Sam: Bulls stand tall at midseason mark

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Sam: Bulls stand tall at midseason mark

Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011
3:46 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

The record itself28 wins and 13 lossesisnt whats remarkable. After all, a team that includes one of the top-five centers, top-five power forwards, top-10 small forwards, a deep bench and an MVP candidate at point guard cant be considered anybodys sleeper.

Its the manner in how it occurred. Forty-one games into the season, the Chicago Bulls are the Eastern Conferences third-best team, head and shoulders above their Central Division competition and possess the leagues fifth-best overall record.

Despite having their full complement of players intact for only nine gamesthe contests in which both Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer played together; we now know that Noah wasnt at full strength during that stretchthe Bulls have been a formidable foe for opposing squads, a team that most upper-echelon opponents would prefer not to face in the postseason.

READ: Compare Mark Schanowski's midseason grades

Its kind of weird, knowing that we havent been fully healthy with all the players and we havent had any games where everybody was healthy, Derrick Rose observed. When Carlos came back, Joakim was messed uphe wasnt at 100 percent and Carlos was trying to get in shape himselfso we were trying to work it out, but when we get both of them back, were going to be a hard team to beat.

While that aforementioned duos lack of health has been an issue, Chicagos injury woes have affected several others on the roster. From reserve swingman Ronnie Brewers nagging hamstring in the preseason to sharpshooter Kyle Korvers knee problems as they disembarked on the ultimately-successful circus trip, and from backup power forward Taj Gibsons sprained ankle and concussion to Roses stiff neck, the Bulls havent exactly been a M.A.S.H. unit, but enough random ailments have cropped up that a few more losses on the ledger would almost be considered excusable.

Except there havent been any woe-is-me sentiments emanating from the Berto Center. Taking on the focused, no-nonsense approach of first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls have dealt through their various maladies and even when it hasnt been pretty, continued to fight the good fight.

We didnt know wed have all these injuries. I think we thought wed have a pretty good team, Korver explained. I think everyone thought wed be at close to the top of the conference, but weve definitely faced more injuries than we thought we would.

Regardless of the injuries, the Bulls have played admirably. Of their 13 losses, only fourto the Clippers, Nets, 76ers and Bobcatscould truly be called bad losses, and while the remaining nine were to legitimate playoff teams, just two of those (to the Magic in Boozers Bulls debut and to the Knicks back in November) were games in which they didnt have a chance down the stretch.

One of the best defensive and rebounding teams in the league, the Bulls have experienced periods of stagnation on the offensive end, but with a game-changing talent like Rose seemingly emerging to new heights on a nightly basis, as long as they keep games close, theyll always have a chance in the end. In Boozer, who nobody would label a high-quality defender, they have a rarity in todays NBA: a true low-post player who they can give the ball to on the block and either demand a double team or manufacture a basket, let alone get to the foul line or use his versatility to step out and hit jumpers.

Additionally, Deng is quietly having a superb all-around season, responding to Thibodeau placing more responsibility on him by becoming one of the most underrated two-way players at his position and extending his range out to the three-point line, making him an even better fit for Roses penetrating game. Noah, before he was sidelined, was a dominant rebounder and defensive presence and although hes not polished on offense, his ability to pass, run the floor, score garbage points and keep defenders honest from the high post with his funky jumper made him a threat who didnt require a boatload of touches.

Perhaps its Chicagos role players, however, who have been the key to the teams success. Sure, maybe few predicted Rose would be this good, this fast or Boozer would so quickly and seamlessly incorporate himself into the team, but those things were always fathomable.

READ: Aggrey Sam's NBA midseason awards

But on any given night, whether its Gibsons energetic interior play, Korvers marksmanship, Brewers athletic slashing, veteran Kurt Thomas toughness and savvy, rookie center Omer Asiks blend of size and mobility or timely plays from the likes of much-maligned guards Keith Bogans and C.J. Watson, somebody proves capable of giving the Bulls a needed lift. The underlying reason for the teams impressive first half of the season is its chemistry, as they never seem to get too high or too low and to a man, they all seem genuinely happy for each others success, even if its at their own expense.

