Bulls

NBA Buzz: State of the Bulls

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NBA Buzz: State of the Bulls

All things considered a pretty solid week for Fred Hoiberg's crew. They won three out of four games to take over second place in the Eastern Conference. Only problem is, Cleveland went 3-0 to pick up a half game in the standings over that stretch.

We've seen some positive signs in the on-going Jimmy Butler-Derrick Rose dynamic. I've noticed those two players talking more coming out of timeouts and during dead-ball periods, and it looks like Rose has accepted Butler being the main option in the offense and is doing what he can to get Butler the ball in his favorite scoring areas.

Rose also picked up right where he left off before the hamstring/knee strain in terms of attacking the basket, and not shooting too many long jumpers. Butler is unquestionably the Bulls' best offensive player, but Rose's ability to get past the initial defender and draw help defense in the paint is one of the keys to the team's long-term (playoffs) success. He even shot eight free throws in Atlanta on Saturday, hopefully the sign of getting more respect from officials as the season rolls on.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Still questions remain about the ever-changing rotation. Who's the back-up point guard? Is it Kirk Hinrich? Aaron Brooks? Or, even E'Twaun Moore?

And, what will Hoiberg do when Joakim Noah returns, perhaps as early as Monday's home game against Washington? Who loses minutes or falls out of the rotation completely? After an impressive start, rookie Bobby Portis struggled in his last two games against the Celtics and Hawks, so will Hoiberg give Portis fewer minutes now?

With the Bulls playing much better lately, including 10 straight games scoring 100 or more points, speculation about possible trades has quieted. But Hoiberg's job might be a little easier with fewer players looking for rotation minutes. The trade market is pretty quiet right now, but a 2-for-1 deal for a small forward starter might be a good option for the Bulls, especially with all the uncertainty about Mike Dunleavy's return.

Around the Association

Speaking of trades, several teams out West might be looking to make changes after getting off to disappointing starts. Word out of Houston is that always-aggressive GM Darryl Morey is looking to shake things up with his team floundering around the .500 mark. Former All-Star center Dwight Howard has a player option to leave after this season, and the Rockets might be looking to re-shuffle the deck around high-scoring guard James Harden. The Bulls saw first-hand how valuable veteran Trevor Ariza can be in a playoff series. The question is, would the price be too high (think Niko Mirotic or Taj Gibson) to get a deal done?

Another team looking to make changes is the New Orleans Pelicans, who were hoping to take a step forward after earning the eighth seed a year ago, but instead they've plummeted near the bottom of the West standings with Chicago native Anthony Davis suffering through an injury-plagued season. Veterans like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon (both free agents this summer), and Tyreke Evans (owed 10.2 million next season) can all be had as the Pels once again look to the future in trying to build a contending team around Davis.

Out East, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov finally had seen enough of his dysfunctional group, and fired head coach Lionel Hollins on Sunday while also re-assigning GM Billy King. King made the ill-fated trade with Boston for aging veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce that cost the Nets a likely Top 5 draft pick in the 2016 draft and another first rounder in 2018. Boston also holds the right to swap first round picks with Brooklyn in 2017. So, Prokhorov will hope to strike big in free agency this summer, with the Nets expected to have over $40 million in available cap room. Outside of center Brook Lopez and power forward Thaddeus Young, this team is sorely lacking in talent, so without any draft picks, they better find a way to sign two productive free agents. Assistant coach Tony Brown will take over the team on an interim basis, but you know Prokhorov will try to land a big name coach like John Calipari, Jeff Van Gundy or former Bulls' head man Tom Thibodeau.

