Bulls

NBA arenas dark on opening night, basketball still shines

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NBA arenas dark on opening night, basketball still shines

I should be in Dallas right now, perhaps wrapping up a post-shootaround lunch at Mexican restaurant El Fenix, not far from the American Airlines Center, before heading back to my hotel prior to tonight's Bulls' regular-season opener against the defending champion Mavericks.

Instead, I'm in good old Hyde Park, biding my time by texting, calling and emailing folks around the league, and perusing the World Wide Web for tidbits of NBA-related information--from the significant (such as union president Derek Fisher's latest letter to his constituents, defending himself against accusations of striking side deals with league commissioner David Stern) to the irrelevant (Nets power forward Kris Humphries was actually surprised to learn his marriage to Kim Kardashian was on the rocks?)--as the four-month-long NBA lockout continues.

Not exactly what I signed up for.

But as depressing as the league's labor impasse might be, I can't complain, especially when comparing my situation to the legions of team employees, fans and yes, even players suffering during this work stoppage. At least from a local standpoint, things don't look quite as grim.

As the Chicago Tribune reported, the Bulls are one of the more stable franchises during the lockout, as workers and basketball-operations staff alike remain employed--Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, a longtime assistant, fought for his staff in preparation for this very situation.

While they can't work with, let alone communicate with players, an extended offseason of analysis will ensure they're prepared when play finally resumes--and while there are great expectations for the team to pursue an upgrade at shooting guard or even explore the rash and ridiculous possibility of cutting ties with Carlos Boozer under the reported amnesty clause in the new CBA (not happening), after a 62-win season, there's no need to reinvent the wheel.

Still, although the Bulls might be a squad to benefit from a shortened season--due to their combination of relative youth (even if Kurt Thomas, who turned 39 last month, returns), roster stability, chemistry and low-maintenance players with strong work ethics--just last week, it appeared as if they'd be getting back to business sooner than later.

Tuesday? We can only speculate, but the forecast again looks more cloudy than sunny.

So, rather than sinking further into a lockout malaise, the time has come to focus on other hoops pursuits. Unlike many of my other NBA-reporter colleagues, I can't claim experience in covering other sports (I'd like to think of myself as pretty knowledgeable when it comes to football, but in reality, I'm probably only an expert when it comes to my Philadelphia Eagles, who I fully expect to continue their recent pattern and thump the Bears come next Monday night, even if it means I'll need a police escort home from a local bar) and fortunately, I won't have to do so.

As somebody who's covered more than my fair share of high school and college basketball, I certainly don't mind jumping back into that scene. But while I've kept abreast of even minute details since I've started covering the Bulls on a full-time basis, I've spent the past month or so--since it became clear that I wouldn't be making the daily trek to the Berto Center for training camp--getting re-acclimated to those levels of basketball, particularly high school.

With so many local college programs in the area and several ballyhooed prep prospects to go around, there's plenty to observe and write about, without having to board a plane.

As much as I'll miss long lines at airports, early-morning flights and commuting to Deerfield from the South Side--in all seriousness, I do lament the absence of press-room meals, at least in certain cities--watching the likes of Simeon and elite recruit Jabari Parker, a Northwestern team that looks poised to end its NCAA Tournament drought (if not this season, then when?) and players poised for a breakout year, such as DePaul sophomore forward Cleveland Melvin or Curie High School sophomore big man Cliff Alexander, should make up for the lack of professional basketball being played.

At least until the lockout ends. Then, starving for hoops played at the highest level in the world, I'll take it all back.

Wendell Carter knows vet teammate Robin Lopez will 'have part of the blueprint for me'

Wendell Carter knows vet teammate Robin Lopez will 'have part of the blueprint for me'

Robin Lopez has played for five different teams in 10 NBA seasons, but not for lack of being a good teammate.

The 29-year-old veteran has been a positive presence in the locker room year in and year out, and especially during a trying 2017-18 in which playing time was scarce.

Lopez, making way for minutes from Cristiano Felicio, appeared in just 64 games, and played 113 minutes in seven games after the All-Star break. But he continued his role as a conssumate teammate and maintained a positive attitude, something that wasn't lost on his teammates.

Now entering a contract year, Lopez is expected to have a role for the Bulls but again will be mentoring another young big, Bulls' first round pick Wendell Carter Jr.

"I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’ve heard plenty of stories about Robin, seen them first hand. It’s going to be exciting just to get to meet him, get to learn from, being in the league for 10 years," Carter said at his introductory press conference on Monday. "It’s someone that will have part of the blueprint for me."

Veterans have long been an important part of a rookie's acclimation to the league. Lopez was has been teammates with a pair of impressive rookies in Anthony (with the New Orleans Hornets) and Kristaps Porzingis (with the New York Knicks).

Those players were certainly destined for greatness. But having a veteran presence in Lopez had to have helped in the early stages of their careers.

Fred Hoiberg mentioned as much on Friday in how he's seen Lopez from a teammate perspective.

"I think Robin is the perfect guy for Wendell to learn from. You look at what has happened our last few years with young players – with Bobby Portis, with Cristiano Felicio – and Robin is so instrumental," Hoiberg said. When you have a guy on the floor who can teach these guys the ropes, it’s so beneficial.

"I look back on my career, I had Reggie Miller and Chris Mullin, Hall of Fame type players. I learned so much more from them than I did from the  coaches that I played for. Robin is going to be terrific for those players. He’s going to beat the hell out of them on days, and he’s going to be there to support them as well.”

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”

Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”

Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.

Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.

The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.

It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.

They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.

There was the fight (or the punch).

The aftermath.

The miserable 3-20 start.

The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.

The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.

And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.

So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.

It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.

LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously.  Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.

And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.

The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.

What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.

And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.

Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.

With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.

And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.

But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.

This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.

All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.

The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.

Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.

However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.

And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.