Bulls

Goodwill: NBA Playoff reform? Rivalries matter, tradition matters

Goodwill: NBA Playoff reform? Rivalries matter, tradition matters

The NBA playoffs are around the corner and although the Bulls will miss the postseason for the second time in three years, they've been a critical part of the league's history. 

If some teams have their way, and given commissioner Adam Silver's comments at All Star Weekend about playoff reform it could happen, the fabric of all fans have known about the playoff system could be in jeopardy. 

Some are clamoring for a 1-16 playoff format, abandoning the Eastern and Western Confrrence Playoffs. 

It probably isn't imminent but the fact this type of radical change is still on the table is a bit disturbing. 

The rivalries fans have come to know, love and hate hang in the balance but they shouldn't. The NBA needs to pull itself back off the ledge and use some common sense. 

But common sense isn't always common...

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NBA Buzz: The city of Chicago has next for All-Star Weekend

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AP

NBA Buzz: The city of Chicago has next for All-Star Weekend

THE CITY OF CHICAGO HAS NEXT FOR ALL-STAR WEEKEND

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Chicago Bulls' President Michael Reinsdorf is more than prepared to host the NBA's showcase event next year. After all, he's been taking his son Joey to All-Star weekend in cities across the country over the last 15 seasons for some father-son bonding with a little research mixed in. So, you can bet the Bulls' organization will have more than a few ideas on how to make the 2020 spectacle one of the best the league has even seen.

Now the question is, how well represented will the Bulls be on the court for the weekend events?

Friday night should be easy with Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison and the Bulls' No. 1 pick in June likely candidates for the Rising Stars game for first and second-year players.

Then on Saturday, we're already hearing rumblings of a rematch between 2016 Slam Dunk contest finalists Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon, with 2018 champ Donovan Mitchell and this year's winner Hamidou Diallo possibly rounding out the field. Lauri Markkanen is a likely selection for either the Skills Challenge or the 3-Point Contest, and who knows, if the Bulls are lucky enough to draft Zion Williamson, he could crash the party in the dunk contest as well.

The Bulls' chances of getting a player in the main event are largely dependent on their record through the first half of next season. LaVine is averaging 23 points per game right now, but didn't get a sniff from the coaches who are responsible for selecting the All-Star reserves. Markkannen missed the first two months of the season, but he's been playing like an All-Star lately, averaging 23.7 points and 12.6 rebounds over his last 7 games.

It's hard to predict how free agency will affect the balance of power between the East and West heading into next season, but when you consider guys like Nikola Vucevic, Kyle Lowry, Khris Middleton and D'Angelo Russell were named as reserves for the East this year, you'd have to think either Markkanen or LaVine would have a decent shot at being selected next February if the Bulls' record is respectable.

Speaking of which, prospects for a much improved Bulls' team next season are looking brighter than they did just a few weeks ago. Start with Markkanen getting back to the versatile offensive play we witnessed at the end of his rookie year, mix in the improved offensive efficiency of Zach LaVine, and then add the acquisition of Otto Porter Jr., who's been nothing short of sensational since arriving from the Wizards in a trade for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker.

The Bulls are a modest 2-2 since Porter's arrival, with the 6th year forward averaging 22.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game on 62 percent shooting from the field and 58 percent from the 3-point line. It's probably unrealistic to expect Porter to continue playing at that level, but his presence on the court has opened up driving lanes for LaVine and Markkanen, with defenders unwilling to leave a 3-point shooting threat to offer double team help. And, Porter's ability to contribute at both ends of the court should be an even bigger plus as the coaching staff designs ways to best utilize the talent on the roster heading into training camp in September.

With Carter Jr. back to protect the rim next season, and the addition of a high lottery pick, the Bulls should be poised to make a significant jump in the Eastern Conference standings next season. Whether or not that ends up in a return to the playoffs is hard to predict, but if the Bulls are hovering around the .500 mark in January of 2020, their chances of having an All-Star game representative will be greatly improved.

There's no doubt the Bulls’ organization and the city of Chicago will be ready to put on a world-class show for All-Star weekend. We'll just have to wait and see if the Bulls’ improved play on the court will be a topic of conversation for the national media in attendance.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

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Those same reporters spent a lot of time last weekend trying to figure out exactly what Anthony Davis wants for his basketball future. Davis and his agent, Rich Paul, tried a power play a few weeks back to force the Pelicans to trade Davis to the Lakers, where he would team up with Paul's lifelong-friend LeBron James.

Pelicans' GM Dell Demps and team ownership pushed back against that request, saying they would wait until the summer to seek out a trade that’s most beneficial to the franchise. Demps wound up getting fired last week, but the resolve of ownership to get the best possible return for one of the top-five players in the league hasn't changed.

