NBA Season Preview: Chicago Bulls

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obama_noah_rose.jpgLast season: 41-41, same as it ever was with Vinny Del Negro

Head Coach: Tom Thibodeau, the defensive guru from the Boston Celtics gets his first head coaching gig. He’s earned it, but this is not a soft landing sprt — there are expectations.

Key Departures: Kirk Hinrich, Brad Miller, Hakim Warrick

Key Additions: Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, CJ Watson, and the aforementioned Thibodeau. In any other summer they Bulls would have had the best haul in free agency. But this wasn’t like any other summer.

Best case scenario: Title contender out of the East. Most people — myself included — have them on a second tier behind Miami and Boston, kind of there on the “good but not quite good enough” level. But we don’t really know. If they can defend, if the chemistry really is there, this is a roster with a lot of potential.

For that to happen: Tom Thibodeu is going to have to work his defensive magic, and prove he can devise an offense that uses some interesting talents.

In Boston, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce did not come in with stellar defensive reputations, but they bought into the system, worked in concert with guys behind them and became part of a very good defensive unit. Chicago is going to need to do that with Boozer and Rose, having Deng and Noah with them and being the intimidating force at the rim. It can work, and if it does the Bulls instantly become dangerous.

That defense should be able to get them out and running a little with transition baskets. A good defensive team that gets a few easy transition buckets becomes hard to beat (see Thunder, Oklahoma City).

On offense, Thibodeau has said he wants to go inside out. Which means you can have Rose driving the lane or post up Boozer, depending on matchups. Boozer was not as dominating in post up scoring as one would think last season — he shot 47.5 percent and scored 0.87 points per possessions, not stellar numbers – but because he can step out and knock down a midrange some teams will go smaller on him. The NBA remains a game of creating and exploiting mismatches.

Where Boozer is effective — the roll man on the pick-and-roll. Boozer and Rose could become a deadly combination at that game.

With Boozer, Deng and Noah the Bulls should clean up the boards and get a number of points off offensive rebounds.

More likely the Bulls will: Take a little time to gel, then probably finish somewhere between third and sixth in the East. Yes, that’s a wide range but things will be tight at the top of the East. Miami and Orlando are going to win a lot of regular season games (yes, Orlando in the regular season will be a beast and get a top-two seed). After that you have the Bulls, Hawks, Celtics and maybe the Bucks all hovering around 50 wins. How healthy they all stay will determine the matchup — the first round in the East this playoffs will have some tough ones.

Frankly, we don’t know exactly how well this team will mesh, and how fast. On paper there is potential, but seeing how it all fits together under a first-time head coach means there are a lot of questions. The Bulls could be very good, or they could be one of those nice teams that should be better. One that isn’t bad but isn’t inspiring.

At the end of the day, they likely land on that second tier in the East. Barack Obama will talk about how much he likes this team, they will be fun to watch, they will be good but not quite good enough. And they will need to go looking for more moves.

Prediction: 52 wins, and they make it to the second round of the playoffs, where they will push somebody seven games. That may be enough for a first year… except that the Heat likely will only get better in the next couple years, too.

Pistons-Kings game delayed for smoke over court (video)

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DeMarcus Cousins, in his eternal battle with referees (and everyone else), retroactively won every argument he’s ever had when he had to alert the officials in last night’s Pistons-Kings game to the large cloud of smoke coming toward the court. It was only then that the refs stopped play.

But the best reaction to the mistimed fog machine was Sacramento coach Dave Joerger:

LeBron James tweets: I’m not mad at Cavaliers GM David Griffin

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers rallies his teammates in the huddle during player introductions prior to the game Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on December 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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After tearing into the Cavaliers’ roster construction last night, LeBron James said he’d tweet even more thoughts.

LeBron delivered, softening the point everyone amplified (that he wants roster improvements) and emphasizing the point that got overlooked (that he’s on board with Cleveland general manager David Griffin):

I’m guessing LeBron saw how his comments went over and wanted to quiet the storm he created. What he said sounds so much more resentful. These tweets read as much more constructive.

But the underlying point remains: LeBron is unsatisfied with the roster.

He won’t be a free agent until 2018, but remember, dissatisfaction with the Heat’s roster contributed to him bolting Miami.

Wizards wearing all black to Celtics game for a figurative funeral

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The Celtics and Wizards have a little rivalry brewing:

The latest chapter comes for tonight’s game, with the Wizards – imitating a commonly used fashion for closeout playoff games – wearing all black to the arena.

Kelly Oubre Jr.:

We’re wearing all black to the game. So you know where we’re going with that.

Round three. Let’s get it.

Wall (as Beal yells encouragement in the background):

All black everything. A funeral.

A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

When Jae Crowder was asked about the Wizards all-black gear, his initial response…“That’s cute!”

Isaiah Thomas, via Blakely:

“This is definitely not Game 7 or the playoffs,” said Isaiah Thomas. “But if they want to take it that serious, they can.”

Gotta agree with the Celtics here. This is an absurd level of motivational showmanship for a January game.

But I also love it! These petty feuds are fantastic and spice up a long regular season.

My favorite part of the Wizards’ funeral motif: Even if they “bury” Boston tonight, these teams meet again in March.

‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top 10 to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?