Bulls in good shape heading into Circus Trip


Bulls in good shape heading into Circus Trip

Tuesday, Nov. 16, 20104:44 PM

By Mark SchanowskiCSNChicago.com
When we first heard the news Carlos Boozer would miss the opening month of the regular season because of a broken right hand, it wasnt inconceivable to think they could start the month of December in a significant hole in the Central Division race. But thanks to a surprisingly effective offense, Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls at 5-3 heading into a seven-game, 11-day road swing against some of the better teams in the Western Conference. Add in a slow start for Scott Skiles Bucks, and the Bulls find themselves in first place as they begin the toughest road trip of the season.

We knew Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah would continue to improve their games, but theyve been even better than expected. Rose ranks in the NBAs top 10 in both scoring and assists, and looks like hes ready to enter the discussion of the leagues best players. Meanwhile, Noah continues to make amazing progress on the offensive end, finishing at the basket with both hands and showing even more consistency on that side-spinning 15-foot jump shot. If Noah stays healthy, he should have an excellent chance of being named the back-up center on the Eastern Conference all-star team behind Dwight Howard.

As for the rest of the team, Luol Deng is off to an excellent start, averaging 20 points and six rebounds a game while showing a lot of confidence in the 3-point shot he worked on during the offseason. Deng is hitting at a 44-percent clip from beyond the arc, and that long range threat has opened up driving lanes for Rose.

Taj Gibson would have to rank as the Bulls unsung hero over the first eight games. The second-year forward out of USC is averaging 14 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots a game, while shooting an incredible 60 percent from the field. In case you were wondering, his numbers are better than Miami free-agent addition Chris Bosh, whos struggling to find his way playing alongside his two superstar buddies in South Beach. Thibodeau will have to be creative in finding minutes for Gibson once Boozer returns to the line-up in early December. Taj played a lot of center at USC, so dont be surprised if he gets some time backing up Noah in addition to the 15 minutes or so he figures to get playing behind Boozer.

One of the encouraging developments over the last several games is the improved play of the shooting guard combo of Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer. Bogans has emerged as a difference-maker on the defensive end, coming up with six steals in the blowout win over Golden State. And, Brewer is finally rounding into top game shape after a couple of significant hamstring injuries. The Bulls were hoping Brewer could emerge as a defensive stopper, and an open-court finisher playing alongside Rose. His minutes have been limited early in the season, but he is shooting 47 percent from the field, and should be able to get a few easy baskets every game on fast-break chances.

The Bulls got some positive news about Kyle Korver, who banged his right knee in the win over Washington. An MRI exam revealed Korver only suffered a bone bruise and shouldnt miss much time at all. Hes solidified his reputation as one of the games best 3-point shooters, hitting 57 percent from long distance through the first eight games. Thibodeau has been careful in using him to avoid bad defensive matchups, but the feeling here is Korver will be even more effective once Boozer returns to draw double teams in the low post. Those two players worked effectively together in Utah, and theres no reason to think they cant do the same in Chicago.

Im also encouraged by the early contributions of Turkish center Omer Asik. Even though NBA referees are giving him a rough go, hes been every active in limited minutes and shown the ability to finish strong around the rim. His free-throw shooting needs a lot of work, but the Bulls will work around that deficiency if he continues to rebound and block shots the way he has so far.

As for the rest of the bench, C.J. Watson is still struggling with his role as Roses back-up, but hes looked better in recent games. And right now, James Johnson, Brian Scalabrine and Kurt Thomas have fallen out of the rotation.

It will be interesting to see how the Bulls fare in these upcoming games against some of the elite teams in the West. If they can keep their heads above water (the .500 mark) over the next two weeks, they should get a big lift from Boozers return which could come in the Dec. 1 home game against Orlando.

What do you think of the Bulls play through the first eight games? Please post them in the comments section below. Dont forget, you can watch five of the seven games on the trip on Comcast SportsNet.

