Coaches drop the ball on NBA All-Star selections

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Coaches drop the ball on NBA All-Star selections

Friday, Feb. 4, 2011
9:00 a.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

SAN FRANCISCO--The fact that no Bulls players were named an Eastern Conference All-Star reserve isn't a travesty, miscarriage of justice or any other cliched phrase to describe outraged indignation. It is, however, a tad confusing.

The two prime candidates themselves--Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng--each admitted a desire to participate in this month's league showcase, but acknowledged they were no shoo-ins. Deng has consistently expressed skepticism he'd be picked and while Boozer was more optimistic, he too, took a wherever-the-chips fall approach.

Boozer has delivered on the expectations heaped upon him since arriving in Chicago via free agency, giving the Bulls their first true low-post threat in years. But despite posting the 20-and-10 numbers that made him such a force in Utah, making his season debut in December put him firmly behind the eight-ball when it came to midseason honors.

The under-appreciated Deng, quietly enjoying perhaps his best all-around professional campaign, has thrived as a third option on offense and a defensive stalwart. Despite getting vocal support from first-year Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau--the understated "Thibs" also lobbied for Boozer; his pointed stumping on his players' behalf was out of character, but demonstrated the hoops purist's belief that they were worthy of taking part in the Staples Center festivities--the Sudanese native was also passed over.

Again, no surprise. What doesn't make sense, though, is the fact that four members of Thibodeau's former team (Boston's Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo) were named to the East squad, the third wheel of a team the Bulls are neck and neck with (Miami's Chris Bosh) made it and two players from a team a notch below Chicago (Atlanta's Al Horford and Joe Johnson) were also selected.

Of the aforementioned reserves, Rondo is the obvious no-brainer and if the Celtics were rewarded for having the conference's best record, then it makes sense that Allen (having one of his best seasons in years) and Pierce (the team's leading scorer) garnered the support of the East's coaches. But Garnett, who's been injury-plagued--although he's appeared to be as healthy as he's been since Boston's championship season in 2008--is questionable, regardless of being the anchor of the Celtics' vaunted defense.

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Since that's sacrilege in some observers' minds (most of whom don't reside in the Windy City), let's give the future Hall of Famer the benefit of the doubt. But what about Bosh?

An underwhelming start to the season by the Heat's heralded trio was remedied soon enough, but even as the team surged, too often was Bosh more of a spectator than the sometimes dominant force he was in Toronto. Rightfully, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have taken turns carrying Miami and Bosh has prudently opted to be utilized when called upon, but while that strategy has paid off in the win column, it isn't much in the way of commentary on his stardom.

Then, there's the Hawks duo of Horford and Johnson. The steady Horford's selection can't be argued much, as injuries took Bulls center Joakim Noah out of the running (assuming Noah maintained the averages he put up, he almost certainly would have beaten out his college teammate) and the other center candidate ion the East, Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut, has been playing at less than 100 percent for a underachieving Bucks team.

Johnson, on the other hand, is a different story. The high-priced free-agent returnee is his team's top player, but after the Hawks' disappointing playoff showing last spring, the smooth swingman needed to make a strong statement with virtually the same Atlanta team back. Instead, the Hawks have seemingly regressed--they're a clear notch behind the East's elite of Boston, Chicago, Miami and even retooled Orlando--and while Johnson has come on strong as of late, like Boozer, he's dealt with injury issues (admirably missing only nine games after elbow surgery) and his numbers are below his usual standards.
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But this isn't just another extended annual whine about who's undeserving of being an All-Star and why the local team got snubbed. It's more about trying to decipher the rhyme and reasoning of the selections.

If Boston gets four players to highlight their first-half season success, then why does Atlanta--which has remained stagnant at best--also have multiple All-Stars, especially when one isn't Josh Smith, who has become one of the most dynamic (albeit occasionally inconsistent) two-way forwards in the league? And forget the Bulls for a second--Knicks point guard Raymond Felton has been almost as important to New York's improvement (and Charlotte's slow start to the season following his departure in free agency) as fellow Big Apple newcomer and All-Star starter Amar'e Stoudemire, yet was also snubbed.

The Western Conference, with its superior talent, was more of quandary for its coaches. One can't argue the choices of Utah floor general extraordinaire Deron Williams, MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki of Dallas, rising star Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City or San Antonio scoring leader Manu Ginobili.

With the game in Los Angeles, the worthiness of Clippers rookie sensation Blake Griffin is a moot point; team success doesn't matter when that perennially sad-sack franchise has suddenly become must-see TV based on the excitement factor of an individual player. The selections of big men Tim Duncan of the Spurs and Pau Gasol of the Lakers are where it gets tricky.

