge of the discussions; backup power forward Taj Gibson's free-agent status next summer could be a factor, though the growing likelihood of amnestying starter Carlos Boozer after either next season or the 2013-14 campaign would mitigate the financial considerations -- they would also need to find additional depth in the post. Veteran center Nazr Mohammed, a Chicago native, is one name that's been discussed internally.

While filling out the roster remains a priority, plugging the hole on the bench created by assistant coach Rick Brunson's departure to Charlotte may have already been addressed. Magic assistant coach Steve Clifford, part of fired Orlando head coach Stan Van Gundy's staff, could be in line to join the Thibodeau's staff, according to a source, and could join the Bulls' summer-league team in Las Vegas later this month.

The Bears have issues moving the ball downfield. But what – or who – is the key to fixing that?

The Bears have issues moving the ball downfield. But what – or who – is the key to fixing that?

The Bears have a big play issue. 

They had a big play issue last year, when they finished 29th in the league in plays of 20+ yards (39). It wasn’t a lack of trying, either – per NFL’s Next Gen stats, in 2018, Mitch Trubisky ranked 10th in the NFL in Intended Air Yards (IAY), with an average of 8.8 per attempt. However, when it came to Completed Air Yards (CAY), Trubisky came in 15th (6.0). 

It doesn’t tell the whole story – and there’s probably a decent case to be made that some of Trubisky’s deep ball troubles are overstated – but what the stats don’t cover, the eye test does: through the first two games of Nagy 202, the offense isn’t any more explosive than it was last year. In fact, it's probably even less so. 

“We need to make more plays period,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “And that's on all of us…” 

It may be on everyone, but it starts with Trubisky. Through two games, the third-year QB is averaging roughly the same IAY (7.9). The problem, though, is that he’s averaging almost two yards less per completion (4.0) this year. His Average Air Yards Differential (AYD) is -3.7, which is the third-worst in football. The only ones higher are Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Fitzpatrick. 

All in all, it’s just a fancy way of saying that Trubisky’s struggling to make big plays happen with his arm. But if teams are going to see how Green Bay and Denver sat their safeties back and dared him to throw the ball downfield, how do you adjust to that?

“There’s plays in your playbook to go after the Cover 2 safeties,” Matt Nagy said. “You gotta be able to run the ball. When they have less guys in the box, they have seven guys in the box, you gotta be able to run the ball. So, that’s answer number one, and any coach will tell you that.

“Then the second part is being able to protect -- they’re in Cover 2 for a reason, they’re protecting the shots down field. There’s ways to scheme it and if they take away the deep balls, you go ahead and you hit the intermediate throws.” 

Those intermediate throws are where receivers not named Allen Robinson come into play. As of Friday afternoon, Taylor Gabriel has three receptions on the season. Anthony Miller has one. Getting those guys involved – and not having to count on Robinson’s 13 yards per reception to get you down field – will be how the offense unlocks some more of the potential those around Halas Hall have been talking up all offseason. 

“It's kind of always an early season deal where hey, these two guys are doing something, what about these guys, what about that guy,” Helfrich added. “I think that'll all come. I think [Miller] from a mental standpoint in this last game did a great job. He ended up playing a lot of reps and played well.” 

Bears' Nick Williams goes from out of NFL to critical next man up with Bilal Nichols out

USA Today

Bears' Nick Williams goes from out of NFL to critical next man up with Bilal Nichols out

Nick Williams was drafted six years ago, made his NFL debut a season later and found himself out of football in 2017. Needless to say, the 29-year-old defensive lineman’s path to his first career sack — which came in the fourth quarter of the Bears’ 16-14 win over the Denver Broncos last week — wasn’t exactly easy or straightforward. 

The Bears needed Williams as a next man up when defensive lineman Bilal Nichols broke his hand in the first half of Sunday’s game in Denver. The 30 defensive snaps he played tied a career high, set last year while playing for the Bears against the Buffalo Bills (it was one of only two games for which Williams was active in 2018). 

While Williams may not have been known to Bears fans outside of the die-hardiest of the die-hards before Sunday, he’s established himself as a popular figure inside the locker room at Halas Hall since being signed off the street prior to the 2018 season. 

“That’s my boy,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “You have teammates and friends and then you have lifelong friends, and I feel like Nick is one of those guys just because he has this positive energy that never stops. He’s a hard worker, so if I ever want to get an extra workout in I know who to look at. 

"… He’s a great football player and a great teammate. I think that adding him to this room, this defensive line room, two years ago was a big step in how well we’ve developed.” 

“He’s worked his butt off,” quarterback Chase Daniel said. “He’s in amazing shape. The guy doesn’t stop working. He’s a beast. His work ethic is second to none.”

“He’s a guy who lives in the weight room, who studies Akiem and is definitely a student of the game,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. 

Players have come to notice just how hard Williams works even when opportunities may not be coming his way. This is a guy who, again, was only active for two games in 2018, yet earned his way on to the Bears’ roster in 2019. He’s the ultimate representation of the next man up mantra that every football team uses, as someone who continually puts in the work necessary to be ready if called upon. 

And that work paid off when the Bears needed Williams to take on a larger role in their defensive line rotation on Sunday. 

“Nick’s the type of guy that you want on your team,” Daniel, who counts Williams as one of his closest friends, said. “He just works so hard, so guys see that and can emulate it, especially young guys know that, hey, listen, I don’t care what round I’m drafted, I don’t care if I’m a free agent, whatever — as long as I work hard, put my head down, the chips will fall as they may. All I can do is put my best foot forward and take advantage of opportunities as they’re given, and he’s done all of that.”

The Kansas City Chiefs released Williams in October of 2016, and he caught on with the Miami Dolphins in 2017 only to be cut before the start of the season. No team came calling for him after he was released that year, and he didn’t sign with the Bears until mid-April — over a month after the league’s free agency window opened. 

Williams said he never lost hope that he’d get another opportunity, even if he knew a time would come where he’d have to make a decision on if he’d ever play football again. 

“You start sensing it,” Williams said. “You start sensing it from your friends and family, they’re kind of like ‘okay, Nick, you need to keep — you need to move on, you know what I’m saying?’ Nah, I always knew there was another opportunity out there for me and I just believed it.”

The Bears will need Williams to keep taking advantage of his opportunity in at least the immediate future. Nichols isn’t expected to be placed on injured reserve, but the Bears haven’t determined if he’ll be able to play with a club on his broken hand (as outside linebacker Leonard Floyd did in 2018). 

Williams said he feels like an ideal fit for what the Bears want out of their defensive linemen — he’s an adept run stuffer who feels he can get after the quarterback, especially after finally notching his first career sack. And there isn’t doubt inside the Bears’ locker room that Williams will be up to the task. 

“His mental fortitude is just out of this world,” Daniel said. “He never, ever for a second as long as I’ve known him doubted that he’d be back in the league — not only be back in the league but playing well. And last year he made the squad but he was inactive a lot, didn’t really get to show what he had and sort of knew. He balled out in preseason. He’s playing really well right now.” 

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