[Thanks to Alex for today's game preview -yfbb]
Well, we've come to a crossroads. Our 32-20 Bulls have been under-performing pretty much since the calendar rolled over to 2015, going a sadly pedestrian .500 after posting a 22-10 record from October through December. We need momentum heading into the All-Star break, with two rotation guys (although one of them really shouldn't be) out in Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich. [Dunleavy's 'questionable', for what it's worth -yfbb]
After notching back-to-back road wins over the weekend, one would think the Bulls, playing at home tonight, would be very ready to clean the clocks of an 18-32 lottery-bound team who are about to experience their second head-coaching shake-up this season. But not so fast. The weekend's wins come with an asterisk: one came against a Pelicans squad that had no Anthony Davis over the last three quarters, the other was to an Orlando Magic team in a miraculous one-point comeback. Had Davis been healthy and Tobias Harris not air-balled a last-second bunny, we could easily have been 0-2 for Saturday and Sunday. The Kings have been giving the Bulls fits over the last three seasons; the Bulls are 2-3 in that span against a team that has won only 34.5% percent of its games in that window. Why the disparity? Because even when Joakim Noah was finishing 4th in MVP balloting last season, DeMarcus Cousins was a handful down low. Now that Pau Gasol will be guarding him for long stretches, we are even more powerless than we were before. The last time we faced the Kings, Pau was out (as was Rose), so Noah drew the assignment, which I had anticipated to be a net positive for us. It wasn't, and we got blown out 88-103, letting DMC get wherever he wanted for 22 points, 14 rebounds and 4 assists. With the immortal Captain Kirk guarding Kings starting point guard Darren Collison, Collison exploded to nab 17 points, 12 assists, and 6 rebounds of his own.
Sure, Noah grabbed 10 points and 11 rebounds and Jimmy Buckets had 23 and 8, but our defense was really where we suffered. Thibodeau's defense is built on conservatism, but there are situations (and players) where that can work against him -- staying home on your man is all well and good, unless it's DeMarcus Cousins surrounded by mid-range non-threats like oft-used back-ups Derrick Williams and Carl Landry (starting power forward Jason Thompson is actually pretty good away from the basket, shooting very respectable percentages of 46.8% between 3-10 feet, 42.8% between 10-16 feet, and 39.1% between 16 feet and the 3-point arc, so I'd stick to him pretty faithfully, JoNo and Taj Gibson). I think double-teaming Cousins as much as possible is essential, especially during a game like tonight's, with both #2 scoring option Rudy Gay (sore left foot) and #3 option Collison (abdominal strain) questionable to lace up their sneakers.
Quick note on the Kings: I love the George Karl upgrade for them long-term AND short-term. Short-term because Karl will almost certainly improve their record enough to move it safely outside the top 10 worst records (at 18-32, they currently have the 6th-worst record in the league, if they stayed that bad they'd retain their pick) in the NBA by the end of the season, thus almost guaranteeing a lotto pick for the Bulls (unless they move up in the lottery, which odds-wise would be highly unlikely). Long-term, the benefits are obvious: they get a coach who has proven himself adept at creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts (to wit, the 57-win Denver Nuggets of 2012-13), and who can handle headcase super-athlete big men. I think the Orlando Magic's roster is more talented than Sacramento's and would give Karl more to really build with, since the only keeper-level starters on the Kings are DeMarcus Cousins, small forward Gay, and maaaaybe sophomore shooting guard Ben McLemore (shooting 36% from deep and 52.9% from 2). Orlando has four legit building blocks with the very raw Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Tobias Harris. Regardless, it looks like Karl-to-Sacramento is happening after the ASG, so it is what it is.
The Bulls are seeded 4th in the East right now, mere percentage points behind the 33-20 Washington Wizards (just recuperating from a losing swoon of their own) and mere percentage points in front of the 32-21 Cleveland Cavaliers. There is a bit of a wider gap between these three teams and the #2 seed Toronto Raptors (35-17), but our neighbors to the north are very catch-able. More realistically, it seems that the newly-rolling Cavs (winners of 13 of their last 14) will reach the 2-seed behind the insane Atlanta Hawks, leaving a three-way scramble for the East's 3-seed. There are five good teams in the East, and a 4-5 match-up would be considerably less desirable for a team like the Bulls than a 3-6 face-off, probably against Milwaukee, where the competition is clearly inferior. Frankly, I don't trust the Bulls' interior defense in a 7-game series against the Wizards; I'd much rather we had the Raptors, even if Kyle Lowry will back Derrick Rose down until Lowry is securely occupying his favorite spots around the bucket.
Chicago's biggest issue, especially with starting small forward Dunleavy's continued absence due to that pesky right ankle bruise, is its wing shooting from deep. Kirk's injury has forced Thibodeau to at least play 6'7" shooting guard/small forward Tony Snell a good chunk of minutes, and even 6'4" shooting guard/point guard E'Twaun Moore -- both of whom have way more upside than Kirk at this point, though they lack his consistent effort on D (let the record show, however, that I'd much rather ride with either of those two -- who are bigger, faster, and stronger than the old Cap'n). Snell is shooting a respectable 34.2% from deep (including a spectacular and 76.2% from the free throw line, and his 7' wingspan has finally been paying off in spurts on defense ; Moore is shooting a very good 38.1% from deep and really should be out there more as a three-point threat at the 2. The elephant in the room is Thibs' use of our rookies: he has only employed Doug McDermott in garbage time since he returned from knee surgery, but McBuckets looked plenty healthy in the Orlando game, knocking down a three and then a sweet back-door cut in quick succession. Mirotic's passing game (he was responsible for McBucket's aforementioned sweet backdoor cut) and his sweet shooting stroke (he's still averaging 35.5% from deep on the season, though that number really has cooled in 2015) should give him at least 10 minutes a night every game, his floor-spacing is imperative, and Pau has been playing too many minutes all year. I'd love to see them get some burn today, especially against Williams and Nik Stauskas on the wing and Landry and Reggie Evans commanding the paint are hardly intimidating.
The Bulls still have a trade to make if they want to win it all this year. Taj's name has been floated a lot in trade rumors, but since he is such a significantly better defender than Pau, it'd really be nice to retain him. Could we move, say, Snell, Kirk and a protected first-rounder (keep in mind, thanks to the upcoming Kings renaissance, Da Bulls could very well have two first rounders in the draft this year anyway) to one of the teams that's just stacking assets and no longer trying to win? Denver has the most obvious pieces -- we could probably get Wilson Chandler for a package like that, but I'm not sure about Aaron Afflalo; Orlando (Evan Fournier), Boston (Jae Crowder or Marcus Thornton, but I bet we could nab Thornton for way less than Kirk/Snell/a pick), Utah (Alec Burks), Philly (Hollis Thompson), Brooklyn (Alan Anderson), and Phoenix (Gerald Green) number among the other teams with intriguing pieces that the Bulls should at least consider dealing with before we hit the trade deadline in nine days.
We really should win this, and we really need a little momentum heading into Thursday's marquee match-up against You-Know-Who. Whatever happens though, DID YOU KNOW DEMARCUS COUSINS' COUSINS ALL WORK AT CHEVROLET?
Tip at 7 PM CST on CSN-Chicago/ESPN-AM 1000.