Bulls Coaching Situation More Up in Air than Ever

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Bulls Coaching Situation More Up in Air than Ever

Wednesday, December 30

by Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

You can count me among the media members wondering why John Paxson or Gar Forman were so reluctant to make a public statement supporting their embattled head coach, Vinny Del Negro. Well, after watching Forman struggle to come up with the right words before Tuesday night's game against Indiana, I now understand why. The Bulls general manager did manage to utter the phrase "Vinny is our coach", but he quickly undercut that statement by saying everyone in the organization is being evaluated at all times, and the front office is considering all options to improve the team. When I asked Forman if he could commit to Del Negro as the Bulls' head coach for the rest of the season, he refused to give a direct answer, saying instead how all evaluations should remain private within the organization. In my mind, the non-answer was the same as a no. Vinny is on a very short leash now, with any kind of a losing streak possibly leading to his dismissal.

Del Negro has done a remarkable job of keeping his poise in this difficult time, patiently answering almost daily questions about his job future. But he admitted before the game Tuesday night that the line of questioning had become a little "ridiculous", asking reporters to talk to Forman or Paxson about the situation. Wednesday, a report on Yahoo Sports claimed Del Negro and his staff were very disappointed in Forman's lukewarm vote of confidence. According to that report, Del Negro finally realizes the front office is not in his corner anymore. Now, it's just a matter of how the Bulls' play on the court either improves his chance of staying on the job, or accelerates the desire of the front office to find a more qualified long-term replacement. We can all watch it play out in front of our eyes over the coming weeks.
TYRUS IS TERRIFIC

Del Negro's prospects certainly look better with the return of a healthy Tyrus Thomas to the rotation. Thomas has been nothing short of sensational in his first two games back, putting up 21 points and 9 rebounds against New Orleans, then following that up with an 8 point, 15 rebound, 3 blocked shots performance against Indiana. Sure, Tyrus still puts up bad shots at times, but his ability to run the floor and block shots gives the Bulls an element they simply don't have without him. He's one of the few players on the roster who can get easy baskets on the fastbreak and off the offensive glass. And, those emphatic dunks have more value than just 2 points on the scoreboard. They can pick up the energy level of the other Bulls' players on the court, while deflating the other team. Thomas' return also allows Del Negro the chance to go with a deeper rotation, saving the starters from playing heavy minutes every night. With Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson now in the starting line-up, Del Negro can call on Thomas, John Salmons and Brad Miller for consistent production off the bench, with James Johnson and Jannero Pargo also available for spot minutes depending on match-ups. We don't have to worry about seeing Lindsey Hunter or Aaron Gray on the court anymore, or worry about Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng burning out by mid-season. Quality depth was supposed to be one of the Bulls' strengths this season, but the early season injuries to Thomas and Hinrich took that away. Now that Del Negro has a complete roster again, we should find out in the next few weeks whether the Bulls can be a .500 or better team this season. The front office has to make a decision on the future of Thomas, who becomes a restricted free agent on July 1st. Remember, they'll have to renounce Thomas' rights to have a chance to make a maximum contract offer to one of the elite free agents next summer. And if Tyrus continues to play at the level we've seen over the last 2 games, that decision might not be as automatic as it appeared.

McGRADY TRADE COULD SOLVE CAP ISSUES

Which bring us to a suggestion we made about a month ago here on Beyond the Arc. The Bulls should pursue a trade for Houston's Tracy McGrady, who was sent home last weekend with the assurance that Rockets' management would explore deals to find him a new home. Granted, McGrady is just a shadow of the player who was a perennial All-Star for most of his NBA career, but he has an expiring contract worth around 22 million dollars which could guarantee the Bulls will be a major player in free agency next summer. Plus, T-Mac spent last summer rehabbing from microfracture knee surgery here in Chicago with Michael Jordan's long-time trainer Tim Grover. He might actually welcome the chance to revive his NBA career here in Chicago. The Bulls could offer several possible combinations for McGrady. If Houston wants expiring contracts in return, the Bulls could package Brad Miller, Jerome James and John Salmons. If the Rockets want more immediate help, the Bulls could send them Miller, Hinrich and Salmons. Or, they could make the package Miller, Thomas and Salmons, but that sounds like too much for the Bulls to give up. McGrady might be able to give the Bulls a go-to scorer for all those close games they figure to be involved in the rest of the way, but even if he doesn't, the salary cap relief would be a big bonus for a team that's obviously willing to sacrifice this season for the chance to mine free agent gold next summer.

