Bulls

Hamilton keeps emotions in check during return to Detroit

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Hamilton keeps emotions in check during return to Detroit

AUBURN HILLS, MICH. Ive never been in here, Rip Hamilton said of the visitors locker room at the Palace at Auburn Hills, the arena where he plied his trade for so many years. When I first came in here, I was like, All right, wheres the showers? It felt real crazy.

Thats why I said, Hurry up and let the ball get thrown up, he continued. Once the ball was thrown up, I said, You know what? Do what youve always been doing and thats play basketball.

All the build-up, coming to the arena, going out there and shooting, it was crazy. Im looking on the other side, seeing Tayshaun Prince, seeing Ben Wallace, seeing Rodney Stuckey and I was like, Man, this feels awkward in a way, when youve been here for so long, but once the ball is thrown up, its time to go to battle.

Hamilton scored a modest 14 points and dished out five assists in his dual return to both Detroit and the Bulls lineup, from which he had been absent from for two consecutive games due to a groin injury but even though the crowd to welcome back the ex-Piston was sparse, he appreciated its support.

It was great, man. The fans appreciate what I did here and theyve always been supportive of me, he said. Even when stuff wasnt going so good, theyd always chant my name and stuff like that, so Ive got a lot of love for them. Theyve been by my side since I got here.

Still, he couldnt help but notice the dwindling number of filled seats at an arena thats used to supporting championship teams and contenders in the last few decades, dating back to the Bad Boy Pistons and most recently, Hamiltons 2004 title-winning squad.

Crazy. It looks unbelievable. When I was here and Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace and everybody, I think we had like seven years of straight sellouts, so it was always great. It was always awesome, the fans were always great and to come in here and sto ee it halfway empty, its tough, but a lot of things have changed, said Hamilton. The economys messed up with the car industry going down and things like that. The team that we had is no longer there anymore, so its different.

When he first arrived at the arena with his new team, Hamilton was overcome by feelings of emotion and had to work hard not to let them out until the games final buzzer.

It was fun, man. Couldnt wait for the ball to be thrown up. A lot of emotion early in the game, being on the visitors side. Im not accustomed to it in this building, so it was difficult. I was like, Please, man, dont start crying or anything crazy like that. Just hurry up and let the ball get thrown up, so I can go out there and play, he said. Happy. I was so hyped, I was so excited. I didnt want to cry. I was like, Man, lets hurry up and get this game going on. Stay focused, stay on the prize, do your same routine. Then, you see everybody. You see so many people, like longtime Pistons announcer George Blaha, thats been supportive of me. Arena PA announcer Mason, Al, the picture guy, Arnie Kander, the teams strength and conditioning coach. You see all the guys that have so much love for you and it kind of gets emotional, but you know youve got to go out and try to get the win.

I didnt want to do anything when the Bulls arrived in Detroit. I said, You know what, Rip? Youve got a game. Stay in your room. Dont go anywhere. Kept all the lights off, didnt turn the TV on. I was like, Man, dont get caught up in being back in Detroit and getting so emotional and tied in. I said, Man, youve got all summer to do that. Just stay focused on the prize and try to get a win.

As far as his actual play, the veteran shooting guard was active his trademark perpetual-motion style of moving without the ball was in effect, as was his deadly shooting stroke, but he also continually set up his teammates, particularly big men Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, with easy opportunities around the rim though he was in his first game back from a groin injury.

First quarter was good; I think just adrenaline. Second quarter, I felt a little pull, but there was no way that I was getting off the court. So Ive just got to ice it down, get treatment, stim electronic stimulation, said Hamilton, who described his groin as sore after the game.

Said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau: I thought he handled the whole situation really well. Got himself ready to play, was focused and to start the game, he came out and he was playmaking. He wasnt trying to do too much and I think that speaks to his experience. He plays to win and I thought that he was terrific.

Boozer added: It was good to be here for Rip. We knew he had an emotional comeback, but at the same time, I thought he played very well, especially being out a couple games with his injury.

Hamilton said he had no regrets about his tenure in Detroit, but admitted he initially wished it ended differently.

When the lockout ended, I thought I was coming here. I was here for the first day of training camp, but the buyout came, he explained. It was a mutual thing. The direction that they were going and change is good for me. Get an opportunity now to try to get another ring. Its just another chapter in the book, so Im excited about being part of the Chicago Bulls."

Me and Chauncey, both, we always talked about that when we first got here. That was our main goal. OK, lets go out together. When the whole extension came up, that was the whole thing, continued Hamilton, who was portrayed as a key part of dismal Pistons season a year ago, particularly behind the scenes, leading to the ouster of former head coach John Kuester. When youre the highest-paid player on the team and youre the leader, and youre team captain, youve got to take the good and the bad. I always say, You can ask the guys in the locker room. Theyll tell you. Theyll tell you who I am. Ask the coaching staff. Theyll tell you who I am. So, all the sources and the allegations they put out, it hurt me. Because I thought, as long as I lay it all on the line for an organization, regardless, theyll always have your back and I see that wasnt the case.

I had a beautiful time here.

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.