Bulls

Bulls bench playing major role in recent success

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Bulls bench playing major role in recent success

Monday, March 14, 2011Posted: 4:15 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Saturdays 16-point, eight-assist, five-rebound outing from C.J. Watson was more of the same. Not necessarily for the backup point guard specificallyalthough hes been consistently consistent in relief of All-Star Derrick Rose latelybut for the Bulls entire bench.

Pick a reserve in Tom Thibodeaus rotationWatson, swingmen Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, young big men Taj Gibson and Omer Asikand odds are, hell have his moment in the spotlight sooner than later. In fact, as well as the Bulls starters have played, it can be argued that the collective performance of the second unit has gotten the team over the hump in the majority of its victories since the All-Star break.

Theyre consistent, man. They always come in, play hard, they practice well together. They like playing together, I think thats the thing, observed Rose. Thibs is doing a great job with them, with the early group, (a pre-practice session Thibodeau uses to go over plays) they come in and go over the offense all the time and theyve just got everything going for them right now.

Chimed in fellow starter Joakim Noah: Our bench has been playing huge for us.

I feel like we just come in waves.

Indeed, the emergence of the second unit has overwhelmed many an opponent recently, as the Bulls bring athleticism, size and length on the interior (Gibson and Asik), outside shooting (Korver and Watson), defensive ball pressure (Brewer and Watson) and an unselfish, up-tempo brand of controlled chaos. Thibodeau has grown so fond of their chemistry and production that upon the return of Joakim Noah, he removed veteran Kurt Thomas from the starting lineupkeeping the Gibson-Asik pairing intactthen reinserted Thomas into the first unit when starting power forward Carlos Boozer went down with a sprained ankle last week.

I like the way both units play. I didn't want to change our second unit because of the way we're playing. Kurt, when he was starting when Jo was out, functioned extremely well with the starting unit, so we're going to stay with that, said Thibodeau. They Gibson and Asik complement each other extremely well and it's not only those two, it's the entire unit. The way they're playing together, I think it's a big asset for us and they've given us a lot. I don't want to change that, so we try to keep that unit together as much as we can.

On most nights, Thibodeau brings in Brewer and Gibson for Keith Bogans and Boozer, respectively, during the first quarter of games, instantly upping the teams athleticism and increasing transition opportunities, which suits the explosive Roses game. To start the second period, Asik and Watson join the crew, leaving Deng as the lone Bulls starter in the contest until Korver replaces him.

Deng, who is among the leagues leaders in minutes per game, has a simple explanation for why Chicagos bench has been so successful: The second unit, I think they've been doing a good job of outplaying every other second unit. They've been really consistent all year doing that.

Indeed, upon closer examination, it makes sense that the Bulls reserves have an advantage over other benches. Brewer was a starter for the majority of his tenure in Utah, Gibson started 70 games as a rookie last season (as well as the beginning of this campaign, when Boozer was sidelined), Korver has been a key rotation player his entire career and Watson played major minutes with Golden State, his previous team.

That second team, nobody really wants that attention. Were not worried about who gets the shots. If were down, we do anything that it takes to get it going. Sometimes we start out slow, sometimes they the starters build a lead for us. We dont want to be the people who lose the lead. We want to be that group that maintains it or furthers the lead, Brewer told CSNChicago.com. Were all unselfish players, we make extra passes and we start with defense. When you start with defense, that allows us to get easy offensive plays and easy baskets. When you get easy baskets, you're confidence level gets a lot higher.

Its really hard to defend us because I think a lot of guys do so many different things that you can't focus on one person.

Added Gibson: Weve got guys that could normally start on a lot of teams in this league. Our second unit is a good unit. We understand what we have to do, we understand what it takes to win and everybody just knows their role. Everybody understands the game and thats whats so beneficial to our team.

Its been the presence of the teams sole rookie, however, that has further solidified the unit. Rough around the edges to start the seasonfoul trouble and uneven offensive play were his primary issues; the latter still occasionally plagues himAsiks international experience, physical play and defensive acumen have made him not only a fan favorite, but a player that the close-knit squad supports wholeheartedly, often rising from the bench as a group to praise his play as a form of encouragement.

Omer's been playing huge for us lately and I think he's playing more and more confident every game, said Noah. He's been bringing a lot of energy for us off the bench and he's been a huge presence for us at the rim.

Omer is somebody, from just watching him play this summer in the World Championships, I knew he was somebody that was going to help us right away, he continued. I'm glad that he's with us because he's helping us win ballgames right now.