Around the league

We mentioned Boshs problems in Miami, and its no secret the rest of the league is enjoying the early struggles for Pat Rileys traveling All-Stars. Dallas owner Mark Cuban went on a local radio station and talked about the Heat not having the size to battle inside and mentioned how delicious it is to see that team struggle. He also mentioned Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is having a great time watching the Heats slow start as well.

Realistically, Miami will get better as the season goes on, and dont discount the possibility of Riley swinging a trade to bring in an interior defender. The Heat might also add veteran free-agent center Erick Dampier, who still hasnt signed with anyone after weeks of visiting potential employers. The Heat will probably wind up winning somewhere around 55 games, which might not be good enough to take the Southeast Division title away from Orlando.

Have you noticed Oklahoma City isnt the same team since assistant coach Ron Adams left to re-join the Bulls? Under Adams direction, the young Thunder made a huge improvement on the defensive end a year ago. But now that Adams is gone, theyre giving up 106 points per game, pretty much canceling out the offensive brilliance of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. A lot of the so-called experts had Oklahoma City pegged as the top challenger to the Lakers in the West, but right now they look like they might struggle just to make the playoffs.

How about the job Jerry Sloan is doing in Utah? The Jazz lost Boozer and Korver as free agents, and theyve been playing without injured center Mehmet Okur. But Sloan has done a masterful job of working Al Jefferson into his system, while getting big contributions from guys like Paul Millsap, C.J. Miles and Ronnie Price. And, dont forget about the leadership of former Illini star Deron Williams, who is still the No. 1 point guard in the NBA in my book. That stretch of erasing double-digit deficits in consecutive road wins over Miami, Orlando, Atlanta and Charlotte is something you dont often see in the NBA, where the home teams usually rule.

Another tough break for the Portland Trail Blazers, who are now dealing with the likelihood theyve already seen the best of All-Star guard Brandon Roy. Doctors told Roy they couldnt operate on his ailing knee because there wasnt any cartilage left to repair. Hes now dealing with a painful bone on bone situation which only figures to worsen over time. The Blazers are still waiting for the return of injured centers Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla, and if Roy cant return to top form, theyre promising future could be gone in a hurry.

Bottom line, the Lakers and Celtics look like the teams to beat once again. Well see which teams emerge as challengers over the coming weeks and months

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 Talk Podcast: Looking ahead to opening night matchup against Celtics

Bulls Talk Podcast: Looking ahead to opening night matchup against Celtics

In our latest installment of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski and Kendall Gill get you set for opening night against the Celtics. 

They debate realistic expectations for the team and break down the decision to start Taj Gibson at power forward. Later, Schanowski and Gill analyze the team's biggest concern, defense. 

Finally, CSN New England's Celtics Insider A. Sherrod Blakely joins the panel to discuss what Rajon Rondo has left in the tank. 

Check out the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast below: 

Mark Schanowski's 2016-17 NBA playoff predictions

Mark Schanowski's 2016-17 NBA playoff predictions

With the 2016-17 NBA season tipping off tonight with three games, here's a look at how the playoff races might end up.

Let's start with the West, where Kevin Durant's move from Oklahoma City to Golden State may have shifted the balance of power for the next half decade.

1. Golden State (Projected record, 67-15). Sure, it might take the Warriors a little time to build their on-court chemistry, but if you watched any of the preseason games, that lineup is absolutely lethal. Durant looks relaxed in his new environment, and will get more open 3's than he ever could have imagined in Oklahoma City. The "Splash Brothers", Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, should be more rested come playoff time since they won't have to do all the heavy lifting during the regular season. Add in do-everything forward Draymond Green, underrated veteran center Zaza Pachulia and elite sixth man Andre Iguodala, and it's pretty clear Steve Kerr's guys will run away and hide from the rest of the Western Conference field.

2. L.A. Clippers (55-27). It's now or never for Doc Rivers' crew, with a number of key players potentially headed for free agency next summer, including starters Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick. Griffin got off to a fast start a year ago, but then saw his season ruined by injuries and a suspension for fighting with a team employee. Paul is still an elite point guard, but may decide to leave if things don't go well this time around. Lots of talent on this roster including first-team All-NBA center DeAndre Jordan, and Rivers again tweaked his bench with the addition of free agent stretch five Marreese Speights (from Golden St.), forward Brandon Bass and swingman Alan Anderson.

3. San Antonio (53-29). Never underestimate the ability of Gregg Popovich to put together a championship contender, but with Tim Duncan retired and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker past their prime, the Spurs don't seem to have the ingredients to survive three brutally tough playoff rounds in the West. This team now belongs to Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, with former Bulls center Pau Gasol taking over for Duncan. The Spurs are trying to get younger, but it looks like the championship window may have closed.

4. Houston (50-32). Interesting experiment by first year coach Mike D'Antoni to put ball-dominant guard James Harden at point guard. I guess D'Antoni figured since he has the ball in his hands all the time, what's the difference? It's no secret Harden did not get along with big man Dwight Howard (who's now in Atlanta), and he could put up MVP-type numbers this season with the freedom he'll get at the offensive end. More importantly, the addition of three-point shooting threats Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon in free agency could make the Rockets one of the most entertaining teams to watch on League Pass.

5. Portland (49-33). How about another first round playoff shootout between the Blazers and Rockets? We could do a lot worse. C.J. McCollum cashed in big-time after winning the league's Most Improved Player Award, and you can pencil the Blazers backcourt in for about 50 points a night with Damian Lillard emerging as a top 10-15 player in the league. Portland could use a little more punch in the frontcourt, but with wingmen Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe also capable of scoring points in bunches, they should be okay with a big man rotation of Mason Plumlee, former Illini Meyers Leonard, former Warrior Festus Ezeli and young power forwards Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh.

6. Dallas (46-36). Rick Carlisle is one of the NBA's best coaches, and he'll figure out a way to build another playoff team around the skills of all-time great Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas added Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut from the Warriors, and should benefit from a full season from Wesley Matthews. Former Illini star Deron Williams returns to run the point, and the bench is decent with J.J. Barea, Justin Anderson, Dwight Powell and Seth Curry, who played very well late in the season with Sacramento.

7. Oklahoma City (44-38). Russell Westbrook is determined to keep his team in the playoffs without Kevin Durant, which means you can count on Russ playing at an MVP level this season, possibly averaging 30-8-8. I like the addition of Victor Oladipo at shooting guard, but the Thunder sacrificed power forward Serge Ibaka in the process. OKC still has its big man duo of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, but a lot of question marks with depth on the perimeter.

8. Utah (43-39). After just missing the playoffs a year ago, the Jazz should find a way to break through this time around. Gordon Hayward is one of the league's most underrated talents, and Utah should really benefit from the addition of veteran point guard George Hill, plus proven winners like Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw to help out their talented young players. Derrick Favors has quietly emerged as a rock solid power forward, with the "Stifle Tower", Rudy Gobert anchoring the defense from the center position.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Now to the East, where everyone's chasing the reigning champions.

1. Cleveland (58-24). The Cavs should really go over the 60-win plateau, but LeBron James understands it's all about the playoffs, and will sit out a number of regular season games to stay fresh. The roster is almost identical to last year's, except for the addition of former Bulls' forward Mike Dunleavy and rookie point guard Kay Felder. Don’t be surprised though if the Cavs wind up signing former Heat point guard (and James teammate) Mario Chalmers when he’s fully recovered from injury. Assuming everyone stays healthy, look for Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith to take on a lot of the scoring load during the season, and let LeBron put on his Superman cape for Round 3 against Golden St. in the Finals.

