The fourth quarter began and the building was silent. As usual, amongst the cackles between teammates and instructions being barked out, Derrick Rose sat on the Chicago Bulls’ bench.
He peered out at the floor. Envious.
His eyes wide, he gazed intently out at the floor. He wished he was playing.
It’s amazing how we take things for granted and learn to truly appreciate them when they are taken away from us. Rose has learned that well.
With his hands clasped on his lap, he thought silently to himself.
This is scary.
Indeed, it was.
His Bulls had shellacked the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, and they managed to humble Derek Fisher’s triangle playing team without their stud.
And as Rose sat there on the bench, he wore not street clothes, but warm ups. He sat on the bench not out of necessity, but due to abundance.
It was the opening night of the 2014-15 NBA Season, and the Bulls had done their best to show the Knicks that they were not two teams of the same creed.
Yes, it was scary—the most talented Bulls team that Rose has played with. So long as health is on their side, the road to the NBA Finals, for any team, will inevitably run through Chicago.
With the newly acquired Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose leading the charge, the entire conference has been put on notice.
On May 11, 2010, as the world watched in awe, LeBron James—then of the Cleveland Cavaliers—turned in one of the worst performances of his career. Speculation had run rampant that James had one eye toward greener pastures in one of the league’s bigger markets—Los Angeles, New York and, yes, Chicago.
Over the course of the season, leading into the playoffs and heading into the summer, players and executives alike spent considerable time and effort into wondering how they could successfully woo James—clearly the best player of his generation.
But deep down inside, Rose had another idea.
Deep down inside, he wanted to beat James.
So as movie stars and politicians lined up and fawned over James, Rose was in the gym.
And while James was entertaining Jay Z and Mikhail Prokhorov and considering taking his talents to Brooklyn, Rose was in the gym.
And while James was seemingly counting the amount of championships he could presumably win in Miami if he were able to team up with Dwyane Wade, Rose, deep down inside, was percolating, recalling that it was his team that James ousted in the first round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs.
Historically, in the NBA, at least before 2010, most front offices looked at building contenders as a meticulous chore that required utilizing draft picks wisely. Aside from that, natural progression and inner-growth amongst the other cogs on a title chaster were seen as the keys to building a champion.
Natural progression—so Rose was in the gym.
Entering the league, there were legitimate concerns about his game. He was a streaky shooter who had questionable shot mechanics. He was a player who was overly reliant on his ability to overpower similarly sized guards. He was ineffective in pick-and-roll situations and operating out of halfcourt sets. Sometimes, it was said, he lacked the court vision and even the motor to become a point guard that could rally and galvanize his teammates.
So after Rose worked hard to make every one of those who doubted whether or not he had the chops to become the best point guard in the game look like idiots, and after he routinely put in 1,000 shots per day over his long summers, he looked at James, his success and wanted to reach similar heights with his hometown Bulls.
As James counted championship rings with Pat Riley and agreed to take his talents to South Beach—while the championship parade that was two years premature took place in Miami in July 2010—Rose was in the gym.
Like a true champion, with the heart of a lion, Rose went out in 2011 and did more than make his teammates better—he defiantly elevated an entire franchise. While James had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it was Rose who led Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer to a 62-20 regular season record.
It was Rose, not James, who would win the 2011 Most Valuable Player award.
It was Rose, not James, who would become the youngest MVP in NBA history.
And now, after some tumultuous times, heartache and heartbreak, it is Rose, not James, who is leading the team that should be most favored to win the Eastern Conference Championship this season.
In LeBron James, it is difficult to bet against the best player in the world—especially once he has guided a team to the top of the mountain two times over. With Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving by his side, James is a part of a new dynamic trio and with them, he hopes to experience championship glory once again.
In Miami, James learned what it took to become a champion but also learned that it wouldn’t happen overnight. Back in 2011, the HEAT were victims of infighting and crushing expectations. Privately, James and Wade wondered if they had made the right decision in teaming up. After beginning the season at just 9-8, they would eventually recover and go on to win the Eastern Conference. Over the next three years, they would dominate the conference, winning the Eastern Conference four consecutive years and winning two NBA Championships in the process.