A prime example of that was Asiks performance in Orlando against All-Star center Dwight Howard. With Noah battling foul trouble, Asik played a career-high 31 minutes, snatching 13 rebounds before fouling out himself, but not before frustrating Howard and being the catalyst to the Bulls win.

Statistically, that night was a highlight for the first-year Turkish playerhe told CSNChicago.com afterward that its fun playing against the best center in the NBAas was his 11-rebound performance in a home win over Miami, but numbers dont do him or any of the other reserves justice. Like Watsons game Saturday (the point guards individual best this season came in Roses absence, when he scored 33 points in a buzzer-beating loss at Denver), the way the unit has been functioning as a whole recently has been impressive, compared to solitary moments of excellence.

Take Gibson, for example. His aforementioned rookie campaign and starting stint this season might have led to hard feelings when supplanted by Boozer, but after fighting through sporadic injury woes, hes bounced back to find his groove as an energy player, scorer when called upon and half of a dynamic defensive duo with Asik.

It's all about my teammates. The point guards make it easy for me. Working out with Booz and Joakim and Kurt and Omer is making things real easy for me. Just taking my time, fitting in where I fit in. Guys know their roles and guys come in playing hard. One thing about coming off the bench, you know what you've got to do. Come in, provide energy, play solid defense and get ready to take that next shot, said the second-year pro. It was just trying to find a niche after going down with the injuries, just trying to get back in the swing of things and lately it's been coming together.

A 14-point, six-rebound night in a win at Charlotte last weekthe same game during which Boozer was hurtis evidence of that process. Likewise for current and former teammates Korver and Brewer.

Coming into the season, both free-agent acquisitions expected to challenge for the starting shooting-guard spot, but thats been occupied by veteran Keith Bogans. Bogans isnt the scorer Korver is or the athlete Brewer is, but his experience, toughness and understanding of Thibodeaus system gave him the edge.

Instead of sulking about the decision, both players made the best of the situationthey actually play more minutes than Bogans, who usually starts each half, but doesnt return after being replaced by Brewer; Korver typically finishes games, so the Bulls can utilize his deadly perimeter jumperand while their respective strengths (Brewer as a defender, particularly playing the passing lanes; Korver as a shooter) are obvious, theyve also made strides in other areas, while also displaying some subtle hidden talents.

Brewers finishing abilityusually on fast breaks or on the baseline, whether slashing or cuttinghas been a boon to the team and he has paired with Watson to harass opposing ball handlers into turnovers, jump-starting the Bulls transition game, but hes also proven to be an underrated mid-range shooter and a jack of all trades, who contributes with his play-making ability, rebounding and willingness to do the dirty work. Meanwhile, Korver has lived up to his billing as a sharpshooter, but his defense has improved and his passing skills have been much better than advertised.

Brewer isnt a prolific scorer, but hes been consistent all seasonrecent games include an eight-point, four-rebound, four-steal game in a win over the Heat and in the aforementioned Charlotte game, he came up with 10 points, three apiece of rebounds and assists, as well as one steal and blocked shot eachbut hes almost guaranteed one passing-lane steal and fast-break finish a game and a scoring output of between six and 12 points, depending on the flow of the game. Korver, like all shooters, has varying degrees of hot and cold nights, but with penetration from either Watson or Rose setting him up, hes been getting wide-open looks and knocking down shots with regularity.

One of the strengths of the team is how deep we are. I dont want to brag, but when we go at it in practice, the white team the second unit usually beats the black team the starters, Korver joked. We have a lot of confidence. Weve got guys that have been playing in the league for a long time. Weve got Omer, whos still learning the game, but has a whole lot of potential. It seems that every night, weve got somebody different stepping up.

A lot of guys had to step up early in the year. You don't want guys to go downthe starters start for a reason and we want them on the courtbut weve had other guys step up all year.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Bulls mailbag: Where do the Bulls go from here?

Bulls mailbag: Where do the Bulls go from here?

The Bulls might lead the league in moral victories. Unfortunately for them, those don’t count in the standings. And so a season that began with playoff aspirations has led to a flooded inbox.

The Bulls have consistently been one of the top teams in attendance across the league, albeit with one of the largest capacities among NBA arenas. With the recent reporting on the dip of attendance at the United Center, do you see this metric getting through to the Reinsdorfs on the current state of the Bulls? Is it a measure being talked about internally that could lead to change? - Hugo M.

