Richard Signing Could Re-Energize Playoff Drive

123157.jpg

Richard Signing Could Re-Energize Playoff Drive

Tuesday, March 2, 2010
6:45 PM

by Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

On the surface, it's hard to get excited about the addition of a player who averaged 2.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in 5 regular season games, but the Bulls' signing of free agent big man Chris Richard could help them get through a tough month of March. After watching the Bulls get out-rebounded to the tune of 63-37 by Atlanta Monday night, it was painfully obvious how much they miss injured center Joakim Noah. And with Luol Deng also sitting out because of a swollen left knee, the Bulls were totally out-manned against the Hawks' frontline of Al Horford, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams. Deng should be back for Thursday night's game against Memphis, but Noah could be out for weeks because of the ongoing plantar fasciitis injury to his left foot. Noah has been the team's 2nd most valuable player behind Derrick Rose all season long, and the Bulls really aren't the same without his hustle, defense, rebounding and leadership. In retrospect, the Bulls should have given Noah a couple more weeks of total rest with hopes of getting him ready for the playoffs. But because he is so valuable, they tried to get him back for limited duty as soon as possible and Noah aggravated the injury by playing 27 minutes in last week's overtime win over Portland. Don't be surprised if he sits out most of this month.

So, that's where his University of Florida teammate comes in. Richard may not put up big numbers, but he gives the Bulls another reliable big man to spell Brad Miller. Richard is a strong post defender, and isn't afraid to play a physical style against some of the league's top centers. With Noah out, the Bulls have been giving up way too many offensive rebounds, and that's an area where Richard can help. He's really more of a power forward than a center, which means the Bulls should be able to play Miller and Richard together, giving them a better chance of controlling their defensive glass. The Bulls' coaching staff strongly supported keeping Richard when the trade deadline deals left the team with one player too many on the roster. John Paxson and Gar Forman decided at that time to keep Lindsey Hunter, leaving the team with seven guards, but to their credit, they realized that's a luxury they can't afford with Noah sidelined. So, Hunter has been let go with the promise of another job in the organization, and Richard has been added to the roster for the rest of the season. He'll practice with the team on Wednesday, then be ready to do battle against Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and the rest of the Grizzlies' big men Thursday night. Again, it might seem like a small addition, but given the fact Miller has been playing extended minutes on a sore knee, having Richard available should give the Bulls a much more balanced roster.

MARCH SCHEDULE LOADED WITH .500 OR BETTER TEAMS

Unfortunately, Noah has plenty of company on the Bulls injury report. We told you about Deng and Miller battling sore knees, and All-Star guard Derrick Rose has two sore knees after a pair of open court collisions in his last 2 games. Kirk Hinrich also missed practice on Tuesday because of a variety of bumps and bruises, so the Bulls are definitely banged up heading into one of their toughest stretches of the season. 10 of the 15 games in March are against teams with .500 or better records, and that doesn't include the Miami Heat, who are just under the break even mark, but are still a dangerous team because of Dwyane Wade. If the Bulls are going to make the playoffs, they'll need to find a way to come up with 6 or 7 wins this month, and take advantage of a more favorable schedule in April.

Everyone talks about how superior the Western Conference is this season, and the Bulls have two games against the Grizzlies, two against Dallas, and one each against Utah, Houston and Phoenix this month. Fortunately, 5 of those games will be played at the United Center, giving the Bulls a decent chance at coming away with a few wins. Vinny's guys also play the Heat twice and have single games against Cleveland and Orlando. If they can get to April within a game or two of .500, they should have a chance to make their typical strong closing run and grab the 6th or 7th seed in the East. But if the injuries become too much of problem over the next few weeks, just getting into the post-season field will be a real challenge.

We'll have the next 2 games for you on Comcast SportsNet, Thursday night against Memphis and Saturday against the Dallas Mavericks, who are the NBA's hottest team right now. The trade with Washington that brought in Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood makes the Mavs one of the top challengers to the defending NBA champion Lakers in the West. Dallas now has a deep and talented team with Dirk Nowitzki, Butler, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd leading the offense, and Haywood providing another 7-footer to anchor the defense. Unfortunately, the Bulls are catching the Mavs at the wrong time, but that's life in the NBA!

Kendall Gill will join me at the United Center to preview the game against Memphis during the 6:30 SportsNite on Thursday, and we'll also be live at 6:30 on Saturday. How many games do you think the Bulls will win in March? Please post your comments in the section below.

Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Being a better defensive team was a prime objective for Fred Hoiberg coming into camp, as the Bulls hope to reclaim some of their defensive identity that disappeared last season.

Reciting a not-so-true stat routinely to reporters in the first few days, that the Bulls were last in forcing turnovers in 2015-16, means he’s likely barking it to the team in practices (they were actually second-to-last behind the New York Knicks).

