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Thibodeau embracing challenge of Bulls' playoff journey

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Thibodeau embracing challenge of Bulls' playoff journey

When a raucous United Center crowd rises to its feet Saturday evening, it won’t be the first reminder of the Bulls’ playoff journey finally beginning — a seven-month process full of bumps and bruises.

All they have to do is look at the other side at the Milwaukee Bucks to see the ultimate study in contrast, a team playing with house money, merely happy that the United Center security allowed them in the building without a ticket.

The Bucks lost Chicago product Jabari Parker early in the season and haven’t missed a beat, but will welcome him back next season ready to take another leap. The Bulls lost Derrick Rose for stretches of the season, most notably his six-week absence and desperate fans were ready to leap from the tallest building, not wanting to hear anything about “next season”.

Of all the questions surrounding this Bulls franchise and their future, Saturday represents a time where they can fully embrace the moment without conscience and soak themselves into the playoff atmosphere while fully understanding the task at hand.

“You have a great understanding of what you’re looking for in certain situations because you’ve been working on it so long,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The hard work, the conditioning, the discipline, that’s how you win close, tough games. Hopefully you’ve done that.”

[MORE: NBA Playoffs chat: If Bulls advance, can they get past LeBron's Cavs?]

Thibodeau’s future, of course, is always debated and rumored but never clearly defined. Bucks coach Jason Kidd isn’t as seasoned as Thibodeau but has the sway and power many coaches dream of, his power play from the Brooklyn Nets last season likely frowned upon publicly but admired privately.

Kidd’s journey began last summer when he decided to exit Brooklyn amid turmoil. The Bulls’ journey began around the same time, when Pau Gasol chose them over the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat and when Derrick Rose began practicing with U.S.A. Basketball, in preparation for what could begin so many months down the line.

Thibodeau admits the ride has been anything but smooth, as the Bulls emerged with a 50-win season but had to hitchhike their way to the top rung of the Eastern Conference, not as dominant as the Cleveland Cavaliers or Atlanta Hawks but perhaps more prepared than the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards.

“You have to embrace whatever comes your way,” Thibodeau said. “This has been a very challenging year with all the injuries and guys in and out. But I’ve been through that before.”

The year was 1999, and Thibodeau references the season enough with media that it wouldn’t be a shock to hear him speed-rap the same mantra with his team about the run the New York Knicks went on in the lockout-shortened season.

Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby were new additions but were hurt in early parts of the season while Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson creaked along on Jeff Van Gundy’s team, where Thibodeau was a top assistant. Once Sprewell and Camby got healthy, and more importantly, consistent, the Knicks won six of eight headed to the playoffs as a 27-23 eighth seeded team.

“We needed every one of them to get the eighth spot,” Thibodeau said. “And then we ended up getting to the Finals. We got healthy as we went along. Whatever you’re faced with, just do the best you can with it. Put everything you have into it.”

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A lot of things worked in their favor that spring and they even rebounded from the loss of an aging Ewing in the conference finals against the Pacers. But they adjusted and continued their improbable run before the San Antonio Spurs beat them in five games for their first title.

The adjustments have come on the fly all season with the loss of Rose, Joakim Noah’s minutes restrictions and injuries to Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy and Taj Gibson. It’s forced Thibodeau to mix and match all the way to April, and Noah and Rose’s injuries are minor considering the MASH units Thibodeau has had to trot onto the floor some nights.

“If you're a glass half full or empty guy, that's how you look at it,” Dunleavy said. “We've had the opportunity to get some guys in the lineup, develop some guys because other people have been out. Hopefully we'll have a deeper roster and that's one of the advantages we have going into the playoffs.”

Dunleavy was hinting at the urgency but didn’t directly express it until he was cornered about it. A soon-to-be 35-year-old with only three playoff appearances under his belt, these chances don’t come around often.

Noah’s back, Rose is too, and should Gibson’s left shoulder stay attached to his body, it’s the healthiest they’ve been all year, their toughest test to come.

“Yeah, I mean, that's what I'm kind of getting at,” Dunleavy said. “Everybody's dialed in mentally, certainly physically there's been some issues throughout the course of the year. You can't control that stuff. Guys have battled back. But mentally, everyone seems dialed in right now, ready to go. Everybody's got their house in order, so to speak. We're anxious to see what we can do.”

The journey begins Saturday night.

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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How does Coby White's Summer League compare to past Lottery point guards?

How does Coby White's Summer League compare to past Lottery point guards?

Summer League results are largely irrelevant. There's our disclaimer.

Whether Bulls' first-round draft pick Coby White succeeds in the NBA will have nothing to do with how he performed the last 10 days in Las Vegas. Use this tweet as a daily reminder that Summer League performance doesn't always tell the story.

That being said, it's all we've got to go on right now. But instead of analyzing White's up-and-down Summer League performance, let's compare it to other Lottery point guards in their first Summer League games. We'll begin with White.

