NBA Season Preview: Chicago Bulls

2 Comments

obama_noah_rose.jpgLast season: 41-41, same as it ever was with Vinny Del Negro

Head Coach: Tom Thibodeau, the defensive guru from the Boston Celtics gets his first head coaching gig. He’s earned it, but this is not a soft landing sprt — there are expectations.

Key Departures: Kirk Hinrich, Brad Miller, Hakim Warrick

Key Additions: Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, CJ Watson, and the aforementioned Thibodeau. In any other summer they Bulls would have had the best haul in free agency. But this wasn’t like any other summer.

Best case scenario: Title contender out of the East. Most people — myself included — have them on a second tier behind Miami and Boston, kind of there on the “good but not quite good enough” level. But we don’t really know. If they can defend, if the chemistry really is there, this is a roster with a lot of potential.

For that to happen: Tom Thibodeu is going to have to work his defensive magic, and prove he can devise an offense that uses some interesting talents.

In Boston, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce did not come in with stellar defensive reputations, but they bought into the system, worked in concert with guys behind them and became part of a very good defensive unit. Chicago is going to need to do that with Boozer and Rose, having Deng and Noah with them and being the intimidating force at the rim. It can work, and if it does the Bulls instantly become dangerous.

That defense should be able to get them out and running a little with transition baskets. A good defensive team that gets a few easy transition buckets becomes hard to beat (see Thunder, Oklahoma City).

On offense, Thibodeau has said he wants to go inside out. Which means you can have Rose driving the lane or post up Boozer, depending on matchups. Boozer was not as dominating in post up scoring as one would think last season — he shot 47.5 percent and scored 0.87 points per possessions, not stellar numbers – but because he can step out and knock down a midrange some teams will go smaller on him. The NBA remains a game of creating and exploiting mismatches.

Where Boozer is effective — the roll man on the pick-and-roll. Boozer and Rose could become a deadly combination at that game.

With Boozer, Deng and Noah the Bulls should clean up the boards and get a number of points off offensive rebounds.

More likely the Bulls will: Take a little time to gel, then probably finish somewhere between third and sixth in the East. Yes, that’s a wide range but things will be tight at the top of the East. Miami and Orlando are going to win a lot of regular season games (yes, Orlando in the regular season will be a beast and get a top-two seed). After that you have the Bulls, Hawks, Celtics and maybe the Bucks all hovering around 50 wins. How healthy they all stay will determine the matchup — the first round in the East this playoffs will have some tough ones.

Frankly, we don’t know exactly how well this team will mesh, and how fast. On paper there is potential, but seeing how it all fits together under a first-time head coach means there are a lot of questions. The Bulls could be very good, or they could be one of those nice teams that should be better. One that isn’t bad but isn’t inspiring.

At the end of the day, they likely land on that second tier in the East. Barack Obama will talk about how much he likes this team, they will be fun to watch, they will be good but not quite good enough. And they will need to go looking for more moves.

Prediction: 52 wins, and they make it to the second round of the playoffs, where they will push somebody seven games. That may be enough for a first year… except that the Heat likely will only get better in the next couple years, too.

James Harden on shooting struggles: ‘Who cares?’

Getty Images
Leave a comment

A couple of years ago, could anyone have imagined James Harden not only saying he’s willing to give up scoring to do the little things to win but then actually doing it?

That’s exactly what Harden has done through five games against Golden State, and it’s why his Houston team is up 3-2.

Harden has struggled with his shot the past two games: He has shot 16-of-47 overall the past two games (34 percent) but also 3-of-23 from three. Yet he has done a good job setting up others. In Game 5, in particular, he did a better job getting into the middle of the paint, opening up passing lanes when the defense collapsed on him. He’s also worked hard on the defensive end, played Stephen Curry reasonably well, and been a solid team defender.

With his team one game from the Finals, he’s not concerned about his shot.

“Who cares?” Harden said to reporters after the game. “I’m just missing shots. But we’re winning, and I’m trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we’ve got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares?”

A lot of players give that idea lip service, but in recent games Harden has backed it up.

“It’s just the shots [are] not falling, and a lot of it has to do with how hard everybody is playing,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Probably his legs aren’t the freshest things in the world. But he’s invaluable to the defense and offense.”

The Rockets are going to need more scoring from Harden to close this series out — Chris Paul is out for Game 6 with a strained hamstring, and it’s unlikely he plays if there is a Game 7. Eric Gordon will get the start and has lit it up the past couple of games (he led the Rockets with 24 points in Game 5), but more scoring and shot creation will fall on the Harden’s shoulders.

