Smooth sailing at Bulls' halfway point or changes on the horizon?

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Smooth sailing at Bulls' halfway point or changes on the horizon?

The leagues All-Star break isnt until later this week, but in this condensed, 66-game regular-season schedule, the Bulls are at the true halfway mark. Despite their coaching staff representing the East team in Sundays exhibition game, at 25-8, they no longer have the NBAs, or even the conferences best record heading into Monday.

But besides injury concerns, something that has adversely affected virtually every team in the league, there isnt much to gripe about in Chicago these days. Even Saturdays ugly loss to New Jersey, a game in which the Bulls uncharacteristically displayed a lack of fight, shouldnt cause the panic button to be pushed, especially since the team has gone 7-3 without reigning league MVP Derrick Rose in the lineup.

If you ask the players and coaches, however, theyll tell you the squad isnt playing its best basketball yet, which can be interpreted as both good and bad. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has a philosophical approach to the marathon of the NBA season.

I look at it in totality. Where we are from the beginning of the season to where we are now. I think you factor in a lot of things. I like the way I think were playing tough on the road. I think theres a lot where we still can improve upon, but you have to go day by day and I think weve done a pretty good job of putting ourselves in position to win, and weve just got to keep finding ways to win. Everyone goes through stretches where their schedules tough and you may have some injuries, but youve just got to navigate through that, he said. Its always hard to judge anything until its over. Then, you can look back at the season in its totality to say, Did you achieve the things you thought you could achieve? So, I think this is a snippet of a season. Theres still a long way to go and for us, we just want to strive for improvement each and every day.

I was confident in them based on last year, just the way they approached things and how they got better as the season went along, and knew how serious that they are, so I think their attitude and approach going into this season didnt change any. They came in ready and all of them have had opportunities to start, play extended minutes and any time theyve been called upon, theyve been ready and so, I think thats the trademark of a good team, he continued, talking about his players mentality. I think if youre a championship-caliber team, you approach it that way and thats what you shoot for. I think these players are not here by accident. We went after them because of their makeup.

Indeed, not only the Bulls depth, but the opportunistic nature of players who dont always get to showcase their skills, has been impressive. It sounds clich, but the entire rosters ability to make the most of their chances is truly remarkable, especially considering the health status of multiple individuals throughout the campaign.

You hope for the best. If everyone could be healthy, thats a great thing, but at the same time, were going to have to deal with whatever weve got. If everyone is healthy, thats great. I just say, what were going through right now, its better that were going through it now. I think itll make us a better team later, Luol Deng observed about the teams excuse-free approach and overall chemistry. If youre on a team that youve got a lot of guys that arent used to each other or demand the ball, it would be a lot different, but we all share the ball, we know who needs the ball, who creates off the dribble, who needs screens and all that.

Not that there havent been hiccups. In addition to starters Deng, Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton each missing significant time due to injury, another aspect of the season that cant be ignored is how, though theyve mostly taken care of business in games theyre supposed to win, the Bulls have at times struggled against their playoff-bound peers, particularly on the road. Not that any defeat sits well with the team, but losses at Miami, Atlanta, Memphis, Philadelphia and Bostonnot to mention a rare home setback at the hands of Central Division rival Indianwith or without key players in the lineup, seemed to really stick in their craw.

With the March 13th trade deadline soon approaching the question is whether the Bulls front office will look to make a move for the seasons stretch run. Signing more help in the backcourt, whether Mike James is inked for the remainder of the season or someone else is brought in, is almost a given, as is signing a veteran backup big manmanagements patience should be admired, as the list of currently available players isnt an impressive one and a better player could shake loose from another team as time goes byto bolster interior depth.

But while trade talk for Magic center Dwight Howard has cooled as people are finally understanding that the All-Star doesnt want to play in Chicago, with the news that Rose reportedly has signed off on the Bulls making a play for Lakers big man Pau Gasol, another rumor is heating up. A deal for Gasol would center around Carlos Boozerand likely backup point guard C.J. Watson, given the Lakers need for an upgrade at the positionbut while that makes some sense on paper, Gasol, whether he was an All-Star this season or not, is still a tier above Boozer on the post-player totem pole and with the money still owed on Boozers contract, theres no reason the Lakers wouldnt hold out for a more attractive deal.

Furthermore, as the original report came from a Spanish news outlet, it makes the speculation even more dubious. Knowing Roses emphasis on team chemistry, even if he was privately frustrated with Boozers play, the chance he was less than discreet about his desire for a personnel changeeven if he shares the same agency with Gasolis unlikely and smacks of either Gasols representatives trying to get ahead of the trade rumors that have dogged their player since the aborted Chris Paul deal that would have sent him to Houston just before the season started.

