Rising Bulls Head West with High Hopes

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Rising Bulls Head West with High Hopes

Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010
7:47 p.m.

by Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

So, what are your expectations for the upcoming seven game road trip? How many games do you think the Bulls will win?

I'm going with three, which means a slightly below .500, (3-4) trip. The key is getting off to a fast start. The Bulls have two winnable games right off the bat against the Warriors and Clippers. They beat Golden State in overtime at the U.C. last month, and the Warriors are the worst defensive team in the league. On top of that, they've been decimated by injuries all season long, playing one game last month with only six healthy players. Unfortunately, some of those injured players are coming back, starting with underrated center Andris Biedrins, who missed last month's game in Chicago, and has really killed the Bulls in the past. Biedrins is a good match-up for Joakim Noah. He can run the floor and does a good job crashing the offensive glass for easy putbacks. And, with Golden State's line-up filled with three-point gunners, there are usually plenty of rebounds to be grabbed. The Warriors haven't exactly been Team Harmony this season. Head coach Don Nelson just wants to get enough wins to pass Lenny Wilkens on the all-time list, and then he'll disappear into retirement in Hawaii. He's feuded openly with his best player, Monta Ellis, and benched former Fenwick high school star Corey Maggette earlier in the season. Maggette is getting big minutes again, and he's still one of the better points per minute scorers in the league, with an innate ability to get to the free throw line. Reportedly, he's available in trade as are most of the Golden State players, but Maggette's skills probably don't fit the type of player the Bulls would like to add, plus he has several more years remaining on a contract that will pay him almost 10 million dollars a season.

Top draft pick Stephen Curry is starting for Golden State after getting limited minutes early in the season, and he's starting to show how valuable he can be as a prolific three-point shooter, He still needs to work on his strength for the NBA game, but there's little doubt he should have a long and successful career. The Warriors are always dangerous because of their ability to score, but the Bulls should be able to take advantage of their non-existent defense to win a high-scoring game.

Next up is the Clippers, who found out last week they won't have last summer's number one overall draft pick, Blake Griffin, for a single regular season minute because of a fractured left kneecap. The Clips were trying to hang on in the Western Conference playoff race until Griffin returned, and they do have pretty good talent with players like Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and Al Thornton. But again, this is a game the Bulls should be able to win if they take advantage of the Clippers' tendency to fall apart late in close games.

The schedule gets tougher after that with games in Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and New Orleans, but none of those teams should be considered unbeatable. My best guess is the Bulls will win in Phoenix or New Orleans. The Suns are really struggling right now, losing four of their last five games, with Steve Nash starting to come back to earth a bit after playing near his previous M.V.P. level early in the season. Phoenix lost by 26 at Charlotte last week, and their defense has pretty much disappeared with most opponents scoring well over 100 points in recent games. Bulls' fans will get a close-up look at Amare Stoudemire, who was linked to the team in trade speculation last year, and might be one of the Bulls' targets in free agency next summer. Stoudemire looks to be fully recovered from his off-season eye surgery, averaging 21 points and 9 rebounds a game. He's probably fourth or fifth on the Bulls' wish list behind LeBron, D-Wade, Chris Bosh and possibly, Joe Johnson.

New Orleans is another fringe playoff team in the West. They're playing better after Byron Scott was fired as head coach, and replaced by General Manager Jeff Bower and top assistant Tim Floyd. But more importantly, Chris Paul is healthy again after suffering a bad ankle sprain early in the year. Paul is one of the top 10 players in the league, and the Hornets will need to do everything in their power to keep a competitive team around him, or he might look for greener pastures when his contract expires. There have been rumors New Orleans might be interested in trading David West to Cleveland for Zydrunas Ilgauskas' expiring contract to reduce their payroll. I'm guessing that's not a deal Paul would appreciate after seeing his friend Tyson Chandler get traded in the off-season.

