Plenty of fascinating storylines heading into the 2nd half of NBA season

Plenty of fascinating storylines heading into the 2nd half of NBA season

With NBA teams reaching the midpoint of the 82 game regular season marathon over the past week, we have a pretty good idea of which teams are legitimate championship contenders, which teams are likely to make the playoffs, and which teams are starting to focus on lottery odds.

Right now, the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers look like the class of the league, with teams like Philadelphia and Boston in the East and Denver and Utah in the West hoping to challenge for a spot in the Finals.

With just three weeks to go until the NBA trade deadline on February 6, it will be interesting to see which of the contending teams are able to strengthen their rosters. You can expect to see veterans like Andre Drummond, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala, Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Robert Covington, Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III, Malik Beasley, former Bulls Derrick Rose and E’Twaun Moore, and possibly current Bulls Thaddeus Young and Denzel Valentine to be mentioned in a variety of trade rumors as we get closer to the deadline. 

Utah already got a big boost with their trade for combo guard Jordan Clarkson, and the Minnesota Timberwolves started their sell-off on Thursday by trading veteran point guard Jeff Teague and reserve Treveon Graham to Atlanta for swingman Allen Crabbe.

Plus, the two L.A. teams are competing to add free agent point guard Darren Collison, who unexpectedly retired after last season. And, as always, there will be a number of veterans who get bought out of their contracts and are free to join contending teams before the March 1st deadline for playoff eligibility.

So, as we anticipate an active month of personnel moves ahead, let’s take a look at how some of the traditional NBA awards would play out and our "most surprising" and "most disappointing" teams at the midway point:

Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

When Giannis Antetokounmpo was presented his 2018-19 MVP award outside of Fiserv Forum last year, he told the adoring crowd not to call him MVP anymore until he won the award next season. Giannis dedicated himself to an offseason of working on his short list of weaknesses (outside shooting, late-game decision-making), and he came back an even better player. Antetokounmpo has increased his numbers in just about every major statistical category, and his 3-point shooting has improved enough to open up driving lanes. The Bucks are currently on pace for a 70 win season, thanks to Antetokoumpo's play. 

Sixth Man of the Year: Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers

Harrell’s teammate Lou Williams has pretty much owned this award in recent seasons, and Sweet Lou is still the leading scorer among non-starters. But Harrell’s play on both ends is one of the keys to the Clippers’ championship hopes. He’s currently averaging 19.2 points and 7.3 rebounds, shooting 57.3% from the field. Plus, he plays much taller than his listed height of 6-foot-7 with all-out hustle and relentless work on the boards.

Most Improved: Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans.

The 2nd overall pick in the 2016 draft had been viewed as largely a disappointment during his three seasons with the Lakers. Matter of fact, when the Lakers were negotiating the Anthony Davis trade with New Orleans, their priority was finding a way to keep Kyle Kuzma out of the discussion, not Ingram. Well, all Ingram has done since joining the Pelicans is average 25.1 points (11th in the NBA), 6.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists, while keeping the team afloat as they wait for the regular season debut of Zion Williamson next week.

Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Unless Zion averages 25 points and 15 rebounds per game in his half-season with the Pelicans, this award will go to Morant in a landslide. Morant has been nothing short of sensational, leading the young Grizzlies into playoff position at the midway point. Morant’s athleticism is off the charts, and his spectacular ball-handling and high-flying dunks have been featured nightly on highlight shows. He’ll be one of the faces of the league over the next decade.

Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

This award could probably go to Antetokounmpo as well, since the Bucks are No. 1 in the league in defensive rating, and Antetokounmpo can defend all five positions. But the recent trend has been to go with the best rim protector, and Gobert has established himself as a defensive force for the Jazz. Gobert is currently 3rd in the NBA in rebounds and 7th in blocked shots. 

(By the way, did you know the much-maligned Hassan Whiteside leads the league in blocks and is 4th in rebounding? P.S., he won’t win the award!)

Coach of the Year: Nate McMillan, Indiana Pacers

With apologies to the coaches of the conference leaders, Mike Budenholzer and Frank Vogel, no coach has done more with less to this point than McMillan. While waiting for the return of star guard Victor Oladipo from a serious leg injury (expected to be on January 29th against the Bulls), McMillan has the Pacers in 5th place in the East with a 26-15 record. Not only has Oladipo missed the entire season, but key players Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner and Jeremy Lamb have all been out for multiple games because of injuries.

Most Surprising Team: Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks (TIE)

We could probably throw the Oklahoma City Thunder in here as well, but not many analysts expected the Heat or Mavericks to be competing for a top-4 seed in their respective conferences. Jimmy Butler has been the leader of the overachieving Heat, who are getting better than expected production from young players Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. While out West, the incredible Luka Doncic is a top-5 MVP candidate, leading the Mavs to a 26-15 record (currently 6th) with incredible stats of 28.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9 assists per game. The international duo of Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis will be fun to watch for years to come.

Most Disappointing Team: Portland Trailblazers 

Plenty of options here, but Portland gets the nod. Don’t forget, the Trail Blazers were in the Western Conference Finals last spring. To be fair, injuries have played a role in their 18-24 start, but with a backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Portland’s record should be significantly better. The Blazers even brought Carmelo Anthony out of exile to provide some much-needed scoring support. Big man Jusuf Nurkic should return after the All-Star break, and the Blazers are only a game and a half out of the final playoff spot in the West but don’t be surprised if the front office decides to blow up the roster ahead of the February 6 trade deadline.

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

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

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.”