In matchup against King James with President Obama on hand, Hoiberg avoids pressure


In matchup against King James with President Obama on hand, Hoiberg avoids pressure

Nearly five years ago, Fred Hoiberg began his coaching career in Ames, Iowa, with a 78-64 victory over Northern Arizona in his first regular season game as Iowa State’s head basketball coach. A shade under 13,000 fans were in attendance at the Hilton Coliseum, which held 14,356 at the time, to see the Cyclones knock off a Lumberjacks team that eventually won 19 games and lost in the opening round of the CIT, college basketball’s lowest postseason tournament.

Half a decade later, the scene couldn’t be more different for Hoiberg. He’ll begin his NBA head coaching career Tuesday night inside a sold out United Center against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. And as if the NBA’s first nationally televised game against the league’s best player wasn't enough, President Barack Obama is scheduled to be in attendance to cheer on his hometown Bulls.

Hoiberg admitted five years ago he was “very calm” in his debut with Iowa State, and despite the pressure-packed atmosphere awaiting him against the Cavaliers with the Commander-in-Chief on hand, he said at shootaround Tuesday afternoon that he's more opportunistic than anything.

“Very anxious, very excited,” Hoiberg said. “The opportunity to play a team that’s favored to win an NBA championship this year. To go out, it’ll be a great barometer for our guys to see where we are after this opening night, and then we get to do it all over again tomorrow with a back-to-back. Tonight, it’s exciting. It’s an exciting time. I know our players will be ready.”

When asked specifically about a President, a King (James' nickname) and a Mayor (Hoiberg's nickname) being in attendance, the Bulls head coach admitted with a laugh, "I'm probably the lowest on the totem pole on that one."

[MORE: President Obama expected in attendance for Bulls-Cavaliers]

The storyline heading into the season opener for the Bulls is once again dealing with James, whose teams have knocked Chicago out of the postseason in four of the last six seasons – twice with Cleveland in 2010 and 2015, and twice with Miami in 2011 and 2013. With a nearly identical group returning from a year ago, when the injury-riddled Cavaliers knocked them out in the East semifinals, the Bulls’ hope is that a new philosophy under Hoiberg, specifically one tailored to the offensive end, will allow the Bulls to succeed where Tom Thibodeau-led groups failed.

And yet, for the hoopla surrounding Tuesday night’s affair, Hoiberg and the Bulls have maintained a level-headed approach, understanding that the outcome is simply one of 82 games that will define the season as two teams on a collision course to meet again in the postseason get their collective feet under them.

"We're definitely all in. We're focused and know its going to take time. We're working hard every day to make it the best possible, and its a good vibe over here," Joakim Noah said. "We know we have a lot of work to do. It's Game 1, and I'm excited to see how we compete tonight."

Neither team will be at the full-strength they hope to be come postseason, part of the reason Hoiberg isn't feeling as much pressure and is taking a long-term approach heading into the opener. James missed the final four preseason games after receiving an injection to deal with back pain, both Kyrie Irving (knee) and Iman Shumpert (wrist) will miss Tuesday’s game with injuries, and Anderson Varejao returns to the floor for the first time since tearing his Achilles 10 months ago.

For the Bulls, Derrick Rose will have his minutes monitored as he battles back from an orbital fracture that limited him to three practices and one 10-minute appearance in the preseason. Mike Dunleavy remains out after offseason back surgery. Tuesday's outcome will have little bearing on whether the Bulls can or will dethrone James in seven months, meaning Game 1 is just that.

“Obviously throughout the course of the season, a lot of things will transpire by the time the playoffs roll around, so I don’t think you look at that from Day 1," Hoiberg. "You know as the pressure of you have to get by this team. Because there’s so many variables that can happen over the course of the season.

“But they are the team if you want to make it to the finals and have a chance, they’re the favorites. You just try to prepare the guys as best you can.”

[MORE: Derrick Rose set to start against LeBron, Cavaliers]

Hoiberg's preparation has, in the early going, yielded mixed results as the team familiarizes itself with a new up-tempo offensive scheme. The Bulls averaged 28.8 3-point attempts in the preseason, fifth most in the NBA and 6.5 more than they took a year ago under Thibodeau (22.3). There will be bumps along the way, and question marks about the team's defense will linger, but Noah is confident the Bulls' hard-work mentality which defined them the last five seasons will remain, regardless.

"We're all learning from each other and tonight I think it's going to be interesting just to see how we compete." Noah said. "There's going to be mistakes out there, were all learning different philosophies out there. But for me it's just about the energy we're going to bring to the game."

Noah, who will come off the bench for the first time since his second NBA season, shared the same approach as his head coach. Though he thinks it "awesome" that Obama will be in attendance, and knows better than anyone the task of eventually going head-to-head with James in the postseason, Tuesday night is about beginning the season on the right foot and coming away with a victory.

“Obviously there's a great level of respect for him as a player," Noah said of James, the two-time NBA champion. "You've got to respect everything that he does on the court. He's a great player. (But) we just want to beat the Cavs."

'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls

'Underdog' Tyler Ulis will fit in just fine with these Bulls

It's been a whirlwind of a summer for point guard Tyler Ulis, but he finally feels like he's found a home. Literally.

The 5-foot-9 point guard was cut by the Suns in late June, latched on with a training camp invite by the Warriors and was subsequently waived on Friday. It was then that Ulis, working out in California, received a call from his agent. He had been claimed on waivers by the Chicago Bulls. His hometown Bulls.

