Bears

Bulls quiet, patient amid NBA free agent noise

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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.

From Bears’ win over Seahawks, 4 takeaways not named “Khalil” or “Mitch”

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USA TODAY

From Bears’ win over Seahawks, 4 takeaways not named “Khalil” or “Mitch”

The Bears reaching .500 is in itself news, since the last time it happened (2014) was two Bears head coaches and three Brandon Marshall uniforms ago, and only three current position players (Kyles Fuller and Long, Sherrick McManis) were on the roster back then.

But beyond getting coach Matt Nagy his first win as an NFL head coach, the win over Seattle occasioned a handful of takeaways beyond all of the ones headed up by Khalil Mack and Mitch Trubisky:

Defense in a rush, even at less than full strength

The Bears lead the NFL with 10 sacks (which is on pace to fall just short of the NFL team record of 72 for a season, set in 1984 by the Bears, for those who delight in frivolous early-season stat’ing). The production is especially noteworthy because the sacks are spread among eight different players.

Even more significantly, the sacks haven’t just come from eight different players; they’ve come from eight different POSITIONS, including every position in the front seven in the Bears base 3-4: both outside-linebacker spots (Mack, Aaron Lynch) and both insides (Trevathan and Roquan Smith); both defensive-end slots (Akiem Hicks and Roy Robertson-Harris); and nose tackle (Eddie Goldman).

The rush has contributed to one of the NFL’s worst pass-picking secondaries effectively sealing the Seattle game with one interception (Prince Amukamara) and having the Green Bay game within its grasp on another (Kyle Fuller).

What makes the sack production even more impressive is that none of the stops have come from Leonard Floyd, still playing with one hand encased on a padded cast and whose playing time was cut back from 77 percent of the snaps in Green Bay to 59 percent against Seattle. Floyd has zero quarterback hits in his 85 total snaps but delivered 3 tackles, a pass defense’d and a fumble recovery against the Seahawks despite his limited hand, which is a factor.

“Oh, for sure,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said last week. “I mean there’s no way around it. Like trying to type on your computers there with one hand. You’ve got your head in the sand if you don’t think that affects a guy’s play.”

Kevin White’s absence is surprising.

White did not generate the wow factor of rookie Javon Wims in preseason but he revealed an eye-opening ability in the open field with the football in his hands, the kind of yards-after-catch that West Coast offenses treasure. Not insignificantly, with the added reps with the No. 1 offense while Allen Robinson was held out for knee rehab, then working with Robinson in a variety of packages, White had developed a positive relationship with Mitch Trubisky; the two worked out together in California, and quarterbacks have a warm spot for 6-3 receivers with downfield speed.

But White played just two snaps against Seattle, down from 12 at Green Bay, and he has yet to be thrown a pass after consistently earning plaudits from coaches through the off- and preseason.

“I think that’s just how the game goes,” Nagy said. “Sometimes depending on whether it’s a slight injury to a wide receiver, a guy’s out of breath or tired, but there’s nothing either good or bad from that. It’s just the way it kind of played out.”

How White’s NFL future plays out is becoming increasingly problematic, and less and less likely to be in Chicago. Allen Robinson is signed for three years, Taylor Gabriel for four, and Anthony Miller’s rookie contract is for four. White went into this off- and preseason with a clean slate in the form of a new coaching staff. That slate still has 14 games remaining, but White doesn’t play special teams, and the only other players with fewer than 21 game snaps Monday were major special-teams contributors: Josh Bellamy, 2 snaps on offense, 18 on ‘teams; Ben Braunecker, 1 on offense, 19 on ‘teams; and Daniel Brown, 1 and 14.

Fourth-quarter’ing

The Bears can talk about finishing but their two opponents have combined for five fourth-quarter touchdowns, leading to the loss of a 20-point bulge and the game in Green Bay, and turning a 14-point lead over Seattle into a one-TD game. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson have posted a combined passer rating of 98.4, up from an 89.9 for 2017. The Bears held the Seahawks to just 2-for-10 on third downs for three quarters, then had Seattle convert all three in the fourth quarter.

Neither the Packers nor Seahawks scored in their first quarters, but of the 41 teams scored against the Bears, 35 of them have been tallied in the fourth quarter.

Probably a jinx here, but special teams have been special

Pat O’Donnell’s job wasn’t all that secure after last season, the fourth in his four NFL seasons with a punting net less than 40 yards. The Bears re-signed him but just to a one-year contract and brought in rookie Ryan Winslow for preseason competition. O’Donnell rose to the challenge with a net of 41.7 yards on 12 punts, five yards longer than Winslow on his seven.

O’Donnell has kept his game on: nine punts with a 41.8-yard average net, and four of the kicks inside the 20. His work has combined to allow the Packers and Seahawks to return just two of eight punts, the inverse of the Bears, who’ve had Tarik Cohen return six of the eight caught.

The NFL has been awash in missed placekicks this year – 15 last weekend – and the Bears have had constant and serious kicker issues in the past few seasons, ever since cutting Robbie Gould, come to think of it. Conor Barth after Gould, then Cairo Santos and Mike Nugent and Cairo Santos brought in last year after Barth missed five of his 23 field-goal attempts.

Cody Parkey has made all five of his PAT’s and his four field-goal tries, although none longer than 33 yards. The results have made the Bears one of only 10 teams to be 100 percent in both field goals and extra points through two games.

Cubs offense appears to be heating up at the right time

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USA TODAY

Cubs offense appears to be heating up at the right time

The Cubs are nearing the end of a brutal stretch where they have reported to the ball park 30 days in a row. Naturally, as that stretch is nearing its end, the offense seems to be catching fire. 

After scoring just 15 runs in their previous seven games, the Cubs have scored a combined 14 runs in two games on 21 hits. They scored nine runs on Tuesday alone, beating the Diamondbacks 9-1 in Arizona.

Scoring nine runs in one game is a great sign, but the fact that the entire starting lineup is contributing is an even better one. Every player in Tuesday's starting lineup got at least one hit, minus starting pitcher Mike Montgomery. 

Daniel Murphy entered Tuesday hitting .191 in September that included a 3-for-26 stretch dating back to Sept. 8. Tuesday, he went 2-for-3 with a leadoff single and a two-run home run.

Javier Báez was in an 8-for-30 "slump" entering Tuesday that dated back to Sept. 8. He hit a two-run home run in the first inning, his second home run in as many days. Kris Bryant hit safely for the third straight game, while Ian Happ hit an RBI double from the ninth spot in the batting order.

Baby steps, people.

Jason Heyward made his first start since Aug. 30 on Tuesday, hitting a double and scoring on an RBI double by Happ. While Heyward exited after two at-bats, it was likely to not push him too hard as he comes back from a hamstring injury.

Heyward's return is important due to his defense, but also because of his .276 batting average and respectable .743 OPS. Adding him to the lineup, no matter where he hits, is only a good thing for the Cubs' offense. 

Willson Contreras is just 1-for-9 this series, but he has been driving the ball with authority. After posting a 19.6 percent hard contact rate in August (his lowest over an entire month all season), he has posted a 32 percent hard contact rate this month (entering Tuesday's game), according to Fangraphs.

With 11 games to go, the Cubs now hold a 3.5 game lead over the Brewers for first place in the NL Central. Their magic number to win the division dropped to 8 following Tuesday's win and the Brewers 3-1 loss to the Reds.

Talks of fatigue have surrounded the Cubs recently due to their current 30-day stretch without a day off. The fact that the offense has scored as much as it has this series is quite ironic; perhaps the team sees the light at the end of the tunnel? 

Fatigue or not, the Cubs have to like they way the offense is trending as the regular season comes to a close.