Overall, the experience has made James better and wiser. Now, he hopes to replicate that history with his Cavaliers.
Yes, it will take time, but the old adage will prove to hold true for these Cavs: you simply cannot teach size. And if there is one weakness that can be exploited with James’ team, it is that.
Irving and Dion Waiters will both be leaned on to do some heavy lifting for the Cavs, but each will yield size to some of the league’s bigger guards and backcourts. Through their first two games, coach David Blatt’s eight men rotation consisted of his starters—James, Love, Irving, Waiters and Anderson Varejao—and Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova and Shawn Marion off the bench.
Not one of those players is a seven-footer. Varejao has appreciable size and is certainly capable of playing center for this team, but he has only played in 45 percent of the Cavaliers’ games over the past four years. Out of necessity, coach Blatt may limit his minutes in an attempt to preserve his health.
The team’s other true impact big man is Brendan Haywood, but Haywood is closing in on his 35th birthday and has not lived up to the six-year, $55 million contract the Dallas Mavericks signed him to in July 2010. He was amnestied by the team just two years later and missed all of the 2013-14 season due to a stress fracture in his left foot. That doesn’t exactly foster confidence.
With the HEAT, James proved that with the right talent and pieces surrounding him, he can lead a team to the promise land, despite yielding size to bigger opponents. But at this point, James’ Cavaliers are not the HEAT. A team that is equipped with perimeter defenders who can make the game difficult for James, one that has quick point guards to challenge Irving and one that has effective and athletic rim protectors to disturb Love will have a great opportunity to defeat them—at least a currently constructed—in a long series.
The Bulls just may be that team.
Now, in his seventh year, Rose has already experienced some very high highs and some very low lows. From the inspiring playoff performance he turned in against Rajon Rondo and the Boston Celtics as a rookie to his Most Valuable Player Award in 2011, his ACL tear in 2012 to his meniscus tear in 2013, the wonder kid from the Englewood section of Chicago hopes that he can once again lead the Bulls to the promise land.
Better, wiser, stronger, tougher—Rose now enters his seventh season with the most talented team the Bulls have been able to field in quite some time. They have defenders, shooters, length and depth. The only thing they need at this point: health.
With a few games under his belt and a gold medal in tow from the 2014 FIBA World Cup of Basketball, Rose’s quick first step and explosive athleticism seem to be returning. As the Bulls march on toward their goal of becoming NBA Champions once again, it is one that is as attainable as it is probable, and yes, Rose is leading the charge.
As he began his 2014-15 season with renewed hope and confidence, Rose seemed his normal, quiet and honest self. Like his knees, his candor was fully intact.
“All I think about is winning a championship,” he told the assembled media.
“My emotions were in check,” he answered when asked how it felt to get back in action during a regular season contest.
Each answer came without hesitation—each blunt and to the point.
But there was one question that Rose seemed to ponder carefully when asked. It was regarding his supporting cast.
Do you feel like you have more places to go with the ball now than in the past?
He stopped, and for a moment, Rose’s eyes looked up at the bill of the grey baseball cap he wore inside of the visitor’s locker room at Madison Square Garden.
“Yes,” he said, raising his eyebrows and nodding emphatically.
And as he went down the list, calling out many of his teammates— Gasol, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich and Doug McDermott—he cited the strengths of his teammates and, in that moment, seemed reassured about what the Bulls had assembled.
“It eases the game,” Rose would eventually say.
With a coach in Tom Thibodeau who has proven his chops, a bonafide championship-caliber Robin in Pau Gasol, All-Star center Joakim Noah and a neophyte in Jimmy Butler, the Bulls have everything they need to finally rise up out of the Eastern Conference.
For Thibodeau, that’s excellent news.
For Gasol, Noah and the rest of the supporting cast, it’s well deserved.
For Rose, it’s a dream come true.
But for the rest of the Eastern Conference, it is something else, all together.
These Chicago Bulls are charging, and for the Eastern Conference, including James’ Cavaliers—that, in a word, is scary.
Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance
Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.
Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.
The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.
As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.
For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.
“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.
He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.
The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.
“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”
Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.
He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.
“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”
Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.
Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.
If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.
For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.
“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.