“Absolutely,” said Hoiberg when asked if being more aggressive defensively is a goal. “We are turning the ball over way too much. After watching film, our defense is responsible for some of that. We have a guy in (Rajon) Rondo that's a high steals guy, got great hands, great instincts, great wingspan. Jimmy (Butler) is always had great anticipation and one of the top steals guy.”

Butler is one of the best two-way players, along with San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Indiana’s Paul George, but even he admitted his defense slipped last year as the Bulls fell to a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of advanced defensive rankings (15th).

[SHOP: Get up for the 2016-17 season, Bulls fans!]

Rondo was once one of the league’s best defensive point guards before tearing up his knee his last full season in Boston, and averaged two steals last year in Sacramento, but gave up a career-high 107 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com.

Whether Rondo was a function of a bad defense overall for the Kings or a player who no longer fully commits himself to that end remains to be seen, but it’s clear Hoiberg wants a more hands-y defense. Too many times last year, the Bulls defense had leaks from the top down, resulting in compromised drives to the basket and breakdowns all around.

More than anything, the Bulls defense was one of indifference, especially after the first 30 games or so.

“Like all staffs we watched a ton of film and tried to figure out with this group how to create more turnovers, how to impact the ball better,” Hoiberg said. “Every day it's been a big emphasis in our defense and we get out and force turnovers and make sure the help is there behind the trap and being aggressive on the ball.”

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

The common refrain among coaches in the first days of training camp is “this guy had an incredible summer”, a phrase Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has said so much that even he had to laugh when asked who didn’t have a banner summer period.

Of course, that’s before fans and media get to see anyone play, so we can only speculate who’ll win certain position battles, like the starting power forward spot or how deep Hoiberg’s rotation will go.

So in the spirit of speculation, Bulls rookie Denzel Valentine’s versatility makes him a candidate for the backup point guard position, a spot that is filled with different options for Hoiberg to choose from.

“He’s such an instinctive player. He does a great job,” Hoiberg said. “We talk about making simple plays. You’ve done your job when you beat your man, draw the second defender and make the easy, simple play. Denzel is great at that. That’s not a gift that everybody has. That’s not an instinct that all players have. But Denzel certainly has it.”

One wonders if Valentine could find himself on the outside looking in at the start of the season, like Bobby Portis did last year before all the injuries hit the Bulls and forced him into action.

It’s a different vision than when Valentine was drafted as a late lottery pick after a seasoned career at Michigan State. The Bulls hadn’t signed Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo in free agency, and had traded Derrick Rose 24 hours before the draft, so the thought was Valentine could be an instant contributor.

Even still, Valentine can likely play anything from point guard to small forward, but hasn’t gotten extensive reps at the point, yet.

“I’ve played on the wing so far. A little bit of point,” Valentine said. “I got a couple reps on the point, but like 70-30. Seventy on the wing, 30 on the point.”

[SHOP: Get up for the 2016-17 season, Bulls fans!]

He got an early jump on the Hoiberg terminology at summer league, so the language isn’t a big adjustment, but having to learn multiple positions along with the tendencies of new teammates can mean a steeper learning curve.

“Yeah, I just got to continue learning sets and learning guys’ strengths so that I can use that to their best advantage,” Valentine said. “Play-make as best I can when I’m at the point guard spot. Just learning the system, learning guys’ strengths, and then I’ll be better at it.”

The presence of Wade and Jimmy Butler, one of whom will likely anchor the second unit as Hoiberg will probably stagger minutes so each can have the requisite time and space, means even if Valentine were on the floor, he wouldn’t have to be a natural point guard.

Hoiberg does, however, crave having multiple playmakers who can initiate offense or create shots off penetration or pick and roll action, meaning Valentine can work it to his advantage.

“I think he can. Jimmy played with the ball in his hands a lot last year,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy rebounds the ball and if Dwyane rebounds the ball, they’re bringing it. Rajon if he’s out there knows to fill one of the lanes. Denzel is an excellent passer. He’s got such good basketball instincts. So if you can get guys out there who can make plays, that’s what it’s all about. I think you’re very difficult to guard in this league when you have multiple ballmakers.”

Other notes:

Dwyane Wade won’t be taking walk-up triples for the Bulls, despite his call that Hoiberg wants him being more comfortable from behind the long line. Hoiberg does want him being willing and able to take corner threes, likely off guard penetration from Rondo or Jimmy Butler.

When Wade played with LeBron James in Miami, cutting from the corners became a staple, so putting him there could be an old wrinkle Hoiberg is adding to his scheme.

Wade took seven of his 44 3-pointers from the corner last season, hitting two from the right side, according to vorped.com.

“When he’s open, especially in the corners, that’s a shot we want him taking. It’s a thing we worked on yesterday, making sure he stays on balance,” Hoiberg said. “He’s got a natural lean on his shot, which has been very effective, being on the elite mid range shooters in our game. That’s allowed him to get shots over bigger defenders. When you get out further from the basket, especially by the line, you need to get momentum going in, work on your body position and work on finishing that shot. He’s got good mechanics, it’s a matter of finishing the shot.”