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.

Third time's a charm as Dwyane Wade embraces Bulls and Jimmy Butler as leader

Third time's a charm as Dwyane Wade embraces Bulls and Jimmy Butler as leader

Joking in presentation but serious in intent, Dwyane Wade sat patiently with Bulls GM Gar Forman, refusing to start his introductory news conference until his wife, Gabrielle Union, arrived for the proceedings.

After 13 years of waiting, and then a couple weeks after formally agreeing to join the Chicago Bulls, a few extra moments didn’t feel like an eternity.

For some, Wade was worth the wait.

“Sounds good, doesn’t it?” Forman joked to Wade about announcing him as a Chicago Bull, before going through Wade’s litany of accomplishments, all of which were done in a Miami Heat uniform.

“You make me feel good about myself,” Wade said.

[MORE: Dwyane Wade says the Bulls are Jimmy Butler's team]

With Jimmy Butler off to the side, Wade made sure to announce that despite his pedigree, his rings, his status as a Hall-of-Fame player and respected voice through the NBA that this team isn’t his; He first mentioned owner Jerry Reinsdorf, then Butler, stopping any controversy before it could develop.

“We’re not gonna go through this all year. It’s Jimmy Butler’s team,” Wade said. “He’s a young Bull who can play 40 minutes. I ain’t trying to do all that.”

It makes Forman’s opening statement about Wade that much more poignant, aside from the 20 points and on-floor savvy Wade will likely provide to a young Bulls team and inexperienced coach.

“As important and maybe more so, the presence and intangibles Dwyane will bring to this organization and this team,” Forman said. “From the locker room to the floor to how he interacts with his teammates…it’ll serve our team well.”

Wade has gone through the city in recent days after his trip from China, readjusting himself to Chicago.

“This is one of those moments for me, that is a dream come true,” Wade said. “It took a long time to get here. But I’m here. The excitement the city has shown, I can’t tell what you’ve meant to me.”

[SHOP: Get your Dwyane Wade Bulls gear]

It was a long and winding road as Wade said “let’s take a trip down memory lane”, recalling the belief he thought he would be drafted by the Bulls in 2003 when they held the seventh pick.

The Miami Heat had other plans.

Then when Wade hit unrestricted free agency in 2010, he had another two meetings with the Bulls and seriously considered them.

“Prime of my career. My first meeting was back home,” Wade said. “I met with a few teams, met with the Bulls twice.”

“It was a place I was really pulled toward. I had the opportunity to play with two good players, LeBron (James) and Chris (Bosh).”

The Bulls weren’t able to lure Bosh and James to Chicago, so the thought of being a Bull went as far as a deleted picture on his camera that showed him in a Bulls uniform—before he realized deleted pictures could be obtained through a cloud.

The third time was the charm, as the Bulls presented themselves as a reasonable option when talks broke down between Wade and the Heat early in free agency, creating arguably the biggest personnel surprise of the offseason—and a curious marriage of a player who still has enough game to be effective with a team struggling to claim a new identity on the fly as opposed to hitting the reset button.

“I still have a little bit left,” Wade said. “I wanted to come here and be a part of building this organization back up and where it should be.”

Dwyane Wade: Bulls are 'Jimmy Butler's team'

Dwyane Wade: Bulls are 'Jimmy Butler's team'

Dwyane Wade wanted there to be no doubt whatsoever.

"This is Jimmy Butler’s team."

Taking a cue from former teammate Shaquille O’Neal, Wade told reporters Friday during his introductory press conference — after a matter-of-fact joke that the Bulls' are Jerry Reinsdorf's team — that Butler is the leader of this Bulls squad, and his intent was to get that out of the way early and avoid a season-long controversy.

"We're not going to go through this all year. This is Jimmy Butler's team," Wade said. "Myself and (Rajon) Rondo are here to bring what we bring as athletes to this team and to this city. (Butler's) a young bull on this team. He's a 26-year-old that can play 40 minutes a game if coach wants him to and maybe more. I ain't trying to do all that. And we're going to depend on him a lot.

"This is a guy I've known since Marquette University, that I have a tremendous amount of respect for. And as much as Gar (Forman) and John Paxson and everyone did an amazing job of making sure this could happen, this wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for Jimmy Butler. Jimmy Butler called me and told me he wanted me here, and that was huge because at the time I didn't know. At the time, hometown kid, Derrick Rose, here and he leaves. (Joakim) Noah who's very known here leaves. It's now Jimmy's team. So to want to bring in a guy like myself and Rondo, it shows what he's about. He's about winning.

"It won't be a tug and pull of whose team it is. We're all playing together. We all have one common goal, and that's to win. Jimmy's going to be Jimmy Butler, and I think he's going to grow and be a better ballplayer because of what Rondo brings to the game and because of what I bring."

Wade is one of two multi-time All Stars to join the Bulls this season, arriving in Chicago with Rondo to play alongside Butler on a new-look Bulls team. All that veteran star power — as well as past discussions over the topic involving Butler and former Bulls guard Derrick Rose — prompted the question.

Wade had an answer ready to go.

And the inspiration for Friday’s proclamation came a decade earlier, when O’Neal teamed with Wade in Miami following his three championship wins with the Lakers.

"It's funny to be sitting in this seat," Wade said. "I remember when Shaquille O'Neal came to Miami, coming from the Lakers, three championships. He came to Miami, and we had no championships at the time. And I remember his press conference. I was playing in the Olympics at the time, like Jimmy is right now. And I remember Shaq said, 'We're not going to go through this all year. It's Dwyane Wade's team.'"

Wade has been on superstar-laden rosters before, not only winning a title with O'Neal but also winning a pair of championships alongside LeBron James and Chris Bosh in Miami, so he's used to this type of environment.

"I can't come into this situation thinking it's going to be the same as when me, Chris and LeBron played together. It's a different situation," Wade said. "I'm excited about playing with two guys I respect as competitors first. ... We'll learn what we need to do, just like we did in Miami, we learned what we needed to do.

"I think the only parallel from that is I've played in my career with other guys that are alphas. ... We have three strong personalities, we have three leaders."

Dwyane Wade denies using Bulls as free agency leverage in 2010

Dwyane Wade denies using Bulls as free agency leverage in 2010

There's been a longstanding rumor that Dwyane Wade used the Bulls as leverage during the free agency summer of 2010.

Wade put that notion to rest on Friday.

During his introductory press conference with the Bulls at the Advocate Center, Wade opened up about how close he was to signing with the Bulls after meeting with the organization twice in 2010 before deciding to form the "Big 3" in Miami with LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

[MORE: Dwyane Wade says the Bulls are Jimmy Butler's team]

"There's a notion out there that I used the Bulls for some sort of leverage (in 2010)," Wade said. "It's a place I really wanted to be.

"They gave me a Bulls jersey in 2010. I went home, put it on, took a picture"

Ultimately, despite his heart trying to sway him to Chicago, the decision came down to Wade not wanting to pass up the opportunity to play with James and Bosh in Miami.

As close as Wade came to becoming a member of the Bulls in 2010, it wasn't the first time that the Chicago native thought he would be playing for his hometown team.

[SHOP: Get your Dwyane Wade Bulls gear]

The Bulls were the only team that put Wade through multiple workouts before the 2003 NBA Draft.

"I thought for sure I was coming here," Wade revealed.

It looks like the third time was the charm for Wade and the Bulls.