The Starting Five: Bulls vs. Hornets

The Starting Five: Bulls vs. Hornets

Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011
3:47 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

1. Tom Thibodeau discussed the up-and-down Hornets, who started off the season as the hottest team in the league, hit a slump, bounced back and endured a four-game losing streak recently before beating Orlando Friday night. Center Emeka Okafor is anchoring the defensewith Chris Paul healthy, hes one of the top players in the league. Their health, their strength up frontDavid West is having a terrific yearand I think their bench play, theyre deep. You add a Jarrett Jack, Willie Green, Marco Bellinelli and Jason Smith, you add them to the mix, they can hurt you a lot of different ways, said Thibodeau. They have the ability to put it on the floor, and West has always been a tough matchups for all the bigs up front because of his unique ability to shoot from 17, 18 feet and put it down on the floor, and a very good back to the basket and face-up game. They have a lot of weapons. Paul and West in the pick-and-roll, thats been a tough combination to stop for years. He added: They took a hit with some injuries. Theyre a deep team, I think theyve played extremely well all season long and I think sometimes, you adjusttheyve got two starters that have been outso youve got an adjustment there, but this team is very, very talented. You look at Chris Paul and David West, theyre two elite players who have played at a high level for a long time. Theyve got a number of players on their bench who have played wellits a team thats very capable. Thornton is an explosive guy who can come off the bench and hurt you.

2. Thibodeau also commented on the Hornets wooing him last summer; he turned down New Orleans head-coaching vacancy before taking the Bulls opportunity. I was grateful for the opportunity to interview last year and its a great organization, great city, but Im happy everything worked out the way it did, said Thibodeau. You just trust your instincts in the end. Going through the processwe were in the Finals, actually, when everything was going onand in the end, made the decision based on what I felt what I was most comfortable with. He was complimentary of Hornets head coach Monty Williams, a fellow longtime NBA assistant and first-year head coach, adding, Hes a great guy, hes a great coach, hes paid his dues and hes done an unbelievable job for this team.

3. Now that many observers regard Rose as the leagues top point guard, its easy to forget hes faced a virtual murderers row of good-to-elite floor generals on this trip, from the Clippers Baron Davis and Golden States Stephen Curry to Portlands Andre Miller and the Jazzs Deron Williams, and of course tonights matchup, New Orleans Paul, his Western Conference All-Star starter counterpart. It should be interesting tonight, said Rose. Its fun, going against everyone. It makes you come out here and play hard every nightif not, youre going to get embarrassed. Rose realizes that hes now getting even more attention from both opposing teams and his individual peers at the position. I take a lot of pride in it, knowing that Ive got people worried about me. You can just tell by the way people play. I look at the previous game. They probably didnt play that hard, then going into a game against Rose, they play as hard as they can, just balling. It made me change the way I play a little bit, where Ive got to be aggressive throughout the whole game, no matter who were playing, said Rose. You can tell by the defense that people play, the coverages that they run for pick-and-roll and isolation. Sometimes I see how Kobe Bryant feels all the time or Carmelo Anthony feels all the time because they send a third person over, so that you can move the ball. Thibodeau chimed in: Its the way of the league right now and there are no easy nights. When you look at it, theres a great young group of point guards that have come into the league. Then, theres the middle group where theyve been doing it for a while and are elite and then you have the older guys, who seem to be ageless and are still dominant. So, youre going to be tested every night and I think the challenge is to be ready to play and again, with great players its very difficult to guard them one-on-one, so you need your team to help out, but you are going to be challenged every night. Regarding Paul, Rose observed, Paul is shifty, very shifty. He really isnt that fastreal quickknowing how to get to a spot, knowing how to get fouled, runs the team very good, leader on the floor. Thats why hes one of the best in the league.

