Bulls

The Pecking Order: Bulls' pre-NBA Trade Deadline to-do list

The Pecking Order: Bulls' pre-NBA Trade Deadline to-do list

We’re beyond the halfway point of what looks to be another lost season, Bulls fans. As we enter the next phase of the schedule, it’s important for this team to acknowledge their current reality and put emphasis on making positive steps to improve their future.

It’s not about playoffs anymore but that doesn’t mean there can’t be new goals to set and meet through these final 40 games. It starts with a critical stretch between now and the NBA’s trade deadline on February 6.

Here are five things I’d like to see the Bulls do over the next three weeks. It’s the Pecking Order.

1) Try something new

Earlier this week, when asked by our Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson to assess his team at the season’s halfway point, Jim Boylen said he likes that they’ve established a style of play at both ends of the floor. I’m sorry, but the Bulls' offensive rating of 104.7 currently ranks 28th in the league and falls to 96.2 when Zach LaVine is off the court? The Bulls' defense – which Boylen and John Paxson have pointed to as proof of growth – has fallen dramatically against tougher opponents? Through eight January games, the Bulls' defensive rating is 113.7.

If the style you’re using isn’t working – 15 wins and 27 losses – should you stick with it? As my buddy John Sabine said during a recent episode of Outsiders, “a mullet is a style.”

On offense, the multi-ball handler “style” is not working consistently, nor does it fit the strengths of the players on the roster. See Markkanen, Lauri. On defense, the high rate of forced turnovers yields little because the team can’t execute in transition and fastbreak situations.

The trapping pick and roll defense is picked apart by competent teams and has only been more exposed since Wendell Carter Jr.’s injury. Nonetheless, the Bulls stick with it, establishing these styles of play regardless of personnel. It’s a glaring example of their inflexibility and inability to make proper adjustments.

The Bulls can’t be satisfied with the systems if the team is 12 games under .500 through the “easy” part of your schedule. Try something else.

2) Play and trade Thad

Thad Young is back to being Thad Young. The veteran forward produced 35 points off the bench in the past two games, 23 of those came near the basket on post-ups or pick and roll actions. His half-court game is “old school” and doesn’t fit the “new school” (i.e. only threes and layups) that the Bulls demand from their players.

Guess what? Thad’s buckets this week were some of the most competent offense we’ve seen from this team all season, outside of LaVine’s individual brilliance.

Thad played 21 minutes on Wednesday night, while Luke Kornet led all players with 35. Anybody else see a problem here?

With the losses of Wendell and now Daniel Gafford for up to four weeks with a thumb, the Bulls must seriously consider starting Thad. Sliding Lauri to the five is certainly a calculated risk on defense, but is Kornet that much better if he is attacking ball handlers away from the paint? We learned in October that Kornet’s defensive pluses are replaced by severe minuses in this defensive system.

Why not significantly increase Thad’s minutes for the next three weeks? Showcase his talent to pair with his already tradeable quality of being a well-liked and respected veteran to playoff-bound teams. Everybody wins.

3) Play and trade Denzel

On Wednesday night, he was the only active player to not get any minutes. Yes, that includes Cristiano Felicio. Denzel didn’t even get in the game after Chandler Hutchison went down with his 14th different injury in the 15 games he’s played this season.

Denzel’s absence from the rotation is even more confounding when you realize that the Bulls are currently ninth in the NBA in 3-pointers attempted per game but only 19th in 3-point percentage. His 39.2% success rate from deep trails only LaVine and Ryan Arcidiacono among healthy players on the roster. On Monday, Bulls players not named Zach LaVine went 3-19 from downtown. When the Bulls don’t hit threes, they lose. It’s been a constant all season. Denzel’s other greatest attributes, his passing and IQ, could help this team’s constantly stagnant half-court offense.

If the Bulls have decided to give up on Denzel and not offer him a new contract, what’s the harm in playing him for three weeks to boost his trade value? Instead of letting yet another player leave for nothing in return, maybe a playoff-bound team can find use for a bench shooter and send the Bulls a pick or young player.

4) Play. Lauri. Real. Minutes.

Lauri Markkanen’s regression is easily the biggest disappointment in a season filled with them. His usage percentage (20.9), field goal attempts (12.0) and points per game (15.0) are all lower than his rookie season. His minutes per game (30.2) are barely higher than the 29.7 he played as a rookie.

Yes, some of the fault falls on Lauri for not asserting himself more. He looks completely passive and disengaged, but this offensive system isn’t doing him any favors. It won’t get fixed if he’s not on the court. Eliminate these long stretches where Lauri sits for eight, nine, 12 minutes at a time. In three of their past four games, Lauri has taken fewer than 10 shots. Inexcusable. This kid is supposed to be a cornerstone of the rebuild. Do everything you can to help him try to fix this terrible season.

5) Give Coby some plays to run.

Bulls fans have been debating all season long whether Coby White should start. I’m on the record as being against it because I don’t think he’s ready and has been too inconsistent. At this point, screw it. He clearly has talent and is the only other player on this roster besides LaVine capable of creating his own shot off the dribble. Iso Coby has fueled a lagging second unit on many nights. But in the back half of the season, I want to see him doing more point guard things.

