With another disappointing Bears season now in the books, it’s time to focus some extra attention on what’s going on around the NBA, so here’s our first edition of NBA Buzz for 2017. We start with the roller-coaster ride otherwise known as the Bulls' 2016-17 season.
It might sound a little strange to place so much importance on Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic, a pair of third-year reserve forwards, but the reality is the Bulls’ offense has an entirely different look when those two players are turning in productive minutes.
Take Wednesday's game against Cleveland for example. With Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade struggling from the field in the first half, it was McDermott and Mirotic combining for 26 points to rally the Bulls and turn an early 13-point deficit into a six-point halftime lead.
Then with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, Fred Hoiberg turned to McDermott and Mirotic as floor spacers to open up driving lanes for Butler, and Butler responded by scoring 10 straight points to clinch a meaningful road win.
The Bulls' offense simply has better options with 3-point threats on the court. I'm sure you've noticed we don't see a lot of Robin Lopez in fourth quarters, and the idea behind that is to rely on a quicker lineup with an additional 3-point shooter (either McDermott or Mirotic, sometimes both).
When the Bulls were starting games with Lopez, Taj Gibson and Rajon Rondo, defenders could pack the paint to protect against drives by Butler and Wade and dare the other three to shoot mid-range jumpers. Michael Carter-Williams is also a subpar shooter, but his height and ability to finish at the rim gives the Bulls another option they didn't have with Rondo and a threat opposing defenses can't ignore.
It's no secret the Bulls' front office had been counting on a major step forward by McDermott and Mirotic in Year 3 of the their NBA careers, and maybe we're finally starting to see that progression. Mirotic has been much more aggressive since not playing in two games last month, and McDermott is showing more versatility to his offensive game since returning from the league's concussion protocol, including three post-up baskets in the win over Charlotte.
Butler has increased his scoring average to a career-best 25 points per game, and Wade is still a reliable scoring option in his 14th NBA season. But Wade turns 35 on Jan. 17, and Butler ranks sixth in minutes played at 36.6 per game. The Bulls need to identify and rely on more options to share the scoring load on a team that currently ranks 23rd in points per game. Giving McDermott, Mirotic and Carter-Williams bigger roles in the offense should ease the burden on Butler and Wade and help the Bulls get to the playoffs in a tightly bunched Eastern Conference.
As we move closer to the halfway point of the NBA schedule, here are a few of the stories that have caught my attention.
Westbrook, Harden battle for MVP
It's easy to forget these guys were actually teammates in Oklahoma City for three seasons before ownership's refusal to pay any luxury tax led to the trade that sent Harden to Houston. Of course, you can argue how the high-scoring trio of Westbrook, Harden and Kevin Durant would have co-existed in OKC, but remember they did get to the 2012 Finals, where they lost to Miami, and at that point, all three players were still trying to figure out just how good they could be at the NBA level.
Fast forward to January 2017, and Westbrook and Harden are each trying to become the first player since Nate "Tiny" Archibald in the early 1970s to lead the league in both scoring and assists. Westbrook is currently first in scoring and second in assists, while "The Beard" is first in assists and fourth in scoring. Right now, Westbrook probably has a better shot to complete the league-leading double, and his flirtation with Oscar Robertson's distinction of averaging a triple-double for the season stamps him as the favorite to capture his first MVP award.
Mike D'Antoni enjoying career revival in Houston
I have to admit I was pretty skeptical when D'Antoni first announced he would play Harden at point guard in his pace-and-space, 3-point dominant offense. Harden has always been a cold-blooded scorer, sometimes at the expense of his teammates. But now he's fully embracing the share-the-wealth mentality, getting the ball to capable 3-point shooters like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza. Harden is averaging right around 12 assists per game, and his leadership has taken the Rockets to the third-best record in the West. And how about that 53-point, 16-rebound, 17-assist game on New Year's Eve against the Knicks, the first time in the history of the league a player had 15 or more rebounds and assists in a 50-point game.
Isaiah Thomas playing like the Hall of Famer with the same name
Not many people expected the 5-foot-9 dynamo to be a difference-maker in the NBA. Heck, not many people expected Thomas to be in the league after Sacramento selected him with the last pick in the draft back in 2011. But Thomas' career has taken off since a trade to Boston at the 2015 deadline. He currently ranks fifth in scoring and turned in a 52-point game against Miami last week. Thomas is one of the toughest covers in the league, with blazing speed on the fast break, quick crossover moves and deep 3-point range. Celtics' general manager Danny Ainge has been looking to add a star-quality player to his roster for the last several years. Turns out he already has one in the diminutive and dynamic Thomas.
