With 11 games remaining in the regular season, the Chicago Bulls are 36-35 and two games back of the eighth seed Detroit Pistons. While the Bulls had some skeptics entering this season, few people, if any, would have predicted that they would be at risk of missing the playoffs with 11 games left in the regular season. After losing back-to-back games to the 30-43 New York Knicks, some of Chicago’s players vented their frustration.
“Hell yeah, I’m embarrassed,” Taj Gibson said after losing to the Knicks on Thursday night. “I take pride in wearing this jersey. I love wearing the Bulls jersey. Especially what we’ve been through, I take pride in playing for Chicago. When I wear that jersey, I try to go out there and play my heart out. And it’s frustrating when we come up short, and we look at ourselves, we’re losing to … I don’t want to criticize any[body], [but] trash teams. Everybody’s in the NBA for a reason, but we’re playing against teams that are not playing for anything, and we’re just laying down. It feels like now we’re a target. It feels like teams are not taking us serious.
“Teams are more eager to play us. [In years prior,] it was vice versa. They knew we were coming in to punch people in the face and keep playing. It’s just, it’s hard, man. It really eats me up inside. It’s really hard to sleep at night knowing it’s coming down to the wire, and our effort isn’t there. It’s really frustrating.”
Gibson, one of the few Chicago players whose effort and focus isn’t in question, is spot on. Under Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls were consistently one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. This season, the Bulls are 13th in defensive rating, according to NBA.com, and are 22nd since All-Star weekend.
To be fair, the defensive decline started last season under Thibodeau, but things have only gotten worse this season. Under rookie head coach Fred Hoiberg, the Bulls have looked out of sorts all season and rarely resemble the gritty team that overachieved for years under Thibodeau. Chicago was never really the class of the East over the last few years, but they were consistently near the top of the conference. Like the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies of years past, no one wanted to see the Bulls in the playoffs.
Now, as Gibson said, no one fears seeing this team in the playoffs. In fact, the Cleveland Cavaliers probably prefer to see the Bulls climb back into the eighth seed so they don’t have to face Stan Van Gundy’s feisty Detroit Pistons, who have won seven of their last 10 games, have a stud at center in Andre Drummond and have beaten the Cavaliers two out of three match-ups this season.
The Bulls certainly have some factors to point to as partial explanations for their substandard play this season, such as injuries. Mike Dunleavy, Jr. missed the first 49 games of the season. Dunleavy, Jr. may not be a top-tier player, but his shooting and defensive impact are important assets for the Bulls. Derrick Rose looked physically out of sorts to start the season and only recently is showing a few signs of his former athletic abilities. In addition, Joakim Noah went down for the season with a shoulder injury in mid-January. Noah may not be the tenacious player he once was, but even on a bad day he is still a viable defensive center and serves as the team’s emotional leader. And now Jimmy Butler is struggling with a knee injury that reportedly could require offseason surgery.
“Is my knee the same as it was before the injury? No,” Butler told the Sun-Times.
“But I want to play, man. And at times I feel like I’m hurting this team. That’s the most disappointing part because I’m not the player I was. I don’t know if there’s something really wrong in there, but it’s not really right, either. But I’ll be fine. I have to figure out a way to help us win playing with this. That’s all I’m worried about.’’
The Bulls clearly haven’t been the luckiest team when it comes to injuries this season. However, every team deals with injuries to a certain extent and several teams this season have endured much better than the Bulls have.
Teams like the Toronto Raptors, Miami HEAT, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, among others, have lost key players for extended periods, but have managed to adjust. Losing players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Chris Bosh or Blake Griffin are the types of setbacks that can knock a team from playoff contention to the lottery. But these teams have adjusted and found ways to fill the voids left by their injured players. For the Chicago Bulls, injuries can only explain their issues to a certain extent.
As Kelly Scaletta of Bleacher Report pointed out earlier this week, despite ranking second in rebounds per game, the Bulls are ranked 22nd in adjusted rebound chance percentage (the percentage of rebounds collected when a player is within 3 ½ feet of the ball) and 25th in adjusted defensive rebound change percentage. The result is that the Bulls are surrendering the second-most second-chance points per game, which is sinking their defense.
As Scaletta points out, the issue isn’t so much getting stops, but it’s securing the loose ball afterwards. That second-effort to secure the ball could go a long way towards shoring up the Bulls’ defense, but it’s the sort of required effort that we haven’t seen from this team consistently this season.
The players obviously carry a lot of blame for all of Chicago’s struggles this season, but there is plenty of blame to spread around the organization. The front office issues that led to the ouster of Tom Thibodeau is an easy example. Thibodeau is stubborn and demanding, and it can be argued that he had simply run his course in Chicago. But he is also one of the best defensive coaches in the league, surprisingly creative with his offense and continually managed to get his banged up Chicago teams to overachieve.
The Bulls replaced Thibodeau with Hoiberg, a rookie NBA head coach who showed promise in his time as the head coach at Iowa State. But not every rookie head coach is going to come into the league and find instant success like Steve Kerr did last season. Rather, Hoiberg has dealt with a divided locker room, players reportedly demanding that he reincorporate some of Thibodeau’s schemes and Butler questioning his coaching in the media. None of these things are necessarily Hoiberg’s fault and he still could become a solid coach moving forward, but a veteran coach may have been able to remedy this unstable situation earlier in the season. Whether Thibodeau could have been that person is something we will never know. However, running Thibodeau out of Chicago is just one of many issues the Chicago front office has made for itself and the franchise.
Failing to capitalize on the trade value of guys like Noah and Gasol before the trade deadline may be decisions that come back to the haunt the Bulls. Yes, Noah got hurt before the deadline, tanking his value. But failing to move Gasol, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and will command a significant annual salary, was, at best, a shortsighted decision. Gasol certainly helps the Bulls compete this season, but if there was ever a year to be forward-thinking, this would be it with the Warriors and Spurs playing historically well and the Cavaliers and Raptors overshadowing the East. Now, both Noah and Gasol very well could walk away after this season for nothing, or will likely be overpaid to stay in Chicago.
At some point, every good or great team runs its course and the window of contention closes. The Bulls’ window may finally be coming to a close, especially if key players like Noah and Gasol leave this offseason. But there is still time to make a push and see what kind of damage this team can do in the playoffs. But with all that we’ve seen from this team, especially since the All-Star break, there isn’t much reason to believe in that sort of late-season resurgence.
On Thursday night, Gibson summed up the Bulls’ performance against New York and by extension their performance over the season rather astutely.
“Tonight, I’ve never been so frustrated and mad before,” Gibson said. “It was disappointing, man, just real disappointing. I’m just tired of having these same talks with [the media] every night. About how we got to do better. … [Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg’s] right. We got to look ourselves [in the mirror]. I look at myself in the mirror every night, and I try to do different things every night. Still got how many more games left? We’ve got 11 more games left. It’s really do or die, and it’s really frustrating. We got to want it. We got to want it. Sometimes I feel we want it, sometimes I don’t know if we’re kidding ourselves or not.”
Seventy-one games into the season and we are still waiting to see if the Bulls are willing to fight and beat the odds like they did so often over the last five seasons. If they don’t make it into the playoffs, everyone from the front office, to the coaches, to the players can look in the mirror and understand that they all share part of the blame for what has been a very disappointing season in Chicago.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN