Posts Tagged ‘Tom Thibodeau’

Bulls’ Butler a high-volatility stock


VIDEO: Butler plays preseason hero against Hawks

Asterisks abounded Thursday night, when Jimmy Butler went vintage-Derrick Rose – or one-off-Michael Jordan – down the stretch against the Atlanta Hawks.

* Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau had starters, including Butler, on the floor late in the Bulls’ mostly dismal performance.

* His Atlanta counterpart, Mike Budenholzer, was rolling with third-string Hawks.

* Rose, the Bulls player who would normally be called upon at such a point, was on the bench (prompting some predictable hand-wringing from critics who aren’t happy when the point guard plays a lot or when he plays a little).

* It still was the preseason.

* And Butler is in the midst of a salary drive, his performances this month potentially out of character, with the real impact of deal-or-no-deal in his contract extension talks to be determined later.

Still, the Bulls shooting guard did score 29 points – one more than his career high in three NBA seasons – in his team’s scramble back from 21 points to win. Butler got 20 of those in the final 5:11, an explosive stretch that might have been aided by the various asterisks but explosive nonetheless.

He did it, too, in ways that made the worriers feel a little better about Butler’s offense – no one questions his defensive effort or effectiveness – at a position where Chicago needs more oomph. Butler, who shot 39.7 percent from the floor (28.3 percent on 3-pointers), dramatically beat the buzzer from 26 feet in good form. He wound up shooting 8-for-14 and 12-for-16 from the line (9-for-11 in the fourth), and got some big love from teammates.

“We always tell him to take more [shots], but it’s going to be up to him to break that seal,” Rose said. “Thank God that he’s catching his rhythm right now and he’s building his confidence. He’s another threat offensively.”

Not last year, he wasn’t. But Thibodeau played Butler long minutes anyway, for his defense, out of need and in spite of distractions coming at the wing player from Marquette. Butler battled injuries early, played only eight games with Rose before the point guard went down again, then had his role tweaked after the Bulls traded veteran small forward Luol Deng in January.

“Jimmy has grown,” Thibodeau said Thursday night. “He’s more a scorer than to characterize him as a straight shooter. He’s an all-around scorer. He’ll find ways to put the ball in the basket.”

Butler, though you’d wonder where it came from, is said to have arrived at camp 10 pounds lighter. He looks more athletic and clearly has been more aggressive, leading Chicago after five October games with 18.6 points, 60.4 field-goal shooting, 43 free throw attempts and 144 total minutes.

“All summer I worked on my game. The biggest thing is confidence, taking shots I know I can make,” he said.

So, salary drive? Butler has two weeks left to land, per NBA rookie-scale rules, the contract extension available to players heading into their fourth seasons. Two years ago, Bulls forward Taj Gibson felt preseason pressure while his talks played out, and though he got his deal (four years, $33 million), the episode seemed to bleed into a subpar season. Butler has some folks wondering if he might go the other way if he gets paid – throttling back – or be adversely affected if he doesn’t get the extension done.

He said Thursday it hasn’t been a distraction. “Nope. Not at all,” Butler said. “I just try to play the game the right way. The whole contract situation is up to my agent (Happy Walters) and the Bulls organization. I just want to win games. Then the contract will take care of itself, whenever.”

And however much. The market for Butler figures to be as hot as it is fluid. Chicago reportedly would like to sign him now for what’s becoming called “Taj money,” close to Gibson’s 2012 extension. Butler might be anchored more by the three-year, $30 million, take-it-or-leave-it offer the Bulls put in front of Deng before trading him.

Then there’s the unpredictable marketplace of free agency, even with restrictions, should Butler get that far. Gordon Hayward landed his four-year, $63 million max deal that way – offer sheet from Charlotte, matched by Utah – and Chandler Parsons scored a three-year, $46 million contract with Dallas. And if Butler, who will make $2 million this season, were to play this out twice on a year-by-year basis, he would hit the unrestricted marked in 2016 as the new bonanza of TV rights cash officially kicks in.

Bulls VP of basketball John Paxson and GM Gar Forman, who will already have $50 million committed to four players next season (Rose, Gibson, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol), won’t have Thibodeau at the bargaining table, that’s for sure. The coach who has leaned hard on Butler for two years will look to him even more.

Chicago added shooters over the summer but after Rose, Butler is the best choice to put real pressure on opponents, getting to the rim, getting to the line, throwing himself around to wreak havoc and create energy on nights when there’s none, like Thursday. With Deng’s departure, he is the defender who will draw the toughest assignments, the only one Thibodeau trusts to check other guys’ most potent scorers.

Butler was drafted last in the first round in 2011 and still sounds like an absolute underdog. “I’m from Tomball, [Texas],” he said earlier this week. “I’m not even supposed to be in the NBA, let alone be a star player. I just want to be wanted. I just want to play hard. I just want to help [us] win. End of story. Star player, role player, bench player, whatever it takes. Just let me win.”

Oh, Butler definitely is going to win, either with the Bulls or someone else. In this case, the victory will be noted not by a ‘W’ or an * but by a bunch of $’s.