So, what do you think? Please post your comments in the section below, or send me an e-mail. I'll see you New Year's eve at 1:30 for Bulls Pregame Live. Kendall Gill and I will preview the match-up with the struggling Pistons, who've lost 8 games in a row, but should be close to turning things around with the return of Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and former Bulls' star Ben Gordon from injuries. You can watch the game on Comcast SportsNet at 2:00, followed by Bulls Postgame Live.

Happy New Year everyone! Let's hope 2010 begins a long run of sustained excellence for the Bulls' franchise, starting in July with the addition of a superstar like LeBron or D-Wade.

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.

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

The common refrain among coaches in the first days of training camp is “this guy had an incredible summer”, a phrase Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has said so much that even he had to laugh when asked who didn’t have a banner summer period.

Of course, that’s before fans and media get to see anyone play, so we can only speculate who’ll win certain position battles, like the starting power forward spot or how deep Hoiberg’s rotation will go.

So in the spirit of speculation, Bulls rookie Denzel Valentine’s versatility makes him a candidate for the backup point guard position, a spot that is filled with different options for Hoiberg to choose from.

“He’s such an instinctive player. He does a great job,” Hoiberg said. “We talk about making simple plays. You’ve done your job when you beat your man, draw the second defender and make the easy, simple play. Denzel is great at that. That’s not a gift that everybody has. That’s not an instinct that all players have. But Denzel certainly has it.”

One wonders if Valentine could find himself on the outside looking in at the start of the season, like Bobby Portis did last year before all the injuries hit the Bulls and forced him into action.

It’s a different vision than when Valentine was drafted as a late lottery pick after a seasoned career at Michigan State. The Bulls hadn’t signed Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo in free agency, and had traded Derrick Rose 24 hours before the draft, so the thought was Valentine could be an instant contributor.

Even still, Valentine can likely play anything from point guard to small forward, but hasn’t gotten extensive reps at the point, yet.

“I’ve played on the wing so far. A little bit of point,” Valentine said. “I got a couple reps on the point, but like 70-30. Seventy on the wing, 30 on the point.”

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He got an early jump on the Hoiberg terminology at summer league, so the language isn’t a big adjustment, but having to learn multiple positions along with the tendencies of new teammates can mean a steeper learning curve.

“Yeah, I just got to continue learning sets and learning guys’ strengths so that I can use that to their best advantage,” Valentine said. “Play-make as best I can when I’m at the point guard spot. Just learning the system, learning guys’ strengths, and then I’ll be better at it.”

The presence of Wade and Jimmy Butler, one of whom will likely anchor the second unit as Hoiberg will probably stagger minutes so each can have the requisite time and space, means even if Valentine were on the floor, he wouldn’t have to be a natural point guard.

Hoiberg does, however, crave having multiple playmakers who can initiate offense or create shots off penetration or pick and roll action, meaning Valentine can work it to his advantage.

“I think he can. Jimmy played with the ball in his hands a lot last year,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy rebounds the ball and if Dwyane rebounds the ball, they’re bringing it. Rajon if he’s out there knows to fill one of the lanes. Denzel is an excellent passer. He’s got such good basketball instincts. So if you can get guys out there who can make plays, that’s what it’s all about. I think you’re very difficult to guard in this league when you have multiple ballmakers.”

Other notes:

Dwyane Wade won’t be taking walk-up triples for the Bulls, despite his call that Hoiberg wants him being more comfortable from behind the long line. Hoiberg does want him being willing and able to take corner threes, likely off guard penetration from Rondo or Jimmy Butler.

When Wade played with LeBron James in Miami, cutting from the corners became a staple, so putting him there could be an old wrinkle Hoiberg is adding to his scheme.

Wade took seven of his 44 3-pointers from the corner last season, hitting two from the right side, according to vorped.com.

“When he’s open, especially in the corners, that’s a shot we want him taking. It’s a thing we worked on yesterday, making sure he stays on balance,” Hoiberg said. “He’s got a natural lean on his shot, which has been very effective, being on the elite mid range shooters in our game. That’s allowed him to get shots over bigger defenders. When you get out further from the basket, especially by the line, you need to get momentum going in, work on your body position and work on finishing that shot. He’s got good mechanics, it’s a matter of finishing the shot.”

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

After the Bulls traded for veteran center Robin Lopez and signed guards Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in free agency,  the starting lineup for the 2016-17 season was 80 percent complete with Jimmy Butler moving over to small forward. The only real question remained: will Nikola Mirotic or Taj Gibson start at power forward?

Arguments can be made for both players, but early in camp it appears Mirotic will have the edge, based on his three-point shooting ability. The Bulls need to create floor spacing for their wing players (Wade and Butler) who are most effective driving to the basket, and Mirotic has the ability to knock down the three (.355 for his career, .390 last season). Mirotic is also an underrated defensive rebounder with decent size at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds.

