Bears Pre-Season Check-In

LeSean McCoy, Jeremiah Ratliff

You know its baseball season in Chicago when we start getting excited to watch Bears Pre-Season games. With the dust settled from the crazy NBA free agency period, I am ready to dive headfirst into Bears football. And there is a lot to watch for the Bears entering their second season under Marc Trestman. So lets take a look at the good, the bad and what I’d like to see Friday against Seattle as we hit the half way point of the pre-season schedule.

THE GOOD

So far the first team offense has looked really good. It is the best Cutler has looked and the offensive line, even without Jordan Mills, has given Cutler all the time in the world in the pocket. Cutler looks really comfortable in the system and doesn’t appear to be forcing anything. I love the addition of Santonio Holmes, who is a low-risk signing at the league minimum, but could be a huge upgrade as a number three receiver. We haven’t seen much from Matt Forte, but, if the Bears can take another step forward from last season, this offense could be one of the best in the NFL.

THE BAD

The defense was historically bad last year and so far I have not seen any signs of that changing. Granted, it is only the pre-season and the Bears are a team with a lot of veteran players who understand not to go all-out and avoid injury before the season starts, but I feel like we should have seen more improvement than we have. Last week they let the Jacksonville offense do whatever they wanted drive after drive. The middle of the field still appears to be a huge hole and they are still not getting to the quarterback, even the the additions of Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston. The safety position is still a big question mark and with Kyle Fuller tweaking his ankle we really haven’t gotten a chance to see what he can do yet. The special teams appears to be an issue again too. Coaches have underplayed the problems, siting a lot of new pieces learning the system, but it cannot be denied that the Bears still have big issues outside of Robbie Gould. Luckily the offense is good, but it could be helped if they can start with a shorter field and put less pressure on the defense.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

This is what I’m looking for going into the 3rd pre-season game where we should see the most of the first teamers. I want to see multiple quality scoring drives from the offense. I want to see them avoid third and long situations and I want to see dt.common.streams.StreamServermore from Matt Forte in the run game. I’d like to see what Holmes can do if they can get him up to speed and see if he clicks with Cutler and this offense.

I need to see the defense prove they can get stops, and what better way to do it than up against the Super Bowl champs. If they can get to Russell Wilson a few times or at least pressure him and limit the run, I’ll be really happy. Close those gaps over the middle of the field – I need to see more from the linebackers this week. We should see Chris Conte for the first time this week and he has a lot to prove to everyone.

No big lapses from special teams. No big returns given up and better protection for whoever they have back there returning kicks and punts.

The Bears front office made all the right moves to improve this team. And this is a great way to see what they are made of because if they want to make it far in the playoffs this year, that road will no doubt go through Seattle.

Bulls lose on stars, but could win with depth

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The last post I wrote was fresh off the Spurs’ NBA Championship, and I wrote about how their win over the Big 3 of Miami signified that teams can still win with teamwork over grouping stars. We were on the cusp of the off-season and the Bulls were tight on the trail of Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love. And I’ll be honest, while my expectations were low, I was obsessed with this free agency period. Checking Twitter every few minutes, keeping SportsCenter on while I worked at all times, checking every NBA rumor site. I was hooked. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The thought of having our current roster along with Carmelo Anthony was making my basketball brain explode. But alas, this free agent period ended like all free agent periods in Chicago. We came up short. Carmelo stayed in New York, Love stayed in Minnesota (for now), LeBron went to Cleveland, Bosh and Wade stayed in Miami and Stephenson went to Charlotte. The Bulls made some moves, which I’ll focus on a bit later, but I think the best moves for the Bulls were those made by other teams. Carmelo stayed in New York on a team that is rebuilding instead of teaming up with LeBron somewhere and LeBron James went back to a young but talented Cleveland team, officially ending the Big 3 era. The East has become spread out for the first time since 2009 and as a result, is wide open.

