Bulls

Central Division Notebook: Questions aplenty

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Central Division Notebook: Questions aplenty

Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010
12:41 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

During the first week of the NBA season, most eyes were watching the initial performances of the Miami Heat and their superstar trio, but moments like Golden State's Monta Ellis scoring 46 points in the Warriors' season-opener, Boston's Rajon Rondo notching 24 assists (with a triple-double, to boot) and the debut of Clippers' rookie Blake Griffin--coached by none other than Vinny Del Negro--have also attracted a fair share of attention. The Central Division isn't without its early-season highlights, as Cleveland's season-opening win over the Celtics, Derrick Rose's stint atop the league's scoring leaders and the first triple-double of Milwaukee point guard Brandon Jennings' young career have all opened eyes around the league. Here's a brief, team-by-team look at the Central with the season's second week underway:

Chicago Bulls

Through the preseason, it appeared that the Bulls (2-1) would have an equal-opportunity offense based on ball movement, in which any player on the team's deep roster possessed the ability to succeed, particularly Luol Deng. After the first two games of the season, Derrick Rose was leading the NBA in scoring, whispers that he had morphed into a shot-happy gunner were prevalent, Chicago was supposedly worse off than last season and Deng had pulled a disappearing act.

With Luol Deng's career-high 40 points in Monday night's home win over Portland (not to mention Rose's 13 assists, which tied a career-best mark), it's now evident that while the offense is still a work in progress, Rose wouldn't have to take 29 shots per game in order to keep the Bulls afloat until sidelined power forward Carlos Boozer returns. With eight newcomers on the roster and a new coaching staff, the adjustment period has been gradual, but power forward Taj Gibson bounced back from a rough preseason to recapture his rookie form (staying out of foul trouble is another story), sharpshooter Kyle Korver is becoming more comfortable (something of great importance, as he's the only true knockdown shooter on the team), rookie center Omer Asik seems capable of contributing immediately as an interior presence and second-year reserve James Johnson may have the opportunity to carve out a niche for himself as a versatile energy player off the bench.

Still, there's an undercurrent that suggests the early portion of Chicago's season is just about surviving through the upcoming annual circus trip until Boozer returns, as if this isn't the Bulls' true team and they'll get a pass for missing a key piece. Since he hasn't played much with his new teammates outside of a few training camp practices and isn't known for his defensive prowess--something Thibodeau stresses, regardless of what a player brings to the table, which the aforementioned Korver is learning--a completely seamless transition might be too much to ask for, although the presence of Joakim Noah--currently the league's second-leading rebounder, as well as an underrated offensive player and highly-regarded defender--will help the process.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Life after LeBron started out on a high note for Cleveland (1-2), which beat the team that ousted them in last spring's Eastern Conference semifinals, Boston, which was coming off a season-opening win over James' Heat. The Cavaliers have taken a scoring-by-committee approach under new head coach Byron Scott, with leading scorer Daniel Gibson averaging 15 points per game off the bench and 10 other players averaging at least 6.3.

There have been conflicting reports about whether perhaps their most valued asset, Anderson Varejao, is on the trading block or not, and Scott's use of the team's most established player, veteran forward Antawn Jamison--who is coming off the bench and playing just 21.7 minutes per night after being traded to Cleveland at last season's trade deadline in a deal that was supposed to push the Cavs over the hump--is regarded with some concern. Outside of Gibson, who is also averaging a team-leading six assists per contest, point guard Ramon Sessions, an offseason acquisition, has been producing in incumbent Mo Williams' absence, as has young big man J.J. Hickson.

Cleveland is in a tough bind, with few attractive pieces for other teams in trade scenarios and an absence of high-upside young players, with the notable exception of Hickson, who the organization reportedly refused to include in a ultimately-nixed deal with the Phoenix Suns for Amar'e Stoudemire. One can only speculate on truly how close that swap was to occurring or if Stoudemire would have been a better fit than Jamison, if the Cavs' season would have ended and what impact that would have had on early July, but it will certainly be a while before the team needs to trouble itself with thoughts other than rebuilding.

