Opening week of NBA season offers some revelations

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Opening week of NBA season offers some revelations

A week into the NBAs regular season, its become clear that certain assumptions made before the campaign starting are off the mark, at least in the easy going. For example, as the Bulls learned Tuesday night in outlasting the previously-undefeated Magic at the United Center, Orlandodespite a roster blending young, under-the-radar talented and veteran role players not regarded as primary optionswont be the leagues worst team.

Another observation that can be gleaned from watching the Bulls is the fact that Joakim Noah could make his debut All-Star appearance, as alluded to Wednesday by the Chicago Sun-Times. Even with the league removing the center designation from the ballot, Noahs all-around play and improved scoringprovided he remains consistent with that aspect of his gamecant be ignored and being that hes both a fan favorite and a player opposing coaches respect, it wouldnt be a surprise to see him in Houston come February, assuming he stays healthy and the Bulls are, at minimum, in playoff position.

Speaking of the Bulls postseason prospects, early as it may be, they got a boost when the news hit that Indianas go-to scorer, Danny Granger, will miss three months with ongoing knee issues. In the wake of Derrick Roses own injury, the Pacers were anointed the successor to throne in the Central Division, but the supposed up-and-coming squad has flawsincluding a retooled and possibly less effective bench and while power forward David West appears to be back to his pre-ACL form, no certified alpha dogeven aside from Grangers woes.

Elsewhere in the division: Clevelands promising young backcourt of surprise fourth overall draft pick Dion Waiters and last seasons Rookie of the Year, Kyrie Irving, is exciting, but the Cavaliers dont yet have a roster to be taken seriously; Detroit has looked awful early on, though the young core of severely underrated big man Greg Monroe, second-year point guard Brandon Knight and raw, but talented center Andre Drummond is something for the Pistons to build upon; Milwaukees scoring-oriented backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis has better chemistry after an abbreviated season together and while the Bucks could challenge for a bottom playoff seed, they dont appear to be a team that upper-echelon opponents should truly fear.

As far as the rest of the East: Toronto, now anchored by the perennially-underrated Kyle Lowry, looks to be improved; New York got off to a fast start, sparked by defense and Carmelo Anthony dominating with Amar'e Stoudemire on the shelf; Boston continues to integrate its new pieces and is a work in progress, but has contender potential; and Miami, with Ray Allen fitting in seamlessly as an early Sixth Man of the Year candidate and Rashard Lewis showing that he still has something less in the tank, appears to be even better, now that they have the air of a champion, a defined style of play and improved three-point shooting.

Around the league, the incessant chatter about the Lakers ups and downsmostly the latter, with their exhibition struggles bleeding into the regular season, further compounded by Steve Nashs early-season injuryhas muffled some of the other storylines across the NBA. Out West, the Spurs have started quick and look poised to again be a juggernaut, the Clippers appear to be one of the leagues most talented teams and although the Nuggets have had early struggles, lack outside shooting and don't have a true go-to scorer, their athleticism and depth is scary. However, the most buzz has been generated by the blockbuster James Harden trade, a move that has changed the narrative surrounding the Thunder and elevated the Rockets back to relevancy.

Oklahoma City, the Bulls' opponent Thursday night, were declared winners of the deal by many observers--the structure of the current CBA forced the organization's hand, is the consensus--and because they received a 20 point-per-game scorer in Kevin Martin, there's no reason to for anybody to immediately hop off the bandwagon, though increased scrutiny will be paid to the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Meanwhile, acquiring Harden energized Houston, thought before the season began to be one of the league's worst teams on paper, as well as easing the pressure off free-agent signees Jeremy Lin and former Bulls backup center Omer Asik, as Harden's scoring--he scored 37 in his debut, followed up by a career-high 45, propelling him into being the NBA's top scorer on the young season--and playmaking have some thinking the Rockets could sneak into a bottom playoff spot in a Western Conference that suddenly appears much more wide-open with the Lakers' early struggles, Dirk Nowitzki being on the shelf for Dallas and expected postseason contender Minnesota hamstrung by injuries to young stars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.