At last Friday's All-Star media day, Davis told reporters he was open to going to any of the other 29 teams, as long as that organization is committed to winning. But by the time the national media left Charlotte, reports were already circulating that Davis wasn't interested in staying in Boston long-term if he's traded to the Celtics, suggesting his end game still involves a partnership with LeBron in L.A.

Meanwhile, the Pelicans are trying to decide whether it's in their best interests to continue playing Davis, especially after he left a game last Thursday because of a bruised left shoulder. At this point, the Pelicans are better off losing games to improve their odds in the draft lottery, while also making sure Davis doesn't suffer a serious injury before they can negotiate a trade around draft day in June.

The league has already told Pelicans' management they have to play Davis if he's healthy, so we could be heading to a stand-off very soon. The Chicago native will likely be playing for a new team next season, but the process of getting a trade done is turning out to be a lot more difficult than Davis, his agent and LeBron expected.

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All-Star weekend turned out to be a showcase for the team with the league's best record right now. The Bucks' coaching staff ran the show for Team Giannis with Antetokounmpo and Middleton among the 12 players on the roster. Giannis put on a dunking exhibition, leading all scorers with 38 points, while Middleton added 20, making 6 of 10 attempts from 3-point range.

The final 25 game sprint to the playoffs should be entertaining in the East, where the Bucks hold a one game lead over Toronto, with the Celtics and Sixers 6.5 games back. Philadelphia will use the final 7 weeks of the season to try to build some chemistry with in-season trade acquisitions Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, while Boston will be looking for better chemistry in general after an inconsistent start to the season.

Gordon Hayward finally appears to be rounding into form after missing all of last season with a serious leg injury. Hayward has improved his scoring average every month, and has played his best basketball over the last 5 games, averaging 17 points on 61 percent shooting from the field. With Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier all coming off the bench, Brad Stevens should have plenty of weapons at his disposal for what promises to be a hotly contested postseason in the East.

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Meanwhile, the race in the West is more interesting at the bottom of the playoff field, with the focus on whether LeBron James will be able to carry the Lakers into the postseason. James still looks like he's playing at three-quarters speed after suffering a groin injury in a Christmas Day game, and the Lakers find themselves games behind the cross-town Clippers for the final playoff spot, and two games behind the 9th place Kings.

Sacramento will be going all out to make the postseason with a rebuilt young roster centered around the backcourt of De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, while the Clippers might have a tough time hanging on after trading their best player, Tobias Harris, to the Sixers.

If we've learned anything over the last decade, it's never a good idea to bet against James carrying his team beyond expectations. LeBron might be looking ahead to the summer recruiting season, but he didn't come to L.A. to miss the playoffs, and his talent and resolve should be enough to get the Lakers one of those final spots out West.
 

The 5 most underrated Bulls of all time

The 5 most underrated Bulls of all time

In its over 50 years of existence, the Chicago Bulls franchise has received a tremendous amount of support and love from the greatest fans in the NBA.  Although the vast majority of Bulls fans are intelligent and passionate, some coaches and players have occasionally been underappreciated.  I’ve highlighted the five most egregious cases here. Despite several worthy candidates from the 1970s, most notably Chet Walker and Tom Boerwinkle, I chose to limit the pool of possible candidates from the Jordan Era to the present day.

Most of the players on this list (with the notable exception of No. 1) had their strengths on the offensive end, with defensive deficiencies. In Chicago, if you want to be loved and appreciated, it’s always better to be defensive-minded. Players like Kirk Hinrich and Joakim Noah had limitations on the offensive end, but their defensive effort and prowess rendered them a revered status with the majority of fans. Dennis Rodman didn’t always bring effort (or himself) to practice, and he lacked an ability to score consistently, but all was forgotten due to his exceptional defense. The 1985 Bears and the Bulls of the '90s imprinted a “Defense wins Championships” mantra into our collective DNA.

Ironically, Chicago is also a city that loves a great work ethic, and in the sport of basketball it takes more work and practice hours to be a great offensive player. No one leaves the womb as a great shooter. With some “want-to” and the gift of athleticism, players can achieve “great defender” status. It’s more difficult without practice to perform on the offense end, especially at the end of games when the opposition is putting forth more effort, and a shot of adrenaline can have disastrous consequences on the jump shot. The players on my list had a unique ability to perform when it mattered most on the offensive end.

With that in mind, I bring you my list of the Most Underrated Bulls over the past 35 years.

