No easy solutions for Bulls' offensive problems

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No easy solutions for Bulls' offensive problems

Its always dangerous to make any conclusions this early in the NBA season, but with that disclaimer out of the way it looks to me like the Bulls are going to have a tough time scoring in their half-court offense until Derrick Rose returns. This team reminds me of the Scott Skiles teams that clawed their way into the playoffs from 2005 to 2007: lots of jump shooters and no one really adept at breaking down his defender and getting to the basket. Those Skiles teams utilized a drive-and-kick offense run by Kirk Hinrich and Chris Duhon. Captain Kirk is now back, still shooting around 40 percent from the field and not able to drive past defenders as often as he did in his younger days.As a result, the Bulls are prone to long dry spells from the field, making it crucial they take advantage of their fast break opportunities. As weve seen early in the season, Tom Thibodeau is encouraging his players to push the ball up-court after every turnover or defensive rebound. The starters have done a pretty good job of seeking out early offense, but the second unit still is searching for its rhythm.Nate Robinson was in the lineup during the fourth quarter against the Hornets and Magic to get more speed on the floor, and Nate is probably the only player on the team who can consistently beat his man off the dribble and break down the opposing defense. The Bulls scored 31 fourth quarter points against Orlando with a lineup of Robinson, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, after managing just 68 points in the first three quarters combined. It looks like Thibodeau wont hesitate to go to that smaller, quicker line-up if he feels his team needs to force turnovers and push the ball down the stretch.But what can the Bulls do to get more points in the half-court offense?
Thibodeau always likes to talk about playing inside-out, which basically means throwing the ball into the post to force a double team, then pass the ball back out to an open shooter. Problem is, the Bulls dont really have a consistent scoring threat in the low post. Noah has done a good job so far with a pair of 20-point games, but hes not a big enough threat to draw a double team. Carlos Boozer was brought to Chicago to be that low post guy, but hes become more of a pick-and-pop player, looking to fade out to the elbow for fall-away jumpers.As a result, the Bulls have tried to use Deng and Rip Hamilton in post-up situations, trying to take advantage of whichever match-up gives them the best chance score from close range. Look for more of Deng in the post as the season moves forward. He seems more comfortable there than any other player currently on the roster, with the possible exception of back-up center Nazr Mohammed, who doesnt figure to play much because of his limited mobility.Bottom line, the formula for the Bulls to make a run at another Central division title continues to be lock-down defense and control of the defensive boards. Weve seen a little slippage in those areas early in the season, but the Bulls still managed to hold three of their first four opponents under 90 points.
And, with the news of Danny Granger being sidelined for the next three months because of knee tendinitis, it might only take 48 to 50 victories to win the Central this season. If the Bulls can become more productive in their half-court sets, that win total is certainly within their reach.

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

Joe Maddon breaks down the Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella decision for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur vs. Tommy La Stella appears to be the final decision as the Cubs shape their Opening Night roster.

That's assuming good health – manager Joe Maddon sounded unconcerned about Ben Zobrist (stiff neck), Addison Russell (stiff back) and Albert Almora Jr. (stiff neck) – and the Cubs carrying an eight-man bullpen.

Maddon appeared to eliminate one variable, confirming that La Stella has signaled a willingness to go to Triple-A Iowa if necessary, which would normally be an obvious statement, except for last summer's "Where's Tommy?" episode.

"I haven't even thought about it," Maddon said during Saturday's media session at the Sloan Park complex. "It's not an issue. I thought we handled it pretty openly last year and there's been no blowback whatsoever from the players."

Beyond this – La Stella initially refused to report to the minors last July, moved back home to New Jersey and talked briefly about retirement – an American League scout and a National League scout tracking the Cubs in Arizona both agreed that Szczur looks like the superior player.

Plus Szczur – and not La Stella – is out of minor-league options now.

"When you get this kind of a talent, depth-wise, it's a wonderful problem to have," Maddon said. "And then, of course, the rules start creeping in. The rules in this situation would benefit Matt, which is a good thing, because he's a big-league guy that's been riding the shuttle. He's done it in a very stoic manner, and he's been great for us."

La Stella has allies in the clubhouse – Jake Arrieta got a Coastal Carolina tattoo on his right butt cheek after losing a College World Series bet – and goes about his routine in a quiet, diligent manner.

La Stella is not a distraction at all and can hit left-handed and play the infield – two attributes that Szczur can't bring to Maddon's bench.

"Matt Szczur, to me, is a Major League Baseball player," Maddon said. "You're seeing what Tommy can do from the left side of the plate right now. And then it's just a matter of balancing things out. We've already mentioned that some guys on the infield can play the outfield within this group, thus it presents differently regarding what you need."

