NBA Season Preview: Chicago Bulls

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Last season: Once again the Bulls outworked everybody in the regular season — while 29 teams treat games like the regular season, the Bulls grind every night and they were a league best 50-16 because of it. And that was with Derrick Rose missing 27 games. They were the top seed in the East and we were finally going to get an answer to the question if they could raise their game and challenge the Heat in the playoffs.

Except, we didn’t get that answer because Rose blew out his ACL on a jump stop at the end of the first playoff game. (And no, it wasn’t his shoes, stop that nonsense.) With Rose out the Bulls dropped four of the next five to the Sixers and were bounced in the first round.

Key Departures: The Bulls front office decided to shake up the bench — over the objections of coach Tom Thibodeau who thought that bench was key to Chicago’s 18-9 when Rose was out last season.

Gone are Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer, John Lucas and Omer Asik. Why? To start freeing up cap space so that either next summer or in the summer of 2014 the Bulls can make a run at some big name to pair with Rose. It is clearly their strategy at this point.

Key Additions: Marco Belinelli comes in as the new Kyle Korver, and that could well be an upgrade. Belinelli can shoot the three but also has a pretty well rounded game when healthy. Also added to the list are Kirk Hinrich, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmanovic and Nate Robinson. Hinrich will provide some solid play (although he’s not a great point guard, he’s better as a spot up guy), but Bulls fans shouldn’t expect too much out of the last three. Not consistently, anyway. Robinson will have his nights.

The Bulls also drafted Marquis Teague out of Kentucky, with hopes of grooming him to be Rose’s backup.

Three keys to the Bulls season:

1) When does Derrick Rose return, what does he play like when he does? For all the talk about what to make of Carlos Boozer, or how good Luol Deng and Taj Gibson can be, the Bulls are still Derrick Rose’s team. Those other guys can be key components, but Rose is the superstar you build around. Without him they are not the same, particularly on offense. The Bulls were fine in the regular season thanks to their work ethic and defense, but when they ran into a focused and (with Rose gone) simply better Sixers team they were done quickly.

Reports have Rose returning somewhere around March, maybe a little earlier. The good news is owner Jerry Reinsdorf, having long regretted allowing Michael Jordan to return too quickly from an injury, is not going to make that same mistake with Rose. The Bulls star will be fully cleared by doctors before he steps on the court. Which is the right play — this is your franchise anchor for the next decade. Think long term, not short.

When he does come back, he might not quite be his old self. Not at first. There will certainly be rust on his game but the bigger issue with guys coming back from ACL tears is them fully trusting their reconstructed knee again. Rose was the league’s most explosive player, he had a jump stop and quick changes of direction that dazzled. It may be a while before he makes those moves with the same force again. Like maybe during the 2013-14 season.

2) Where are the points going to come from? Luol Deng and Taj Gibson are fantastic defenders and paired with Joakim Noah and Thibodeau’s drive you can bet the Bulls will remain one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.

But Rose was the offense — not just his points, he was the catalyst for everyone else. No one player can make that up and the Bulls will try to do it by committee, but they will be a much easier team to defend now. Deng and Gibson both took nice, efficient steps forward on offense last season and they need to make leaps this season again. Deng played through last season (and the Olympics) with ligament issues in his wrist, he needs to do it again and play like it wasn’t even an issue. He needs to keep draining threes. As for Richard Hamilton, he slowed down last season as he didn’t get to the line as often — he doesn’t create his own shots any more. He is not going to pick up a lot of the slack.

Bulls’ fans saying “this is why we pay Carlos Boozer” should know you pay him to be the No. 2 guy. He is an All-Star level regular season scorer and rebounder (15 points, 8 rebounds a game last year and he is efficient in the lane), and he will continue to make plays this season. He will score for you. But if you expect him to be a No. 1 guy you will be disappointed. He is what he is, what he has been since Utah. Jazz fans expected differently, too, and had the same feelings you do. My advice: Accept him for what he is and stop trying to make him into something he is not.

3) How big a drop off will there be from last year’s role players/bench to this one? You can try to argue — as some Bulls fans have — that the drop off from last season to this with the bench is not that severe. And it’s not as severe as some have suggested, but it is a drop off. Hinrich is not quite the same player that was with the Bulls last go around and has not looked strong at the point the last couple years, where Watson gave the Bulls quality play when Rose was out.