5. Dwyane Wade

The Bulls were faced with some difficult decisions at the end of the 2015-16 season. With the trade of Derrick Rose and the departure of Joakim Noah, the team was ready to build around Jimmy Butler. Unfortunately for the Bulls and the rest of the league, almost every team had a ton of cap space to spend on an unworthy group of free agents. Therefore, the summer of 2016 ushered in a period where some worst free agent signings in the history of basketball were completed.  The Bulls basically had 3 options that summer:

Option 1: The first option was to dive head-first into the overrated free agent class of 2016. The Bulls wisely decided to avoid bidding on some of these players (Tyler Johnson, Jon Leuer, Chandler Parsons, Ian Mahinmi, etc...), despite anger over inactivity from large sectors of the fan base.

Option 2:  Maintain Cap Flexibility and sign only minor, one or two year deals. These options included Seth Curry (2 years, $5.9 Million), Dion Waiters (1 year, 2.9 million), or larger deals for Rajon Rondo or Dwyane Wade.  

Option 3: Do nothing in the first year of the “Build Around Butler” era, look for trades, and endure the fan outrage.

The Bulls chose Option 2, with short term contract offers to Rondo and Wade. The logic behind the signings were sound considering Butler’s general abhorrence for young players. Jimmy was excited by the prospect of bringing in Wade and actively recruited him. The primary reason for signing Wade was that he was still playing at a relatively high level.  In the 2016 playoffs, a few months before he signed with the Bulls, Wade put up incredible numbers over 14 games for the Heat.  He averaged 21.4 points and 4.3 assists, with a 46.9 FG%, 52.2% from 3 (12-23), 78% from the FT line with 64 attempts. Wade made the All-Star team in 2016 and he put up an All-Star performance when it mattered most in the 2016 playoffs. Arguing that Wade still had some solid basketball years left in the tank was an easily justifiable position based on his 2016 playoff performance alone.

All the frustration over his average regular season blurred the often effective play that Wade brought for much of 2016-17. Although he didn’t reach his own high standards for greatness, Wade posted solid numbers that season, averaging 18.3 ppg in only 30 minutes per game. We tend to discount the value of scorers in Chicago. Wade’s 18.3 ppg and 18.5 PER is a number never reached by many Bull legends, including the beloved Kirk Hinrich. Only four Bulls over the past decade have averaged 18.3 ppg or more in 30 or more games: Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, and Zach LaVine (so far this season). We’ll probably go another decade before we find another five players. 

The primary issues with the Three Alphas team had nothing to do with the Three Alphas. The team was excellent defensively, ranked 6th in the league in defensive efficiency, but offensively the team was dependent on the shooting abilities of Niko Mirotic and Doug McDermott. Mirotic particularly needed to replicate his solid 2015-16 season, especially his 39% shooting from behind the arc to create lanes for Wade and Butler to rim rock. Unfortunately, Mirotic's 3-point percentage hovered around 29% for most of his first 200 attempts. His contemptible play in the playoffs (34% FG, 28.6% from behind the arc) and helped seal the Bulls' doom, with little blame from his considerable and misguided fan base.

But the plan actually worked. For once, the Bulls were peaking in the playoffs and were an extremely dangerous team, so much so that national NBA pundits like Ryen Russillo argued that the Bulls were simply the “better team” after taking a 2-0 lead in the first round over the top-seeded Boston Celtics.

Unfortunately, Rondo’s broken finger effectively ended all hope for a miraculous playoff run.  There was a Grand Canyon between Rondo and his backup PG Jerian Grant and we’ll never know what that team could have accomplished if Rondo had stayed healthy.

4.  Doug Collins

The Bulls finished the 1985-86 season with a 30-52 record under first-year coach Stan Albeck. The disappointing regular season record was primarily due to Michael Jordan’s absence with a broken foot. Even with the poor record, the Bulls made the playoffs but were swept by Boston despite Jordan’s heroic efforts against the eventual NBA Champion Celtics.  With Jordan's talent on the rise there was reason for optimism, but the team still fired Albeck after one season. As with most Bulls coaching decisions, this one was not without controversy, as Albeck torched Krause and the organization on the way out.

Despite the chaotic circumstances surrounding Albeck’s departure, Reinsdorf made a wise decision in hiring the young and inexperienced 34-year old Doug Collins, an analyst for CBS-TV. Hiring a television analyst was not unheard of at the time, since Pat Riley made a similar and successful transition. Things immediately got better for the Bulls under Collins. The Bulls went 40-42 (0-3 in the playoffs) in 1986-87, 50-32 in 87-88 (4-6 in the playoffs), and 47-35 in his final season (9-8 in the playoffs). They moved closer to a title in each of his three seasons at the helm culminating in a Conference Finals appearance for the first time since 1975 in Collins' third year.