The moves the Bulls made focused on depth, something they haven’t truly had since the 2010 season where they went to the Eastern Conference Finals. They added, Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Brooks, Doug McDermott, and re-signed Kirk Hinrich. The Bulls are 11 deep if you count Tony Snell, who is having a very good Summer League, into the equation.

Obviously the biggest factor in their success this season is Derrick Rose. Will he play for an entire season and will he return to form. But assuming he does, because for our own mental health we have to, the Bulls have given Thibs reliable options off the bench so he doesn’t run the same six players into the ground the way he did the last two years. Hopefully he’ll be able to follow the Spurs’ model I wrote about in my last post and take advantage of his depth to allow his top players to be fresh come playoff time. Here is my take on the new Bulls.

Pau Gasol: Veteran, great passer, scorer and rebounder. Takes Boozer’s spot, should have numbers about as good as Boozer at his best, with fewer bonehead plays and screams for Jo to “get that”. Interested to see how much he has left in the tank but Pau strikes me as the kind of guy with a skill set that can last him well into his later years if his minutes are managed (which is no guarantee with this coach). Creates are really exciting 3 man big rotation with Jo and Taj, and should be lethal running the pick-and-roll with DRose. He has championship experience and is obviously highly respected by the Bulls.

Nikola Mirotic: Honestly, a big fat question mark, and the best bet is probably not to set expectations too high for him for a while. However, a stretch 4 as your 8th or 9th man with the potential to be a solid shooter and a matchup nightmare is great to have. As long as he isn’t depended on to heavily early on, and my guess knowing Thibs is he won’t be, he could be a really interesting piece. And after waiting on him for three years, I’m just excited to see him out there.

Doug McDermott: I watched a little of him in Summer League, and while I agree with the qualifier “its summer league”, this guy could be really, really good. He is an incredible shooter – the comparisons to Kyle Korver are dead on. Moves well without the ball and has a very quick release. But he is big and can get to the hoop as well, which is something Korver never did. Thibs tends to “red shirt” his rookies, but I can see this guy very quickly eating up Dunleavy’s minutes.

Aaron Brooks: I think this is a great signing. Not only as the Nate Robinson, DJ Augustin, etc. DRose insurance plan, but as a legit 1 who can come off the bench and score. He can give Rose some rest and also allow Hinrich to move over to the 2 in some lineups. Also gives the Bulls a very interesting option to go small and fast with he and Rose together. A trusted veteran who Thibs can trust now allows this team to go a legit 11 deep.

 

Big “T” Over Big 3

 

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Over the last couple weeks, I’ve thought a lot about writing something about how this trend of stars teaming up is not good for the NBA. How I missed the old days when the best players wanted to play AGAINST each other. And we felt the same way as fans. I wanted to see MJ vs. Magic, not with Magic. Thats what the Dream Team was for. Players were competitors, who didn’t become friends until long after their playing days were over. Now they’re all friends. I started to think as a Bulls fan, well, if you can’t beat em, join em. Lets not choose between Melo and Love, lets get BOTH Melo and Love. Super teams are apparently the only way to win now.

And then I watched this year’s NBA Finals, which concluded with the Spurs completing a 4-1 series win last night over the Heat. The Spurs are the anthesis of the new age super team. They are a team with a core built from the ground up through the draft, with role players from free agency filling gaps. They are not flashy, you won’t see them in commercials, but you will see them play fundamental basketball the way it was meant to be played. So to see them beat the Big 3 so handily helped restore my faith in the NBA. I wasn’t just happy that the Heat lost, but I was thrilled that the Spurs were the team that did it. I’ve always been a fan of the way they play and the way they run their organization, from the days of David Robinson to the present. Tim Duncan is my favorite non-Bulls NBA player of all time. But just look at the team they’ve put together. They are filled with late first round or second round draft picks, free agents picked off the slush pile, and international players. No big stars teaming up, no max contracts, no celebrity status. And it doesn’t escape me that the Spurs won because their defense just flat out shut down the Heat.

