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.

Pacers erase 17-point deficit to take 2-1 lead over Cavs

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 points, leading the Indiana Pacers back from a 17-point halftime deficit for a 92-90 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night for a 2-1 lead in their first-round series.

Cleveland was 39-0 during the regular season when leading after three quarters and kept that perfect mark intact with a Game 2 win.

The incredible second-half charge came exactly one year after Indiana blew a 26-point halftime lead in a historic playoff collapse against the Cavs.

This time, the Pacers delivered a devastating blow to the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs – on a night LeBron Jones joined Michael Jordan as the only players in playoff history to record 100 double-doubles. James finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Cleveland from losing its first game this season after leading following the third quarter.

The biggest reason for the collapse: Bogdanovic.

After charging back with striking distance, he completed a four-point play to finally give the Pacers an 81-77 lead with 6:10 left. Bogdanovic followed that with another to make it as seven-point game.

Then James answered with the next seven to tie it.

Bogdanovic came right back with a layup and another 3 before Thaddeus Young scored to give the Pacers a 91-84 cushion with 53 seconds left.

James knocked down a 3 to cut the deficit to four, and the Cavs got another 3 from Kevin Love with 7 seconds left to make it 91-90.

Darren Collison made 1 of 2 free throws with 5 seconds left, giving Cleveland one more chance. But J.R. Smith‘s long desperation heave came up short..

Shaq attacks verse in new TV series "Poetry in America"

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Shaquille O’Neal called himself “The Big Baryshnikov” and “The Big Socrates” in his days in the NBA. Now he can add “The Big Shakespeare.”

The basketball Hall-of-Famer, TNT TV analyst, commercial pitchman and onetime rapper is putting poetry on his lengthy resume as part of a new public television series.

He brings his best bard to a dramatic reading of a poem in his episode of the 12-part “Poetry in America ,” then discusses it with Elisa New, a Harvard English professor who hosts the show.

“I’ve always been into poetry,” O’Neal said in an interview with The Associated Press in a sunlit conference room overlooking the Los Angeles skyline. “I’ve been writing rhymes all my life.”

“Poetry in America,” distributed by American Public Television and presented by WGBH in Boston, is airing at various times on local public TV stations. Some episodes, including Shaq’s, are already available to stream.

On the show the 46-year-old former All-Star from the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat recites “Fast Break,” a poem by Edward Hirsch from his 1986 book “Wild Gratitude.” It describes some very imperfect players who manage to put together a perfect basketball play.

“A hook shot kisses the rim and hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop,” the poem begins, “and for once our gangly starting center boxes out his man.”

O’Neal, whose 350-pound bulk would never be called “gangly,” still related to the center in the verse, but said he initially missed the poem’s point.

“The first mistake I made was thinking it was about basketball,” he said. “I read it real quick I said `fast break, shovel passes, sure, this is what I do.”‘

He said New, who sat next to O’Neal in the interview and like almost everyone is utterly dwarfed by him, gave him whole new insights that led to a fast friendship.

“When she broke it down intelligently for me, I was very astounded and very amazed,”

The poem is written for a close friend and playing partner of Hirsch’s who had just died. That’s easy to miss if you skip past the dedication at the top, as most readers do.

“It’s fun that only later as you’re reading, you look back at that dedication,” New said. “One line can change everything.”

Suddenly it becomes an examination of transcendent moments and human connections.

“It’s about friendship, it’s about caring, it’s about emotions,” O’Neal said. “I had missed that.”

His latest learning experience took O’Neal’s thoughts back to high school, where he had a 69 percent in English after blowing a test during the basketball playoffs, and needed a 70 to stay eligible for sports.

The teacher allowed him a retest, and suggested a tutor.

“This guy, his name was McDougal, he was a geek, he saved my academic life,” O’Neal said. “Everybody bullied him in school, except me.”

O’Neal said he took the work and “broke it down, made it seem so simple.”

“I retook the test, got an 80, and we won the state championship,” O’Neal said.

“Now,” he said, “I always tell kids I’m a geek.”

The professor had another name for him. “He’s a learner!”

O’Neal partly looked the poet during the interview in a polo shirt and jeans, having traded his basketball sneakers for a pair of slip-on Toms shoes, size 22.

When he wanted them, a company executive told him “it wouldn’t be worth it to make them in my size unless I bought 500 of them,” O’Neal said. “I told him to give me 2,000.”

 

Rumor: Grizzlies had to choose between Marc Gasol and David Fizdale

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David Fizdale has been linked to most of the NBA’s head-coaching vacancies.

He developed a legion of backers as lead a Heat assistant, and he did good things guiding the Grizzlies before they unexpectedly fired him. He deserves consideration.

But he also must explain his fractured relationship with Memphis star Marc Gasol. They weren’t speaking for a while.

And maybe the problem was even worse than that.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

According to a source close to Fizdale briefed on the Grizzlies’ decision, it was ownership having to make a choice — trade their All-Star center Marc Gasol, who has fallen in love with its small-market city, or fire the coach. Their relationship had gotten that bad.

If Grizzlies ownership felt it had to choose between Gasol and Fizdale, it’s not clear why.

Fizdale benched Gasol down the stretch during the coach’s last game, and Gasol publicly expressed his frustration.

But Gasol denied issuing a me-or-Fizdale ultimatum. Fizdale said focus on his relationship with Gasol was “overblown,” adding he cared far more about whether he could win with a player than whether they got along personally.

Memphis obviously sided with Gasol – probably too strongly.

LeBron James bought Cavs teammates matching designer suits to wear to game tonight

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I’m still trying to decide if this is cool or a little too Stepford.

The Cavaliers rolled into the Bakers’ Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis tonight wearing matching designer suits, all paid for by LeBron James and custom fitted to each player.

If a college team rolled into a game in four-digit designer suits, the NCAA would have questions. And not about the vests.

The Cavaliers are LeBron’s team, and if he wants to buy his teammates suits and tell them to wear them it’s going to happen. Is it a bonding thing that helps bring them together? Sure. Is it in place to make sure LeBron remembers which ones are his new teammates? Probably not.

Do the suits help on the court? No. And the Cavaliers better bring it in Game 3 because if they go down 2-1 in this series — something that is a realistic possibility — the whispers of doubt are going to get a lot louder.