I also received a question via Twitter from T.K. asking if Mr. Reinsdorf is “feeling the pressure” from the dipping attendance. Pressure may be overstating matters, but it absolutely is being talked about internally. It has caught the Reinsdorfs’ attention. How could it not? The Bulls have finished first or second in attendance in 16 of the previous 19 seasons. This season also is the third straight they’ve ranked outside the top-10 in capacity, which hadn’t happened since 2003-04. Coincidentally, that’s the first season in which John Paxson had taken over for Jerry Krause, whom most fans thought Reinsdorf would never touch. But five seasons of rebuilding and two straight in which the Bulls ranked ninth and fifth in attendance — and 13th in capacity —  finally led to change.

Will it happen again? Only the Reinsdorfs know. Obviously, if the losing and sagging attendance continues throughout the season, changes would be on the table.

When will the Bulls make a change at head coach and the front office? Will they ride this out the rest of the year or do something midseason? Because they have to do something, right? – Tim G.

This season does feel different because everyone from ownership to management to Jim Boylen publicly stated progress would be made. Playoffs were even publicly set as the goal. And at the very least, competitive basketball was to be expected. At least the Bulls finally are showing signs of that. However, playoffs certainly feel like a longshot.

I’ve heard no talk of in-season changes. The Bulls just tried that last year. And remember: They’re still paying Fred Hoiberg this season, although his $5 million salary is offset by almost half thanks to him landing a job with Nebraska. Boylen is one of the lowest-paid coaches in the league. So if ownership and management concluded after this season that he’s not the right fit anymore, his salary isn’t prohibitive to swallow. But I wouldn’t expect such determinations to come from ownership on management and management on coaching until after the season.

In your sitdown with team president Michael Reinsdorf earlier this year, he stated that he doesn't like the term "GarPax" and that Gar Forman and John Paxson are "individuals" and have "different roles.”  However, his quotes in the article don't really spell out the differences and in fact he says "Gar and John" twice.  Can you help clarify?  I ask because at some point, the Bulls will need to make a coaching change (god bless Jim Boylen and his lame coaching speak, but the writing is on the wall). And I presume at some point, the Reinsdorfs will say to themselves: “We can't let the same people pick a third coach?”  Is the hiring of a coach a Gar decision?  A Pax decision? Somebody actually makes the decisions right?  Constant change (see Knicks) is ridiculous and unproductive, but at some point the fans do need some change, even if it’s for change's sake. Grasping for some kind of hope here, but will they ever get new blood in the front office ever? Or is this it? This can't be it can it? This is probably it. - Nit B.

Your angst, and humor, is palpable.

Also, I’m not sure where you’re getting picking a third coach. This management team has hired five, although Vinny Del Negro was largely seen as an ownership hire after a tortuous process that featured top choices Mike D’Antoni and Doug Collins not working out for various reasons.

The reason Michael referred to them as “Gar and John” is that, while their day-to-day duties are different, all major organizational decisions are made with input from all the top decision-makers. Forman focuses on scouting and talking to agents and other executives throughout the season. Paxson focuses on setting the culture, big-picture items and is around the team more.

For coaching hires, it’s my understanding that the two Reinsdorfs, Forman and Paxson all talk it out and reach a consensus. That said, Hoiberg is largely viewed as endorsed and pushed by Forman, while Boylen had strong support from Paxson and ownership.

You asked a lot of questions but to answer one: Yes, somebody actually makes the decisions. And those largely are reached by debate and discussion and consensus. As for new blood, let’s see how the season concludes. As mentioned above, if this losing and sagging attendance continue, changes have to be on the table.

You’ve been around the block a few times. Where does Boylen rank in terms of hatred from the fanbase? There’s been a few incompetent coaches this franchise has had. - Jay R.

As Louden Wainwright III once sang, “hate is a strong word/I wanna backtrack/the bigger the front/the bigger the back.” But I digress.

It’s always difficult to paint with broad brushstrokes. Yes, I receive plenty of dislike for Boylen via emails or @s on Twitter. I also see some support. At least in my little world, the dislike outweighs the support. But to answer your question, I’m now up to eight head coaches covered, not counting the other Jim Boylan who served as an interim head coach.

Here are your requested (subjective) rankings, from beloved to frustrated: Phil Jackson; Tom Thibodeau; Scott Skiles; Bill Cartwright; Fred Hoiberg; Vinny Del Negro; Jim Boylen; Tim Floyd.

Some brief elaboration: The first three won so they should be self-explanatory. Cartwright was such a decent man and had some leftover goodwill from winning three titles as a player that he ranks ahead of coaches who directed playoff teams. The reason Hoiberg, who had one playoff season, ranks ahead of Del Negro, who had two, is because a lot of the fan feedback I received during Hoiberg’s tenure is that he wasn’t given the proper personnel to fit his style. Boylen and Floyd have lost a lot, so they should be self-explanatory, too.

One last thing about coaching: The NBA is a players league. Coaching is important, obviously. But a lot of success or failure comes down to the rosters. Give Floyd a roster with Michael Jordan and maybe he doesn’t rank so low.

How bad does it have to get for the Bulls to realize they have no chance at making the playoffs? If the realization comes, then what? I don’t see any sort of path forward for this team that involves a title or even competing in the near future. Could they really blow it up again? It seems to be the only way towards a title but I’m thinking that would take the Reinsdorfs clearing house. Unfortunately, it is a bleak future and a long road no matter how you look at.  - Ben V.

This dynamic has my antennae and intrigue up as well, less so for coaching or management changes and more for the roster. If the Bulls don’t right the ship and at least start playing more competitively in the next month, are they active sellers at the February trade deadline? Remember: They traded Jimmy Butler and fully believed at least two of the three players they received in return could approach All-Star status. To this point, that hasn’t happened.

Through a very soft part of the schedule, the team is on pace for 26 wins. There have been no meaningful improvements from our vaunted “core” and from a cap perspective we are basically locked into this roster through the 2021 season when OPJ (he will 100% pick up his option, you can’t convince me otherwise) and Felicio are off the books  Can ownership in good faith really run this front office, coaching staff, and roster out there for 100 more games over the next season and a half? How many front office groups get a chance to rebuild from their own disastrous attempt at a rebuild gone fully off the rails? - A frustrated fan on the edge, Nick, Glen Ellyn

This ties into management’s future and is again a dynamic that has me intrigued. As I’ve reported countless times, the reason ownership has so much faith in this management team is because it watched it flip over a roster inherited from Krause (save for two players) and turn it into the well-liked and perennial playoff teams of Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon. Then, after one disastrous season, management walked into Derrick Rose and had that team on track to compete for titles until Rose’s torn ACL. So whether fans like to hear it or not, ownership believed in management’s ability to construct a competitive roster when starting over. That’s why this season has been so disappointing to this point. And it’s also why, if this disappointment continues, it will be fascinating to see what comes next. After all, ownership, management and Boylen all are on record as saying this season would be different.

With how pathetically thin the Bulls are on the wing, why hasn’t Boylen tried Thad Young there? It seems like he would be quick enough to make it work in spots and Young absolutely needs more minutes than the 21 or so he is averaging per game this season. – Nick P.

Boylen said he and his staff discussed this possibility and that Boylen also talked to Young about it. But it hasn’t happened. Dunn has played well as a starter and Denzel Valentine has revived his rotational role. But Young is playing the second-fewest minutes of his career. And while he knew he didn’t sign here to start because of Markkanen, he also thought he’d be playing more. Young is as professional as they come, but he has shared his desire to play more with several in the organization. He logged a season-high in minutes on Wednesday.

Taking into account the way the Bulls have been playing, and now the news that Otto Porter Jr. is going to be out at least another month, it looks like this season is going to be a total disaster. It’s beginning to look like the Bulls should throw in the towel and try to salvage the season by readying itself for next season. Since we won’t be able to attract any top free agent next year, it seems the next best thing would be to move some of our players who don’t show any signs of being well-balanced players. That includes Ryan Arcidiacono, Shaq Harrison, Kris Dunn and Kornet. Is it possible to trade any or all of those players for an early second-round pick next year? We’d be far better off if we lucked into a player who can make as much of an impact on the game as Daniel Gafford is now doing. I’m not suggesting that we move any of the core, but I’m not necessarily against it if it brought us one true All-Star player next season. Perhaps Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen for a top 10-20 type player. It’s evident that the Bulls will have to make some moves soon to move the franchise in the right direction. The status quo will not work. Especially if management stands behind Boylen. - Rick L

Only Kris Dunn would have any value of the non-core players you mentioned (and as an aside, wasn’t he recently part of the core?). And his value would be minimal. Over the summer, it was even less but he has played well and might be able to bring back a back-end rotation player or a heavily-protected first-round pick. LaVine and Markkanen wouldn’t bring back an All-Star level player.

