Blackhawks

Rose tries to outscore Westbrook, Thunder on CSN

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Rose tries to outscore Westbrook, Thunder on CSN

Monday, Dec. 6, 2010
Updated 1:38 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Player A averages 25.7 points per game. Player B scores 24.1. Player B dishes out 8.7 assists per game. Player A averages 8.1. Both players are point guards, drafted in 2007--Player A with the No.1 overall pick, Player B fourth--with concerns about their respective outside shooting abilities dogging them, despite optimism about how their explosiveness would translate to the NBA.

The two players--Bulls (10-8) All-Star Derrick Rose and Oklahoma City Thunder (14-7) point guard Russell Westbrook, if it's not obvious by now--used their shared summer stint with USA Basketball as a springboard for what many observers regarded as MVP-candidate level beginnings to this young season. A pair linked by their athletic gifts and a friendship initially forged by summer workouts together and having the same agent, Arn Tellem, Rose and Westbrook have emerged as not just two of the better young and up-and-coming players in the league, but two of the best players in the league, period.

Rose might be slightly ahead of schedule for his coronation as one the NBA's elite talents, but his path has been in the offing since he was a sophomore at Simeon Career Academy. Westbrook, on the other hand, took a far different route.

At under 6 feet tall before his junior year of high school, the Los Angeles native, wasn't even a household name in his own city during his prep days. But a growth spurt and a strong final campaign--the season in which he first started dunking, which is hard to imagine now, as Westbrook is one of the league's best leapers--led to his recruitment by colleges on the mid-major level until hometown UCLA took an interest in him that spring.

Playing with fellow future pros like Minnesota's Kevin Love and Indiana's Darren Collison, the obscure recruit saw scant playing time as a freshman. As a sophomore, he became the team's starting shooting guard (playing alongside Collison, a true point guard) and carved out a niche for himself as a defensive stopper and one of college basketball's best dunkers en route to leading the Bruins to a Final Four appearance.

Still, despite winning the Pac-10's defensive player of the year award, Westbrook's modest scoring numbers and lack of experience playing point guard--although an sophomore-year impressive trial run when Collison was sidelined to begin the season opened some NBA scout's eyes--many observers were shocked when the Thunder drafted him so high in 2007, even taking into consideration his off-the-charts figures in pre-draft combine athletic tests. As an NBA rookie, Westbrook was thrown into the fire as Oklahoma City's starting point guard, and although his turnovers and perimeter shooting weren't optimal, his defensive mindset, exciting game and long-term potential more than justified his selection.

Last season, Westbrook's game blossomed further, as he helped lead the Thunder into the playoffs, where they put a six-game scare into the eventual champion Lakers in the first round, coming one rebound away from forcing the series to a seventh game. Then, he beat the odds to make the FIBA World Championships gold-medal winning USA Basketball squad, serving as a defensive stopper, slasher and energy player, a vital role that recalled his off-the-ball UCLA days.

Now, Westbrook has taken his game to a new level. Superstar Kevin Durant is still the team's go-to scorer, but Westbrook has established himself as a more than adequate second option, often carrying the team as Durant has suffered through nagging injuries and increased defensive attention that has resulted in lower than expected shooting numbers to start the season. Westbrook still has occasional issues with turnovers (averaging four per contest) and isn't a proficient shooter (43.9 percent from the field, 25 percent from beyond the arc), but his relentlessly attacking style has earned him individual billing alongside Durant, instead of just being a member of the supporting cast.

In this era of great young point guards--veterans Chris Paul and Deron Williams are considered the cream of the crop, but Westbrook, Rose and Boston's Rajon Rondo (Wizards rookie John Wall might soon join the club) are either right on their heels or advancing past them, depending on who one asks--Westbrook is an interesting case. Unlike Rose, Paul or Williams, he's not his team's superstar or leading scorer, while Rondo's situation is different because not only is his scoring not the focal point of his game, but he plays with three Hall of Famers.

What differentiates Westbrook, however, is his defensive ability and rebounding. Rondo is considered an elite defender for his position and is an uncanny rebounder (Westbrook averages 5.6 boards a night himself, a gaudy total for a point guard), but Westbrook's size poses a different dilemma for opposing point guards; their styles are also completely different, as the unique Rondo is more of a savvy floor general, who picks apart defenses based on his highly-acclaimed personnel. The player Westbrook is most compared with, Rose, has obviously widened the gap between the pair as a shooter (the Chicago native is shooting 35.7 percent from 3-point territory and 46.2 percent overall), but playing next to Durant, outside marksmanship isn't as key for the Thunder point guard as it is for Rose, who is his team's top scoring threat.

