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.

Watch Damian Lillard put up 51 on shorthanded 76ers

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Everything is back to normal for Damian Lillard.

The All-Star point guard scored 51 points after a frustrating finish a night earlier, and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers 124-121 on Sunday.

On Saturday against the Los Angeles Clippers, Lillard missed a pair of free throws with 18.6 seconds to go and a 3-pointer with 9.5 seconds left in a 122-117 loss. Clippers players Paul George and Patrick Beverley were seen laughing at Lillard’s misfortune.

Lillard got the last laugh Sunday by scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter.

“It wasn’t really so much my performance yesterday and I wanted to perform a certain way today,” he said. “It was like, we let one slip that we should have had yesterday, and I’m a big part of why it got away from us. So tonight, I was like ‘That’s not going to happen.’”

Portland bounced back and pulled within a half-game of Memphis for eighth place in the Western Conference. The Trail Blazers increased their chances of qualifying for the play-in series, which will start Saturday.

The 76ers lost much more than the game. All-Star center Joel Embiid left in the first quarter with what the team called a left ankle injury, and he did not return. He contested a shot, then backed up and stepped awkwardly into the stanchion. He had been averaging 30 points per game since the restart.

76ers coach Brett Brown wouldn’t say whether Embiid would miss time.

“I’m going to learn more physically,” Brown said. “I don’t know enough to comment on it.”

It was more bad injury news for the 76ers. All-Star point guard Ben Simmons is out indefinitely with an injured left knee.

Josh Richardson scored a season-high 34 points and Alec Burks added 20 for Philadelphia. The 76ers would have moved into a tie with the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat for fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings with a win.

Without their stars, the 76ers fell behind by 17 in the second quarter and trailed 67-58 at halftime.

The game tightened up late. Philadelphia’s Al Horford hit a 3-pointer to trim Portland’s lead to 122-121. Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic made two free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining to put his team up three. Richardson missed a 3-pointer for Philadelphia, and the 76ers couldn’t get another shot off after a scramble for the rebound.

“I thought our guys fought,” Brown said. “I really thought the spirit of the group was fantastic. We called upon many different players that I think played with a spirit and a passion that you’re proud of.”

Zion Williamson, New Orleans eliminated from playoff chase; Kings, too

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There was no team hyped like the New Orleans Pelicans heading into the NBA’s restart in Orlando. They had Zion Williamson healthy (or so they thought), and they had been playing the best of any of the teams in the playoff chase just before the coronavirus shut the league (and nation) down. A basketball-starved nation dreamed of a LeBron James vs. Zion showdown in the first round.

The reality of the bubble was not so kind to those dreams or New Orleans.

The Pelicans lost to the Spurs on Sunday, 122-113, despite 25 points from Williamson. Combined with the Trail Blazers beating the 76ers 124-121, the Pelicans became mathematically eliminated from reaching the nine seed and getting into a play-in series in the West.

The Pelicans are out of the playoffs. New Orleans will go through the motions of two more games in the bubble, but don’t be surprised if key players rest. The Pelicans went 2-4 in the bubble with offensive struggles holding the team back.

The Sacramento Kings also have been eliminated, extending the franchise’s playoff drought to 14 years. The last time the Kings were in the playoffs was 2006.

The Memphis Grizzlies sit as the eighth seed in the West, with Portland the ninth seed and just half-a-game back. San Antonio (one game back of Memphis) and Phoenix (1.5 games back) are both alive in the playoff chase still.

New Orleans getting eliminated ends J.J. Redick‘s playoff streak at 13 seasons, the longest of any active player and tied for seventh-longest all-time (the record is a tie at 19 between Karl Malone and John Stockton, who did it together). Getting eliminated is what leads to a 1000-mile stare meme.

 

 

 

 

Joel Embiid will not return to 76ers game due to left ankle injury

Joel Embiid injury
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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Philadelphia’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad bubble continues.

Joel Embiid went back to the locker room during the first quarter of the 76ers game against the Trail Blazers and will not return to the court due to a left ankle injury, the team announced, via Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

There are no other details yet on Embiid’s condition. He has been far-and-away the best player on a Philadelphia team that has struggled through the NBA’s restart in Orlando.

The 76ers have already lost Ben Simmons, likely for the rest of this season, due to knee surgery.

Despite the injuries and rough play, Philly was 3-1 entering Sunday. However, the one loss was to red-hot T.J. Warren and Indiana, which essentially locked the 76ers into the six seed (and a likely first-round meeting with Boston).

Embiid is averaging 30 points a game in Orlando and put up a ridiculous 41 points, 21 rebounds line against Indiana.

If Embiid misses much time, the Sixers’ chances against any team near the top of the East are slim. At best.

Play-in series guaranteed in West after Toronto beats Memphis

NBA play-in
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s now official: There will be a play-in series to determine the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Memphis’ 108-99 loss to Toronto on Sunday means that it’s no longer possible for more than a four-game difference in the standings between the eighth- and ninth-place finishers in the West when the seeding game schedule ends later this week.

By the rules the NBA set for this season’s restart, there had to be more than a four-game cushion for the No. 8 team to get the final playoff spot outright. The league decided to add the play-in series option in an abundance of fairness, since about 14% of the regular season schedule was eliminated because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Memphis remains alone in eighth place, even after Sunday’s loss. Portland is one game behind and is in the nine seed (with a Philadelphia Sunday night). San Antonio (who beat New Orleans Sunday) and red-hot Phoenix are 1.5 games back of the Grizzlies. New Orleans is now two games back and with a difficult road to the postseason.

No team has clinched a spot in the play-in series; the Grizzlies could have assured themselves of no worse than that had they beaten the Raptors on Sunday.

Game 1 of the play-in series will be Saturday, with Game 2 — if necessary — the following day, Aug. 16. To advance and face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, the eighth-place team will have to win one of the two games and the ninth-place finisher would have to go 2-0.

ABC will air Game 1 of the play-in series on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Game 2, if necessary, would be Aug. 16 at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN.

There will be no play-in series in the Eastern Conference; Brooklyn and Orlando have secured what were the last two available spots on that bracket, with Washington — the only other team that came to Disney with a chance of qualifying in the East — already eliminated.

The playoffs begin Monday, Aug. 17.

“Obviously, that’s what everybody’s goal is,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said Sunday.

The matchup for the play-in will be known no later than Thursday. There are four seeding games on Friday, the last day of the regular season, though none of them will have any bearing on the West matchup.