Focusing on the return of Roseremember, this is a player who declined to recruit the likes of LeBron James and has been lukewarm to Howard coming to Chicago in a trade, all in deference to his current teammatesto the lineup suddenly seems a lot more palatable, when compared to chasing pie-in-the-sky scuttlebutt. As the old axiom goes, If it aint broke, dont fix it.
What do you think? Should the Bulls look to make a significant move before the trade deadline or stay the course in their championship quest?

Follow the leader: What makes Theo Epstein an unstoppable force for Cubs

Follow the leader: What makes Theo Epstein an unstoppable force for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. — The day after Fortune magazine ranked Theo Epstein No. 1 on its list of "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders," Anthony Rizzo led the team in a standing ovation and asked the Cubs president to offer a few words before the morning workout.

"I only have one thing to say about that," Epstein told the group. "It's about f------ time."

Epstein always understands his audience — whether it's professional athletes, Democratic donors, Cubs Convention diehards or the pesky media — and knows how to deliver a one-liner with perfect timing.

Epstein loves baseball, but he's not some poet or romantic, dropping F-bombs at the right moment and calling BS when he sees it. Of course, Epstein has a huge ego. There's no other way to end 194 combined years of curses between the Cubs and his hometown Boston Red Sox. But Epstein also didn't crash all the late-night talk shows this offseason or cash in with a quick book on leadership skills and management philosophy/fluff.

The day before, Epstein had been awoken by a text message from a national baseball writer, asking for a reaction to the viral list that ranked him two spots ahead of Pope Francis. Epstein didn't even know this internet attention grab was coming and released a copy-and-paste statement to reporters, calling it "patently ridiculous" and writing: "Um, I can't even get my dog to stop peeing in the house."

But the Cubs didn't hold that pre-stretch meeting to roast Epstein, moving it to an off-limits area of the spring-training complex to settle something about South Carolina and March Madness brackets without it winding up all over Twitter. Years ago, while touring the construction site in Mesa, Epstein turned to strength coach Tim Buss and said something sarcastic like: Take a good look around, Bussy, you'll be fired by the time this is done.

Buss survived and became a Speedo-wearing star at Camp Maddon, where the manager recently nominated him to become Madonna's dance trainer. That weight room in Arizona now has a mural depicting the raucous celebration outside the Wrigley Field marquee after the Cubs won their first World Series title since the Teddy Roosevelt administration.

When the 2017 Cubs are booed on Sunday during the Opening Night pageantry at Busch Stadium, they will be a reflection of Epstein's complex personality — colorful, edgy, confident, self-motivated, analytical, instinctive, inclusive, really, a worst nightmare for St. Louis Cardinals fans who used to love watching a one-sided rivalry.

"He understands that we're not robots," said Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman Epstein drafted for the Red Sox, traded to the San Diego Padres and then reacquired as a foundation piece on the North Side. "He does his due diligence. You see the guys in here being good people, and that comes first. He's not bringing in guys that have talent and bad reputations, because it's cancerous in the clubhouse.

"He does a good job of being very approachable, especially with the players, and easy to talk to, and not coming in there and being this dominating, intimidating figure in the clubhouse where everyone perks up."

Yet even the character-driven narrative can sometimes oversimplify and undersell a Cubs Way that obsessively gathers information and sees the world as an endlessly complicated place.

It's not scouting vs. analytics or head vs. heart or good guys vs. bad guys. It's all of that, all the time, when you oversee one of the most popular teams in the world, eight minor-league affiliates and employees covering everywhere from Latin America to the Pacific Rim.

The Cubs dug enough to know that an ugly incident involving Aroldis Chapman would publicly surface before the Los Angeles Dodgers agreed to — and backed out of — a controversial deal with the Cincinnati Reds during the 2015 winter meetings.

Once Chapman served his 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball's domestic-violence policy — and the New York Yankees took the bigger PR hit and the Cubs looked like a legitimate World Series contender last summer — Epstein gave up top prospect Gleyber Torres in a blockbuster trade for the mercenary closer.

Epstein hired and fired two handpicked managers with completely different personalities — Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria — and didn’t hesitate when Joe Maddon used an escape clause in his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays to become a free agent after the 2014 season.

During that year, Epstein shocked the baseball world by giving Manny Ramirez a second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance and hiring him to be a player/coach at Triple-A Iowa because he thought it would help Javier Baez. "Javy Being Javy" led to a National League Championship Series co-MVP performance last year.

The Cubs indulged Tommy La Stella when he refused to report to the minors last summer/took a New Jersey sabbatical — just in case they needed a left-handed pinch-hitter for a particular playoff matchup.

"Look, Theo's been successful everywhere he's gone," said Mike Hazen, the new Arizona Diamondbacks general manager and former Red Sox executive. "It's not a coincidence. It's not by accident. He's probably the smartest person I've ever worked for. He's as driven a person as I've ever worked for. He's passionate about baseball, about the draft, about player development. Every small decision is monumental to him — with everything.

