Deng worthy of All-Star spot

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Deng worthy of All-Star spot

NBA All-Star reserves will officially be announced at 6 p.m. on Thursday, but we thought wed get a jump on things with a look players are most deserving. The coaches generally do a pretty good job of picking the reserves, but even they are subject to overvaluing past performance, and not selecting the players who are doing the most for their teams this season. Remember, coaches are asked to vote for two guards, two forwards, one center and two wild card selections (any position).

So, with that in mind, here are my choices for the All-Star reserves.

Eastern Conference

Forwards: Luol Deng and Chris Bosh. Okay, maybe a little homer-ism is involved in picking Deng, but hes one of the most versatile small forwards in the league, and is asked to do more on both ends than just about other player. Deng stays on the floor with the reserves at the start of the second quarter, helping that unit function smoothly on the offensive end. Hes also asked to guard the other teams best perimeter player, and hes always among the league leaders in minutes played (even after returning from a serious wrist injury).

As for Bosh, hes quietly having a very efficient second season in Miami, with his scoring up due to the early season injuries suffered by Dwyane Wade. Miami is using LeBron James more on the block, allowing Bosh to settle into his more comfortable role as a perimeter shooter.

Guards: Rajon Rondo and Joe Johnson. Rondo missed a number of games with a wrist injury, but hes still the engine that makes the Celtics go. Boston has taken off since his return, and the Cs are at their best with Rondo playing aggressively on the defensive end and pushing the ball in transition. As for Johnson, 20 million dollars doesnt get what it used to, but hes still the top scorer on a good Atlanta team and worthy of another All-Star selection.

Center: Roy Hibbert. Admittedly, not a lot of great options for the back-up spot, and its possible league coaches will be allowed to make Bosh the second All-Star center, opening up a spot for another deserving player. But take a look around the East and you find Al Horford, Brook Lopez and Andrew Bogut are all out with injuries, and Joakim Noah got off to a very slow start with the Bulls. So who else are you going to take, Detroits Greg Monroe? Hibbert is averaging 14 points and 10 rebounds a game, and the Pacers definitely deserve to have all All-Star.

Wild Cards: Paul Pierce and Kyrie Irving. Pierce got off to a very slow start this season, looking like he wasnt in great shape after the long lockout. But now that hes back in game shape, hes still one of the best late game scorers in the league, and figures to play a big role in whatever success Boston has down the stretch. It was a tough selection for that final roster spot with players like Deron Williams, Danny Granger, Josh Smith, Andre Iguodala, Brandon Jennings and Lou Williams worthy of consideration, but Im going with Irving. Hes led the Cavs back to respectability, averaging 18 points and five assists a game while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range. Irving is fearless attacking the basket, and when he gets better talent around him, he should be recognized as one of the top point guards in the East.

Western Conference

Forwards: Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge. Love slimmed down during the off-season, making him an even more versatile offensive player, and he continues to be one of the leagues elite rebounders. Minnesota is now relevant again, and Love deserves most of the credit. As for Aldridge, remember when the Bulls drafted him No. 2 overall in the 2006 draft and traded him for the rights to Tyrus Thomas? I know it was a pre-arranged deal, but dont you think John Paxson would like to have that one over again? Then again, if the Bulls had selected Aldridge, they probably wouldnt have missed the playoffs in 2008, and never would have had the chance to draft Derrick Rose, so, never mind!

Guards: Russell Westbrook and Kevin Martin. If you havent seen a lot of the Thunder in action, Westbrook is one of the most dynamic scoring point guards in the game. Sometimes he forgets to get the ball to Kevin Durant, but as a scorer, Westbrook is something else. Martin has quietly carved out his niche as a 20-plus points per game scorer, year in and year out. He and Kyle Lowry have teamed up to form a dangerous backcourt in Houston, keeping the Rockets in the playoff hunt in the always competitive West.

Center: Al Jefferson. This was probably the toughest choice, since Jeffersons numbers are comparable to other Western Conference centers like Marc Gasol and Nene, but Utah has no right to be in the playoff race, and yet, somehow they are. The play of Jefferson is a big reason, along with his frontcourt running mate, Paul Millsap. The Jazz should be represented at the All-Star game, and Im going with Jefferson by a hair over Millsap.

Wild Cards: Tony Parker and Rudy Gay. Parker definitely deserves a spot on the team, keeping San Antonio among the top teams in the West despite the injury to Manu Ginobili and the reduced role for Tim Duncan. The last spot was the toughest with players like Monta Ellis, Dirk Nowitzki, Marc Gasol, Nene, Danilo Gallinari, Millsap and Pau Gasol worthy of consideration. But Gay has taken on more scoring responsibility with the injury to Zach Randolph, and hes helped the Grizzlies stay in playoff contention.

Okay, so what do you think? Will the Eastern Conference coaches give Deng a spot, or will the wrist injury cost him votes? Remember, Tom Thibodeau will coach the Eastern Conference team if the Bulls have the best record on February 15, and if Deng doesnt make the original 12 man squad, he figures to be the first alternate if an injury replacement is needed before the February 26 game in Orlando. Thibs will be calling David Stern 247 to get Luol a spot on the team.

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).

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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.”

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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.”