51 Q: Is coach Fred Hoiberg the answer in Chicago?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Is Fred Hoiberg the answer in Chicago?

In the minds of a lot of fans and experts, the Chicago Bulls are the team best positioned to challenge to Cleveland for supremacy in the East.

You can credit Steve Kerr for that.

Or maybe you should blame him.

Last season, Kerr came into Golden State with no head coaching experience, following a respected coach who had won 51 games, put in a more up-tempo and motion-based offense, broke up the traditional starting lineup, kept the focus on the defensive end, and won a title.

This season, Fred Hoiberg comes into Chicago with no NBA head coaching experience, following a respected but headstrong coach who won 50 games, will install an up-tempo and more motion based offense, likely will change around the traditional front-court lineup, and is talking about keeping a defensive focus.

There are plenty of similarities.

Will that be enough to make the Chicago Bulls contenders?

Probably not. Because beyond the similarities, the Bulls have far more questions to answer than those Warriors did — specifically ones about age and what their key players have left in the tank. Plus, the Warriors were incredibly lucky on the injury front last season — is anyone willing to bet that happens with the Bulls?

Health of the players — specifically running them into the ground until they were tired and more injury prone — was the biggest sticking point between Tom Thibodeau and John Paxon, Gar Forman and the rest of Bulls management. In this case management was right. In an era where more and more studies are showing players perform better and their injury risk goes down with increased rest, Thibodeau coached from an old-school “if they’re healthy they can play” mentality. The result was Jimmy Butler playing a league-leading 38.7 minutes per game, followed by Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose all playing at least 30 minutes a game (and Mike Dunleavy was at 29.2.). We’d seen this Bulls movie before — they broke down physically and never fully recovered from their injuries. By the time the playoffs rolled around, they didn’t have the legs and health to truly threaten a banged-up Cavaliers squad.

We know this for sure — Hoiberg is going to rest guys. Minutes per game will go down, and there will be more nights off for guys who need it. Bulls players should be fresher come the playoffs.

The question is will that be enough to bring key guys back to near their peak form? Noah, Gasol, Taj Gibson, Kirk Heinrich, and Mike Dunleavy are all 30 or older, and while Rose is 27 there is some heavy mileage on those legs. Even with more rest, at the age of these players injuries are more likely. The bigger question becomes, is a little more rest going to return Rose and Noah close to the level of a former MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively?

That is the one key difference between Kerr’s and Hoiberg’s situations — Kerr took over a young team with guys like Klay Thomson, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and others. Those players are early in their career, relatively healthy, and still taking big steps forward in levels of play each year. Kerr had a team primed to improve, to grow, if the right coach came along.

Hoiberg takes over a Bulls squad that has been a borderline contender for five years now. Even rested, how much more are Rose, Noah, Gasol or Gibson are going to improve? We know who and what they are.

That said, Hoiberg should be able to put guys in better positions to succeed. The Bulls are going to play faster — Hoiberg’s Iowa State teams loved to push the tempo then run drag or double drag screens early in the clock — and that can get guys in better matchup before the defense sets. Gasol and Noah can set a double-drag for Rose, with Noah rolling to the rim and Gasol popping out for a jumper, and you can imagine how that is hard to defend if Rose is his old self. His half court sets have a lot of weakside movement, which is a needed change. Younger players such as Tony Snell, Butler, promising rookie Bobby Portis, and even Nikola Mirotic could thrive off the bench in this system.

The one interesting fit will be Gasol. As we saw at EuroBasket this summer, he operates best in the post or the elbow, where thanks to his fundamentals he can score or beat teams who collapse on him with great passing. But Hoiberg’s system doesn’t run a lot of post ups. If Gasol is relegated more to the perimeter, does this become a situation more like Mike D’Antoni’s Lakers where they struggled to find a fit for Gasol? Probably not, Hoiberg will be flexible, and expect them to try at times to get Gasol the ball deep in the post early in the clock when he beats his defender down court. Still, Gasol’s fit is something to watch.

One thing to expect — Hoiberg to shake up the Noah-Gasol combo, pairing one with Mirotic and one with Gibson in the rotation (then trying to find a spot for Portis). That alone has the potential make the Bulls front court more dynamic. The Gasol/Noah pairing is a little too slow for what Hoiberg wants to run.

As for defense, I don’t expect a big drop off — as much as scheme, Thibodeau’s defense was built around out-working the other team, and that kind of mentality doesn’t instantly fade away. Hoiberg may tweak the system, but the Bulls defense should still be top 10.

Hoiberg is going to bring needed changes to Chicago — ones Thibodeau was too stubborn to implement (in part because of his feud with the front office).

Will it make the Bulls better? Maybe, Thibs is a good coach and Hoiberg is unproven; we’ll have to wait and see.

Will it have them fresher come the playoffs? Almost certainly.

In that sense, Hoiberg is the answer the Bulls have been looking for.

But that answer doesn’t automatically lead to contention for a title. This is still an aging Bulls roster with some Thibodeau-level miles on the key players, and no matter what Hoiberg does it’s hard to imagine him lifting this team up past a healthy Cavaliers team.

It’s going to be interesting to watch them try, however.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: ‘If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work’

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James Harden and Chris Paul worked reasonably well together on the court, but they played through a lot of tension.

Now, the Rockets are going to a new star backcourt that invites even more questions.

How will Harden and Russell Westbrook fit?

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni on The Woj Pod:

If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work.

To be able to win a title now, you have to get superstars together – and whether it’s two or three or how many else you can get. And then it becomes a chemistry. Because everybody’s ball-dominant. When you’re a superstar, you’ve been the main guy for sure. Now, you’ve got to make it work. And sometimes personalities, it doesn’t work. Sometimes, it works for a while. Sometimes, it’s hard to manage, sometimes. Again, if they’re not on the same page totally 100 percent, I think the organization has to look and see what’s best for the organization.

