Bulls

Hamilton could miss extended time with injury

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Hamilton could miss extended time with injury

PHILADELPHIA Despite his slender frame, throughout his 13-year NBA career, Bulls shooting guard Rip Hamilton has withstood the punishment of getting knocked around by much bigger men as he runs through a maze of screens, trying to get open for his patented mid-range jumper. One thing he cant shake, however, is a left-leg injury apologies for the hockey terminology, but thats how the veteran describes his ailment that has sidelined him for more games than hes suited up for in his short tenure as Derrick Roses backcourt mate.

Im just more looking at if I can go or not. I think thats the most important thing. I missed a whole lot of games earlier because of the injury. Right now, you just want to be on the floor. Thats just the bottom line. I just want to be out there, Hamilton explained prior to the Bulls morning shootaround at the Wells Fargo Center, where theyll take on the 76ers Wednesday evening. Not even just that being cautious due to the NBAs condensed schedule, just being out there and being able to play. The last game I played, it was killing me. The whole second half, I felt like I was playing on one leg and then, the next day, its 20 times worse. Its one of those things where you want to be out there I know everybody says, Look at the big picture, look at the end but its tough because you want to be out there now, you want to play now and my bodys not allowing me to play right now.

Us me and the trainer have been talking and its different because it feels good at one point in time and as soon as I start playing, its like, Boom. Come here. What do you think youre doing? Stop it. And thats the most frustrating part of the whole thing.

Its my thigh. You can say my whole leg, my whole left leg, continued Hamilton, who originally suffered a strained left groin, which was exacerbated by a left-thigh injury, apparently now the more serious of the two. Its funny because as the games going on, its just adrenaline. Its a battle of wills, youre just playing and you dont realize it until that thing just says, Hold on. What are you doing? What do you think youre doing?

Its a tiny bit better than it felt after his last game in Miami. Its not worse than since the last game because once the next day comes, once your body comes down and your adrenaline comes down, its even worse than what it was playing.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau is sympathetic to Hamiltons plight, but realizes the best course of action could be to sit the native of nearby Coatesville, Pa., until he can fully contribute for a sustained period of time, instead of being in the lineup for a game or two, then having to miss time again.

Thats the tough one. Hes doing all his rehab and what we want to avoid is the in and out. Hes missed more games than hes played, so thats a big concern. So, we want to make sure that hes completely healthy, he said. Rip, hes a terrific player and he plays both ends. Im concerned about him, with this thing becoming reoccurring, so I want to make sure this time that hes completely healthy. I think a guy like that, youve just got to be careful with, so thats what were going to do.

Hamilton is even more down about missing Wednesdays contest because family and friends were excited to see him play as a member of the Bulls after his time with the Pistons ended in disappointing fashion

Its fun, but its sad in the same sense because all my family came to see me play and to be hurt, its crazy, he said. Theyre all excited about me being in Chicago and not to get an opportunity to showcase that in front of them, its tough.

Still, Hamilton is pleased with how hes adjusted to playing in Thibodeaus system and blending with his teammates when hes been on the court, as it has allowed him to display the versatility thats been often overlooked during his career.

Oh, I love it. It fits me. Got a lot of great guys, got a lot of great talent on this team, he said. I always say, When you score so good in this league, thats all people look at, at your scoring. They dont look at anything else and my whole career, I really never got a whole lot of credit, but when I was there, the coaches knew what they had, so to get an opportunity to get to show what I do here is unbelievable.

Meanwhile, Thibodeau noted that another member of the starting lineup is making gradual progress in his recovery.

Luols still out, said the coach. Well see what he can do today, did more yesterday and thats game-time.

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

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USA TODAY

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

In talking with Bulls' fans over the summer and reading posts on social media, it seems like expectations for the 2018-19 season are all over the board.

Some fans think the Bulls will finish at or slightly above the .500 mark and contend for a playoff spot, others are looking for more modest improvement with a win total in the low to mid 30's, while others believe Fred Hoiberg's team will be among the worst in the league.

Reality probably lies in the middle ground. Bulls' General Manager Gar Forman told us on media day the goals will be to win as many games as possible while still focusing on individual player development. The Bulls will again be among the NBA's youngest teams with 9 of their top 11 players under the age of 25. 

Bulls' Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson made it clear at the end of last year's 27-55 campaign that he couldn't endure another season of manipulating the roster and player rotations to improve draft lottery chances, while Hoiberg enters the 4th season of his 5 year contract needing to show improvement to keep his position as head coach. 

Clearly, no one in the front office or coaching staff is talking about tanking with the hopes of landing a top 3 pick in the 2019 draft. The Bulls will play to win this season, but they’ll also have to ride out the normal highs and lows of competing with such a young roster.