4. With scuttlebutt having the Bulls in talks with the Rockets for a traderookie backup center Omer Asik for Houston reserve shooting guard Courtney Lee, give or take a draft pickThibodeau shared his thoughts on Asik, as well as his take on trade rumors. Defensively, Asik has come in with a defensive mindset. I think hes still learning team defense and the individual tendencies of the players hes going up against. Offensively, hes been a very good offensive rebounder. Hes a very good screenerI think hes become more confident with experience. I think hes still working hard at it. The speed of the game and the strength of the game are areas where he still has to improve upon, said Thibodeau. In this league, you hear about that stuff every day. Hes professional and he knows what the league is about. This time of the year, for every 100 that gets talked about, maybe one gets done. The challenge is to not be distracted, to keep your priorities in order and thats why we dont like to change our approach from game to game, practice to practice. While Asik would be an upgrade from starter Keith Bogans, hes not necessarily a game-changerthough his low-maintenance offensive game (he doesnt need a lot of touches to be productive, but can shoot with range and drive to the basket), toughness, defensive ability and experience (he started for Orlando as a rookie two seasons ago, when the Magic made it to the NBA Finals) would be a good fitand with Noahs injury woes, Kurt Thomas age and the Bulls being budget-conscious in thinking of both a new collective-bargaining agreement and being able to sign Rose to a maximum contract when hes up for free agency, its a longshot to happen, according to various sources. The team currently has excellent chemistry and while Bogans isnt the most offensively-prolific player, Thibodeau trusts him and hes popular amongst his teammates. With Rose, Noah, and Luol Deng all 25 and under, Carlos Boozer under contract for another four seasons after the current campaign, the Bulls window will be open for a while and other options at Lees level or better will eventually surface if they choose not to make a move before this months trade deadline. In addition, swingman Ronnie Brewer may come off the bench, but hes the de facto starting shooting guard in terms of minutes (sharing the role with sharpshooter Kyle Korver) and Thibodeau has been pleased with his play as of late. Brewers energys been terrific, hes a very good defensive player, very good open-floor player and hes a very good mid-range shooter. His slashing and cutting is something that I think helps our offense quite a bit and defensive, hes got great instincts. He reads plays well, stated Thibodeau, referencing Brewers game-sealing steal in his return to Utah Wednesday.

5. Dont forget to follow me on Twitter at @CSNBullsInsider.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Ex-Pitt running back Chris James announces transfer to Badgers

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Ex-Pitt running back Chris James announces transfer to Badgers

Wisconsin landed a Power 5 transfer running back Friday.

Like the Badgers need another running back.

Former Pittsburgh ball carrier Chris James, a Chicago native, announced on Twitter that he's coming to Madison, re-teaming with Paul Chryst and the coaching staff that recruited him to the Panthers a few years back.

James was a four-star recruit coming out of Notre Dame College Prep in 2014, ranked by Rivals as the No. 22 running back in that class. He was recruited to Pitt by Joe Rudolph, currently the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, and picked the Panthers over the Badgers and offers from a host of other Big Ten teams including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue.

James rushed for 437 yards on 87 carries, scoring four touchdowns as a freshman in 2014. Last season, he rushed for 253 yards on 56 carries.

Per NCAA rules, James will have to sit out the upcoming season, but he'll have two years of eligibility remaining starting in 2017.

That's good news for the Badgers, who will see two thirds of their three-headed running back monster — Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale are seniors, Taiwan Deal is a sophomore — depart after the 2016 campaign.

Is Javier Baez the next Ben Zobrist for Cubs?

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Is Javier Baez the next Ben Zobrist for Cubs?

Ben Zobrist’s hot streak has earned the veteran newcomer to the North Side a lot of attention of late.

The Cubs’ everyday second baseman is hitting .325/.431/.600 with three home runs and 16 RBIs in his last 11 games. But he’s also showed off some of that much-advertised versatility in recent games, too, playing both second base and right field in two of the last four contests. It’s the first move off second base this season for the guy who signed with a utility-player pedigree, moving all around during his time playing for Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay.

That versatility can be found all over this Cubs roster, but perhaps no player has gained more attention for it than Javier Baez, who has taken on a utility role for Maddon.

And because the youth of this Cubs team always has fans and media members looking down the road a few years, the question was posed ahead of Friday’s game against the Nationals: Is Baez the next Zobrist?

In terms of starring as a career utility player — Zobrist made his first All-Star Game in a season where he appeared at seven different positions — Maddon doesn't think so.

“He’s probably going to settle in one spot on the infield. Probably,” Maddon said. “His defense, it’s really different in a good way. Zo was a shortstop, and we took him off shortstop. And he went to the outfield/second base … which really, his abilities are conducive to that. I’m not saying that Javy can’t be that. Of course he can be. But I think you might eventually want him to just nail down a spot, I think, probably in the middle of the field somewhere because he could contribute more there normally. But for right now, I love where he is at regarding this super-utility kind of an attitude.

“Is he going to be Zobrist? I don’t think so, but it’s possible.”

Baez has wowed early this season with both his glove and his bat — he’s reached base in 16 of his 43 plate appearances this season — and he’s certainly been versatile, playing at five different positions already in just 15 games.

