Chicago Bulls

Bulls bench playing major role in recent success

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Bulls bench playing major role in recent success

Monday, March 14, 2011Posted: 4:15 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Saturdays 16-point, eight-assist, five-rebound outing from C.J. Watson was more of the same. Not necessarily for the backup point guard specificallyalthough hes been consistently consistent in relief of All-Star Derrick Rose latelybut for the Bulls entire bench.

Pick a reserve in Tom Thibodeaus rotationWatson, swingmen Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, young big men Taj Gibson and Omer Asikand odds are, hell have his moment in the spotlight sooner than later. In fact, as well as the Bulls starters have played, it can be argued that the collective performance of the second unit has gotten the team over the hump in the majority of its victories since the All-Star break.

Theyre consistent, man. They always come in, play hard, they practice well together. They like playing together, I think thats the thing, observed Rose. Thibs is doing a great job with them, with the early group, (a pre-practice session Thibodeau uses to go over plays) they come in and go over the offense all the time and theyve just got everything going for them right now.

Chimed in fellow starter Joakim Noah: Our bench has been playing huge for us.

I feel like we just come in waves.

Indeed, the emergence of the second unit has overwhelmed many an opponent recently, as the Bulls bring athleticism, size and length on the interior (Gibson and Asik), outside shooting (Korver and Watson), defensive ball pressure (Brewer and Watson) and an unselfish, up-tempo brand of controlled chaos. Thibodeau has grown so fond of their chemistry and production that upon the return of Joakim Noah, he removed veteran Kurt Thomas from the starting lineupkeeping the Gibson-Asik pairing intactthen reinserted Thomas into the first unit when starting power forward Carlos Boozer went down with a sprained ankle last week.

I like the way both units play. I didn't want to change our second unit because of the way we're playing. Kurt, when he was starting when Jo was out, functioned extremely well with the starting unit, so we're going to stay with that, said Thibodeau. They Gibson and Asik complement each other extremely well and it's not only those two, it's the entire unit. The way they're playing together, I think it's a big asset for us and they've given us a lot. I don't want to change that, so we try to keep that unit together as much as we can.

On most nights, Thibodeau brings in Brewer and Gibson for Keith Bogans and Boozer, respectively, during the first quarter of games, instantly upping the teams athleticism and increasing transition opportunities, which suits the explosive Roses game. To start the second period, Asik and Watson join the crew, leaving Deng as the lone Bulls starter in the contest until Korver replaces him.

Deng, who is among the leagues leaders in minutes per game, has a simple explanation for why Chicagos bench has been so successful: The second unit, I think they've been doing a good job of outplaying every other second unit. They've been really consistent all year doing that.

Indeed, upon closer examination, it makes sense that the Bulls reserves have an advantage over other benches. Brewer was a starter for the majority of his tenure in Utah, Gibson started 70 games as a rookie last season (as well as the beginning of this campaign, when Boozer was sidelined), Korver has been a key rotation player his entire career and Watson played major minutes with Golden State, his previous team.

That second team, nobody really wants that attention. Were not worried about who gets the shots. If were down, we do anything that it takes to get it going. Sometimes we start out slow, sometimes they the starters build a lead for us. We dont want to be the people who lose the lead. We want to be that group that maintains it or furthers the lead, Brewer told CSNChicago.com. Were all unselfish players, we make extra passes and we start with defense. When you start with defense, that allows us to get easy offensive plays and easy baskets. When you get easy baskets, you're confidence level gets a lot higher.

Its really hard to defend us because I think a lot of guys do so many different things that you can't focus on one person.

Added Gibson: Weve got guys that could normally start on a lot of teams in this league. Our second unit is a good unit. We understand what we have to do, we understand what it takes to win and everybody just knows their role. Everybody understands the game and thats whats so beneficial to our team.

Its been the presence of the teams sole rookie, however, that has further solidified the unit. Rough around the edges to start the seasonfoul trouble and uneven offensive play were his primary issues; the latter still occasionally plagues himAsiks international experience, physical play and defensive acumen have made him not only a fan favorite, but a player that the close-knit squad supports wholeheartedly, often rising from the bench as a group to praise his play as a form of encouragement.

Omer's been playing huge for us lately and I think he's playing more and more confident every game, said Noah. He's been bringing a lot of energy for us off the bench and he's been a huge presence for us at the rim.

