Bulls Back in the Playoffs, Are You Excited?


Bulls Back in the Playoffs, Are You Excited?

Friday, Apr. 16, 2010
5:00 P.M.

By Mark Schanowski

Now that the Bulls are back in the playoffs for the second year in a row, it's not unreasonable to ask if the late season-drive to earn the right to play mighty Cleveland was all worth it. Forget about the chance to get into the draft lottery. Only the most optimistic fan could actually believe the Bulls would cash in a less than one percent chance to get one of the top three picks for the second time in the last three years. And, by making the playoffs, the under-publicized part of the John Salmons deal with Milwaukee......the right to swap 1st round draft picks......won't hurt quite as much. The Bulls will now send their number 15 pick to Milwaukee, and pick in the Bucks' slot at number 17. At that point in the draft, there's not much difference in moving down two picks, so it shouldn't have much impact on what type of player the Bulls will get. Besides, don't be surprised if the Bulls package their number 1 pick, plus Kirk Hinrich to a team with cap room. The NBA salary cap is now projected to be around 56 million dollars for next season, so the Bulls might explore various ways to trim their payroll a little further and create the possibility of going after two premiere free agents.

But, let's get back to the monumental task at hand. How many games do you realistically expect the Bulls to win against highly-motivated LeBron James and the Cavs? Please post your predictions in the section below or send me an e-mail. I'm guessing they'll find a way to win one, which means the fight to get into the playoffs will extend the season by about 13 days. And, with the Bulls about to head into one of the most important off-seasons in franchise history, maybe an early exit isn't exactly the worst thing. The Bulls need to move quickly on Vinny Del Negro's status, and do everything in their power to ease concerns around the league that the franchise has become dysfunctional. Former Dallas Mavericks' coach Avery Johnson said on Friday the Bulls will have to repair their image before they can even think about attracting a top level head coach or free agent. And, until the head coaching situation is addressed, that cloud will hang over the Bulls and complicate their off-season plans.

Still, there are positives from the Bulls getting back to the playoffs, most notably the chance for Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to show the rest of the country that they've emerged as elite players at their positions. NBA fans know all about Rose after his outstanding playoff debut against Boston last season, an All-Star appearance this year, and the countless high-flying highlights that have appeared on national sports shows. But not everyone is aware of the monumental strides Noah has made in his career this season. You might have forgotten a lot of Bulls' fans were upset when the team used the 9th pick in the '07 draft to select Noah, and labeled him a bust after a so-so rookie year. Joakim also got off to a slow start in year 2, and was ripped for his poor conditioning. But somewhere in that 2nd season, the light turned on for Joakim, and he's never looked back, emerging as one of the top 10 centers in the league after tirelessly working on his game last summer. Now, he'll get the chance in front of a national audience to show just how much he's improved against one of the best centers ever to play the game, Shaquille O'Neal. Who would have ever guessed the Bulls would have an edge at the center position in this series with Noah facing Shaq? But that's the way I'm looking at it, especially with the way Joakim has attacked opposing centers with his spinning jump hooks and lefty finishes at the rim. He may not be the most graceful big man in the NBA, but Noah has turned himself into an offensive threat, able to drive to the basket and to make that 15 foot jumper, even with the ball spinning sideways! Joakim played with a relentless passion over the last couple weeks trying to get the Bulls into the playoffs, and now that they've arrived, he'll look to "shock the world" in this series.

The same can be said for Rose, who took the offensive load on his shoulders down the stretch, and added the three point shot to his repertoire. As good as Rose was in his rookie season, he's made dramatic improvements in year 2. He's now almost unguardable with his ability to blow by defenders and finish at the rim, plus an outside shot that's become more consistent throughout the season. Rose should be able to score at will against Mo Williams, who's a shoot-first point guard that doesn't like to get worn out by playing defense. I'm sure Cavs' coach Mike Brown will use his big men to "hard show" on the high screen-and-roll, and discourage Rose from penetrating all the way to the basket. But Derrick has so many counter options right now that he'll find a way to get his 20 points or more. The larger questions is, which Bulls players will step up to help him on the offensive end?
1. Don't let LeBron's "supporting cast" get off. You can pencil James in for 30 to 35 points in every game of the series, and that's okay if the Bulls can contain the rest of the Cavs. Antawn Jamison, Shaq and Mo Williams are all former all-stars, capable of putting up big scoring games once they get it going. The Bulls can't recklessly double team James and let one of the other Cavs' starters beat them.

2. Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng must make a high percentage of open jumpers. This has been the biggest problem for the Bulls all season long, lack of a consistent outside shooting threat to go along with Rose. How many times has Derrick broken down the defense and kicked the ball out to an open shooter, only to watch them clank a wide-open jumper? Ben Gordon was huge in last year's playoff series against Boston, and the Bulls found out during the season just how much they miss his ability to light it up from the outside. And, just when John Salmons was starting to pull out of his season-long slump, the Bulls traded him to Milwaukee, where he's averaged 20 points a game in leading Milwaukee to the playoffs. That leaves Hinrich, Deng, and to a lesser extent, Flip Murray. Those 3 guys have to be able to hit the open shots they'll be getting when Rose penetrates into the lane and draws 2 or 3 Cleveland defenders.

3. Avoid foul trouble. Taj Gibson has been a revelation as the number 26 pick in the draft, but his one consistent problem has been picking up early fouls which forces the Bulls to sit him for long stretches of the game. Gibson has a tough match-up against Jamison, a savvy veteran who can bury jumpers from the three point line and also has has a wide array of flip shots and hooks in the lane. If Gibson can't avoid foul trouble, the Bulls will have to turn to Hakim Warrick and James Johnson, and neither of those players is considered a great defender.

4. Don't get intimidated. Cleveland is the favorite to win the NBA title this season, and led by James, they carry themselves with a certain arrogance that can unsettle younger teams. We all remember Noah barking at James for dancing on the court during a Cavs' win over the Bulls earlier this season. James is determined to break through for a championship in his 7th NBA season, just like Michael Jordan did. And, like Jordan, he doesn't want to mess around with a first round opponent that finished with a .500 record during the regular season. The Bulls have to withstand an all-out attack by Cleveland in Game 1, and show the Cavs they are in this series for the long haul.

5. Bulls need bench production. Vinny Del Negro really shortened his bench rotation in last year's playoff series, and I expect he'll do the same this year. So, the Bulls need to get consistent production from veterans Brad Miller, Flip Murray and Hakim Warrick. Cleveland's bench is a lot better than it was last season with the addition of guys like Jamario Moon, Leon Powe and Anthony Parker. Parker will be in the starting line-up, but that allows the Cavs to bring Delonte West off the bench, and personal issues aside, he's an explosive scorer and underrated defender. With West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Moon and "Boobie" Gibson, Cleveland has a 2nd five that should be able to outplay most teams they could run into in the playoffs.

Don't forget to tune in to Comcast SportsNet for expanded pre and post-game coverage throughout the playoffs. Saturday's game is on ABC, but Kendall Gill will join me in studio at 4:30 for all your post-game coverage, including coaches' news conferences and interviews with all the key players. We'll also be streaming the post-game news conferences on CSNChicago.com. Enjoy the playoffs!

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

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.