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.

Lonzo Ball says he likes it when Rajon Rondo trash talks him

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Would you want to get yelled at by Rajon Rondo? Pretty much in any circumstance, most people would say no. Especially if they were Rondo’s teammate.

That’s not the case for Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball.

Speaking to ESPN this week, Ball said that Rondo had been pivotal in his development this season, and that he actually enjoyed and encouraged Rondo to antagonize him during practices.

Via ESPN:

“Yeah, he’ll try to get into me,” Ball said. “Just stuff to try to get me going. He talks a bunch of trash in practice all the time, which makes me pretty mad.”

“I told him, my whole life I [respond to] getting yelled at [by the coach] so that is how I respond … if you see stuff, just yell at me. I tune into it. That is how he tries to help me out.”

Ball went on to say that Rondo was, “The best leader that I’ve ever played with” outside of LeBron James.

Rondo has been famously divisive during his time in the league, perhaps getting on the nerves of some veterans but acting as a favorite among younger players in places like Chicago.

Advanced statistics don’t support the idea that Ball has taken a big leap this year, and if anything he has perhaps trended downward as he’s tried to get into a better rhythm with LeBron and this funky Lakers team that’s been built around him.

However, many believe that Ball has the underpinnings to be a solid player and a consistent starter moving forward in his career. If he can glean any positive traits from Rondo in the meantime, all the better.

LeBron James on Lakers adding Carmelo Anthony: ‘I have no idea to be honest’

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Carmelo Anthony is still a member of the Houston Rockets, but for how long?

Houston is trying to find a way to offload the aging superstar, with no apparent buyers ready to step up to the plate. Meanwhile, the NBA community-at-large has being agog with potential landing spots for Carmelo.

The most popular and obvious spot for Anthony to land is with the Los Angeles Lakers, a team made up of a veritable who’s who of former stars from the past decade-and-a-half of NBA basketball.

For their part, the Lakers don’t appear interested externally, and they don’t have a roster spot for him right now anyway. When LeBron James was asked about the potential of adding his Banana Boat friend, he even intimated as much.

Via ESPN:

I have no idea to be honest, that’s not a question to ask me. Right now, we have 15 rosters spots right? We don’t have a roster spot open right now so that’s not a question for myself.

Of course LeBron is being facetious in saying that he doesn’t have say over roster changes. His entire career has been dogged by his sometimes undue influence in either trading for or getting his buddies re-signed to his team.

Still, Los Angeles does seem like the only realistic landing spot for Anthony at this time. One could see a situation in which LeBron, much as he has tried to resist, getting fed up with LA’s middling play as the trade deadline approaches and forcing some kind of Anthony addition.

But for now, Carmelo remains a Houston Rocket and the Lakers don’t have a roster spot open. That’s the story, and they are sticking to it.

Markelle Fultz calls new free-throw routine ‘trial and error’

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The confidence of Markelle Fultz continues to be a question, not just for Philadelphia 76ers fans but for NBA heads around the league wondering just when the former No. 1 overall pick will get back to his old college self.

Fultz continues to struggle in the oddest ways. The sophomore guard was seen double clutching a free throw attempt recently, which apparently led to another new routine at the charity stripe.

In his latest change is one where Fultz does a little juggle of the ball back and forth before quickly moving into a shooting motion. It took many by surprise on social media, and reporters naturally asked Fultz about it.

For his part, Fultz said that he’s not going to change the routine because it appears to be working for him.

Via Twitter:

Hey, whatever gives this kid confidence at this time is something that works.

Stephen Curry on Warriors’ potential to fall apart: ‘That’s not going to happen’

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Draymond Green will be away from the Golden State Warriors for a little while as he deals with what the team is calling an injured toe. Meanwhile, the dust has appeared to settle after his disagreement with Kevin Durant rose to a crescendo early this week, resulting in a one-game suspension for Green and questions about whether Durant might leave this offseason in free agency.

Reports have been flying out of Golden State ever since, and now the leader of the team, Stephen Curry, has finally made his voice known.

Speaking to reporters late this week, Curry said that he was proud of how the team handled their disagreement internally, and that it would not be the thing that tore them apart.

Via the San Francisco Chronicle:

“I’m not going to let that fall apart from an incident like that. I can talk about all the different conversations that have happened — whether I’ve been included or not — but again, it’s about how we as a team move forward.”

“Obviously, from a personal standpoint, there are things that need to be worked through like any relationship in life. At the end of the day, they both understand that neither one of them is going to be the reason that we don’t win a championship this year. I can roll with that.”

Those are certainly all the things you want to see from the franchise cornerstone following a dust up like this. Whether it’s actually true is another thing altogether, but we won’t be able to make any judgment on that until Green returns to the floor.

Championship teams have teammates that hate each other. Scottie Pippen even mentioned as much earlier this week. And the Warriors are so talented that I don’t believe it alters their championship hopes one bit if Green and Durant continue to simmer on this the rest of the year.

Kevin Durant is still on the Warriors.

The Warriors are still the favorites to win the NBA championship in June.

For now.