The versatility of Baez is perfect for Maddon, who loves putting players in every possible spot on the field and in the lineup. He’s done it with Kris Bryant, swapping the All Star between third base and the outfield, and Kyle Schwarber, who was set to play outfield and catch on a fairly regular basis prior to his season-ending injury on the season-opening road trip.

And in addition to being a puzzle piece that fits in numerous spots, Baez and his prowess with both his glove and his bat make it so Maddon can give some rest to another young infielder in Addison Russell without much of a drop in production.

“That’s a beautiful thing, and I think we’ve been able to do that all over the field with different guys when we give guys rest,” Maddon said. “Our guys that are in waiting are really good. So I feel good about that. It’s wonderful to be able to keep Addison strong mentally and physically during the course of the year, like you’re not losing anything by putting the other guy at shortstop. All this stuff … this is something that Theo (Epstein) and Jed (Hoyer) had set up before I’d gotten here.”

The most glowing praise Maddon gave Baez on Friday had to do with his maturity and how the 23-year-old has changed in just his third season in the big leagues.

“He just really has accelerated maturity-wise,” Maddon said. “The maturation of his game and his outlook on the day is really staggeringly different than it was last year, and I’m not putting him down, he’s just really grown up quickly. To his credit. We’ve done a lot of talking with him, done a lot of explaining with him. He smiles easily right now, and he gets his role on a daily basis and how important it is to us. Give him all the credit in the world.”

Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

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Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

Ben Zobrist never made it to the sit-down his camp had scheduled with the Washington Nationals at the winter meetings, which took place at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, not far from his offseason home. 

The Cubs were quietly hitting their multiple bank shot, trading Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees for Adam Warren and getting Zobrist to Chicago for the physical to finalize a four-year, $56 million contract.   

The Nationals found their Plan B for second base by Christmas Eve, agreeing to a three-year, $37.5 million deal with Daniel Murphy, the new Mr. October who crushed the Cubs during the National League Championship Series.

Murphy and Zobrist intersected again on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs winning Round 1 of this four-game series between National League heavyweights by a 5-2 score. 

The fans booed Murphy for last year’s NLCS MVP performance with the New York Mets, while Zobrist drew first blood with a two-run single in the fourth inning and a going-for-the-jugular two-run homer in the eighth. At 21-6, the Cubs are dominating every phase of the game after winning the offseason.   

“We knew that we were going to be good,” Zobrist said, “but sometimes you start slow. We got off well the first week and we kept it going. There’s something to be said for getting the ball rolling in the right direction early. And that makes a huge difference.”   

The Cubs wanted Zobrist’s steady presence on defense, his leadership in the clubhouse and a different dimension for their lineup. Zobrist earned his championship ring with the Kansas City Royals, handling New York’s power pitching in the World Series.  

Murphy cooled off by that point after a ridiculous four-homer power surge during the NLCS sweep, which included his memorable momentum-shifting swing against Jake Arrieta in Game 2. Murphy reached so far down for that Arrieta curveball that his left knee almost scraped the dirt, lifting it out toward Citi Field’s right-field seats for a two-run homer and a 3-0 first-inning lead.   

“There’s not enough adjectives to explain how good Jake has been over the last year-and-a-half,” Murphy said. “I think he just put together – I was reading – (something) like the best 25-game stretch of anybody ever. So I was able to get a pitch that he probably felt like he executed pretty well. 

“I didn’t hit it great. I just happened to wrap it around the pole. With Curtis Granderson and David (Wright) in front of me, they had really good at-bats, and our pitching was throwing the ball really well. Fortunately, that kind of ended up being enough for us.”

Something clicked for Murphy, who after an 0-for-4 night is still hitting .382 with four homers and 17 RBI for a first-place Washington team (19-9) the Cubs might face in the playoffs. 

But the Cubs now believe they might have their own Mr. October, who didn’t go that far down the road negotiating with the Nationals. Zobrist turned down four-year, $60 million offers from the Mets and San Francisco Giants for the chance to make history in Chicago. 

“There’s a great mix of the way guys are playing,” Zobrist said, “the way they’re feeling, the way they’re having conversations with each other. It’s the way that they’re just out there having a good time. We celebrate well together. We battle well together.

“That’s great on May 5th to get that feeling already. Sometimes you won’t get that feeling of a good team until later in the season. We’re going to have to weather some storms. We know that. But right now, we’re just trying to play great baseball.”