And therein lies the rub: If Porter opts in, which is likely, this roster almost certainly will look similar next season. The Bulls have little flexibility next offseason. This is why the Bulls banked on LaVine and Markkanen taking big jumps that, to this point, haven’t happened.

It’s been good to see a more aggressive Lauri Markkanen the last few games. How much do you think his struggles have been on him versus the system Boylen wants to play? – Matt A., Australia

Why can’t it be both? I do think Markkanen struggled early with being mostly relegated to a stationary 3-point shooter. He also missed a ton of open looks, which is on him. With the equal opportunity, multi ball-handler system, Markkanen often faded to the shadows. Again, that’s on both him and the system. Then it became somewhat mental for him. To Boylen’s credit, he has used sets designed to get Markkanen on the move more of late and Markkanen has started to respond.

In your last mailbag, you answered two questions to someone who endured being a ballboy during the Ron Mercer days. I am the same age, and I'm hoping I can get a couple questions answered myself because I survived those days as well as a fan---without the benefit of being the ballboy. It feels like those years all over again right now. The roster might be a little better, but records aren't much better between the teams. “Through thick and thin” was the slogan I remember growing up with as a Bulls fan having just missed the Jordan years. So many things that can be asked about the year so far, so I'll stick to just two for now.

It seemed like Boylen might have let it slip about Lauri having an oblique issue. Lauri's well-documented struggles have been one of bigger storylines I feel Bulls have had this year, and Lauri has been able to keep quiet for the most part it seems on his end. His responses in postgame questions from the meeting haven't generated as much buzz as some of LaVine's interviews. Did Boylen let it slip about his injury, or is there something different to how the Bulls are handling injuries this year?

Secondly, what should fans ACTUALLY make from the struggling attendance? Videos/pictures of empty upper bowl are becoming aplenty on Twitter. Social media makes it easy to gather fans ready for a drastic change within the organization, but how can we expect the organization to respond, if at all, to the struggling attendance at home games?– J. Boa

Anyone who remembers THAT slogan gets two questions, although I already answered your second above. I barely remember that slogan and I covered that era.

Markkanen's oblique issue never landed on the injury report. The injury report is a sensitive topic because most every player has some sort or bump or bruise at this point of the season. Do you list everybody and then list them as probable? That's the approach the Bulls seemed to take last game as nine players landed on the report, including most with minor ailments and listed as probable. Markkanen has four 20-point games this month. He's coming around and the oblique talk will be in the background here.

What does the K.C. stand for? Steven R., via Twitter

Kenneth Carl. But you can call me K.C.

Actually, I don’t mind Kenneth Carl and my college basketball teammates call me Kenny Carl. But I’ve been called K.C. my entire life. My parents were hip to the initials from Day One.

As this "improved" roster has scuttled through the light part of the schedule at basically the same winning percentage as last year (8 wins in 25 = .32, 27 of 82 in 2018 = .329), how likely does it seem that the Bulls will actually win less games this year? Mike K., via Twitter

Can they play the Hawks more? That would be something if it happens, particularly after how widely praised their offseason moves were and the public posturing for improvement by the organization. I still think the Bulls are better than their record indicates. I picked them for 36 wins before the season. But, yes, any way you analyze it, this season has been a disappointment.

Thanks for all the questions. Talk to you soon.

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NBA Mock Draft: Will any franchise-changing player be found in 2020?

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USA TODAY

NBA Mock Draft: Will any franchise-changing player be found in 2020?

At this point last year, lottery-bound teams had the consolation of knowing they might have a shot at a transcendent, once in a generation talent.

Duke forward Zion Williamson had already separated himself from the rest of the 2019 draft class with his unparalleled athleticism at 6-foot-7, 285 lbs., looking like a bigger, modern-day version of Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. There was a consensus among NBA talent evaluators that Williamson would be the No. 1 overall pick.

While we wait for Williamson to make his regular season debut with the New Orleans Pelicans, it’s pretty obvious there won’t be a Zion-like talent available for the team that wins the top pick through the 2020 draft lottery.

Through the first month of college games and international league competition, it’s looking like the 2020 NBA Draft lottery will mostly be made up of point guards and wing players. Some of them could wind up being multiple time All-Stars, but it is unlikely that any of them come close to generating the type of buzz created by Williamson a year ago. The only thing we know for sure is you can expect plenty of changes between now and June!

Check out Mark Schanowski's latest 2020 NBA mock draft here!

(Draft order based on standings at the start of games on Dec. 11)