Sam: An early glimpse around the NBA

312713.jpg

Sam: An early glimpse around the NBA

Friday, Nov. 12, 2010
4:21 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

After Blake Griffin's stellar debut performance, many observers seemed prepared to hand the 2009 NBA Draft's top pick the Rookie of the Year award some he would have won if not for missing his entire "true" inaugural campaign. While most of that had to do with the former Oklahoma star's prodigious blend of power, athleticism and skill, some of it was due to 2010 No. 1 overall draft choice John Wall's woeful shooting night in Washington's decidedly non-competitive season-opening blowout loss at the hands of Orlando.

Fast forward to the present, and although Griffin has remained productive for an initially (let's give ex-Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro some time to turn things around) dysfunctional Clippers squad, he hasn't received consistent opportunities although the recent injury to center Chris Kaman could change that.

Meanwhile, Wall--who makes his Chicago regular-season debut Saturday night--is coming off his first career triple-double (a 29-point, 10-rebound, six-assist effort, with six steals and only one turnover, to boot) in Washington's victory Wednesday. Although his team isn't exactly a contender, not only has Wall's shooting been better than advertised, but he's been dynamic defensively (the speedster's already recorded a nine-steal outing) and doing the "Dougie" aside, has displayed a mature approach beyond his years.

The fact that he'll have the ball in his hands the majority of the time (despite ex-primary ballhandlers Gilbert Arenas and former Bull Kirk Hinrich alongside him) means that although his rookie mistakes will be magnified, Wall will also have more chances for success. Of course, it's still extremely early to make any definitive judgments and Griffin should develop into a fine player, but logic and evidence both point to Wall making the bigger immediate impact.

Dilemma in Philly

The No. 2 pick in the draft, Chicago product Evan Turner, has had an uneven start to the season thus far. New 76ers head coach Doug Collins has been tinkering with his early-season rotation to try to find a balance between playing veterans and creating opportunities for his talented youngsters, like Turner.

Perhaps the best thing that could have happened to the former Ohio State star was Springfield, Ill., native Andre Iguodala, one of the NBA's ironmen, recently missing games with injury. Philly fans had been previously clamoring for Turner to see more action, but playing the same position as the team's star isn't quite the recipe for more minutes as a rookie.

Besides being swingmen and hailing from the same state, Turner and Iguodala share other similarities. Both are versatile, yet ball-dominant talents, who aren't proficient outside shooters.

Iguodala's name has come up in numerous trade rumors as of late (most recently, relocating to New Orleans to join up with Chris Paul; speculation of him being a key piece in a potential Carmelo Anthony deal also hasn't yet ceased), but regardless of his reported discontent, something has to give, as the Sixers have been seemingly stuck in neutral for the past few seasons, ever since deciding to let veteran point guard Andre Miller walk in free agency.

Not only does Turner need more playing time, but the team's reins have seemingly been foisted upon second-year point guard Jrue Holiday by Collins, top executive Rod Thorn and the organization in general. Add reserve guard and scoring machine Lou Williams to the mix, and that's way too many perimeter guys who prefer playing on the ball.

The situation doesn't end there, as the once highly-regarded Thaddeus Young can't seem to find a niche (already shifting between forward spots, Young--one of many class of 2007 draftees that didn't receive an extension--has been supplanted by veteran and ex-Bull Andres Nocioni, a Sixers offseason acquisition) after a promising start to his career. Couple that with talented young big man Marreese Speights languishing in Collins' rotation--despite the underwhelming play of center Spencer Hawes, who came to Philly from Sacramento with "Noce"--and it's almost a sure bet that a move is made by the February trade deadline.

Look on the bright side--at least former Bull Elton Brand looks to have regained a semblance of his former self under Collins, making his hefty and virtually untradeable contract appear a lot better.

Just Like Clockwork in Utah

After a rocky start to the season--All-Star point guard Deron Williams almost tearing off rookie Gordon Hayward's head in the midst of the team getting blown out was surely the Final Four hero's "welcome to the NBA" moment--the Utah Jazz are rolling. Was there ever any doubt that they would eventually do so. Well, just maybe.

Losing what seemed to be half of the team to the Bulls in the offseason (not to mention second-year swingman Wesley Matthews to Portland, after the Trailblazers made an overwhelming offer to the former undrafted free agent) was a huge blow, although salvaging the summer with the highway robbery of big man Al Jefferson from Minnesota eased the pain a bit.

But when Jefferson reportedly arrived to training camp out of shape, a closer examination of the roster revealed unproven commodities (Hayward, backup center Kyryl Fesenko and second-round pick Jeremy Evans) and possibly over-the-hill fill-ins (such as Raja Bell and Earl Watson) in key roles, a handful of unimpressive early losses appeared disastrous to some observers.