Bottom line, the Bulls are still a team capable of beating the best teams in the league, or losing to the worst. Even after that impressive win at Boston last week, their road record is just 4-13 and that's not good enough for a team with hopes of making the playoffs. We should learn a lot about where the Bulls are headed when the seven-game trip is over. Winning three or four games will keep the Vinny Del Negro speculation from heating up, and give the Bulls a decent chance of getting to the All-Star break close to the .500 mark. And, a good showing by Derrick Rose might earn him a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, ending the Bulls' shutout streak that goes back to the days of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1998. The Bulls have looked like a much improved offensive team in winning seven of their last 10 games, with John Salmons finally finding the range from the three-point line and Rose and Luol Deng capable of carrying the scoring load on a given night.

Let's hope that improvement continues on the trip. What do you think? Please post your comments and expectations for the trip in the section below. Enjoy the hoops!

It sure sounds like Jimmy Butler regrets being labeled as the face of the Bulls franchise

It sure sounds like Jimmy Butler regrets being labeled as the face of the Bulls franchise

Jimmy Butler didn't come close to following in his trainer's footsteps, but Mr. G. Buckets Unplugged still proved enlightening.

Following a wild Thursday, Butler hopped on the phone Friday afternoon from Paris to chat with Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times about the deal that sent the former face of the Bulls to rejoin Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota.

Butler wanted to be labeled as the face of the franchise, but his comments seem to reflect the old adage "be careful what you wish for."

"It doesn't mean a damn thing. I guess being called the face of an organization isn't as good as I thought. We all see where being the so-called face of the Chicago Bulls got me. So let me be just a player for the Timberwolves, man. That's all I want to do. I just want to be winning games, do what I can for my respective organization and let them realize what I'm trying to do.

"Whatever they want to call me... face... I don't even want to get into that anymore. Whose team is it? All that means nothing. You know what I've learned? Face of the team, eventually, you're going to see the back of his head as he's leaving town, so no thanks."

Whoa.

Butler also spoke about trying to block out all the trade rumors while on vacation in France:

"I mean, I had so many people telling me what could possibly happen, but I just got to the point where I stopped paying attention to it. 

"It's crazy because it reminds you of what a business this is. You can't get mad at anybody. I'm not mad - I'm not. I just don't like the way some things were handled, but it's OK."

Butler doesn't have to be the sole face of the franchise in Minnesota on a team that has two of the top homegrown young stars in the game in Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins.

Bulls have emerged from a ball of confusion to parts unknown

Bulls have emerged from a ball of confusion to parts unknown

The big red button was pressed and Jimmy Butler was ejected from the Chicago Bulls’ present and future as they finally made the decision to rebuild after two years of resisting.

Trading Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the ability to draft Lauri Markkanen represents the Bulls committing to the draft lottery and fully going in on the Fred Hoiberg experience for the foreseeable future, as the prospect of trying to improve through shrewd moves in the East while also facing the likelihood of Butler commanding a $200 million contract wasn’t palatable to their pocketbook or their sensibilities.

On one hand, making a decision — any decision — can be applauded on some levels after years of their relationship with Butler being complicated at best. But the idea of rebuilding and the application of it are often two separate ideals, because the evaluation of a rebuild can often be as murky as the land the Bulls just left.

“What we’ve done tonight is set a direction,” Bulls Executive Vice President John Paxson said. “We’ve gone to the past where we make the playoffs, but not at the level we wanted to. You know in this league, success is not determined that way. We’ve decided to make the change and rebuild this roster.”

“We’re gonna remain patient and disciplined. The development of our young players is important. The coaching staff has done a phenomenal job. We’re gonna continue down that path. We’re not gonna throw huge money at people.”

The Bulls aren’t exclusive to this territory, the land in which they’ve inhibited for the last couple seasons, which makes the Butler trade about more than one thing.

Not equal parts but part basketball, part fiscal, part narrative and finally, masking some mistakes that have been made over the years but are not as easily rectified. Trading Butler seemed to be the easiest vessel used as an elixir to wash away missteps. Trading a star in Butler is also the easiest way to get heat off a coach or front office in today’s NBA, because few franchises like to make wholesale changes midstream or early in it.