Similar to Garnett, Duncan's legacy and his team's dominance--San Antonio owns the league's best record--deserve respect, but it's also a fact that he's having his worst season ever. If anything, Spurs point guard Tony Parker should be on the team, as San Antonio's system has dramatically shifted to a more guard-oriented, fast-paced scheme, of which he and the aforementioned Ginobili are the focal points.

As for Gasol, he hasn't even been the best Lakers frontcourt player this season; that honor belongs to versatile and selfless forward Lamar Odom, currently serving as the team's sixth man with starting center Andrew Bynum back in the lineup. Meanwhile, Gasol has been up and down, a reflection of the two-time defending champions and seems to have been chosen due to his reputation more than anything else, even when classified as a center (the position where he started before Bynum's return) instead of power forward.

Still, neither Gasol nor Duncan can be considered completely undeserving. They simply haven't had elite seasons thus far, compared to others in the West.

The conference's most egregious snub was Minnesota's Kevin Love, the league's top rebounder. Although he toils for the lowly Timberwolves, the ground-bound power forward is on pace to be the first NBA player to average at least 15 boards per game since Dennis Rodman did it for the Bulls.

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Don't think a player from a subpar team (or multiple players, given that Griffin was a lock to make it) should play in the game? Well, how about Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge, who's broken out of his shell and kept the M.A.S.H. unit Trailblazers afloat?

If another guard is a preference, then there's high-scoring NBA minutes-leader Monta Ellis of Golden State or even Phoenix's Steve Nash, valiantly fighting the good fight for less-talented Suns squad.

Actually, if speculation is correct, Nash will be the commissioner's choice to replace injured Houston center Yao Ming--the lone starter the fans truly got wrong; New Orleans point guard Chris Paul, as usual, is debatable when compared to Utah's Williams, but the Hornets have been the better team--meaning any hopes Mavericks center Tyson Chandler had of being a position-specific replacement will be gone in the wind. Chandler, the former Bulls draft pick, has helped Dallas develop a defensive identity and is arguably the West's best man in the middle.

Overall, there isn't really all that much to quibble with. Again, it's more about understanding the method to the madness.

If individual success is the biggest factor, then where's the Love, let alone Ellis? If it's about team turnarounds or carrying a team through adversity, then why didn't Felton, Boozer andor Deng (though their exclusion somewhat strengthens Bulls All-Star starter Derrick Rose's MVP case by default) or even Nash, who also fills the reputation requirement (not residency, all you followers of Chicago's mayoral campaign; the next mayor should be somebody with a viable blizzard emergency plan for Lakeshore Drive) that must have been used for Garnett and Duncan?

Truth be told, in a year where the fans finally got the voting right (mostly, with Yao being the exception), the coaches dropped the ball. Not because of who they chose, but the confusion in understanding how they reached their final conclusions.

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 Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

NBA Buzz: 2017 Draft could be the best in more than a decade

If you've been watching the NCAA Tournament closely, it's apparent this June's draft will include a number of elite prospects, maybe the best top 10 talent since the LeBron, Melo, Bosh, Wade draft in 2003. 

Washington didn't qualify for the tournament, but NBA scouts seem to be in agreement that Washington point guard Markelle Fultz will be the No. 1 pick. The 6-foot-4 freshman has the size and ball-handling ability to play either guard spot, and word out of Boston is Fultz will be the pick if the Celtics get the first choice in the draft lottery.

UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball put on quite a show in the Bruins' win over Cincinnati on Sunday, finishing with 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. The 6-foot-6 Ball reminds scouts of a young Jason Kidd, showing amazing court vision and passing skills with the size to see over the top of smaller defenders. And don't caught up in his unusual shooting form. Ball can knock down shots, hitting almost 56 percent from the field this season and 42 percent beyond the 3-point line.

The other consensus top-3 prospect is Kansas small forward Josh Jackson. The 6-foot-8 Jackson is an Andrew Wiggins clone who has amazing quickness and finishing ability. Jackson improved his draft stock with a sensational performance in the first two games of the tournament. If the Bulls decide to trade Jimmy Butler in a deal for one of the top picks this June, the rangy 20-year-old Jackson would be an ideal replacement. If he ever gets a consistent jump shot, look out. We could be talking about a 25 points per game scorer.

