Stumbling Bulls could need a lift
The Chicago Bulls pushed defending champion Boston to the brink in a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat seven-game playoff series last spring and came out of the loss ready to build around Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose.
That looked like progress.
This looks like anything but: an 8-15 record, embarrassing blowouts and 11 losses in 13 games, including a clunker against the woeful New Jersey Nets. Players have questioned the effort. Coach Vinny Del Negro is under fire. And angst is mounting.
``I see promise,'' said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, the man who coached Chicago to six titles in the 1990s. ``The center's (Joakim Noah) coming along. He's showing promise as a hustling player, as a worker. They've got some nice young pieces.''
Yet the gulf between the Bulls and the NBA's elite is a wide one at the moment.
Chicago lost by 26 points to Boston last Saturday, capping a brutal seven-day stretch in which they also got blown out by Toronto and Atlanta and fell, at home, to the Nets. The effort was better against the defending champion Lakers on Tuesday when they took a one-point lead into the fourth quarter, but the result was still a loss, 96-87.
``If we give this kind of effort night in and night out, good things are going to happen for us,'' guard Kirk Hinrich said.
Still, there is plenty of speculation about Del Negro's job security - something Boston's Doc Rivers called unfair.
``I know Vinny,'' said Rivers, who played with Del Negro in San Antonio ``I know his basketball knowledge. He has a heck of a basketball IQ. I think he'll be fine.''
If anyone can sympathize with Del Negro, Rivers would be the guy. He was on the chopping block before the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and became a beast in the East. The Bulls could be major players in a star-studded free agent market next year that might include LeBron James along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh - but whether Del Negro will be around for a shopping spree remains to be seen.
``Those decisions aren't up to me,'' he said. ``I just keep working every day. I only control what I can control, go to work and represent the organization and team in the right way.''
At the center of the Bulls is Rose, the Chicago native who missed most of the preseason with an inflamed tendon behind his right ankle and now has pain in his right side. He aggravated the problem in Tuesday's game and needed two painkilling shots.
``It's nothing like the ankle,'' Rose said. ``The ankle was the worst injury. It was like breaking it or something. ... If I don't have that (explosiveness) there's really no point in me playing.''
That explosiveness is only now starting to come back. It was there against the Lakers when he scored 21 points, his fifth straight game with 15 or more, and it came a day after Rose acknowledged calls to be more assertive.
Problem is, that's not in his nature.
``Everybody is focusing on me on the court,'' Rose said. ``It's very hard being in a position where I'm a point guard who's supposed to pass the ball. People say they want me to shoot more. But I'm a point guard. I can't do that. I have to pass the ball to people and get people open. Taking over as a point guard is getting people open and shooting one here and there. If I was a two guard, it'd be something else.''
That's the rub.
He would just as soon set up someone else, yet with scoring guard Ben Gordon now in Detroit and the rest of the team struggling, the weight lands on Rose's shoulders and he's not entirely comfortable carrying it. His scoring (16.3 points per game), assists (5.5) and field-goal percentage (44.6) are all down from last year, when he averaged 16.8 points, 6.3 assists and shot 47.5 percent.
While the ankle injury limited him, the fact that the Bulls don't have an inside scorer or stretch-the-defense shooter like Gordon is making matters even tougher.
Hinrich, who recently missed six games with a sprained left thumb, is averaging 8.1 points in a backup role and shooting just 34.2 percent - well below his career average (41.3). John Salmons, who helped spark the Bulls' turnaround last season after arriving from Sacramento, is down five points per game from last year at 13.3. Forward Tyrus Thomas is out with a broken left forearm.
Chicago, meanwhile, ranked second-to-last in scoring (90.2 points per game), field-goal percentage (42.3 percent) and 3-point shooting (29.0 percent) through Tuesday and has hit the 100-point mark only twice. Opponents have scored 100 or more on the Bulls 10 times, including nine in the past 13 games.
The problems have overshadowed the development of Noah (10.2 points, 12.1 rebounds) along with the re-emergence of Luol Deng, who's averaging 17.6 points after two injury-riddled seasons.
``I think we're a team that has enough to win games,'' said Noah, who has tendinitis in his left rotator cuff. ``I'm not going to make excuses, but there have been injuries. Things happen in the season. We've played some pretty good teams. ... I think it's important that every time we step on the court, I think we have enough character on this team to show we're not going to back down when it's a tough game.''