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.

With Lottery positioning just about set, Bulls can focus on progress in final 2 months

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USA TODAY

With Lottery positioning just about set, Bulls can focus on progress in final 2 months

One year ago the Bulls came out of the All-Star break with a 20-37 record and in a dead heat for the top Lottery odds. When play resumed on Feb. 22, here’s what those standings looked like:

Phoenix – 18-41 – 0 GB
Atlanta – 18-41 – 0 GB
Dallas – 18-40 – 0.5 GB
Orlando – 18-39 – 1 GB
Sacramento – 18-39 – 1 GB
Brooklyn – 19-40 – 1 GB
Memphis – 18-38 – 1.5 GB
Chicago – 20-37 – 3 GB

Eight teams separated by just 3 games, with the difference in odds for the top pick being 25 percent (No. 1) and 2.8 percent (No. 8) and the difference for a top-3 pick being 64.3 percent (No. 1) and 9.9 percent (No. 8).

There was a whole lot at stake, and the Bulls made sure they positioned themselves as best they could to “improve” their positioning by the end of the season. It included playing Cristiano Felicio 24.2 minutes per game, including 27.9 in the final seven games, and Cameron Payne 23.3 minutes per game after not playing a single minute prior to the All-Star break thanks to foot surgery.

Kris Dunn played the first 11 games after the All-Star break but was then shut down with a turf toe injury, missing the final 14 games. Likewise, Zach LaVine also missed the final 14 games with knee soreness. Lauri Markkanen finished the season averaging 24.3 minutes in his final eight games, down from 30.4 before his back spasms.

It was a nightmare. It was tanking. It did nothing to move along the rebuild and, worst of all, the Bulls went 7-18 after the break and wound up tied with the Kings for the seventh best odds on Lottery Night. We all know how that went down, though the Bulls are plenty happy with Wendell Carter Jr. as a consolation prize.

This season it’s different. The Bulls come out of the All-Star break with a 14-44 record and sit comfortably with the fourth worst record in the NBA. Here’s what the standings look like:

Phoenix – 11-48 – 0 GB
New York – 11-47 – 0 GB
Cleveland – 12-46 – 0 GB
Chicago – 14-44 – 2 GB
Atlanta – 19-39 – 7 GB
Memphis – 23-36 – 10 GB

We can forget about the Bulls “catching” either the Suns or Knicks. Phoenix has lost a whopping 15 in a row and the Knicks had lost 18 in a row before catching lightning in a bottle and beating the Hawks before the break. Even if the Bulls lost out (they won’t), it’s tough to see the Suns or Knicks winning three games the rest of the way.

There’s Cleveland, which has actually shown some fight the last two weeks and won three games after a 1-18 stretch. But no team understands the power of holding the top pick quite like Cleveland, and you can bet the tank will be on in full effect over their final 24 games. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Cavs win two more games than the Bulls to finish the season.

And below the Bulls (or above them, depending on how you look at it), the Hawks are cruising. They’ve got bona fide pieces in Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and Taurean Prince. They’ve gone a respectable 5-7 over their last 12 games and certainly won’t be five games worse than the Bulls over the final two months.

So what does that all mean? That the Bulls are pretty much locked in to the No. 4 slot in the Lottery order. For those at home, that’s a 12.5 percent chance at the top pick and a 48.1 percent chance at a top-4 pick.

And that’s a good thing! True, moving into the top-3 is still coveted as it gives you the best chance at the top pick. But the new odds have made that less of a bonus – last season the jump from No. 4 to No. 3 was a 3.7 percent jump (11.9 to 15.6 percent).

The Bulls don’t need to scoreboard watch in the final two months. They can roll out their best players and watch them grow. Markkanen is playing his best basketball and LaVine has picked up the slack for a struggling Kris Dunn.

Sean Kilpatrick and Noah Vonleh don’t need to hoist up shots knowing they’re not part of the future. The Bulls can see what they have in players like Wayne Selden, Chandler Hutchison and Shaq Harrison as potential options for next season.

The Bulls have a good problem at hand. It’s difficult to see them moving up or down in the Lottery standings, and they’re doing so in a year where it doesn’t matter as much. Even if they got red hot and somehow passed the Hawks, their odds would move from 12.5 percent to 10.5 percent. Nothing massive, and if they were to pass Atlanta it probably means LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen are doing something special.

These final games matter for the rebuild. The Bulls entered this current season with little knowledge of how their core (LaVine, Markkanen, Dunn) worked together. It’d be ideal to have Wendell Carter Jr. in the fold, but even without him they can still improve as a whole.

Throw in Otto Porter Jr. to the mix and the Bulls can get 24 games with little expectation of needing to win (or lose). It’s cliché, but developing a winning culture – or something resembling it – could help entering next season. The Bulls have said all year that they need to learn how to win, and they could get their chance in the final 2 months without it affecting any Lottery balls.