[MORE: Hoiberg, Bulls get 'back to the basics' after win streak snapped]

NBA All-Star balloting always brings complaints over some of the starters voted in by fans. For instance, Cleveland's Kyrie Irving is currently running second in voting for the East starting guard spots, but Irving has played in less than 10 games after a long rehab from the fractured kneecap he suffered in the Finals. When the Cavs were in Washington last week, the Wizards' in-game entertainment crew had some fun at Irving's expense, interviewing some "fans" wearing Cavs' jerseys, who said they were voting for Wizards' star John Wall, who's currently running fourth in the balloting. They played the skit on the stadium scoreboard during a timeout, and apparently the Cavs' players were a little annoyed. Irving said he noticed the bit, but it didn't really bother him. I guess it bothered him a little, because Irving went on to light up the Wizards for 21 fourth-quarter points in a 121-115 Cleveland win.

Remember Jordan Crawford, the 6-4 guard the Bulls invited to training camp? Crawford didn't play all that well in pre-season games, and was released in the final cutdown, but he's been lighting it up since signing with Tianjin Ronggang of the Chinese Basketball Association. Crawford is averaging 41.5 points in 18 games, and he recently scored 72 points and pulled down 16 rebounds in a game against the Sichaun Blue Whales.

Warriors chase for 72

Turns out Steph Curry only missed two games while recovering from a calf strain, and Klay Thompson and Draymond (Mr. Triple Double) Green picked up their games while Curry eased back into action. I remember thinking after the Warriors began the season 24-0, the key benchmark would be matching the 1995-96 Bulls start of 41-3. Then, we could take this record chase seriously! Well, Golden State is 35-2 now, so yes, we can start talking legitimately about 72 wins. I'm upping their chances of matching or breaking the Bulls' record to 55 percent (had it at 45 percent last week).

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Stat of the week

I've enlisted the help of CSN's stats whiz Chris Kamka for this weekly segment. Here are a few gems Chris came up with:

  • Draymond Green now has eight triple doubles this season, just one short of the franchise single season record set by Tom Gola back in 1959-60. In case you were wondering, Wilt Chamberlain had eight career triple doubles during his time with the Philadelphia Warriors.

  • Jimmy Butler is averaging 7.7 free throw attempts per game, putting him over seven for the second year in a row. He's the first Bulls’ player since Michael Jordan to reach seven per game. Derrick Rose topped out at 6.9 during his 2010-11 MVP season.

  • And, this note about Timberwolves teammates, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Garnett. Towns was born on Nov. 15, 1995 - which is the same day Garnett scored in double-digits for the first time in his career (19 points at age 19).

[RELATED: Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler: Rising together, debunking myths]

NBA's top shooting guards

Back to Butler, when he was asked about his status as one of the league's elite shooting guards after his 40-point second half in Toronto, Jimmy Buckets said simply, "There's no way you’re going to draw me into any of that nonsense." Well Jimmy, we respect your wishes not to comment on that topic, but here's one man's (mine) opinion on the league's top SGs.

Player PPG RPG APG FG %
1. Klay Thompson 21.3 3.8 2.4 .471
2. Jimmy Butler 22.0 4.8 4.1 .457
3. James Harden 28.3 6.0 6.6 .420
4. Dwyane Wade 18.8 3.9 4.5 .466
5. DeMar DeRozan 23.0 4.3 4.1 .444
6. Andrew Wiggins 20.6 3.7 1.7 .436
7. Khris Middleton 16.8 3.4 3.8 .432
8. Bradley Beal 19.8 4.7 3.2 .438
9. C.J. McCollum 20.9 3.6 4.3 .442
10. Arron Afflalo 13.6 3.9 1.8 .477

(Next week: Top PGs)

Quotes of the week

Knicks point guard Jose Calderon after missing the potential game-winning shot in San Antonio last Friday, "I know everybody is going to want me out of New York because I missed that shot." 

Sad, but true Jose. After all, it is New York.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich after learning he had been named the NBA's Coach of the Month for December, "I think you should at least get a car. If you don't get a car, I don't give a damn."

Just another example why Pop is loved by reporters around the league, (except the ones who have to do those sideline TV interviews during games).

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”