So this brings me back to the Bulls, and the thought that they should be modeling their team after the Spurs, not the Heat. They have the smart, defensive minded head coach. They have a solid core of home grown players. So what is missing that will put this team over the edge? They need to be able to score. They aren’t just missing one players – they need more of a “pick your poison” team. Players like Danny Green, and Patty Mills need to fill out their bench. Guys that are a threat with the ball. Doesn’t have to be a star, doesn’t have to average 30 points a game. Just needs to be a guy that scares you if he’s open. The current Bulls don’t have that guy. Rose is the closest thing they have but who knows what he’ll be when/if he comes back for a full season. Maybe that player is Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Love, or maybe its someone we haven’t talked about yet. But the Bulls aren’t as far from elite as we think. They need to stay healthy, and Tom Thibodeau needs to take a page out of Pop’s book and learn how to evenly distribute his minutes and allow his players to be at their best come playoff time. These are potentially easy fixes, and watching the Spurs in this finals has me off my thought that the Bulls needed to just clean house and find stars. NBA Championships can still be won the right away. The Spurs proved it, and the Bulls can too.

Oh Bulls, I just can’t quit you

Noah

No matter how lost the last two seasons have seemed, I cannot quit these Bulls. No matter how many times they are counted out or how many star players to lose, the Bulls continue to be not only fun to watch, but one of the top tier teams in the NBA who could beat anyone on any given night. After Derrick Rose was lost for the season for the second year in a row, I was ready to cash in all of my chips on these Bulls. Trade away their assets, tank and hope for good draft position going into next year. But for the second year in a row, the Bulls refused to quit. They refused to listen to their critics and they again find themselves one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference heading into the playoffs. Last year was a fun team to watch. Nate Robinson was worth the price of admission and kept the Bulls in several games they should not have otherwise been in. But injuries plagued them all year and by the time they hit round two, they just didn’t have enough to compete with. But as much as Robinson and Marco Bellineli were fun to watch and made big plays, they also made a lot of mistakes that had me yelling at them in frustration almost as much as I did in joy.

Yet somehow this year’s team, with no Rose and no Deng, is a much more fundamentally sound team. DJ Augustin can score off the bench, but can also play defense and makes his teammates around him better. Mike Dunleavy can hit the perimeter shot, but also has size over almost ever small forward in the league. Taj Gibson is improved his scoring, continues to be a force on defense, and now closes every game. Jimmy Butler’s game has improved, and he has settled almost seamlessly into the Deng role. And coach Tom Thibodeau just flat out knows how to get the best out of his players, and put a team capable of winning on the floor every single night.

But the biggest difference is the emergence of Joakim Noah as a leader, a legitimate difference maker, and the heart of this team. Noah’s energy and enthusiasm makes him fun to watch, but its his winning attitude that makes this less of a “try-hard bunch” and more of a team who could make a legitimate playoff run in an overall weak conference. And that is what makes them so intriguing to me this year. They are not the “Little Engine That Could” team they were last year. They play as a team, they have no selfish players, and its no longer a surprise when they beat a good team. So even when they lose like they did last night, they always bounce back. So as a fan, they don’t leave you down for too long. And why I just can’t quit these Bulls.

Sweet Home Week in Review (3/31-4/6)

Emilio-Bonifacio

Chicago Cubs – Weekly Record: 2-4

Chicago White Sox – Weekly Record: 3-3

The baseball season kicked off this week, and it looks like this year is going to be as ugly as advertised here in Chicago. I got to watch a little of both teams this week and here is what I’ve learned – Jose Abreu is, in fact, a beast. Already has 6 RBI in his first week and its only a matter of time before he starts sending a few out of the park. The Cubs are still a major work in progress on offense, but their pitching has actually been solid. They just can’t score runs and leave way too many runners in scoring position. Elilio Bonifacio gave Cubs fans something to cheer about in his first two games, but appears to be coming back to earth, as expected. They need to start to see more from Castro, Rizzo, Olt and Lake otherwise any interest that may have been able to get in the Major League club this year is going to sputter out fast.