Showing up is part of NBA skill set

John Stockton (here in 2002) played in every game in 17 of his 19 years with the Jazz. (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

John Stockton (here in 2002) played in every game in 17 of his 19 years with the Jazz. (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Regardless of how many tools your go-to handyman has in his belt, no matter his craftsmanship and creativity, it doesn’t mean much if he doesn’t show up to work. The same holds true for chefs, pilots, cubicle drones and, yes, NBA players.

“Staying healthy is a skill” is the way some old-school types have put it, and while that might be too broad – neglecting simple ingredients such as luck and good genes – there is no doubt that durability is an asset. To a player and to his team.

Injuries are back in the headlines due to Kevin Durant’s foot fracture, Bradley Beal’s wrist, Rajon Rondo’s hand, Paul George’s leg and assorted dings, bruises and sidelining setbacks around the league. The key word, unfortunately, is back.

In the first few months of 2013-14, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Steve Nash, Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Al Horford and Russell Westbrook were ailing. The toll across several seasons before that included Rose, Horford, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Andrew Bynum, Chris Paul, David West and the sad arcs of Brandon Roy’s and Yao Ming’s careers.

Despite heavy media coverage, the NBA’s analysis suggested that the injury rate remained largely unchanged across multiple years. Numerous theories were floated in search of an explanation for what injuries there were. Too much year-round basketball at a young age, some said. Too many games in the NBA season, from pre- through regular right onto post-, argued others. Shoe technology, court size, strength training, nutrition — all were factors examined by some, ignored by others, without much consensus, never mind solutions.

And maybe that’s all the explanation we’ll ever get: Athletes get hurt.

“It’s not like they just started happening,” Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Monday, before his team’s preseason home game against Denver. “This is the way it’s been. If you look at anyone who’s played 10 years in this league, they usually have dealt with something. They had to get past something. Whether it was a knee injury, an ankle injury, a shoulder injury, wrist, finger, something. OK? So it’s all part of it.

“Hopefully you have the mental toughness to get through adversity. Most of these guys have it – you can’t get here without having that. But the injuries, it’s not like all of a sudden … we react like, we collect more data and injuries all of a sudden are something new. No, they’ve been a part of this league for a long time.”

How much a part? One way to gauge the durability of players is to check the rate at which they “showed up” for their teams on a given night. Call it a player’s “availability average,” as determined by his appearances as a percentage of his team’s total games during the same period.

Using regular-season games only, here are the availability averages for 25 NBA greats, all enshrined or likely to be in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame:

  • 98.6%: John Stockton (1,504 of 1,526)
  • 98.0%: Gary Payton (1,335 of 1,362)
  • 97.5%: John Havlicek (1,270 of 1,303)
  • 97.2%: Bill Russell (963 of 991)
  • 96.7%: Karl Malone (1,476 of 1,526)
  • 96.2%: Reggie Miller (1,389 of 1,444)
  • 95.1%: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1,560 of 1,640)
  • 93.4%: Michael Jordan (1,072 of 1,148)
  • 92.7%: Wilt Chamberlain (1,045 of 1,17)
  • 92.1%: Jason Kidd (1,391 of 1,510)
  • 92.1%: Magic Johnson (906 of 984)
  • 91.8%: Isiah Thomas (979 of 1,066)
  • 91.7%: Oscar Robertson (1,040 of 1,134)
  • 89.6%: Dominique Wilkins (1,074 of 1,198)
  • 86.5%: Scottie Pippen (1,178 of 1,362)
  • 85.7%: Hakeem Olajuwon (1,238 of 1,444)
  • 85.3%: Moses Malone (1,329 of 1,558)
  • 84.1%: Larry Bird (897 of 1,066)
  • 82.2%: Jerry West (932 of 1,134)
  • 81.9%: Allen Iverson (914 of 1,116)
  • 79.4%: Tracy McGrady (938 of 1,182)
  • 79.1%: Shaquille O’Neal (1,207 of 1,526)
  • 78.8%: Charles Barkley (1,073 of 1,362)
  • 75.7%: Elgin Baylor (846 of 1,117)
  • 67.9%: Grant Hill (1,026 of 1,510)

Here, for comparison’s sake, are 25 of the league’s top active players (we’re assuming Ray Allen signs with someone) and their rate for “showing up:”

  • 97.1%: Kevin Durant (542 of 558)
  • 95.5%: Dwight Howard (768 of 804)
  • 95.0%: LeBron James (842 of 886)
  • 94.0%: Dirk Nowitzki (1,188 of 1,264)
  • 93.2%: Tim Duncan (1,254 of 1,346)
  • 93.1%: Paul Pierce (1,177 of 1,264)
  • 92.4%: Russell Westbrook (440 of 476)
  • 91.2%: Kevin Garnett (1,377 of 1,510)
  • 91.0%: Ray Allen (1,300 of 1,428)
  • 90.8%: Vince Carter (1,148 of 1,264)
  • 90.2%: LaMarcus Aldridge (577 of 640)
  • 89.5%: Tony Parker (940 of 1,050)
  • 89.2%: Carmelo Anthony (790 of 886)
  • 87.2%: Kobe Bryant (1,245 of 1,426)
  • 86.2%: Pau Gasol (905 of 1,050)
  • 85.5%: Chris Paul (617 of 722)
  • 85.3%: Steph Curry (336 of 394)
  • 85.2%: Steve Nash (1,217 of 1,428)
  • 82.1%: Manu Ginobili (795 of 968)
  • 81.2%: Dwyane Wade (719 of 886)
  • 78.9%: Rajon Rondo (505 of 640)
  • 78.2%: Blake Griffin (308 of 394)
  • 76.5%: Kevin Love (364 of 476)
  • 75.9%: Amar’e Stoudemire (735 of 968)
  • 60.7% Derrick Rose (289 of 476)

Durant’s average is going to take a hit as soon as Oklahoma City’s schedule begins without him in two weeks. His sidekick Westbrook will have to pick up slack for the Thunder – and Westbrook’s rate actually might be better than you expected, since his most notable breakdown came in the 2013 postseason.

Rose will be trying to boost a number that, historically, has him well below one of the NBA’s poster guys for bad luck, Grant Hill. Meanwhile, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan — even if they never reach Stockton’s or Payton’s mad numbers — probably don’t get enough acclaim for enduring the rigors of their work as well as they do.

“I think your mindset has to be right,” Thibodeau said. “They say Duncan never leaves the gym. And when you look at great players, that’s usually when you read about guys who have achieved something great. It’s usually them getting past adversity, then making great effort, and their readiness to accept the challenge.”

Asked whether good fortune or good genetics plays the greater role in good NBA health, Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy said: “Both. There’s also work that goes into it. The more you take care of your body year round, offseason and in-season, it directly affects your health, how many games you’re able to play and how many games you miss. But you can do the best job of that in the world and you can still get hurt.”

Nuggets coach Brian Shaw subscribes to the AAU-crazed, overuse theory and won’t let his kids play just one sport all year long because of that. He and his team are back after a 2013-14 season beset by injuries (Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, Nate Robinson and others).

Shaw sees more attention focused on injury prevention and body maintenance, even if that gets circumvented by one awkward move or fluke moment. An NBA point guard for 14 seasons, Shaw said: “Before we kind of just did some jumping jacks, went down and touched your toes a few times, and went out and played. Now there’s a 15- or 20-minute period every day where the strength and conditioning coach activates the players’ muscles and warms them up.

“It takes some discipline to do those things that are monotonous to warm yourself up properly and cool yourself down after a practice, to ice and do all the things that are necessary for you to come back the next day.”

Thibodeau talked of two competing “schools of thought” for coping physically in the NBA. One loads up players with minutes and practices almost like weighting a baseball bat in the on-deck circle, so they’re in peak condition for what the schedules throws at them. The other preaches rest, recuperation and easing through the preseason and even the regular season to be as healthy as possible for the playoffs.

It’s no secret which school Thibodeau graduated from.

“The only way you can guarantee a guy not getting hurt is, don’t play him,” the Bulls coach said. “Don’t practice him, don’t play him. Don’t play him in the preseason, don’t play him in the regular season. Just don’t play him and he won’t get hurt.”

Morning shootaround — Oct. 14


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played Oct. 13

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Thibodeau wants more from Noah, Rose | Horford likely to return to lineup this week | Kidd explains Antetokounmpo’s new role | Burke getting better grip on NBA game

No. 1: Thibodeau wants Bulls to play sharper — The Chicago Bulls climbed to .500 in the preseason after last night’s 110-90 win against the Denver Nuggets, but the team’s perfectionist coach, Tom Thibodeau, wasn’t exactly thrilled with the outcome. According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, Thibodeau is wanting a San Antonio Spurs-like focus from his team as the preseason wears on and he just hasn’t seen that yet from them. As well, Thibodeau thinks stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah have a lot more work to do:

There were signs in a 110-90 preseason win over the Denver Nuggets at the United Center on Monday night, but Thibodeau is looking for perfection — and if not perfection, at least a better effort in attempting to achieve it.

That starts with guard Derrick Rose and center Joakim Noah, whom he singled out.

With both players coming off injuries last season, restrictions on their minutes have handcuffed what Thibodeau wants to get done.

‘‘In order for [Rose] to get his timing, he has to play, and he has to work,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘Right now, his timing isn’t there. It’s a big adjustment for everyone. Everyone has to get used to what he does on the floor. The only way you can do that is by being out there.

‘‘It depends on the work he puts in when he shakes that rust off. The game is played collectively. There’s a lot of work for him and Jo. I’m concerned about that.’’

It’s not only what he hasn’t been seeing from his core players but what he has observed this preseason from the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. In the two preseason games the Spurs played overseas last week, veteran Tim Duncan played 33 and 35 minutes, while Tony Parker played 35 and 36.

‘‘I’m watching San Antonio, and they’re going after it,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘Parker, Duncan, they’re playing huge minutes right off the start. I think it’s a strong message what they’re saying right now. They’re preparing themselves to defend their championship. And so in order to get that way from them, you’re going to have to wrestle it away from them. They’re not just going to give it away. Your mind-set has to be right.’’

Thibodeau wouldn’t come out and say Noah and Rose haven’t had the right mind-set, but he was definitely setting the bar.

‘‘Oh, no, they’re working hard enough,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s getting ready to play in games. You’re going to have timing and conditioning by playing together.’’


VIDEO: The Bulls handle the Nuggets in a preseason rout

(more…)

New Wizards-Bulls feud couldn’t wait


VIDEO: Scuffle leads to suspensions, fines for Wizards, Bulls

CHICAGO – Randy Wittman didn’t think much of the question. Not nearly as much of it as I did, for instance, seeing as how I was the one who asked it Monday night: Would the bad blood and feistiness of the Washington Wizards’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls carry over to the preseason opener for both teams?

