It's been a frustrating watch through the season's first 50 games, but there's at least one overriding positive as the Bulls get ready for the stretch run: Derrick Rose's game is coming back.
Rose has been a consistent offensive force since Christmas Day, when the Bulls knocked off the Thunder in Oklahoma City, with Rose scoring 19 points in 30 minutes.
And, he's picked up his offensive production over the last few weeks, scoring at least 20 points in six of his last 10 games (averaging 19.3) compared to reaching that plateau just six times in the first 33 games of the season.
Rose played one of his best games since suffering the original ACL injury in the 2012 playoffs Friday night against Denver. He showed off that extra gear that helped make him the youngest MVP in league history, blazing past the Nuggets' defenders for 30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. Rose took over the game in the third quarter, showing the full arsenal of offensive moves with hesitation, shake-and-bake crossovers, step-back mid-range jumpers and warp-speed attacks on the rim.
Unfortunately, Rose and his teammates ran out of gas in the fourth, with the Nuggets scoring 42 points on 71-percent shooting to erase an 89-73 deficit and post a 115-110 win. But with five of their top seven players unavailable because of injury or illness (Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, Mike Dunleavy, Nikola Mirotic and Joakim Noah), the Bulls did show a lot of resolve in battling a hot-shooting team down the stretch.
Back to Rose, his recent revival is great news for a Bulls team trying to build some momentum for the playoffs, but it also creates more questions for the front office as they look ahead to a summer roster makeover.
Can Rose be counted on as the point guard of the future? Or does his lengthy injury history make exploring trade options this summer a better course of action? Remember, with the explosion of the salary cap over the next two seasons, a max contract for Rose would start at approximately $30 million when he hits the free-agent market in the summer of 2017.
Rose recently made a guest appearance on SportsTalk Live and told the panel he wants to finish his career in Chicago, but would he or his brand-conscious representatives be willing to give the Bulls a hometown discount? These are all questions John Paxson and Gar Forman will have to consider as they try to project what the roster might look like going forward.
Don't get me wrong, I'm loving the new attack-the-basket Rose, and my hope is he can continue to ramp up his game as the Bulls move closer to the playoffs. But I also cringed when he got up very gingerly after being knocked to the court in Denver, and you'd have to be incredibly naive not to have concerns about his durability.
With so many teams having cap space this summer, and so few quality free agents available, Rose's $21.3 million salary for next season suddenly doesn't look so untradeable. You can bet teams like the Nets, Knicks and Lakers will be asking about Rose if they don't hit on their top free-agent targets.
It promises to be a fascinating offseason of player movement in the league, and with the Bulls front office determined to give Fred Hoiberg a roster more in line with the system he wants to run, all options have to be on the table.
Around the Association
As we move closer to the Feb. 18 trade deadline, a lot of the same names are being thrown around in the rumor mill. Phoenix is desperate to shake up a team that's flat-lined since losing leading scorer Eric Bledsoe to a season-ending knee injury, resulting in the recent firing of head coach Jeff Hornacek.
The Suns have been active in trade discussions regarding forwards Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker, and they would love to get rid of the remaining years on the free-agent contract former Bulls center Tyson Chandler signed last summer. You can count on Morris being traded somewhere before the deadline after feuding with the coaching staff and management since his brother Marcus was traded to Detroit. Markieff has been re-inserted into the Suns' starting lineup in order to showcase him for a possible deal. He exploded for 30 points, 11 rebounds and six assists against Toronto last week, which is even more interesting considering the Raptors are one of the teams interested in upgrading at the forward position. Many teams are concerned about Morris' attitude and his ability to function without his twin brother, but he's a talented combo forward at 6-foot-10 who averaged 15 points and six rebounds last season.
New Orleans is also a team to watch before the deadline. The Pelicans have been one of the league's biggest disappointments after making the playoffs last season, and the front office is looking to reshape the talent surrounding Chicago native Anthony Davis, who committed to New Orleans by signing a huge extension last summer.
The Pelicans will definitely listen to calls on Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and another former Bulls center, Omer Asik. Would the Bulls be interested in adding another shot creator in Evans, who has one year remaining on his contract at $10.2 million? They probably could get him in a deal for Taj Gibson and Tony Snell, but a trade like that would leave the Bulls painfully thin up front.
Probably the biggest surprise of this trade season involves the report from the Racine Journal Times stating the Bucks are interested in making a major trade and are listening to offers for starters Greg Monroe and Michael Carter-Williams. The Carter-Williams news isn't all that surprising, considering he's been a disappointment since coming over in a three-way trade that cost the Bucks Brandon Knight last February.
But the Monroe rumor is shocking, considering the Bucks just signed him as a free agent this past summer, beating out the Knicks and Lakers. Monroe is putting up solid numbers, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds a game, but he provides very little rim protection. The Bucks' defensive rating has fallen from second a year ago to 27th this season, and it sounds like the volatile Jason Kidd wants to shake things up again. Remember, he was the one in favor of trading Knight, who was having a borderline All-Star season a year ago, to get Carter-Williams, a taller point guard Kidd thought he could mold in his image. You have to wonder if Kidd is committed to coaching in Milwaukee long term or if he's already plotting his exit strategy.
With the Golden State Warriors stampeding through the regular-season schedule at a record pace, the last thing league general managers wanted to see was the report by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports suggesting the Warriors are the "significant front-runners" to sign Kevin Durant this summer if the former league MVP decides to leave Oklahoma City in free agency.
Can you imagine a starting lineup that includes Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Durant?
Not sure exactly how the finances would work with the Warriors having a guaranteed payroll of just under $75 million for 2016-17, according to Basketball Insiders, not including qualifying offers for restricted free agents Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli, and the salary cap projected to be around $90 million.
But if Durant is serious about joining forces with Curry & Co. next season, you know the Warriors will be willing to sacrifice Barnes, Ezeli and a couple other bench players to bring him on board.
Hall of Famer and former Warriors' star Rick Barry told CSN Bay Area that Durant would have to to take on a "subservient" role if he signed on, but I'm pretty confident Steve Kerr's system is flexible enough to accommodate the four-time NBA scoring champ.
Trying to create All-Star teams isn't always the best path to winning championships, but given the "share the wealth" style the Warriors have embraced, the idea of Durant going to the Bay Area has to strike fear in front offices around the league.
A very cool night last Tuesday in Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant turning back the clock to make sure the Lakers wouldn't break the all-time franchise record for consecutive losses. Bryant scored 38 points against the visiting Timberwolves, almost singlehandedly carrying the team down the stretch, hitting seven of 11 attempts from 3-point range and six straight free throws to ice the game in the closing minute.
But what really stood out was his interaction with young T-Wolves star Andrew Wiggins throughout the game. Bryant had some animated discussions with Wiggins as they went back and forth against each other, and he told reporters after the game that Wiggins admitted he stole one of Kobe's post moves.
Bryant said he couldn't have been more flattered that one of the league's up-and-coming stars took the time to study tape of his game and was successful in utilizing one of his favorite moves. Kobe said he thought he was watching himself when Wiggins scored on a baseline drive on the way to a 30-point night.
Bryant went on to tell the story of his matchups with Michael Jordan late in MJ's career and how he relished the chance to go up against his idol. Kobe relayed how Jordan was always very encouraging in helping him with his development and now it's his turn as one of the league's elder statesmen to help young players with their games.
It was great theater to watch the Bryant-Wiggins matchup, and I'm sure it's something Wiggins will always remember as he continues on the path to All-Star status in the very near future.
Warriors' pursuit of 72 wins
Another perfect week for the defending champs, which included a visit to the White House — and the President's funny comment about Steve Kerr.
