Bulls

Wild playoff weekend just the tip of the iceberg

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Wild playoff weekend just the tip of the iceberg

Monday, April 25, 2011Posted: 6:01 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

The top-seeded Bulls narrow loss Saturday was an omen. Just like the opening weekend of the NBA playoffs, the tight finish in Game 4 of the Chicago-Indiana series was a harbinger for postseason slate full of upsets and close calls over Easter weekend.

Following the Pacers surprising win was an exhilarating ending in Portland, in which Trail Blazers guard Brandon Royafter sinking to the verge of tears previously in the seriesscored 18 fourth-quarter points to bring his team back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to tie the series at two games apiece. For Rou, the performance was doubly sweet, as the former All-Star struggled in his new reserve role this season in the aftermath of having surgery on both knees.

The next game was equally dramatic, as the Grizzlies managed to hold off the Spurs for the franchises first home win in its history. An improbable Zach Randolph three-pointer sealed the triumph for Memphis, which now leads No. 1 seed San Antonio in the series, 2-1.

Saturdays final matchup featured Oklahoma City and Denver, a game that featured several runs by each potent offensive team. After the Nuggets stormed back at the end of the third quarter to make the game close, the Thunderled by All-Star duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but also receiving a breakout outing from fellow youngster Serge Ibakaseemed to have the game in hand, but had to stave off a near-miraculous late individual spurt from J.R. Smith (who missed a contested potentially game-tying shot from long range) to take a 3-0 lead in the series.

Not to be outdone, Sunday was just as loaded with thrilling matchups, starting with an afternoon matinee close-out game between Philadelphia and Miami. Instead of eliminating the young 76ers, the Heat got off to a slow start and though they made one of their patented dominant runs to get back into the contest, the always-exuberant coaching of Doug Collins and clutch play of youthful trio Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Lou Williams (who hit the eventual game-winner)combined with LeBron James failing on yet another opportunity to be the heroprevented the sweep.

Perhaps the least-unpredictable game was in the matchup observers were most intrigued by heading into the postseason, Boston and New York. Behind Rajon Rondos 21-point, 12-assist afternoon (coming off the heels of his Game 3 triple-double, which included 20 assists), the Celtics cruised to the win at Madison Square Gardenensuring a 7:00 p.m. local start time for Tuesdays Bulls-Pacers Game 5 at the United Centersweeping the new-look, injury-riddled Knicks, despite 32 points from Carmelo Anthony.

Atlanta continued to surprise its doubters in the following contest, holding off Orlando behind yet another big game from sixth-man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford, as well as a solid outing from fellow former Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich. With its strategy of bodying up Dwight Howard one-on-oneliterally, as the one-game suspension of Hawks center Zaza Pachulia for head-butting Magic swingman Jason Richardson, who also sat out Sundays game for slapping the backup big manthe Hawks lived with Howards inside dominance and again concentrated on shutting down Orlandos perimeter shooters.

The weekends final game, however, might have been the biggest shocker, as New Orleans repeated its Game 1 upset of the defending champions, taking down the Lakers on its home court to even the series at 2-2. Chris Paul appears to be back to his pre-injury form, posting a triple-double27 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists; superstar counterpart Kobe Bryant was held scoreless in the first half, but a bigger issue might be his ankle and foot injuriesand despite not having power forward David West, the Hornets are surviving against the Lakers behemoth frontline, with All-Star Pau Gasol close to invisible for much of the series.

When the dust settled, the top two seeds in each conference fell (with the West's No. 1 team, San Antonio, actually trailing against an eighth seed) and outside of two teams--Boston, which advanced to the second round, and Oklahoma City, which still hasn't lost--no team has proved invulnerable. Who knows whats in store this week with the playoffs, but its clear that thus far its shaping up to be one of the most exciting postseasons in years.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Bulls mailbag (once again): What's Jim Boylen's status? Is anyone on roster safe?

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USA Today

Bulls mailbag (once again): What's Jim Boylen's status? Is anyone on roster safe?

It’s August. And we just set a record for most questions asked in a Bulls mailbag. You nutty people.

Christian J.: The front office has had all this time to watch games of Jim Boylen coaching to know deep down that he's not the right coach for this team. Do you think Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley will give pushback to ownership to get a new coach once the guy they want becomes available and do you think AK will question Michael Reinsdorf on agreement of full autonomy during his hire?

Karnisovas does own full autonomy. And the criteria for presenting a coaching change to ownership is the same now as it was when ownership hired Karnisovas. He’s free to make a change if he wishes, but was told to take time to get to know Boylen and evaluate him fully before doing so. That’s what Karnisovas and Eversley are doing. The Bulls may not be playing, but the 2019-20 season isn’t over yet. The Bulls, as of now, aren’t allowed group activities. So what’s the rush?

I feel like there’s this perception of the new management regime already at odds with ownership. That’s simply not accurate. To think the coaching situation wasn’t discussed during the interview process would be naïve, in my estimation. Nothing has changed. The evaluation process is ongoing.

And here’s the thing: This unprecedented offseason affording Karnisovas plenty of time for this critical decision seems consistent with the reputation of his personality anyway. He’s known as a thoughtful, deliberate decision-maker who tries to develop substantive, genuine relationships before holding people accountable. With no known timeline for the 2020-21 season set yet, he has that luxury regarding Boylen and his staff. Yes, Gar Forman was out early in Karnisovas' tenure, and some staff shuffling has occurred in recent months — though most of the latter were based on option deadlines.

This is a longshot hypothetical: But what if the 2020-21 season start date gets pushed to March — because that will allow for a full season of fans in arenas — and a previously unavailable coaching candidate becomes available that Karnisovas loves? Doesn’t it make sense for him to take time on this decision?

It seems fitting that, unless he has a burner account, Karnisovas isn’t on Twitter. In this day and age of immediacy and absolutes, I understand the angst for some fans regarding this decision. But Karnisovas is taking the long view, not the 140-character one. Or is it 280 now?

Austin C.: Do you think Arturas is going to fire Boylen? I’ve seen a lot of rumors going around that we are going to keep him because of financial concerns.

From the start, I’ve taken Karnisovas’ words at face value. He has said he’s going to take time to make this critical decision. Each time I’ve done some reporting on this story, it has appeared to remain in the evaluation stage for him. But there are plenty of signs pointing towards a '20-21 collaboration. Management and the coaching staff have met to discuss player development. They’ve talked draft and free agency. And they’ve had discussions about the offense. 

Since you’re asking for my prediction, my guess is this: With the 2020-21 season so uncertain — when does it start? Will it be 82 games? — and the roster likely to look largely the same, Boylen returns. Karnisovas and Eversley use the 2020-21 season to evaluate the staff and roster during game action. Then, potential big changes arrive during the 2021 offseason. That’s when the deals of Otto Porter Jr. and Cristiano Felício expire and significant salary cap space is possible. The contracts of Thaddeus Young — if he’s not dealt this offseason — and Tomáš Satoranský are easily movable or waivable because of partial guarantees. You have another season of Zach LaVine data to determine if he’s a building block or trade chip. And you solidify the coaching situation long-term.

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The money is only one layer to Karnisovas’ decision on Boylen. Let’s not forget, ownership hired Karnisovas and Eversley during a global pandemic. So it’s not like the financial outlook changed from then to now for ownership. It’s not like ownership has moved the goalposts on management’s autonomy. My sense is, given the daunting, long-term financial ramifications of the pandemic, ownership conveyed during the interview process that any coaching change recommendation would have to be a thoroughly presented one, possibly with a proven candidate.

Also, as I’ve written this several times, it’s not just Boylen’s contract that ownership would eat. Assistant coaches Chris Fleming — who Karnisovas likes and worked with in Denver — and Roy Rogers just finished the first of three-year deals. This is why, at least for now, Karnisovas and Eversley have worked to empower Boylen and his staff. To me, that’s leadership. Coaching development can be a thing, too.

Timothy G.: If the Bulls keep Boylen, do you think some Bulls players like Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen will demand a trade?

And to think: Just a year ago at this time, videos of Boylen cannonballing off a dock into a pristine Finnish lake alongside Markkanen surfaced via social media. And Boylen had crashed LaVine’s vacation, their relationship never better.

Neither player possesses a rock-the-boat personality. But I do think the LaVine situation, in particular, is worth monitoring.

This, to me, is where Karnisovas and Eversley have to do their work if they choose to retain Boylen. They’ve talked about creating a players-first organization. They are also both known for developing strong relationships with players. You can create a positive atmosphere for players even if not all decisions are popular ones.

So far, the Bulls have received strong buy-in for voluntary offseason workouts, including a trip to Chicago from LaVine. Markkanen, who typically spends his offseason in Finland, has been here plenty.

It’s also important to remember that this regime isn’t married to any players. As mentioned above, I see this regime using this season to evaluate the roster more fully in advance of potential significant changes during the 2021 offseason.

Drew S: Do you think the Bulls’ brass believes any player currently on the roster is untradeable?

Not one bit. In fact, very few players currently on the roster fit the description of the type of players that Karnisovas values most, based on his own words. Here’s what he said in April:

“I already had a conversation with Jim kind of talking about what kind of style of play I would like, what kind of players I like. Obviously, I like high pace. Moving the ball. We were able to be a very good passing team in Denver. It’s a very entertaining brand of basketball. I like multi-positional players. I like guys with high basketball IQ that play off each other. But that takes time. Obviously, you’ve got a read-and-react kind of offense, which I like. So in the short term what needs to happen is we begin to establish a culture of who we are as a team.”

In that vein, I’d expect a tweaked offensive system for the 2020-21 season. Conversations between management and the coaching staff along those lines already have taken place. But both Karnisovas and Eversley are also on record as saying they're intrigued by the young talent on the roster — particularly as to why certain players underachieved. So internal improvement, not wholesale changes initially, is likely where the focus rests for now.

Blake C.: If we assume Boylen is the coach for 20-21, what might a successful year look like? Trading emerging stars for draft equity a la the Celtics? Hoping for a big splash in free agency for 2021? Or clear improvement and a possible playoff berth?

I’d say a combination of the latter two. The first scenario involves another total restart. Best case scenario: You get internal improvement from a couple of the intriguing, young pieces on the roster as the new regime determines which players it’s keeping and which it’s not. You compete for a lower-level playoff spot. And you significantly improve the roster through 2021 free agency.

Even more ideally, this all occurs as the new regime adds impactful young pieces via the draft. Look at the Nuggets’ roster. It’s teeming with homegrown players who are making an impact. Karnisovas played a significant role in that.

Alejandro Y.: How can the Reinsdorfs be hurting for money when they own one of the most valuable franchises in the world? I was wondering if you could summarize the Reinsdorfs’ situation. The Lakers are a family-run franchise too, and they never plead money issues. We're not at that monetized level, but it's not far either, right?

The Reinsdorfs run a business and are free to operate it how they see fit. For what it's worth, I’ve heard of no layoffs or furloughs throughout the Bulls. Also: Jerry Reinsdorf is chairman of the organization. He has other investors to consider. As previously mentioned, money is only one layer to the Boylen decision.

As for your other point, I don’t cover the Lakers so I can’t speak to their dynamic. But I will say: To suggest that an organization that applied for, received, and quickly returned a reported $4.6 million "small business" loan during the pandemic never pleads money issues is amusing.

Marcus C.: Hey KC, I know you’re sick and tired of Boylen questions and people flooding your mentions. But rehiring Boylen over a couple million would be the last straw for me and many others. Not only is it a slap in the face to the players, but it’s also a giant middle finger to this fanbase. Are the Reinsdorfs so out of touch that they’re willing to tank all immediate and future goodwill over a few million (dollars)? Millions are unemployed, but Jerry expects us to feel bad for him and continue to support this. Do they really think fans will be understanding and sympathetic to this move? Not only will this hurt the team in the short run, but it’ll be disastrous long-term given the negative stigma that’s already plagued this organization. Why as fans should we care anymore if the owners only view us as potential revenue?

Well, you don’t have to. That’s your choice as a fan. Also, fans may not be allowed into arenas next season. So there’s that.

Your larger point is a valid counterpoint, though. Retaining Boylen would not be welcomed by a loud segment of the fan base. (I covered the player dynamic in a previous answer.) It would affect, at least in the short-term, some of the goodwill created by the managerial changes.

But what if the team stayed healthy and improved? What if Boylen tweaked the offense and, focusing strictly on coaching, showed growth? Winning changes everything. And if he’s retained and it went off the rails, could management make a change then, perhaps on an interim basis?

I disagree retaining Boylen would have disastrous long-term impact, though. I expect a new-look Bulls organization to more fully take shape by the 2021-22 season.  

Oscar, Sydney AUS: Howdy. Firstly, why are fans so fickle? Obviously it’s frustrating when your team has not been successful in recent times. But when you really look at it, the Bulls actually have a decent core of promising young talent that ended up losing a bunch of close games while having key guys out all year. With that said, my actual question is if things get back on track and Markkanen returns to form next season, do you see the Bulls re-signing Wendell Carter Jr. the following year after signing Markkanen to what you would assume would have to be a relatively significant contract?

I think you paint a slightly-too-rosy picture of all things Bulls. They have a long way to go. Yes, injuries hurt them. Yes, they have some intriguing young pieces and were in a ton of close games. But the roster isn’t exactly flush with two-way players. And the intriguing pieces they do have need to show they can thrive together.

I’m less worried about the Carter-Markkanen fit than some. I think they can complement each other well. They both are willing passers with high basketball IQs. Carter may be undersized, but he can be an effective rim protector with his wingspan and instincts. He needs to learn how to avoid foul trouble.

@BullsNationOZ, via Twitter: I’m sick of everyone asking for Jim to go. Steve Kerr would only get five more wins out of this roster. Now, a new coach would be great, but the more pressing issue is this roster.

As I said, a lot of work remains. And actually, that’s another thing to consider regarding the coaching situation: Might management want to wait to bring in its hand-picked choice until the roster is more to its liking? Just a thought.

Shannon R.: Due to financial ramifications of the pandemic and the draft class being considered as weak, it’s been reported/speculated that teams may be willing to sell their first-round picks. Do you think there’s some truth to that?  What do you think would be easier to sell to ownership — firing Boylen or buying an additional pick? If I had to choose, I’d choose an additional pick.