2. Boston (52-30). The Bulls' opening night opponent should be stronger than ever with the addition of All-Star big man Al Horford and lottery pick Jaylen Brown. Former Butler coach Brad Stevens didn't take long to master the NBA game, and has waves of perimeter talent to run at opposing teams, led by All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas. Small forward Jae Crowder stole a page from his former Marquette teammate Jimmy Butler on how to be a force at both ends of the court, while big men Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller work well in Stevens' system.

3. Toronto  (50-32). Another 50-win season is in the cards for the team from the Great White North. The Raptors kept shooting guard DeMar DeRozan with a huge contract in free agency, and he'll again team with Kyle Lowry to form one of the league's best backcourts. Toronto needs more production from talented, but inconsistent center Jonas Valanciunas and a full season of health from defensive menace DeMarre Carroll. Depth could be an issue, especially with free agent addition Jared Sullinger already sidelined because of foot surgery.

4. Indiana (49-33). The Pacers decided to make a coaching change after last season's first round playoff exit because team president and Hall of Famer Larry Bird wanted to play faster. So, former assistant coach Nate McMillan replaces Frank Vogel, and the Pacers traded for long-time Hawks' point guard Jeff Teague to push the pace. Paul George is primed for the best season of his career, and Indiana made a great under-the-radar pick-up by acquiring power forward Thaddeus Young from Brooklyn. Second-year center Myles Turner should also have a big impact as a scorer and shot blocker. The Pacers also have scoring power off the bench with Al Jefferson, Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles. Great offseason for Larry Legend.

5. Detroit (47-35). Stan Van Gundy has done a tremendous job changing the culture in the Motor City, getting shoot-first point guard Reggie Jackson to buy in to his philosophy, while staying patient with Andre Drummond's free throw shooting woes. Drummond is a monster on the boards, and one of the league's best centers overall. Van Gundy also has done a good job on the personnel front, stealing talented forward Tobias Harris from Orlando at the trade deadline last season, and picking up Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson in the draft. Jackson will miss the start of the year after foot surgery, but the Pistons should take off when he returns.

6. Atlanta (46-36). It will be interesting to see how the Dwight Howard experiment works in Atlanta, because Howard destroyed team chemistry with the Lakers and Rockets. Howard looked good in the preseason, but will he start to pout in a 3-point heavy offense? Former Bull Kyle Korver is still going strong at the age of 35, Kent Bazemore is a better than average two-way wing player and Paul Millsap is an All-Star going into a free agent season. Biggest question for the Hawks: Is Dennis Schroder ready to be the full-time point guard, or did Mike Budenholzer make a mistake by trading Jeff Teague?

7. BULLS (45-37). One thing we know for sure, the Bulls won't be boring this season with the addition of strong-minded veterans Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. Wade seems genuinely excited about playing in his hometown, and Rondo spent all summer at the training facility getting to know head coach Fred Hoiberg and his new teammates. Jimmy Butler will be asked to increase his scoring from his two previous All-Star seasons, and the Bulls are counting on Doug McDermott to emerge as an offensive force off the bench. Robin Lopez will provide an upgrade over injury-plagued Joakim Noah in the middle, and the power forward tandem of Taj Gibson and Niko Mirotic should be solid. If newcomers Michael Carter-Williams and rookie Denzel Valentine can gel quickly as the reserve backcourt duo, the Bulls have the potential to be one of the NBA's biggest surprises.

8. Charlotte (43-39). Hornets coach Steve Clifford is a Tom Thibodeau disciple, emphasizing defense over everything else. Charlotte lost productive veterans Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee in free agency, but the cupboard is hardly bare. Point guard Kemba Walker could make the All-Star team this season, and perimeter players Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams all bring something different to the table. Depth will be the biggest issue with former Bull Marco Belinelli and Chicago-area product Frank Kaminski being asked to provide offense off the bench.

I would like to tell you we should expect some big surprises when we get to the playoffs in mid-April, but it’s hard to envision any team beating Golden State or Cleveland in a best of 7 series. Round 3 between the Warriors and Cavs will find Kevin Durant celebrating his first NBA championship after a Game 6 win at Oracle Arena.