Then came Utah's last three games, in which the Jazz overcame double-digit halftime deficits to wind up victorious, most notably in a early-season classic against the Heat, in which power forward Paul Millsap went for a career-high 46 points. Williams is obviously the team's leader--and also the player who many believe is the best point guard in the NBA, although a healthy Chris Paul is staking claim to his former throne--and Jefferson was the squad's big-ticket acquisition, but Millsap's emergence from reliable reserve to prime-time player could be the formula needed to keep the Jazz in contention.

Now out of currently sidelined Bulls power forward Carlos Boozer's shadow, Millsap is relishing his new role and thriving in it. In a stacked yet wide-open Western Conference (sans the two-time defending champion Lakers), Utah wasn't even viewed as the best team in Northwest Division entering the season--that title went to young Oklahoma City--but at the end of the day, who really wants to bet against the grit of the blue-collar Millsap, the brilliance of Williams, a still-adjusting Jefferson (who possesses the best low-post offensive game this side of Pau Gasol) and Jerry Sloan, the league's longest tenured coach, who puts all the pieces in place while running his vaunted flex offense? Exactly.

BoshHeat

Not to pile on the guy in the wake of his possibly misinterpreted "good cable TV" comments (out of context or not, the remarks still lacked foresight), but Chris Bosh is having a devil of a time adjusting to the spotlight's glare in Miami--on and off the court.

It's unfortunate that Bosh, a likable guy by all accounts, has been roped into the "villainy" surrounding the Heat, but it shouldn't shock him. More concerning, however, should be his role in the Heat's disappointing start.

Bosh is an established talent, but even in Miami's wins, his inside presence and impact on the glass has been almost non-existent. Observers can point to the Heat's gaping holes at point guard and center, the team's unimaginative, mostly halfcourt style of play or the fact that either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade alternately dominates the ball while the other four players on the court simply watch, but when Bosh's backup--Udonis Haslem, at two inches shorter and making a fraction of his salary (the Miami native and longtime Heat player opted to return to the franchise for far less money than he could have commanded elsewhere on the free-agent market)--is more of an inside force, the scrutiny toward Bosh is justified.

Never known as a great defender during his Toronto days, Bosh did establish himself as a double-digit rebounder with the Raptors. There's been no sign of that in Miami.

Additionally, while the slender Bosh is much more comfortable playing a finesse game and facing the basket than posting up, sometimes sacrifices (such as the financial ones made by James and Wade in signing for less than a maximum free-agent contract; it was argued in July and can certainly be argued now that Bosh is a borderline max player and should receive less money) need to be made--unless Bosh (and the Heat coaching staff) considers himself truly incapable of playing more with his back to the basket.

Regardless of how it happens, Bosh must make an impact for Miami to realize its vast potential. But short of a complete game transformation, how would that take place?

Bosh isn't Dennis Rodman (nor will the Heat eclipse the 72-win Bulls team for which "The Worm" was a key component), but perhaps a focus on performing like the 2008 Olympics of himself would do the trick. On the star-studded "Redeem Team," he was an integral, if underrated player, who knew he wouldn't receive a lot of offensive touches, instead concentrating on offensive rebounding, running the floor in transition and being active on the defensive end. That version of Bosh was willing to do the dirty work, make the hustle plays and even mute his skilled offensive game for the ultimate reward: winning.

James and Wade were on that squad, too, but the magnitude of their skills and stardom allowed them to play virtually the same games they do in the NBA, even with a group full of remarkable individual talents. James functioned as the alpha-dog all-around player and lead facilitator (even putting supreme floor generals Paul and Williams in supporting roles), while Wade was the same relentlessly attacker he's always been, taking turns with fellow scoring machines Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony.

And those are the roles the duo will eventually play for the Heat, if they are to reach the success that's expected of them. Of course, chemistry and offensive flow will need to develop, team defense can't be overstated and the squad's role players must be consistent (and improve, namely at--again--point guard and center), but options No. 1 and 1A will almost certainly do what they've always done.

It's up to the (distant) third fiddle to swallow his pride, step to the challenge--something he was accused of not doing as the leader of some mediocre Raptors teams--and block out any and all distractions. This is what he--more so than Wade, who stayed put, or even James, whose every move was analyzed long before "The Decision"--wanted, since he had the option to be the top option or at least a much closer second in other free-agent scenarios.

Now is the time to put up or shut up for Bosh, because it definitely won't get any easier from here, as premature calls for him to be traded (it won't be future Hall of Famers James or Wade, Haslem can easily step in for him and nobody else on Miami's aging and inflexible roster would bring back any value) will surely grow louder. The Heat is truly on.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms 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.

Jimmy Butler limited, Rajon Rondo out as odds stack against Bulls for Game 6

Jimmy Butler limited, Rajon Rondo out as odds stack against Bulls for Game 6

If the Bulls are going to push the Celtics to a Game 7 with a win tonight at the United Center, it’ll have to be under the most improbable of circumstances.

