New Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau all smiles in return to Chicago

New Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau all smiles in return to Chicago

Relaxed and smiling for the better part of two days, former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau took in the NBA Draft Combine from a different perspective—as president and coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Thibodeau’s one-year sabbatical ended when the Timberwolves came calling with a lucrative offer to lead the organization, and not just coach the team. Considering Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins will likely be back-to-back Rookie of the Year winners, he picked a perfect place to make his comeback.

“It’s been a whirlwind. All of a sudden you get hired and have a lot to do,” Thibodeau said at Quest Multiplex, the site of the NBA Draft Combine. “It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to the challenge. We have, I think, the best young core of talent in the league but we have a lot of work to be done. And we’re looking forward to it.”

Thibodeau picked former Knicks and Utah Jazz executive Scott Layden to be his top executive, although Thibodeau will have final say in all basketball matters. He holds a title similar to the man he was taking to the airport at the end of Friday’s combine, Pistons czar Stan Van Gundy.

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer also hold dual titles as coaches with final say, putting Thibodeau in elite company.

“It more or less evolved into that. It wasn’t an absolute must, it just turned out that way,” Thibodeau said. “I was very fortunate to be able to get Scott Layden to join me in Minnesota so I think his experience will be invaluable to me. And it was more about alignment and what he’ll bring to our organization and we have a great owner in Glen Taylor. I’m looking forward to it, and it’s great to be back.”

Although he maintained a residence in Chicago since being fired last May, he was back in the public eye in the city for the first time in quite awhile—often feet away from the men he had a contentious relationship with (Gar Forman and John Paxson), along with the man who replaced him on the sidelines, current Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.

He watched the Bulls from afar as he toured the league, and was still able to evaluate his former players.

“I think a number of guys, there were a lot of pluses,” Thibodeau said. “I think Derrick (Rose) after the first couple months, played very well and it was great to see him healthy. He went through four years that were difficult. I think Jimmy (Butler) continues to improve and get better. Pau (Gasol) was terrific.

“Doug McDermott had a terrific season and Niko (Mirotic) was inconsistent but he finished strong. There were a lot of pluses and one or two games go a different way and if Joakim (Noah) doesn’t get hurt, this is a terrific team. They need their health. For me, just looking from afar, that’s the biggest thing for this team. If they’re healthy, they’re terrific and unfortunately they didn’t have their health.”

Hoiberg and the Bulls struggled this season, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007—something Thibodeau didn’t have to deal with. Thibodeau admitted it was difficult for him to watch the players he forged such a bond with struggle with inconsistent effort and results.

“When you spend a lot of time with a group like I did here, I was fortunate to have a great group of guys to coach,” Thibodeau said. “It was hard to watch from the standpoint of watching Joakim (Noah) get hurt.”

Noah underwent shoulder surgery in January after dislocating it against Dallas, one year after being under a minute restriction in the 2014-15 season after knee surgery—a point of contention between Thibodeau and his bosses.

“You never want to see that. Having been here, I know how important he is to the team. That part was hard,” Thibodeau said. “I think if he didn’t get hurt, it would’ve been a great season for them.”

The former Bulls coach was diplomatic about the franchise in numerous interactions over the last two days—an easy thing to do possibly, when every loss this past season made Thibodeau look better and better to teams in search of quality coaching.

“The rest of the East, a lot of teams improved a lot,” Thibodeau said. “So you have to give a lot of teams in the East credit. I think Fred’s a terrific coach, I think they have a lot of talent and they’ll get it back on track next season.”

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Pistons have the look of a playoff team in wide open East


Pistons have the look of a playoff team in wide open East

Finishing 9th in the Eastern Conference last season cost Stan Van Gundy his job as Pistons head coach and President of Basketball Operations. Van Gundy was replaced on the bench by 2017-18 Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, who was fired after the Raptors were swept by Cleveland in the conference semi-finals.

Casey’s job in Detroit is to find a way to develop the young players on the roster while getting the team to the playoffs. He has a pair of All-Star caliber players in the front court, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, along with highly-paid, erratic point guard Reggie Jackson.

Griffin has battled injuries in recent seasons, but Van Gundy decided to roll the dice at mid-season a year ago by trading Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley AND a 1st round pick to the Clippers for the former slam dunk champion in a desperate bid to save his job. The trade didn’t work out for Van Gundy, but it’s possible Griffin could enjoy a resurgence in Detroit this season.

The 29-year-old power forward scored 26 points, pulled down eight rebounds and dished out six assists in the Pistons’ 103-100 win over Brooklyn on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Drummond had a monster game with 24 points and 20 rebounds. As Bulls fans know all too well, Drummond has made the 20 rebound game commonplace when facing Fred Hoiberg’s squad in recent years.

As for Jackson, a severely sprained right ankle limited him to just 45 games last season, probably costing Detroit a chance to make the playoffs. The 8th year pro is lightning quick, with the ability to disrupt defenses by getting into the paint and challenging bigger defenders at the rim. Jackson scored 19 points in the season opener against Brooklyn, and he’ll be a problem for the Bulls Saturday night, especially if Kris Dunn is unavailable.

Casey is still trying to figure out how to use the rest of the roster Van Gundy built, with recent 1st round pick Henry Ellenson and former rotation player Jon Leuer getting DNP-CD’s against the Nets. Meanwhile, two other expected rotation players, small forward Stanley Johnson and swingman Reggie Bullock missed the opener because of injuries.

