Bulls in a 'funk' these days, playing down to competition


Bulls in a 'funk' these days, playing down to competition

The end result of Saturdays 91-81 loss to the Bobcats aside, whenever a Bulls team coached by Tom Thibodeau doesnt display maximum effort on the court, its troubling. Sure, there were built-in excuses, such as Kirk Hinrichs absence due to injury or Joakim Noah playing through illnessJo wasnt feeling well today, Thibodeau said afterwards. He gave us what he hadbut this is a team that doesnt use adversity as a reason for losing and besides, they were hosting Charlotte, previously losers of 18 straight games.

Weve just got to work our way out of it, a dejected Thibodeau explained afterwards. Everyone has a job to do. My job is to make sure theyre ready and then, when theyre out there, theyve got to do their job, so we all have to do a lot better and right now, things arent going our way, and weve got to make things go our way.

We put ourselves in a hole right off the bat. The defense and the rebounding and the low turnovers, that has to be there every night and right now, were not getting that done, so weve got to figure out a way to get that corrected. You can live with the shotssome nights, youre going to shoot it better than othersbut the defense and the rebounding is not where it needs to be, he continued. Every team in this league is talented. You look at the guys coming off the bench: Ben Gordon and Ramon Sessions, those are two big-time scorers. Kemba Walkers playing well. Youve got three guys who can crack you off the dribble. Henderson has been a very good player in the league for a while now, so theyre good. Youve got to give them credit. They played well, very well.

You cant get discouraged if youre missing shots. Right now, were not a 48-minute team. For some reasonand Ive got to figure this outI have to have us ready at the start of the game. We have to have an edge at the start of the game. We cant ease our way into the game and say, Okay, were good. Well get it corrected. It doesnt work like that.

RELATED: Bulls stunned by Bobcats on New Year's Eve

Defensively, while the offensively-challenged Bobcats didnt resemble the Showtime Lakers, their ability to get into the paint against the vaunted Bulls defense was alarming, as was the fact that the home team continues to struggle on the glass, though some of that could be attributed to an under the weather Noah, as his coach described him.

On the other end of the floor, there was no cohesiveness and while Hinrich not being availablethe veteran point guard is day to day with a compilation of things, Thibodeau said during his pregame media availability, prior to which Hinrich attempted to warm up, but its suspected that his right knee (which would be his sixth separate injury this season) is the most pressing current issueto run the show didnt help matters, its not as if the Bulls dont experience periodic or even game-long droughts.

Were a desperate team right now. A losing streak is tough on you, so we had tactical stuff we wanted to take care of, but we just wanted to fight more than anything. I think it kind of showed in the way that we played defense tonight because weve been scoring the ball well, but I think our defense has been hurting us a lot. Weve been in a lot of games, but have been giving up points. Its hard to win when youre not playing good defense, relieved Bobcats swingman Gerald Henderson explained.

We played solid all the way through the game. In this entire losing streak weve had, weve kind of been up and down with it, especially at the end of games. We havent taken business on the defensive end, so I think our offense was consistent and they started fouling in the last four or five minutes, so that came down to just being strong, taking care of the ball and hitting our free throws.

Usually, however, the Bulls typical blend of defense, toughness and sheer determination gets the job done. Recently, that hasnt been the case.

Were banged up, but theres still no excuses. Weve just got to play through it and get ourselves out of the funk, Taj Gibson said. Every team has a slow start, but weve got to learn how to pick it up. Nobodys going to feel sorry for us, but weve got to get ourselves out of it.

Luol Deng concurred: Obviously were not playing as well as we can. Weve played better this year, so were not going to make excuses. Weve just got to find our way out of it.

We didnt get stops in the fourth and they went on a little run, got the lead and never looked back, he continued. Weve been there before. Weve just got to play hard. Obviously we want to win. Its not the end of the world. Just stay positive, keep playing together. When youre struggling like that, next game weve just got to come out and play harder.

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Being a better defensive team was a prime objective for Fred Hoiberg coming into camp, as the Bulls hope to reclaim some of their defensive identity that disappeared last season.

Reciting a not-so-true stat routinely to reporters in the first few days, that the Bulls were last in forcing turnovers in 2015-16, means he’s likely barking it to the team in practices (they were actually second-to-last behind the New York Knicks).

“Absolutely,” said Hoiberg when asked if being more aggressive defensively is a goal. “We are turning the ball over way too much. After watching film, our defense is responsible for some of that. We have a guy in (Rajon) Rondo that's a high steals guy, got great hands, great instincts, great wingspan. Jimmy (Butler) is always had great anticipation and one of the top steals guy.”

Butler is one of the best two-way players, along with San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Indiana’s Paul George, but even he admitted his defense slipped last year as the Bulls fell to a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of advanced defensive rankings (15th).

[SHOP: Get up for the 2016-17 season, Bulls fans!]

Rondo was once one of the league’s best defensive point guards before tearing up his knee his last full season in Boston, and averaged two steals last year in Sacramento, but gave up a career-high 107 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com.

Whether Rondo was a function of a bad defense overall for the Kings or a player who no longer fully commits himself to that end remains to be seen, but it’s clear Hoiberg wants a more hands-y defense. Too many times last year, the Bulls defense had leaks from the top down, resulting in compromised drives to the basket and breakdowns all around.

More than anything, the Bulls defense was one of indifference, especially after the first 30 games or so.

“Like all staffs we watched a ton of film and tried to figure out with this group how to create more turnovers, how to impact the ball better,” Hoiberg said. “Every day it's been a big emphasis in our defense and we get out and force turnovers and make sure the help is there behind the trap and being aggressive on the ball.”

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

The common refrain among coaches in the first days of training camp is “this guy had an incredible summer”, a phrase Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has said so much that even he had to laugh when asked who didn’t have a banner summer period.

Of course, that’s before fans and media get to see anyone play, so we can only speculate who’ll win certain position battles, like the starting power forward spot or how deep Hoiberg’s rotation will go.

So in the spirit of speculation, Bulls rookie Denzel Valentine’s versatility makes him a candidate for the backup point guard position, a spot that is filled with different options for Hoiberg to choose from.

“He’s such an instinctive player. He does a great job,” Hoiberg said. “We talk about making simple plays. You’ve done your job when you beat your man, draw the second defender and make the easy, simple play. Denzel is great at that. That’s not a gift that everybody has. That’s not an instinct that all players have. But Denzel certainly has it.”

One wonders if Valentine could find himself on the outside looking in at the start of the season, like Bobby Portis did last year before all the injuries hit the Bulls and forced him into action.

It’s a different vision than when Valentine was drafted as a late lottery pick after a seasoned career at Michigan State. The Bulls hadn’t signed Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo in free agency, and had traded Derrick Rose 24 hours before the draft, so the thought was Valentine could be an instant contributor.

Even still, Valentine can likely play anything from point guard to small forward, but hasn’t gotten extensive reps at the point, yet.

“I’ve played on the wing so far. A little bit of point,” Valentine said. “I got a couple reps on the point, but like 70-30. Seventy on the wing, 30 on the point.”

[SHOP: Get up for the 2016-17 season, Bulls fans!]

He got an early jump on the Hoiberg terminology at summer league, so the language isn’t a big adjustment, but having to learn multiple positions along with the tendencies of new teammates can mean a steeper learning curve.

“Yeah, I just got to continue learning sets and learning guys’ strengths so that I can use that to their best advantage,” Valentine said. “Play-make as best I can when I’m at the point guard spot. Just learning the system, learning guys’ strengths, and then I’ll be better at it.”

The presence of Wade and Jimmy Butler, one of whom will likely anchor the second unit as Hoiberg will probably stagger minutes so each can have the requisite time and space, means even if Valentine were on the floor, he wouldn’t have to be a natural point guard.

Hoiberg does, however, crave having multiple playmakers who can initiate offense or create shots off penetration or pick and roll action, meaning Valentine can work it to his advantage.

“I think he can. Jimmy played with the ball in his hands a lot last year,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy rebounds the ball and if Dwyane rebounds the ball, they’re bringing it. Rajon if he’s out there knows to fill one of the lanes. Denzel is an excellent passer. He’s got such good basketball instincts. So if you can get guys out there who can make plays, that’s what it’s all about. I think you’re very difficult to guard in this league when you have multiple ballmakers.”

Other notes:

Dwyane Wade won’t be taking walk-up triples for the Bulls, despite his call that Hoiberg wants him being more comfortable from behind the long line. Hoiberg does want him being willing and able to take corner threes, likely off guard penetration from Rondo or Jimmy Butler.

When Wade played with LeBron James in Miami, cutting from the corners became a staple, so putting him there could be an old wrinkle Hoiberg is adding to his scheme.

Wade took seven of his 44 3-pointers from the corner last season, hitting two from the right side, according to vorped.com.

“When he’s open, especially in the corners, that’s a shot we want him taking. It’s a thing we worked on yesterday, making sure he stays on balance,” Hoiberg said. “He’s got a natural lean on his shot, which has been very effective, being on the elite mid range shooters in our game. That’s allowed him to get shots over bigger defenders. When you get out further from the basket, especially by the line, you need to get momentum going in, work on your body position and work on finishing that shot. He’s got good mechanics, it’s a matter of finishing the shot.”