SAN FRANCISCO — The Bulls are in a good place these days.
Yes, there have been mind-boggling losses like Monday’s debacle in Sacramento, but for the most part, after dealing with crushing injuries and stunning trades, the squad has molded into a capable, cohesive unit with structure in terms of a collective identity and individual roles. While there will continue to be speculation as the Feb. 20 trade deadline approaches, for the time being, all the Bulls can do is continue to forge ahead in the second half of the season, maintaining their current solid playoff position and trying to augment it by getting firmly past .500, then potentially moving ahead of the likes of Toronto, Atlanta and Washington to secure hosting a first-round playoff series.
There will be at least one guaranteed roster move, the addition of a 13th player, something that’s been in the making since the team allowed the 10-day contracts of swingman Cartier Martin and Mike James to expire last week in New Orleans.
All Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau wants for that spot is, “A player,” as he said before the team’s morning shootaround at a tiny downtown San Francisco athletic club, ahead of its Thursday-evening game against Golden State in Oakland.
“Honestly I would like to have all 15 (roster spots filled), but right now it’s not possible. I think cap management is important, so you have to make good, sound decisions, so that’s what we’re trying to do. But as I said, the one thing is we feel good about the guys we do have here. If someone goes down, the next guy get in there, understand what your job is and get it done. At some point we will be adding another player. A lot of it is based on who is playing well, who is available. We’ll make a decision once we get there,” the coach explained. “You would have to say we’ll have to wait, like two weeks from now, is someone nicked up? Do we have that need? What’s the greatest need at that particular point? But we can always use more shooting. Whoever that player is, I want him to be able to shoot.”
When asked if he would like to see the return of the 38-year-old James, who is awaiting another NBA opportunity while working out daily in Houston, under the watch of former NBA player and coach John Lucas, the father of the ex-Bulls point guard and Thibodeau’s former boss in Philadelphia, the coach said, “(I’m) always OK with Mike James. I haven’t talked to Mike today, but I know he’ll be in a gym somewhere today. And he’ll probably be with John Lucas, working his tail off, and whenever someone calls him he’ll be ready. That’s who Mike James is.”
Speaking of players who are no longer with the Bulls, small forward Luol Deng’s stint in Cleveland has taken a turn for the worse, as the Cavaliers, already surrounded by reports of player dissension, losing on the court and overall poor chemistry, reportedly fired general manager Chris Grant after Wednesday’s embarrassing loss to the injury-riddled Lakers. The Lakers only had five available players by the end of the game and one of them, center Robert Sacre, was assessed technical fouls each time he committed a personal foul because he had already reached his limit of six fouls.
“Luol did a lot for us. Sometimes rebuilding can be tough,” Thibodeau said of Deng, who is already unhappy playing for the losing squad, according to reports. “A lot tougher than people realize. It’s unfortunate, but Luol is a tough-minded guy, he’ll get through it.”
Added Jimmy Butler, Deng’s de facto replacement, as far as his ironman-defensive stopper role: “Technically, they didn’t have four guys.
“That’s a tough way to lose,” he continued, claiming he was unaware of the Cavs’ current issues. “We feel like Lu’s our guy. But for the most part, we have to worry about the Chicago Bulls.”
Butler has seemingly broken out of a horrific shooting slump, reaching double figures in the Bulls’ last five games. His trademark ability to get to the free-throw line has played a major role, as he’s focused on slashing more and scoring inside, which will be aided by his ongoing development as a back-to-the-basket scorer, utilizing his superior size against smaller shooting guards, as well as working to improve his ballhandling ability.
“I just feel like I’m getting the confidence again, making a few shots, getting to the free-throw line and getting some easy baskets. I feel like that’s the key to my game,” he explained. “I have to be able to do that (post up), to tell you the truth. I have to work on that.
“I don’t want to say I’m not comfortable, but I’m not used to it with my back to the basket squaring up. That’s what I’m working on,” the third-year swingman went on to say. “I feel really comfortable (handling the ball). But you know that comes with confidence and your teammates expecting you to do so. I didn’t do that in college. It was way different. But now I feel like it’s something I have to do to push it on the floor and get easy baskets.”
Thibodeau concurred with the notion that Butler is better when he doesn’t overly focus on beating opposing defenses as an outside threat.
“I don’t want him to strictly rely on his jump shot. To me, when he does that he gets away from a lot of other things that he does well, which is like running the floor, moving without the ball, getting to the free throw line, and then when you add in shooting the ball well, you’re going to see his scoring like 15-to-20 points, his defense, guarding multiple positions, so I think he’s starting to get into rhythm, which is important. The big thing is it’s been so choppy for him all season. But he’s playing well right now,” the coach said. “Some of it was frustration because there was nothing he could do other than try and get to the gym and shoot as much as you can. But when you’re missing time, you can’t overlook how important it is to be practicing and playing every day. Now that he’s back to doing that it’s there. Also, the way he plays. Running the floor is so important to him, so important to us. Moving without the ball, he’s great at that. And I think he’s back into moving without the ball, which is getting him to the free throw line. Now you look at his free throws, and when he gets seven, eight free throws in a game, that’s Jimmy. That’s him playing his game. He’s got a unique skillset, and he’s got to take advantage of it.”
Butler’s versatility, particularly on the defensive end, will be needed Thursday, when the Bulls take on the explosive Warriors at Oracle Arena. It’s conceivable that he could see time guarding each of Golden State’s four perimeter threats: All-Star point guard Stephen Curry, sharpshooting backcourt partner Klay Thompson, jack-of-all-trades small forward Andre Iguodala and second-year reserve Harrison Barnes, the darling of last spring’s playoff run now struggling in a sixth-man role.
“Boy, they can score the ball. They’re great in transition. They’re not good, they’re great, and because of that shooting they can really spread you out. They’re a deep team. I think Iguodala adds a lot to their team. His ability to handle the ball and make plays. And then you look at a guy like Harrison Barnes, what he can do, (David) Lee, (Andrew) Bogut, (Marreese) Speights, they just got Jermaine O’Neal back, a very, very deep, very good defensively, and great in transition,” Thibodeau said. “There are a lot of good teams out West, a lot of teams that are like similar in terms of their depth, and I think a lot of it is based on where they are in their schedule and if they’ve taken on any injuries. But they’re right there, you can put them with anybody in the West.”