Nevertheless, Oklahoma City will put up with his sometimes-woeful shot selection and less-frequent out-of-control forays into multiple defenders because Westbrook has proven to be a special talent, rewarding the foresight the organization had in drafting him and the hard work of head coach Scott Brooks and top assistant Maurice Cheeks (both former NBA point guards, not to mention current Bulls assistant Ron Adams) in helping to develop his game. The benefits hoped to be reaped by their patience include advancing past the first round of the playoffs next spring, the first of many All-Star appearances by Westbrook in his hometown come February and a rock-solid foothold as one the West's--if not the league's--upper-echelon teams.

Chicago has similar goals, and Monday night's rematch of both teams' season opener (a 106-95 Thunder win in Oklahoma City, in which Westbrook recorded 28 points, 10 rebounds and six assists to Rose's 28 points, four boards and six assists) will be an important gauge for the team, as they look to build on Carlos Boozer's Windy City coming-out party in Saturday's exciting overtime win over Houston. But while the Bulls will likely marvel at Westbrook's similar explosiveness to Rose at the United Center--as well as the visitor's superior defense and rebounding ability--a Player A for Player B exchange, while somewhat even on paper (in theory, not an actual trade possibility), would never even cross the minds of the organization's braintrust.

Drafted a only few slots behind Rose, backing him up for USA Basketball, hopeful of equaling him as an All-Star (no small feat in the Western Conference, with Williams, Paul and an aging Steve Nash all near-locks to make the team, while Rose is most likely competing with Rondo for a starting spot in the annual classic), Westbrook still has a long way to go before he can touch Rose as his team's driving force--which might be impossible with the presence of Durant--and an orchestrator of his team's offense. There's nothing wrong with playing second fiddle, as Chicagoans well know from watching Scottie Pippen's career, but Rose has a chance to enter a rare stratosphere of players.

MVP candidate numbers and a realistic chance to be named MVP--Rose's much scoffed-at (not in Chicago, but elsewhere around the league) media day goal--are two different things and Rose, if he continues to perform at the same level and the Bulls follow his path to a top three or four seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, has the opportunity to at least be in the conversation for the coveted hardware. From an Oklahoma City viewpoint, it can be debated that Westbrook could do the same thing, if not more, if put in the same position as Rose, which would surely be countered from Chicago by saying Rose would be thisclose to winning a championship if paired with the brilliance of Durant, as his true playmaking ability would better complement the reigning scoring champ more than Westbrook's shoot-first mentality.

But that is, to paraphrase an often-uttered Rose quote, "the beauty of the NBA." Instead of wondering what if, the summer workout partners will simply go head to head at the United Center in the second and final matchup of the season, as Rose will try to even the score in the win-loss column, while Westbrook will look to maintain bragging rights.

Maybe, one day in the future, they'll be able to play more than twice a year to provide a bigger sample size for all to judge--on a bigger stage, like the NBA Finals. For now, this will do.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms 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.

Six thoughts on Blackhawks-Penguins trade involving Olli Maatta and what's next

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USA TODAY

Six thoughts on Blackhawks-Penguins trade involving Olli Maatta and what's next

Here are six thoughts on Saturday's trade that centered around the Blackhawks acquiring defenseman Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for forward Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round pick:

1. What Maatta brings to the table

It's no secret that the Blackhawks' biggest weakness in 2018-19 was the defensive inefficiencies. They allowed the second-most goals per game (3.55) and and most high-danger chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (13.7), and the blue line group was a big reason for that.

So Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman tried getting out in front of the trade market by acquiring Maatta, who's a defensive-minded defenseman and logged more than 120 minutes on the penalty kill last season, which would've ranked third among Blackhawks defensemen. And he played in only 60 games. Expect Maatta to play a large role in that department for the Blackhawks, who finished tied for the worst penalty kill percentage in 30 years.

Maatta doesn't provide much on offense and skating is considered to be a real concern, but his defensive metrics are strong. According to The Point, Maatta ranked ninth among NHL defensemen in blocked shots per game (2.05), 26th in defensive zone puck battles won (2.45), 40th in blocked defense zone passes (3.77) and 47th in outlet passes (8.95). 

