Phil Jackson says the Bulls ‘overachieved.’ So that means the Lakers…

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There are so many things Phil Jackson will miss about the NBA. The comfy feel of a custom chair brought in just for him. The smell of reporter sweat as he toys with them like a cat with a mouse. The lavish comforts of studio hosts proclaiming him as the best thing since sliced bread. The roar of the crowd, so vivid he can almost here them now… “We want tacos! We want tacos!” they seem to say.

All that’s gone, replaced by a quiet fade into the sunset.

But good news! Being retired doesn’t mean Jackson has to give up his favorite pastime: taking potshots at other coaches, teams, and players! Woo!

From ESPN Chicago:

“I think they overachieved last year as far as record and how they got to the spots they got to in the playoffs,” Jackson said Thursday on “The Waddle & Silvy Show” on ESPN 1000. “They still have to have some steady shooters from the outside to complement the penetration they have, and then (Carlos Boozer) has to have that post-up game that he was brought there to give them.

“They just can’t be one-dimensional in that regard. They have to have those complementary pieces to assist Rose in his game.”

via Phil Jackson said Chicago Bulls need to add pieces to help Derrick Rose – ESPN Chicago.

Jackson’s comments should rank about a -500 on the outrage scale. Everyone knows that Rose needs more surrounding help. The overachieved thing is interesting, however, as is the assessment of their personnel moves.

At another outlet, last fall I gave the Bulls a C+ for their offseason. I later adjusted it to a B- based off the hiring of Tom Thibodeau, who I had overlooked. (I re-did the grade prior the season starting, so I wasn’t just using revisionist history after they won.) Bulls fans were apoplectic, as you’d expect, and I looked like a moron the entire season especially when they won the most games in the NBA.  Let me say that again. I gave a B- to a team that won the most games in the NBA. 

But here’s the question. Were they really that good? Were they always doomed to an elimination based on their roster?

Let’s consider the Spurs for a moment. The Spurs had one of the best seasons in franchise history. They were the number one seed. But their season and roster makeup is considered a monumental failure because they were ousted by an eighth seed in the first round.

The Bulls, on the other hand, made it all the way to the conference championship. That settles that question, right? Except that if the Bulls had played the Grizzlies, don’t you think that might have been pretty tight, considering the Bulls had what can be considered the toughest five-game series win in recent history? They struggled mightily with Indiana. Struggled mightily with the Hawks. In essence, if it weren’t for Derrick Rose going above and beyond in three games in the playoffs, the Bulls are looking at longer series and possibly getting eliminated by the Hawks. The Hawks.

“But they didn’t, so this is pointless” Bulls fans might say, and they’d be correct. They did win those series, they didn’t play Memphis, and they did win the most games in the NBA and wind up in the conference finals. But the reason I gave them a B- early was because their biggest acquisition was Carlos Boozer. And anyone who’s paid attention to the Jazz over the past four years could have told you that Carlos Boozer is not the way to a championship. He is not Rose’s Pippen, Kareem, Shaq/Kobe, or even his Manu. And that was their big signing.

Other than that? Ronnie Brewer who didn’t really make much of an impact, Kyle Korver who alternated being brilliant and terrible in the playoffs, and… yeah, other than that it was just Thibodeau. Thibodeau, who was the real cause of the Bulls’ run. Their offense wasn’t up to snuff, but Thibodeau’s defense made lineups featuring both Boozer and Korver terrific defensively. That’s insane in itself. Yet it was Thibodeau’s inability to adjust that lead to problems in the playoffs and their eventual demise at the hands of the Heat.

Now, let’s go back one more time.

I’m saying here that the Bulls weren’t really that impressive, that their signings were less than formidable, and that their making the conference finals is kind of a sham, a case of overachievement.

You realize the 2008 Celtics struggled with the Atlanta Hawks to the nth degree in the first round, then fought down the Cavaliers in a similar manner to the Hawks, before taking down the Pistons? What’s the point? The point is that great teams struggle in the playoffs. Everyone struggles in the playoffs at some point, save for the truly greatest teams, or at least those with dominant matchup advantages.

The Bulls didn’t have a B- offseason. They had an A+ offseason, because they made the moves which lead to wins. But it’s going to be really interesting to see how this team develops over the next few years. They won’t amnesty Boozer, though they should. And Thibodeau eventually is going to have to make changes to his style and approach or he’s going to become the anti-D’Antoni, the NBA version of Marty Schottenheimer. All defense, but not enough knives being brought to a gun fight.

