Ask Aggrey: Can Bulls contend with Heat's physicality?

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Ask Aggrey: Can Bulls contend with Heat's physicality?

Doesn't it feel like we were suffering through the lockout just yesterday? It's been a hectic journey, but here we are, in the last week of the regular season. With the playoffs almost here, the effects of the condensed schedule on players are evident, but it's still certainly been an intriguing season to cover and the postseason bodes to be even more exciting.

The Bulls are poised to make a deep run, but after recent games against the likes of Detroit, Washington and Charlotte, as well as the regular-season finale against Cleveland, it's hard not to think of those cellar dwellers.

Apropos of nothing, my pick to turn things around next year is Golden State, a team the Bulls have surprisingly struggled with in Oakland the past few seasons. Mark Jackson gets a pass in his head-coaching debut season, but with an aggressive ownership group, a lottery pick in a deep draft, money to spend in free agency, point guard Stephen Curry and trade-deadline acquisition Andrew Bogut, a top-five center when healthy, having an entire offseason to get their bodies right and solid complementary pieces like productive power forward David Lee and rookie sharpshooter Klay Thompson, I see the Warriors making a splash next season.

Now that my stream-of-consciousness rant is out of the way, let's get to this week's mailbag:

Can the Bulls contend with the Heat if their eventual playoff matchup gets as physical as their last meeting? -- Phil E.

Phil, while last Thursday's game was certainly disappointing, I believe it was an aberration. To paraphrase Thibs from before Saturday's Mavericks game, you can't be a top defensive and rebounding team, and be soft. I think the Heat came out with the intent of proving a point and the Bulls were simply unprepared. As disturbing as it was to see, I don't believe that will happen again if the two teams meet in the playoffs.

What the loss in Miami did was even the mental edge the Bulls gained from their two home wins -- one without Derrick and the other in the worst game of his career -- making home-court advantage that much more important. Now, I do think the Bulls could use an enforcer-type veteran, a la Kurt Thomas, that Miami knows they'll have to contend with in exchange for cheap shots, but I think their collective toughness will surface if the Heat tries similar tactics again, though that has to start with delivering hard, yet legal fouls to send a message.

Do you know who picks the music they play at Bulls games? Do the players have any input? -- Julie P.

Julie, I have no clue who picks the music, but I'm fairly positive the players aren't part of the process. I don't know if you're a fan or not, but I've kind of taken a liking to the United Center's family-friendly -- if sometimes outdated -- music during games. The UC definitely doesn't boast all of the current hits, like some other NBA arenas, but the atmosphere, sense of history and quality product make up for that deficiency, if you perceive it that way. Still, if the players had a say in the matter, I'm pretty sure they'd come up with a different playlist.

Does Taj Gibson have a future with the Bulls? -- David D.

David, that's a great question. Taj, along with Carlos Boozer, form one of the league's top power-forward duos, as both are starting-caliber players and their strengths and weaknesses -- Taj's athleticism and defensive prowess, Carlos' shooting touch and polished offensive game -- complement each other well. That's why I don't see the Bulls trading Taj in the offseason, although Taj will be entering his fourth season and will be eligible for free agency after the season.

Barring a major trade, the team's front office understands its core group -- which includes Boozer, who is more productive than many give him credit for and with his hefty contract, is virtually untradeable anyway -- has a championship-contending window. In order to maximize that, especially with their style of play, holding on to Taj next season would be wise, though they might not able to afford to keep him once he hits the free-agent market.

If and when that happens, they are very high on one of last year's draft picks, Nikola Mirotic, who recently won his second consecutive EuroLeague Rising Star award. Mirotic is a different player than Taj and is viewed as a talented face-up power forward with shooting range and offensive versatility, but there will be an adjustment as he transitions to the NBA. That said, there's a chance he crosses the water prior to the 2013-14 season and if that occurs, I think it will coincide with Taj's departure, simply based on financial reasons.

What's your take on the whole Dwight HowardStan Van Gundy saga in Orlando? -- Joey Y.

