[Thanks to Tommy for today's game preview -yfbb]
Gametime: 12:00 PM CT/ 10:00 AM PT
United Center, CHICAGO
The Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks tip off dreadfully early on Sunday morning for fans living on the west coast. I find there to be something just a little bit shaming about watching elite athletes compete before I've mustered up the energy to even begin mentally considering putting on clothes. It's no surprise that I stopped watching the NFL since moving to Los Angeles, irregardless of the mind-boggling void of the sport in this metropolis. However, whether or not I'm decent enough to open the door to Papa Johns at tip-off, Tom Thibodeau will still begin losing his voice on the sidelines of the United Center.
If Adam Silver's shiny dome could grant wishes when rubbed, both Gar Forman and Steve Mills would stalk him with little tubes of petroleum jelly permanently in their pockets. While it's no secret what Forman would wish for (A too-lurid-for-print superpower, Adrian Wojniowski's head on a stick and Impenetrable Knees for DRose, in that order), Mills has a whole offseason to undo:
Signing J.R. Smith to a 3-year, $18MM contract.
After a begrudgingly admirable 2012-2013 season that saw Smith win the Sixth Man Award, New York signed the notorious head case to a hefty contract just days before he underwent two procedures to address chronic and gradually worsening knee issues. Smith has rewarded them with his least efficient year yet with career lows in both field goal percentage (38.8%) and free throw percentage (60.2%) and a PER of 11.5. I kind of equate the NYK/Smith issue to my earnestly hoping the guy driving his douchey M5 100 mph down the freeway crashes into a concrete barrier...only to find bodies strewn across the 405 a few miles down the road. Each time JR unties a shoelace or uses social media, I cringe a little bit for New York fans. Have fun getting the pipe for the next two years!
Acquiring Saving Toronto From Andrea Bargnani
Perhaps the boldest move of the offseason for the Knicks was their trade with the Raptors for Andrea Bargnani, shipping off Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson and three draft picks (2016 1st, 2014 2nd, 2017 2nd). In the fourth year of a $50MM contract extension signed in 2009, Bargnani is due $11.8 million this year (thanks to a million dollar trade kicker) and $11.5 million next. The hope was that a change in scenery would benefit Bargnani and he could hide behind defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler while giving Anthony spacing as a stretch-4. Despite putting up somewhat decent numbers through 42 games, averaging 13.3 pts and 5.3 rbs on 51 TS%, Il Mago (haha, awesome) tore a ligament in his elbow in January against the Sixers while doing this. He's out indefinitely. Unfortunately, his contract continues through next year and will certainly play a role in Carmelo's next move after he opts-out this summer.
Signing Free Agent Beno Udrih and Amnesty Casualty Metta World Peace.
Despite questionable signings of Smith and Bargnani, the Knicks were able to add two savvy veterans to give much needed depth at th- Oh, right: The Knicks have reached buyout agreements with both Udrih and World Peace after lackluster play from the former and recurring knee issues from the latter. Both were heavily mentioned in trade talks leading up to the deadline. Originally acquired to be another defensive force beside Iman Shumpert, Metta quickly found his way into Woodson's doghouse. In 29 games he averaged only 13.4 minutes per game, the lowest of his career. Udrih, who at times has been the focus of blame, struggling in limited minutes, has recently been claimed off waivers by the Memphis Grizzlies. World Peace has yet to find a new home but likely is seeking to land with a contender.
And then there's Raymond Felton.
Arrested on felony gun charges shortly after a crushing loss to the Mavs, Felton apparently brandished a loaded weapon at his wife during a domestic argument. Felton promises that the incident won't be a distraction. Carmelo Anthony apparently disagrees. In his first game back at the Garden, he was booed by fans during pre game introductions, and again when he threw a bounce pass out of bounds.
The lone bright spot this year has been rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. The 24th overall pick last year from Michigan, Hardaway has impressed after being given increased run and some feel he may be a dark house candidate for Rookie of the Year honors. In his past 15 games he has been averaging 14.1 pts, albeit on 37% shooting.
While the Knicks have been spurring some to ask how low they can go? (answer: LOWER), their opponent on Sunday has been one of the hottest teams in the league. Posting an 8-1 record in their past nine games, their lone loss to the Miami Heat, the Bulls have been playing some of their best basketball of the season. In the last 15 games, Taj Gibson has been averaging 16.7 pts and 8.5 rebounds on 47% shooting in only 27.7 minutes. The emergence of his offensive game to complement his already elite defense skills has solidified his selection over Carlos Boozer in fourth quarters. Joakim Noah continues to make his case for Defensive Player of the Year, currently second in the league in Defensive Win Shares behind Paul George. In addition to leading the Bulls with 4.6 assists per game, Noah has caught fire in the past 15 games averaging 13.3 points, 11.3 rbs, 5.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.7 blocks and shooting 54.5%. In what could have been a fairly depressing season, Noah and Gibson are two of the biggest reasons to watch the Bulls this year.
Sunday's matchup ultimately features two teams on the opposite side of the effort spectrum. While the Bulls continue to out-play and out-hustle opponents and have a chance tomorrow to snatch the #3 seed from the Raptors, the Knicks have sunk to 6 games behind #8 Atlanta in a season defined by distractions, injury, lack of discipline, leadership and teamwork. One wonders if anyone will still ask Thibodeau about the expected coaching vacancy soon to come in New York. As Joe Cowley of the Sun Times' writes, all the talk only illustrates Thibs' leverage as one of the most respected and influential coaches in the league.
Also to keep an eye on is the matchup between Jimmy Buckets and Carmelo Anthony (if he plays). Easily one of the best offensive players in the game, Carmelo is second to Durant in the scoring title race with 28.2 pts per game. It will be fun to see whether the Bulls' own defensive stalwart can slow Melo down.
The remaining roster and injury report is as follows:
BULLS PROJECTED STARTERS
PG - Kirk Hinrich
SG - Jimmy Butler
SF - Mike Dunleavy
PF - Carlos Boozer
C - Joakim Noah
Out: Derrick Rose (knee)
KNICKS PROJECTED STARTERS
PG - Pablo Prigioni
PG - Raymond Felton
SG - J.R. Smith
SF/PF - Carmelo Anthony (DTD - Hand Sprain)
C - Tyson Chandler
Possibles: Amar'e Stoudemire (knees? fragility?)
Out: Iman Shumpert (knee), Andrea Bargnani (elbow), Kenyon Martin (ankle)
Enjoy the game. Go Bulls!