Omer is somebody, from just watching him play this summer in the World Championships, I knew he was somebody that was going to help us right away, he continued. I'm glad that he's with us because he's helping us win ballgames right now.

A prime example of that was Asiks performance in Orlando against All-Star center Dwight Howard. With Noah battling foul trouble, Asik played a career-high 31 minutes, snatching 13 rebounds before fouling out himself, but not before frustrating Howard and being the catalyst to the Bulls win.

Statistically, that night was a highlight for the first-year Turkish playerhe told CSNChicago.com afterward that its fun playing against the best center in the NBAas was his 11-rebound performance in a home win over Miami, but numbers dont do him or any of the other reserves justice. Like Watsons game Saturday (the point guards individual best this season came in Roses absence, when he scored 33 points in a buzzer-beating loss at Denver), the way the unit has been functioning as a whole recently has been impressive, compared to solitary moments of excellence.

Take Gibson, for example. His aforementioned rookie campaign and starting stint this season might have led to hard feelings when supplanted by Boozer, but after fighting through sporadic injury woes, hes bounced back to find his groove as an energy player, scorer when called upon and half of a dynamic defensive duo with Asik.

It's all about my teammates. The point guards make it easy for me. Working out with Booz and Joakim and Kurt and Omer is making things real easy for me. Just taking my time, fitting in where I fit in. Guys know their roles and guys come in playing hard. One thing about coming off the bench, you know what you've got to do. Come in, provide energy, play solid defense and get ready to take that next shot, said the second-year pro. It was just trying to find a niche after going down with the injuries, just trying to get back in the swing of things and lately it's been coming together.

A 14-point, six-rebound night in a win at Charlotte last weekthe same game during which Boozer was hurtis evidence of that process. Likewise for current and former teammates Korver and Brewer.

Coming into the season, both free-agent acquisitions expected to challenge for the starting shooting-guard spot, but thats been occupied by veteran Keith Bogans. Bogans isnt the scorer Korver is or the athlete Brewer is, but his experience, toughness and understanding of Thibodeaus system gave him the edge.

Instead of sulking about the decision, both players made the best of the situationthey actually play more minutes than Bogans, who usually starts each half, but doesnt return after being replaced by Brewer; Korver typically finishes games, so the Bulls can utilize his deadly perimeter jumperand while their respective strengths (Brewer as a defender, particularly playing the passing lanes; Korver as a shooter) are obvious, theyve also made strides in other areas, while also displaying some subtle hidden talents.

Brewers finishing abilityusually on fast breaks or on the baseline, whether slashing or cuttinghas been a boon to the team and he has paired with Watson to harass opposing ball handlers into turnovers, jump-starting the Bulls transition game, but hes also proven to be an underrated mid-range shooter and a jack of all trades, who contributes with his play-making ability, rebounding and willingness to do the dirty work. Meanwhile, Korver has lived up to his billing as a sharpshooter, but his defense has improved and his passing skills have been much better than advertised.

Brewer isnt a prolific scorer, but hes been consistent all seasonrecent games include an eight-point, four-rebound, four-steal game in a win over the Heat and in the aforementioned Charlotte game, he came up with 10 points, three apiece of rebounds and assists, as well as one steal and blocked shot eachbut hes almost guaranteed one passing-lane steal and fast-break finish a game and a scoring output of between six and 12 points, depending on the flow of the game. Korver, like all shooters, has varying degrees of hot and cold nights, but with penetration from either Watson or Rose setting him up, hes been getting wide-open looks and knocking down shots with regularity.

One of the strengths of the team is how deep we are. I dont want to brag, but when we go at it in practice, the white team the second unit usually beats the black team the starters, Korver joked. We have a lot of confidence. Weve got guys that have been playing in the league for a long time. Weve got Omer, whos still learning the game, but has a whole lot of potential. It seems that every night, weve got somebody different stepping up.

A lot of guys had to step up early in the year. You don't want guys to go downthe starters start for a reason and we want them on the courtbut weve had other guys step up all year.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

NBA economic reality could speed up Bulls rebuild

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USA TODAY

NBA economic reality could speed up Bulls rebuild

In case you missed it this morning, ESPN's Tim McMahon and Bobby Marks collaborated on an excellent piece detailing how the irresponsible spending by NBA teams last summer could impact a star-studded free agent class in 2018.

Which is music to the ears of Bulls' front office executives John Paxson and Gar Forman, who are hoping to be a major player on the free agent market next year.

The ESPN report projected only nine teams having cap space to bid on a free agent class that could include Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas, Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Avery Bradley, Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wilson Chandler, Danny Green, Enes Kanter and Greg Monroe, along with restricted free agents like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic, Marcus Smart, Rodney Hood, Julius Randle, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon and Clint Capela.

Bad summer not to have any spending money.

But that's exactly what Paxson and Forman were anticipating when they chose not to get involved in the reckless spending triggered by the league's new TV deal last summer. We all know about some of the terrible contracts handed out including a four-year, $72 million deal to Joakim Noah, four years, $64 million for Timofey Mozgov and Portland spending almost $150 million to lock up reserves Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner for four years.

The Bulls signed Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo and Isaiah Canaan last summer, but avoided any salary commitment beyond two years. Both Rondo and Canaan were bought out of the team options the Bulls held for next season.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are now in such a deep luxury tax hole that they basically gave Crabbe away in a trade with Brooklyn earlier this week, immediately waiving the player they got back, power forward Andrew Nicholson, under the league's stretch provision. Portland figures to be one of at least 10 teams paying the luxury tax for the 2018-19 season.

I know what many of you are thinking, "Why will 2018 free agency be any different than in years past?" Yes, the Bulls missed out on primary targets James, Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010, and they failed to land Anthony in 2014. But with so many teams capped out, the Bulls will face less competition in pursuing the players they want most next summer.

We've all heard the rumors about James wanting to finish his career in L.A., and it's unlikely Durant, Westbrook, George or Paul would have any interest in coming to Chicago. But the Bulls could get significantly better right away in a weakened Eastern Conference by adding one or two players from a list of unrestricted free agents that could be looking for a new situation, including Cousins, Jordan, Bradley, Thomas, Caldwell-Pope, Kanter, Chandler and Green. They also could use their cap space to make a massive cap offer to a restricted free agent whose team is already in the luxury tax.

Of course, the Bulls have decisions to make with their own roster as well. They still haven't re-signed Niko Mirotic, and any contract beyond one season will reduce their cap space next summer. Plus, the key player coming back in the Jimmy Butler deal, shooting guard Zach LaVine, will be a restricted free agent next summer, and if he comes back 100 percent from ACL surgery, could command a multi-year contract starting at $20 million or more.

The Bulls have contract options on the rookie deals of Bobby Portis, Kris Dunn, Cam Payne, Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine and Lauri Markkanen, while Paul Zipser's $1.5 million salary is not guaranteed for 2018-19.

Paxson said the Bulls are committed to re-building through the draft, and the hope is they'll wind up with a top 3 pick after next year's lottery to grab a franchise changing talent like Missouri's Michael Porter, Jr., International star Luka Doncic and 7-footers DeAndre Ayton of Arizona and Mohamed Bamba of Texas.

Looking at the big picture, if LaVine comes back 100 percent, Dunn emerges as a legit starting point guard and Markkanen shows potential as a stretch 4, the Bulls rebuild could move quickly. Adding one of the top players in next year's draft would be the first step, then Paxson and Forman would be armed with somewhere between $40-50 million dollars in cap space to pursue an impact free agent or two.

Bulls fans remember how long it took to re-build the team after the end of the Jordan era in 1998. Jerry Krause couldn't land a major free agent, and the Tyson Chandler-Eddy Curry experiment failed badly.

Let's hope Paxson and Forman have more luck this time around. At least they'll have a built-in advantage when the 2018 free agent market opens for business next July with the Bulls projected to have more cap space available than any other team in the league.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Why Bulls fans should not feel like they 'missed out' on trading for Kyrie Irving

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Bulls Talk Podcast: Why Bulls fans should not feel like they 'missed out' on trading for Kyrie Irving

On the latest Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill, and Kevin Anderson break down the Kyrie Irving trade rumors, Derrick Rose’s move to Cleveland, and Kendall’s appearance in the ‘Big 3’.

Kendall shares what it was like when he wanted out of Charlotte, and how Rose to the Cavs only works if Kyrie is gone.

The trio also explains why Bulls fans should not feel like they ‘missed out’ on trading for Irving. Plus behind-the-scenes of KG’s hometown return to the court.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: