For hardcore NBA fans, this juncture between the All-Star break and the end of the regular season, aside from teams jockeying for playoff positioning, could be likened to baseball's dog days of summer. But for ardent watchers of college hoops and casual fans alike, "March Madness" is the best time of the year.
As entertaining as many of the conference tournaments were and as riled up as supporters get about bubble teams getting snubbed from Sunday's announcement of the NCAA Tournament field, there's nothing like the drama of the "Big Dance," with early-round upsets and surprise teams making Cinderella runs. By now, most people have probably at least looked at tournament brackets for office pools or just to analyze the field, which is the definition of an inexact science.
The theme for this season of college basketball has been parity, as there's been no true elite team and it seems like if almost anyone gets hot at the right time, they could be the team to beat. I attended Sunday's Big Ten championship game between Ohio State and Wisconsin as a fan, and I left the United Center feeling that either both teams were really good or extremely vulnerable, as well as being confused about the strength of the conference, purported to be the best league in the nation, but without its highest-regarded teams this season--Indiana, Michigan and perhaps Michigan State--not in the title contest.
Anyway, of the local teams with anything remotely resembling a local rooting interest, I think Illinois, Notre Dame and Marquette all have their hands full in the first round, but great opportunities to continue advancing if they're clicking due to capable talent and unique styles of play. I tend to fill out a few different brackets, but if I was asked for a Final Four on the spot, I'd probably go with No. 2 seed Miami in the East (great combination of guard play and size), top-seeded Louisville in the Midwest (outstanding balance, depth and experience), second-seeded Georgetown in the South (absolute homer pick, but I'm going with both my heart and my head, as they have been one of the best teams in the country in the second half of the season) and another No. 2 seed, Ohio State in the West (not that they overly impressed me Sunday, but their relatively light bracket, toughness and the duo of floor general Aaron Craft and scorer DeShaun Thomas may be enough to get it done), with my Hoyas hopefully cutting down the nets in the end behind the play of maybe the nation's top player, if not NBA prospect, Otto Porter.
Who knows how likely my predictions are to come true, but that's the beauty of March Madness. On to the mailbag:
What will the Bulls strategy be to improve the team while working around the luxury tax? And could you explain why the luxury tax is so important to avoid?
Trey, I'll start with the second part of your question. The luxury tax was a huge part of the current CBA agreement, designed to allow smaller-market franchises to compete on the same level as their big-market peers, due to extremely harsh penalties for exceeding the salary cap. While some teams can afford to go over the cap because of generous TV deals or owners who are willing to pay the price to be in contention, most front offices are very cautious about it, especially in consecutive seasons, which leads to an even more punitive repeater tax.
That said, the Bulls are likely to have a similar offseason to last summer, where they'll scour the market for high-value free-agent role players at minimum-contract or mid-level rates. If there is a big-impact deal to be made via trade, depending on the financial repercussions, I wouldn't be shocked if they pursue it, as long as it significantly improves the roster. Also, the fact that they won't have one of the league's best regular-season records means that they won't be picking at the end of the first round of the draft for the first time in a few seasons, which could yield a potential rotation player, albeit a rookie--who better be ready for Thibs' high standards of readiness to play as a young player and probably fill a positional need, to boot--in a class of prospects regarded as below average, but one that could contain some diamonds in the rough.
What are the odds the Bulls bring back Nate Robinson next year?
Beth, pretty slim, in my opinion. With Derrick back next season, Kirk having another year on his deal and Marquis still developing, I doubt the Bulls will keep a fourth point guard. The good news for Nate is that after the season he's had thus far, he's opened plenty of eyes by showing that he can be a fill-in starter and reliable backup, especially playing in a disciplined system with heavy defensive demands. He's been erratic at times, but he's certainly demonstrated his value.
Has Marco Belinelli's play this year made him too expensive for the Bulls to bring him back next year?
Isamil, that's an interesting question. Marco will undoubtedly garner interest from other teams and I wouldn't be surprised if some of them offer more lucrative contracts than the Bulls. But he grew up a Michael Jordan fan in Italy and has referenced in several instances how much he likes Chicago and how happy he is to be finally playing on a winning team, after not experiencing much team success prior to this season. He's developed a real comfort level within the system and I'm sure he'd love to play with Derrick, but from history, I'd never count on a player accepting a hometown discount. However, if the Bulls offer him something comparable to other offers he receives on the open market, then maybe he'd stay, but I highly doubt he'll be in the same price range he was in last summer.
How do you think Nate Robinson and D Rose will play together (assuming they play together)?
Hugh, if Derrick does return this season, I don't know how much Thibs will pair him with Nate, but if Kirk isn't healthy, there's a possibility that they could be on the court together on occasion. I know Thibs isn't a fan of playing backcourts with two small guards--I always wanted to see more of Derrick and C.J. together--but Derrick has enough size to guard some shooting guards and it would definitely put a lot of scoring and speed on the floor. I assume that it would be similar to when Nate plays alongside Kirk and even Marco, where he would play off the ball to take advantage of his scoring ability, as well as to keep Derrick as the primary ball handler, though they could switch roles on some possessions.
Did the Bulls think they could seriously contend when they got rid of the Bench Mob?
Terry, I don't know if they thought this team would be a title contender--per Gar's "step back" comment after the season--but I don't think they believed the team would be a disaster, which it hasn't. I'm not sure anyone was aware of what Marco could do other than spot-up shooting, how much Jimmy would blossom or that Nate would be so steady in his role, but they did know that Thibs would try to get the most out of his new second unit. Due to luxury-tax issues, as I mentioned earlier, not to mention Derrick's injury, I don't think this was ever thought of as a potential championship season. But I think making the playoffs was always an expectation.