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.

Report: Joakim Noah tells teammates he’s leaving Bulls

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 15:  Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls runs off of the court after dislocating his left shoulder against the Dallas Mavericks at the United Center on January 15, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Mavericks defeated the Bulls 83-77. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Joakim Noah said in January he wanted to re-sign with the Bulls. Chicago reportedly wants to keep him.

A perfect match?

Not quite.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

According to a Bulls player, Noah has been telling teammates the last few weeks that he was done with the organization once free agency begins, and “has no trust in the front office getting this in the right direction.’’

The player was asked if Noah’s feelings had anything to do with first-year coach Fred Hoiberg and the he said, he said that went on early in the season when Noah lost his starting job, and insisted that Noah didn’t offer up that as an explanation.

What was offered up, however, was the fact that there seems to be a complete mistrust that multiple players have toward general manager Gar Forman, with Noah leading the way.

Noah and Hoiberg publicly disagreed about whose choice it was for Noah to come off the bench. Hoiberg said it was Noah’s. Noah said it was Hoiberg’s.

That looked like a petty problem, one both sides could – and maybe did – get over. But it seems Noah has deeper concerns.

This has been a rough year for the Bulls, who missed the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. That unexpected downturn takes a toll on chemistry and brings buried problems to the surface. That’s especially true considering Chicago fired Tom Thibodeau – a coach who looks better in hindsight. If players miss Thibodeau, that opens the door for them to turn on Forman, who forced out Thibodeau.

That said, the Bulls are probably better off letting Noah walk. He’s 31 and has been banged up the last couple years. I wouldn’t commit big money to him with Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis under contract and the need for faster players to run Hoiberg’s system. Chicago can’t quickly solve its Jimmy ButlerDerrick Rose issue, because Butler is worth keeping and Rose is under contract another year on a difficult-to-trade deal. But shedding Noah and using the resulting cap flexibility elsewhere gets the team headed in the right direction.

For his part, Noah can seek a fresh start – how about with Thibodeau in Minnesota? – and find a team that suits him, either a win-now squad or a younger group seeking veteran leadership.

Report: Indiana junior Troy Williams staying in NBA draft

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 25:  Troy Williams #5 of the Indiana Hoosiers reacts in the second half against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at Wells Fargo Center on March 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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An Indiana player – Thomas Bryant – who likely would’ve been a first-round pick didn’t even declare for the draft without an agent.

Another Indiana player – Troy Williams – who might not even get picked will stay in the draft.

Gregg Doyel of The Indianapolis Star:

Williams, a 6-foot-7 small forward, is an excellent athlete. He’s not strong enough and hasn’t shown enough awareness to project him defending well in the NBA yet. But his length, quickness and leaping ability give him potential on that end. That and transition offense will have to carry him for now, because his outside shot is unimpressive.

There are players like Williams in every draft. It’s on him to convince a team that he has the work ethic and intelligence to refine his game.

Klay Thompson gives most depressing interview answer (video)

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The Warriors are taking a beating on the court, but their turmoil reached heartbreaking levels in Klay Thompson‘s press conference after Game 4.

Thompson, scanning the box score for any semblance of hope, applauded Golden State’s “40 assists” – which would have been the most in a playoff game since 1994. But he quickly realized that couldn’t be right, looked again and sadly announced Golden State had just 15 assists.

Thompson was probably looking at the Warriors’ rebounding total (which was 16 below the Thunder’s).

Report: Steven Adams suffered testicular contusion

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When Draymond Green kicked Steven Adams in the groin, it did more than create mass debate about the appropriate punishment.

Green hurt Adams badly, it sounds like.

John E. Hoover of The Franchise Tulsa:

Once you finish wincing, take a moment to appreciate how tough Adams is. He kept playing in the game and then came out in Game 4 throwing bullet passes.