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’]

Szczur is hitting .361 with a .994 OPS through 14 Cactus League games and can play all over the outfield. But that skill is diminished when the Cubs already have four established outfielders plus Zobrist and Kris Bryant able to shift from the infield.

Then again, defensive wizard Javier Baez should have the Cubs covered all across the infield in case of an emergency. With the defending World Series champs a week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, we're about to find out if Maddon made his recommendation or had a possible trade scenario or disabled-list situation in mind.

"I love Matt Szczur," Maddon said. "This guy as a teammate – you're not going to get a better one. Nobody's going to get a better one on any team for any reason.

"We haven't decided everything or anything yet. Stuff happens in a very short period of time. He is a major-league baseball player. So we'll just wait a couple more days, see how it plays out. But he's a benefit to any group that has him."

Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’

Javier Baez won’t change his style around Cubs after World Baseball Classic: ‘We’re not showing anybody up’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Javier Baez plays the game on a higher plane and at such an instinctual level that he can point to the catcher and start celebrating before even catching the ball and dropping a no-look tag.

Baez believes it when he looks back on his World Baseball Classic experience and says: "We're not showing anybody up."

Because the adrenaline surged so quickly for Team Puerto Rico that Baez needed that play to go viral on Twitter to realize what actually happened. Even if elements of that style – and a preplanned win-or-lose parade through San Juan – may have bothered American players like Ian Kinsler and Adam Jones or anyone else with a hot take and a fun-police badge.   

"To be honest, I didn't know I did that until after the game," Baez said. "I got to my phone and I had so many messages and so many videos about it. I was like: 'Oh, whatever, I did it.'"

Baez skipped Thursday's parade after Team USA's 8-0 championship-game victory at Dodger Stadium, returning to Arizona and rejoining a Cubs team where he won't be an everyday player when everyone's healthy. Even after being a National League Championship Series co-MVP and the second baseman on the all-WBC team.

"I'm going to play a lot here," Baez said. "I'm just happy with that."

With a split squad in Las Vegas this weekend, Baez rolled into a quiet, mostly empty clubhouse on Saturday morning in Mesa and sat down in his chair to eat a McDonald's breakfast, a WBC equipment bag stashed in an extra locker. 

The Cubs made Baez their starting shortstop and cleanup hitter for that afternoon's Cactus League game against the Colorado Rockies at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Baez spoke with reporters for almost 10 minutes, explaining what it meant to unleash his emotions and represent his island during an economic crisis.

"We do a great job playing and having fun out there," Baez said. "That's what it's all about. This is a game. It's not as serious as a lot of people take it. But, you know, everybody's got their style and their talent. I have a lot of fun.

"It's their choice to look at how we play, how excited we get. To us, it's really huge what we did, even though we didn't win. All of Puerto Rico got really together.

"We were going through a hard time over there and everything got fixed up for at least three weeks. Hopefully, they keep it like that."

Baez appreciated the opportunity to play with Yadier Molina, the Puerto Rican captain and invaluable St. Louis Cardinals catcher. Before facing the Dominican Republic – and All-Star Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez – Baez said Molina joked to teammates: "I can't tell you many details, because then Javy will tell the Cubs."

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Baez confirmed the stories that Puerto Rican fans got so swept up in the tournament that the island ran out of blond hair dye: "Yeah, they really did."

Baez also said that he's not going to keep this look: "No, I'm going to cut it soon. Or dye it back black."

What will this do for Baez beyond his Q rating? Eh, Cubs manager Joe Maddon has already seen the swim moves and freaky tags and trusted Baez enough to start all 17 playoff games at second base last year.

"I don't know that there's going to be any greater impact than the World Series had on him," Maddon said. "There's a strong nationalistic component to this year's WBC. That was great. I think it was fueled by a lot of world events right now. I'm curious to see what's going to happen four years from now, if there's the same kind of interest or passion employed in the games.

"Hopefully, that's true. But it was almost like the perfect storm for the tournament this time around with world politics, national politics and the way everybody reacted to everything right now. I mean, you can't pick up a Twitter account without reading something volatile.

"I'd much prefer being fueled by a World Series than a WBC that happens every fourth year."

Over the years, instructors throughout the minor leagues, including Manny Ramirez, have tried to harness all this raw talent and help Baez develop a routine, make adjustments and play under control. But Baez said the Cubs haven't directly asked him to tone down the "Javy Being Javy" act.

"No, not really," Baez said. "Joe came to me last year about doing the routine plays and not (only) the great plays. That's about it.

"But in the Baseball Classic, I think everything counts. You can do a bat flip. You can pimp whatever you want, because it's the Baseball Classic. You don't know how many times you're going to do that in life. 

"I was really happy to be in it – and really happy that we enjoyed it."