Jimmy Butler is banged up and finally, the Bulls are admitting it as he has a sore left knee he suffered from a collision in Game 4 that has affected him in Game 5. And point guard Rajon Rondo will not be making a miraculous comeback to lead the troops in some made-for-TV moment.

Butler took just two shots in the fourth quarter in Game 5, clearly favoring his left knee, the knee he jumps off of, limiting an offensive game that relies a lot on explosion and contact.

“Jimmy, he’s gonna battle. One thing you know about Jimmy, he’s as well conditioned as anybody in the game,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s as big a competitor as anybody in the game. He does have soreness, no denying that. He’s gonna continue to go out there and do everything he has.”

After bumping and bruising his way to 23 free-throw attempts in Game 4, Butler took just one free throw in Boston two days ago — the greatest indicator of how this injury is affecting his game.

Hoiberg said Butler didn’t do much in the morning shootaround, and it seems the best method could be using him as a decoy if the Celtics still treat him as a player capable of scoring 30.

“He’s still gonna have the ball in his hands a lot,” Hoiberg said. “Tried to give him the ball with the side cleared, and let him go to work. I thought he drew the defense and got us a couple quality looks, we just didn’t knock it down.”

With Rondo, while he’s improving and has a track record of playing through injuries, it appears his broken right thumb isn’t healing at the rate it needs to for him to be on the floor and contribute without risking further damage.

“Not much. Pretty much the same,” Hoiberg said. “He’s still got a lot of soreness in that right hand, especially with everything he’s got with the torn ligament and also the broken thumb. Not able to do enough at this point.”

So without their best player and their most indispensible, the Bulls are facing an uphill task against a Celtics team that made the Bulls lose a little poise in a critical juncture of Game 5, and will try to push all the buttons again.

And it means more will fall on Dwyane Wade’s experienced shoulders in the meantime, and he believes Butler can be effective even while limited.

“My approach is going to be the same as it was last game — just try to be aggressive. And try to find other opportunities to find a way that Jimmy can still lead,” Wade said. “He’s just a little banged up. It’s fine. It’s the NBA. Jimmy is a tough guy. We have to find different ways to make sure he’s involved.”

For the rest of the roster, Wade believes finding a way to continue their season appears to be a matter of opportunity instead of panic, with the urgency being the best teacher.

“There definitely should be,” Wade said. “This is a big game for our season. It seems like every playoff game, the cliché thing to say is, ‘Oh, this is the biggest game of our season.’ But it rings true tonight. I think it’s a good thing for this young team to be in this situation now just to see how we respond.”

Five Things to Watch: Bulls battle Celtics in Game 6

nba_playoffs_gm_6_vs_celtics_ton.jpg

Five Things to Watch: Bulls battle Celtics in Game 6

Watch as the Bulls take on the Celtics tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 6:00 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Bulls Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Bulls.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1. The point guard carousel. It's been something to watch all year, and with the Bulls desparately searching for answers it will continue to be one heading into Game 6. Isaiah Canaan actually played well against Isaiah Thomas, and Dwyane Wade looked comfortable initiating the offense. That'll need to continue simply for the Bulls to have a chance, with Rajon Rondo ruled out for the game.

2. What's Jimmy Butler's health status? Jimmy Butler attempted just two free throws in the fourth quarter of Game 5. He only went to the free throw line one time, in the second quarter. This goes without saying, but the Bulls' only chance to win Games 6 and 7 is for Butler to be playing like his old self. With his back against the wall, maybe we'll see that "Jimmy Game" where he wins it by himself.

3. Is Isaiah Thomas heating up? The smallest player on the court is starting to heat up in the series. While his shooting hasn't been great, he was super in Game 3, took over in Game 4 and made plenty of plays in Game 5 that led to a win. It wouldn't be surprising at all to see him continue this, as his eyes seem to light up every trip down the floor with Rondo on the sideline.

4. Who's the next surprise contributor? Bobby Portis, Paul Zipser, Isaiah Canaan and now Anthony Morrow have all made surprising contributions in the series. At this point that's what it's going to take to compete against a deep Celtics team that's healthy and rolling with some momentum. Could it be Cris Felicio playing big? Perhaps Portis gets hot again from deep? Either way, it's got to be someone helping Butler and Wade.

5. The Bulls' backs are against the wall. It's simple. Win or go home. How will the Bulls respond in this type of situation, with Boston holding all the momentum and looking to end this before it goes back to Boston for a do-or-die Game 7. The Bulls don't have a lot of pressure on them from a national standpoint, but you can bet their expectations for themselves are large. How they respond early will say a lot about the job Fred Hoiberg did getting them ready.

- Buy tickets to tonight's game

- Check out the latest stats and standings to make sure you’re ready for action

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

- NBC Sports App FAQ: All your questions answered

- Latest on the Bulls: All of the most recent news and notes