Mirotic got off to a fast start last season in a starting role, but eventually went to the bench after a late November-early December shooting slump. His second NBA season was also sidetracked by an emergency appendectomy in late January that caused him to miss almost six weeks of action. Mirotic finished the season strong, and went on to play a lead role with his former Bulls teammate, Pau Gasol, on Spain’s national team at the Rio Olympics. Mirotic will be a restricted free agent at season’s end, so he has a lot riding on establishing himself as a bonafide NBA starter.

It's a similar story for Gibson, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and is looking to land one more big contract when he turns 32-years-old next June. Gibson is known for his relentless work on the boards and his ability to defend power forwards and centers. He’s also 100 percent healthy after dealing with the after-effects of ankle surgery last season. But given the Bulls’ spacing issues, it makes sense for the coaching staff to go with Mirotic alongside Wade, Rondo and Butler, and to pair Gibson with young perimeter threats like Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine and Isaiah Canaan on the second unit. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg could use Gibson in a backup center role, with McDermott getting minutes at power forward in small ball lineups. Gibson will play, but don’t be surprised to see his name come up again in midseason trade rumors.

So, where does that leave 2015 first-round draft pick Bobby Portis? Portis looked good in Las Vegas Summer League play, showing off improved low-post skills and a consistent three-point shot. But unless Portis has a big preseason, it’s hard to imagine him getting consistent rotation minutes early in the season. Portis could earn some time as a stretch five backing up Lopez, but those minutes might also go to Gibson or second-year center Cristiano Felicio. Portis worked hard all summer, and should be a better all-around player in his sophomore season, but he faces an uphill battle to earn regular minutes. It will be interesting to see how many of the Bulls young players wind up logging time with the Bulls’ new D-League team in Hoffman Estates. Portis might not be involved as a No. 1 draft pick, but Felicio and second-round selection Paul Zipser might want to get familiar with the trip out to the Sears Center.

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The other major training camp battle involves the backup point guard spot behind Rondo. The coaches have a wide variety of options, starting with former Notre Dame star Jerian Grant, who came over in the Derrick Rose trade with the Knicks. The soon to be 24-year-old Grant is the son of long-time NBA player Harvey Grant and nephew of former Bulls star Horace Grant. The Bulls were interested in selecting Jerian Grant in the 2015 draft, but he went off the board a few picks before their turn in the first round.

Grant was a big-time scorer at Notre Dame, but struggled to get on the court in his rookie season with the Knicks. After Kurt Rambis replaced Derek Fisher as head coach of the Knicks, Grant finally got some consistent playing time, averaging 16.8 ppg over the last four games of the season. He’s not a great three-point shooter, hitting just 22 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, but his ability to get to the basket and create open shots for teammates would give the Bulls consistent point guard play throughout the game.

Canaan was signed late in free agency to give the Bulls another long-range shooting option. He hit 36 percent of his 3’s with Philadelphia last season, averaging 11 points a game. The 25-year-old Canaan figures to be specialist with the Bulls, much like Aaron Brooks who could score points in bunches, but didn’t excel at running a half-court offense. Even though Canaan only stands 6 feet tall, he’s really a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, much like Brooks, D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson and C.J. Watson who proceeded him.

6-foot-6 Spencer Dinwiddie was considered a potential lottery pick at Colorado before suffering a devastating knee injury that dropped him into the second round. Dinwiddie didn’t get a lot of playing time for Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, but he’s completely healthy now and showed during Summer League play he’s capable of scoring over smaller point guards in the post. His size, scoring ability and defensive skills might push him ahead of the other candidates when all is said and done.

The wild card in the backup point guard derby is this year’s first-round pick Denzel Valentine. Even though he played a wing spot at Michigan State, Valentine was the floor general for Tom Izzo, and is an exceptional passer with outstanding court vision. Since playing time behind Wade & Butler might be limited, Valentine could wind up running the point on the second unit, with Butler on the court as the primary initiator on offense. Valentine’s shooting ability gives the Bulls another floor spacer, and at 6-foot-5, he’ll have size advantage over smaller backup point guards.

Boiling it all down, Hoiberg and his assistants figure to do a lot of experimenting during the preseason to find out which players execute best together. But once the ball goes up for real on Oct. 27, Hoiberg has to decide on his best 9 or 10 players for a consistent regular-season rotation. Matchups could dictate which backup point guards find the floor, but even this early in camp it’s pretty obvious the Bulls are intrigued by Valentine’s potential, and he should get consistent playing time in his rookie season.