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NBA Sunday: Are the Bulls Going to Regress?

Moke Hamilton questions whether Fred Holberg can take the Chicago Bulls to the next level.

Moke Hamilton



The last time the Chicago Bulls hired a head coach from Iowa State University, he posted a cumulative win-loss record of 49-190 and resigned 25 games into the 2001-02 NBA season.

In the end, all Tim Floyd will be remembered for from his time as the head coach of the Bulls was being put in the unenviable predicament of having to succeed Phil Jackson and his six championships and for delivering a memorable quote at his 1998 press conference.

Including interim coaches, Fred Hoiberg will be the ninth coach to man the sideline for the Bulls since Floyd’s resignation back on December 21, 2001. And like Floyd, Hoiberg is leaving Iowa State for the unenviable job of succeeding a very talented head coach.

Will Hoiberg succeed? Or, like Floyd as an NBA head coach, will he fall flat on his face?

Here is at least one instance in which the Bulls hope that history does not repeat itself.

* * * * *

This past NBA season, the Golden State Warriors bucked a few trends and taught us a few things. In a way, the team’s playing style and offensive attitude validated Mike D’Antoni and his free-flowing, pick-and-pass, stop-and-pop, gun-slinging offensive system. In Steve Kerr’s offense, there were remnants of some of his influencers. Backdoor cuts and off-ball movement were essential to the success of his Warriors and his playing under Jackson for five years in a triangle offense had a profound impact on the offensive principles to which Kerr subscribed.

Allowing a ball-dominant small guard to quarterback the offense and encouraging the three-point shot—those are but a few of the characteristics that Kerr borrowed from D’Antoni, as his Warriors would average 10.77 three-point makes per game. That number is the third highest team average since the NBA introduced the three-point shot back in the 1979-80 season.

There happens to be one other legendary coach with which Kerr now has something in common—Pat Riley.

In leading his Warriors to the 2015 NBA Championship, Kerr became the first rookie head coach to accomplish the game’s ultimate feat since Riley did the same for the Los Angeles Lakers back in 1982. Unlike Kerr, Riley had served as an assistant coach for the two years immediately preceding his being named the successor to Paul Westhead. And unlike Kerr, Riley took over a team that was only one year removed from winning a championship in 1980.

That Kerr led the young, relatively inexperienced Warriors to the championship and that he did so without having any prior coaching experience makes his accomplishment a little more impressive.

So as Hoiberg assumed the mantle in Chicago, he can look at the example set by Kerr and even David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers and rest assured that prior success as a coach on the NBA level is not a prerequisite for championship contention.

But when you look around, it is not difficult to imagine the Bulls taking a step back this coming season, especially as the team presumably begins the process of forging a new identity.

* * * * *

Over the course of his five years as the head coach of the Bulls, Tom Thibodeau posted a cumulative win-loss record of 255-139. His biggest accomplishment, though, is the identity that his teams forged with their tough-nosed approach and take-no-prisoners play. Despite a deteriorating relationship with the front office and a plethora of injury-related issues over the years, Thibodeau always came to work first, was always the last to leave and simply refused to accept any excuses from anyone.

A current member of the Bulls who played under Thibodeau once told me that the trick to Thibodeau and his success was twofold. The first and most important thing he did was lead by example. Thibodeau routinely spent 12-plus hours in his office at the training facility and spent late nights on the road reviewing film in his hotel room and preparing for team meetings while most of his peers would have been asleep after giving such assignments to their lead assistant.

He epitomized “hard work” and it showed.

Second, to his credit, Thibodeau also made a habit of treating every single player the same. Carlos Boozer spent a number of fourth quarters glued to the bench because he was a less capable defender than, say, Taj Gibson, and that was only one example. The game was always to be played Thibodeau’s way, and those who couldn’t pull their weight rode the pine. Period.

The same standard applied to everyone, and Thibodeau’s winning over of Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose went a long way toward helping him establish a winning culture after succeeding Vinny Del Negro.

I have been around the NBA long enough to know that the right coach, in the right situation and with the right personnel can make all of the difference in the world. Along with the aforementioned three, Jimmy Butler and Gibson are both Thibodeau players.

And now, the very fair question to ask is whether Hoiberg will be able to garner the same respect from the players who grew into household names under Thibodeau. It is also fair to question whether the major expectation of Hoiberg—that is, to turn the Bulls into a more potent offensive team—is something that may have adverse implications on the team that the Bulls have become.

Obviously, the major risk involved with hiring a first-time head coach is that there is no sample size. What are reasonable expectations? How much patience is too much? Too little? We simply do not know. All we know at this point is that, like Tim Floyd, Hoiberg finds himself in the unenviable predicament of succeeding an all-around star of a coach.

Fortunately for him, though, we know that Kerr was in the same exact predicament one year ago and he seemed to do alright for himself.

* * * * *

The simple truth of the matter is this: although Derrick Rose had a productive season last year, he is still attempting to revert into the player he was during the 2010-11 season, when he became the young Most Valuable Player in league history. Four full seasons have past since then, and usually, in the NBA, if you are still searching for something four years after it was lost, it should be presumed dead.

The manner in which the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs by the Kevin Love-less Cavaliers last spring certainly raised some questions. There are some within the Bulls organization who are proponents of blowing the current cast up and building around Rose, Butler and Nikola Mirotic. The idea may sound absurd until one realizes that both Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are 30 years old and especially in the case of Noah, are not getting any younger or healthier.

One need to only take a cursory glance around the Eastern Conference and see that the Toronto Raptors (who added DeMare Carroll), the Milwaukee Bucks (who added Greg Monroe), the Indiana Pacers (who have added Monta Ellis) and even the Washington Wizards (who have recovered nicely from Paul Pierce’s departure) will all be stronger this season.

Some would consider the Miami HEAT, now healthy and with new additions Justise Winslow and Amar’e Stoudemire, as a dark-horse contender in the Eastern Conference.

For quite a few reasons, fair or not, the Bulls will expect Hoiberg to continue their status as a contender. Some will expect him to fortify the few weaknesses in Thibodeau’s approach. Reasonable or not, with the conference around him getting tougher, personnel that seems to match Thibodeau’s demeanor, the aging of his core and Hoiberg’s lack of experience as a head coach, I would not be surprised to see the Bulls take a step back this coming season.

It didn’t take Tim Floyd too long to realize that he was in over his head. He resigned after four years in Chicago, and just over three years later, when he assumed the mantle as the head coach of the USC Trojans, with regard to being an NBA head coach, Floyd admitted, “I wasn’t very good at it.”

Traditionally, college coaches have not fared well on the NBA level. Those concerns probably have something to do with Mike Kyzyzewski turning down overtures from NBA teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers (twice). Still, there is always an exception to the rule, and today, Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics seems poised to be one such exception.

For Hoiberg, the journey is just beginning. He could end up as just another Tim Floyd or perhaps be the next Steve Kerr.

At this point, it’s all on the table, but in the immediate future, it certainly should not strike anyone as surprising if the Bulls, at least in the immediate future, take a step back.


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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca



The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John



It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz



We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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