The Warriors dominated early and survived for the win in another nationally televised statement game against Oklahoma City on Saturday, keeping their record perfect at Oracle Arena. I'm keeping their chances of matching or breaking the Bulls' record at 55 percent.
[MORE BULLS: Jimmy Butler diagnosed with left knee strain]
Future stars meet in Baton Rouge
Did you see the game recently between top-ranked Oklahoma and LSU? The Tigers feature 6-foot-10 freshman forward Ben Simmons, who's expected to be the No. 1 pick in June's NBA Draft, while the Sooners were led by 6-foot-4 guard Buddy Hield, who also figures to go in the top 10.
Simmons is a native of Austrailia and is considered one of the best prospects to come into the league since LeBron James. He's a silky smooth lefty with a well-rounded game, including exceptional ball-handling ability at 6-foot-10. Some scouts have compared him to a young Magic Johnson, but at this point, I'd say Lamar Odom in his prime is a better comp. Simmons finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and five assists against Oklahoma, but he needs to be more aggressive on the offensive end. The Sooners' defense basically shut him down in the closing minutes as they rallied for a 77-75 road win.
Meanwhile, Hield stole the show, scoring 32 points while hitting eight of 15 3-point attempts. The senior looks like a lock for first-team All-America status, and he's a testament to the value of staying in school for four years, improving his scoring average from 7.8 points as a freshman to 25.8 this season. Given the current trend of "pace and space" offenses in the NBA, Hield figures to be a very valuable addition to some team holding a top-10 pick this summer.
Stats of the week
With the All-Star Game coming up next Sunday in Toronto, here are some interesting Bulls-related factoids, courtesy of CSN's stats guru, Chris Kamka.
Bulls All-Star game appearances (17 different players)
|Games||Starts||Points||Points per game|
|Michael Jordan||11 (was selected to 12 but injured in 1986)||11||234||21.3|
|Norm Van Lier||3||1||5||1.7|
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Bulls single-game All-Star Game highs
Most points in a game: 40, Michael Jordan (1988 at Chicago Stadium); third most in All-Star Game history — Wilt Chamberlain (42, 1962), Russell Westbrook (41, 2015)
Most rebounds in a game: 12, Pau Gasol (2015)
Most assists in a game: 11, Michael Jordan (1997)
More Bulls All-Star notes
First Bulls player to start in All-Star Game: Guy Rodgers, 1967 (first season in franchise history)
First time Bulls had two starters in All-Star Game: Artis Gilmore and Reggie Theus, 1981
Only time Bulls had three All-Stars in a season: B.J. Armstrong, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, 1994
First Bulls player to score 10-plus points in All-Star Game: Bob Love (16) and Chet Walker (10), 1971
First Bulls player with double-double in All-Star Game: Scottie Pippen, 29 points, 11 rebounds, 1994
First Bulls player with triple-double in All-Star Game: Michael Jordan, 14 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, 1997; first in All-Star history, LeBron James (2011) and Dwyane Wade (2012) have done it since
Bulls to win All-Star Game MVP: Michael Jordan (1988, 1996, 1998), Scottie Pippen (1994)
Michael Jordan All-Star Game career with Bulls
|Minutes per game||29.5|
|Points per game||21.3|
|Rebounds per game||4.7|
|Assists per game||4.5|
|Steals per game||3.0|
Quotes of the week
Back to Bryant's 38-point game against Minnesota, here's Kobe's response when asked if he was surprised he could still come up with an offensive game like that: "You've seen it for 20 damn years," Bryant said. "What do you expect?"
That brought the following response from Timberwolves' coach Sam Mitchell: "I hate him. If I don't ever see him again, it won't be too soon. He doesn't score too many points now, so everybody thinks he's done and all that. He's not the same Kobe, and he'll tell you that. But there are nights when he's feeling good."
And to Bryant, the comment from Mitchell was the ultimate compliment.
"Thank you for the hate, truly, I love that."
Something tells me Kobe is gearing up to put on a show in his final All-Star Game.