That left second year guard Luke Kennard and 2018 2nd round draft pick Bruce Brown as the other starters in game one, something that’s unlikely to continue once everyone’s healthy.

So, how do the Bulls even their record at 1-1 on Saturday? Here are my three keys:

1. Keep Drummond and Griffin off the offensive boards. This is much easier said than done. Drummond in particular is relentless going after missed shots, and his bulk will cause problems for 19 year old rookie Wendell Carter Jr. Hoiberg hinted at possible line-up changes on Friday morning, which could include starting veteran Robin Lopez at center to battle Drummond inside. Griffin has turned into more of a jump shooter now and doesn’t have the multiple jump capability that characterized his early seasons in the NBA, but he’s still a threat to create 2nd shot opportunities.

2. Close out on three-point shooters. Of all the defensive issues for the Bulls in Philadelphia on Thursday, losing touch with shooters in transition was probably the most troublesome. Robert Covington seemed to be open at the three-point line throughout the game, and Bulls players struggled to handle cross-match situations. Kennard had one of the best games of his rookie season against the Bulls, and Jackson, Ish Smith and Langston Galloway are all capable of heating up from long distance.

3. Attack Detroit’s interior defense. The Bulls were at their best offensively in the first quarter against Philadelphia when they drove to the basket to set up easy scoring chances. Zach LaVine was getting to the rim at will in scoring 15 of his 30 points in the opening 12 minutes, and his penetration also set up Bobby Portis for open looks from the three-point line. Hopefully, Dunn will return to stabilize the point guard position and give the Bulls' first unit another shot creator so they can sustain their pace and scoring potential over four quarters.

Saturday’s home opener is definitely winnable against a Detroit team still finding its way under a new coaching staff. Better effort and attention to detail on the defensive end along with a fast-paced, drive and kick offensive attack should make for an exciting opening night at the United Center.

Make sure to join Kendall Gill, Will Perdue, Kelly Crull and me for a special one hour edition of Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago and the new My Teams app, followed by the play by play call with Neil Funk and Stacey King at 7 p.m. And, stay tuned after the final buzzer for reaction and analysis on an expanded edition of Bulls Postgame Live.

Lineup changes could be on the way for Bulls: 'It's still up in the air'


Lineup changes could be on the way for Bulls: 'It's still up in the air'

It’s tough to call the position battle for the backup point guard spot on a Lottery-bound team important, but here we are two days into the Bulls’ season.

It won’t move the needle in NBA circles and Dwane Casey won’t be putting in additional time getting ready for Saturday’s game, but there appears to be potential for change in Fred Hoiberg’s rotation.

One day after an embarrassing display in a season-opening loss to the Sixers, Hoiberg said the Bulls have yet to make a decision on a potential lineup change for tomorrow’s affair against the Detroit Pistons. Kris Dunn, who missed Thursday’s game for the birth of his first child, was not at practice on Friday and may or may not be available for the home opener.

That could prompt changes after Cam Payne, inserted into the starting lineup, was largely ineffective, failing to score on 0 of 4 shooting in 21 minutes.

“We’re gonna see how practice goes today and then make that decision,” Hoiberg said. “It’s still up in the air on what we’re gonna do.”

The loss certainly can’t fall on just Payne, as the Bulls went lifeless after a 41-point first quarter that had them in the lead after 12 minutes. From there the Sixers outscored them by 29 in the second and third quarters, facing little resistance from a Bulls defense that doesn’t appear to have made much improvement from a year ago, Dunn or no Dunn.

Philadelphia shot 48 percent from the field, scored 20 fast-break points and 46 points in the paint, cruising to 102 points through three quarters before reserves finished things off. Even with Dunn the defensive prospects don’t look good, meaning Hoiberg might have to make changes to ignite the offense that scored just 35 points in those second and third quarters.

The Bulls could go a few different routes. Zach LaVine’s hot hand in the first quarter – 15 points on 6 of 7 shooting – saw the ball in his hands, and he even added two assists.

“It's a collective effort. You've got to have all five guys out there trying to play the right way and again, we found a recipe with Zach, especially in that first unit, where we let him bring the ball up the floor,” Hoiberg said. “We ran a couple actions where he was the facilitator and we put Cam in the corner. So a lot of that will be dictated by who has it going on a particular night and last night it happened to be Zach, so he was the one that was doing a lot of facilitating.”

Past a point guard-less lineup, the backups to Payne – Ryan Arcidiacono and Tyler Ulis – could also see extended minutes going forward.

Arcidiacono had 8 points and 8 assists in 28 minutes, though the majority of those stats came in garbage time. Still, he hit a pair of 3-pointers and didn’t turn the ball over, and five of his assists resulted in makes at the rim.

Ulis, acquired off waivers last week, could inject some life into the second unit.

“He’s ready. He’s done a good job in practice,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve gone through the system with him as far as what we expect and if there’s a point in the game where he can go out there and we feel he can help us, I’m confident that he’ll go out there and give us good effort.”

The point guard rotation isn’t the key to unlocking the Bulls as a lockdown defensive team, or no longer suffering the offensive dry spells that happened Thursday. But in a season that’s already showing signs of adversity, shaking up the lineup might be Hoiberg’s only chance.