If the Rockets are going to close this series out, Harden is going to have to look every bit the presumptive MVP. The little things are great, but Houston needs him to get buckets now.

Suns GM: ‘Overwhelming likelihood’ team keeps No. 1 pick

Getty Images
1 Comment

It takes a rare kind of courage, an extraordinary level of organizational backing, and a special kind of draft to do what Danny Ainge did a year ago trading the No. 1 pick. While a consensus had formed around Markelle Fultz as the best player in the draft, Ainge was a Jayson Tatum guy. Doubts about the top pick are common, but that alone is far from enough to trade that pick away — most GMs don’t have the job security to know if they miss on moving the pick and sliding down they will not be let go. Ainge had that, and he had his confidence in his scouting, so he made the move to trade the No. 1 pick to Philadelphia. (While it looks good now for Ainge, it’s too early to judge how that pick plays out — Fultz has barely played, we don’t know what extra pick the Celtics will get out of this, it takes time to fully judge these kinds of moves.)

This year is different. DeAndre Ayton is more of a clear No. 1, a guy with franchise changing potential. Plus Suns’ GM Ryan McDonough may not be standing on the kind of bedrock that allows for the trade of a No. 1 pick.

Recently McDonough said he’d listen to trade offers for the pick. That’s very different from trading it, as Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic had the GM saying Friday.

Because they should do their due diligence, the Suns will look at Luka Doncic (who does have a relationship with new coach Igor Kokoskov) and Marvin Bagley III, among others. Rumors may leak, spun by agents or other teams. However, at the end of the day, good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks Phoenix will not take Ayton — who attended college in Arizona — to be the inside to Devin Booker‘s outside. It’s the smart play.

Kokoskov and the Suns have a lot of work to do to build a foundation for success with this franchise. However, that almost never starts by trading away the top pick in the draft.

Rumor: Paul George’s agent telling people client will re-sign with Thunder

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
7 Comments

That rumor Paul George will leave the Thunder?

How about the exact opposite?

Dean Blevins of News 9:

Allegedly, apparently, Paul George plans to stay with the Thunder. I know. It’s not what people believe. But in separate conversations, I’m told P.G.’s agent has told people associated with the NBA that P.G. believes the injury loss of Andre Roberson was huge and he’s staying. Disclaimer, though: Believing everything that agents allegedly say can be dangerous to your health.

This, by Blevins’ own admission, isn’t the staunchest reporting. Nonetheless, I appreciate him sharing and contextualizing it. We can evaluate it for what it’s worth.

George is known to share his plans – though the previous example was him planning to sign with the Lakers. And he might have really believed it at the time, when he was still with the Pacers.

But throughout the season, George seemingly went out of his way to profess his affection for Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder. That only raised expectations in Oklahoma City of George staying, and if he leaves after doing that, he’d be inviting even more backlash. I think he’s smart enough to understand that, which is why I thought he made those especially strong pro-Thunder comments only after deciding he’d likely stay.

On the other hand, even if my assessment was correct, conditions change. The Jazz brutally exposed Oklahoma City’s flaws, and if George re-signs and Anthony opts in, the Thunder will have minimal cap flexibility to upgrade the roster. In fact, they might take a step back with the supporting cast to keep the luxury-tax bill manageable. George could see free agency as his chance to escape that mess.

Roberson was a huge loss, and if George is focused on that, that would bode well for Oklahoma City. Though Roberson was just a role player, he was pivotal to the Thunder’s defense. And his teammates had learned how to play around his offensive shortcomings. Oklahoma City didn’t have any good replacements for him on the roster. Roberson getting healthy is the clearest way for the Thunder to improve next season.

Of course, that’s predicated on George returning, too. Will he?

One last note of caution: People often believe what they want to hear. It’s easy to see someone in Oklahoma City hearing George bemoan the loss of Roberson and elevate that to George planning to re-sign, even George wasn’t going that far.

Draymond Green guarantees Warriors will beat Rockets in Western Conference finals

AP Photo/David J. Phillip
7 Comments

Warriors coach Steve Kerr is confident despite his team trailing the Rockets 3-2 in the Western Conference finals.

Golden State forward Draymond Green goes further.

Green, via Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic:

“We still winning this,” Draymond Green said. “Book it.”

Of course, Green is confident. He’d never say he expects his team to lose.

But he didn’t need to frame it this way. He could’ve said he was just focused on the next game rather than make such a bold proclamation.

He’s taking pressure upon himself and putting his reputation on the line. If Golden State loses, especially in Game 6 at home with Chris Paul out, Green will be widely mocked.

If he and the Warriors pull through, he’ll probably deserve praise for setting a tone that helped them advance.