Since Fultz, Ball and Jackson appear to be the kind of players NBA teams build around, the Bulls could potentially negotiate with the teams holding the top 3 picks for the best possible Butler deal. Right now, the Nets (pick will be swapped with Boston), Lakers and Suns own the worst records, and if the order isn't changed by the lottery, the Bulls could obtain a quality package centered around this year's first-round pick and a quality young player from any of the three teams.

Here's a look at how the lottery selections could fall based on the draft order as of March 23.

1. CELTICS (from Brooklyn)  Markelle Fultz  PG   Washington
2. LAKERS                              Lonzo Ball        PG    UCLA
3. SUNS                                  Josh Jackson   SF    Kansas
4. MAGIC                                Jayson Tatum   SF     Duke
5. 76'ers                                  De'Aaron Fox     PG    Kentucky
6. KINGS                                  Malik Monk         SG    Kentucky
7. KNICKS                               Dennis Smith      PG   N. Carolina St.
8. TIMBERWOLVES              Lauri Markkanen  PF    Arizona
9. KINGS (from Pelicans)       Frank Ntilikina      PG    France
10. MAVS                                 Miles Bridges    SF    Michigan St.
11. HORNETS                         Jonathan Isaac   SF    Florida St.
12. BLAZERS                          Justin Jackson   SF    N. Carolina
13. PISTONS                           John Collins      PF     Wake Forest       
14. BULLS                                OG Anunoby     SG-SF   Indiana  

Alright Bulls fans, I'm sure you're asking, why would the Bulls want to draft a player coming off a serious knee injury? Well, the Bulls haven't done all that well drafting productive older players from major programs, so why not roll the dice on a 19-year-old who could develop into the next Butler?

Scouts raved about Anunoby's potential heading into his sophomore season at Indiana. At 6-foot-8, Anunoby has good positional size to play both the small forward and shooting guard spots and figures to be a plus-defender from Day 1 in the NBA. Right now, his rehab from right knee surgery and lack of a consistent jump shot are the biggest concerns, but looking at mock drafts in the 13-20 range, do the Bulls really want to take a project big man or a mystery international player? 

Even if it takes a couple years for Anunoby to reach his ultimate potential, he seems like a good choice in today's position-less NBA. Plus, in the Bulls' current position, they need to take some chances and try to get lucky in landing a future star.

Two other athletic possibilities who are projected as late 1st round picks right now are SMU junior swingman Semi Ojeleye, a 6-foot-7 bundle of energy and muscle who should be able to contribute right away, and Oklahoma St. point guard Jawun Evans, one of the fastest players in the college game who could ignite the Bulls' fast break after Rajon Rondo moves on.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

If the Bulls are going to make a late season run to the playoffs, they'll have to find a way to pass two of the league's hottest teams. Milwaukee has won eight of its last 10 games to pull into a 6th place tie with the Pacers, while Miami has been one of the league's biggest surprises over the last two months, going from an 11-30 record on January 13 to 35-36, and a game and a half lead over the Bulls and Pistons for the final playoff spot.

Both late surges are surprising, especially the job Erik Spoelstra has done in Miami. After the controversial departure of Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley decided to hedge his bets for the future and signed a number of journeyman veteran types like Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Derrick Williams and Willie Reed to short-term contracts.

Williams was released and signed on with Cleveland, but Spoelstra and his staff have done a masterful job in piecing together a roster with a lot of duplication into a consistent winning team. Hassan Whiteside has continued to improve, averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds, while the guard rotation of Waiters, Goran Dragic, Ellington and Tyler Johnson has been especially effective.

Bulls fans will remember James Johnson as a guy who arrived from Wake Forest with a lot of potential, but went on to bounce around the league with little success. Now that he's finally in optimal physical shape, Johnson is averaging 12 points, 5 rebounds and 3.5 assists off the bench while doing a strong job on the defensive end.

Spoelstra probably won't win the Coach of the Year award, but it might be his best job yet after losing Wade and Chris Bosh, then seeing promising second-year forward Justise Winslow go out with a season-ending shoulder injury.

It's been a different story in Milwaukee, where the Bucks got off to a fast start behind the amazing rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo to All-Star status. A mid-season slump dropped the Bucks out of the top 8 in the East, and when Chicago native Jabari Parker suffered another devastating ACL injury, it appeared Milwaukee was heading towards another trip to the lottery.

But Bucks' coach Jason Kidd got Khris Middleton back from a hamstring injury, and inserted rookies Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon into the starting lineup. All of a sudden, the Bucks took off with Antetokounmpo getting back to his early season production, and the bench unit of Greg Monroe, John Henson, Michael Beasley, Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry becoming a real strength.

