The Inbounds: The Chicago Bulls can defy expectations again. Is that a good thing?

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

The Bulls were supposed to be a middle-seed in 2011, maybe a 4 or a 5 seed. They took the No.1 overall seed in the East.

Chicago was supposed to be hampered by injuries, particularly those to Derrick Rose in 2012, falling back maybe to a 2nd or 3rd seed. Again, No.1 with a bull-et. (Get it? Because they’re the Bulls? And it’s a Bull-et? Get… OK, sorry.)

This year, Rose is out recovering from ACL surgery, as highlighted extensively by Adidas, and most are not targeting them for a top-four seed, expecting a fall back to the pack. They revamped their roster in terms of the bench and many feel not for the better. Carlos Boozer’s another year older, Luol Deng had a long, hard summer, and Kirk Hinrich is starting at point guard.

But let’s think about this for a minute. Is it really smart to dismiss not only what the Bulls accomplished, but how? The Bulls the past two seasons have not succeeded based on superior talent, in truth. Yes, Luol Deng has really improved offensively and put himself in the top 5-10 of players defensively. Carlos Boozer is so overrated hes’ underrated, and suffers from the same kind of misconception that Joe Johnson deals with. Joakim Noah is very quietly, ironically, one of the better centers in the league at both ends of the floor. They have the talent, but they also have the system. Thibodeau relies on veterans making veteran plays offensively and a barbed-wire trap surrounded by landmines as his defensive construct. Anyone can be good defensively in Thibodeau’s system, or at least invisibly poor, because all you must do is what you’re taught and do so with emphasis and effort. You can be as unskilled or slow as any player in the league, and if you learn the things he teaches, you’re going to be good enough to not be a problem on the floor.

Put it this way, the Knicks can’t put Steve Novak on the floor for stretches because if they do, he leaves them vulnerable defensively, despite Woodson’s excellent defensive coaching. Novak could exist in the Bulls’ system, and while still a liability, be less of one.

So if your liabilities aren’t really liabilities and your strengths are still strength, why are we so quick to shove the Bulls off the top rungs of the Eastern ladder? The Heat will be resting stars as they always do, the Celtics, much the same. Indiana is certainly a threat but it’s hard to argue they’re better than the Bulls at their best. So why can’t the Bulls win the division, and get a top seed?

There’s no reason. That’s how good Tom Thibodeau is. (Which makes the Bulls’ continued all-too-typical wrangling with him over his contract all the more maddening, and that’s all I’ll say about that for now.)

But there’s a question beyond that. Is that what Bulls fans should want? Is that what the Bulls organization should want? Is that the best outcome for them?

It’s hard to say that the Bulls are overachieving if this is the third year they would reach that kind of height, but it’s still true. They’re playing at a level which defies pretty common rational analysis of how good they are, as a sum of their parts. A team can definitely reach higher as a composite and is more than just the individual talents. But is it this much? The results of the playoffs would indicate no. You can toss out last year, sure, if you want to go with Rose’s injury and the emotional impact on the team leading to the loss to the Sixers, but remember, that same team had problems with Indiana, always in close games in a short-but-fierce five-game series, then really had some emotional swings vs. Atlanta, before finally winning Game 1 vs. Miami and looking unstoppable, then getting railroaded like Wile E. Coyote. They just needed a little white ACME sign.

The Bulls need so much to go their way, for Boozer to play as an elite player he’s never really been, for Deng to shoot the lights out when he’s a good but inconsistent mid-range shooter, for the bench mob to constantly overwhelm opponents with hustle (or veteran savvy, I suppose, this year, with the bench significantly different). They can still look really good but eventually, they’ll run up against a mirror that shows how good they really are, and when that comes, they tend to mix down to about the team we thought they’d be in the beginning. It doesn’t take away from what Thibs has done, if anything, it emphasizes it. But we also can’t realistically look at this team as a title contender, and if that’s the case, what’s the point?

The maddening part is that Rose’s injury leaves so much in the air. If the team gels and plays together, it’s going to excite the team and its fans, prompting more belief. If they don’t somehow reach the impossible dream, then it will be crushing, but still be filled with “Well, Derrick wasn’t really back yet.” Rose’s injury causes a constant level of self-doubt, not only towards any positive regard for the team, but for any criticisms as well.

There’s no real way to evaluate the Bulls, other than “really good, but probably not a title team.”

A year in which they did not reach expectations, did not exceed them, just kind of slumped to a close could bring another lottery miracle, a younger player with talent at the least. It could force changes from the front office desperate not to waste Rose’s youth, and a move to amnesty Boozer. There could be change and progress, versus the current results which are just good enough to be able to justify not making any sort of bold move. How do you say “we have to get better” when you were the best team in your conference?

And the answer to that is “by examining the level of superstar talent you need to win a title in today’s NBA.” Rose is a special talent, regardless of his limitations, and has a remarkable future ahead of him. But another year of taking a hammering in the playoffs, fresh off his recovery, would work contrary to the long-term goals.

The Bulls are stuck between a Rose and a hard place, and the only way to facilitate change may be for them to not do the thing they’re best at: playing at a level far beyond what may be sustainable in the playoffs long-term.

Report: As expected, Jamal Crawford declines $4.5 million player option with Minnesota

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Jamal Crawford wants a bigger payday, and after a solid season scoring 10.3 points per game for Minnesota last season, he might get it despite a tight market. That’s why what happened on Monday was expected.

