How good can Bulls be until Derrick Rose returns?

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For the past two regular seasons, the Chicago Bulls were the best team in the East. They were the top seed.

But they played much of the season in their top gear — especially on defense — which overwhelmed opponents but left questions about whether they could step it up in the playoffs. We’ll never know what might have happened if they faced the Heat in the conference finals last year because Derrick Rose’s ACL gave out on a jump stop.

In the off-season the Bulls started making moves to suggest they were looking at adding a star in two summers rather than just trying to win with what they have. The bench got shorter — C.J. Watson turned into Kirk Hinrich, Kyle Korver became Marco Belinelli, Omer Asik became Nazr Mohammed, Ronnie Brewer downgraded into Vladimir Radmanovic.

Now they have to start the season with that bench and without Rose — and likely go until around the All Star break in late February to get him back. So how good are the Bulls next season?

Taj Gibson told ESPNChicago.com he thinks the Bulls will still be competitive (hat tip to SLAM).

“We still did good even when we didn’t have Derrick (last season),” said Gibson, who threw out a ceremonial first pitch before the Chicago White Sox’s game on Monday. “We beat the Heat without Derrick.

“Our mindset hasn’t changed. It’s about staying focused and taking one game at a time. We understand it’s going to be up and down at the beginning of the season. We can’t look forward to the end. We got to look forward to one game at a time and playing to our strengths and just listening to coach (Tom Thibodeau). I know it’s going to be a long season, but I’m really optimistic about what’s going to happen.”

That’s a good attitude. The Bulls were 18-9 in the regular season without Rose and were able to continue to overwhelm opponents, but when it got to the Sixers in the first round of the playoffs the Bulls went 0-4 on games he did not play.

Come the regular season the Bulls are not going to keep winning two-thirds of their games without Rose. But with their defense and athletes they are not a below .500 team either. The issue is that when Rose comes back he will have to round into shape for a while. The Bulls could end up being that six or seven seed that nobody wants to face because they are getting healthy.

But they are not the best team in the East any more. Not sure that they ever really were.

Evan Fournier takes shot at LeBron’s hairline with Tweet of media day photo

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Just because LeBron James is in the Western Conference doesn’t mean you want to give him fuel for motivation when he does see your team.

Orlando’s Evan Fournier decided to have a little fun at the expense of LeBron’s hairline when Tweeting out his media day photos.

LeBron may have a whole show based in a barber shop, but he did have a little more forehead going today.

Still, Evan, is that really where you wanted to go?

Dwight Howard could miss start of Wizards camp with bad back

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Dwight Howard joked Monday about the sore back that’s expected to keep him out for the start of training camp with the Washington Wizards.

Coach Scott Brooks downplayed the significance of the injury, too. Still, it’s not ideal that the team needs to put off incorporating its one offseason addition to the starting lineup.

“I’ve been having to do a lot of traveling with shoe companies and stuff like that in China. So just from training, traveling – and airplanes weren’t made for tall people. … It kind of sucks to fly 15 hours curled up in the fetal position,” said Howard, a 6-foot-11 center entering his 15th NBA season.

“So just a minor setback. It shouldn’t take that long for me to get back on the court,” he added. “I’ve been feeling great all summer. Just something that we’ll have to deal with, and it shouldn’t keep me out too long.”

The Wizards traded away starting center Marcin Gortat to the Los Angeles Clippers and added Howard, who’ll turn 33 in December, on a two-year, $11 million contract with a player option. He averaged 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds last season for a Charlotte Hornets team that missed the playoffs and now is with his fourth team in four years.

That means adjusting yet again – to new teammates, to a new coach, to a new system.

In Washington, everything revolves around the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal.

Last season, when Wall appeared in only 41 of 82 games, the Wizards went 43-39 and were eighth in the Eastern Conference, losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Toronto Raptors.

Howard, an eight-time All-Star, said that he has not had a chance to get on a court with Wall and Beal to start getting a feel for one another.

“But one thing that I have done is I’ve watched a lot of film to really learn the tendencies of my teammates. Where they like the ball. Where they like to get screened at. Just things that will really help them get to their sweet spots,” Howard said. “A lot of times, the best way to really understand your teammate is by watching film.”

Brooks, Beal and others said all the right things at Monday’s media day about Howard.

“He’s going to make my job a lot easier. He’s going to make everybody’s job a lot easier on both ends of the floor, because you still have to respect his ability at the rim. He averaged 16 and 13 last year. Those are great numbers, you know? In our system, those can increase, easily,” said Beal, who led Washington in scoring by averaging 22.6 points and was an All-Star for the first time.

“Watching him, if you don’t hit him, it’s over. He’s going to dunk on you. And I love it. Because I think that’s going to get me hyped – just being able to have a big who’ll just flush it on you every time and somebody who will block some shots if you get beat on defense,” Beal said. “He’s a threat on both ends of the floor.”

Now it’s just a matter of getting Howard out on that floor with the rest of the Wizards.

“We’re just going to be careful. Not sure if he will practice tomorrow” when camp opens, Brooks said at the club’s media day.

Brooks listed Howard’s status as “day-to-day,” saying he wasn’t “overly concerned.”

“But we’re not going to rush him to get back,” the coach said.

 

LeBron James forcefully shoots down idea he came to Los Angeles for showbiz

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LeBron James is a smart man, one who knows what his empire is built upon:

Basketball.

And him being better than anyone else in the world at it.

While his post-career life is in Los Angeles — his production company has “The Wall” on NBC, is in the early stages of putting together an NBC comedy about the family life of Ben Simmons, is producing “The Shop” on HBO, is making “Space Jam 2” with LeBron as the star, and more — do not suggest to LeBron that might get in the way of basketball.

“I’m a basketball player. I play ball, that’s what I do,” LeBron said earlier in his press conference. “That’s what I live by and when I do it at the level I do it at everything else takes care of itself.

“As far as my business, those things have been taking care of themselves long before I came out here to be part of the Lakers franchise.”

LeBron is right about that. His production company — led by Maverick Carter — has been working on Space Jam for a couple of years now, and if LeBron had decided to stay in Cleveland or sign in Philadephia or anywhere else that project would still be going forward. They’d still be filming next summer in the off-season, regardless of where he played.

LeBron is very good at compartmentalizing his life. The great ones are. Kobe Bryant had side projects, but it never slowed down the effort he put into the game. Same is going on right now with Stephen Curry and James Harden. Michael Jordan did it before them, and Magic Johnson before him. Those guys have brands that are empires of their own now, but they all know what the foundation of that success is.

And they don’t let anything get in the way of basketball. Not like that.

Enes Kanter: ‘When I think about playoffs, my nipples get hard’

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The Knicks season should be about laying a foundation. They’ll remain patient with their best player, Kristaps Porzingis, returning from injury. They said they won’t trade draft picks.

But they’ve also paid enough lip service to competing this season to, um, excite Enes Kanter.

SNY:

We’ll be sure to check in on the softness of Kanter’s nipples when the Knicks miss the playoffs by dozens of games.