“In an exhibition?” Wittman, the Wizards coach, said with a chuckle. “You need a storyline, huh?”

We got a storyline that night. And we got another one Wednesday afternoon, when the NBA announced that four of Wittman’s players were suspended for one game for leaving the bench area during an altercation between Washington’s Paul Pierce and Chicago’s Joakim Noah in the first quarter Monday at United Center.

In the first quarter. Of, yes, an exhibition.

Additionally, Pierce and Noah were fined $15,000 each for their roles in the scuffle. A scuffle that didn’t realize, apparently, that it was supposed to wait another month or so.

“Obviously once we get going and the season winds in here, those things play out,” Wittman had said about 90 minutes before Monday’s tipoff. “Not so much a game like this where a lot of people will be playing, the lineups will be different… I’m sure when it rolls around to November, that will be a little bit different.”

The next round, er, game between the Wizards and the Bulls will be in Washington on Dec. 23, the first of four regular-season meetings in a simmering new rivalry.

Wittman’s instincts must not have been in championship-season shape yet, because things boiled over Monday with 8:57 left in the opening quarter.

Pierce fouled Chicago’s Jimmy Butler hard across the jaw. While the referees gathered to review the play as a flagrant or common foul, Pierce and Noah exchanged words and Noah pushed at the veteran forward. Pierce reacted by poking a finger into Noah’s forehead, which sparked an NBA version of a baseball fight.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who was on Boston’s staff when Pierce and the Celtics won a championship in 2008 and has been Noah’s coach since 2010, found himself smack in the middle like a pro wrestling ref dwarfed by the combatants. Chicago fans reacted like it was a Bears or Blackhawks game.

“It was great,” Noah said after the game. “It got all the summer out of me. It feels good to be back on the court.”

That was the problem for Washington: Nene, DeJuan Blair, Daniel Orton and Xavier Silas all left their team’s bench area and moved in the direction of the skirmish at the scorer’s table. That brought the automatic suspensions from NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn. They will be served in the Wizards’ season opener or the first regular season game in which each player is physically able to play.

Pierce wasn’t around for the playoff clash last spring, but he and the Bulls didn’t much like each other in his Boston or Brooklyn days, either.

“That’s just the tension between these two teams that’s kind of now carrying over to this year, I feel like,” Pierce said. “I’m a part of it now. Even when I was with the Celtics, that’s how I was with them.”

At the end of the third quarter, Washington’s Kevin Seraphin set a hard screen on Butler and was called for an offensive foul. He stood over the fallen Bulls player for a beat too long, in Butler’s opinion, prompting more shoves.

It was hard not to connect the dots back to last spring and the teams’ heated first-round series. Noah and a member of the Wizards’ security team had a testy exchange at the morning shootaround before Game 3 in Washington. That night, Nene and Butler literally butted heads in an on-court confrontation, with the Wizards’ big man getting ejected and suspended from Game 4.

Then there was the fact the Wizards eliminated the Bulls in five games. It was a sign of Washington’s ascendancy with its precocious backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, while at the same time abruptly ending another season Chicago had begun, at least, with hopes of title contention.

That’s why some folks anticipated chippiness Monday, preseason or not.

“Whatever it was, I guess that’s what it’s going to come down to every time we play them guys,” Butler said. “I guess guys just don’t like us. I’m cool if they don’t like me.”

Said Wall: “That lets you know how it’s going to be for the four times we play them in the regular season. It might get a lot worse than that.”

Grab your calendar now: Dec. 23, Jan. 9, Jan. 14 and March 3. Might as well circle the dates in red, since both teams will be seeing red.

Hang Time Road Trip: Gasol’s Windy City Renewal Begins Now

HANGTIME_PASSENGER


VIDEO:  Pau Gasol describes his need for a new direction

By Sekou Smith

CHICAGO – Pau Gasol is doing his best to get used to his new surroundings.

He really is trying. But Chicago and Los Angeles are worlds apart. And as much as Gasol is embracing his new environment and new challenges here in the Windy City, he recognizes that the Lakers and that city’s rabid fans will be watching to see how he fares elsewhere.

Gasol’s tenure with the Lakers started with a bang, included back-to-back titles and ended with two grueling years of physical and emotional stress that wore the veteran power forward down a bit.

“It was tough, but professionally I needed to take a step in a new direction, ” Gasol told us on the bus Monday during Day 2 of the Hang Time Road Trip, where we parked and dug in with the Bulls on the morning of their exhibition opener against the Washington Wizards.

He had options in free agency, choices that any veteran in his shoes would love to have in the twilight of what should be a Hall of Fame career. Gasol could have stayed in Los Angeles and continued to play alongside his good friend Kobe Bryant. The Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks and plenty of others pursued him.

There was something about these Bulls, though, something about this opportunity and the vision Gasol has for the remainder of his career that led him here. Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Tom Thibodeau and a team that is poised to challenge Cleveland for the top spot in the Central Division and Eastern Conference was a situation he simply could not ignore.

