Too early in Bulls' season to push panic button

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Too early in Bulls' season to push panic button

At this early juncture of the regular season, it seems like every other team across the NBA is in panic mode. For a Bucks team feeling like they're experiencing a resurgence and has a chance to sneak up on unsuspecting foes with a new style of play, there's a Bulls squad that believes that right now, not even into the month of December yet, it's do-or-die time.

Elsewhere in the Central Division, Indiana also appears worried, with go-to scorer Danny Granger sidelined indefinitely and up-and-coming youngsters like All-Star center Roy Hibbert and swingman Paul George supposedly struggling under the weight of increased expectations.

Look at Washington, now 0-12 on the campaign, a 76ers team whose notoriously demanding fans are a step away from burning Andrew Bynum in effigy, not to mention teams out West, specifically in Los Angeles, where the Clippers' honeymoon appears to be ending after their hot start, let alone the continuous drama surrounding the Lakers, whose ongoing saga is now focused on Pau Gasol fitting into new head coach Mike D'Antoni's offense. Compared to those situations, the 6-7 Bulls, playing in a wide-open Eastern Conference, without Derrick Rose, and not even a third of the way through the season, are living on easy street.

But after such a stunning loss Monday night, a 93-92 defeat on the back end of a home-and-home with Milwaukee, somehow the sky is now falling and Tom Thibodeau, the fastest coach to 100 wins in NBA history and just two seasons removed from winning the league's Coach of the Year award, is incompetent. Nobody took the loss, in which the Bulls surrendered a 27-point lead late in the third quarter, harder than Thibodeau.

To be sure, while he won't openly admit it, he made some mistakes, such as riding his starters against an energized, confident and loose Bucks second unit, instead of perhaps making defensive substitutions to quell Milwaukee's extended run. Let's not forget that for all of Thibodeau's experience as an assistant coach, this is only his third season as a head coach and even the best of his peers--including maybe the top dog of them all, Phil Jackson, a familiar face around these parts, who coached his final game with Lakers in embarrassing fashion, as Dallas ran his team off the court in a playoff upset back in 2011--and while overall, he's already widely regarded as one of the top five coaches in the NBA (behind San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, his former boss, Chicago native Doc Rivers and arguably, one or two others, including Rick Carlisle of the Mavericks, who the Bulls host Wednesday), he'll coach the occasional strategic dud during a regular-season campaign that spans 82 games.

Observers will point to his clear lack of trust in his bench, of which he only used three players--Taj Gibson (18 minutes), Jimmy Butler (12 minutes) and Nate Robinson (10 minutes)--Monday evening. On the other hand, given that the Bulls have seven newcomers to the roster and only the aforementioned trio has truly distinguished themselves on a semi-consistent basis, one can see why Thibodeau would utilize such a short rotation.

Likely to join 19-year-old rookie Marquis Teague (more on him later) and veteran forward Vladimir Radmanovic, who doesn't possess the most sterling defensive reputation, on the nightly DNP-CD list is backup center Nazr Mohammed, who had a stellar preseason, but appears to be slowly grasping Thibodeau's defensive schemes, something that's a death knell for playing time, as well as seemingly having a more score-first mentality than the coach prefers from his experienced big men, such as Kurt Thomas, the former Bulls reserve and league's oldest player, who started Monday evening for New York.

Then, there's reserve shooting guard Marco Belinelli, who still hasn't found his shooting stroke and hasn't shown enough in other aspects of the game to earn Thibodeau's trust, leading to Butler taking his minutes in the rotation, along with backing up iron-man starter Luol Deng, he of the 47 minutes in Monday's contest.

The Bulls also have a point-guard conundrum, as Kirk Hinrich--who had his best game of the season Monday, scoring 17 points and perhaps more significantly, getting to the foul line nine times, making eight of his attempts--while he has the defensive approach and floor-general mindset Thibodeau likes, has struggled mightily with his shot and is no longer the creator off the dribble he was during his original stint with the Bulls.

Meanwhile, Robinson, whose playing time dwindled in the squad's past two outings--coinciding with his ball-security and shot-selection difficulties at the end of last week's loss at Houston, the second of two aborted comebacks he was the catalyst for during the "Circus Trip"--might be the lone Bull with the ability to create for himself, but despite his dynamic scoring ability, his shoot-first tendencies and looseness with the ball are things, that at least in the present, apparently stress out Thibodeau too much to deal with on an extended basis.

