Bulls

Tom Thibodeau watched the transformation, curiosity of Kobe Bryant

Tom Thibodeau watched the transformation, curiosity of Kobe Bryant

In the mid-90s, Tom Thibodeau served as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers when a certain Lower Merion High School senior would stop by the team’s practices at St. Joseph’s.

“He’d come real early,” Thibodeau said by phone Sunday of Kobe Bryant. “Anytime he had any time off from school, he’d come there and hang out all day. He’d be the first one there. He’d want you to put him through a workout. He’d wait for a player to come in and he’d go ask the player questions. Then he’d go try to play the player 1-on-1. Then he’d go lift weights. Then he’d watch practice. Then he’d wait for practice to be over and he’d want to play against anyone. He’d talk to players about shooting, about defense, about 1-on-1 moves. His drive is what made him so special.”

Like anybody else associated with the NBA world, Thibodeau struggled to process Sunday’s tragic news that Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter crash. In a phone interview with NBC Sports Chicago, he paused twice to collect his thoughts and emotions.

“Something like this just stops you dead in your tracks. It’s so heartbreaking,” Thibodeau said. “Your heart goes out to his family, the Laker family, the NBA family.”

Thibodeau, the former Bulls coach, heard from Bryant a mere week ago. Bryant talked to Thibodeau about coaching his daughter’s basketball team.

“He was so into it. You could hear it. He was such a doting father,” Thibodeau said. “And that’s the thing: He excelled at everything. He wanted to be great at everything. It didn’t matter what it was, whether it was being a father, being a husband.

“Who he was as a person I think stands out more than anything else.  He had such curiosity for learning. He wanted to know everything he could possibly learn about everything. In high school, he was hanging around pro players, college players, coaches. And then to watch all the things he achieved, his career was so amazing.

“But much like Michael [Jordan], his transition after his playing career was off to a flying start. There were so many great things you knew he would accomplish with his post-playing career. It’s just so sad. It’s hard to believe.”

Indeed, Bryant had transformed an image once scarred by a sexual assault allegation to that of a family man and doting father. He recently won an Academy Award for best animated short film for “Dear Basketball.” He talked excitedly about future opportunities in and outside the game he loved.

Thibodeau witnessed that love and joy for the game during Bryant’s teenage years. Then, years later, they competed in back-to-back NBA Finals when Byrant’s Lakers faced a Celtics team with Thibodeau as Doc Rivers’ lead assistant.

“You watched him play and you saw the competitiveness in him. That part was obvious. But he was such a student of the game,” Thibodeau said. “The thing that was neat was as I got to know him and I saw how he studied players, you could see how much it drove him. Michael was a big driving force in his life when he lived overseas. That was the guy he studied. He would mimic his moves. It was amazing. He did it when he was in high school.

“Just to see him execute what he said he was going to do at the pro level. A lot of it is because Kobe was very persistent and very determined. It’s hard to even comprehend that he’s gone.”

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Bill Wennington breaks down what caused Lauri Markkanen's third year struggles

Bill Wennington breaks down what caused Lauri Markkanen's third year struggles

It's one of the most pressing questions facing the Bulls' rebuild at present: What in the world happened to Lauri Markkanen?

After a second season that showed such promise, the 22-year-old Finnish forward has taken a step back in year three, averaging career lows in points (14.7), rebounds (6.3) and field goal attempts (11.8) while shooting just 42.5% from the field and 34.4% from 3-point range. In 50 games — he missed nearly six weeks from Jan. 24 to March 4 with an early stress reaction in his pelvis — before the NBA suspended its season, he averaged just 0.1 more minutes than his rookie campaign.

Still, Markkanen's talent, tools and the potential he flashed in his first two seasons are too tantalizing to simply give up on — especially for a Bulls team that has invested so heavily in him. That makes finding the root of his struggles all the more important.

Over the course of a disappointing Bulls season, fans and media alike have flooded out of the woodwork to posit their own theories for the cause of Markkanen's regression. Former Bulls center and current Bulls radio color commentator for 670 The Score Bill Wennington added his opinion in a guest spot on a recent episode of Sports Talk Live:

I think we’ve (the Bulls) kind of limited Lauri a little bit in his skillset, what he can do, because we’re having him stand out just at the 3-point line, and that kinda takes away from his game just a little bit. And, hey, does he have to be more aggressive? Yes he does. Does he have to make a better effort rebounding, I’d like to see the rebounding come up. Yes he does. 