Joey, since the Magic's melodrama took another twist with Dwight's recent back surgery, the situation has somehow become even more complicated. I don't see any way, short of a miracle playoff run -- which is highly unlikely, considering their downward spiral and injury-plagued roster -- that Stan returns to coach in Orlando next season. Despite his protestations that he prefers to stay put, that should come as relief to him.

However, I doubt a coaching change will keep Dwight with the Magic. While I don't believe reports that the organization wanted to have him fly on AirTran -- at least not on a commercial flight -- I think it's clear that his time in Orlando has run its course. The Magic look like a team in need of clearing house, from the general manager and coach to various veteran role players and the All-Star center. At this point, I expect them to aggressively seek out potential trade partners in the offseason. While Dwight opted in for an extra year, with his injury potentially affecting him at the beginning of next season, it's probably time to cut ties, maximize what they can get for him while they still have leverage and get some pieces to rebuild with, whether solid veterans or future assets.

Keep the questions -- whether theyre about the Bulls, the rest of the NBA, other levels of basketball or life in general -- coming. Youll get a much better explanation, though not as instant, than you would via Twitter with only 140 characters. You can submit a question by commenting on this article below or by clicking here.

Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

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Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

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John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs have so much going for them, all this blue-chip talent, a clubhouse mix of young players and grizzled veterans, arguably the best manager in the game, an impactful coaching staff and a front office that blends scouting and analytics as well as anyone.

So, no, John Lackey is not at all surprised by the way this clicked into place, 101 wins and counting for the machine built with October in mind.

“Not really,” Lackey said after Tuesday night’s 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I had some pretty good offers from other people, and I chose this one for a reason. It’s all here.”

But to win the World Series — and get the jewelry Lackey talks about — you still need some luck, good health and the guts to perform in those Big Boy Games. That reality of randomness and matchups made a pregame announcement some 250 miles away from PNC Park so telling.

Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee, ending his MVP-caliber season. The National League East champions will lose a .307 hitter with 22-homer power from the middle of their lineup and a veteran presence for a playoff rotation that will likely be without injured ace Stephen Strasburg (right elbow) in the first round.

“That’s a tough one when you lose your catcher, a guy who’s that significant for the pitching staff,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Think about the pitching staff — it’s so different when you know the guy back there is your guy and he knows what’s going on. The communication’s different. The trust factor, all that stuff is different.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your NL Central champions gear right here]

Within that big-picture context, the Cubs survived as Lackey limited the checked-out Pirates (77-80) to one run across five innings in his fifth start since recovering from a strained right shoulder and coming off the disabled list. Maddon then used six different relievers — staying away from Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman — during a three-hour, 49-minute game that felt more like the Cactus League.

After defecting from the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team the Cubs bounced out of last year’s playoffs, Lackey finished the regular season at 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA and 188 1/3 innings.

“I’m going to get to 200,” Lackey said.

Beyond wins and losses, Lackey called this season his career best in terms of “those numbers that they’ve made up in the last few years” like WHIP (1.04) and opponents’ OPS (.646) and whatever. And, no, he doesn’t know his WAR, either: “Not even close.”

Yes, the Cubs got the old-school attitude they wanted when they signed Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal before the winter meetings. For all the talk about the pitching deficit and the New York Mets after their young guns swept the Cubs out of last year’s NL Championship Series, the Cubs are getting their money’s worth with a guy who will turn 38 in October.

The amazing Mets have lost three of those frontline starters — Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome), Jacob deGrom (nerve damage in his right elbow) and Steven Matz (bone spur in his left elbow) — and are still holding onto the first wild-card spot, which says something about this playoff field.

This doesn’t guarantee anything in October, but the Cubs are just about as close to full strength as they could reasonably hope now. Instead of the silence that would have come with losing an irreplaceable player like Ramos, the sound system in the postgame clubhouse blasted Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Notorious B.I.G. after their 101st win.

“Yeah, we lost Dexter (Fowler) for a bit,” Maddon said. “We lost (Kyle) Schwarber all year. Otherwise, when a couple pitchers got banged up, whether you’re talking about Rondon or Strop, I don’t think that our injuries have been as magnified because we’ve covered them pretty well.

“We still had our moments, like everybody else has. But when you get to right now, we’re getting well, and hopefully that trend continues. But to lose somebody of that magnitude for them, that’s got to be difficult.”