Detroit Pistons

The Bulls' only divisional game of the young season was last Saturday's home-opening win over Detroit (0-3), an exciting comeback in which the Pistons once led by 21 points, were outscored 34-9 in the fourth quarter and had no answers for Derrick Rose, who tied a career high with 39 points. It wouldn't be surprising to see other stars rack up big numbers against the Pistons,who trot out aging Ben Wallace and similarly undersized Jason Maxiell at center, with draft pick Greg Monroe's finesse game initially appearing to require an adjustment period before being able to contribute.

Losing second-year forward Jonas Jerebko for the season before he even suited up was a widely overlooked development, as Jerebko's rugged style and versatility gave Detroit some frontcourt flexibility, although Tayshaun Prince's return to health after an injury-riddled 2009-10 campaign will help them compete. Likewise, a relatively injury-free Ben Gordon gives the backcourt some added scoring punch with Rodney Stuckey, veteran Rip Hamilton and Will Bynum, although a true point guard doesn't exist within that group.

The addition of a clearly hobbled Tracy McGrady doesn't help matters much, but reed-thin youngster Austin Daye will get opportunities to show off his unique shooting range, as the Pistons keep an eye to the future with the franchise's sale--and prospective move to a new downtown arena--to Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers and Little Caesar's Pizza owner imminent. Only in his second season, head coach John Kuester could already be on the hot seat, with even longtime top exec Joe Dumars feeling the rising temperature.

Indiana Pacers

A brighter future resides in Indiana (2-1), where the Pacers have to be pleased with early returns from two second-year players, prized offseason acquisition Darren Collison and Tyler Hansborough, who had his moments as a rookie before a terrifying bout with vertigo. While Collison is considered the team's point guard of the future and Hansborough has teamed with Josh McRoberts to solidify the power-forward position in the wake of Troy Murphy's trade to New Jersey in the four-team deal to get Collison, center Roy Hibbert is the Pacer who has opened the most eyes thus far.

At 7-foot-2, Hibbert possesses uncanny shooting range and passing ability and after a summer spent getting into better shape and being tutored by Hall of Famer Bill Walton, the Georgetown product began the season with a 28-point, nine-rebound, three-assist, three-block effort in a loss to San Antonio, and while he hasn't approached those same scoring numbers again, he's regarded as a sleeper Most Improved Player candidate. Franchise player Danny Granger continues to produce as a scorer, but his defense and all-around game will be closely monitored after a disappointing individual summer with USA Basketball exposed his underwhelming defense.

Granger is both Indiana's best player and biggest trade asset, and while he's not up in years, there's a school of thought that implies his All-Star campaign two seasons ago will be the high-water mark of his career and if the team doesn't improve this season, it may be wise to trade him now and start yet another rebuilding process with Hibbert and Collison as cornerstones. Analogous to Detroit's dilemma, head coach Jim O'Brien is under heavy scrutiny, but increasing blame is going to Larry Bird for assembling a roster that is taking too long to contend, even with the grace period given after the team's attempted transformation after the infamous "Malice in the Palace."

Milwaukee Bucks

Slow returns from injury for the likes of star center Andrew Bogut, former Bulls swingman John Salmons and offseason acquisition Corey Maggette are worth paying attention to in Milwaukee (1-2), a team that is dealing with bigger expectations than it's used to in recent seasons after a surprising run to the postseason. Considered the class of the division along:with Chicago, the Bucks also made significant additions in the summer, but a returnee--swingman Carlos Delfino, the recipient of an offseason contract extension--has paced them in scoring, with Maggette and second-year point guard Brandon Jennings not far behind.

Jennings recorded his first career triple-double in the Bucks' first win of the season over Charlotte, and despite his flashy demeanor and coming onto the scene as a rookie with an early-season 55-point outing, the former Rome resident (Jennings famously played in Italy for one season after high school) seemingly has a bond with Milwaukee head coach Scott Skiles, a former NBA point guard who has pushed Jennings to successfully play tough defense and limit his turnovers. Even with upgraded talent and intriguing depth, the Bulls' neighbor to the north still fly under the radar a bit, but "Fear the Deer" has a chance to get more national buzz if the chips fall right in Milwaukee.