Preview: Cubs-Giants Thursday on CSN+

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Preview: Cubs-Giants Thursday on CSN+

The Cubs take on the San Francisco Giants on Thursday, and you can catch all the action on CSN+. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Thursday’s starting pitching matchup: Mike Montgomery vs. Jeff Samardzija

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

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— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with Cubs Pulse.

Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ headline Cubs prospects ticketed for Arizona Fall League

Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ headline Cubs prospects ticketed for Arizona Fall League

Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ will headline the group of seven Cubs prospects ticketed for the Arizona Fall League.

As the Cubs project their next wave of talent, Jimenez is thought to be close to untouchable after a breakout performance at the All-Star Futures Game and a Midwest League MVP season at Class-A South Bend.

Jimenez – who originally signed out of the Dominican Republic and got a $2.8 million bonus in the summer of 2013 – is hitting .331 with 14 homers and 81 RBI through 111 games with the South Bend Cubs. At the age of 19, the dynamic outfielder reminds the Cubs a little bit of Kris Bryant during his freshman year at the University of San Diego with that 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame and powerful right-handed swing.

Happ – the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft out of the University of Cincinnati – is a switch-hitter (.717 OPS at Double-A Tennessee) who has tried to increase his versatility by moving between second base and the outfield and become a Joe Maddon-type player.

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The Mesa Solar Sox roster unveiled Wednesday also includes Victor Caratini, an advanced defensive catcher who drew interest around the trade deadline and could be packaged in a bigger deal for pitching if Willson Contreras continues to develop behind the plate and Kyle Schwarber comes back healthy next season.

Cubs officials trying to build a pitching pipeline for Wrigley Field will also get a look at right-handers James Farris, Ryan McNeil, Stephen Perakslis and Duane Underwood Jr. in the showcase league.

Jason Hammel helps Cubs sweep Pirates out of Wrigley

Jason Hammel helps Cubs sweep Pirates out of Wrigley

Another quick hook left Jason Hammel seething over the weekend at Dodger Stadium, bringing back uncomfortable questions about how much manager Joe Maddon trusts him, and whether or not the Cubs would find a spot for him on a playoff roster.  

Four days later, Pearl Jam’s “Alive” blasted from the Wrigley Field sound system as Hammel warmed up before facing the Pittsburgh Pirates – with no guarantees about October or next season.     

Hammel responded with another quality start in Wednesday’s 6-5 win, completing a three-game sweep that left the Pirates staggering in the wild-card race and helped the Cubs cut their magic number to win the division down to 16.   

Outside of a few extreme lows that distorted the perception of his overall season – 10-run outings against the New York Mets and at Coors Field and the 39 pitches he called a side day at Dodger Stadium – Hammel has been an integral part of the elite rotation that pushed the Cubs to an 85-47 record and such a huge lead in the National League Central (now 15 games up on the St. Louis Cardinals). 

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Hammel (14-7, 3.14 ERA) shut down the Pirates for six innings, allowing only one run on three hits and showing the confidence that made him an All-Star-level performer in the first half. With the bases loaded, Hammel screamed and flexed his muscles after striking out Andrew McCutchen swinging to end the fifth inning.       

On a night when the crowd chanted “MVP,” Kris Bryant launched his 36th homer (in the first inning off Ryan Vogelsong) and made Gold Glove-caliber plays at third base to back Hammel, diving to his left to catch a Sean Rodriguez line drive and prevent a run at the end of the second inning, and leaning over the wall and into the stands to catch a Josh Bell pop-up at the beginning of the fourth inning.        

This could become the next awkward conversation: If John Lackey (shoulder) returns to full strength – and the rest of the rotation doesn’t experience any setbacks down the stretch – what are the chances of Hammel making a playoff start?

“Stay healthy and we’ll see what happens,” Maddon said. “I don’t bet on the come. Let’s get to the playoffs first, make sure everybody’s well, and at that point then you look at the group you have. And then maybe at that point you look at the group you may be playing. And then you try to formulate the best plan of attack from your personnel versus their personnel. 

“I’ve not even thought about a playoff moment once.”