Were halfway through. We have a long way to go. Theres people in front of us, so we have to chase and we have to get better, Thibodeau concluded. The idea is to be playing your best basketball at the end of the season and of course, we have to be healthy. Theres still a lot of areas that we have to shore up.

Maybe so, but those teams in front of themBoston and Miami, in particular; newly-revamped Orlando is the East contender that gives them the most troubleare watching the Bulls, in their present state, very closely. With a somewhat favorable schedule through the end of Februaryby then, Noah should be back in the lineupChicago could be the team to beat.

The fact that a rookie head coach has guided the team to this type of start to the season through the halfway point is nothing less than remarkable. Thibodeaus even-keeled demeanor (not that the teams star needed any help with that) and intense preparation have both been impressive, but what will truly win fans over is a second half even better than the first.

Bulls midseason report card
Omer Asik: B-

Most fans probably thought the Turkish rookie would be another Dragan Tarlac; instead, the seven-footer has been a pleasant surprise. Active and better than expected as an athlete, Asik is not just a big body, but a shot-blocking presence who is also a physical rebounder. His offensive game is coming along slowly and he has the occasional lapses on defense (three-second violations, foul trouble), but hes been a solid rotation player in his debut campaign. More importantly, the pairing of him and Noah bodes well for the future, as the Bulls have two true centers moving forward in an increasingly size-challenged league.

Keith Bogans: C-

This might seem like a high grade to most observers, but Bogans was only brought here to do two things: shoot and defend. His shooting has been spotty, to be kind, but thats been an aberration when compared to his career numbers. Yes, he struggles to shut down elite shooting guards, but who doesnt? Many have railed that he should be taken out of the starting lineup, but Brewer plays starters minutes anyway and Thibodeau, who crossed paths with the journeyman when he was an assistant coach in Houston, trusts him, not to mention, hes been a solid and well-respected locker-room presence.

Carlos Boozer: B

Boozer wasnt necessarily considered a malcontent before coming to Chicago, but there were whispers that he might not be the best fit for the team, as far as his mindset. Thus far, that couldnt be further from the truth, as hes gone above and beyond to fit in and be complementary to his new teammates. His offensive production was a givenhes been a consistent 20-and-10 player and a talented post presence, who could also stretch the defensebut while his individual defense isnt exactly at a Dennis Rodman level, hes made up for it with his leadership and willingness to sacrifice on the offensive end when called for. More importantly, he gives the Bulls a matchup problem few teams can counter, especially when paired on the interior with Noah.

Ronnie Brewer: C

After a slow start due to a preseason injury, Brewer has gradually improved. In Utah, he had a reputation as a stopper and while his gambling ways were not always appreciated by his new fundamentalist coach in the early going, hes found a way to appease Thibodeau and still provide energy on the defensive end of the floor. Hell never be a pure shooter, but his jumper has been more reliable than expected and although his transition forays arent always a thing of beauty, his athleticism on the wing gives the team another dimension. Brewer still struggles with bouts of inconsistency, but his positive attitude and effort are constants.

Luol Deng: A-

Due to his massive contract, Deng has been a frequent target of Bulls fans ire, but in his present roleas a third option on offensehe seems to have found his niche. Thibodeau has given him more freedom, yet put him in positions to succeed on offense and with his newfound consistent three-point range, hes developed into one of the leagues best third scorers. Defensively, hes been as versatile as they come, guarding power forwards and shooting guards at times, in addition to his natural position of small forward, and on nights when its needed, hes been a force on the glass. Maybe Deng hasnt become the superstar some hoped he would be a few years ago, but its no coincidence that his solid play have quelled the once-rampant trade rumors surrounding him.

