Chicago Bulls v Charlotte Bobcats

Are the Chicago Bulls contenders? They aren’t even thinking about it.

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NBA fans, most of them anyway, don’t list the Chicago Bulls among the contenders in the East. It’s Miami and Boston. (Sorry Orlando, have to earn your way back onto that list.)

The Bulls being left off that list is really keeping Carlos Boozer up at night.

“That’s okay, we believe in ourselves,” Boozer told ProBasketballTalk with a little smirk. “We’re gonna keep doing what we do and we’ll see where we end up. We’ve got to prove it when it matters.”

That pretty much echoes what you hear around the Bulls locker room — they fall back to the “one game at a time” cliché like a Bull Durham character. They don’t mention that they beat the Celtics, Lakers, Heat and Magic last time they played them. Just focus on the next one. Especially now, as they are out on the ice show road trip.

But that road trip — and the time after the All-Star Break when they get Joakim Noah back and finally have a full roster for a stretch — will give us a chance to answer the contender question. So far they have been good but we don’t know how good — by the time Noah returns after the All-Star Break he and Boozer will have missed a combined 50 games. The excuses will soon be gone. We’re going to find out if the Bulls are contenders or just a piece or two away.

Back when the season started teams with new parts were slow to come together, but it was Miami drawing headlines and proclamations of failure a month into the season. The Bulls had a little of that awkwardness also — especially with Boozer out nursing a broken hand — but they flew under the radar then, too.

“We started off the season we knew the biggest challenge was how quickly we could all get on to the same page with all the changes that we had,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “The big thing for us was just to strive for improvement every single day. And we’re confident if we do the right things — and we want to start with our defense, defend and rebound and take care of the ball — we feel we’ll be in position to win (games).

“We’re still not where we want to be. We’ve got a long way to go.”

There it is again. One game at a time. Get a little bit better. Do that and they think they have a chance.

They’ve done that to the tune of a 34-16 record so far (sixth best in the NBA). But that record comes against one of the softest schedules in the league and that is starting to change. Things are getting harder right as the team has lost two straight on the road (and 18 of their final 32 are away from the United Center).

The Bulls have earned the wins they do have with defense — they are giving up 100 points per 100 possessions, the best rate in the NBA. Better than the Celtics and Magic and Heat. And they haven’t missed a beat with Noah out (they’ve been a little better, actually). The Bulls second unit doesn’t get enough credit — they may be the best defensive second unit in the NBA.

But is the offense good enough? They are scoring 106.2 points per 100 possessions, 19th best in the league. Below average. Their shooting is average, they turn the ball over too much and don’t get to the line enough (although Derrick Rose has been better about that lately).

Will that defense be able to hold up against a tougher schedule? Can their offense do enough being carried as it has been by Rose and his 24.6 points per game this season? Can the bench keep providing that boost at both ends of the floor?

The Bulls aren’t worrying about it, they are worrying about the Utah Jazz Wednesday night. One game at a time. Get a little bit better.

Who should be worried about it? Boston and Miami. Because one of them will get the Bulls in the second round of the playoffs and if things do come together as Thibodeau and Boozer plan Chicago will prove themselves a contender. And a very tough out.

Cody Zeller throws it down all over Bismack Biyombo (VIDEO)

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Nobody can stop the Zeller brothers!

Well, that’s not exactly true. But in this case, Bismack Biyombo tried and Cody Zeller threw it down with authority over him.

I’m not starting a “Cody Zeller for the dunk contest” campaign, but this was impressive.

Doc Rivers doesn’t think Clippers complain too much to referees

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 29: Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers has some words with referee Sean Wright #4 in the first quarter of Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center on April 29, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. 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. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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Pop quiz: Which team complains the most to the referees in the NBA?

You probably answered “the Clippers.” Most fans do. So do most NBA referees — And everyone else. Which is why after a recent loss to Golden State, veteran Marreese Speight (a Warrior last season) pointed to the Clippers complaining about the officiating as part of the problem.

