How they can win it all: The Chicago Bulls

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Coming into this season, the Heat, The Lakers, and The Celtics were supposed to rule the NBA. After 82 games, the Chicago Bulls are coming into the playoffs with the best record in the league. They don’t have as much championship experience as some of the other top contenders, but they’re talented, young, hungry, and ready to bring a title back to Chicago. Here’s why they can win it all:

1. Defense:

The Chicago Bulls are the best defensive team in the league. They hold teams to 97.3 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league. They hold their opponents to the lowest three-point percentage in the league. Only Orlando allows a lower proportion of offensive rebounds. They rank #3 in the league in blocks, steals, and charges taken per 100 possessions. They rarely commit defensive fouls. They are a defensive powerhouse.

The Bulls don’t have one dominant defensive force like Dwight Howard or Kevin Garnett, but they have an absolute defensive mastermind on the sidelines and a plethora of athletic and aggressive defensive players who can execute Thibodeau’s defensive rotations perfectly. They fly around screens. They trap ball-handlers. They close out the three-point line without selling out. They collapse in the paint and load up the strong-side while still being able to recover. They play defense. They love defense. Their 2nd unit is even more dominant defensively than their starting unit. They live to break the wills of their opponents. Any team that wants to get past Chicago is going to have to figure out a way to score on them consistently, and that proved to be a nearly impossible task this season.

2. Derrick Rose

He’s going to win the MVP award. Forget about if he’s the best player in the league for a second and focus on what we definitely know he is. He’s unstoppable when he drives to the basket, he’s an excellent passer and floor general, he can make a momentum-shifting highlight play at the drop of a hat, and he’s become a dangerous three-point shooter. He’s not afraid of the big moment, and he’s fearless in crunch-time, but he knows to pass the ball if that’s the right play. He’s young, he’s a physical specimen, he’s got the skills, he’s going to win the MVP award, and he’s ready to take the final step. Get ready.

3. Depth

Do the Bulls have A Dynamic Duo? A Big Three? A Fantastic Four? Maybe. Rose is definitely a superstar, Joakim Noah is a force on the boards and on defense, and Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng are reliable players who can drop 25 efficient points on any given night. Do they measure up to Boston, Miami, San Antonio’s, or Los Angeles’ top players? It might not matter.

The Bulls may not have as much star power as some other playoff contenders, but they have what every coach and general manager should want his team to have: A 10-man rotation full of players that every coach in the league would want on his roster. Ronnie Brewer makes life hell for his opponents when he plays defense, can finish around the rim, and makes some of the best off-ball cuts in the league. Omer Asik is a defensive dynamo who chases after every loose ball and rebound like his life depends on it.

Kyle Korver is one of the purest shooters in the league and rarely makes a dumb play. Taj Gibson’s length, athleticism, and defensive instincts make him one of the best backup power forwards in the league. C.J. Watson can make open shots, run the offense without incident, and plays textbook-perfect defense on opposing points. Laugh at Keith Bogans all you want, but he knows what his jobs are and he does them well. When Kurt Thomas is asked to do something, he does it. Every one of the Bulls’ players knows what his role is, has confidence in his game, and executes his role to perfection. Having role players that just take up space and role players that know what they need to do to help their team win has decided many a playoff series, and no team has a more capable cast of role players than the Bulls.

The Bulls have the tools to go all the way, and they have the right mentality to do it. They proved just how good they are in the regular season; now they’re just 16 wins away from removing all doubt about their ability to be champions.

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.