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.

Report: Atlanta trades Kent Bazemore to Portland for Evan Turner

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Portland is always on the search for some quality play and shot creation at the forward spots (something that is a long-running weak spot), and with this trade the Trail Blazers get a little better.

Atlanta is sending Kent Bazemore to Portland in exchange for Evan Turner in a straight up, two-player trade, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Both players are in the final year of their somewhat overpaid contracts, Bazemore will make $19.3 million while Turner will pull down $18.6 million. Atlanta does save about $640,000.

This trade makes a lot of sense for Portland. Bazemore is a quality wing rotation player who averaged 11.6 points per game, is athletic and can create shots. Last season Bazemore was on his way to a career year until a mid-season ankle injury, and while he did come back to the court he was never healthy and the same player. He’s not a knock-down three-point shooter but he has usually been at around 35 percent or a little higher five of the past six seasons (he was down to 32 percent last season because of the ankle injury). This is more than just Rodney Hood insurance, this is an upgrade.

Turner was the guy Portland counted on as another shot creator, but he could not do that consistently or under pressure. He averaged 6.8 points per game last season, shot 21.2 percent from three, and is not a great defender. He is a popular teammate and good in the locker room (something useful with a young Hawks squad), but this is not an upgrade for the Hawks.

Then why did Atlanta make this trade? Good question. The franchise does save $640,000, which is helpful but not earth-shattering. Maybe it’s a favor to Bazemore to get him on a team that went to the Western Conference Finals a season ago and is a threat going forward. However, the best reason may be the Hawks have three young players they like — Kevin Huerter, plus just-drafted DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish — at the same spot and this frees up minutes for them to play.

Whatever the reason, the deal can get done soon, before free agency opens.

Knicks fined $50K for violating NBA’s media rules

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Knicks owner James Dolan escalates fight after fight after fight after fight after fight after fight after…

One of his latest battles has been with the New York Daily News, the newspaper that urged him to sell the team. The Knicks have repeatedly denied Daily News reporters access. Barring the Daily News from a recent press conference apparently crossed a line.

NBA:

The NBA announced today that the New York Knicks have been fined $50,000 for violating the NBA’s rules regarding equal access for media.

The Knicks did not allow the New York Daily News access to their post-draft press conference on Friday, June 21 while allowing all other credentialed media who cover the team to attend.

The organization has agreed to comply with NBA Media Access Rules moving forward.

The Knicks released this statement:

“The Knicks acknowledge that we did not comply with the NBA’s media policy, and made an error in interpreting Friday’s announcement as an invite only event.  As we do throughout the year, we have and will continue to provide access to credentialed media as per the League’s policy.” <

This has been a dumb plan by the Knicks. Even executed as designed, it makes them look bad.

The Knicks should be trying to generate enthusiasm around No. 3 pick R.J. Barrett and double-max cap space (which could turn into Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving). Instead, the Knicks are drawing attention to their thin skin and pettiness. And they’re not stopping the Daily News from writing about the team, anyway.

For Dolan, a $50,000 fine is small. But it’s larger than my confidence his franchise will abide by the league’s media rules – which are designed to ensure fans receive information – going forward.

Rumor: Kevin Durant not happy with Warriors

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Kevin Durant‘s torn Achilles in the NBA Finals is the type of life-changing event that could significantly alter his thinking entering free agency.

But we don’t know how Durant was thinking before the injury. And we don’t know how he’s thinking now. He has yet to speak publicly.

That won’t stop rumors, though.

Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report:

the indication from several league sources is that Durant is not happy with the team, and the presumption is that it stems from whatever role Warriors officials played in his decision to suit up. Coach Steve Kerr says he was told Durant could not further injure himself by playing, which obviously proved not to be true. If Durant was told the same, it would give credence to the notion that, as one league executive claims, “He’s really pissed off at the Warriors.”

Jay Williams, who’s close with Durant, said the Warriors misdiagnosed Durant and mishandled public statements about him. Williams doesn’t necessarily speak for Durant, but that might be the best indicator so far of Durant’s mindset.

Do Bucher’s sources have other reason to believe Durant is upset with Golden State? Or are they just assuming Williams is representing Durant’s thoughts? The possibility of the former is what makes this intriguing. But I’m skeptical, especially of someone Bucher identifies as just “one league executive.” That’s light credentials for someone spewing rhetoric like “really pissed off.”

Still, Kendrick Perkins and Brian Windhorst reported on momentum building toward Durant to the Nets. There’s plenty of smoke behind the idea Durant will leave Golden State.

Re-signing with the Warriors might be the way for the injured 30-year-old to maximize his earnings, though. Their max offer projects to be worth $221 million over five years. Other teams’ max offers project to be worth about $164 million over four years. Durant could agree to a delayed sign-and-trade. Of course, he couldn’t actually guarantee Golden State would ever trade him.

So, if he’s that upset with the Warriors, he’ll just leave once free agency opens next week.

Adam Silver likes NBA teams moving away from term ‘owner,’ prefers ‘governor’

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Warriors star Draymond Green has objected to using the term “owner.” The 76ers use “managing partner,” not “owner,” as Josh Harris’ title.

Does NBA commissioner Adam Silver like teams moving away from the term owner?

Silver, via TMZ:

I do. I don’t want to overreact to the term because, as I’ve said earlier, people end up twisting themselves into knots avoiding the use of the word owner. But, we moved away from that term years ago in the league. We call our team owners governor of the team and alternate governors. So, I think it makes sense. As I’ve said, I don’t want to overreact, and you’ll find the word throughout memos over the past decade in the NBA. But I’m sensitive to it, and I think to the extent teams are moving away from the term, we’ll stick with using governor.

Players have gone both ways. I think a few players have actually spoken out and said the greatest thing that ever happened was when Michael Jordan was able to call himself an owner. But, of course, Draymond Green has been very public about the fact that we should be moving away from the term, and I completely respect that.

The elephant in the room: Slavery. The history of white people owning black people is the subtext to this entire discussion. Slavery looms over a league where most owners are white and most player are black.

However, the term “owner” here doesn’t refer to owning the players, but owning the team. “Ownership” has far wider historically usage than slavery. In most fields, “owning” companies – which NBA teams are – doesn’t generate backlash.

Are we too loose with the term “owner” in sports? Perhaps. It’s common to say something like, “Players should strongly consider their potential owners in free agency” rather than “players should strongly consider their potential team’s owners in free agency.”

But there are power differences between players and owners/managing partners/governors/whatever you want to call them. Unless addressing the actual underlying issues, changing terms will accomplish nothing.

Those power dynamics are why the Warriors referred to Mark Stevens as “Mr. Stevens” and Kyle Lowry as Kyle Lowry after Stevens pushed Lowry during the NBA Finals. Those power dynamics are why Donald Sterling took guests into the Clippers’ locker room to ogle players. Those power dynamics are why LeBron James is remembered as the bad guy from The Decision despite Dan Gilbert’s wild letter.

There will always be differences between players and owners. Owners have more money and staying power. But the NBA can create a better, fairer environment for its players.

It’ll just require deeper consideration than a simple word change.