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Chicago Blackhawks – Weekly Record – 3-0

The Blackhawks have bounced back strong from their second big injury in as many weeks. They got good news as well that Toews and Kane should be back at full strength for the playoffs, and the Blackhawks have earned some much needed points this week as they attempt to get home ice in the first round. Their 5 points in their three games this week was capped off with a huge win over division rival St. Louis. They now sit in the 5 seed, 2 points behind San Jose and Colorado, who lost to the Penguins on Sunday. This is just the kind of effort they need to get back to being the champs we remember from last year, who had depth and were getting contributions from every line. Hopefully some wins to finish off the year without their two best players will be the extra motivation this team needed to head into the post-season with some serious momentum.

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Chicago Bulls – Weekly Record: 4-0

The Bulls have won 8 of their last 10 and continue to defy all odds this season as they are fighting for the 3-seed in the East. D.J Augustin has been amazing, taking the team on his back and leading them in scoring come off the bench. This from a guy who was picked up off the slush pile midway through the season. As much as we don’t expect the Bulls to be serious title contenders this year, I’d love to see them make a playoff run and make some teams sweat. The ideal scenario I see has the Bulls getting themselves the 3-seed and getting Washington (who spent the week talking shit about how they could beat the Bulls only to be embarrassed by them Saturday night) in the first round and Indiana, who is in the middle of a late season free-fall in the second round, all while avoiding red hot Brooklyn in round one and Miami until the conference finals.

Sweet Home Week in Review Double-Issue (3/17-3/30)

We missed a week, caught up in March Madness and what little time we had for non sports-related real life. So we present out Double Issue to look back on the last two weeks in Chicago sports. These last two weeks saw a some great highs and potentially devastating lows for our Chicago teams.

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Somewhere in the middle, today is Opening Day in baseball for the Cubs and White Sox, and while Opening Day always comes with a sense of excitement, there is still the sobering reality that both teams are re-building and expectations remain rock bottom on the North and South sides. There has been excitement for the Cubs in spring training with their young stars and future core, but most of them won’t see a Major League field for at least another year. So for now we hope to see steps forward from Castro, Rizzo and Wood and hope Mike Olt can continue his great spring and pan out to be one of the team’s biggest steals. But for both teams there won’t be much motivation to go to the ballpark outside of the general enjoyment of taking in a ballgame. And honestly, I’m still going  to enjoy that, especially since ticket prices on stubhub will likely drop with the quality of the baseball leading to some cheap tickets for me.

The Bears made another big splash in free agency last week, signing veteran DE Jared Allen from the Minnesota Vikings. This was a really unexpected move by the Bears who didn’t seem to be seriously perusing Allen. But he adds depth to a defensive line that has undergone a complete overhaul in free agency after an awful season. It will also allow the Bears more flexibility in the draft to address a secondary still in dire need of help. Allen fills the veteran Julius Peppers role, but hopefully has more in the tank than the older Peppers did last year. He is not going to be the 22 sack player he was a couple years ago, but if he can get to the quarterback as part of a tandem with Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, it will be a major upgrade for the Bears at a much better price. I also love how much the Bears have been hanging out this off-season, eveything from pottery to go-cart races. This is Marc Trestman’s philosophy at work, and hope a team that plays together grows together it’ll find its way onto the field come the fall.

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Chicago Blackhawks (3/17-3/30) – 3-4-1

The big low has been the Blackhawks. After losing Patrick Kane for the remainder of the regular season last week, Jonathan Toews suffered an injury in Sunday night’s game and will be out for a yet unknown amount of time. This coming during a span where the Blackhawks have lost 4 of their last 5 games, with only 6 games left in the regular season. They have not looked like champions all season but have shown up in big games when they needed to. But with Kane and now Toews out, their chance at defending their title seems to be dwindling. Hopefully the two will be back and full strength by playoff team, otherwise it may be an early exit in a greatly improved Western Conference.