He went on to say that the scouting report is you can get in the Clippers’ heads by knocking them around a little. Which seems pretty obvious when you watch teams play them. Shockingly, Clippers coach Doc Rivers disagrees with that. Via NBCLosAngeles.com.

“The officiating thing, I don’t think, is our issue. I will say that,” said Rivers about the technical fouls. “If that were the problem, then, Golden State would be struggling. They’ve been No. 2 the last two years in techs, too. I think we need to point fingers in another direction than that.”

Doc may not like it, but Speights is right.

The Warriors do complain too much, but they also have a ring so more is forgiven. The problem for the Clippers is that reputation for complaining starts with Rivers — he complains as much or more than any coach in the league. Then it filters down through Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

Is it fair that more is forgiven with winning? Moot question. Welcome to America. The Clippers complain a lot and have yet to get past the second round with this core. And at times there standing there complaining to the referees does get in the way of them getting back into defense, and they seem to go in a funk.

Want to prove all that wrong? Win. In the playoffs.

Alivin Gentry, you worried about being fired: “I really don’t give a s— about my job status”

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 26:  Head coach Alvin Gentry of the New Orleans Pelicans looks on as his team plays the Denver Nuggets at the Smoothie King Center on October 26, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Denver won the game 107-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
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The Pelicans are disappointing this season — it is Anthony Davis vs. the world down there. Which is the main reason they are 7-16 this season. While things have gotten better since Jrue Holiday‘s return, Davis is averaging a league-best 31.4 points per game, it then drops off to Holiday at 15.4, and then E'Twaun Moore at 11.1.

When a team struggles, usually that is a bad sign for the coach. Not because it’s always their fault, but because GMs choose not to fire themselves for poor roster construction. Which leads to the question: Alvin Gentry, are you concerned about your job? (Warning, NSFW)

Gentry with classic coach-speak: Control what you can control.

New Orleans’ struggles are not on Gentry, certainly not completely. He’d like a roster that can play uptempo, that has depth. What he got instead was a good point guard, an elite 4/5, a rookie in Buddy Hield that maybe pans out down the line, and then… nada. And the roster Gentry has often is banged up.

If anyone is in trouble, it is GM Dell Demps. Remember, Danny Ferry was hired last summer for the vague role of “special advisor.” Gentry is in his second year, and the issue is the roster he was given. But the Pelicans are a patient organization that values continuity, so… who knows. But the clock is ticking on Davis;, it’s years away, but the Pelicans need to build a team around him and are far from that right now.

Cavaliers’ James Jones says he’ll retire after next season

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  James Jones #1 of the Cleveland Cavaliers receives his championship ring from owner Dan Gilbert before the game against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena on October 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. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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James Jones has made a business of playing with LeBron James, and business is good.

Jones has ridden LeBron’s coattails to three contracts with the Cavaliers and appearances in five straight NBA Finals – the second-longest streak (behind LeBron’s six) outside the 1950s/60s Celtics:

But the 36-year-old Jones is preparing to retire.

Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:

Jones told the Beacon Journal he will retire after next season, which will be his 15th in the NBA. His ultimate dream is to ride off after three consecutive championships in Cleveland

“I know playing 15 years is a number where I can look back and I can be like, ‘I accomplished something,’ ” Jones said. “Fourteen vs. 15 may not be much, but to be able to say I played 15 years, that’s enough for me to hang ’em up.”

Jones’ contract expires after the season, so the Cavs will have a say in whether he returns. Safe to say if LeBron wants him back, Jones will be back.

But the Heat got into trouble relying on washed-up veterans around LeBron, wasting valuable roster spots on players who could no longer contribute.

Is that Jones? Not yet. Though he’s out of the rotation, he has still made 11-of-12 open 3-pointers this season. There’s a role for him as spot-up shooter when Cleveland needs one.

Still, the Cavaliers ought to be mindful of Jones’ likely decline over the next year and a half. Plus, it’s not a certainty he holds to his timeline. Cavs veterans have a history of changing their mind on retirement.