Check out our sit-down interview with Gasol for more details:


VIDEO: The Hang Time Podcast crew reflects on the Cavaliers preseason opener

***

Keep up with us around the clock on Twitter or Instagram (using the hashtag #HANGTIME):

Check the Hang Time Blog for our daily (video) podcast recapping our adventures and also Lang’s All-Ball Blog for our daily updates.

 

Morning shootaround — Oct. 5




VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony on chemistry with new teammates and more

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Melo wants less burden | McHale still confident | Lawson primed for jump | Rose gets physical
No. 1: Anthony hopes to get help carrying the load Carmelo Anthony could have jumped to Chicago or Houston or Dallas over the summer in order to join lineups where he wouldn’t have been the only big gun in the ammo belt. Of course, there was that matter of signing for $124 million in New York that changed his mind. But now with the season opener rapidly approaching, Melo says he looks forward to a time when he doesn’t have to do all of the heavy lifting at Madison Square Garden. Al Iannazzone of Newsday reveals Anthony’s discussion with new boss Phil Jackson, along with the news that Melo wants to jump back in the Olympic pool in 2016 at Rio:

“For this season right now, we have what we have,” Anthony said after practice Saturday. “We’re going to deal with that. That was a big discussion with me and Phil talking about — that was one of my things. I didn’t want to have to do it night in and night out. I wanted some nights when somebody else can pick up the load.
“Right now with the way we’re playing, I don’t have to do everything. But we haven’t had a game yet. We haven’t played one game.”

Jackson has shaken up the roster, trading for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Travis Outlaw, Quincy Acy and Shane Larkin, signing Jason Smith and drafting Cleanthony Early. His biggest move, though, was re-signing Anthony.

But Jackson and new coach Derek Fisher are trying to establish a way they want the Knicks to play — unselfishly, and with a commitment to defense. Even if the Knicks aren’t a contender this season, Anthony sees some relief for him.

“It will be less pressure on me,” he said. “I can see that now in training camp. I feel that. I can see what we’re able to do with the little bit of time we’ve been together this week. I see other guys’ roles and how they’re implemented into the system and what they’re capable of doing. I think it’ll be easier. It’s still going to be a dogfight, but I think it’ll be a little bit easier where everybody is not keying in and focusing on me every single time down the court.”

***

No. 2: No new contract, no problem for McHale — The sting of Damian Lillard’s shot is still deep in his bones. The empty free-agent fishing expedition of the summer still hangs over his team. But even through Kevin McHale goes into the last year of his contract in Houston, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle says the Rockets coach is comfortable in his own skin and confident that he can get the job done:

“I got pretty comfortable with myself a lot of decades ago,” McHale, 56, said. “I haven’t changed much.”
As he began his fourth training camp as Rockets coach, with only coaches and staff remaining from his first, there have been adjustments to the Rockets’ style. He has demanded the more physical style he once played. The Rockets have collected more of the types of players he had wanted all along. There are defensive tweaks.

Almost the entire second unit was rebuilt from last season.

Yet, as he enters the final season of his contract, McHale cites the same values, the same priorities he has been trying to instill since that difficult, rushed first season as Rockets coach. The most tenured players with the Rockets, Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones, said there have been slight changes in schemes but not in their coach’s style.
“We’re all in this together,” McHale said. “The crazy thing about coaching is I’ve had players say I’m way too hard, I’m way too strict. And then you have guys that say, ‘You need to get on that guy.’ I always laugh at the guy that says, ‘You need to get on that guy more.’ I say, ‘Do I need to get on you more?’ They say, ‘No.’ When you’ve had 14, 15 guys on the team, and I learned this a long time ago, I’m not going to connect with everyone. But they’re going to play the system we’re playing. And I’m not playing. I have to give them the ability and the confidence so they can succeed.”

McHale inspires an unusual mix of reactions from players. He is referred to as “a players’ coach” so often it is practically in his job description. In many ways – particularly when demanding uncompromising effort – he is unbending, with little patience for a lack of commitment.

He has even less tolerance for excuses. That includes any suggestion that he is hampered by coaching in the final season of his contract. The other Rockets head coaches hired by owner Leslie Alexander – Jeff Van Gundy and Rick Adelman - never received a second contract after completing their four-year term. But neither seemed like a lame duck looking over his shoulder in his final season with the team.

McHale seems so secure in the way he works and what he values, he appears as unaffected by his contract situation in its final season as he was in its first.

“That has no bearing on me,” McHale said. “I never believed that. If you’re going to play better in the last year of your contract because it’s the last year of your contract, I question who you are. If you are going to coach better because you’re in the last year of your contract, I question that guy.

“I’m going to do the same thing I’ve always done. I’m going to work as hard as I possibly can with these guys, try to get these guys to be the best possible team we can be, and you know what, like as a player, you do the best job you can. If it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough.”