D’Antoni was asked about Harden and Westbrook. (Best I can tell, D’Antoni never named Westbrook on the podcast, which should allow the coach to avoid a fine.) But D’Antoni could have easily been describing Harden and Paul.

It seems Harden and Paul no longer wanted to make it work. Those two played better together than most people realized. The Rockets were one of the NBA’s best teams each of the last two years, and they had an elite offense. But Harden and Paul clearly grated each other.

Now, Harden and Westbrook will get a fresh start together. They sound eager to re-join forces after beginning their careers together with the Thunder.

D’Antoni is correct: Harden’s and Westbrook’s desire to make this work will go a long way.

But Harden and Paul were once enthusiastic about pairing, and that went south. An initial commitment to teaming up is important. It can also wane quickly.

It also can’t overcome every fit issue. Sometimes, stars just don’t match, no matter their intentions.

D’Antoni is also right about super teams generally require ball-dominant stars to sacrifice for the greater good. There are always diminishing returns on grouping stars.

But other situations have included stars with more complementary skills. So much of what Harden and Westbrook provide involves having the ball in their hands. The diminishment of returns will likely be greater in Houston.

Harden’s and Westbrook’s talent give the Rockets a huge leg up. Those two wanting to play together will push each to do his best to make it work.

It’s still far more complicated than that.

Report: Ben Simmons contract extension allows him to hit super-max triggers

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Ben Simmons signed a max contract extension with the 76ers.

It could turn into a super-max contract extension.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The exact value of Simmons’ contract extension won’t be determined until the salary cap set next year. That’s when the extension kicks in. The current projection has it worth about $170 million over five years.

If Simmons makes an All-NBA team next season, it could be worth 20% more – bringing the projected total to about $204 million.

Whether Simmons gets the full bump if he makes an All-NBA team was a matter of negotiation between him and Philadelphia. They could have agreed to pay different amounts depending whether he makes the first, second or third team. (Simmons could also trigger the super max by winning Most Valuable Player or Defensive Player of the Year next season, again contingent on the terms of the extension.)

We don’t yet know the specifics of Simmons’ super-max eligibility. But they’re in his contract now.

There will be a lot riding on his performance next season. We’ll eventually learn how much

The 76ers did well to avoid a player option in the deal. That was likely an advantage of signing Simmons to an extension now rather than forcing him to wait until restricted free agency next summer. Simmons is just 22. He should provide positive value to his team six seasons from now.

Simmons’ trade kicker won’t matter now. A trade kicker can’t take a player above his max salary, and Simmons is starting at his max. But if he struggles to fit with franchise player Joel Embiid, Simmons could be in line for a nice bonus if traded in a few years.

Report: Before Paul George trade, Thunder were already preparing to trade Russell Westbrook next year

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The Thunder are starting over in an unprecedented way.

By sending Paul George to the Clippers and Russell Westbrook to the Rockets, Oklahoma City is becoming the first team ever to trade two reigning All-NBA players in the same offseason. The Thunder are the first team in decades to trade even two reigning All-Stars in the same offseason.

The sequence appears clear: George requested a trade. Oklahoma City granted it. With one star gone, the Thunder had less ability to win with Westbrook. So, they dealt him, too.

But if George didn’t request a trade this summer, Westbrook might have been moved soon, anyway.

Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

The clock was already ticking loudly on the Westbrook era, with team officials quietly preparing to hit the reset button next summer, per sources, after one more run.

George’s trade request was a blessing in disguise for the Thunder. They got a massive haul from the Clippers and clearance to trade Westbrook, a franchise icon. The Westbrook trade netted even more draft strong draft considerations from Houston. Oklahoma City has a great head start on its rebuild.

The Thunder had probably peaked. They’ve been good the last few years, but not good enough to win a playoff series. The supporting cast was expensive, and further upgrades would’ve likely been too costly. Westbrook is too good to tank. The four years and $171,139,920 remaining on his contract are a major liability.

However, Westbrook has meant so much to Oklahoma City. His loyalty after Kevin Durant left was so huge.

It would have been difficult to handle the politics of trading him if George didn’t ask out first. That made it so Westbrook was ready to leave. Thunder fans seem supportive of both Westbrook and the organization.

I believe Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti believes he would’ve traded Westbrook soon, regardless. That was clearly the right move for getting past this era of stagnation.

But it’s another thing to pull the trigger on moving such a beloved player. It wouldn’t have necessarily happened, especially not smoothly.

Canada’s FIBA World Cup training camp features 17 NBA players

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No Andrew Wiggins, no problem.

The disconnect between Wiggins and Canada Basketball seemed like a big deal when Wiggins looked like a budding star from a country without much basketball pedigree. But Wiggins has stagnated. Canada, on the other hand, looks like a rising international power.

Canada Basketball announced its training-camp invitations for the FIBA World Cup. The list includes a whop 17 NBA players:

Though the Nuggets clearly expect Murray to reach the next level, this group is short on star power right now. Don’t expect Canada rival Team USA. But this is a deep pool of solid players. They should be competitive in the tournament this fall in China.

This group is also pretty young. Players like Murray, Gilgeous-Alexander, Barrett, Alexander-Walker and Clarke could take Canada to an even higher level in years to come.

And then the generation that’s growing up idolizing the championship Raptors will come through. Expect Canada’s climb to continue.

The other 12 players invited to Canada Basketball’s training camp: Aaron Best, Aaron Doornekamp, Andrew Nembhard, Andy Rautins, Brady Heslip, Kevin Pangos, Kyle Wiltjer, Melvin Ejim, Naz Mitrou-Long, Oshae Brissett, Phil Scrubb, Thomas Scrubb.