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.

DeMarre Carroll: I fit better with Nets than ball-stopping Raptors

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DeMarre Carroll – after being traded from Toronto to Brooklyn – said some Raptors players didn’t trust their teammates. That’s the type of lightening-rod statement that often creates more controversy and/or comes across more harshly than the speaker intended. So, representative of his true feelings or not, he usually tries to walk it back.

Not Carroll, who mostly doubled down.

Carroll, via Brian Lewis of the New York Post:

Carroll, who will make $30 million over the next two seasons, admitted he wasn’t fit for Toronto’s isolation-heavy offense, that he is a role player at his best when his team moves the ball.

“Yeah, that’s definitely fair to say. I had my share of iso already, so team-ball is my forte,” said Carroll, who said it was effective with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. “You got two great All-Stars, two great players. That’s how they play. They were playing that way before I came, and they’re going to be playing that way long after I leave. They’re not changing that for me.”

“I give credit to Masai: He helped me find a team,’’ Carroll said. “Me coming from a system in Atlanta where the team is about moving the ball, we felt like it wasn’t a fit. I’m not an iso player by any means. I’m definitely a role player and for me to be the best role player I need to be on a team that shares the ball.

Carroll did emphasize more this time that an isolation system is more effective with Lowry and DeRozan. Some might even argue that system is more necessary considering the talent disparity between Toronto’s stars and their teammates – like Carroll. Carroll’s scoring prowess is more similar to the other Nets, which makes great ball movement more effective. If Lowry’s and DeRozan’s teammates were equally as good as those two, Lowry and DeRozan might pass more.

It’s a tough equilibrium to strike, and the Raptors probably haven’t yet. After multiple playoff disappointments, they’re trying for a a “culture reset” that includes more passing. It’s a big shift for a team and stars with such established identities.

Count Carroll among those doubting they’ll truly change their approach.

New Knicks GM Scott Perry: I haven’t met with James Dolan yet

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Knicks fans clamored for years for owner James Dolan to stop meddling. Dolan finally listened, handing the keys to the franchise to Phil Jackson then stepping away – another big error by the error-prone owner.

Then, Knicks fans clamored for Dolan to fire Jackson. Eventually – and far later than ideal – Dolan got Jackson out of town.

With Steve Mills succeeding Jackson as team president, what is Dolan’s involvement now? New general manager Scott Perry – rather awkwardly – shed light on the situation during an interview with ESPN’s Jemele Hill and Michael Smith.

Via Reed Wallach of Nets Daily:

  • Hill: “It’s still early, but what have your interactions with James Dolan been like?”
  • Perry: “I have not met with him yet, but I’m looking forward to that.”
  • Smith: “You have not met with him since you took the job, you mean?”
  • Perry: “Yes.”
  • Smith: “Gotcha. But obviously you met with him before you took the job?”
  • Perry: “No, I’ve dealt very closely with Steve Mills throughout the process.”
  • Smith: “Oh, it’s really just been Steve?”
  • Perry: “It’s just been – yes. Yes, it has.”

This isn’t necessarily problematic. Did you met with your boss’s boss during the interview process or shortly after being hired? For some jobs, I have. For others, I haven’t.

Though Perry carries the lofty general-manager title, Mills still runs the front office and reports directly to Dolan. I am curious how often Mills interacts with Dolan, though at least Mills is now getting advised from below with Perry.

The last time Mills was left to his own devices, he signed Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million deal.

Kings finally waive rights to 44-year-old European player they drafted in 1995

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Back in 1995 — while you were listening to Coolio rap “Gangster’s Paradise,” watching the O.J. Simpson trial, and using your cell phone to actually make calls — Sacramento Kings GM Geoff Petrie used a late second round pick on Dejan Bodiroga.

The Serbian point forward — who played for the Serbian national team with Vlade Divac — never came over to the NBA, despite multiple efforts by the Kings, and is still considered one of the better European players never to test the NBA waters. He was a Spanish and Greek league MVP and won multiple titles in European leagues.

Friday, the Kings finally renounced his draft rights.

He’s just 44 and hasn’t played professionally since 2007, are they sure he still couldn’t contribute? (Insert your own Jose Calderon joke here.)

Kings fans on Twitter were awesome.

 

Report: Kyrie Irving considered requesting a trade after Cavaliers’ championship season

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Kyrie Irving reportedly made his desire to leave the Cavaliers known during his first few years in Cleveland. Then, LeBron James returned and that talk quieted – for a while. This offseason, Irving renewed his trade request, reportedly before the draft then again to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert last week.

But this has apparently been percolating throughout Irving’s time in Cleveland – even at the Cavaliers’ peak.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

When Irving signed his deal, he expected to be the franchise player for the foreseeable future. But about two weeks later, James arrived from Miami. The sudden change of situation rocked Irving, and he has vacillated at times over the past three years about working as a secondary star to James and the original plan of having his own team.

He discussed the challenge during last month’s NBA Finals.

“Having just a tremendously great player like that come to your team, and you see yourself being one of those great players eventually, and then he ends up joining it, and then now you have to almost take a step back and observe,” Irving said. “Finding that balance is one of the toughest things to do because you have so much belief and confidence in yourself. … Selfishly, I always wanted to just show everyone in the whole entire world exactly who I was every single time.”

With this in mind, Irving considered requesting a trade after the Cavs’ championship last year but decided against it, sources said.

Irving is catching a lot of heat for wanting to ditch LeBron and the consensus second-best team in the NBA. Imagine if Irving requested a trade immediately after a title!

This is yet another example of winning curing all ills. Irving clearly sees playing a supporting role as suboptimal, but he was willing to do it when Cleveland was winning a championship. Now that the Cavs title chances have slipped (hello, Kevin Durant-boosted Warriors) – even just to second-best in the entire league – Irving has prioritized his exit.

We’ll see how this affects Irving’s image. That’s important for such a prominent endorser. But it’s safe to say a trade request last summer would have gone over far worse with the public.