***

No. 3: Lawson says he belongs with elite at point — Coming off a season in which he posted career highs in points and assists per game, the Nuggets’ Ty Lawson told Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post that he belongs in any conversation about the best point guards in the league. But Lawson knows that he will only get that recognition if he can turn his team’s performance around and make the Nuggets winners again in the rugged Western Conference:

Q: How big a year is this for you to establish the type of player you are?
A: For my career, this is the next step. I’ve got to make the next step. This year has to be that next step. I’m entering the prime of my NBA career, so this is where it either goes up or goes down.
Q: What do you need to do to get to that next level?
A: I feel like we have to win — because I feel like my numbers are elite numbers, what I did last year. The only thing separating me from everyone else is just winning. Chris Paul has gotten out of the second round. Russell Westbrook went to the NBA Finals. I feel like to get to that level, you’ve got to win games. Kyrie (Irving) this year, he’s going to get out of the first and second round. So that’s the goal.
Q: You mentioned Paul, Westbrook and Irving. Do you see yourself in that group as an elite point guard?
A: I do, minus just the winning. Especially for a point guard, that takes you to the next level. If you’re a point guard and you’re not winning but you’re killing it, it doesn’t matter. It’s a leadership role.
Q: When you look back at last season, how tough was it to go through?
A: It was huge. It was the first time I didn’t go to the playoffs in my whole career, from high school to … even elementary. I’m always used to winning or being in the playoff run, playing for something. It was tough.
Q: Is there a lesson to be learned from what happened last season?
A: Yeah, I think so. Just being professional. Going toward the end of the season, not saying that I didn’t feel like playing but saying we’re not playing for nothing, that’s not really professional. So, just learning that, learning professionalism, that took a big hit last year.
Q: Every year about this time, the leadership question comes up. Are you tired of that?
A: No, not really, because that’s an area I should work on, and that I think I have worked on. Being a leader, being out here being more vocal and also just showing by example is what it’s going to take.

***

No. 4: Thibodeau wants physicality from Rose — Just getting back onto the court and starting to building up his legs and his stamina at the FIBA World Cup in Spain was important for Derrick Rose. But coach Tom Thibodeau tells Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times that it’s the physical nature of tough training camp workouts that will get the former MVP back to the level that the Bulls will need this season:

”He’ll be able to handle it,” Thibodeau said. ”He just has to get used to it again. That’s why the USA Basketball stuff was so important, to get used to having contact. The more he does it, the better it is for him and the more you see the rust come off.
”Now you see him start to make some of the plays he’s capable of making. Now he’s starting to get a little bit of a rhythm and starting to shoot better, which we anticipated. That’s why him practicing and practicing hard is so important.”
A physical approach would seem to contradict what Rose was preaching this summer, when he said he had to be smarter about contact. Two season-ending knee surgeries since the 2012 playoffs might have an influence on his attitude.
”I think you’ll see that next year, just trying to keep people off my body,” he said in late July. ”Using a lot of floaters, using a lot of pull-ups, things like that, so that I won’t be touched as much.”
But the kind of contact that being aggressive around the rim brings isn’t concerning Thibodeau as much as the general physicality of an NBA game.
”In the NBA, you get into a pick-and-roll and there’s going to be a guy on your body,” Thibodeau said. ”And your challenge is you’re trying to create separation and get away from people. But when you’re a player like him, you’re also going to be trapped a lot. When someone is on you all the time — and someone will be on him all the time — you have to get used to that. . . . We’re not talking about driving to the basket and someone knocks him down. We’re talking about catch-and-shoot, pick-and-roll, even isolation — someone will be on him all the time.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: LeBron James will be back on the court in a Cleveland uniform when the Cavs open the preseason against Maccabi Tel Aviv tonight. … Steve Nash says he’s not concerned about a tweaked ankle at practice … Doctor says Rajon Rondo should return at 100 percent from broken hand.

ICYMI(s) of The Night: A sequence like this illustrates why Paul George, now rehabbing from a broken leg, remains among the best two-way players in the game today:

VIDEO: Paul George gets the steal and then caps the break with a fancy jam

Rose gets shooters, not shot creator

The Bulls are still searching for a scorer to play alongside Derrick Rose.

The Bulls are still searching for a scorer to play alongside Derrick Rose.

CHICAGO – Almost from the day Derrick Rose arrived, the Chicago Bulls have sought a second shot-creator to ease his workload and pose as a secondary threat when the defense stymies their explosive point guard.

Six seasons in, they still don’t have one. Call it the curse of Keith Bogans or something.

What the Bulls do have, though, as camp opens on the 2014-15 season is a squadron of shooters unlike any in recent memory at United Center. None of them is likely to put the ball on the floor and make something out of nothing the way Rose and a few other rare talents in the NBA can.

But as far as putting it in the air to great acclaim — spotting up on the perimeter or cutting-and-catching for opportunities near or beyond the arc –the Bulls have upgraded considerably. They ranked dead last in effective field-goal percentage last season (47.1 percent), 24th in 3-point accuracy (34.8) and last on anything inside the arc (45.6).

It hasn’t been a constant — they had Kyle Korver from 2010-12, and Mike Dunleavy shot 38 percent on 3-pointers last season — but it has been a problem. Now, by design, after going to school on rivals such as San Antonio, Miami, Atlanta and others, Chicago can spot two, three or even four shooters in the halfcourt.

Consider:

The idea, of course, is to spread defenses and open seams for Rose. It’s the next best thing – or maybe an equally effective strategy – to having that second creator, with Rose coming off high pick-and-rolls and finding a quiver full of arrows.

Rose sounded excited after the Bulls’ first scrimmage Tuesday, seeing the new options and how diligently defenders stayed home.

“Just thinking about how I’m actually going to attack in the offense,” Rose said. “I’ve got a lot of space now, especially with Pau being able to knock down that li’l 12-foot shot or 15-foot shot. … It’s just going to be space to really move around.”