Nate Robinson will win the Bulls a couple games with instant offense off the bench, he will lose them a couple too by shooting them right out of it when he is cold. Nazr Mohammed will provide some points but his defense will drive Thibodeau crazy. Vladimir Radmanovic can play a limited role any more.

The bottom line is I wouldn’t trust this bench like the Bulls did theirs last season

What Bulls fans should fear: Jerry Reinsdorf’s penny-pinching ways. There are two areas it could come back to bite them.

One is the Thibodeau contract negotiations. The team and coach are talking about an extension, but it is possible that Thibs holds out thinking he is being lowballed and if he ever ends up on the open market he will have plenty of suitors. It’s not going to come to that. Thibs wants to stay and eventually I bet a deal gets done. The only thing that can hold it up is an owner lowballing one of the league’s best coaches. (Now, if you want to go with a shorter deal, say three years, I can see that because hard-a** coaches like Thibs can wear on teams.)

The other area is the roster retooling that is coming. The Bulls clearly have looked at the Heat, looked at their roster and decided they need another “A” list guy to go with Rose. I can see that. But you can’t just have Rose and Player To Be Named Later, you still need Deng and Gibson and Noah to make it all work. And that means paying some tax — which the Bulls are doing for the first time ever this next season, but do you want to bet on it as a trend?

How it likely works out: Make no mistake, the Bulls are going to keep defending, keep outworking every team they play up until Rose’s return, and then after. That is what they do. And with that they have some talent, they are going to get wins. However, they sacrificed depth and points are going to be a lot harder for them to come by this season. They will get wins, but the 18-9 record they had without Rose last year seems optimistic.

When Rose does come back, and as he finds his legs closer to the playoffs, they become the team nobody wants in the first round. With Rose they have a puncher’s chance against anyone.

Prediction: 45-37 in the regular season, which will net them a seven or eight seed. But once in the playoffs and with Rose back and feeling healthier, this is not the team any of the top seeds want to see in the first round. The Bulls may not get past them this year, but they will not be an easy out by any means.

Kristaps Porzingis: “Players know” he’s All-Star starter

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When picking the East All-Star starters, two of the three frontcourt choices were obvious: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For the third slot there were a few players who could make a case. The fans chose Joel Embiid third, Kristaps Porzingis fourth, and Kevin Love fifth. The media also had Embiid third and Porzingis fourth, but Al Horford fifth. That was enough to earn Embiid the starting nod.

The players voted Porzingis third, Embiid fourth, and Andre Drummond fifth. Needless to say, Porzingis thinks the players got it right, as he told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“Players know,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

If one were cynical, one would note the players also voted for Tyler Cavanaugh and Tyler Zeller, so how much do we trust their vote? Fortunately, we’re above such crass things.

Porzingis is a lock to make his first All-Star Game this year as a reserve (picked by the coaches).

What separated the two? Embiid has been a little more efficient this season, he’s stronger on the boards and had been a bigger defensive presence. Also, the Sixers have a better record than the Knicks, who have stumbled of late. Or, maybe the fans just like Embiid’s big personality more — he’s blowing off Rihanna.

Both of these guys should have a lot of All-Star starts in their future. This year it goes to Embiid.

 

Lakers make 14% of their free throws, win

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Jordan Clarkson‘s free throw rattled around the rim before falling out late in the first quarter. The Los Angeles crowd groaned. The Lakers missed their first five free throws, and the visiting Pacers led by seven.

It appeared to be one of those nights.

And it was. The Lakers shot just 2-for-14 (14%) on free throws Friday. But they still won, 99-86.

That’s the worst free-throw percentage with at least eight attempts by any team and the worst free-throw percentage regardless of attempts by a winning team in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to 1963-64.

Here’s the “leaderboard,” winners in purple and losers in gold:

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The Lakers are shooting an NBA-worst 69% on free throws, but last night took the cake. The offenders:

Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek brushes off concerns about job security

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We saw this pattern earlier this season with the Lakers. Young team gets off to a better-than-expected start, shows real promise, but as things move toward the middle of the season they take a step back. As happens with young, developing teams, they are up and down. However, major market media and an impatient fan base wants to blame someone, so the coach is suddenly discussed as having “lost the locker room” and that his job was in jeopardy (a coach not hired by the current GM). Even though in Luke Walton’s case, it wasn’t (and isn’t).

