Cubs introduce Lester; New Era

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The Cubs introduced their new big money ace Jon Lester yesterday, and while the press conference itself wasn’t particularly entertaining – lacking the quirk and quotability of the Joe Maddon presser just a few weeks ago – its significance is apparent. The signing of Lester, along with the hiring of new manager Maddon, is a clear message to Cubs fans that the era of bottoming out is over and the era of winning is ready to begin.

In fact, Lester’s contract quieted any speculation that the Cubs either didn’t have the money Theo Epstein needed, or were hesitant to spend. His contract, $155 million over six years, is the largest multi-year contract in the history of Chicago sports.

So the big question is, is Lester really worth it? Yes, he’s a proven ace who can be the head of a championship pitching rotation. A lefty with the mechanics built for a long career, and just the kind of experience a young Cubs team needs. He has won two World Series, both with the Red Sox, and is a three-time all-star. He provides the kind of stability on the mound the Cubs so badly needed, which will also take some of the pressure off of their young bats every fifth game while they continue to grow.

But to me, more than what he brings to the field, this signing is the Cubs brass sending a loud message to the fan base that this Cubs team is ready to win now. espnapi_dm_141210_mlb_olney_lester_why_cubs_wmainBoth Lester and Maddon discussed it at both of their press conferences, as did Epstein. Lester is by no means young. Entering his tenth season, this signing was much more about the present than it was about the future.

Some have compared this deal to the one they gave Alfonso Soriano, an eight year, $136 million deal he signed in 2006. But the biggest difference to me is that when they signed Soriano, the Cubs were not focusing any energy on their farm system. There wasn’t a young bat like him in the wings preparing to take over once Soriano began his decline, which started sooner than I think even the Cubs predicted. But this is a new era, and while Lester is helping the Cubs win now, he is also allowing youngsters like Kyle Hendricks and CJ Edwards develop at their own pace.

This is the first time in almost a decade that I’ve been truly excited for baseball season. Regular season baseball games on the North Side will actually matter in 2015. Since Theo Epstein was hired back in 2011, the Cubs have preached patience. And I don’t care what “Back to the Future 2″ says, I am not expecting a World Series next year. But now we can finally start to see the fruits of our collected suffering over the last seven years.

As long as we remember to continue temper our expectations and understand that the growing pains are still far from over, we are in store for an extremely entertaining baseball season – words that I’m hoping to become more and more comfortable using in reference to the Cubs for many years to come.

Bulls Spreading the Love

Try this on for size:

Player A:
21.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.53 SPG, .498 FG%

Player B:
19.4 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 2.07 BPG, .493 FG%

Player C:
17.3 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 0.27 BPG, 1.7 3PM (per game), .439 FG%

Now if you could only choose two out of these three players for your team, which two would you choose? I believe the majority would select Players A & B.

Time for the big reveal:

Player A is the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler.
Player B is the Bulls’ Pau Gasol.
Player C is the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love.

The reason for comparison is because this past summer, the Bulls made a trade offer to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love, which included Butler and the rights to Euro star Nikola Mirotic, who has also shined off the bench in lieu of an injured Taj Gibson. So did the Bulls dodge a huge bullet when Minnesota (not-surprisingly) rejected their offer in favor of the one they did accept from Cleveland: the #1 picks in the 2013 and 2014 drafts, respectively, in Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins?

As for whom Minnesota did accept in return, Bennett was a bust in his rookie debut for ct-spt-1007-bulls-wizardsCleveland last season and has shown little improvement in his sophomore campaign wih the T-Wolves, while Wiggins, once touted as a future superstar, has underwhelmed in the first month of his NBA career. Without question, the Timberwolves turned down a better offer from the Bulls, at least in the short-term. Wiggins may still pan out as a franchise player someday, but there’s no denying the insane numbers Butler is putting up this year.

And then there’s Gasol, the former Lakers star whom the Bulls signed with the money they cleared once they applied the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer. After whiffing on both trading for Love and signing marquee free-agent Carmelo Anthony, the Bulls “settled” on consolation prize, Gasol. Had the Bulls succeeded in obtaining Love or Anthony, Gasol would have signed elsewhere (meanwhile, Anthony is leading his Knicks into the NBA cellar with a 4-14 record as of publication time).

So the Bulls appear better off and deeper with the combo of Butler, Gasol, and Mirotic vs. Kevin Love. Perhaps the one area the rejected trade might have benefited Chicago is that it would have prevented Cleveland from adding another potential future Hall-of-Famer to its already-dangerous core of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Arguably Cleveland would have fared better off withpau-gasol Wiggins in the long-haul, but Love will help the Cavs contend for a title immediately.

Like the Miami Heat had in each of the previous four seasons, the Cavaliers now serve as the Bulls’ greatest obstacle in reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 1998. It’s quite possible, if not likely, that these two teams will cross paths in the postseason come spring. It isn’t out of the question that Love, much as Chris Bosh had with Miami, will become the dismayed new villain to those fans west of Toledo.

However, even though the Bulls lost out on the Kevin Love sweepstakes, these fans have more to hope for than simply Derrick Rose staying healthy. Jimmy Butler looks like the real deal. It’s still early, but at least two Bulls appear All-Star Weekend bound, and neither is named Derrick Rose or Joakim Noah. That’s right; Butler and Gasol, the two players we fans almost missed out on seeing play in red and black this year, are both outperforming Kevin Love. How’s that for a consolation prize?

Sweet Home Month in Review: November

Its been a strange November here in Chicago. Winter came early, and much like the Chicago Bears, like a slap in the face. The Bulls and Blackhawks started off a bit bumpy, have overcome some core injuries and ended the month hot. The White Sox were the first to strike in free agency while the Cubs have been silent, at least on the personnel front, as the Wrigley renovation is finally underway. Lets take a look back at this month in Chicago sports.

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Chicago Blackhawks – 9-5

The Blackhawks started the month of slow, dropping three of their first four games. Early this month lines were constantly changing as coach Joel Quenneville attempted to find the right combinations. Corey Crawford returned to the  lineup after being injured for most of October, but they lost Patrick Sharp to a lower body injury on November 4. Despite losing Sharp and, later this month, Trevor van Riemsdyk, the Blackhawks finally found their offense thanks mostly to their Kane, Richards, Versteeg line. Brad Richards, off a slow start to the season, seems to be finally finding his role with the team and has been right at home playing alongside Kane and Versteeg.

While their offensive awakening has helped the Blackhawks return to the form we have come accustomed to seeing, it has been their defense that has really impressed. They are second overall in the NHL in Goals Against, and first in Penalty Kill Percentage (91.3%). The team finished 5-1 on their “circus trip”, no easy feat, and won eight of their last ten games.

December looks to be a challenging schedule, which kicks off Wednesday with three tough games in a row, against St Louis, Montreal and Nashville.

Chicago Bulls – 10-5Chicago Bulls v Brooklyn Nets

It has been an up and down start for the Bulls as the Derrick Rose saga continues. In the first month of the season, Rose has only started and finished five of the team’s 17 games. But when he has played the entire game, he has looked very good helping the Bulls to a  5-0 record in those games.

But Rose hasn’t been the biggest story for the Bulls. Jimmy Butler has looking like an all-star early this season as he tries to prove to the Bulls he is worth more than the four year, $40 million contract he turned down before the season started. Butler leads all Bulls in scoring and is ranked third in the East behind only LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Its hard to say if Butler can keep this up, especially given the 40 minutes per game he is playing (1st in the NBA by more than a minute), but at least for now the Bulls are greatly improved on offense.

Pau Gasol is quietly having an all-star season as well, averaging a double-double and giving the Bulls the low post presence on both ends that they’ve been searching for. But the most exciting thing for me is the success of the Bulls’ bench. With an early season injury to Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic has taken advantage. He appears to be a better player than I thought he would be, with his ability to spread the floor and hit three pointers, but also drive to the hoop and rebound. Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich help round out what looks to be one of the best second units in the league.

The key to the Bulls is staying healthy. They are undefeated when their intended starting lineup plays, which has only happened five times. It will be an ongoing storyline worth watching as the season moves along

Chicago Bears – 2-2

matt-forte-stephen-tulloch-nfl-chicago-bears-detroit-lions-850x560And now, the bad news. As in, “Bad News Bears”. And they are living up to the name. The Bears entered this month coming off the bye week with an opportunity to get their season back on track, but it all came tumbling down as they gave up 55 points to the Green Bay Packers. They followed that up with wins against two bad teams (Minnesota and Tampa Bay) but continue to underachieve on both sides of the ball. The offense still hasn’t clicked, the play calling has been unoriginal and unproductive, and the defense has fallen to one of the worst in the league, giving up 28.1 points per game (tied for 30th with Oakland). They got off to a good start on Thanksgiving against the Lions, opening up with a 14-3 lead in the first quarter, but bafflingly continue to keep the ball out of Matt Forte’s hands and ended up losing 34-17 as any playoff hopes they might have had were ripped from their delicate grasp.

Its difficult to identify what the Bears will be playing for in these final four games other than pride. The bigger question will be how much of the coaching staff will be turned over and how soon it will or won’t happen. The obvious choice would be to replace everyone from the GM on down, but the Bears have not been known to make such bold moves.

In other news, Lance Briggs has been placed on season-ending IR, and has likely played his last game as a Chicago Bear. While Briggs has been a Hall of Fame player for most of his career here in Chicago, he’s been merely a distraction in his last two seasons.

Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox 

d88a375755f416b15988787c253397a3_crop_northThe Cubs started off the month strong, bringing in Joe Maddon as their manager and thus bringing tangible hope to the North Side. With his winning reputation and locker room shenanigans, Maddon is exactly the kind of manager the Cubs needed to bring excitement to the upcoming season while they hope to replace “rebuilding” with “contention”.

The acquisition of Maddon was supposed to spark a big free agent splash, but so far it has been all quiet on that front. The Cubs missed out on Russell Martin, and are in discussions with Jon Lester, although there is nothing eminent as he continues to meet with teams.  The Wrigley renovation is finally underway, but hit a snag this month as the team announced that the bleachers might not be ready in time for Opening Night. It’s always something, isn’t it?usa-today-8085980.0

While much of the focus in the offseason as been on what moves the Cubs would make, the White Sox struck first and signed first baseman Adam Laroche. The 35-year-old first baseman agreed to a two-year, $25 million contract, and will likely fill the role left vacant by Paul Konerko.

 

 

Week 12 Recap: Bears Out-Lovie the Bucs

The Bears’ win streak improved to a whopping two games Sunday, with a 21-13 win over former head coach Lovie Smith and the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the win, the Bears improved to 5-6 on the season heading into a big divisional showdown on Thanksgiving day against the Detroit Lions. smith-lovie-112014-getty-ftrjpg_1m78meeq7k3k312iws772akyvk-300x168

In Lovie Smith’s highly anticipated return to Soldier Field, the Bears summoned one of Smith’s old game plans in an ugly win headlined by take-aways, short fields and very little offense.

We did not wave goodbye to Lovie Smith after a 10-6 season only to bring in an offensive minded coach who can’t produce offense save his life. If the Bears wanted to win games in a manner  like they did on Sunday, they shouldn’t have brought in Trestman and signed Cutler to that massive deal. This was not how this was supposed to go.

A look at the numbers against a 2-9 team with one of the worse defenses in the NFL. The Bears again only managed 21 points as they continue to underachieve and fail to find their way to the endzone. The offense gained a measly 204 total yards as they failed once again to spread the field, make big plays, and put together long drives. They were 4-16 on third down, and extend their streak of first quarter goose eggs to six games. That’s right, the Bears have not scored in the first quarter since their week five loss to Carolina. Brandon Marshall had as many penalties as he did receptions (three) and Cutler only found the endzone once against the 23rd ranked pass defense in the NFL.

It was the defense that stepped up for the Bears this week, perhaps in a statement game for them against their former head coach. They forced turnovers like the old Lovie-led teams used to and allowed the offense to score on short fields, giving Jay Cutler and Matt Forte easy opportunities to get points for the Bears. Stephen Paea continues to play well, and Brandon Bass and Cornelius Washington also came up big for the Bears on Sunday. The defense still gave up a lot of yards, but took the ball away in big moments to help hold the Bucs to only one touchdown on the day.

Wins in these last two games against two last place teams are not enough to assuage us of our issues with the Bears. The fact that the Bears couldn’t muster any more points or yards against these two teams is an embarrassment, and they only got away with it because they were playing bad teams. This will not continue to hold up, and we’ll get a very painful fall back to reality on Thursday at Ford Field. The Lions are number one in the NFL in run defense and in points allowed. The Lions’ offense has struggled lately, but what better way to get back on track than facing an historically bad offense coming off a game that left them feeling unrealistically good about themselves.   If the offense could barely muster points against the Vikings and the Buccaneers, they are not going to have very much to be thankful for on Thursday other than a couple extra days off.

 

Bears fans – Root for the Bucs?

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In the second year of the Marc Trestman/Jay Cutler experience one thing has been made clear to Bears fans. The pairing that many thought would finally match Cutler’s potential with his results is not working. The Bears’ offense, which was near the top of the league last year, has taken a huge step backward. The defense, which was upgraded in the off season through free agency and the draft, has given up 50+ points in losses twice already this season. The talent is there particularly on offense, and the fact that it has not come together this year falls on the coach, the quarterback and the people who put them there.

Marc Trestman was supposed to the “quarterback whisperer”. The longtime journeyman who never found a long-term coaching home in the league despite his offensive brilliance. He was given all of the weapons on offense and in his second season as Bears head coach he has failed to make it work. There is no excuse for having this amount of talent on that side of the ball and be scoring as measly 21 points a game in only four wins in ten games.

So why hasn’t a coaching change been made? For one, pride. The Bears passed up Bruce Arians in favor of Trestman and we all see how that worked out for Arians, coaching the Arizona Cardinals to the best record in the NFL. The Bears decided to make Jay Cutler the highest paid player in the NFL instead of giving him the franchise tag and making sure that he was the guy before committing so much money to him. To come out and say they were wrong would be crippling to the pride of upper management in a season that was filled with such high expectations. And after losing 51-23 to the Patriots and then 55-14 to the Packers, their pride has been tested but somehow not broken.

But how difficult will it be for them to stand behind their choices after losing Sunday on the lakefront to the 2-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coached by the coach they fired and the quarterback they let go? Lovie Smith coming to town and beating the Bears on their home field with one of the worst teams in the NFL would be rock bottom. And as is the case with most difficult issues, it usually takes “rock bottom” to incite any kind of change.

The Bears have the worst defense in the NFL, giving up 29 points per game. Tampa Bay is only two spots below, at 27.9. And Tampa Bay’s offense is even worse, sitting at 28th in YPG and 25th in PPG. Losing to this team would be bad enough – but if they were to lose to Lovie Smith and Josh McCown, the coach and quarterback the Bears moved on from, that might just be enough to cause the Bears brass so much shame they are forced to make a change immediately. I’m so tired of seeing Cutler stare down his receivers and throw into triple coverage. I’m so tired of hearing Marc Trestman come to the microphone and tell us how great practice was, how they are working on all three phases and how they’re focusing on the next one. Accountability is more than the words you say, its in the actions you take to correct it. Trestman and Cutler have only gotten to one half of that equation this year.

The alternative is the Bears winning Sunday, pulling off a few more wins in the last half of this season and finishing middle of the road, 7-9 or 8-8. According to management, they would be a team “coming off a tough start but trending upward at the end of the season”. Or at least that is what we would be fed while little to no changes are made. We would be given the same false sense of hope we’ve been given for years and give them no reason to make significant changes. This would leave us in the worst possible place to be as a professional sports team: Mediocre. Middle of the road. And heading into the off season with another mid-to-late first round pick, not a lot of cap flexibility, and more or less the same coach and roster, we’d just be spinning out wheels.

Big changes need to happen, sooner rather than later. The only way I see that happening is a loss on Sunday to Lovie and the Bucs. If the Bears lose this game, the blowback against ownership will be deafening. A win just brings the Bears one step closer to mediocracy. A fate we’re all too familiar with.

Week 11 Recap: False Hope

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The Chicago Bears earned their home first win of 2014 on Sunday, with a 21-13 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. It was the Bears’ first win at Soldier Field since Dec. 9 of last year, as they improve to 4-6 on the season.

It was a much needed win for the underachieving Bears, who had previously dropped three in a row and five of their last six games. With the win the Bears keep their playoff hopes alive, slim as they may be.

But even with the win, the Bears still don’t look like the team we expected coming into the year, let alone a playoff team. The yards have been there, but the points have not. Despite 468 total yards, nearly double what the Vikings had – 243 – the Bears only managed to put up 21 points. Jay Cutler threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns, but also had two interceptions. In fact, the Bears barely managed to escape with a win thanks to a 4th quarter endzone interception by Ryan Mundy with just under two minutes left in the game. Things might have been worse had they not been facing a rookie quarterback and one of the worst offenses in the NFL – the Vikings are 30th in total yards per game 28th in points per game.

