Central Division Notebook: Questions aplenty

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Central Division Notebook: Questions aplenty

Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010
12:41 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

During the first week of the NBA season, most eyes were watching the initial performances of the Miami Heat and their superstar trio, but moments like Golden State's Monta Ellis scoring 46 points in the Warriors' season-opener, Boston's Rajon Rondo notching 24 assists (with a triple-double, to boot) and the debut of Clippers' rookie Blake Griffin--coached by none other than Vinny Del Negro--have also attracted a fair share of attention. The Central Division isn't without its early-season highlights, as Cleveland's season-opening win over the Celtics, Derrick Rose's stint atop the league's scoring leaders and the first triple-double of Milwaukee point guard Brandon Jennings' young career have all opened eyes around the league. Here's a brief, team-by-team look at the Central with the season's second week underway:

Chicago Bulls

Through the preseason, it appeared that the Bulls (2-1) would have an equal-opportunity offense based on ball movement, in which any player on the team's deep roster possessed the ability to succeed, particularly Luol Deng. After the first two games of the season, Derrick Rose was leading the NBA in scoring, whispers that he had morphed into a shot-happy gunner were prevalent, Chicago was supposedly worse off than last season and Deng had pulled a disappearing act.

With Luol Deng's career-high 40 points in Monday night's home win over Portland (not to mention Rose's 13 assists, which tied a career-best mark), it's now evident that while the offense is still a work in progress, Rose wouldn't have to take 29 shots per game in order to keep the Bulls afloat until sidelined power forward Carlos Boozer returns. With eight newcomers on the roster and a new coaching staff, the adjustment period has been gradual, but power forward Taj Gibson bounced back from a rough preseason to recapture his rookie form (staying out of foul trouble is another story), sharpshooter Kyle Korver is becoming more comfortable (something of great importance, as he's the only true knockdown shooter on the team), rookie center Omer Asik seems capable of contributing immediately as an interior presence and second-year reserve James Johnson may have the opportunity to carve out a niche for himself as a versatile energy player off the bench.

Still, there's an undercurrent that suggests the early portion of Chicago's season is just about surviving through the upcoming annual circus trip until Boozer returns, as if this isn't the Bulls' true team and they'll get a pass for missing a key piece. Since he hasn't played much with his new teammates outside of a few training camp practices and isn't known for his defensive prowess--something Thibodeau stresses, regardless of what a player brings to the table, which the aforementioned Korver is learning--a completely seamless transition might be too much to ask for, although the presence of Joakim Noah--currently the league's second-leading rebounder, as well as an underrated offensive player and highly-regarded defender--will help the process.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Life after LeBron started out on a high note for Cleveland (1-2), which beat the team that ousted them in last spring's Eastern Conference semifinals, Boston, which was coming off a season-opening win over James' Heat. The Cavaliers have taken a scoring-by-committee approach under new head coach Byron Scott, with leading scorer Daniel Gibson averaging 15 points per game off the bench and 10 other players averaging at least 6.3.

There have been conflicting reports about whether perhaps their most valued asset, Anderson Varejao, is on the trading block or not, and Scott's use of the team's most established player, veteran forward Antawn Jamison--who is coming off the bench and playing just 21.7 minutes per night after being traded to Cleveland at last season's trade deadline in a deal that was supposed to push the Cavs over the hump--is regarded with some concern. Outside of Gibson, who is also averaging a team-leading six assists per contest, point guard Ramon Sessions, an offseason acquisition, has been producing in incumbent Mo Williams' absence, as has young big man J.J. Hickson.

Cleveland is in a tough bind, with few attractive pieces for other teams in trade scenarios and an absence of high-upside young players, with the notable exception of Hickson, who the organization reportedly refused to include in a ultimately-nixed deal with the Phoenix Suns for Amar'e Stoudemire. One can only speculate on truly how close that swap was to occurring or if Stoudemire would have been a better fit than Jamison, if the Cavs' season would have ended and what impact that would have had on early July, but it will certainly be a while before the team needs to trouble itself with thoughts other than rebuilding.

Detroit Pistons

The Bulls' only divisional game of the young season was last Saturday's home-opening win over Detroit (0-3), an exciting comeback in which the Pistons once led by 21 points, were outscored 34-9 in the fourth quarter and had no answers for Derrick Rose, who tied a career high with 39 points. It wouldn't be surprising to see other stars rack up big numbers against the Pistons,who trot out aging Ben Wallace and similarly undersized Jason Maxiell at center, with draft pick Greg Monroe's finesse game initially appearing to require an adjustment period before being able to contribute.