"I grew up watching (the Bulls)," he said after his first practice on Tuesday. "Growing up in this city, you always want to be a Bull and you’re always willing and hoping that you’ll be here one day...I'm home now. It's a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to it."

Ulis is back in Chicago for the first time since he was breaking records for Marian Catholic High School. Ulis became a five-star recruit for the Spartans and in 2014 signed on as the next point guard in the long line of successful floor generals under John Calipari and Kentucky.

Ulis backed up the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, as a freshman but saw his role increase as a sophomore. He blossomed, earning Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the SEC. Only Anthony Davis had ever earned both honors in a single season.

He declared for the 2016 NBA Draft with hopes of becoming a first-round pick. But unlike the Calipari point guards before him, Ulis slipped all the way down to the second round before the Phoenix Suns scooped him up with the 34th pick.

"Honestly I really did think (the Bulls) were going to draft me," Ulis said on Tuesday when recalling the 2016 NBA Draft. The Bulls took Denzel Valentine with the 14th pick. "But I'm here now so that's all that matters."

In 132 games, Ulis averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 assists in 21.1 minutes. He started 58 of those games, and while his shooting left plenty to be desired he handled the offense well and brought that same pesky defense he showed off at Kentucky. It wasn't enough, even for the guard-deprived Suns. They released Ulis before free agency this summer - which ruffled the feathers of franchise guard Devin Booker - in a rather unexpected move.

"My Mom always taught me (to) never expect anything," Ulis said of his release from the Suns. "When you're on a losing team like that anything can happen. I feel like I showed I could play at this level but they went a different way."

The Suns' loss - they may resort to starting 38-year-old Jamal Crawford at point guard this year - could be the Bulls' gain. Expectations should be harnessed for Ulis, especially with him joining the roster this late in the preseason, but the Bulls, like Phoenix, have question marks at the point.

Kris Dunn is entrenched as the starter, but Cameron Payne struggled mightily in the preseason and Ryan Arcidiacono doesn't project as a contributor. That leaves an opening for Ulis to potentially fill on the second unit, and apparently he's making a statement early in practice.

"Tyler had a real good practice," Fred Hoiberg said. "I think I think he changes the pace when he’s out there on the floor. He picks up full-court, he gets up underneath you. He can make a shot. He’s got good vision and can make a play with the ball in his hand. So I was very impressed with his first workout."

Ulis is working on a 45-day two-way contract, so it's unknown how much he'll contribute. He could be shuttled back and forth between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, but there's certainly an opportunity for him to stick. He'll be playing catch-up and learning on the go, but doing so in his hometown wth friends and family around him for support will work to his advantage.

"Being a smaller guard growing up in a big man’s sport, you get looked over. So I’m the underdog," he said. "And I feel like this team is an underdog, so we should all be excited to get the season started and prove people wrong."

Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done


Bulls, Bobby Portis value each other greatly despite no deal getting done

Monday's deadline came and went with expected results: Bobby Portis and the Bulls being unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension.

Some 19 hours later all parties involved said the right things, that they value one another and hope to be working together long-term.

But all that will be shelved until July 1, when Portis enters restricted free agency at this coming season's end. The two sides found themselves in position to wait out on an extension.

For Portis, he's improved his game each of his first three seasons in the league posted per-36 numbers on par with some of the game's best big men. Expected to start while Lauri Markkanen recovers from a sprained elbow - and then act as the team's Sixth Man after that - Portis is in line to post career numbers once again.

For the Bulls, nearly all their front office decisions the past three seasons have been with an eye toward the 2019 offseason and having as much cap space as possible. Waiting on a Portis contract allows them to see if any of the top free agents in the class are interested in Chicago, while also having the ability to match any deal Portis gets on the open market.

It's similar to how the Bulls played out the rookie scale contracts of both Jimmy Butler and Zach LaVine.

John Paxson spoke during Tuesday's practice at the Advocate Center and reiterated how much the Bulls value Portis and the work he's put in since they drafted him 22nd overall in 2015.

Portis also spoke with reporters after practice. And what would normally be considered posturing from any other player, Portis' blue-collar mentality was present in his comments.

"I couldn’t see myself in no other jersey. Obviously, I got Bulls DNA," he said. "Me and the city have a love connection somewhere. At the same time, I just enjoy playing for the Bulls.

"I play this game because I love it. Obviously, you want to make as much money as possible to help your family. But I started playing basketball because it’s fun to me and I loved it. I still have that same passion, that same heart every night I go out there."

Still, the opportunity will be there for Portis to make himself significant money in the coming six months. After averaging a modest 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in Year 3, Portis will be called upon to shoulder a scoring load in the absence of Markkanen. And with Jabari Parker's Bulls career off to a shaky start, Portis will be the go-to guy on the second unit once Markkanen is back in the lineup.

"Bobby is a guy that is very confident in himself. He’s confident in his ability. That’s what we love about him," Fred Hoiberg said. "And like I said, he’s going to go out there and play the same way every time he steps on the floor, whether it’s practice, whether it’s a pick-up game in the summer or once we get started on Thursday. He’s a warrior, and he’s just going to go out there and play the right way with great effort.’’

The Bulls will need that with the start of the regular season just two days away. They open on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that went 30-11 at home last season.

Portis will play a significant role in slowing down one of the NBA's best frontcourts. Whether or not this is his last season doing so in Chicago, he knows what the Bulls think of him and won't let the impending negotiations distract him.

"I know how much I’m valued. They tell me a lot. Give it all I got. Kind of the leader of the bunch. Blue-collar worker," he said. "Everybody respects me because I come in every day with a chip on my shoulder, try to push my guys to get better each day. That makes me go."