What's Next for Bottomed-Out Bulls

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What's Next for Bottomed-Out Bulls

Friday, December 11

By Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

I think we can all agree the Bulls hit rock bottom with blowout losses to Toronto and Atlanta and the home court defeat at the hands of the worst team in the league, at least record-wise, New Jersey.

They've now lost nine of their last 10 games, and have the worst point differential in the East, outside of the Nets. So, the obvious question, what can be done to fix the situation? We're always interested in what you think. Please post your comments in the section below.

The easy move would be to fire head coach Vinny Del Negro. He came to the Bulls with no head coaching experience, and has had a tough time earning the respect of the players on the roster. Plus, even though the Bulls don't want to pay off the contract of another head coach, Del Negro is modestly paid by NBA standards and the team could go with veteran Bernie Bickerstaff as an interim head coach for the rest of the season, then make their long-term decision next spring. With six straight home games coming up, Del Negro does have a chance to turn things around, although the Celtics and Lakers are among the teams on the current homestand. This could be a make-or-break weekend for Del Negro coming up. The Bulls face the NBA's worst defensive team tonight in Golden State, then take on Boston on Saturday. If the Bulls lose to a bad Warriors team, then get blown out by Kevin Garnett and company, management might decide to pull the plug on the Del Negro experiment. But if the Bulls show more consistent effort and pick up a win over Golden State, the heat on Del Negro could subside for a while.

So, if the coaching staff remains stable, is there anything that can be done to improve the roster? Certainly, getting a healthy Kirk Hinrich and Tyrus Thomas back in the rotation will make the Bulls a better defensive team right away. But it doesn't look like there are any easy answers for the team's offensive issues. The Bulls don't have a low post scoring option and they're among the worst three-point shooting teams in the league. John Salmons has struggled to find his shot all season, hitting just 39 percent from the field. Hinrich also was struggling with his outside shot before suffering a sprained left thumb, and he was 0-for-9 from the field in his return against Atlanta on Wednesday. So, if you can't score in the paint, and you can't make three-point shots, how can you consistently win games, even in a watered-down Eastern Conference?

Obviously, the Bulls should have re-signed Ben Gordon. He was the only player on the team who could create his own shot and get to the free-throw line consistently. We saw what Gordon meant to the team in the playoff series against Boston, and his presence on the court made things a lot easier for Salmons, who's now struggling with increased defensive attention. Gordon was the Bulls' leading scorer each of the last four seasons, and opposing teams had to respect his three-point shooting ability, opening up driving lanes for Derrick Rose. All Gordon wanted was to be paid the same amount of money the Bulls were giving to Luol Deng. And, judging by the two players' production in recent seasons, that hardly seems like an unreasonable request.

OK, Gordon is gone, so let's move on. Bulls' management is all in for the summer free agent derby of 2010, but do you really think LeBron, D-Wade, Bosh or Amare are going to seriously consider a Bulls team that could be headed to a 30-35 win season? As I've written previously, the front office should think seriously about pursuing a trade for Houston's unwanted superstar, Tracy McGrady. The Rockets have had success this season playing an up-tempo style with Aaron Brooks at the controls, and they've been reluctant to bring McGrady back, even though he's recovered from knee surgery last spring. T-Mac is a half-court player at this point in the career, and yes, I know he takes a lot of bad shots, but with the Bulls desperately in need of an offensive spark, he might be worth the risk. Plus, if you include Hinrich and Thomas in the deal for McGrady's 22 million expiring contract, the Bulls can actually create more cap room for next summer, and guarantee they can make a maximum contract offer to one of the elite players.

The other option is to forget about 2010 free agency and try to acquire a proven scorer right now. It's a little early in the season to know exactly which players might be available, but when you look at the teams that are struggling around the league, there's a good chance players like Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Elton Brand, Monta Ellis and Rip Hamilton could be available. I'm not recommending any of those players in particular, but it's clear the Bulls need to do something or they're headed for a lost season, which could seriously impact their ability to attract a free agent next summer.

Let me know your thoughts in the section below. Remember, tonight's game against Golden State can be seen on Comcast SportsNet Plus, which is CLTV for most viewers in the Chicagoland area. If you're having trouble finding the plus channel in your area, you can find that information here. I'll see you courtside from the United Center with Kendall Gill for the pregame show at 6:30.

Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.