Perhaps the biggest questions about the Bucks deal with whether the team's new faces--Maggette, former Bulls big man Drew Gooden, young swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts, rugged power forward Jon Brockman and top draft pick Larry Sanders--can not only adjust to Skiles' system (journeymen Gooden and Maggette are the two singled out most often), but additionally, will the old regime be able to co-exist with them, knowing minutes and shot opportunities will likely decrease in the spirit of the greater good. But most important is Bogut's status, as his gruesome fall and subsequent season-ending litany of injuries that resulted from it late last season led to an arduous rehab process, and while Bogut has acquitted himself well thus far with per-game averages of 12.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.67 blocks, Milwaukee needs him to be the quietly dominant interior force of last season.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms 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 (once again): What's Jim Boylen's status? Is anyone on roster safe?

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USA Today

Bulls mailbag (once again): What's Jim Boylen's status? Is anyone on roster safe?

It’s August. And we just set a record for most questions asked in a Bulls mailbag. You nutty people.

Christian J.: The front office has had all this time to watch games of Jim Boylen coaching to know deep down that he's not the right coach for this team. Do you think Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley will give pushback to ownership to get a new coach once the guy they want becomes available and do you think AK will question Michael Reinsdorf on agreement of full autonomy during his hire?

Karnisovas does own full autonomy. And the criteria for presenting a coaching change to ownership is the same now as it was when ownership hired Karnisovas. He’s free to make a change if he wishes, but was told to take time to get to know Boylen and evaluate him fully before doing so. That’s what Karnisovas and Eversley are doing. The Bulls may not be playing, but the 2019-20 season isn’t over yet. The Bulls, as of now, aren’t allowed group activities. So what’s the rush?

I feel like there’s this perception of the new management regime already at odds with ownership. That’s simply not accurate. To think the coaching situation wasn’t discussed during the interview process would be naïve, in my estimation. Nothing has changed. The evaluation process is ongoing.

And here’s the thing: This unprecedented offseason affording Karnisovas plenty of time for this critical decision seems consistent with the reputation of his personality anyway. He’s known as a thoughtful, deliberate decision-maker who tries to develop substantive, genuine relationships before holding people accountable. With no known timeline for the 2020-21 season set yet, he has that luxury regarding Boylen and his staff. Yes, Gar Forman was out early in Karnisovas' tenure, and some staff shuffling has occurred in recent months — though most of the latter were based on option deadlines.

This is a longshot hypothetical: But what if the 2020-21 season start date gets pushed to March — because that will allow for a full season of fans in arenas — and a previously unavailable coaching candidate becomes available that Karnisovas loves? Doesn’t it make sense for him to take time on this decision?

It seems fitting that, unless he has a burner account, Karnisovas isn’t on Twitter. In this day and age of immediacy and absolutes, I understand the angst for some fans regarding this decision. But Karnisovas is taking the long view, not the 140-character one. Or is it 280 now?

Austin C.: Do you think Arturas is going to fire Boylen? I’ve seen a lot of rumors going around that we are going to keep him because of financial concerns.

From the start, I’ve taken Karnisovas’ words at face value. He has said he’s going to take time to make this critical decision. Each time I’ve done some reporting on this story, it has appeared to remain in the evaluation stage for him. But there are plenty of signs pointing towards a '20-21 collaboration. Management and the coaching staff have met to discuss player development. They’ve talked draft and free agency. And they’ve had discussions about the offense. 

Since you’re asking for my prediction, my guess is this: With the 2020-21 season so uncertain — when does it start? Will it be 82 games? — and the roster likely to look largely the same, Boylen returns. Karnisovas and Eversley use the 2020-21 season to evaluate the staff and roster during game action. Then, potential big changes arrive during the 2021 offseason. That’s when the deals of Otto Porter Jr. and Cristiano Felício expire and significant salary cap space is possible. The contracts of Thaddeus Young — if he’s not dealt this offseason — and Tomáš Satoranský are easily movable or waivable because of partial guarantees. You have another season of Zach LaVine data to determine if he’s a building block or trade chip. And you solidify the coaching situation long-term.

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The money is only one layer to Karnisovas’ decision on Boylen. Let’s not forget, ownership hired Karnisovas and Eversley during a global pandemic. So it’s not like the financial outlook changed from then to now for ownership. It’s not like ownership has moved the goalposts on management’s autonomy. My sense is, given the daunting, long-term financial ramifications of the pandemic, ownership conveyed during the interview process that any coaching change recommendation would have to be a thoroughly presented one, possibly with a proven candidate.

Also, as I’ve written this several times, it’s not just Boylen’s contract that ownership would eat. Assistant coaches Chris Fleming — who Karnisovas likes and worked with in Denver — and Roy Rogers just finished the first of three-year deals. This is why, at least for now, Karnisovas and Eversley have worked to empower Boylen and his staff. To me, that’s leadership. Coaching development can be a thing, too.

Timothy G.: If the Bulls keep Boylen, do you think some Bulls players like Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen will demand a trade?

And to think: Just a year ago at this time, videos of Boylen cannonballing off a dock into a pristine Finnish lake alongside Markkanen surfaced via social media. And Boylen had crashed LaVine’s vacation, their relationship never better.

Neither player possesses a rock-the-boat personality. But I do think the LaVine situation, in particular, is worth monitoring.

This, to me, is where Karnisovas and Eversley have to do their work if they choose to retain Boylen. They’ve talked about creating a players-first organization. They are also both known for developing strong relationships with players. You can create a positive atmosphere for players even if not all decisions are popular ones.

So far, the Bulls have received strong buy-in for voluntary offseason workouts, including a trip to Chicago from LaVine. Markkanen, who typically spends his offseason in Finland, has been here plenty.

It’s also important to remember that this regime isn’t married to any players. As mentioned above, I see this regime using this season to evaluate the roster more fully in advance of potential significant changes during the 2021 offseason.

Drew S: Do you think the Bulls’ brass believes any player currently on the roster is untradeable?

Not one bit. In fact, very few players currently on the roster fit the description of the type of players that Karnisovas values most, based on his own words. Here’s what he said in April:

“I already had a conversation with Jim kind of talking about what kind of style of play I would like, what kind of players I like. Obviously, I like high pace. Moving the ball. We were able to be a very good passing team in Denver. It’s a very entertaining brand of basketball. I like multi-positional players. I like guys with high basketball IQ that play off each other. But that takes time. Obviously, you’ve got a read-and-react kind of offense, which I like. So in the short term what needs to happen is we begin to establish a culture of who we are as a team.”

In that vein, I’d expect a tweaked offensive system for the 2020-21 season. Conversations between management and the coaching staff along those lines already have taken place. But both Karnisovas and Eversley are also on record as saying they're intrigued by the young talent on the roster — particularly as to why certain players underachieved. So internal improvement, not wholesale changes initially, is likely where the focus rests for now.

Blake C.: If we assume Boylen is the coach for 20-21, what might a successful year look like? Trading emerging stars for draft equity a la the Celtics? Hoping for a big splash in free agency for 2021? Or clear improvement and a possible playoff berth?

I’d say a combination of the latter two. The first scenario involves another total restart. Best case scenario: You get internal improvement from a couple of the intriguing, young pieces on the roster as the new regime determines which players it’s keeping and which it’s not. You compete for a lower-level playoff spot. And you significantly improve the roster through 2021 free agency.

Even more ideally, this all occurs as the new regime adds impactful young pieces via the draft. Look at the Nuggets’ roster. It’s teeming with homegrown players who are making an impact. Karnisovas played a significant role in that.

Alejandro Y.: How can the Reinsdorfs be hurting for money when they own one of the most valuable franchises in the world? I was wondering if you could summarize the Reinsdorfs’ situation. The Lakers are a family-run franchise too, and they never plead money issues. We're not at that monetized level, but it's not far either, right?