So, as a Bulls' fan, what should you be watching for this season to judge how much the team has improved? Here's what I'll be looking for:

1. Will Lauri Markkanen take the next step towards All-Star status?

Losing your best player on the 3rd day of training camp isn't the ideal way to start a season, but the good news is Markkanen should return from his elbow injury around Thanksgiving with plenty of time to re-establish himself as one of the league's rising stars. The 1st team All-Rookie selection put on needed bulk and muscle in the off-season to improve his low post game and he's ready to punish smaller defenders who switch on to him in pick and roll situations. Markkanen has all the tools to become a top 30 player in the league. The question is, how much closer will he come to reaching that status this season?

2. Is Zach LaVine all the way back?

Judging by what we saw during the preseason, LaVine appears to be ready to pick up where he left off during his 3rd year in Minnesota when he was averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting nearly 39% from 3 point range before an ACL injury set him back. LaVine should average 20 points a game or more this season, but how much he improves in other areas of his game (particularly on the defensive end), will be the key to whether the Bulls made the right decision in matching that 4 year, 78 million dollar offer sheet LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings back in July. If LaVine reclaims his status as one of the league’s most promising wing players, the Bulls will have at least two foundation pieces in place. 

3. Can the backcourt pairing of LaVine and Kris Dunn succeed long term?

The Bulls' young guards didn't get a chance to play many minutes together last season because of LaVine's ACL rehab and Dunn's scary fall after making a breakaway dunk against Golden State. Both players are most comfortable with the ball in their hands, and both showed the ability to make big shots at the end of games. Dunn will need to sacrifice some of his offensive game to get the ball into the hands of the team's best shooters, but he's already one of the better defensive point guards in the league and looks like a potential leader on future Bulls' playoff squads. Developing better chemistry with LaVine is critical in year 2 of the rebuild.

4. Is Wendell Carter Jr. the answer at center?

The Bulls used the 7th pick in last June's draft to grab the 6'10" big man, who played in the considerable shadow of Marvin Bagley during their one season together at Duke. Carter Jr. showed enough during Summer League play and pre-season games to move into the starting line-up ahead of 10 year veteran Robin Lopez, but whether he's ready to stay there is another question. Carter Jr. is an excellent rim protector and also has the lateral quickness to switch out on to smaller perimeter players, but right now he's a reluctant shooter. Given the fact Carter Jr. is only 19, it will be fascinating to track how much he improves throughout his rookie season. Did the Bulls strike gold again with the #7 pick?

5. How does Jabari Parker fit?

More than a few eyebrows were raised around the league when the Bulls decided to sign the Chicago native to a 2 year, 40 million dollar free agent contract. Parker was expecting to move to the small forward spot, but returned to power forward when Markkanen was injured, and then moved to the bench when the coaching staff wasn't happy with how the starting line-up was playing early in the pre-season. Parker could be a valuable weapon as a big-time scorer and facilitator with the 2nd unit, but if he's unhappy with his role or playing time, this season could turn out to be an unhappy homecoming. How Parker adapts to the challenges of establishing his role will determine whether the Bulls exercise the team option on the 2nd year of his contract. 

6. Which other players will be part of the roster when the Bulls are a playoff team again?

Questions remain about a number of the team's young players. Bobby Portis has established himself as a legitimate NBA scorer and team leader; his improved 3 point shooting will be critical to the team's success, whether he starts or comes off the bench. But after failing to reach agreement on a contract extension by the Monday deadline, will Portis be chasing stats as he looks ahead to restricted free agency next summer? Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and rookie Chandler Hutchison will all have to make the most of limited minutes, with each player needing to prove to the coaching staff and front office they deserve to be in the rotation long term.

So, don't get caught up in the Bulls chasing some arbitrary win total number. Even though the Eastern Conference is weaker overall than the West, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Miami and Detroit all appear to be likely playoff teams, barring an injury to a key player. 

Hoiberg's offense will continue to emphasize pace, floor spacing and 3 point shooting which should bring out the best in a young and developing roster. 

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

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USA TODAY

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

The theme of the 2018-19 NBA season will be: “old faces in new places”. Like a season-long game of the NBA on TNT crew’s “Who he play for?” game, this year will be about fans trying to get used to the idea of LeBron James in purple (I won’t call it ‘Forum Blue’)-and-gold, DeMarcus Cousins being on a championship-contending franchise and Kawhi Leonard being the new face of Toronto.

The Warriors are still the easy favorite to make it four NBA championships in five years, but they will be tested perhaps more than any year before in a loaded Western Conference, where even the lowliest of teams (here’s to you Phoenix and Memphis!) made solid offseason moves geared towards winning games.

Over in the now-LeBron-less East, there is hope amongst at least four-to-five teams that they could actually have a shot to win the conference. The Pacers still have budding superstar Victor Oladipo, the Sixers still have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the Raptors and Bucks made head coaching changes that could lead to deep playoff runs. But with the rest of the Eastern conference being stuck between lottery contention and middle of the pack, expect the half-experienced, half-youthful Celtics to takeover as East juggernaut.

But whether or not your favorite franchise is aiming for a high draft pick or a postseason berth, there is tons to be excited in a 2018-19 NBA season that will surely be an intriguing one. Check out Week 1 of our NBA Power Rankings right here.