Leicester City winning the Premier League is the biggest sports story of the year

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Leicester City winning the Premier League is the biggest sports story of the year

Leicester City just became the biggest sports story of the year.

If you're a soccer fan, you knew that already. If not, let me explain why the club from the Midlands in England shocked everyone, even the sportsbooks across the Atlantic, by winning the English Premier League title this season.

Those sportsbooks are a good place to start. Leicester City was a 5,000-to-1 favorite to win the Premier League this season. You won't find a professional sports team in this country that has odds that long to win a title.

The longest odds to win the World Series this year were the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves at 500-to-1. The NBA's Philadelphia 76ers were 350-to-1, and that team won 10 games. Hockey's longshot was the Arizona Coyotes at 250-to-1. You can't get an NFL team at longer than 200-to-1 to win the Super Bowl right now. That makes Leicester 10 times less likely than any underdog champion this country can provide.

The upset title was such a shock to the sportsbooks in England that they were offering to cash out bettors at a discount price before Leicester clinched the title. In the end, England's biggest sports books combined to lose more than $11 million.

As ESPN's Paul Carr pointed out, 15-seed Cal State Bakersfield was 5,000-to-1 to win the NCAA Tournament this year. A 15-seed has never made it past the Sweet 16 and with all respect to how bonkers it would be if a 15-seed was to win the NCAA Tournament, that's just six games. Leicester City did this over 38 games.

By the time the Foxes play out the last two games, they clinched the title early for an extra ounce of insanity, they will have played each team twice, once home and once away. This isn't a miraculous play like a Hail Mary or a massive one-off upset like the Miracle on Ice. This is a full season where a team that was expected to finish towards the bottom of the league won the championship and led the league for most of the season.

There have probably been more incredible moments and more incredible games in sports, but maybe never a more incredible season than what Leicester accomplished this year.

The reason the odds were so long is because there is no salary cap and there is no draft. Each team is truly on its own when it comes to creating a good team and the playing field is not even.

Imagine the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays fighting as division rivals in a world where instead of having a draft where the worst teams picked first, all amateur players entering the pros were free agents. Most of the players who would have been first round picks would wind up with the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, etc. The poor Rays would have a lower payroll and no built in mechanic to keep them competitive. That's what Leicester has to go up against when competing with the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City.

Then there's the promotion and relegation system most of the world uses in soccer. Leicester City wasn't even in the Premier League from 2004-2014. Last season the team returned to the Premier League and barely survived relegation. They even had a stint in the third tier in the 2008-2009 season.

In the Premier League era, which started in 1992, no team has ever been lower than third the year before going on to win the title. Leicester was 14th last season.

The mesmerizing stats are countless, but to close it out it's worth noting that Leicester is a 132-year-old club. It had never won the top league in England. Even Cubs fans think that's a long time.

Joe Maddon vents frustrations with tensions already rising in Cubs vs. Pirates

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Joe Maddon vents frustrations with tensions already rising in Cubs vs. Pirates

PITTSBURGH — “Still smells like champagne,” said one wise guy walking through the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park late Monday night.

The Cubs had just beaten the Pittsburgh Pirates, with some of the same raw emotions from last year’s wild-card win resurfacing during a 7-2 win in early May. There’s that much at stake in the National League Central that maybe we shouldn’t spend so much time fixating on the St. Louis Cardinals.

The eye-for-an-eye moment came in the seventh inning, with Pittsburgh reliever Kyle Lobstein drilling Ben Zobrist with his first pitch. Home plate umpire Laz Diaz had already watched Cubs starter Jason Hammel hit Starling Marte with a pitch in the sixth inning and issued a warning to both benches.

Manager Joe Maddon yelled at Lobstein and Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli screamed at the visiting dugout, and it felt like October all over again.

“I was able to vent a little bit,” Maddon said. “It’s always fun to vent, isn’t it? I mean, we’ve all been there. You have to vent on occasion. That’s the worst thing you could possibly do for your health long-term — to hold that stuff in. I want to get it out.”

Maddon spent part of his pregame media session talking up Cervelli, calling him a “good dude” who worked out at his wife’s boxing gym in Tampa, Fla., during the offseason: “He came to my Gasparilla party, dressed as a pirate of all things.”

“It’s just a matter of judging intentions,” said Zobrist, who’s new to this emerging rivalry after earning a World Series ring with the Kansas City Royals last year. “As a team, you’re trying to think: ‘Well, was that intentional? Was it not?’ But I think in that situation it was pretty clear.