It's unlikely either Milwaukee or Miami will be a threat to Cleveland and Boston in the opening round of the playoffs, but the hard work and persistence of those coaching staffs should not be overlooked.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Yet another example of the Bulls' maddening inconsistency under Fred Hoiberg over the last 2 seasons is the number of impressive wins offset by blowout losses.

These numbers courtesy of CSN's stats cruncher, Chris Kamka.

Bulls 20+ point wins and 20+ point losses

(with Fred Hoiberg as Head Coach)

                 20+ point wins             20+ point losses

2016-17              6                           7
2015-16              3                           7

total                      9                          14
========================================
(With Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach)

2014-15              7                           1
2013-14              7                           4
2012-13              5                           5
2011-12             14                          0
2010-11              8                          1

total                     41                         11

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

I'm pretty sure Hoiberg was being sarcastic when asked early in the week if battling for one of the final playoff spots in the East is "fun".

The coach's response? "It's miserable." 

Hoiberg won't get a lot of argument from Bulls fans who see their team stuck in the middle among the 30 NBA franchises right now. That's the worst place to be in professional sports, with no hope of contending for championships and little chance of getting a franchise-changing talent in the draft.
 

Bulls supportive of Robin Lopez after one-game suspension following Serge Ibaka scrap

Bulls supportive of Robin Lopez after one-game suspension following Serge Ibaka scrap

Although the punches didn't connect, the NBA was not going to take the Robin Lopez-Serge Ibaka confrontation lightly, suspending each one game Wednesday afternoon.

Lopez served his time in the Bulls' surprising 117-95 win over the Detroit Pistons at the United Center. Per league rules, Lopez was not allowed on team property but he did speak to head coach Fred Hoiberg when the team returned from Toronto after the Bulls' heartbreaking overtime loss Tuesday.

Lopez will return to the Bulls lineup Friday against the Philadelphia 76ers, a relief to the Bulls considering the league could've taken a harsher stance with Lopez — a two- or three-game suspension was being mulled at the league office, sources tell CSNChicago.com

Lopez was pushed into Ibaka after Jimmy Butler hit a three in the second half, and the two combatants squared off underneath the rim, with officials, teammates and coaches trying to separate them.

Ibaka appeared to have his arm reaching at Lopez's neck, prompting Lopez to swing at Ibaka. He missed, and Ibaka grazed Lopez's face with a wild swing of his own.

Both were ejected after being separated and shortly thereafter, the Raptors begun their run from being down 15 points to end the Bulls' recent mastery over them.

Despite the effect, Lopez had the full support of his teammates and coaching staff.

"I think you ask anybody in that locker room, Robin Lopez is one of the most if not the most popular guy on this team," Hoiberg said. "He's a guy that goes out and approaches his job the same way every day. He goes to work. He never complains. He does what's asked of him. Also if you asked them, they'd tell you he's as passionate of a guy as we have on this team as well. He's got a fire to him that you just don't ever want to take away."

That fire clearly got underneath Lopez and Ibaka, causing Lopez to lunge at Ibaka. Telling from the immediate reaction from the Bulls players and from Hoiberg and associate coach Jim Boylen, it seems as if it wasn't the first time Lopez's engine ran a little hot.

"This game gets very competitive obviously, it gets heated at times," Hoiberg said. "That happened last night. It's unfortunate what went down, but we've all got Robin's back. I think everybody in this organization, from the players all the way to up top, has Robin's back. We'll deal with it and move on. We'll be happy to have him in the lineup Friday."

Lopez averages 10.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in 27.9 minutes per game, slightly higher than his career averages through his nine NBA seasons.

Considering the play seemed relatively tame, it was slightly puzzling to see both players go at each other so ferociously but there appeared to be more to the story than first blush.

"There's always more going on than it appears," Hoiberg said. "You go back and watch on film, there's little jabs that happen in the course of the game and sometimes it reaches the boiling point. Robin is a guy that plays this game with a lot of passion, and you don't ever want to see something like that happen, but it did. And again, you move on."

Normally, Lopez attacks mascots during timeouts or pregame warm-ups, so nobody felt Lopez was looking for an altercation, and considering it only cost him a game — one the Bulls won anyways — Hoiberg didn't seem too stressed about it beforehand.

"Yeah, you know, Robin's going to have our guys' backs as much as anybody in the locker room," Hoiberg said. "Again, you look in that locker room, all those guys are going to have each other's back, Robin as much as anybody. Unfortunately, it happened. It looked like it was a little hip check, they turned around and got squared off, and we all know what happened. Again, we'll all be excited to have Robin back in the lineup on Friday."