Sam: An early glimpse around the NBA

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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.

Coach K, on Chicago welcoming back Tom Thibodeau: 'I'm proud of my city for doing that'

Coach K, on Chicago welcoming back Tom Thibodeau: 'I'm proud of my city for doing that'

Tom Thibodeau made his long-awaited return to the United Center on Friday, and the reception he received from the Chicago crowd pleased USA Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Thibodeau, who's been an assistant with USA Basketball since 2013, was the first coach introduced before the team's matchup against Venezuela and received considerable applause from the sellout crowd. It was Thibodeau's first visit back to Chicago in a coaching capacity since he was fired as the Bulls head coach following the 2014-15 season.

Both Krzyzewski and Jimmy Butler, who spoke at the podium following USA's 80-45 victory, were asked about the reaction from the crowd. Krzyzewski, a Chicago native, took the question and fired off a 90-second response about how the warm reception was warranted and how pleased he was to hear it.

He even joked that he and assistants Jim Boeheim and Monty Williams paid 5,000 fans to cheer when Thibodeau, now the head coach of the Timberwolves, was introduced.

"(Chicago's) an amazing sports town, loves its athletes and its coaches, and they should love Tom. Tom brought great basketball (to Chicago) when it was not going well," Krzyzewski said. "And then really injury-wise...especially with Derrick (Rose), if he had been healthy there could have been another (NBA championship) banner or two here. And the fans realize that."

Thibodeau arrived in Chicago in 2010, coaching a Bulls team that had advanced to the playoffs the previous season for the first time since 1998. He coached the Bulls to a 255-139 record in five seasons and won 23 playoff games. His team advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011, the same year the Bulls won 62 games and Thibodeau was named NBA Coach of the Year.

[MORE: Why Jimmy Butler wanted Dwyane Wade to sign with the Bulls]

In that five-year span Rose, who was named the league's youngest MVP in 2011, missed 213 of a possible 394 games, and the team dealt with myriad injuries to key players in Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol. Irreconcilable differences within the front office led to Thibodaeu's dismissal, but Thibodeau said Thursday that he was grateful for the eperiences he had during this time in Chicago.

And Krzyzewski reiterated how pleased he was that the fans understood the successes Thibodeau acheived.

"He’s the best, as far as preparation and team player and whatever, and the fans appreciate that," Krzyzewski said. "It was great. I love the fact that my town gave the guy who gave them his heart and soul for the number of years he’s been here and acknowledged that. That’s a great thing. I’m proud of my city for doing that."

'It's about effort': Team USA proves there's more than one way to win

'It's about effort': Team USA proves there's more than one way to win

For more than six and a half minutes in the second quarter of Friday night’s exhibition game against Venezuela, the United States men’s national team looked lost.

The prohibitive favorite in the Rio Olympics missed 13 consecutive shots, committed two turnovers and was called for a shot clock violation, an almost unimaginable infraction considering the level of talent across the board on the floor.

The offense remained stagnant much of the night, a rare occurrence for a team that had looked unstoppable in averaging 108 points in their first three contests. But in their 80-45 thumping of Venezuela, Mike Krzyzewski’s group proved it has more ways to win a game than simply outshooting its opponent.

A combination of tenacious rebounding and determined defense allowed the Americans to move to 4-0 in exhibition play in their second-to-last tune-up before next month’s Olympic Games, where they’ll attempt to three-peat as gold medal winners.

“Two of the consistent parts of the game we did great with tonight, and that is you can play really good defense and you can rebound every night,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “Because it’s about effort. And our guys have given that effort.”

Playing without their top player, Nets point guard Greivis Vasquez, Venezuela hung around in the first quarter thanks in part to Team USA’s cold shooting. They even took a 12-10 lead on back-to-back triples from John Cox, who finished with a team-high 14 points. The Americans opened the game 3-for-10 before finishing the quarter on a 12-2 run. Kyrie Irving was the lone starter to shoot better than 50 percent (4-for-7); the other four starters combined to shoot just 8-for-31 (25.8 percent).

And yet during their dry spell in the second quarter, which included five scattered free throws, Team USA was able to increase its lead from 13 to 14 with stifling defense and stellar rebounding; in that same span Venezuela committed two turnovers and missed nine of 11 field goal attempts, with only one offensive rebound to show for it.