"There's a lot of things to like about Olli Maatta," Bowman said on a Sunday morning conference call. "Certainly his strength in the last few seasons has been his ability to be a good, reliable defender. He's got good size, he's not necessarily a bruising defenseman, but I like the fact he's got an active stick. He's good at using his body to shield the front of the net. And I think he's shown the ability to be used in several different situations over the past few years for Pittsburgh. They have some high-end offensive players there, so he didn't really get the power-play minutes. He was probably more used as a penalty killer and that's something that we certainly want to improve next year.

"There's a variety of ways to go about that, and certainly bringing in some players that have shown the ability to do that is one way to accomplish our goal. I just like his all-round game. Good instincts with the puck. He finds the open man. Can move it quick, move it up to the forwards. The biggest thing is just his ability to play a sound, defensive game and I think that's important. That's one aspect that we weren't strong in last year and I think he's going to give us that ability to match up against players. With his pedigree — he's a young guy, but to have already played over 300 games and almost 70 playoff games and a couple Stanley Cups — there's an experience level that he has at a young age and I think he's going to fit in real nicely with our group."

2. Injury history

The one other area of concern on Maatta is his inability to stay healthy. He just finished his sixth season in the NHL, but he's played a full 82 games in only one of them. His injury history includes concussion, hand, hip and most recently shoulder. He also had a health scare in 2014 when he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his thyroid.

Whether or not the accumulation of those injuries has played a role in his overall progression is unclear, but the Blackhawks aren't worried about it. 

"I would say that’s part of being a hockey player, is it’s not that uncommon for guys to get hurt," Bowman said. "It’s a contact sport. And he’s missed some time, but I don’t think he’s had an unusual number of injuries. Pittsburgh was very forthright in everything, we certainly were able to check out all those things. There’s no long-term implications of the injuries. They healed up, he’s fine. From that perspective, it wasn’t a big issue. If it was the same injury year after year, I guess you might have a concern. But it wasn’t necessarily the case. As a result, that wasn’t a big stumbling block in the trade."

3. What went wrong last season?

One year after tying a career-high with 29 points (seven goals, 22 assists) in 82 games, Maatta had a difficult time matching that production this past season. He scored only one goal and had 13 assists in 60 games. Obviously, a shoulder injury sidelined him for six weeks in February and March, but he struggled to find his groove upon returning.

Maatta played in Game 1 of the first round against the New York Islanders, but admitted he "had a bad Game 1" after having a minus-2 rating and found himself watching from the press box in the final three games as the Penguins were swept. Maatta took ownership of his play and hopes a fresh start in Chicago will benefit him.

"Obviously I wasn't happy," Maatta said. "I'm not going to say it was a terrible season, but I knew I can be way better than I played last season. I don't think I was able to do defensively as much as I wanted this year. I don't think it was a terrible season defensively or anything like that, but I expect way more from myself offensively than I had last season.

"I think [Chicago is] a new opportunity, that's how you have to look at it, and I'm just trying to better myself through that way."

4. Trading from a position of strength

Every team looking for a top-four defenseman has to explore the trade market to acquire one because there just aren't many available via free agency. And the ones that are unrestricted on July 1 will cost a lot, both in term and dollar value, which is fine, but there's no guarantee because bidding wars ensue on the open market and it's all about the players' preference.

With Dominik Kubalik and Swedish forward Anton Wedin signing entry-level contracts and expected to battle for an Opening Day roster spot, the Blackhawks knew they had a surplus of secondary forwards and used Dominik Kahun to fill a need elsewhere. And it was important for the Blackhawks not to subtract too much from the current roster or pipeline to do it.

"The strength of our team now is we got a lot of depth on the wing," Bowman said. "Looking at some of our young players that are getting ready to take on a bigger role, you can look at guys like Dylan Sikura. He didn't have the offensive success at the NHL level but I liked the way he played when he was with us last year in Chicago. It felt like his game was real effective other than the production part. Then when he was in Rockford I really liked the way he was able to score down there. So I think he's not far from being a guy and he's got sort of a similar skill set that Dominik (Kahun) has.

"We have a couple new players coming in from Europe in Anton Wedin and Dominik Kubalik. There's three young players that didn't play on our team last year very much and I think they're all ready to take a spot. So I feel like we had the ability to make a move there without damaging our team. ... We were sort of dealing from a position of strength which made it a very comfortable deal from our perspective. It's hard to acquire young defensemen. You look around the league and there's not a lot of them available and then when they are you usually got to pay a premium for somebody who's under contract or there's a manageable number. We like the way this played out for us."