Space is important to Rose, providing the lanes he needs to get to the rim. It’s also important to his health because, barring some alternate uniforms made of bubble-wrap and Kevlar, the best way to keep Rose on the court is to keep crowds away from him in the paint. (Asterisk time: Rose was untouched on his two season-snuffing knee injuries.)

Having played only 50 games since his MVP season of 2010-11, Rose might seem ripe to make some serious adjustments in his style of play. He might not be able to do much to lessen the torque of his violent cuts and leaps in attacking the rim, but he can throttle back occasionally and be a little smarter in traffic. He knows it and so do his coaches.

“They’re trying to make the game as simple as possible,” Rose said of some intended tweaks this season. “If I have an open shot, shoot. If I have a pull-up, shoot it. Shoot a lot more floaters so that people won’t touch my body like they did in the past throughout the entire game. I think that really hurts you I think as an athlete — you need your years.”

Chicago needs Rose’s, certainly, after waiting for his knees and his psyche to fully mend. Being wary of unnecessary contact is one of the concessions he’ll try to make to the blown opportunities of the past two years. Not rushing to show everyone, all at once, just how back he really is? That’s another.

Thibodeau, an assistant on the Team USA staff this summer, talked with Rose prior to their FIBA World Cup tour about the impatience he showed last fall. His rush to return to his spot in the NBA’s hierarchy was rusty – until it ended abruptly with torn meniscus in his right knee after just 10 games.

Rose eased back a bit this summer, playing with Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry in the USA backcourt. The Bulls don’t have that depth at point guard but they still don’t want Rose taking on too much, soon.

“Last year he was trying to get it all back in one day,” Thibodeau said. “I thought right before he got re-injured, he was starting to find a good rhythm again. This time, he’s not rushing like he did. But there’s a fine line for him, to still be aggressive, find a rhythm but not force it. I don’t want him to overthink it, I want him to play.”

Whether Rose is working the high pick-and-roll with Gasol or just bursting inside to kick out to Dunleavy, McDermott or Mirotic, the results can be just as effective as standing out top while Carmelo Anthony goes iso again and again.

“Just take pressure off of him,” said Gasol, who will try to develop an offensive chemistry not unlike what he had with Kobe Bryant in the Lakers’ best-of-times. “By playing well, by doing your job, by not having him have to force too much offensively or the pressure to create too much. When you have the weapons that we have, I think it takes pressure off of him. Creates and gives him space, and things become easier for him.”

Healthier, too.

First Team: Jo enters into new heights

In this five-part series, I’ll take a look at the best games from last season’s All-NBA first team. The metric I’ve used to figure out the best games is more art than formula, using “production under pressure” as the heuristic for selection. For example, volume scoring in a close game against a stout team on the road gets more weight than volume scoring against the Bucks at home in a blowout. Big games matter. Big clutch games matter more.

Joakim Noah catapulted himself into an upper echelon leader and star for the Bulls.

Joakim Noah has catapulted himself into an upper echelon leader and All-Star for the Bulls.

Last season, Joakim Noah blew through his “ceiling” as an energy role player to transform himself into a bona fide star.

He earned his second All-Star berth and All-NBA Defensive first team selection. He cracked the All-NBA first team and added a Defensive Player of the Year to his mantle.

Be not mistaken, the Chicago Bulls are Noah’s team. Derrick Rose is the franchise player, the dynamic sound of the band, but Noah is the drum major, firebrand, marshaling leader on the court. I mean, who else on the Bulls pulls this off?

Noah is also their best passer. He had 45 games last season with five or more assists. He set numerous Bulls assists records last season and became the first center to lead his team in assists since David Robinson in 1994.

Noah is a throwback player, the embodiment of coach Tom Thibodeau’s “multiple-effort mentality.” He is long enough to bother anybody’s shot at the rim and nimble enough to annoy a guard on a switch. Deflections, tips,  rotations, dives to the floor, he has it in spades.

With the arrival of the milder Pau Gasol — another unselfish, high I.Q. guy — he’ll have another like-minded post player facilitating, giving the Bulls their most complete team since the Jordan era ended.

December 13, 2013 — Down To The Wire

The Line: 21 points on 10-for-15 shooting, 18 rebounds (9 offensive), 5 assists, 3 blocks

The Quote: Defensively, he’s been terrific from the start of the season but offensively, you can see his timing is back.” – Bulls coach Thibodeau


VIDEO: Joakim Noah runs wild against the Bucks in a wild victory

Coming into the contest, Noah had been battling thigh pains. He missed a matchup against the Bucks four days prior in a Bulls loss in Chicago. Retribution was on his mind heading into the rematch.

The fourth quarter was his playground, as he tallied 10 points and seven boards. More specifically, he was a nightmare for John Henson and the Milwaukee frontline. To cap off his night, he thwarted O.J. Mayo’s game-winning shot attempt at the buzzer. (more…)

NBA coaching in the time of social media

One by one they arrive, each man pulling up in his elegant sedan, sports coupe or luxury SUV and, for all intents and purposes, bringing his family, his friends, his fans — his peeps — and his digital world along with him.