[MORE: Why Jimmy Butler wanted Dwyane Wade to sign with Bulls]

“We played great defense. We didn’t score but they didn’t score,” said Kevin Durant, who finished 3-for-9 with nine points. “That’s the name of the game for us. If we don’t score we can’t let the other team score. It’s simple.”

Venezuela shot just 24 percent from the field and committed 18 turnovers. Cox, the cousin of Kobe Bryant, said the Americans' ability to switch at each position made each possession difficult.

"They’re so good because they can switch everything because of their length and athleticism. So I don’t think there’s another team in the Olympics that can do that," he said. "It’s difficult to take advantage on offense, and they’re talented and they’re going to be tough to beat because they switch down the line. Even their bigs can move their feet with our guards and other guards, so they’ll be a tough matchup. And that’s why they’re special."

The Americans were also helped in the defensive struggle by superb rebounding across the board. DeMarcus Cousins finished with a team-high 13 rebounds, Carmelo Anthony added nine of his own and Jimmy Butler, playing in front of a home Chicago crowd, snatched eight boards. Team USA won the battle of the boards, 54-29, outperforming the +21 rebounding advantage they had amassed in their first three games.

“You get 54 rebounds and we’re playing defense right to the very end, and that’s what I’m looking for,” Krzyzewski said. “The fact that the ball was not going in and they were playing very good defense against us does not stop us from giving a really quality effort, especially on the board and the defensive end.”

Team USA flipped the switch in the second half, with the bench unit beginning the third quarter on a 12-4 run that pushed the lead to 26 points. The Americans then made 10 of 12 shots in the final stanza posting 24 points on an array of outside shots – Klay Thompson connected on a pair of triples – and highlight reel dunks from DeAndre Jordan and DeMar DeRozan.

Team USA finished the contest shooting 43 percent from the field, nearly seven percentage points worse than their team average entering the contest. Their four made 3-pointers, three of which came from Thompson, were a far cry from the 39 they connected on in their first three games.

But their ability to shoot out of character for 40 minutes – the 80 points were tied for the second fewest for an Olympic team under Coach K – and still win handily was a positive sign for Krzyzewski.

Eight of Team USA’s 13 players averaged 20 or more point per game last season – Paul George rested with a sore calf. And its two returning players from the 2012 team, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, have five NBA scoring titles to their name. They’ve also got four players who have won NBA titles while playing for historically good offenses (Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Thompson for Golden State; Kyrie Irving for Cleveland).

[SHOP: Buy a Jimmy Butler Team USA shirt]

“We’re gonna knock shots down. We’ve got the best players in the world, the best shooters in the world, best penetrators in the world,” Durant said. “Shots don’t really matter to us. We played great defense and I think that’s what we’ve been doing the whole trip.”

There’s little doubt they’ll find their shooting touch in time for their opening round game on Aug. 6 against China. Krzyzewski even hinted at the team needing to find more comfort and rhythm using the international basketball, though he was quick to denounce that as an excuse for the poor shooting. 

After breezing through three exhibition games, winning by 37, 49 and 50 points, the Americans were forced to work in a different fashion for their victory Friday night. The final margin, 35, wasn’t indicative of the effort Team USA needed to show in order to pull away. They did show that effort, and it’s something that will serve them well moving forward when the games count.

“To be quite frank I’m very pleased about tonight,” Krzyzewski said, “because you don’t just want to hit 17 threes and not work hard.

"We had to work real hard tonight and we won.”

Why Jimmy Butler wanted Dwyane Wade to sign with Bulls

Why Jimmy Butler wanted Dwyane Wade to sign with Bulls

When Dwyane Wade’s re-signing with the Miami Heat went from a forgone conclusion to a question mark, the Chicago Bulls and Jimmy Butler got involved in a whirlwind courtship that resulted in Friday's all-smiles press conference.

The Bulls came with the tangibles, the respect in the form of $47 million. Butler came with the intangibles—and respect as the two had critical conversations that lead to Wade finally making the leap to trek back home to Chicago after 13 years on the beach.