Doug was an outstanding leader who had the respect of Jordan and the Bulls became one of the best defensive teams in the NBA during his tenure. The season before he arrived, the Bulls were 13th in defensive rankings (Opponent Points Per Game was the common defensive metric of that time).  They were second, first, and fifth in Collins' three years as head coach, and they fell to 12th after his departure.

Collins was unexpectedly fired in June of 1989, shortly after the draft that acquired Stacey King, B.J. Armstrong, and Jeff Sanders. Doug had a 137-109 regular season record over three seasons (13-17 in the playoffs). The primary reasons given at the time for his dismissal never sat right with me.  It was publicized that some players didn’t like Collins, he was criticized for being too hard on younger players like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. But few great coaches are beloved by all their players. It’s likely a conflict with Krause ultimately led to his dismissal (probably over his refusal to embrace the triangle) for even Michael, Scottie, and Phil Jackson ultimately lost all of their battles with the ornery general manager. Collins clearly garnered the respect of key figures of the dynasty and Jordan hand-picked him to be his coach for his final two seasons with the Wizards. He doesn’t get enough credit for steering the ship in the correct direction, and for that, he’s made the list.

His footprint on the Bulls dynasty of the '90s is evident in the roster, like the decision to draft Grant.

“The drafting of Grant almost didn't happen because Krause, at the last minute, wanted to draft Joe Wolf but was overruled by Jerry Reinsdorf, who sided with the coaches, team sources said,” the late great Lacy J. Banks, the Chicago Sun-Times beat writer, wrote in 1991.

"People don't know that…Krause wanted to draft Joe Wolf," Grant told the Chicago Tribune's Melissa Isaacson in June of 1994.

Without the efforts of Doug Collins and Johnny Bach, it is likely Grant may have never been drafted. Collins deserves credit for helping to avert this potential draft disaster, because a "Big 3" of Jordan-Pippen-Wolf would not have been as effective against the Pistons and Lakers.

3.  Pau Gasol 

Pau Gasol was considered to be one of the best free agent options in the 2014 class. The Bulls beat several solid teams (most notably the Spurs and Thunder) in acquiring his services and Gasol agreed to sign for less money in Chicago. He played for $7.1 million in 2014-15 and $7.4 million in 2015-16, well below his market value, and the return on investment was substantial. Gasol made the All Star team in both of his seasons as a Bull (and was a starter in 2015) and he made All-NBA Second Team in his first season. He averaged a double-double (19.4 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 2.8 APG in 14-15 and 18.7 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 4.5 APG in 15-16). I can’t think of a Bulls player with similar numbers and accomplishments who is remembered with such indifference, and in some cases disdain, by large parts of the fan base.

Gasol was a highly skilled offensive player who was especially effective in his first year in Chicago. In that season, the Bulls won 50 games for only the third time since the end of the Jordan era, despite the significant decline of Joakim Noah and the recurring Rose injuries. The increased win total was almost entirely due to Gasol and the improvement of Jimmy Butler.

In the first round playoff series vs. the Bucks in 2015, Gasol was double-teamed every time he touched the ball in the post. The Bucks were still shell-shocked from the 46 points and 18 rebounds Gasol put up in a February victory over Milwaukee and they were determined to stop him. The Bulls were mostly unable to take advantage of the Bucks predictable defensive strategy until Game 6, when the Bulls finally moved the ball and punished the Bucks with a 120-66 win. Gasol and Rose pick and rolled their way to a victory in Game 1 of the following series against the Cavs, but a hamstring injury to Gasol in Game 3 ended their last legitimate chance at finally beating LeBron James. 

Gasol certainly had his limitations defensively, but he was far from a disaster on that end. There are two types of coaches: coaches who demand that the players adapt to their system and coaches who adapt their system to the players. Tom Thibodeau adhered to the former method and consistently asked Gasol to play too far from the basket and guard players he wasn’t capable of stopping.

Advanced analytics contradicted the narrative on Gasol’s defensive abilities, especially in terms of rim defense. Gasol used his height and length to block and affect shots. He also rebounded well, but many fans preferred the more athletic but far less skilled Cristiano Felicio. Few fans will admit it today in hindsight. His play warranted more love, and for that, he makes this list.

San Antonio, Gasol's next destination, was better able to utilize an aging Gasol. In the year after he left the Bulls, Gasol led the NBA in three-point percentage with a stellar 53.8 percent, with more total attempts than his two seasons with the Bulls combined. Meanwhile, Felicio devolved into a G-League quality player. 

2. Toni Kukoc

Toni Kukoc arrived in Chicago at the age of 24, just in time for Michael Jordan’s first retirement. Kukoc had no faults on the offensive end, he was a solid post player, rebounder and three-point shooter who was not afraid to attack the rim. He was also a great passer. He was limited defensively, though his length covered up many of his those deficiencies.  Kukoc had that “clutch” quality, stepping up with big performances many times during the Bulls' second trio of title runs.  His 1998 Game 7 performance vs the Pacers (21 points 7-11 shooting, 3-4 from 3) was essential for that 88-83 victory, and the Bulls might not have won that game and, their sixth title, without his contribution. His Game 5 effort in an 83-81 loss at home vs the Jazz in the 1998 Finals is seldom discussed today because of Jordan’s heroics in Game 6, but it was as good as it gets in terms of big performances on a big stage (30 points, 11-13 shooting, 4-6 from 3). 

Kukoc also hit one of the most important shots in Bulls history on May 13th 1994. The Bulls were down 2-0 to the Knicks in the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals, and returned to Chicago for Game 3. The Bulls were up 89-70 at the end of three quarters but were hit by a Knicks offensive tidal wave of 32 points in the fourth quarter, and New York tied the game at 102 with 1.8 seconds left. It was a monumental collapse and Pippen’s subsequent decision to sit out the final play would have caused irreparable harm to Scottie’s reputation with a loss. Fortunately for Pippen, Kukoc hit the shot to win the game, and Scottie was able to rehab his reputation by the end of the series with an iconic dunk over Ewing in Game 6. The Kukoc game-winner is one of the most impactful shots in Bulls history.

Kukoc, like Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat teams, had to sacrifice and defer to superior teammates. He was a natural three, but due to the presence of Pippen, he was asked to gain weight and play more often at the power forward position. He won the Sixth Man of the Year award in 1996 and he was clearly a player who could have started on the vast majority of teams without “72-10” talent. His importance to the legendary 1996-1998 Bulls title teams has always been understated. He was a great player and accepted a lesser role in order to win. Because of his personal sacrifice for the greater good of the team, Kukoc makes the list.

1. Ben Gordon

“Ben [Gordon] is a very good player… scoring-wise he’s one of the best in the game. There are a lot of teams that would love to have him… He’s a great offensive scorer.” – Dwayne Wade on Ben Gordon, 2008.

In the years the Bulls organization has existed, there have been only seven players to average 20 PPG or more for a Bulls team that was .500 or better: Bob Love, Chet Walker, Michael Jordon, Scottie Pippen, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Gordon.

Gordon was a fantastic offensive force for the Bulls. He was an elite shooter; hitting over 40 percent from behind the arc every year he played in Chicago. In that regard, Gordon was a bit ahead of his time. To put this in perspective, Gordon’s best season was 2006-07. In that year, Golden State was the top team in 3-point attempts, averaging 24.8 attempts per game while the Bulls were 23rd at 15.2 per game. Contrast that season with 2018-19, where Houston’s 42.6 attempts per game is leading the league. The 30th-ranked team is San Antonio, averaging 24.4 per game (Bulls are 25th at 26.9). Gordon would have flourished in today’s game, but his prime years were spent in a league still focused on post-up play and mid-range jumpers.

Gordon scored when it mattered most, with incredible fourth quarter production and a Sixth Man award during his rookie season. He was remarkably durable (an underrated trait, especially in this town), missing only 12 games over five seasons, and he played in all 82 games three out of his five seasons in Chicago. He relentlessly attacked the rim, and led the Bulls in free throw attempts for four straight seasons. 

Gordon usually drew the opponent’s best perimeter defender and he was the only Bull to consistently draw a double team until Derrick Rose arrived. You could count on one hand the number of guards in the league who could draw a double team 40-feet from the basket and it was disappointing the other Bulls of that era, some more beloved with larger contracts, didn’t take advantage of this fact on the offensive end.

In Game 5 of the incredible series vs the Celtics in 2009 (Bulls were tied 2-2 at the time), the Bulls were down 104-101 at the end of the first OT in Boston. Gordon was fouled while shooting a three with 27.3 seconds left. Gordon calmly walked up and hit all three free throws. Perhaps no player on that Bulls roster, or anyone since, could have hit those three free throws in that raucous environment on the road in Boston.

He was a cold assassin with no fear of the big moment.

Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich get far more credit for leading the Bulls out of the post-Jordan darkness, but Gordon was the primary force behind the change in the Bulls' fortunes. His departure to Detroit as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2009 ended much of the goodwill he had built up in Chicago from the majority of fans, but his greatness when it mattered most should always be cherished. For that oversight, Ben Gordon claims the top spot on this unarguable list.