What a Difference a Week Makes for the Bulls

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What a Difference a Week Makes for the Bulls

Sunday, January 3, 2010By Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

Hard to believe it was just one week ago well-respected national basketball writer Chris Broussard was reporting the Bulls' front office had already made their decision to fire head coach Vinny Del Negro. Broussard saying management just was waiting to find a permanent replacement before pulling the plug on the firing. A tepid vote of confidence from General Manager Gar Forman before Tuesday night's win over Indiana did little to quiet the speculation, but the current 4 game winning streak should put Del Negro's future on the back burner......at least for now.

So, what do you make of the Bulls recent improvement? Is the return of Tyrus Thomas and a healthy Kirk Hinrich enough to make the Bulls a solid playoff team again? Did Del Negro's changes to the starting line-up jump start the winning streak? And, do you still think a coaching chance is needed, or should the Bulls stay the course until after the season? As always, we welcome your feedback. Please post your comments in the section below, or if you prefer, send me an e-mail.

My opinion is Del Negro received too much of the blame for the Bulls' poor start. The early injury to Thomas messed up the Bulls' rotation, and undercut their one real strength, quality depth. Now with Tyrus back and Hinrich playing with confidence in a starting role, the Bulls have an 8 man rotation that matches up well with most teams in the league. Having veterans like Thomas, John Salmons and Brad Miller to bring off the bench has allowed Vinny to get more rest for his core players, which in turn has made Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng fresher at the end of games. Matter of fact, Miller played so well against Dwight Howard that Noah stayed on the bench for much of the 2nd half while the Bulls took control of the game. That's not something you can count on most nights, but anytime Del Negro can reduce the workload of his key players is a real positive for the Bulls.

ROSE'S ALL-STAR PROSPECTS LOOKING UP

We're still waiting for the Bulls to have a representative on the Eastern Conference All-Star team for the first time since Michael and Scottie left after the 1997-'98 season. And, looking at the stats of the top guards in the East, it's starting to look like Derrick Rose has a real shot to make it this season. What would really help would be someone passing Allen Iverson in the fan balloting. Iverson is currently running 2nd to Dwyane Wade, even though Iverson just joined the 76'ers a few weeks ago, and is putting up only modest numbers. Let's hope Joe Johnson or even Vince Carter pass Iverson in the fan vote to open up 3 spots for more deserving players in reserve roles. Right now, if Iverson gets voted on to the team, Rose would be competing with Johnson, Carter, Rajan Rondo, Brandon Jennings, Mo Williams and possibly Charlotte's Stephen Jackson for reserve spots in the East. The reserves will be chosen by a vote of Eastern Conference coaches, and you have to figure Rose will be given strong consideration, especially if the Bulls can get over the .500 mark by early February. If the fans elect the two most deserving players in Wade and Joe Johnson, my guess is Rose, Rondo and Carter will be named as reserves. But if Iverson takes one of those spots, Rose's chances drop significantly. In case you hadn't noticed, Derrick is coming off a terrific month of December where he averaged 20.4 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds a game.

Joakim Noah also figures to get some consideration from Eastern Conference coaches given his dramatic improvement this season and the fact he ranks 2nd in the league in rebounding. But chances are the back-up center slot will go to Atlanta's Al Horford, who was Noah's teammate on those two national championship teams at Florida, or the Knicks' underrated double-double machine, David Lee. New Jersey's Brook Lopez and Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut also are possible candidates for the back-up center spot behind Dwight Howard.

BEWARE OF THUNDER

The Bulls try for their 5th straight win Monday night against the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder, and if you don't know much about that team, they've emerged as a future playoff contender in the West behind the sensational play of 3rd year forward Kevin Durant, who ranks among the league's scoring leaders at 28.5 points per game. Oklahoma City management has done a terrific job in the draft, assembling an excellent nucleus of young perimeter players like Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The Thunder also got some help from the Bulls, who unloaded Thabo Sefolosha's contract for a future draft pick. Thabo is now starting at shooting guard for OKC, but the Bulls did okay too, using the draft pick they acquired on promising rookie forward Taj Gibson. But back to OKC, they added a solid veteran center by signing Nenad Kristic after a short stint in Russia, and they also have Nick Collison available to bang inside. It's hardly a championship-caliber team, but OKC has been surprising favored opponents all season long, and remember, they beat the Bulls at the United Center last season. Vinny and his staff have to do everything in their power to guard against a letdown after the big win over Orlando on Saturday.

One last note, former Washington Times basketball beat writer MIke Jones is reporting the Wizards are looking into making a trade to shake-up their underachieving team, and just about everyone is available. A report on Hoopsworld suggests the Wizards could be looking to deal fomer all-star Caron Butler to the Bulls or Heat. The website indicated a trade to the Bulls would involve Butler and veteran point guard Mike James coming to Chicago for Kirk Hinrich and the expiring contract of Jerome James. The deal would be salary cap neutral, meaning it wouldn't affect the Bulls' ability to go after a major free agent next summer, but it would also mean the Bulls would have to get more aggressive about pursuing a John Salmons' deal to free up the extra room they need to be able to offer a maximum contract. Butler is averaging 17 points to Hinrich's 9, but he's really more of a small forward than a shooting guard, and we've seen with some of Salmons' struggles that switching perimeter positions isn't always as simple as it sounds.