Chicago Bulls (3/17-3/30) – 4-3

The Bulls are still fighting along, 1 game out of the 3 seed in the East. Last night DJ Augustin went for 33 points off the bench and Joakim Noah flirted with another triple-double in a winning effort against the Celtics. Derrick Rose is practicing again, but the Bulls have not budged on their stance that Rose will not be returning this year. Only 9 games left in the regular season and the Bulls look to be on pace for another second round exit in another exciting but still lost season.

Looking Ahead

Will the Cubs and Sox enjoy winning records, even if just for a day or two early in the season? Will injuries to Kane and Toews keep the Blackhawks from chasing the title again this year? Do the Bulls have enough to make a longer run in the playoffs and can they stay healthy enough to do so? Are the Bears done making moves?

Sweet Home Week in Review (3/9-3/16)

Chicago Bears Free Agency

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The big story this week was Bears free agency. The Bears addressed their biggest need, DE, with the signing of Lamarr Houston from Oakland. After their top choice Michael Bennett re-signed with the Seahawks, Houston was the next best guy available and fills a major need for the Bears at that position. And while YouTube highlight reels can make anyone look good, you’ll see he at least has the potential to make the Bears’ pass rush formidable again.

The other big news came late on Friday with the re-signing of Charles Tillman. While the Bears talked about how much they wanted Tillman back, it always seemed to me he was one of Lovie’s guys who was not happy with the coaching change and would take the opportunity to leave this off-season – and it was not surprising that his first visit was to Lovie in Tampa. What I didn’t expect was Tillman to leave without a deal in place (or at least an offer). But Tillman back to the Bears is a good thing. He is still one of the best corners in the game and a turnover machine. With so many other moving parts on the Bears defense, having the CB core back with he and Tim Jennings is a comfort, and if he can stay healthy it benefits all of the other positions in front of him. They still need some CB depth but I see them looking to the draft for that.

The Bears’ losses were Josh McCown to the Buccaneers and Julius Peppers to the Packers. While I hoped McCown would come back to Chicago, it was fair that he was given a chance to see what was out there. And while I am happy he landed where he did, Lovie Smith has never had a good eye for quarterbacks, and they just made McCown, a 34 year old journyman quarterback their starter. No matter how well he played last year, I would not be happy if that was who Lovie brought in to be the starter for my team. Peppers’ departure was a given after a pitiful season and his epic cap hit number. But what makes this news exciting is that he is going to division rival Green Bay. And if Peppers is anywhere near as effective as he was last year, Jay Cutler will be safe and sound for at least two games this season.

The other FA signings the Bears made this week were safeties M.D. Jennings and Ryan Mundy (who will compete for the starting job and will please-dear-god get it over Chris Conte), Defensive End Willie Young (from the Lions who will likely start on the other side of Houston) and special teamers Domenik Hixon and Jordan Senn.

Chicago Bulls – Weekly record: 3-1

The Bulls are in the midst of a challenging home-stand, which started last Sunday against the Heat (a game I attended, and one of the most exciting Bulls games I’ve ever been to). They went on to win 3 of 4 this week, with big wins also coming against the red hot Rockets and the Kings. The lone loss was a let down game against the Spurs – but the big story this week has been Joakim Noah playing out of his damn mind. This week Noah has averaged 17 points, 10.2 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2.7 blocks. Dating back to last year’s playoffs, Noah has become the leader of the team and the face of the franchise, and I think he will continue to be even after Derrick Rose returns (whenever the hell that’ll be). And though he says he doesn’t like the MVP chants from the crowd in games, he has very quickly become Chicago’s favorite current athlete.

Chicago Blackhawks – Weekly Record: 3-3

The hockey season is winding down and if the Blackhawks are looking to make a run at back to back Stanley Cups, now is the time to turn it on. And with home ice so important, the Blackhawks sit in third place in their division and 5th in the West. If there is one thing we have learned about them over the last two seasons, its that they are a totally different team with Marian Hossa. And they proved this again on Sunday when Hossa returned for injury and got them 3 points (1 goal and 2 assists) in a 4-1 victory over the Red Wings. With 14 games left in the regular season – 2 of which against the Blues who they have had trouble with all year – they need to start winning some games and making up some points and playoff seeding.