“Our whole team’s going to stick up for each other. Obviously, Joe took exception to it. I think a lot of other guys did, too. I’ve been around long enough — I’ve been hit before. I took my base and scored a run. That’s the way I look at it.”

Maddon had even more fun with the Pirates and the replay system in the seventh inning after Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle erased a double play with a successful challenge at first base. Maddon responded by using Major League Baseball’s new takeout rule to challenge Jordy Mercer’s slide into second base.

“I had no clue what I was doing,” Maddon said. “I just knew I could challenge. At that particular juncture, why not? Give it a roll. Bottom of the seventh inning, who knows what they’re going to think?”

Maddon kept rolling and filibustering during his postgame news conference, saying how much he loved the Pirates’ uniforms as a kid growing up in Pennsylvania and comparing this rivalry to his high-school quarterback days and Hazleton vs. West Hazleton.

“People in Pittsburgh can enjoy that,” Maddon said. “They can identify with ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ‘All the Right Moves,’ all of the above. I’m being this way specifically so I don’t comment on the hit by batter.”

Cubs top Pirates to stay baseball's best, but Theo Epstein won't stop making moves

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Cubs top Pirates to stay baseball's best, but Theo Epstein won't stop making moves

PITTSBURGH — Relentless is the word the Cubs keep using to describe a lineup that knocked out Gerrit Cole on Monday night with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth inning and the Pittsburgh Pirates already trailing by two runs at PNC Park.

Relentless could also be a label for Theo Epstein’s front office, even after spending almost $290 million on free agents and even with an 18-6 record that’s the best in baseball following a 7-2 win over the Pirates.

The Cubs want nothing to do with the randomness of another elimination game and can’t take anything for granted with 85 percent of the schedule still remaining. They’ve already lost playoff hero Kyle Schwarber for the season, and the outfield picture is clouded with Jason Heyward dealing with a sore right wrist since early April and Matt Szczur scheduled to get an MRI on his right hamstring on Tuesday morning.

Not that Epstein needed a reminder, but the president of baseball operations flashed back to last year’s National League wild-card game when he flew into Pittsburgh, checked into the team’s downtown hotel across the Roberto Clemente Bridge and went running along the Allegheny River.

From his hotel room, Epstein could sort of see where Schwarber’s two-run homer off Cole flew out of PNC Park last October, giving this franchise a runaway sense of momentum.

“We’ve played really well,” Epstein said, “but I don’t think we’ve completely locked in yet or clicked in all facets of the game. Our pitching staff’s really been carrying us. It’s been the most consistent part of our team yet. As it warms up here, I think the bats will get going and they’ll probably carry us for a while.

“But as far as needs that we might have, or ways that we can get better, we’re always assessing that. I think there’s lots of different ways we could potentially improve the club before the end of the season.”

The Cubs will watch Tim Lincecum’s upcoming showcase in Arizona because they always check in on potential impact players at that level. Lincecum — a two-time Cy Young Award winner who helped the San Francisco Giants win three World Series titles — is making a comeback after hip surgery.

While the Cubs should have big-picture concerns about their rotation and a farm system that hasn’t developed the arms yet, Jason Hammel (4-0, 1.24 ERA) is making his own comeback.

Even if manager Joe Maddon doesn’t seem to completely trust Hammel, who gave up two runs across five innings and got pulled after throwing 89 pitches and accidentally hitting Starling Marte to lead off the sixth. Four different relievers combined to shut down the Pirates (15-11) the rest of the night.

Epstein — who is in the fifth and final year of his contract and used “status quo” to describe his extension talks with chairman Tom Ricketts — will have the position-player prospects to bundle if the Cubs do need a frontline pitcher this summer. A franchise-record payroll in the neighborhood of $150 million was also projected to have some room for in-season additions.

After beating up on the division’s have-nots and going 8-1 against the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers, the Cubs should have a better idea of where they stand after Maddon’s “Minimalist Zany” road trip to Pittsburgh and a four-game showdown against the Washington Nationals at Wrigley Field.

“There’s always the threat of somehow playing to the level of your competition in a negative way,” Maddon said. “I’m not denigrating any team that we’ve played to this point. That is not my point. But if you play teams with less-than (.500) records and maybe they’re not playing as well, you don’t turn that dimmer switch up to the full velocity. But when you’re playing really good teams, I think that naturally brings out the best in you.”