I don’t think it’d be an either/or, but if I had to choose, I’d agree with you.

Wilfred B.: From the very start of when the Bulls hired AK and Marc Eversley we have heard from them and Michael Reinsdorf that they wanted to modernize the front office to get with the times. Apart from the two hires at the very start, we haven't heard much on that front and how they are building out the front office and what hires they are making. Do you have any insight into that process and do you know if they have decided on who's worth keeping and who's not from the past regime?

From what I’ve been told, they plan to build out the player development department. As for the timeline on that, I’m not sure. I do know the coaching staff has been asked for input on player development philosophy.

Karnisovas and Eversley are using holdovers like Brian Hagen and Jim Paxson and Steve Weinman for draft meetings and analytics projects. Karnisovas is on record as saying he plans no additional front-office changes this offseason. They do need to hire an athletic trainer

@thegeorgeyou, via Twitter: There’s no winning in the NBA without a superstar. We can draft well, but the only realistic path to contention is signing Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis. Do you think the Bulls will be players this offseason or in 2021?

Is Nikola Jokic a superstar? Karnisovas worked for the Nuggets when that franchise nabbed him in the second round. But your larger point remains: The Bulls need to upgrade the roster. As it stands, it’s filled with intriguing young pieces, but no superstars as of yet. LaVine is the closest to All-Star level.

As for free agency, the Bulls project to have cap space in 2021, not this offseason.

Matt A., Australia: Assuming Otto opts in, which we all agree is pretty much a given, what free agents do you see the Bulls going after this offseason?

Given the injury history of Porter and Chandler Hutchison, I’d guess wing depth will be a focus. Moe Harkless, Wesley Matthews, Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III and Jae Crowder are names that make sense at the price point for teams that will be using exceptions, like the Bulls.

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Bulls’ Zach LaVine shouts out Damian Lillard during 61-point explosion

Bulls’ Zach LaVine shouts out Damian Lillard during 61-point explosion

Damian Lillard is not of this planet.

As the Portland Trail Blazers scrap for a spot in the Western Conference’s play-in round, Lillard dropped a career-high-tying 61 points on 17-for-32 field goal shooting (9-for-17 from 3 and *rubs eyes* 18-for-18 from the charity stripe), eight assists and five rebounds in a 134-131 victory over the red-hot Dallas Mavericks. Flames spit from his fingertips.

It was Lillard’s third 60-point outing of the season (and second straight game with 50-plus; he’s had six of those this year and 11 in his career). Twenty-two of his 61 points and 11 of his 18 free throws came in the fourth quarter. It was a magnificent, all-encompassing performance — one that has become all too commonplace in a campaign by Lillard that is historic in its prolificity.

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When these shots are falling, you know it’s your night. Or, for that matter, your season.


What’s more, Lillard followed that friendly roll — which tied the game 130-130 — by drawing an offensive foul on Trey Burke on the ensuing defensive possession, then immediately setting the table for a Hassan Whiteside dunk that put the Trail Blazers ahead for good.

The win secures Portland (34-39) full control of its destiny in the Western Conference play-in race. A victory over the Brooklyn Nets Thursday guarantees them a swing at the eighth seed (and should the Memphis Grizzlies fall to the Milwaukee Bucks that night, Portland will move into the No. 8 spot, granting them a one-game handicap in the play-in). Lillard’s outing epitomized clutch.

And another electric scorer with ties to the Pacific Northwest took notice:

Real recognize real. As it's always been.

Bulls fans will remember Lavine’s 49-point, 13 3-pointer eruption against the Charlotte Hornets way back on Nov. 23, 2019 — it was one of the few bright spots of the season, though it feels decades-old now. 

“It was fun to see,” Lillard said of LaVine’s night on Nov. 25, with the Trail Blazers in town for an early-season date with the Bulls. “Any time you see that type of performance, you hope that it comes in a win. And I think how they just came up big hitting 3 after 3, you know, he hit a couple tough ones… He has that type of talent, that type of ability to have a night like that.”

Lillard would know.

LaVine enjoyed his career night just 24 hours after being yanked by Jim Boylen from a loss to the Miami Heat for what Boylen termed “three egregious defensive mistakes.” Lillard’s comes three days after a close loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in which he missed two crucial late-game free throws that could have pulled Portland ahead by a point. An unsavory beef with FS1’s Skip Bayless followed.

“I think that's a separator, you know, being able to have that type of mentality,” Lillard said on Nov. 25 of LaVine bouncing back from being benched. “He could have easily came out and pouted and not showed up for his teammates, but he responded in a kind of way that a player at his level should.”

Lillard embodied that mentality Tuesday. And LaVine, via Twitter, put respect on his name.

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