Now that same pattern has come to New York and the Knicks with Jeff Hornacek. The Knicks started 17-14 and had fans prematurely thinking playoffs thanks to a home-heavy schedule. Reality has hit them the past month.

Hornacek tried to brush off questions about his job security in New York, speaking to Stefan Bondy of the New York Post.

Hornacek also believes he has the backing of GM Scott Perry and president Steve Mills, despite being inherited by them as Phil Jackson’s hire.

“We were talking about rebuilding and we got off to a good start because we had a lot of home games,” Hornacek said. “Scott and Steve, everybody’s still on the same page of trying to get our young guys opportunities. We’re still trying to win games. We still want to establish an identity where defensively we’re going to get after it all the time and we’re building toward that. It’s great to have their support…

“I think the expectations come from the players where all of a sudden you hear them talking about, ‘Oh we can make the playoffs.’ We never said that,” Hornacek said. “We said we want to get better and we want to grow. Part of our talk was you can’t worry about the results. You just got to go out there and if you do your best and try to improve the results will come. When you start thinking about win or lose all of a sudden your mentality becomes different. We got to get back to that.”

Is Hornacek the long-term answer in New York? I don’t know. However, finally unchained from the pseudo-triangle disaster Phil Jackson imposed, he has done a solid job this season, putting Kristaps Porzingis in better spots to lead this roster. The Knicks are projected to win around 38 games at this point (according to Cleaning the Glass), and they have about a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs still (according to fivethiryeight.com). Heading into the season, that would have been about anyone’s best-case scenario for this team.

Not that it matters when you’re coach of the Knicks — job security speculation comes with every paycheck. It just isn’t deserved in this case.

Steve Kerr has “regrets” over time as Suns GM with Mike D’Antoni as coach

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Saturday night, Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni will square off as the coaches of the two best teams in the NBA this season (the Warriors and Rockets), teams loaded with offensive talent that play fast — Kerr and D’Antoni have some of the same basic philosophies about the game. Right now they have a mutual admiration society going.

But remember when Kerr took over as the general manager of the “seven seconds or less” Suns? Then traded for Shaq, which was the first step in D’Antono going out the door to New York.

Kerr opened up about his regrets from that era to Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News.

“I have some regrets,” Kerr said. “I think we had a few differences that I probably didn’t handle very well as a GM that I could’ve probably handled better, especially given that we really like each other and have a lot of similar viewpoints on the game.”

The Suns were a contender, but not one that could get over the hump of the peak San Antonio Spurs of the mid-2000s (it was more than just the year Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the boards and A’mare Stoudemire got nailed for leaving the bench). Kerr felt the need to do something, so he traded Shawn Marion for an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal who did not at all fit the Suns’ style. That move ended an era, and the next summer D’Antoni signed in New York (with a front office that never gave him the pieces for his style of play).

“I should have let Mike know, ‘It’s okay, keep kicking [butt] and keep going, and we’ll make some moves that aren’t so radical that fit more with who we are as an organization,” Kerr said. “We swung for the fences, and it was not the right move to make as an organization. I didn’t envision that as GM. I didn’t have the macro view of what we needed to do….

“I needed to tell Mike, ‘It’s okay if we don’t win the championship,’” Kerr said. “We were so desperate to win. But not everybody can win. But what you can do is keep putting yourself in a position to get there. Then maybe the breaks fall your way.”

Kerr said he’s matured in the way he views the game and team building since then. That is evident in the way the Warriors have been built, with a big-picture view of everything that gets done — they win not only because they are loaded with talent but how that talent fits together. However, they are really an extension of the changes D’Antoni brought to the NBA in Phoenix, just with better defense and some ridiculous shooters.

After stints in New York and Los Angeles with rosters that were ill-suited for his style, D’Antoni is winning big again in Houston because James Harden was really a point guard and GM Daryl Morey has put the right pieces around him to play D’Antoni’s style.

But once again D’Antoni seems just short of a ring because a legendary team — and Steve Kerr — is in the way.