I know it goes against the free-flowing system, but can we please install some actual offensive plays for Coby to run that involve other players? We know he can get to the rim and create his own shots. Great. Box checked. But this team is still searching for a real point guard, so why not see what the kid can do when you ask him to run plays for his teammates? Try some new stuff. Make use of your remaining games by developing a key piece of the rebuild.

It’s not a pretty to-do list, but the Bulls aiming to achieve some or all these things will help them in the long run.

Thanks for reading. See red, be good.

5 Bulls remaining must-watch games of 2019-20 NBA season

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NBC Sports Chicago

5 Bulls remaining must-watch games of 2019-20 NBA season

There are 23 games left, Bulls fans! Not that I’m counting, or anything. As we prepare to enter the final month of the NBA regular season, the Bulls are a Leap Day loss to the Knicks away – it could happen, we’ve seen it happen – from being 20 games under .500. Given the goals set forth by John Paxson and Jim Boylen on media day, I think it’s fair to say that the underachievement this season has been jarring.

Some fans have checked out and will tune back in for the draft lottery in May. To those of you I say: I get it. But there’s still basketball to be watched!

The Bulls’ remaining schedule is a gauntlet of playoff-bound teams including a daunting west coast trip in April. This likely means the playoffs are a pipe dream, regardless of what the math says in the “games back” column of the Eastern Conference standings. But this tough schedule in March and April also provides Bulls fans with some fun games to watch, with individual matchups that might just provide glimpses of hope for next season.

Here are 5 games I’m excited to watch in the remaining Bulls schedule. It’s the Pecking Order.

1. March 2 – Bulls vs Mavericks

I know, I know. It’s not fair that the Mavericks went straight from the Dirk Era to the young and wildly promising Luka Era with no gap in between while the Bulls languish in the third year of a rebuild that hasn’t taken off. It’s only human to wonder “what if” the Bulls had gotten luckier in the lottery or managed to make the trade Dallas did to land Luka Dončić two years ago. John Sabine doesn’t help matters with his nonstop Luka talk.

But I can’t help it. Luka, and this entire Mavericks team, is so much fun to watch. Their offensive efficiency this season isn’t getting nearly enough talk or respect. The Bulls kept it close when these teams met in January despite a modest 20-point night from Zach LaVine. Lauri Markkanen had one of his better games of the season with 26 and 9 rebounds.

Dončić didn’t even need his sidekick Kristaps Porziņģis, as he picked apart the Bulls to the tune of a 38-point triple double. And this was before defensive anchors Wendell Carter Jr. and Kris Dunn went down with injuries. Hopefully Wendell will be back on the court for this one and we’ll see how he handles Kristaps, who looked pretty darn good in February.

2. March 14 – Bulls @ Heat

The Bulls are 0-2 against Jimmy Butler’s new team so far this season. One of those was a backbreaker that saw 17 ties, 15 lead changes and went to overtime. The Bulls led for 37:38 of the game’s duration, while the Heat only led for 6:10. Zach LaVine drew a foul on Jimmy Butler and sank free throws to send the game to an extra frame, where Tyler Herro drilled three of his game-high five 3-pointers to seal the win for Miami.

The Heat have been reeling of late, including losses to Atlanta, Cleveland and Minnesota. But they’re still dynamite at home, where their record is 23-4. Could the Bulls manage to steal one in a trap game for the Heat? Zach didn’t play well in either matchup so far, scoring 15 and 18 points. How great would it be to see a LaVine-Butler duel like the one we saw three years ago when Zach was fresh off his ACL rehab and Jimmy was still with Minnesota? And if the Bulls come out on top? Sure would be fun to watch.

3. March 21 – Bulls @ Rockets

The Bulls were beat by Houston back in November in their first game after Otto Porter Jr. went down. James Harden was one assist shy of a 42-point triple-double and Russell Westbrook chipped in 26. The Bulls, meanwhile, had all five starters and seven total players score in double figures, but nobody scored more than 13. Yikes.

Since shipping off Clint Capela and going all-in on their small ball strategy, the Rockets have surged to just two games back of the second seed in the West. I can’t wait to see what Jim Boylen does with his game plan, as we’ve recently seen him use some give-guard lineups in similar fashion to the Rockets. Might he go back to this even if certain members of the Bulls frontcourt have returned from injury?

It would be a bonus to see a back-and-forth showdown of recently surging rookie Coby White and the always-going-100-mph Westbrook. Give us at least 48 minutes of this! And hopefully, a more respectable outcome.

4. March 23 – Bulls vs Nuggets

We actually get a twofer here, as the Bulls play Denver again on April 3rd as part of their five-game west coast trip. There’s one big reason I can’t wait to watch both matchups with the Nuggets: Wendell vs The Joker, Parts II and III.

In his NBA coming out party on Halloween night 2018, Wendell admirably battled Nikola Jokić in a devastating overtime loss. The Joker did his usual thing, putting up 22 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. But Wendell also gave him some challenges, forcing Jokić into an uncharacteristic six turnovers. The Bulls' seventh overall pick finished the night with a stuffed stat sheet of 25 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks. The Nuggets big man even paid his respects to the rook after the game.

We never got to see Part II of that matchup last season, as Wendell was out with an injury the second time these teams played. We’ve heard that Wendell is expected back in the lineup as soon as this Saturday against the Knicks after recovering from his high ankle sprain. I cannot WAIT to watch Wendell go at The Joker twice in the final few weeks of the season. Please, Jim Boylen. Let Wendell go at him.

5. April 8 – Bulls @ Lakers

I want revenge. That loss to the Lakers way back on November 5 still bothers me. It’s bothered me all season. Instead of closing out a solid win over LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the juggernaut Lakers, Bulls fans watched the team let a fourth quarter lead slip away with our primary starters watching from the bench. Boylen said he had "15 guys to develop” when he explained his rotation after the loss.

One potential hiccup here: a revenge win will mean a LOT less if LeBron and AD are managing loads in the final games of the season as they prepare for their title push. I hope they’re playing, and I hope we pay them back.

Thanks for reading. Let’s close out these final 23 together, Bulls Nation! See red, be good.

After 30 years, Hank Gathers is never far from Bulls' Chip Schaefer's mind

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NBC Sports Chicago

After 30 years, Hank Gathers is never far from Bulls' Chip Schaefer's mind

It doesn’t take an anniversary for Chip Schaefer to think about Hank Gathers.

“It’s never really far from my mind,” Schaefer said in a recent interview.

Schaefer is the Bulls’ director of sports performance, working his second stint with the franchise after serving as the athletic trainer for the dynasty. But one of the Deerfield, Ill., native’s first jobs was athletic trainer and strength coach at Loyola Marymount University from 1987-90.

In fact, Schaefer was the first non-player to Gathers’ side on that fateful March 4, 1990 day when the star forward collapsed on the court during a West Coast Athletic Conference tournament game and died moments later due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy.

Wednesday marks 30 years since Gathers’ death. On Saturday, Loyola Marymount will unveil a statue honoring him. The family invited Schaefer to the ceremony, no small gesture in Schaefer’s world.

But with the Bulls in New York and Schaefer having already squeezed a trip into Los Angeles this week for Kobe Bryant’s memorial service, Schaefer merely sent his appreciation and respects to the family.

“It doesn’t take much for me to think of him,” Schaefer said. “Every time we’re in Philadelphia, his hometown, I think of him. Every time I flip around the TV and see a Loyola Marymount game, I think of him. I run into people, Jay Hillock, one of (the Bulls’) scouts, was an assistant coach on the staff, and I think of Hank. He was special.”

Schaefer isn’t merely referring to Gathers’ athletic ability, which had NBA talent written all over it.

“He was really an extraordinary personality,” Schaefer said. “He had just an unbelievable sense of humor and a wonderful gift for mimicry.

“I remember one year we had the typical college, end-of-season awards night. It was supposed to be MC’d by one of the local sports anchors. He had to cancel at the last minute. Hank wound up MC’ing it. And he killed it. He could’ve done Vegas with the bit. He had a whole (Muhammad) Ali- (Howard) Cosell bit. It was just unbelievable. He had something funny for every player. And he was riffing, completely spontaneous. I remember nights like that where his rich personality and wit and intelligence was on full display.”

Much like with Bryant, who Schaefer worked with for 12 seasons with the Lakers, he is trying to remember the happy times. When Loyola Marymount hired Schaefer from the esteemed Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, he was only a few years older than Gathers.

“Hank was actually a patient that I met at the clinic. I think he had patellar tendinitis. And we really hit it off,” Schaefer recalled. “That Spring, the athletic trainer before me (at Loyola Marymount) was let go. Hank came in all bubbly and was all excited about me applying for the job.

“So we had the next three years together where we continued to build the special relationships you often build in this field. There were a lot of really personal moments. Hank and Bo (Kimble) grew and we kind of shocked the world in the NCAA tournament that 1987-88 season. We built a national spotlight.”

Indeed, Gathers led the nation in scoring and rebounding in 1988-89. And then Kimble led an emotional run to the Elite Eight in 1990, shooting a free throw left-handed to honor Gathers’ memory.

Schaefer attended Bryant’s memorial service by taking a red-eye flight so as not to miss any Bulls’ commitments. Saturday’s game against the Knicks doesn’t allow him to do the same for Gathers, although he grew emotional when asked what the invitation meant to him.

After all, since Schaefer was one of five people who worked on Gathers outside the gym after his collapse, he was named as one of 10 people and three medical practices in a lawsuit. Schaefer knew he did nothing wrong and followed proper emergency protocol by the book, and Gather’s mother, Lucille, ultimately settled the $32.5 million wrongful-death lawsuit for $545,000.

“I’m the one there along with the doctors on the floor trying to help revive and resuscitate him, so you never know how a family is going to react to anybody that is associated with that,” Schaefer said. “But I’ve heard from Hank’s brother, Derrick, occasionally with warmth and affection and magnanimity and grace. That’s really something. After three decades, that Lucille would even remember my name much less think, ‘It would mean a lot to have him here,’ I’m touched beyond words about that.”