Taj Gibson: C

Following his stellar rookie season and tremendous start to this campaign when Boozer was out, Gibson was not only a fan favorite, but regarded around the league as one the most underrated young players at his position, as his rebounding, defensive prowess and steady offensive game won him admirers. After moving to the bench, however, he seemed to struggle with the adjustment and a spate of injuries didnt help his cause. Still, the second-year player is a blue-collar, low-maintenance type on the court and though hes been inconsistent as of late, flashes of his potential are enough to make him a valuable commodity. And of course, if Boozer andor Noah are ever sidelined, its a luxury to have a player who started 70 games as a rookie (not to mention the playoffs) be reinserted into the starting lineup.

James Johnson: Incomplete

If the second-year forward played for one of the leagues lesser lights, hed have a chance to showcase his tremendous potential. With Thibodeaus penchant for mistake-free basketball, however, he hasnt received that opportunity and unless injuries to players ahead of him (Deng has been remarkably durable thus far), its unlikely hell get that chance. Still, after reshaping his body in the offseason, hes remained a good teammate and the experience of being on a winner should help in the future, whether in Chicago or elsewhere, as he has all the tools.

Kyle Korver: C

One of the leagues best pure shooters, Korver started the season the way everybody thought he would after setting an NBA record for 3-point percentage the previous season. His weaknesses on the defensive end (not due to effort, but ability), however, seemed to make Thibodeau reluctant to play him extended minutes. Until recently, he had a stretch where he was errant from long range and clearly hesitant to shoot the ball. All that changed with his clutch triple in last weeks win over the Heat and now that hes rediscovered his potent shooting stroke and seems to have a better grasp of the system defensively, Korveralso an underrated passerappears back to being the valuable sniper so necessary for the teams long-term success.

Joakim Noah: B

Although his injury woes have put a damper on a season that started with a contract extension and seemed guaranteed to include his first All-Star appearance, Noahs progress from scorned rookie to the teams heart and soul in a few short years is the stuff of legend. His desire has never been questioned, but the improvement of his skills have turned him into one of the leagues top centers, a position at which few teams have viable threats. A premier rebounder, hes also a major defensive presence and a vastly underrated offensive weapon. First and foremost, however, he cares about winning, leaving room for the likes of Rose, Boozer and Deng to carry the scoring load, although hes more than capable of chipping in significantly when called upon.

Derrick Rose: A

The leagues MVP of the first half of the season? The top point guard in the league? The best thing since sliced bread? Maybe the last one isnt true, but the first two questions require at least a conversation. Roses improved shooting is what many focus on, but his leadership, takeover mentality and clutch play are just as impressive. The fact that the hometown hero remains so humble while racking up so many achievementsfirst career triple-double, outdueling Dwyane Wade, likely starting in the All-Star Gameis mind-boggling, unless youve ever spent time around him. The one knock: Roses defense, while considerably better than last season, is still a work in progressand since hes committed to further improve it, it can be almost taken for granted that it will happenbut lets not forget, hes only 22.

Brian Scalabrine: B

Scal was never expected to play major minutes, but his role is much more valuable than what happens on the court. The gregarious redhead stabilizes the locker room, encourages his teammates and instructs them while on the bench as a sort of pseudo-assistant coach, due to his knowledge of what Thibodeau wants. He also prepares for games as if he were going to play from start to finish every night, setting a tremendous example for the teams young players. While he hasnt seen much more than garbage time recently, dont be surprised if hes deployed in a key situation down the line because of Thibodeaus trust in him.

Kurt Thomas: B

The 38-year-old seemed pegged for a role similar to Scalabrines early in the season, until Noah went down. Then, he immediately stepped up and has helped the Bulls not only stay afloat, but thrive in the starters absence, something that shouldnt shock anybody who watched him do the same thing late last season when he was in Milwaukee and Bucks star center Andrew Bogut suffered a season-ending injury. Thomas is obviously limited athletically, but his toughness and understanding of the game has been great for the relatively young squad. On top of that, his defense and ability to stretch opposing defenses with his patented mid-range jumper have also paid dividends.

C.J. Watson: C-

Backing up arguably the best player at the position is a thankless job, but after struggling mightily to start the seasonno surprise after playing with much less structure in Golden Statethe soft-spoken Watson seems to have settled into a groove. He still commits the inexplicable turnover here and throws up the occasional rushed shot there, but the way he runs the second unitpushing the pace on offense, stepping up the ball pressure on defensehas helped vastly improve Chicagos bench. After his 33-point explosion in Denver when Rose was out, his scoring ability is now unquestioned and even though hed clearly like to see more minutes, Watson has found a way to be effective in short stints. Also, when paired with Rose against smallish backcourts, theyve combined to seriously ramp up the Bulls offensive firepower.

Tom Thibodeau: A-

Maybe all those of years of practice didn't make perfect, but for a first-year head coach, there isn't much fans can say to knock Thibodeau's performance. Facing adversity from before the season began (Boozer's training-camp injury), "Thibs" first showed what he's made of by leading the Bulls to their first winning record on the annual November circus trip since the championship era. His single-minded, defense-oriented approach has been embraced by the players, whose amazing chemistry (on and off the court) proves that although the coach is a workaholic, he's fostered a positive, team-first environment. He's definitely exhibited a stubborn streak, but despite losing Noah and Boozer for considerable time, he's piloted Chicago to third in the East, helping to elevate the game of Rose to a new level, utilizing Deng to his full potential and making the Bulls one of the premier defensive and rebounding teams in the league, the job he's done has to be considered one of the best in the league and may result in some Coach of the Year votes at season's end if he can keep the pace up.

Gar Forman: B

After not getting LeBron James or Dwyane Wade to come to Chicago, fans were obviously disappointed and as the face of the Bulls' front office, Forman would receive the blame if things didn't go right. With the team's early results, however, does he deserve more credit? Obviously Thibodeau is the one coaching the team, Rose leads the squad and Boozer, Noah and Deng are his main co-stars, but Forman assembled the pieces. Perhaps he could have equipped the team with more firepower, but the other acquisitions he made last summer--Korver, Brewer, Thomas, Bogans and Watson in free agency, as well as bringing over Asik, drafted the same year as Rose--have paid off to varying degrees, but perhaps the thing Forman should be most lauded for is his patience. By signing Noah to a contract extension and not trading Gibson or Deng, he didn't mortgage the team's future and with the way the team is playing right now, it's hard to argue with the results. Maybe the backcourt could be upgraded a bit--and it still can, but it looks unlikely that the Bulls will make a big splash this season--but let's be honest: Chicago wasn't expected to win a championship this season, so just advancing past the first round is a success, a deep playoff run is gravy and with the Collective Bargaining Agreement a mystery, a move to put the Bulls over the top will come down the line.

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.

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.”

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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.”

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

After the Bulls traded for veteran center Robin Lopez and signed guards Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in free agency,  the starting lineup for the 2016-17 season was 80 percent complete with Jimmy Butler moving over to small forward. The only real question remained: will Nikola Mirotic or Taj Gibson start at power forward?

Arguments can be made for both players, but early in camp it appears Mirotic will have the edge, based on his three-point shooting ability. The Bulls need to create floor spacing for their wing players (Wade and Butler) who are most effective driving to the basket, and Mirotic has the ability to knock down the three (.355 for his career, .390 last season). Mirotic is also an underrated defensive rebounder with decent size at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds.

Mirotic got off to a fast start last season in a starting role, but eventually went to the bench after a late November-early December shooting slump. His second NBA season was also sidetracked by an emergency appendectomy in late January that caused him to miss almost six weeks of action. Mirotic finished the season strong, and went on to play a lead role with his former Bulls teammate, Pau Gasol, on Spain’s national team at the Rio Olympics. Mirotic will be a restricted free agent at season’s end, so he has a lot riding on establishing himself as a bonafide NBA starter.

It's a similar story for Gibson, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and is looking to land one more big contract when he turns 32-years-old next June. Gibson is known for his relentless work on the boards and his ability to defend power forwards and centers. He’s also 100 percent healthy after dealing with the after-effects of ankle surgery last season. But given the Bulls’ spacing issues, it makes sense for the coaching staff to go with Mirotic alongside Wade, Rondo and Butler, and to pair Gibson with young perimeter threats like Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine and Isaiah Canaan on the second unit. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg could use Gibson in a backup center role, with McDermott getting minutes at power forward in small ball lineups. Gibson will play, but don’t be surprised to see his name come up again in midseason trade rumors.

So, where does that leave 2015 first-round draft pick Bobby Portis? Portis looked good in Las Vegas Summer League play, showing off improved low-post skills and a consistent three-point shot. But unless Portis has a big preseason, it’s hard to imagine him getting consistent rotation minutes early in the season. Portis could earn some time as a stretch five backing up Lopez, but those minutes might also go to Gibson or second-year center Cristiano Felicio. Portis worked hard all summer, and should be a better all-around player in his sophomore season, but he faces an uphill battle to earn regular minutes. It will be interesting to see how many of the Bulls young players wind up logging time with the Bulls’ new D-League team in Hoffman Estates. Portis might not be involved as a No. 1 draft pick, but Felicio and second-round selection Paul Zipser might want to get familiar with the trip out to the Sears Center.

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The other major training camp battle involves the backup point guard spot behind Rondo. The coaches have a wide variety of options, starting with former Notre Dame star Jerian Grant, who came over in the Derrick Rose trade with the Knicks. The soon to be 24-year-old Grant is the son of long-time NBA player Harvey Grant and nephew of former Bulls star Horace Grant. The Bulls were interested in selecting Jerian Grant in the 2015 draft, but he went off the board a few picks before their turn in the first round.

Grant was a big-time scorer at Notre Dame, but struggled to get on the court in his rookie season with the Knicks. After Kurt Rambis replaced Derek Fisher as head coach of the Knicks, Grant finally got some consistent playing time, averaging 16.8 ppg over the last four games of the season. He’s not a great three-point shooter, hitting just 22 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, but his ability to get to the basket and create open shots for teammates would give the Bulls consistent point guard play throughout the game.

Canaan was signed late in free agency to give the Bulls another long-range shooting option. He hit 36 percent of his 3’s with Philadelphia last season, averaging 11 points a game. The 25-year-old Canaan figures to be specialist with the Bulls, much like Aaron Brooks who could score points in bunches, but didn’t excel at running a half-court offense. Even though Canaan only stands 6 feet tall, he’s really a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, much like Brooks, D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson and C.J. Watson who proceeded him.

6-foot-6 Spencer Dinwiddie was considered a potential lottery pick at Colorado before suffering a devastating knee injury that dropped him into the second round. Dinwiddie didn’t get a lot of playing time for Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, but he’s completely healthy now and showed during Summer League play he’s capable of scoring over smaller point guards in the post. His size, scoring ability and defensive skills might push him ahead of the other candidates when all is said and done.

The wild card in the backup point guard derby is this year’s first-round pick Denzel Valentine. Even though he played a wing spot at Michigan State, Valentine was the floor general for Tom Izzo, and is an exceptional passer with outstanding court vision. Since playing time behind Wade & Butler might be limited, Valentine could wind up running the point on the second unit, with Butler on the court as the primary initiator on offense. Valentine’s shooting ability gives the Bulls another floor spacer, and at 6-foot-5, he’ll have size advantage over smaller backup point guards.

Boiling it all down, Hoiberg and his assistants figure to do a lot of experimenting during the preseason to find out which players execute best together. But once the ball goes up for real on Oct. 27, Hoiberg has to decide on his best 9 or 10 players for a consistent regular-season rotation. Matchups could dictate which backup point guards find the floor, but even this early in camp it’s pretty obvious the Bulls are intrigued by Valentine’s potential, and he should get consistent playing time in his rookie season.