It was why Wade was so comfortable at his own introductory news conference to cede the spotlight to Butler Friday afternoon, the savvy veteran understanding Butler was in attendance and giving Butler the affirmation he quietly craved in front of a national TV audience.

“Jimmy Butler, everybody! Jimmy, you gonna come out with your muscles out and everything, though? You got oil on...,” Wade said jokingly, motioning to Butler as Butler stood amongst many to the side, having just finished an on-court workout with his trainer.

Wade was reciprocating what Butler had initiated during free agency during those conversations, as the only question there is to be answered is how the two will mesh on the floor as opposed to the assumption of clashing personalities.

“Just what we can do if we were to play basketball together. I said look man, I’m okay with whatever role you want me to play,” said Butler to CSNChicago.com in an exclusive interview after Team USA beat Venezuela 80-45 Friday at the United Center, with Wade sitting next to Team USA’s bench. “But we can win games if you’re here with us. So that’s basically how it went.

“I was telling him, of all the things that have been said, I’m here to win. I don’t care what role I’m supposed to play, whose team it is, you come here, we’ll win games.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Free agent acquisitions Wade and Rajon Rondo have openly said Butler is the first name on the basketball masthead, but Butler has termed them “the three Alphas”. Regardless of what Butler has said before publicly about not being concerned with his standing in the locker room of the Chicago Bulls, he’s feeling more and more comfortable with the position of leadership—perhaps emboldened by the validation of the two.

“Outside of all of that, all anybody wants is to be wanted,” Butler said. “He wants me to step up and lead. He wants this to be my team. Just like I wanted him for my team. That mutual respect, us being honest with each other like that, that’s where it starts. That’s the foundation.”

Establishing a pecking order is easier when the players who see this version of Jimmy Butler only know this version of Butler. The player who has evolved into an All-Star and Olympian, not necessarily the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.

Both attributes are true, but there’s something to be said about initial impressions and how they stick.

“Moving forward, I’m gonna do my best, whatever it takes to help us win games,” Butler said. “I don’t think people understand how serious I am when I say I want to (freaking) win a championship. I’m not playing.”

Rondo and Wade have the championship receipts, so it’s unlikely they’ll allow Butler to go unchecked if his methods aren’t parallel with his words. Given the appointed title Butler gave the three, it doesn’t sound like they would let him slide regardless.

“That’s what I wanted him here, that’s why I wanted Rondo here,” Butler said. “Because they’ve done it, they know what it takes. I want them to show me. If I’m not listening, make me listen.”

When told he could be bullheaded and stubborn, Butler agreed.

“I agree, I can (be). Fine. It only makes me better,” Butler said. “If you’re on my tail all the time it only makes me better. I want that. I like that. If I’m (messing) around, you tell me, you let me know, you’re better than that. You’re right. I’m gonna respond in a positive manner and I’m gonna do what I’m supposed to be doing.”

[RELATED: Third time's a charm as Dwyane Wade embraces Bulls and Jimmy Butler as leader]

Butler used a lot of “my team” and “my guys” but one can surmise it’s less about ownership and possessiveness compared to investment—the sweat equity that earns his respect and admiration more than any single attribute.

“I respect a lot of things but I think your confidence comes from your work,” Butler said. “I’m a firm believer in that. I’m successful because of that. I just put in the time. I know these guys put in the time.”

“I respect that s**t. I’m going to war with you everyday when I know in my heart that your best interest is to help us win. I’m all about that.”

Whether Butler felt some of his old teammates were moving all tides in the same direction, he wouldn’t say—and the former Bulls probably wouldn’t on elaborate on their feelings, either.

“I think man, it was a lot of mixes of everything,” he said. “We weren’t winning games we wanted to win. We were in and out the lineup, so many guys.

“I don’t wanna use any excuses but that had something to do with it. We have a whole new team, we gotta move forward. I’m happy for those new guys, I want them to be successful on their new team.”

But he admits last season was one to learn from, and falls back on the work that he hopes will lead to others following willingly.

“You grow. You learn. You grow. I’m six years into this thing,” Butler said. “I’ve made a name for myself. I’ve done a lot with basketball since I started. I think I’m only gonna start to get better. I pray I only continue to get better because I do work. I really do work.”