Losing second-year forward Jonas Jerebko for the season before he even suited up was a widely overlooked development, as Jerebko's rugged style and versatility gave Detroit some frontcourt flexibility, although Tayshaun Prince's return to health after an injury-riddled 2009-10 campaign will help them compete. Likewise, a relatively injury-free Ben Gordon gives the backcourt some added scoring punch with Rodney Stuckey, veteran Rip Hamilton and Will Bynum, although a true point guard doesn't exist within that group.

The addition of a clearly hobbled Tracy McGrady doesn't help matters much, but reed-thin youngster Austin Daye will get opportunities to show off his unique shooting range, as the Pistons keep an eye to the future with the franchise's sale--and prospective move to a new downtown arena--to Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers and Little Caesar's Pizza owner imminent. Only in his second season, head coach John Kuester could already be on the hot seat, with even longtime top exec Joe Dumars feeling the rising temperature.

Indiana Pacers

A brighter future resides in Indiana (2-1), where the Pacers have to be pleased with early returns from two second-year players, prized offseason acquisition Darren Collison and Tyler Hansborough, who had his moments as a rookie before a terrifying bout with vertigo. While Collison is considered the team's point guard of the future and Hansborough has teamed with Josh McRoberts to solidify the power-forward position in the wake of Troy Murphy's trade to New Jersey in the four-team deal to get Collison, center Roy Hibbert is the Pacer who has opened the most eyes thus far.

At 7-foot-2, Hibbert possesses uncanny shooting range and passing ability and after a summer spent getting into better shape and being tutored by Hall of Famer Bill Walton, the Georgetown product began the season with a 28-point, nine-rebound, three-assist, three-block effort in a loss to San Antonio, and while he hasn't approached those same scoring numbers again, he's regarded as a sleeper Most Improved Player candidate. Franchise player Danny Granger continues to produce as a scorer, but his defense and all-around game will be closely monitored after a disappointing individual summer with USA Basketball exposed his underwhelming defense.

Granger is both Indiana's best player and biggest trade asset, and while he's not up in years, there's a school of thought that implies his All-Star campaign two seasons ago will be the high-water mark of his career and if the team doesn't improve this season, it may be wise to trade him now and start yet another rebuilding process with Hibbert and Collison as cornerstones. Analogous to Detroit's dilemma, head coach Jim O'Brien is under heavy scrutiny, but increasing blame is going to Larry Bird for assembling a roster that is taking too long to contend, even with the grace period given after the team's attempted transformation after the infamous "Malice in the Palace."

Milwaukee Bucks

Slow returns from injury for the likes of star center Andrew Bogut, former Bulls swingman John Salmons and offseason acquisition Corey Maggette are worth paying attention to in Milwaukee (1-2), a team that is dealing with bigger expectations than it's used to in recent seasons after a surprising run to the postseason. Considered the class of the division along:with Chicago, the Bucks also made significant additions in the summer, but a returnee--swingman Carlos Delfino, the recipient of an offseason contract extension--has paced them in scoring, with Maggette and second-year point guard Brandon Jennings not far behind.

Jennings recorded his first career triple-double in the Bucks' first win of the season over Charlotte, and despite his flashy demeanor and coming onto the scene as a rookie with an early-season 55-point outing, the former Rome resident (Jennings famously played in Italy for one season after high school) seemingly has a bond with Milwaukee head coach Scott Skiles, a former NBA point guard who has pushed Jennings to successfully play tough defense and limit his turnovers. Even with upgraded talent and intriguing depth, the Bulls' neighbor to the north still fly under the radar a bit, but "Fear the Deer" has a chance to get more national buzz if the chips fall right in Milwaukee.

Perhaps the biggest questions about the Bucks deal with whether the team's new faces--Maggette, former Bulls big man Drew Gooden, young swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts, rugged power forward Jon Brockman and top draft pick Larry Sanders--can not only adjust to Skiles' system (journeymen Gooden and Maggette are the two singled out most often), but additionally, will the old regime be able to co-exist with them, knowing minutes and shot opportunities will likely decrease in the spirit of the greater good. But most important is Bogut's status, as his gruesome fall and subsequent season-ending litany of injuries that resulted from it late last season led to an arduous rehab process, and while Bogut has acquitted himself well thus far with per-game averages of 12.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.67 blocks, Milwaukee needs him to be the quietly dominant interior force of last season.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms 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.

Kendall Gill, Ice Cube give their predictions for Mayweather-McGregor

Kendall Gill, Ice Cube give their predictions for Mayweather-McGregor

This story originally appeared on Big3.com. Hear from Kendall and Ice Cube as they give their opinions on the Aug. 26 fight in the video above.

Timing really is everything.

When I went to Las Vegas for the BIG3 combine and draft back in April, I liked my chances. Sure, I was one of the oldest guys there, but my training as a boxer (I fought professionally after my NBA days) keeps me in great shape.

So I was pretty shocked when I didn’t get drafted.

I tried to be positive about it. I figured maybe the man upstairs was saying, “Just sit tight. I gotta put you on the right team.”