Denver coach Brian Shaw says keeping players off social media and engaged with the task at hand is one of his biggest challenges. (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Denver coach Brian Shaw says keeping players off social media and engaged with the task at hand is one of his biggest challenges. (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

In the locker room, where they dress and tease and bond and strategize, it’s all about chemistry. Except when it’s about technology.

“Say we have a shootaround or a team meeting that starts at 9:30. Guys start trickling in at 9:15,” Denver coach Brian Shaw said the other day, talking about these modern times. “We used to come in and sit around and talk to one another face to face. Now these guys have their devices and they’ll all be sitting at a table and nobody’s saying anything to anybody. They’re just punching buttons and looking down, and there’s no interaction.”

That novel about Love in the Time of Cholera? The men who oversee NBA teams are coaching in the time of social media, which might just be trickier.

Red Auerbach never had to worry about some tabloid photographer popping out of a darkened doorway to snap a photo with his date. Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson barely stuck around long enough for cell phones. Coaches today face the full arsenal of gadgetry, as far as where their guys might turn to lose themselves or what a civilian might use to catch players unawares. TMZ, remember, pays real folding money and, after all, 15 minutes of fame is better than none.

“It’s a big challenge coaching now,” said Shaw, who  — when he was an NBA rookie in 1988 — needed a quarter and a glass booth if he wanted to fiddle with a phone at the Boston Garden. “There are so many more options for them, so many more things to take their attention away from what you’re trying to do as coach. You have to constantly bring them back in and keep them engaged.”

Twenty years have passed since Magic Johnson, in his unsatisfying 16-game stint as Lakers coach, threw Vlade Divac’s cell phone against the wall after it rang during a team meeting.

Sounds quaint now.

“I feel his pain,” Shaw said, chuckling. “A coach like Phil Jackson, the majority of the years that he coached, these are challenges that he didn’t have to deal with. To me, the X’s and O’s kind of cancel each other out, between me and the coaches I’m opposing at the other end. Keeping everybody dialed in and not being distracted by outside forces — that’s what the real challenge is.

“I’m contemplating making the players, an hour before practices and an hour before games, check their cell phones in. So they can’t even have ‘em in the locker room. It’s, ‘You’re here. We need your undivided attention right now.’ “

Been there. Doing that.

“We have rules against cell phones in the locker room after a certain point before a game,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, whose owner, Mark Cuban, is the king of NBA social media, at least among the Board of Governors. “If someone’s cell phone goes off, the guy gets hit with a pretty hefty fine. And we all have a good laugh about it. If it happens again, we may have to have a serious discussion about it. And the fine’s going to be heavier.”

(more…)

A dozen stories to open training camps

Little has changed with the ageless Spurs since the confetti rained down on the champs, but much is now different with the rest of the NBA. So as the first handful of training camps open this week, here are a dozen storylines that will require immediate attention:

LeBron rocks, Cleveland rolls

LeBron James, 2007 (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Is it really as simple as putting the giant sign of LeBron James back up in downtown Cleveland and turning the clock back to the days of the Cavs as contenders for them to win it all? With Kyrie Irving‘s continued growth, his performance at the FIBA World Cup fresh in our minds, with the arrival of Kevin Love to be the third leg of the stool, it only seems a matter of time before the Cavs are on the main stage in June. Let’s remember that Irving and Love have never even been to the playoffs, let alone made a deep run. But let’s also remember that this is the Eastern Conference and that means the door is open.

Kobe vs. The World

Let’s face it. Nobody — not LeBron, not Carmelo Anthony, not Kevin Durant, not anybody — will have every step he takes on the court scrutinized and analyzed more than Kobe Bryant as he battles the calendar and what would seem to be common sense as he tries to come back from a torn Achilles tendon and a knee fracture at age 36. He’ll be determined, defiant, maybe even destructive to his own well-being. More than anything, you have to hope he can stay healthy all the way through the long grind of the season, if for no other reason than to see how he drives and browbeats a ragtag collection of post-Pau Gasol era Lakers in a quixotic quest.

Big Man in the Big Easy

They’ve changed owners, changed their team name and solidified the face of the franchise for the first time since New Orleans was last in the playoffs. Now it’s time to see if Anthony Davis can build on his big dog experience with Team USA in the World Cup and put some bite into the Pelicans. Davis averaged 20.8 points, 10 rebounds and made his first All-Star Game appearance last season. But based on the way he played in Spain, that might have only been scratching the surface. There are some ready to jump Davis over reigning MVP Durant as the next “best player in the game.” He’ll get up front support this season from Omer Asik, and if Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Tyreke Evans can stay healthy, this could be the beginning of a whole new era.

Stuck on the launch pad

Until LeBron went back home to Cleveland, it was hard to top the last two offseason jackpots hit by the Rockets — landing James Harden and Dwight Howard. But that streak hit a wall when the Rockets went all-in to bring Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh to Houston. It was a bold and grand gamble that required trading away Omer Asik (to the Pelicans) and Jeremy Lin (to the Lakers) to create salary cap space. It also led to allowing Chandler Parsons to become a free agent and sign with the Dallas Mavericks. Now with neither prize free agent, the Rockets are a team that won 54 games a year ago, lost in the first round of the playoffs and have the depth of a one-night pickup at a singles bar. How much can they get from Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Isaiah Canaan? What does Jason Terry have left? How much of the weight can Harden and Howard realistically carry?

(more…)