Coby White, 2019, Bulls: 15.0 points, 4.8 assists, 33.7% FG, 10.0% 3FG, 3.8 turnovers, 30.8 minutes

White was a mixed bag in Las Vegas, showing the ability to push pace, get to the rim with a lightning-quick first step and knock down some mid-range jumpers. But he was also careless with the ball, made just 3 of 30 3-point attempts (and two of those makes came in a 20-second span) and didn't shoot above 44% in any of the five games he appeared in. He's still quite raw running the point, so the inefficiency was expected. The flashes he showed at times told much more of the story. 

Trae Young, 2018, Hawks: 17.0 points, 6.8 assists, 38.3% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 3.8 turnovers, 25.8 minutes

Many remember Young being abysmal in Salt Lake City to begin his pro career. But he was actually solid in Las Vegas, including a 24-point, 7-triple performance against the Bulls. Young was one of the biggest question marks heading into the draft, with real concerns about how his small frame would withstand the NBA game - but Young is showing all the signs of a future All-Star. In 23 games after last year's All-Star break, Young averaged 24.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 9.2 assists per game.

Collin Sexton, 2018, Cavaliers: 19.6 points, 3.4 assists, 42.9% FG, 23.1% 3FG, 3.3 turnovers, 28.8 minutes

Sexton was also a mixed bag in Vegas. He had a pair of explosive games, like his 25-point outing on 9 of 15 shooting against the Kings and his 27-point effort against the Lakers. But Sexton was also inefficient, didn't show much from beyond the arc (a concern of his heading into the draft) and didn't do much creating for others. He wound up excelling as a rookie, averaging 16.7 points and 3.0 assists for the Cavs. And while it only came on 3.6 attempts per game, his 40.2% from beyond the arc was a major positive after he struggled in Las Vegas.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 2018, Clippers: 19.0 points, 4.0 assists, 45.8% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 2.2 turnovers, 27.8 minutes

Gilgeous-Alexander was one of the more impressive rookies at the Las Vegas Summer League a year ago. He was efficient across the board and, in addition to the above numbers, added 4.7 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game. In fact, he was the first player in Summer League history to average 19 points, 4 assists and 2 steals. That transitioned to the regular season, where SGA played an important role - albeit a smaller one - for the playoff-bound Clippers. And his 3-point field goal percentage blossomed to 36.7% in the regular season.

Lonzo Ball, 2017, Lakers: 16.3 points, 9.3 assists, 38.2% FG, 23.8% 3FG, 3.8 turnovers, 32.5 minutes

All eyes were on the Big Baller in Summer League, and Ball responded with six really impressive games. His passing acumen was on full display and he was a blur in transition. His defense was as good as anyone he played with or against - he averaged 2.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game - and, given the hype surrounding him, his summer was a rousing success. The verdict's still out on Ball, but his defense and passing will keep him as a solid NBA contributor the next 10 seasons at the very least.

De’Aaron Fox, 2017, Kings: 11.8 points, 3.0 assists, 44.4% FG% 12.5% 3FG, 2.5 turnovers, 21.3 minutes

Fox looked overwhelmed at times during his Summer League stint. Like White, it took him some time to figure out playing at different speeds and it resulted in some inefficient lines. His best games came early in the summer, going for 18 points in his debut and adding 17 more a few days later. Fox played just 7 minutes in his final Summer League outing, which distorted his per-game numbers quite a bit (he had 0 points and 3 assists in that one). Fox was largely invisible as a rookie but finished third in the Most Improved Player voting as a sophomore. He's the real deal.

Dennis Smith Jr., 2017, Mavericks: 17.3 points, 4.2 assists, 45.7% FG, 34.6% 3FG, 2.8 turnovers, 25.9 minutes

Smith didn't have the buzz around him that Ball and Fox did, but he may have been the most impressive rookie point guard in 2017. He played above the rim, made 3-pointers and looked comfortable in pick-and-roll action. He also added 2.2 steals and got to the free throw line 7.3 times per game. He was named to the All-NBA Summer League First Team, but it didn't really translate to the NBA. Smith has been incredibly inefficient, and the Mavericks dealt him halfway through his sophomore season in the Kristaps Porzingis deal.

Kris Dunn, 2016, Timberwolves: 24.0 points, 3.0 assists, 54.2% FG, 16.7% 3FG, 3.0 turnovers, 33.9 minutes

Jamal Murray, 2016, Nuggets: 19.6 points, 2.4 assists, 42.5% FG, 27.6% 3FG, 2.8 turnovers, 29.5 minutes

D’Angelo Russell, 2015, Nets: 11.8 points, 3.2 assist, 37.7% FG, 11.8% 3FG, 5.2 turnovers, 30.1 minutes

Emmanuel Mudiay, 2015, Nuggets: 12.0 points, 5.8 assists, 38.5% FG, 14.3% 3FG, 5.0 turnovers, 30.4 minutes

Cameron Payne, 2015, Thunder: 18.8 points, 4.0 assists, 43.6% FG, 28.6% 3FG, 2.5 turnovers, 30.0 minutes