But we also have to put him in positions to be successful as a player. Again, up until this season, everybody was loving Lauri. What’s changed? What’s different with his game now over the last two years where we thought, ‘Oh boy, we’ve got something good going on here.’

That critique points to the complexity of Markkanen's struggles. His spotty usage (he can't control his minutes) and meandering role in the team's offense can be in part attributed to the Bulls' schemes at times neglecting his strengths as a ballhandler and creator. But, as Wennington notes, Markkanen can do more to take his destiny into his own hands — the chasm between his second and third year rebounding numbers are an indicator of that, as is his deflated volume of shots.

"What Lauri is not right now is a strong, aggressive leader where he’s going to enforce his will upon other people. That’s not going to happen right now," Wennington said.

But that's not intended as to belittle Markkanen completely. Wennington, like many in the Bulls' organization and fanbase, believes things can turn back around.

"Can it get better? Yes it can. Do I want it to get better for Lauri? Yes I do," Wennington continued. "Lauri is a multi-faceted player that, as a 7-footer, can shoot 3s, and can put the ball on the floor and handle the basketball well for a 7-footer and can get to the rim."

So, how should the Bulls go about extracting Markkanen's maximum potential? Wennington drew on his experience with the Phil Jackson-era Bulls — an experience in which he earned three rings during the Bulls' second three-peat — to offer something of a solution.

"I like to use the analogy of me because I know me the best and I like talking about me more than anyone else," Wennington joked. "When I came to the Bulls, the triangle offense was run out of the center spot with Bill Cartwright as a center, or as a low-post passer. Phil Jackson integrated me into the triangle offense by using my jump-shooting ability. He tweaked the offense a little bit and made me run some screen-and-rolls from the outside and fade and pop a little bit, where he could take advantage of me hitting jump shots and spreading the floor a little bit."

Is Wennington suggesting the 2020-21 Bulls implement the triangle to assuage their offensive woes? Of course not. But with a bit of intentional gameplanning suited towards Markkanen's strengths, a dash better injury luck and a healthy dose of contract-year assertiveness, Markkanen could just be on his way to a bounceback in year four.

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Report: NBA assessing COVID-19 testing options that could accelerate return

Report: NBA assessing COVID-19 testing options that could accelerate return

When ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported "significant pessimism" that the NBA would find a path to resolving its season, he cited rapid and accessible testing as among key mitigating factors.

"A big factor is testing. We just don't have the testing," Windhorst said in a SportsCenter appearance. "At some point, not only does it have to be a test that's quick and can evaluate whether a player is healthy enough to enter a game, you have to know whether you have the tests available, so that you're not taking them away from people who need them."

Now, reports indicate the league has made some headway on that front — or at least, they're hoping to.

From Baxter Holmes of ESPN:

In recent weeks, officials within the NBA and NBPA have been collaborating in assessing the viability of multiple blood-testing devices for the coronavirus that could provide accurate results within a matter of minutes, a process that would hopefully enable the league to track the virus in what is considered a critical first step toward resuming play in the near future.

Multiple league sources close to the situation said the league and players union have been looking at what those familiar with the matter describe as "diabetes-like" blood testing in which someone could, with the prick of a finger, be tested quickly, and results could be gained inside of 15 minutes.

That certainly is a jarring update considering where we were in this story mere days ago. Holmes went on to report (citing league sources) that this experiment is in the "exploratory phase" and there is still no timetable for when such a resource might be made available.

Further, even if such an innovation was made, sports leagues would and should take a backseat to healthcare workers and other essential professionals. And even that hedge doesn't take into account the risk of possible false-negative tests, an issue Holmes fleshed out at length in the aforementioned report.

If all the stars align, though, the consensus appears to be that this could be a game-changer as it relates to the NBA returning to action. 

Still, the message from the league and its many spheres is consistent. Top brass is doing all it can to find an avenue to resume and resolve the 2019-20 season, but will not do so until given clearance by health officials to do so. The hurdles remain immense.

This report marks a potential breakthrough well down the line, but for now, it's a development that leaves us with more questions than answers. A familiar feeling, coming up on a month since the NBA suspended its season.

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