Despite the win, this Bears team is still far from the playoff contending team we expected coming into the season. Poor play calling (another failed drive at the end of the half and a failed fourth and one goal-line play), and an inability to convert yards into points continue to haunt the Bears. Its hard to believe that 135 yards from Alshon Jeffrey, 90 yards from Brandon Marshall and 175 total yards from Matt Forte didn’t result in more points on the board.

Do not be fooled, Bears fans. This is just one win, albeit barely, over a poor team. None of the issues that have plagued the Bears this season have been corrected. They still struggle to score points, Jay Cutler still throws brain-numbing interceptions (two in this game), and the defense has yet to prove they can stop a high end offense. The combined records of teams they’ve beaten is 16-24, not exactly the elite of the NFL. Those who had hoped a loss to Minnesota would be a conduit to change will just have to wait another week.

 

Is Derrick Rose the next Penny Hardaway?

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This feels all too familiar. Coming off of his second major knee surgery in as many seasons, Derrick  Rose is having trouble staying on the court yet again. Two ankle sprains and now a hamstring have kept Rose out of half of the Bulls’ first 10 games this season. The build up of minor injuries such as these is exactly what led up to Rose eventually tearing his ACL during the 2012 playoffs.

When he has been on the court he has been good, showing flashes of his former MVP self. He’s put up averages of 18 points and five-and-a-half assists per game, and displayed the same speed we always remembered. While the Bulls are taking a much more conservative, cautionary approach to his injuries this year, I cannot help but wonder if we are watching the beginning of the end for what was once a very promising NBA career.

An all-star caliber player with a unique skill set, an NBA lottery pick out of Memphis with potential to be one of the greatest point guards ever. Sound familiar? That’s because we’ve seen this before in the career of Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. Hardaway was selected third out of Memphis in 1993 by the Golden State Warriors and later traded to Orlando for the top pick, Chris Webber.

During the 1994–95 NBA season, the Magic won a franchise record 57 games while Hardaway averaged 20.9 points, 7.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game. He started in his first All-Star game and was named All-NBA First Team. The next season, Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal led the Magic to the Eastern Conference Finals, only to lose to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. O’Neal left Orlando for the Lakers the next season, Hardaway was finally the lone star and leader of the team but failed to lead the Magic to another playoff win.

The very next year, Hardaway suffered a devastating knee injury and was never the same. His unique size and ability helped him still achieve some success, but his numbers dropped drastically. Hardaway couldn’t stay healthy for a full year after that, battling foot and ankle injuries causing him to miss time until two micro fracture surgeries put him out for the season. He battled back and returned again, but he was a shell of the player he used to be in stints with the Suns, Knicks and Heat. Yeah, it’s starting to sound like the Derrick Rose story. But could Rose’s story have a different ending, perhaps a more positive one involving the NBA title Hardaway never received?

A year-by-year stat comparison of the two players in their first four years. The fourth year for both players were strike-shortened seasons and both players missed most of the following year with a career-changing knee injury. The similarities are mind-blowing.

Year 1 Games Played PPG AST Season Result
Rose 81 16.8 6.3 Round 1 Loss
Hardaway 82 16.0 6.6 Round 1 Loss
Year 2
Rose 78 20.8 6.0 Round 1 Loss
Hardaway 77 20.9 7.2 NBA Finals Loss
Year 3
Rose 81 25.8 7.7 East Finals Loss
Hardaway 82 21.7 7.1 East Finals Loss
Year 4
Rose 39 21.8 7.9 Round 1 Loss
Hardaway 59 20.5 5.6 Round 1 Loss

Are we seeing another story of a potential NBA star’s career cut short? The similarities are eery and hard to ignore. For Bulls fans, you just have to hope this is not the case. The Bulls this season could be special and make a real run at an NBA title – but I don’t believe that’ll happen unless Rose is on the court, something we’re starting to see as more of a challenge than I think he or anyone expected.

It’s hard to imagine Rose ever returning to MVP form, and while Hardaway did develop into a quality role player, his career arc was riddled with injury. Maybe these little early season nicks are nothing, dealing with the rust of sitting out two years in a row. But it’s hard to ignore that Rose’s style of play is not built for a career of longevity. Players who move like he does and hit the lane with that amount of power and quickness don’t play very long without making significant adjustments to their games.

Then there is the mental aspect, which is clearly starting to take a toll on Rose. A constant hot topic in the media, and understandably so, Rose is becoming more defensive all the time. On top of the fact that he has to continue playing knowing that any wrong turn on the court, any awkward landing, could spell the end for him.