Crawford opted out of the final year of his contract with the Timberwolves, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jamal Crawford has declined his $4.5 million player option for next season and will become a free agent, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Crawford, a three-time Sixth Man of the Year, will become one of the top reserve scorers on the open market after facing Monday’s deadline to decide on his option.

The concern for teams is that Crawford is 38 and already showing some decline in his skills and game. Crawford can still be productive, but teams will be leery of offering more than two years guaranteed on his contract. And for a guy who comes off the bench — even a three-time Sixth Man of the Year — teams are not going to spend big.

Crawford may also just be looking for a new team chemistry and role, something at this stage in his career he should be able to get.

Enes Kanter’s father sentenced to 15 years in jail in ongoing political dispute

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The dictatorial Turkish government has issued an arrest warrant for Knicks big man Enes Kanter because he is an outspoken opponent of Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Kanter is not foolish enough to go home to be arrested (and likely tortured), he may never see his homeland again.

Kanter’s family had to disavow their son and his beliefs. That apparently was not enough. Kanter’s father, Mehmet Kanter, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison in Turkey for “membership in a terror group,” the country’s official news agency reported Monday.

Enes Kanter believes to be a politically motivated attempt to go at him. Kanter released this statement.

The Turkish government’s shots at Kanter are not new. Last summer the Turkish government revoked Kanter’s passport while he was abroad, forcing American diplomats (with some help from the NBA) to step in and prevent him from being sent back to his native country and arrested.

All of this is because Kanter is a follower of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Turkish president Erdogan — who is essentially a dictator now, and runs a country where human rights abuses are rampant — blames Gulen for masterminding a failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, and used that as an excuse for a crackdown and consolidation of power.

Using or dividing family members to try to gain political advantage or make a political statement is abhorrent, anywhere it happens. Unfortunately, Kanter is caught in the middle of it and there is little he can do.

PUMA signs likely No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, hires Jay-Z

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When it was announced that likely top-three pick Marvin Bagley III signed a shoe endorsement deal with PUMA, we noted that they were going all in and spending big (Bagley’s contract is about three times the average high draft pick first shoe deal).

We didn’t know the half of it.

On Monday word came the German-based shoe manufacturer had also inked a deal with likely No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton, had signed their original endorser Walt “Clyde” Frazier to a lifetime deal, and hired Jay-Z to help with the branding and on the business side.

That’s a heck of a day. And a massive commitment to the market.

Winning over people to buy PUMA basketball shoes is going to take a few things (including making great shoes), but getting high-profile endorsers is part of it. Ayton can potentially be that for them, a global brand ambassador.

Nick DePaula of ESPN broke the Ayton news and had details from the player himself.

For Ayton, there was plenty of interest in pursuing a shoe deal with Puma, although the brand has been out of the basketball landscape for 20 years since signing Vince Carter in 1998. Ayton shares a connection to two of its biggest ambassadors, Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica and pop star Rihanna of Barbados, after growing up in the Caribbean.

“Puma is pretty popular in the Bahamas,” Ayton said. “I’ve always seen the brand growing up. [Bolt] is one of the first people I saw with the brand. It’s important to me that someone I identify with and admire as an athlete is with the same brand.”

PUMA also reached an endorsement deal with NBA rookie to be Zhaire Smith.

Going old-school with Frazier was a classy touch.

But the surprise news was the partnership with Jay-Z and his Roc Nation organization. Complex had the story.

On top of that, JAY-Z has joined as the company’s president of basketball operations. “We’ve been working with Roc Nation for quite some time. They’ve been great partners to us for several years. We’ve done many different deals with many different ambassadors,” Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing, told Complex. When Puma approached him about this opportunity, JAY-Z felt it “was something he wanted to be a part of,” according to Petrick.

Hov will have a hand in the players selected to join Puma’s basketball division, as well as assist in the art design and overall concept and direction of the brand.

Will this work?

Maybe, despite Nike’s stranglehold on the basketball shoe market (through the Jordan brand as well as endorsers such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant), there is room to get a foothold in the space. However, this needs to be a long-term commitment from PUMA where they not only design quality products but keep doing it for years and years. It’s one thing to maybe buy a pair of retro low-top Clydes to wear around, it’s another to get people to change the shoes the play in. People trust Nike and their products (and, to a lesser extent, Adidas and UnderArmor). PUMA has a lot of work to do to earn that level of respect.

But you can’t fault them for coming back with a big splash.

PBT Podcast: Risers. Sleepers. Who should go No. 2? Final full draft breakdown.

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Luka Doncic? Marvin Bagley III? Jaren Jackson Jr.?

If you were in the shoes of Vlade Divac and the Sacramento Kings, who would you draft No. 2?

In this latest PBT Podcast, Kurt Helin and Rob Dauster (who has been writing the in-depth prospect profiles such as Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton, and others — of NBC Sports try on those shoes — and go an unexpected direction with it — as well as breaking down the rest of the draft such as the risers, the sleepers, and is Michael Porter Jr. worth the risk?

Also, in the bigger picture, are we focused too much on the bigs at the top of this draft — the majority of guys who will go in the top six — when we just saw in the last two rounds of the NBA playoffs that a lot of bigs can’t stay on the court in those situations? Which of these draftees can?

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.