Bulls

Short-handed Bulls ready for surprising Hawks

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Short-handed Bulls ready for surprising Hawks

One of the most impressive teams thus far in the NBA season has been the Bulls opponent Tuesday, the Hawks. Atlanta, who are 4-1 after Monday nights remarkable comeback win at Miami, didnt drastically remake their roster following a second-round playoff ouster at the hands of Chicago last spring, but some subtle changes, particularly the addition of former All-Star Tracy McGrady, have sparked a nice start to the young campaign.

Theyre a tough team. Theyre playing as well as anyone in the league. Theyre deep. Joe Johnson, their bigs power forward Josh Smith and All-Star center Al Horford are versatile, quick. Marvin Williams gets overlooked all the time; hes a tough matchup. Former Bull Jannero Pargos playing well for them, Willie Green, forward Vladimir Radmanovic is a range shooter. Backup center Zaza Pachulias a real tough, hard-nosed big. Theyre really good, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who coached McGrady -- who scored 16 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter, against the Heat -- in Houston. McGrady is a great player, has been a great player in the league for a long time. He was derailed some by injury the last couple years, but hes a complete player. Everyone always talks about his scoring; I think the best part of his game is his decision-making. Great pick-and-roll player, great passer, hes got the size, hes got great vision, extremely smart and like I said, the only thing that slowed him down was his injuries. This guy put up huge numbers in the league and theres nothing he cant do. He can play defense, he can pass, he can shoot, he can post, he can pick-and-roll.

Added Bulls swingman Ronnie Brewer: I wouldnt say that he lost it. He was battling injuries; thats the only thing that I can put a finger on. Hes been a playmaker his whole entire career, a prolific scorer. He may not be able to drop 30 points per game like he used to, but he can definitely still put the ball in the basket, so we have to give him a lot of attention.

Brewer acknowledged that he was aware of the Hawks win over the Heat the previous night, but insisted that it didnt sway the teams opinion of Atlanta.

In my opinion, anybody can win a game or lose a game. I dont see anybody going 66-0 this year, so when a team loses, you dont say, Oh, thats the team to beat, because they beat a team thats got a lot of talent, like the Miami Heat, said Brewer, who scored 17 points, along with snatching seven rebounds and doling out five assists in the Bulls New Years Day rout over visiting Memphis. You have to take every opponent seriously. I think Thibs prepares us for that, night in and night out, and we just have to ready for that, so theyre definitely on our radar.

Brewer may start in place of the injured Rip Hamilton again Tuesday, as Thibodeau said the shooting guard, who suffered a groin injury against the Clippers in L.A. last week and sat out of the Grizzlies win, will be a game-time decision.

Rip did some shooting today, said Thibodeau. If he feels better, then well make the decision.

An injured Bulls guard who definitely won't play Tuesday, C.J. Watson, had an MRI on his sprained left elbow, suffered while diving for a loose ball Sunday, after Monday afternoons practice. Thibodeau was cautiously optimistic about the backup point guard's progress.

C.J., hes day-to-day, basically. His injury, theres no surgery involved. Basically, once we can get the swelling out and the pain subsides, then hell be ready to go, said the coach, who said Watson wasnt wearing the sling he was seen sporting after Sundays game on a full-time basis anymore. Hes a pretty tough guy, so I expect him to be back fairly shortly.

I think the fact that its also his left elbow, I think that helps, so we were fortunate in that regard, continued Thibodeau, who said it hasnt been decided yet whether Watson will travel to Detroit with the team after Tuesdays game, in case the flight could aggravate his elbow. His legs are fine, so he can ride the bike. He can do all that stuff.

Replacing Watson as Derrick Roses primary understudy will be third-stringer John Lucas III, who Thibodeau is familiar with from coaching with the Rockets, as well as coaching under Lucas father, a former NBA player and coach.

I have a lot of confidence in John. Hes already demonstrated that he can do it. He did it for the Rockets when I was there, played well in stretches. He stays ready and prepares himself well, smart player, so I expect him to do well, said Thibodeau. John, whenever hes been called upon, hes done well. C.J. was playing at an extremely high level. C.J.s size, of course, allows him to play multiple positions. C.J. gives you a lot of versatility.