Celtics fans courting Gordon Hayward
Speaking of stars, did you see Celtics forward Jae Crowder's angry reaction to Boston fans cheering for Utah's Gordon Hayward in a recent game at TD Garden? It's no secret the Celtics will be pursuing Hayward in free agency this summer, and they feel like they've got a decent chance to steal him away from Utah, considering Brad Stevens used to coach Hayward at Butler. But since Crowder and Hayward play the same position, you can't blame Crowder for wondering about his future. He tweeted after the game in all caps.
HOME TEAM FANS CHEERING FOR THE OPPOSING PLAYERS NOW.. AW MAN OK... SMH BUT GOOD WIN FELLAS ONTO THE NEXT ONE.!!— JAE CROWDER (@CJC9BOSS) January 4, 2017
By the way, Crowder scored 21 points in the Celtics' win.
Sixers future looking brighter
NBA writers had a lot of fun ripping former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie for tearing down one of the league's traditionally strong franchises and going with a complete rebuild. Hinkie is gone, but "The Process" he began is starting to make sense. 2014 first-round pick Joel Embiid is showing everyone why Hinkie was willing to draft a 7-foot center with foot problems and just wait for him to get healthy. Embiid can score from all angles with Hakeem Olajuwon-like moves in the post and shooting range out to the 3-point line. The Sixers also drafted a few other promising young players in Nerlens Noel, Dario Saric and Chicago native Jahlil Okafor, and they're still waiting for 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons to take the floor. It might be another year or two before the Sixers get back in the playoffs, but the young talent on the roster should make Philadelphia fans understand what "The Process" was all about.
Greek Freak is the talk of the league
Have you seen the latest issue of Sports Illustrated with a cover story on Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo? Bulls fans know how good Giannis is after watching him lead the Bucks to three straight wins in the season series, but the rest of the NBA universe is just starting to take notice. Antetokounmpo is averaging almost 24 points, nine rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals, which is a stat line we haven't seen since blocks and steals became official stats. Antetokounmpo is unquestionably headed to the All-Star Game and is one of the top 20 players in the league. Now the question is: How long will it be before Antetokounmpo joins the likes of LeBron James, Durant, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and Westbrook as a First-Team All-NBA performer?
The SI story went on to detail Antetokounmpo's amazing work ethic that includes driving to the team's practice facility for late-night drills after a bad game still wearing his sweat-soaked uniform. Giannis vows to improve his 3-point shooting (28 percent for his career), and once he accomplishes that, good luck trying to guard him.
The Bucks also have another outstanding young forward in former Simeon star Jabari Paker, and they're hoping to get sharp-shooting guard Khris Middleton back from injury just after the All-Star break. When LeBron finally starts to slow down, watch out for the Bucks as a rising force in the East.
Stat of the week
I'm thrilled to have CSN's stats guru Chris Kamka (a.k.a. The Cruncher) on board for another season of NBA Buzz. This week, Chris has some interesting facts about Butler's 52-point explosion against the Hornets on Jan. 2 at the United Center.
Fifty-plus-point games at the United Center:
— 57 points, Jerry Stackhouse, Pistons (April 3, 2001, vs. Bulls)
— 55 points, Michael Jordan, Bulls (April 27, 1997, vs. Bullets)
— 53 points, Michael Jordan, Bulls (March 7, 1996, vs. Pistons)
— 52 points, Jimmy Butler, Bulls (Jan. 2, 2017, vs. Hornets)
— 51 points, Michael Jordan, Bulls (Jan. 21, 1997, vs. Knicks)
— 51 points, Ray Allen, Celtics (April 30, 2009, vs. Bulls)
— 50 points, Jamal Mashburn, Mavericks (Nov. 12, 1994, vs. Bulls)
With his 52-point game, Butler became the second player in Bulls history with multiple 50-point games. Jordan had 38, including playoff games. Butler had the first 50-point, 10-rebound, five-assist game in United Center history and was the first Bulls player with multiple 40-point games over a six-day span since Jordan did it in April 1998.
Quote of the week
Back to Antetokounmpo. Since he grew up in Greece, he didn't know much about the history of the league when the Bucks drafted him as an 18-year-old in 2013. So, check out this quote from the Lee Jenkins story in SI about Bucks head coach Jason Kidd.
The first time Kidd benched him, Antetokounmpo was irate. "I was like, 'Let's see what this guy did in his career, anyway,'" Antetokounmpo recounts, and called up Kidd's bio on his phone. "I saw Rookie of the Year, NBA championship, USA Olympic gold medal, second in assists, fifth in made 3s, blah, blah, blah. I was like, 'Jesus freaking Christ, how can I compete with that? I better zip it.'"
Pretty funny stuff, and great awareness for such a young player. By the way, Antetokounmpo is currently in position to be an All-Star starter after the first returns in the fan balloting, ahead of established stars like Butler, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. Yes, it's good to be the Greek Freak, who's planning to do some big things in his adopted home of Milwaukee.