What do you think of the rumored deal? Let us know in the comments section below. I'll see you Monday night from the U.C. when Kendall Gill and I preview the Bulls-Thunder game during the 6:30 edition of SportsNite. And, don't forget you can watch that game and Tuesday's contest in Charlotte on Comcast SportsNet. Happy New Year everyone!

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.

Tonight on CSN: Bulls shoot for five straight wins as they battle Nuggets

Tonight on CSN: Bulls shoot for five straight wins as they battle Nuggets

Watch as the Bulls take on the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 6:30 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.

1. A pair of playoff teams....really. The average basketball fan thinks Bulls vs. Nuggets and doesn't necessarily think of a pair of playoff teams. But the Bulls have won four straight and are tied for sixth in the East, while the Nuggets have surprised the league and gone 25-31, good for eighth in the West. The Bulls opened as three-point favorites, meaning this one could go either way. And when it comes time for the playoffs this is one both teams may look back on as A) a helpful win or B) one the loser really could have used.

2. Going for five straight. The Bulls have won four straight for the second time this season. That fifth game the first time around was a seven-point loss to the Clippers. The Bulls won six in a row last season in December and January, so this is an opportunity to pick up a five-spot for the first time in more than a year. Currently the Bulls are tied with the Spurs for the longest winning streak in the NBA.

3. Cameron Payne getting involved. Expect to see more and more of the second-year point guard who came over in the deal from the Thunder. Payne got just a handful of minutes on Saturday against the Cavaliers but looked good, going for 6 points on 2-for-3 shooting in 12 minutes. There's a logjam at point guard to be sure, but the Bulls dealt for Payne because they want to see what he can do in extended minutes. He has a good matchup against Denver in Jamal Murray and Jameer Nelson, and could do some damage when he gets in.

4. What could have been. When the Bulls traded the Nos. 14 and 19 picks in the 2014 NBA Draft to the Nuggets for Doug McDermott, Denver used one of those picks on Michigan State guard Gary Harris. The 6-foot-4 guard has turned into one of the better young under-the-radar players, averaging 14.2 points on 48 percent shooting and providing solid defense in 29 minutes a night. Who knows if the Bulls would have selected Harris with one of those picks, but he sure would look good on the perimeter next to Jimmy Butler.

5. Bobby Portis momentum. With Taj Gibson out of the picture the starting power forward job is officially Bobby Portis' to lose. Portis has been impressive in his last five games, averaging 11.4 points on 48 percent shooting, 5.4 rebounds and is shooting 36 percent from deep. He'll get a difficult test against the Nuggets' frontline, but these are the kinds of games that can help the young forward's progression.

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Bobby Portis relishing his chance as starter

Bobby Portis relishing his chance as starter

A milk carton was a more likely place to find Bobby Portis than on a basketball floor playing big minutes for the majority of his second season.

He could often be found in the locker room before games and listening to the older players talk to the media afterward, trying his best to fight off the frustration and admitted confusion that comes with the regression of not getting playing time.

When Portis did play, he looked nothing like the confident and borderline cocky rookie who often referred to himself in the third person in interviews. He didn't know when he would play, how long he would be out there or even worse, what was expected of him.

The trade of Taj Gibson at the deadline — preceded by the temporary benching of Nikola Mirotic — put Portis back in the spotlight and he's intent on making the most of it during the last 23 games of the regular season.

"It's fun. You know go out there every day just to know that it's another day I'm going to play," Portis said. "That's the biggest thing for me. I feel like that's already a confidence builder right there, just coming into every game knowing that I'm in the rotation. It's great fun to go out there and play."

It's no secret the front office the Bulls want Portis to succeed and not add him to the ledger of some of the first-round disappointments that can be recalled in recent memory.

The trade of Gibson was certainly underlined with the mantra that Portis should play and the way was going to be cleared for Portis, one way or another. Scoring 19 with eight rebounds against the Celtics on national TV right before the All-Star break probably gave Portis enough validation considering he was thrust into the starting lineup at power forward soon after.

"I don't care about nobody judging me," Portis said. "At the end of the day I'm going to play basketball. That's my job. I'm going to go out there and do the things I do well. I feel like sometimes people misconstrue just because you don't play and they can say some things like that. I don't really care about anybody judging me at this point. At the end of the day I'm still going to be Bobby Portis at the end of the day."

Well, clearly, the third person thing hasn't left the second-year forward, but he said he stayed in the gym waiting on his opportunity, even through a quick but confusing stint to Hoffman Estates to the D-League.

"Just being hungry. Humble and hungry," Portis said. "You know one thing I always strive off of is being humble and hungry. That kept me sane. My mom, I talked to her a lot. She kept me grounded. It's kind of tough not playing and going through the season knowing that some games you might play, you might not play. You know it's about waiting your turn, but at the same time you have to keep working."

Being the fifth big in Fred Hoiberg's rotation didn't leave him a lot of room for Portis to get much run or even find a rhythm, and like many others who've found themselves out of the rotation unexpectedly, it was without much of an explanation.

"Nah, I didn't really know what I could do to get minutes," Portis said. "The one thing that I know that I always do is just come in here every day, work as hard as I can, let the dominos fall how they fall. Every day I come in here, just bust my butt for some minutes, but sometimes it wouldn't work."

Now that he has found himself into Hoiberg's good graces, his improving range has allowed both units to play similiarly.

"I think Bobby has done a real nice job," Hoiberg said. "He was a huge part of our win against Boston in our game right before the break. He just goes out and plays with so much energy. What I really like about him right now is he has no hesitation on his shot. He's stepping into his 3 with good rhythm."