This is where Teague comes in. Judging from the way Thibodeau refused to immediately gift Butler playing time after his outstanding offseason, having a professional season under his belt and Ronnie Brewer's departure clearing a way for him to get into the rotation, it's far-fetched that the coach entrusts a teenager with running his offense, but the youngster's quickness off the bounce, surprising defensive acumen and--admittedly, based off a small sample size, the Bulls' home loss to Boston, in which he showed no fear in dueling Celtics All-Star Rajon Rondo, arguably the best active point guard in the game--poise might make sense to try, if not now, then after the team eventually gets over its current woes, as Teague can only improve with on-court experience, has more playmaking potential than Hinrich and due to his length, more defensive ability than the diminutive Robinson, let alone possessing more of a pass-first inclination.

Speaking of the aforementioned Butler, the second-year swingman's role as an energy player and defensive specialist seems secure, but while he's proven to be an adept finisher, has the ability to score off offensive rebounds, make hustle plays and thrive in transition, until he exhibits more confidence in his outside jumper, he's not a reliable scoring option, nor is he expected to be. Unfortunately, Gibson is also in that category at the moment, as he's gotten off to a slow start this season offensively and hasn't been the same defensive presence that was the primary basis for him earning a long-term contract extension.

Rip Hamilton, who scored a season-high 30 points Monday, his best outing in a Bulls uniform thus far, obviously still has something left in the tank, his inconsistent usage and the fact that he's an inferior defender to Butler--regardless of him being the Bulls' top perimeter scoring threat, Thibodeau's defensive mindset means the veteran will sometimes get the short end of the stick--puts him in night-to-night limbo, depending on how the game is going. The same goes for Carlos Boozer, as it's been throughout his tenure in Chicago, but without Rose's unique offensive talents, it's more glaring when the much-maligned power forward either isn't having a productive evening or when he's not on the floor, making his playing time even more scrutinized than it was before.

The only two players who are guaranteed locks to play heavy minutes every night are Deng and Joakim Noah, the latter of which has joined his All-Star teammate among the league leaders in minutes per game this season. However, while the two longest-tenured Bulls give a supreme effort defensively each time they step out on the floor and have been, overall consistent scorers early in the campaign, neither of them are the type that measure themselves by their point production.

That all sounds like a recipe for disaster, but in a long NBA season, things change: Thibodeau, with all of his years of experience working on sidelines in different cities, knows that players develop, perform the tasks coaches are looking for, step up during times of adversity, play their way out of slumps, jell with their teammates, work to improve various aspects of their games and simply have enough pride to rise to the occasion. Just a couple of years ago, the acclaimed "Bench Mob" appeared to be an underwhelming group--of course, now they've turned into the most celebrated second unit in basketball history--when they first came together and as time went on, morphed into one of the strengths of the squad.

Perception is reality and in no way can the Bulls' current roster be compared to last season's when evaluating players from an individual standpoint, but these players are professionals for a reason and taking into consideration the track record of Thibodeau and the core holdover players, as well as a weak division and conference, it's way too early to be pressing the panic button, even if the minutes-per-game numbers--a statistic needlessly pored over by fans, as perceived overuse of players has only become an issue in the last decade or so, with the advanced-statistic movement giving observers the opportunity to skew numbers as a way to justify performance, for better or worse--are considered alarming.

As much as Monday's loss resembled the notorious home defeat to Sacramento during current head coach Vinny Del Negro's embattled final season in Chicago, let's remember that under Thibodeau, the team's ongoing skid is the worst the team has experienced and in an NBA season in which even the league's elite experience ups and downs, not only is dropping four out of five games a relatively mild downturn, it's not like the Bulls have dug themselves a hole they can't get out of.

All of the aforementioned facts underscore the most basic truth: Chicago is spoiled. With the Michael Jordan championship era only two decades ago and Rose's emergence as a superstar coinciding with Thibodeau's instant success upon arrival, the Windy City is an impatient metropolis when it comes to hoops, as titles are the only thing that really resonate with fans.

But in a season that had low expectations dating back to May--when Rose suffered his devastating ACL injury--there's no reason to jump the gun and assume that, because of disappointing losses in the first month of the campaign, the Bulls are a lost cause, with the exception of hoping for the hometown hero's return. Give both Thibodeau and these Bulls some time to find their stride and it could very well be rewarded in a pleasantly surprising finish, making the rising controversy about something that at best, will be humorous memory and at worst, a long-forgotten issue.

Sheryl Swoopes under investigation for coaching practices at Loyola

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Sheryl Swoopes under investigation for coaching practices at Loyola

Loyola women's basketball coach Sheryl Swoopes is under investigation for coaching practices at the university.

The investigation was sparked after 10 of the team's 12 players have transferred or have requested releases — nine having been recruited by Swoopes. Loyola began an "independent and comprehensive university investigation" on April 15.

According to Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, five former players have stated that Swoopes' "unusual coaching style" was the reason behind their exits.

Swoopes has declined to comment on any allegations, according to Ryan. Loyola released the following statement on Thursday:

"Until the investigation is completed, the athletics department and women's basketball coaching staff are conducting business as usual as we prepare for the 2016-2017 season."

Swoopes is listed as one of the greatest WNBA players of all-time. She was hired to coach Loyola's women's basketball team in 2013.

Click here to read the full story from the Chicago Tribune.

Cubs-Braves game has been postponed due to weather

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Cubs-Braves game has been postponed due to weather

There won't be any baseball at Wrigley Field on Saturday.

The Cubs-Braves game has been postponed due to weather. No makeup date has been announced yet.

It's the second time this week a Cubs game has been postponed due to weather — Wednesday's game against the Milwaukee Brewers was also rained out.

The Cubs were looking to extend their winning streak to five games on Saturday with John Lackey on the mound, but that will have to wait until Sunday.

Lackey will still pitch Sunday with Jason Hammel, Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester slated for Monday through Wednesday for the big three-game series in Pittsburgh. Kyle Hendricks was pushed back and will start Thursday at Wrigley Field in the series opener against the Washington Nationals.

'Trader Pace' keeps making Bears draft picks appear

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'Trader Pace' keeps making Bears draft picks appear

The Bears results through the first two days of the 2016 NFL Draft could qualify GM Ryan Pace as something of a conjurer:

After turning two picks into one player (Leonard Floyd) on Day 1, Pace went into Day 2 with seven remaining picks in the draft. He made two selections in the persons of Kansas State guard Cody Whitehair in the second round and Florida defensive end Jonathan Bullard in the third, and finished the day and headed into Saturday with…seven picks. Eight actually, if you count the 2017 fourth-round pick he added via a round-two trade with the Buffalo Bills.

(So I’m wondering, if I gave him my checkbook, could he maybe turn those lonely little numbers into… . Naah, probably not).

Pace and the Bears started the 2016 draft with two fourth-round picks; by early Friday night had three: the 19th, 26th and 29th picks, Nos. 117, 124 and 127 overall. Add to those their one pick in the fifth round, two in the sixth and one in the seventh.

Of course, that’s before Pace picked up his magic draft wand for the day’s activities. It’s early yet.

Pace is on record stating his philosophy of staying true to the team’s player rankings on the draft board, rather than succumb to the temptation to fill a need with a lesser player than one with the highest grade available. That was apparent in trades both up and down (twice) in the first two rounds of the 2016 draft.

Throughout those proceedings, the Bears also were aggressively working the phones, according to NFL reporter Aaron Leming, shopping outside linebackers Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, the Bears’ two sack leaders but rendered surplus with the acquisition of Floyd.

The Bears traded up to snag Floyd at No. 9 because of their grade on him, rather than simply use their designated pick at No. 11 and select Clemson’s Shaq Lawson, their next-highest-rated edge rusher. To make that deal Pace parted with the first of his two picks in the fourth round.

After Floyd, 23 more picks went off the board with only one edge rusher (Lawson) selected before Emmanuel Ogbah was chosen by Cleveland with the first pick of the second round. Meaning: Beyond Floyd, if the hope was a pass rusher, the falloff was considerable.

Then, before Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry was taken at No. 35 by the San Diego Chargers, the Bears reportedly tried unsuccessfully to trade up to No. 34 to grab Henry. Pace said that wasn’t really in play Friday night.

“We had some early talks, honestly, before the draft even started,” Pace said. “Nothing really came to fruition.”

But other things did. The Bears traded down from No. 41 to the Buffalo Bills’ spot at No. 49. In the process they acquired not one, but two fourth-round picks: Buffalo’s No. 4 in this draft (117th overall) and the Bills’ fourth-rounder in the 2017 draft.

But the Green Bay Packers then appeared to scramble plans by jumping over the Bears to take Indiana tackle Jason Spriggs. Whether because the Packers had snatched a Bears target or because the Halas Hall draft board did not have a player worth that second-round pick, or perhaps they had designs on Alabama defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson (taken at No. 46 by the Detroit Lions), the Bears moved down – again.

“When our pick is approaching and we’re realizing that there are a lot of guys here that we like, there is a chance for us to go back knowing that we got enough names that we can still get a good player and pick up some picks. That’s why we did [the trade].”

In exchange for that Buffalo pick at No. 49, the Bears acquired Seattle’s pick at No. 56 and No. 124 in the fourth round.

“I would say, a little bit of [no difference-makers],” Pace conceded. “Also, we just had enough names that I felt like if we could go back they would still be there. At some point in this draft I wanted to acquire more picks.

“This night couldn’t have worked out better for us in regards to that. So I was very happy when we were able to go back and still get the guys that we want and still get these additional picks.”