Beyond the Arc: Quest for top seed starts now

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Beyond the Arc: Quest for top seed starts now

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
6:23 p.m.

By Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

So, raise your hand if you thought the Bulls would be battling Boston for the top seed in the East over the final six weeks of the regular season.

Its been an amazing ride watching Derrick Rose lead the Bulls into the ranks of the NBAs elite teams. Right now, a lot of national writers with M.V.P. votes are proclaiming Derrick is their choice to win the award. So, I guess Derrick knew what he was talking about when he responded to my question about personal goals back on Media Day in September with Why cant I be the M.V.P., why cant I be the best player in the league?

Led by Rose and the ultra-thorough approach of first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls have taken the league by storm. They rank 1st in the NBA in opponents field goal percentage and 1st in points allowed, and when a team is that good on the defensive end, theyre going to have a chance to win every game.

Since the return of Joakim Noah, the Bulls have been even better on the defensive end, holding opponents under 90 points almost every time out. Noahs ability to block shots and rebound in traffic gives the Bulls a last line of defense they didnt have when Kurt Thomas was starting at center.

And, the improvement of rookie center Omer Asik has given the second unit that same ability to change games with defensive play. Ronnie Brewer has been more aggressive playing the passing lanes, knowing he has Asik and Taj Gibson behind him to erase any mistakes.

The question is, can the Bulls catch Boston for the number one seed in the East?

There are obvious advantages to finishing first, starting with earning home court advantage throughout the conference playoffs. And, the chance to play a team with a losing record in the first round like Indiana or Charlotte, instead of the star-studded Knicks or Doug Collins dangerous 76ers. And, the likelihood of avoiding Miami in the conference semifinals.

But will the Bulls go all out to finish 1st?

A lot depends on what the standings look like on April 1. If theyre still within two or three games of the lead, look for Thibodeau to go for the top spot. The Bulls have a head-to-head matchup with the Celtics at the United Center on April 7, which could go a long way to deciding which team claims first place. Looking at the Bulls final 20 games, 10 are at home and 10 are on the road. Nine of the teams have winning records, while 11 are under .500.

Getting the top seed would be a huge accomplishment for the Bulls, but realistically, the Bulls will be keeping a close eye on Miami in their rear-view mirror. A potential second round series against the Heat would be an NBA instant classic, and the Bulls want to make sure any Game Seven would be played at the United Center instead of South Beach.

Is Rose wearing down?

One potential concern down the stretch is the demands being placed on Derrick Rose to direct the offense and take over as the crunch-time scorer. Roses shooting percentage from 3-point range has been falling like a rock over the last five weeks. He connected on just 25 percent of his tries from beyond the arc in February, and missed his first 16 tries in March.

I had a chance to talk with my studio partner, Kendall Gill, about Derricks mini-shooting slump. He recommends Rose go back to his driving game and try to scale back on the long-range jumpers.

NBA players routinely wear down over the course of a long regular season, and the best way to get your rhythm back is attack the basket and try to get more free throw attempts. Thibodeau says hes not concerned about Roses recent struggles from long distance. Thibs says Rose continues to put in extra work at practice, and as long as he does that, he has the green light to shoot them in games.

The larger concern for me is how heavily the team relies on Rose to break down the defense late in close games. Granted, Derrick is the best offensive player and gives the Bulls the best chance to get a basket or a trip to the free throw line. But I would like to see the Bulls run more post-ups for Carlos Boozer to give defenses something else to think about. When the Bulls get the ball to Boozer in the post, opponents have to decide whether to send a quick double team, or allow Carlos to back his defender into the paint. And, when the double team comes, Boozer is a willing passer who will get the ball to the open man.

Kyle Korver struggled with his outside shot in the fourth quarter against New Orleans, but he shot an NBA record 53 percent from 3-point range last season, and teams have to honor him as a threat to score on any possession. Thibodeau likes to use Korver down the stretch of close games for just that reason. As we head into the stretch run towards the playoffs, its all about figuring out how to tighten rotations for games that matter the most. Look for Korver to be on the court when the Bulls need a big basket late.

Right now, the Bulls are playing 10 guys every night, and its possible that will continue into the playoffs. But Thibodeau stuck with Rose at the beginning of the fourth quarter against New Orleans instead of going to his usual substitution pattern of bringing in C.J. Watson. That means five or six extra minutes for your best player, and the Bulls have to be careful not to wear Rose down before the grueling playoff chase even begins.

As always, we love to get your feedback. Please post your comments on the race for the top seed and the scoring burden placed on Rose in the section below. And, most of all, enjoy the way the Bulls are playing right now. The fun is only beginning!

Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNet Central, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10 p.m.

Bulls have emerged from a ball of confusion to parts unknown

Bulls have emerged from a ball of confusion to parts unknown

The big red button was pressed and Jimmy Butler was ejected from the Chicago Bulls’ present and future as they finally made the decision to rebuild after two years of resisting.

Trading Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the ability to draft Lauri Markkanen represents the Bulls committing to the draft lottery and fully going in on the Fred Hoiberg experience for the foreseeable future, as the prospect of trying to improve through shrewd moves in the East while also facing the likelihood of Butler commanding a $200 million contract wasn’t palatable to their pocketbook or their sensibilities.

On one hand, making a decision — any decision — can be applauded on some levels after years of their relationship with Butler being complicated at best. But the idea of rebuilding and the application of it are often two separate ideals, because the evaluation of a rebuild can often be as murky as the land the Bulls just left.

“What we’ve done tonight is set a direction,” Bulls Executive Vice President John Paxson said. “We’ve gone to the past where we make the playoffs, but not at the level we wanted to. You know in this league, success is not determined that way. We’ve decided to make the change and rebuild this roster.”

“We’re gonna remain patient and disciplined. The development of our young players is important. The coaching staff has done a phenomenal job. We’re gonna continue down that path. We’re not gonna throw huge money at people.”

The Bulls aren’t exclusive to this territory, the land in which they’ve inhibited for the last couple seasons, which makes the Butler trade about more than one thing.

Not equal parts but part basketball, part fiscal, part narrative and finally, masking some mistakes that have been made over the years but are not as easily rectified. Trading Butler seemed to be the easiest vessel used as an elixir to wash away missteps. Trading a star in Butler is also the easiest way to get heat off a coach or front office in today’s NBA, because few franchises like to make wholesale changes midstream or early in it.

Trading Butler — along with shipping their second-round pick in a box marked for the Bay Area — was also financial, considering many felt if he made it through the tumultuous evening that he would finish his career as a Bull, raking in a hefty sum of cash on the back end.

It’s because of these factors that the evaluation of this trade and subsequently, a painful rebuild, cannot be in a vacuum. (Note: No rebuild is painless, it’s the size of the migraine a team can endure that determines the type of aspirin necessary).

Just taking a look at the players the Bulls got back in the Butler trade illustrates the gray area they’ve now immersed themselves into. The Bulls fell in love with Dunn before he came to the NBA, and aren’t as bothered by him being a 23-year old second-year player who struggled mightily in his rookie year.

Zach LaVine is an explosive athlete who can put up 20 every night — when he’s on the floor. Recovering from an ACL injury is no given, as evidenced by a young phenom who once graced the United Center hardwood before his body betrayed him.

And Lauri Markkanen is a rookie with promise, but nobody can make any promises on what type of career he’ll have, or if he’ll fulfill that promise with this franchise in the requisite time.

“There’s always risk in anything,” Paxson said. “But here’s a guy that’s 22 years old and averages 20 a game (LaVine). He can score the basketball, he can run. He can shoot the basketball. He shot over 40 percent from three. That’s an area we’re deficient in. Markkanen shot over 40 from three in college. Again, it’s an area where we’re deficient. It’s trying to find the type of player that fits the way that we want to play going forward.”

[RELATED: Jimmy Butler bids emotional farewell to Chicago]

General Manager Gar Forman stated after the announcement of the trade that the Bulls would have to hit on their next few draft picks to stop this rebuild from being elongated, but even then there’s no guarantee.

The Sacramento Kings drafted a rookie of the year, then two future max contract players in the same year, followed by another player who’ll command close to max money very soon. But nobody remembers Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside and Isaiah Thomas leading the Kings from the wilderness and into glory, unless recent memory has been scrubbed away from everyone.

Inconsistencies in organizational structure combined with multiple coaching changes and an inability to develop the right young players kept the Kings on the dais of the draft lottery every April.

The Timberwolves, heck, nobody could say they missed when selecting LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and getting Andrew Wiggins in a trade for Kevin Love. It’s because it takes more than the right draft picks, or in the Sacramento Kings’ case, the right infrastructure and environment, to foster an atmosphere of winning.

The Bulls were ready, despite their claims that this was a decision that came across their table right before the draft, because common sense has to be applied. No team makes knee-jerk, franchise-altering decisions that will have reverberations for years to come on the whim of a trade offer from Tom Thibodeau. This was likely decided when the Bulls went out with a whimper in the first-round after shocking the NBA world in the first two games against the Boston Celtics, when their fortunes changed on the trifle of Rajon Rondo’s broken wrist.

It was decided that Hoiberg, the man who endured chants calling for his firing in the second half of the decisive Game 6 loss, needed to have the right type of roster to be accurately judged as a successful hire or failure, and Butler couldn’t be part of those plans.

And just as Hoiberg has been dealt an uneven hand, Butler wasn’t given the type of roster that would accurately judge how he could flourish as a leader, max player and face of the franchise — and probably had less time to show one way or the other relative to his coach.

The longer Butler stayed, the more empowered he would become as his individual accomplishments would rack up because of the dedication he applied to game, the drive he had to place himself in the upper echelon of NBA players.

The better Butler got, the more pressure Hoiberg would be under to mix and match his roster and to foster a relationship with Butler he might’ve been ill-suited to fix. The better Butler got, the more pressure the front office would be under to maximize a prime it didn’t see coming, a prime they can’t truly figure when there’s an expiration date on given Butler’s unlikely rise to stardom.

So getting rid of Butler was the solution and the Bulls have now chosen their path, definitively and with confidence. Emerging from a ball of confusion to parts unknown, from one land of uncertainty to another.

Watch some of new Bull Zach LaVine's best dunks

Watch some of new Bull Zach LaVine's best dunks

Zach LaVine quickly made a name for himself as a prolific, epic dunker.

The recently acquired Bull won both the 2015 and 2016 Slam Dunk Contests and has plenty of awe-inspiring in-game dunks as well.

The video above has a few of LaVine's best efforts.

His signature dunks in the dunk contests were the 2015 dazzler when he caught the ball from behind the backboard and went through his legs before slamming it and the through the legs from just inside the free throw line dunk in 2016.

For in-game dunks, the time he posterized Alex Len in November was an instant-classic. It's not everyday a 7-footer gets dismissed with such authority.

Of course, LaVine's ability to dunk at this prodigious level is in question after he tore his ACL this past season. If LaVine can come back to anywhere near full strength, look for some impressive highlights from the former dunk champ in a Bulls uniform.