Trading Butler — along with shipping their second-round pick in a box marked for the Bay Area — was also financial, considering many felt if he made it through the tumultuous evening that he would finish his career as a Bull, raking in a hefty sum of cash on the back end.

It’s because of these factors that the evaluation of this trade and subsequently, a painful rebuild, cannot be in a vacuum. (Note: No rebuild is painless, it’s the size of the migraine a team can endure that determines the type of aspirin necessary).

Just taking a look at the players the Bulls got back in the Butler trade illustrates the gray area they’ve now immersed themselves into. The Bulls fell in love with Dunn before he came to the NBA, and aren’t as bothered by him being a 23-year old second-year player who struggled mightily in his rookie year.

Zach LaVine is an explosive athlete who can put up 20 every night — when he’s on the floor. Recovering from an ACL injury is no given, as evidenced by a young phenom who once graced the United Center hardwood before his body betrayed him.

And Lauri Markkanen is a rookie with promise, but nobody can make any promises on what type of career he’ll have, or if he’ll fulfill that promise with this franchise in the requisite time.

“There’s always risk in anything,” Paxson said. “But here’s a guy that’s 22 years old and averages 20 a game (LaVine). He can score the basketball, he can run. He can shoot the basketball. He shot over 40 percent from three. That’s an area we’re deficient in. Markkanen shot over 40 from three in college. Again, it’s an area where we’re deficient. It’s trying to find the type of player that fits the way that we want to play going forward.”

[RELATED: Jimmy Butler bids emotional farewell to Chicago]

General Manager Gar Forman stated after the announcement of the trade that the Bulls would have to hit on their next few draft picks to stop this rebuild from being elongated, but even then there’s no guarantee.

The Sacramento Kings drafted a rookie of the year, then two future max contract players in the same year, followed by another player who’ll command close to max money very soon. But nobody remembers Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside and Isaiah Thomas leading the Kings from the wilderness and into glory, unless recent memory has been scrubbed away from everyone.

Inconsistencies in organizational structure combined with multiple coaching changes and an inability to develop the right young players kept the Kings on the dais of the draft lottery every April.

The Timberwolves, heck, nobody could say they missed when selecting LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and getting Andrew Wiggins in a trade for Kevin Love. It’s because it takes more than the right draft picks, or in the Sacramento Kings’ case, the right infrastructure and environment, to foster an atmosphere of winning.

The Bulls were ready, despite their claims that this was a decision that came across their table right before the draft, because common sense has to be applied. No team makes knee-jerk, franchise-altering decisions that will have reverberations for years to come on the whim of a trade offer from Tom Thibodeau. This was likely decided when the Bulls went out with a whimper in the first-round after shocking the NBA world in the first two games against the Boston Celtics, when their fortunes changed on the trifle of Rajon Rondo’s broken wrist.

It was decided that Hoiberg, the man who endured chants calling for his firing in the second half of the decisive Game 6 loss, needed to have the right type of roster to be accurately judged as a successful hire or failure, and Butler couldn’t be part of those plans.

And just as Hoiberg has been dealt an uneven hand, Butler wasn’t given the type of roster that would accurately judge how he could flourish as a leader, max player and face of the franchise — and probably had less time to show one way or the other relative to his coach.

The longer Butler stayed, the more empowered he would become as his individual accomplishments would rack up because of the dedication he applied to game, the drive he had to place himself in the upper echelon of NBA players.

The better Butler got, the more pressure Hoiberg would be under to mix and match his roster and to foster a relationship with Butler he might’ve been ill-suited to fix. The better Butler got, the more pressure the front office would be under to maximize a prime it didn’t see coming, a prime they can’t truly figure when there’s an expiration date on given Butler’s unlikely rise to stardom.

So getting rid of Butler was the solution and the Bulls have now chosen their path, definitively and with confidence. Emerging from a ball of confusion to parts unknown, from one land of uncertainty to another.