However, Thibodeau noted that the Bulls could opt to use Brewer at the position on occasion while Watson is sidelined.

Actually, we did that quite a bit at the end of last year, where we used Ronnie handling the ball and brought Derrick off screens and Ronnies done it some in practice, too, so its another option that we have, he said.

Concurred Brewer: In our offense, if somebody gets the rebound, if its the big guys throwing it to Lu or myself, were able to push the ball, initiate the offense and kind of go from there, so if need be, if D-Rose needs a break, I can definitely initiate the offense and off that.

Brewer, whos got off to a strong start to the season in his role as a reserve with the cohesive Bench Mob, explained that his health has been the key to his improved play, which has featured him finishing opportunities in transition and getting to the basket as both a cutter and off the dribble, as well as knocking down open mid-range jumpers and even shots from beyond the three-point arc.

To me, its a huge confidence shift. Last year, I came in here with a lot of high hopes, with an opportunity to try to win the starting job and tweaked his hamstring right before working out here, and had to try to work my way into shape, learning the plays and its a different speed, playing with D-Rose and the level of defense that Thibs preaches. It kind of takes a little getting used to, but this years a little different. I came in a lot better shape, healthy, working on my shot and just been playing with a lot of confidence so far, he said. D-Rose gets a lot of attention, Booz gets a lot of attention and especially Lu, when he cuts, and whenever they make the pass, youve got to knock down shots for them to keep dishing the ball, so thats all Ive been trying to do.

Its still early; its not like Ive accomplished so much. Ive still got to get better every day. Thats why I continue to work with Coach Griff Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin, Brewer continued. Thats what youve got to continue to do in this league, so if I have a shot, Ive got to continue to shoot it with confidence and if I do that, my teammates will continue to find me.

Bulls' Daniel Gafford snubbed for All-NBA Summer League Team spot

Bulls' Daniel Gafford snubbed for All-NBA Summer League Team spot

The only thing sillier than putting too much stock in Las Vegas Summer League results are getting upset over Summer League awards.

Still, Bulls fans may have been confused that center Daniel Gafford wasn't named to either All-NBA Summer League Team announced yesterday.

Say what you will about how it will translate in the NBA, but Gafford's numbers were outstanding in Las Vegas. The 38th overall pick finished with 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in just 24.9 minutes over five games. He shot 68.3% from the field, which was the best mark among players who attempted at least 40 shots (Gafford was 28 of 41). The next best players on that list were 8th overall pick Jaxson Hayes (63%; 27 of 43), Devontae Cacock (62%; 28 of 45) and Jarrett Allen (61%; 33 of 54).

Gafford's numbers were similar to Wendell Carter Jr's from a year ago, when the 7th overall pick from Duke averaged 14.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game in Las Vegas. Carter was named to the All-NBA Summer League First Team fofr his efforts in five games.

Instead, Gafford was bypassed by voters for the following big men: Jarrett Allen, Brandon Clarke (the MVP of Summer League) and Mitchell Robinson on the first team, and Chris Boucher, Rui Hachimura and Jaxson Hayes on the second team.

Here's how those players stacked up against Gafford, who, again, finished with 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while shooting 68.3% from the field:

Allen: 16.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 61.1% FG, 26.6 minutes (5 games)
Clarke: 14.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.8 blocks, 55.2% FG, 22.0 minutes (6 games; Memphis won the Summer League championship)
Robinson: 15.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, 86.7% FG (26 of 30), 26.0 minutes (4 games)

Boucher: 23.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 49.1% FG, 30.9 minutes (4 games)
Hachimura: 19.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 50% FG, 31.6 minutes (3 games)
Hayes: 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 62.8% FG, 24.3 minutes (4 games)

Gafford had a real case to make the second team over both Hachimura and Hayes, while Allen and Robinson really shouldn't have been playing in the Summer League. Allen has 152 NBA games and more than 3,600 minutes to his name, while Robinson was one of the top rookies in the NBA last season and led the NBA in blocks per game.

OK, we've faked our outrage long enough. Gafford had a great Summer League and he should be in the mix for some rotation minutes along with free agent signee Luke Kornet behind Carter.

NBA Buzz: Summer League ends with mixed reviews

NBA Buzz: Summer League ends with mixed reviews

Anyone who spends eight or nine days in Las Vegas generally has a lot of stories to tell. Some good, some bad, but generally an experience they’ll never forget.

Which is pretty much the case for the Summer League Bulls, who returned to Chicago with a 2-3 record, but a much greater understanding of what it will take to be successful in the NBA.

Rookie point guard Coby White took the wildest rollercoaster ride, shooting just 34 percent from the field and a hard to fathom 3-for-30 from the longer NBA 3-point line. Hey, no one said playing point guard in the pros is easy! Still, White showed noticeable improvement in his decision-making as Summer League wore on, dishing out eight assists in the finale against Orlando. The 19-year-old White said going into the tournament that the biggest challenge he would face is learning how to adjust his pace, and not go 100 miles per hour at all times. And, Bulls’ fans will remember Derrick Rose had similar issues when he played in Summer league back in 2008.

Through his five games in Vegas, White showed better recognition on pick and roll coverage and did a better job of limiting turnovers in the last game he played. The former North Carolina star figures to come off the bench as a rookie and his speed will give the second unit a completely different look. White has the ability to get by an initial defender, forcing help from bigger players in the paint. After a full training camp and preseason schedule, the rookie should have more success kicking out to proven shooters like Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. instead of a group of NBA hopefuls thrown together with almost no practice to develop some chemistry. That in itself will lead to a better assist/turnover ratio than what we saw in Vegas.

Similarly, you can bet White will spend the rest of the summer in the gym working on his 3-point shooting. At almost 6-foot-5, White’s ability to play both guard positions was one of the things that appealed to the Bulls’ front office and his shooting stroke in college suggested he could be effective as a spot up option. As my colleague Mark Strotman wrote, White simply joins a long list of accomplished NBA point guards who struggled to shoot the 3-ball in Summer League. He should be just fine with more reps.

Second-round pick Daniel Gafford earned almost universal praise for his work in Summer League. The former University of Arkansas center averaged almost 14 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocked shots over his 5 games in Vegas, showing a physicality and understanding of the pick-and-roll game that could earn him minutes playing behind Wendell Carter Jr. as a rookie. As Bulls’ Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson noted at the 2019 rookie introductory news conference, Gafford has a unique understanding of who he is as a player and tries to go to his strengths to maximize effectiveness.

What that meant in Vegas was outrunning opposing big men down the court for easy baskets in transition, setting hard screens on pick and roll plays, and rolling decisively to the basket looking for return passes that he could power home at the rim. Sure, it would be great if Gafford could pop out like Al Horford and knock down an 18-foot jumper, but that’s just not his game right now. Gafford has a few low post moves he can go to when needed, but initially he’ll just be asked to play hard, rebound and block shots, and occasionally roll to the hoop for a momentum shifting dunk.

Head coach Jim Boylen will have a number of options at center with Luke Kornet providing 3-point shooting and Markkanen expected to play the 5 spot in certain line-ups. Gafford could wind up playing a lot of games for the Windy City Bulls this season, but the fact the Bulls signed him to a four-year contract suggests they see him as a long-term fit.

As for the rest of the Summer League crew, Chandler Hutchison played better as the tournament went on, showing an aggressive mentality in going strong to the basket. Hutchison told reporters he just recently returned to fullcourt games after missing the second half of his rookie season with a broken foot, so it was understandable he had to work off some rust. Still, his ability to run the court should fit in well with White’s speed and Denzel Valentine’s 3-point shooting on the second unit. Veteran free agent Thaddeus Young is also expected to play with the reserve group to provide some stability.

Two-way wing player Adam Mokoka and Windy City Bulls’ swingman Mychal Mulder looked good at times during the Summer League circuit, and both figure to be on the practice court when training camp opens in late September at the Advocate Center.

Around the Association

In case you missed it, Las Vegas sports books are posting their over/under win totals for the 2019-20 season, with the Bulls checking in at 30.5. I’m sure you all remember I was the guy saying it was a lock they would surpass the 28.5 betting line for last season, so I’m going to stay away from offering any wagering advice this time around!

On paper, the Bulls look good enough to top 30.5, but it’s impossible to predict the kind of injuries that destroyed their season last October. The hope is with a healthy core group and the additions of White, Gafford, Kornet, Young and Tomas Satoransky, the Bulls will be a deeper and much more talented team for the upcoming season.

But then every other lottery team in the East (with the exception of the Hornets and Wizards) also figures to be better, so it’s difficult to project win totals.

That’s why they call it gambling!

Now that the transaction madness has finally slowed down, it appears the NBA will be more wide open than at any time this century. The 2014-15 season began without a clear-cut favorite after LeBron left Miami to go back home to Cleveland, but that’s when the “Splash Brothers” tandem of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, along with Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala quickly established themselves as the league’s new power team. The 2019-20 campaign could feature as many as 10 teams entering training camp with the belief they could win a championship if a few things break their way.

Milwaukee and Philadelphia appear to be the class of the East, with the Celtics and Raptors a couple notches below. The 76ers just handed out another max contract on Monday, this time to All-Star point man Ben Simmons, who still needs to add a reliable jump shot and more consistent free throw shooting to his otherwise impressive skill set. Joel Embiid is one of the best big men in the game, and adding Horford and Josh Richardson gives the Sixers a talented starting line-up, but if the man with the ball in his hands (Simmons) can’t be counted on at crunch-time, can Philadelphia make a serious run at the title? We’ll have to wait until next spring to get the answer to that question.

Out west, the race for conference supremacy figures to include both L.A. teams, Denver, Houston, Utah, Portland and maybe even the Warriors if D’Angelo Russell proves to be a capable replacement for Thompson until the veteran sharp-shooter is ready to return from the ACL injury he suffered in the Finals. The Clippers have the highest over/under total in Vegas at 54.5, with the Lakers next at 51.5.

Doc Rivers will have his best roster yet with L.A.’s “other” team after acquiring both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two superstar forwards in their prime. The Clippers also re-signed feisty point guard Patrick Beverley and will have one of the league’s best benches, featuring top sixth man Lou Williams, productive big man Montrezl Harrell and forwards Mo Harkless, Wilson Chandler and JaMychal Green. But the Lakers quickly pivoted after losing Leonard to the Clips and signed veterans Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, DeMarcus Cousins, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Quinn Cook, Jared Dudley and Troy Daniels. It will be crazy watching the Staples Center co-tenants battle it out all season long.

Don’t forget Denver finished with the West’s second-best record last season behind the young trio of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, then added Jerami Grant to team with Paul Millsap at power forward. Plus, the Nuggets are looking forward to unveiling 2018 lottery pick Michael Porter Jr., who was supposed to play in Summer League after rehabbing from back surgery, only to suffer a sprained knee.

Houston general manager Daryl Morey made another bold move, sending a pair of future first-round draft picks along with aging point guard Chris Paul to Oklahoma City for Mr. Triple Double, Russell Westbrook. It will be fascinating to see how a pair of ball-dominant, stat-hungry guards like Westbrook and James Harden co-exist, but one thing we know for sure, it won’t be boring! Morey knew the chances of winning a conference title with Paul and Harden had pretty much disappeared after back to back playoff losses to the Warriors, but only time will tell if the team is any better now with Westbrook in the co-star role.

Many NBA analysts believe the Jazz are in position to win the conference title after trading for talented veteran point guard Mike Conley and then signing former Indiana 3-point specialist Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency. Utah now has a starting five of Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Conley, Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles, with Ed Davis, Jeff Green, Royce O’Neale, Emmanuel Mudiay and Dante Exum in reserve. Quin Snyder has his most talented team yet in Salt Lake City.

Portland returns the dynamic back-court duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and the Trail Blazers swung a deal with Atlanta to bring in Kent Bazemore to share the small forward spot with Rodney Hood. They also brought in enigmatic center Hassan Whiteside to hold down the post until Jusuf Nurkic returns from the serious leg fracture he suffered in the playoffs, and third-year big Zach Collins looks poised for a breakout season.

So, as the NBA heads into its “quiet season” over the next couple months (with the exception of the upcoming World Cup), basketball fans can look forward to the most compelling conference races we’ve seen in a long time.

 

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