So there I was, sparring in the gym the other day. I get out of the ring and there’s a text waiting for me from Corey Maggette, asking me if I want to play for Power.

He didn’t have to ask twice!

Next thing I know, I’m getting a call from Power’s coach, Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler. I looked up to Clyde my whole career, looked at him as a big brother. To play for him in the BIG3 is the perfect scenario.

So it was great to be in Philadelphia last Sunday and help Power defeat the Ghost Ballers in my BIG3 debut. I thoroughly enjoyed playing with Cuttino Mobley, DeShawn Stevenson, Jerome “Junkyard Dog” Williams and Paul McPherson.

I was a bit rusty on the offensive side, but my defense -- which has been a staple for me throughout my career -- my rebounding, passing, that was all on point. I found Cuttino and DeShawn for a couple of shots when we forced them to double-team down on me. I had Mike Bibby on me in the post, and they knew that he probably couldn’t guard me down there.

So it was a pretty good first day. Now that I’ve got that under my belt, here comes the fun part. Everybody was excited when I was finally added to a team, and when they found out we were playing in Chicago they got twice as excited. When I got off the plane from Philadelphia on Monday, I had about 50 messages waiting for me – friends and family asking for tickets to the UIC Pavilion for Sunday’s games.

And since I work Chicago Bulls games for CSN Chicago, the network is excited, too. They want to mic me up and follow me around for the day, go behind the scenes. Radio stations have been calling me for interviews about the BIG3 coming to Chicago. It’s exciting. But when it comes time to play, I’ve got to forget about all that and go out there and play.

A lot of people think I’m biased because I was born and raised here, and still live in Chicago, but if you look at the number of pro players that we’ve produced, there’s really nowhere else that can compare to Chicago as a basketball town. You look at all the number one picks in the draft. Look at the top five picks in the NBA Draft throughout history. I think you’d have to say Chicago is probably the number one producer of NBA players – and college basketball players for that matter.

Only a few fortunate kids make it up the ranks to college and the pros. For most kids growing up in Chicago, at least basketball can be an important recreational activity that helps keep them off the streets and out of trouble. But there’s so much more we can do. When I was preparing for the BIG3 draft, I was practicing with Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education. Duncan, who has played competitive 3-on-3 with USA Basketball, is doing some great work with underprivileged kids in Chicago.

For my part, I donated a home in Champaign-Urbana (home of my alma mater, the University of Illinois). It’s the Cunningham Children’s Home and it helps disadvantaged kids in the region. We just had our annual golf tournament last week. We’ve been doing it for 28 years and have raised more than $1 million for the home.

While Arne Duncan is doing great work with Chicago youth, I’m grateful for the work he put in with me on the basketball court. He showed me a lot about how to cut, do a lot of pick and rolls away from the ball. In 3-on-3, those aspects of the game are very undervalued. Some guys have a tendency to play too much one-on-one, which I saw in some of the other games I was watching Sunday. The 3-on-3 game is very easy if you do it right, like we did. I think that’s why we won that game. We did a lot of cuts, and it worked well for us.

So after the disappointment of not being drafted, I’m thrilled to be where I am now – playing for a Power squad that is 3-1 and looking good for the playoffs. Which got me to thinking…

I really love boxing – not just training and sparring myself, but watching it. Boxing is the sweet science.

If we are fortunate enough to make it to Las Vegas for the BIG3 championship game on August 26, there just happens to be a pretty big boxing match taking place that night, right down the road. You may have heard:  Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor.

Personally, I don’t think McGregor has a chance. I’ve seen Floyd train in person and I’ve seen all his fights at least 10 times. He’s one of the greatest fighters to ever live. Now a guy who has no boxing experience whatsoever is going to get into the ring with him? Not happening.

But it’s gonna be an event. Believe me, I’m planning to buy the Pay-Per-View.

Unless I’m in Vegas that day and get to see it in person. You know, right after we win the BIG3 title.

Wake-up Call: Rose returning to Chicago?; Willson Contreras takes over; State of Cubs-Cards

Wake-up Call: Rose returning to Chicago?; Willson Contreras takes over; State of Cubs-Cards

Here are the top Chicago sports stories from Thursday: 

Is #TheReturn getting a reboot? Report says there's a possibility Derrick Rose comes back to Bulls

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

Why Blackhawks fans might want to tap the brakes on Alex DeBrincat

That escalated quickly: Cubs just a game back of Brewers, could be in first place as soon as this weekend

Ping-pong balls everywhere: Where do the Bulls rank among projected lottery teams?

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

Report: Derrick Rose is considering teaming up with LeBron James, Cavs

Cubs Talk Podcast: State of Cubs-Cardinals rivalry and what lies ahead

Why Adam Engel came up with his unique batting stance, and how he's tweaked it since