5. Contract situation

Maatta agreed to a six-year, $24.5 million extension with the Penguins in 2016. He has three years left on that contract, which carries a $4.083 million cap hit. He's now the third-highest paid defenseman on the Blackhawks, surpassing Connor Murphy ($3.85 million cap hit) but staying under Duncan Keith ($5.538 million) and Brent Seabrook ($6.875 million).

When Maatta signed his contract, it included a modified no-trade clause in the final two years, according to Cap Friendly. Because he was traded prior to the NTC taking effect, the Blackhawks will have the option to either honor that clause or nullify it.

We saw a similiar situation play out when P.K. Subban was traded from Montreal to Nashville in 2016. Subban's eight-year deal with the Canadiens began during the 2014-15 season. He had a no-movement clause that was supposed to kick in on July 1 ahead of the 2016-17 season, but the Canadiens traded Subban on June 29 — two days before the start of the new calendar year. The Predators did not honor his NMC, respectfully.

6. What's next?

Before making the trade on Saturday, it was reported that the Blackhawks were interested in landing a top-four defenseman. Maatta has played top-four minutes in the past and did so, most notably, during the Penguins' back-to-back Stanley Cup runs in 2016 and 2017, but he's probably better suited as the No. 4 or in a third-pairing role.

The question for the Blackhawks now is whether the Maatta acquisition is just the beginning of more moves to come or whether they're satisified that they've filled their big need on the back end. Bowman has been widely known to be a GM that constantly works the phones, so he certainly isn't done looking.

"We're going to keep looking for ways to improve our team, not just the defense but I'm not setting that aside either," Bowman said. "Right now we're focused more on the trade market just because the free-agent market doesn't open up for another week until you can start talking to agents. But I think we want to find some new players for our team — whether that's through trades or free agency, it doesn't matter too much. It's really important to look at both. But right now the trade chatter has been pretty active throughout the league.

"I've had a number of conversations and I expect that to continue over the next week. This is the time of year where there's a lot of player movement with the draft and July 1st on the horizon. We're going to continue to look into other ways to improve our team through trades, and if none of that comes to be, then we'll look at the free-agent market. We expect to be active. That's our job. My job is to make a lot of calls and find out what options we have to bring in some new players. So this is a great start. We're a week out from the draft here and we've already improved our defense in a big way. We're going to keep looking at other ways to improve our defense and the rest of our team. So from that perspective, I expect it to be active over the next couple weeks."

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75 Days to Kickoff: St. Ignatius

75 Days to Kickoff: St. Ignatius

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 5, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 30.

School: St. Ignatius College Prep

Head coach: Matt Miller

Assistant coaches: Charlie Dowdl, Alex Carric, Dan Bunne, Mike Mille, David Hidalg, Michael Whela, Doug Bartlet, Bill Stritzel and Ben Wade

How they fared in 2018: 6-5 (3-1 CCL Red Conference). St. Ignatius made the Class 6A state playoff field and lost to Notre Dame in opening round action.

2019 regular season schedule:

Aug. 30 vs Lindblom
Sept. 6 @ Ridgewood
Sept. 13 @ Benet Academy
Sept. 20 @ Marmion Academy
Sept. 27 vs Loyola
Oct. 4 vs Joliet Catholic
Oct. 11 vs Marian Central Catholic
Oct. 18 @ Marian Catholic
Oct. 25 vs Fenwick

[MORE: 84 Days to Kickoff - Marmion Academy]

Biggest storyline: The schedule. Can the Wolfpack get back to the state playoffs? The upgraded/combined ESCC-CCL regular season schedule should be intriguing.

Names to watch this season: LB Declan Callahan (Sr.), OL/DL Mofolarin Walter-Johnson (Sr.), LB/DE Elijah Williams (Sr.)  

Biggest holes to fill: The Wolfpack graduated nine starters this past spring on the offensive side of the football. 

EDGY's Early Take: St. Ignatius has had a strong run of late, having made the IHSA state playoffs in the past four seasons. They won seven games in 2018, five via the shutout and they gave Loyola all they could handle. But the combination of the ESCC/CCL conferences has undoubtedly ramped up the Wolfpacks' schedule this fall. It features games with the likes of Benet, JCA, Loyola and Marian Central Catholic. If St. Ignatius can reload a bit (on offense in particular), they will have a good chance to compete for a fifth straight IHSA state playoff appearance.