Finally, if the Bulls were overrated and made the Finals, then what were the Lakers last year? Interesting question for Jackson.

Nikola Jokic announces he will play for Serbia in World Cup

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This year’s World Cup is going to be stacked with elite NBA players. It usually is a big draw, but this World Cup brings a couple additional things to the table. First, it’s part of the Olympic qualifying process for the 2020 games in Tokyo.

More importantly for players, the World Cup is in China. That is a fast-growing basketball shoe and apparel market and that will push Nike, Adidas, Reebok and any other shoe brand you can think of to “encourage” their stars to go. For example, the Sixers’ Ben Simmons will be playing for Australia.

Nikola Jokic will be one of those stars. The Denver Nuggets center told the Serbian state news agency, via ESPN.

“I am very pleased with everything I did in the NBA this season. I had a great year in which I performed at the All-Star Game and was selected [to the All-NBA first team]. For me, the cherry on top of this whole season would be a medal with the national team.”

Jokic and Serbia may be the USA’s biggest threat in that tournament, this is the team that picked up the silver medal in the last Olympics. Jokic is a better player than he was a few years ago and the team has a long list of quality players including Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milos Teodosic, and Boban Marjanovic.

The World Cup tips off Aug. 31 in China, right up against the start of NBA training camps.

 

Rumor: Clippers not interested in Jimmy Butler, he would sign with Lakers for max

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Should a team feel comfortable giving Jimmy Butler — who will turn 30 before next season, is a hard-charging personality who plays a hard-charging style that can be hard on his body, and has only once played 70 or more games in the past six seasons — a four-year, $141 million max contract?

If the Lakers strike out with Kyrie Irving and other top targets (Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are not interested, according to sources), should they give Butler the max and sign him comfortable or not?

LeBron James has already reached out to start recruiting Butler, and if the Lakers offer him the max Butler would love to come, Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times said on the Colin Cowherd. Markazi adds that the Clippers are not interested because they are aiming higher on the food chain.

That is what a lot of sources have said about the Clippers, they would need to move Danilo Gallinari (and do a little more) to sign both Leonard and Durant, but would and should in a heartbeat.

Butler is going to have options, starting with the Philadelphia 76ers, who do not want to let him go. As it got near the end of Philly’s playoff run it had seemed Butler had found a home, both on the court as a primary ball handler in the halfcourt, and off the court as a leader and someone who bonded with Joel Embiid. Also, Philadelphia can offer more money, a projected $190 million over five years, and for a guy who has had injury issues that extra year and extra money might matter a lot.

Is Butler going to stay? What should we read into his cryptic Instagram post? If he leaves, does he want to play with LeBron? Is that the Lakers’ best option? (I think the Lakers should prefer Irving, who is younger and coming off an All-NBA regular season, plus he has a track record of winning with LeBron, but if not him…)

It is going to be a wild July in the NBA.

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starters are -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — were -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

In Game 5, it was the Raptors’ bench that led the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one, except that Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Are Rockets trying to push Mike D’Antoni out the door?

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After a slow start to the season, by the end the Houston Rockets had found their groove and were the second best team in the West. That still wasn’t good enough to get by the Warriors dynasty. That has led to some soul searching in Houston.

And some changes to the assistant coaching staff. First came the news Jeff Bzdelik would not return in his defensive coordinator role. Then on Friday, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle put out a series of Tweets talking about the other coaching changes coming.

Cho had been with the Rockets for a decade. Roland worked closely with James Harden, among others.

This is a near total overhaul of Mike D’Antoni’s staff, which has led to speculation the Rockets are trying to push their coach out the door, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

D’Antoni has done an excellent job — and adapted his style — to coach these Rockets into being contenders. He is part of the reason this franchise is a contender. The Rockets have fallen short the last two seasons not because of D’Antoni, but rather because of the Warriors. Golden State is an all-time dynasty level team, they are beating everybody.

This feels like the East in recent years when coaches lost jobs and teams were broken up because they could not get past LeBron James‘ teams when the issue was really LeBron is one of the game’s all-time greats.

There could be other dynamics at play in Houston, but the challenge there is not the coach. If Tilman Fertitta is frustrated his team fell short again, he should start by looking in the mirror at the cost-cutting moves his team made this season to get under the tax line. That put a ceiling on this team more than anything D’Antoni did.