The Reinsdorfs run a business and are free to operate it how they see fit. For what it's worth, I’ve heard of no layoffs or furloughs throughout the Bulls. Also: Jerry Reinsdorf is chairman of the organization. He has other investors to consider. As previously mentioned, money is only one layer to the Boylen decision.

As for your other point, I don’t cover the Lakers so I can’t speak to their dynamic. But I will say: To suggest that an organization that applied for, received, and quickly returned a reported $4.6 million "small business" loan during the pandemic never pleads money issues is amusing.

Marcus C.: Hey KC, I know you’re sick and tired of Boylen questions and people flooding your mentions. But rehiring Boylen over a couple million would be the last straw for me and many others. Not only is it a slap in the face to the players, but it’s also a giant middle finger to this fanbase. Are the Reinsdorfs so out of touch that they’re willing to tank all immediate and future goodwill over a few million (dollars)? Millions are unemployed, but Jerry expects us to feel bad for him and continue to support this. Do they really think fans will be understanding and sympathetic to this move? Not only will this hurt the team in the short run, but it’ll be disastrous long-term given the negative stigma that’s already plagued this organization. Why as fans should we care anymore if the owners only view us as potential revenue?

Well, you don’t have to. That’s your choice as a fan. Also, fans may not be allowed into arenas next season. So there’s that.

Your larger point is a valid counterpoint, though. Retaining Boylen would not be welcomed by a loud segment of the fan base. (I covered the player dynamic in a previous answer.) It would affect, at least in the short-term, some of the goodwill created by the managerial changes.

But what if the team stayed healthy and improved? What if Boylen tweaked the offense and, focusing strictly on coaching, showed growth? Winning changes everything. And if he’s retained and it went off the rails, could management make a change then, perhaps on an interim basis?

I disagree retaining Boylen would have disastrous long-term impact, though. I expect a new-look Bulls organization to more fully take shape by the 2021-22 season.  

Oscar, Sydney AUS: Howdy. Firstly, why are fans so fickle? Obviously it’s frustrating when your team has not been successful in recent times. But when you really look at it, the Bulls actually have a decent core of promising young talent that ended up losing a bunch of close games while having key guys out all year. With that said, my actual question is if things get back on track and Markkanen returns to form next season, do you see the Bulls re-signing Wendell Carter Jr. the following year after signing Markkanen to what you would assume would have to be a relatively significant contract?

I think you paint a slightly-too-rosy picture of all things Bulls. They have a long way to go. Yes, injuries hurt them. Yes, they have some intriguing young pieces and were in a ton of close games. But the roster isn’t exactly flush with two-way players. And the intriguing pieces they do have need to show they can thrive together.

I’m less worried about the Carter-Markkanen fit than some. I think they can complement each other well. They both are willing passers with high basketball IQs. Carter may be undersized, but he can be an effective rim protector with his wingspan and instincts. He needs to learn how to avoid foul trouble.

@BullsNationOZ, via Twitter: I’m sick of everyone asking for Jim to go. Steve Kerr would only get five more wins out of this roster. Now, a new coach would be great, but the more pressing issue is this roster.

As I said, a lot of work remains. And actually, that’s another thing to consider regarding the coaching situation: Might management want to wait to bring in its hand-picked choice until the roster is more to its liking? Just a thought.

Shannon R.: Due to financial ramifications of the pandemic and the draft class being considered as weak, it’s been reported/speculated that teams may be willing to sell their first-round picks. Do you think there’s some truth to that?  What do you think would be easier to sell to ownership — firing Boylen or buying an additional pick? If I had to choose, I’d choose an additional pick.

I don’t think it’d be an either/or, but if I had to choose, I’d agree with you.

Wilfred B.: From the very start of when the Bulls hired AK and Marc Eversley we have heard from them and Michael Reinsdorf that they wanted to modernize the front office to get with the times. Apart from the two hires at the very start, we haven't heard much on that front and how they are building out the front office and what hires they are making. Do you have any insight into that process and do you know if they have decided on who's worth keeping and who's not from the past regime?

From what I’ve been told, they plan to build out the player development department. As for the timeline on that, I’m not sure. I do know the coaching staff has been asked for input on player development philosophy.