NBA Draft Big Board Check In: Romeo Langford nets near double double in IU loss

NBA Draft Big Board Check In: Romeo Langford nets near double double in IU loss

Mark Schanowski's Big Board 5.0 had some movement, particularly around the bottom half of the top 10. We take the time to go over some performances from throughout the week, including a prospect who dropped out of Schanowski's top 10 earlier in the season.

Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga (vs San Diego): 22 PTS (10/15 FG), 10 REB, 1 STL

Hachimura’s efficient double double came on Saturday against San Diego but we wanted to make sure we discussed he continued excellent play. Against the Toreros, Hachimura was an imposing force in the paint and finished the night shooting 66.6 percent from the field. But just as important, he was 1/3 on his shots outside the paint, which included a (missed) 3-point attempt. The fact that he has improved year-to-year as a jump shooter bodes very well for his NBA future.

At this stage of his development, Hachimura figures to be a nice pick-and-roll scorer based off of his quickness alone. If Hachimura’s defender is trying to hedge and then get back to him, it’s a near impossible task if the weakside defense is not helping early.


At 6-foot-8, Hachimura is a bit undersized for what seems like it would be his natural position at center. And if he plays power forward in the NBA, he will certainly need to improve his touch from outside and his ball-handling. Overall, Hachimura is an intriguing prospect but the lack of depth in this class makes it tough to peg exactly where he should go. But with a solid post game, tremendous finishing inside the paint, great rebounding and an explosive faceup game, he is more than worth a look inside the top-15 to 20 picks.

Romeo Langford, Indiana (vs Purdue): 14 PTS, 9 REB, 2 AST, 1 BLK, 1 STL, 9/10 FT line

Langford continued to flash all the things that make him both impressive and frustrating as a prospect on Tuesday night. His 14 points against rival Purdue came on only six shots, which was awesome to showcase just how efficient he can be as a scorer without needing to use up a ton of possessions.

His 10 free throw attempts were the sixth time this season that he has reached double-digit attempts from the charity stripe. Langford is as physical as they come as a wing prospect. He knows that opponents are playing him for the drive, but he still barrels into the chest of his defender, forcing the referees to make a call one way or the other. When you watch Langford play, it is easy to picture him getting to the free throw line a considerable amount at the NBA level. And on top of his clear ability to get to the free throw line, Langford has shown a tremendous step-back jump shot that could one day become a staple in his offensive game.

On the negative side, Langford--a solid perimeter shooting in college--shot 1 for 3 from the 3-point line on Tuesday. On the season, he is shooting a very concerning 26.5 percent from the shorter, college 3-point line. Langford’s free throw percentage is 71.8 percent, which would indicate that he has the ability to be a positive 3-point shooter at the NBA level, but isn’t a huge indicator of long-term success. So we will simply need to see more repetitions of Langford’s jumper to get a better handle of it. But as of now it seems that he will be a primarily midrange-focused shooter, at least in his NBA rookie season. But if he can’t develop that 3-point shot long-term, it definitely changes his ceiling as a prospect, even with improvements in his ball handling and elsewhere.


But when you are talking about a 19-year old with an NBA-ready frame, shot creation skills, strong defensive instincts and a team-first attitude, a lack of a projectable jumpshot does little to dissuade me from taking them somewhere in the bottom half of the top 10 at worst.

Keldon Johnson, Kentucky (vs Missouri): 5 PTS (1/6 FG), 6 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 3/3 FT

Keldon Johnson dropped out of Schanowski’s NBA Draft Big Board top-10 after version 3.0. He has done little to show that he deserves to be back in the top 10, but still seems like a player worthy of serious lottery consideration. On Tuesday, Johnson was third on the team in shot attempts, going 1/6 from the field (0/2 from 3-point range). Though, Mizzou’s guards shot the ball well, Johnson was great on help side defense, especially when it came to disrupting drives by getting his hand on the ball.

He plays within the team concept on offense, taking smart shots and picking his spots well. But when things get tight down the stretch, Johnson has not showcased the ability to go get an easy bucket in one-on-one situations. His passing is extremely underwhelming and he has yet to reach 5 assists in a game (NCAA career-high is 4 AST). Johnson only makes the simple skip pass right now and his lack of playmaking ability is a huge concern when coupled with his below average finishing at the rim.

If Johnson can’t string together great performances the rest of the season, a few big scoring nights against elite competition could do a lot to help his draft stock.

Johnson has shown that he can be a solid catch-and-shoot option on offense and a good defender in the right defensive scheme, which means that he definitely can be a good top-end starter in the NBA. But for Johnson to have a ceiling that is higher than “good NBA starter”, we will need to see more in terms of shot creation skills and finishing at the rim.