"That wasn't like in a micromanaging way. When I was the farm director, every game report, every night, if there was something in there that he had a question about, I would get a phone call or an e-mail: 'Hey, what's going on with this? What's going on with that?' He was locked into everything. He has a huge capacity to make decisions and give advice on so many different levels."

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Epstein doesn't want a preview to revolve around the idea of his next job, because he's in the first season of a five-year extension worth in the neighborhood of $50 million and not at all looking to leave Wrigleyville, a place where he can keep winning big while walking to work and raising his young family.

But getting an equity stake in a big-league franchise would be the logical next step if Epstein decides to stay this involved in baseball once he nears Bill Walsh's ideal of a 10-year shelf life for coaches and executives.

David Axelrod — the Cub fan/former Chicago Tribune political writer/chief strategist to President Barack Obama — asked Epstein that natural what's-next question about owning a team on "The Axe Files" podcast.

"Um, sure, yeah, I think you can do things as an owner that you can't necessarily do as an employee," Epstein told Axelrod near the end of an offseason conversation that lasted more than 70 minutes, "helping the team really get involved in the community and doing some great work, using baseball as a vehicle to do some important work in society.

"My twin brother is a social worker, so I try to view the world through his eyes, and he's always telling me about what's really going on in the trenches.

"The reality is, these days so much of the most important work in society is done by these nonprofits, most of which don't get real government funding, so it's really important to identify the most impactful nonprofits in your community, especially in a city like Chicago right now that is battling so many critical challenges, and then support them.

"Baseball is just bread and circus, right? I mean, what we do is we just entertain the masses. And, of course, at certain moments it becomes really meaningful to people and transcends that. But by and large, it's just bread and circus.

"But there are rich fans who are willing to spend money to get access to games and sit in better seats or sit in the general manager's box or get autographs or have these experiences, going to dinner with players or with general managers. And if you can use that — and raise some money and redirect it to nonprofits — I think that's a great thing and really our responsibility in some ways."

In the meantime, owners will keep trying to find the next Epstein and copy a five-year plan that went from 101 losses to 103 wins. That underestimates: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the Red Sox; the built-in credibility with fans and the media from the moment he arrived in Chicago; an ability to manage up and work around the initial payroll restrictions; and the shadow he casts over the entire organization.

"Theo's got a long memory," said Sam Hughes, the national crosschecker who has worked for the Cubs since 1996. "We spend two weeks together (during the draft). We go every player — from the guy we might select in the 40th round (to the top pick) — and you'd be amazed at how much attention and how thorough we are with each and every guy.

"It's crazy, because you're in that room and it's like a frat party for two weeks, (with) great dialogues going on. But then when you leave, it's like crickets. You don't hear from him. And then he's off to probably paying the same attention to the pro department getting ready for trade deadline.

"But when he's there, he's all on. And then you might not see, hear or talk to him for six months. Out of the blue, you'll get just like a random witty e-mail or something about a player that you liked."

Epstein could always drop the Theo-has-spoken hammer while discussing first-round picks like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber or free agents like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist. But Epstein would rather listen, ask questions and play devil's advocate.

"He wants you to come to the table with an opinion," said Lukas McKnight, the assistant director of amateur scouting. "He doesn't mind when you disagree with him, which is awesome. It's great to have somebody that is more than respectful of your opinion when it differs from his.

"As long as you're thorough — and as long as you can back it in evidence and talk thoroughly about it — he loves that."

Epstein is 43 years old, but this will be his 26th major-league season, which gives him an incredible network of sources and a database of experiences to draw from as the Cubs try to win back-to-back World Series titles for the first time since 1907 and 1908.

Epstein remembered the 2005 Red Sox opening their season in The Bronx on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" — and how finally winning it all didn't exactly allow manager Terry Francona to relax.

"Yeah, it sucked," Epstein said with a laugh. "We had a bunch of injuries in our rotation, so David Wells had to pitch Opening Day and got hit pretty hard and we lost. And then we came back and Matt Clement pitched (and we) lost. And then before the third game of the season, Tito started having like heart palpitations.

"I ended up going to the hospital with him. We listened to the third game of the season from Tito's hospital room. We felt like if we lost, neither one of us were going to be welcome back in Boston because we were getting swept at Yankee Stadium, even though we were coming back to get our rings.

"So I hope the series in St. Louis goes better. But if it doesn't, I'll have been through it before."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are Blackhawks best team in NHL?

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are Blackhawks best team in NHL?

Joining Kap on today's episode of STL is Sam Panayotovich (WGN Radio), David Haugh (Chicago Tribune) and Hub Arkush (Pro Football Weekly).

The Bulls take on the Cavs, playing at home on TNT, so a season sweep of their rivals is a lock, right? Plus, should Dwyane Wade return to the court this season?

Also, the Blackhawks trounced the Penguins last night. Are the Hawks the best team in the NHL? Finally, the guys discuss whether the Cubs can repeat this season, and welcome Scott Podsednik to the White Sox pre and postgame team.

Check out the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast here.