Karnisovas and Eversley are using holdovers like Brian Hagen and Jim Paxson and Steve Weinman for draft meetings and analytics projects. Karnisovas is on record as saying he plans no additional front-office changes this offseason. They do need to hire an athletic trainer

@thegeorgeyou, via Twitter: There’s no winning in the NBA without a superstar. We can draft well, but the only realistic path to contention is signing Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis. Do you think the Bulls will be players this offseason or in 2021?

Is Nikola Jokic a superstar? Karnisovas worked for the Nuggets when that franchise nabbed him in the second round. But your larger point remains: The Bulls need to upgrade the roster. As it stands, it’s filled with intriguing young pieces, but no superstars as of yet. LaVine is the closest to All-Star level.

As for free agency, the Bulls project to have cap space in 2021, not this offseason.

Matt A., Australia: Assuming Otto opts in, which we all agree is pretty much a given, what free agents do you see the Bulls going after this offseason?

Given the injury history of Porter and Chandler Hutchison, I’d guess wing depth will be a focus. Moe Harkless, Wesley Matthews, Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III and Jae Crowder are names that make sense at the price point for teams that will be using exceptions, like the Bulls.

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Bulls’ Zach LaVine shouts out Damian Lillard during 61-point explosion

Bulls’ Zach LaVine shouts out Damian Lillard during 61-point explosion

Damian Lillard is not of this planet.

As the Portland Trail Blazers scrap for a spot in the Western Conference’s play-in round, Lillard dropped a career-high-tying 61 points on 17-for-32 field goal shooting (9-for-17 from 3 and *rubs eyes* 18-for-18 from the charity stripe), eight assists and five rebounds in a 134-131 victory over the red-hot Dallas Mavericks. Flames spit from his fingertips.

It was Lillard’s third 60-point outing of the season (and second straight game with 50-plus; he’s had six of those this year and 11 in his career). Twenty-two of his 61 points and 11 of his 18 free throws came in the fourth quarter. It was a magnificent, all-encompassing performance — one that has become all too commonplace in a campaign by Lillard that is historic in its prolificity.

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When these shots are falling, you know it’s your night. Or, for that matter, your season.


What’s more, Lillard followed that friendly roll — which tied the game 130-130 — by drawing an offensive foul on Trey Burke on the ensuing defensive possession, then immediately setting the table for a Hassan Whiteside dunk that put the Trail Blazers ahead for good.

The win secures Portland (34-39) full control of its destiny in the Western Conference play-in race. A victory over the Brooklyn Nets Thursday guarantees them a swing at the eighth seed (and should the Memphis Grizzlies fall to the Milwaukee Bucks that night, Portland will move into the No. 8 spot, granting them a one-game handicap in the play-in). Lillard’s outing epitomized clutch.

And another electric scorer with ties to the Pacific Northwest took notice:

Real recognize real. As it's always been.

Bulls fans will remember Lavine’s 49-point, 13 3-pointer eruption against the Charlotte Hornets way back on Nov. 23, 2019 — it was one of the few bright spots of the season, though it feels decades-old now. 

“It was fun to see,” Lillard said of LaVine’s night on Nov. 25, with the Trail Blazers in town for an early-season date with the Bulls. “Any time you see that type of performance, you hope that it comes in a win. And I think how they just came up big hitting 3 after 3, you know, he hit a couple tough ones… He has that type of talent, that type of ability to have a night like that.”

Lillard would know.

LaVine enjoyed his career night just 24 hours after being yanked by Jim Boylen from a loss to the Miami Heat for what Boylen termed “three egregious defensive mistakes.” Lillard’s comes three days after a close loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in which he missed two crucial late-game free throws that could have pulled Portland ahead by a point. An unsavory beef with FS1’s Skip Bayless followed.

“I think that's a separator, you know, being able to have that type of mentality,” Lillard said on Nov. 25 of LaVine bouncing back from being benched. “He could have easily came out and pouted and not showed up for his teammates, but he responded in a kind of way that a player at his level should.”

Lillard embodied that mentality Tuesday. And LaVine, via Twitter, put respect on his name.

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