Wennington’s Midterm Report Card

Wennington, Funk and Kerr
All-Star Weekend for guys like Bill Wennington, Neil Funk and Johnny "Red" Kerr means it's vacation time. (Courtesy of Bill Wennington)
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    February 18, 2005 – Minutes before breaking away from Chicago for a little getaway of his own, Bill Wennington put the finishing touches on this week’s column in which he looks at the entire roster to offer his expertise on who is doing what and why it’s working for the Bulls.

    By Bill Wennington

    The All-Star break is upon us and the Bulls have played 49 games, compiling a record of 26-23 this season. Even the Windy City’s biggest optimist has to admit: this is a record that not many people thought was attainable after their dismal 0-9 start. But now the annual circus trip of November seems like it was years ago and people are talking NBA Playoffs—realistically, no less.

    Now, three players make their way to Denver for the All-Star weekend, some migrate south to warmer climates for a few days and others just relax. It was especially nice to see the team finish strong this past week, winning three in a row against Minnesota, Sacramento and Toronto. All were well-played battles in which the Bulls fought for victory.

    What can be said about this team at the midterm break? Our kids get report cards from school, and I am sure that at least a few of the team’s beat writers will have grades out before too long to tell you what they think about each player and his performance. So I’ve decided to jump on the bandwagon and do the same. After all, to me it looks like it is going to be a good report card for everyone. Won’t mom be proud? Ice cream and cake for all…

    Let’s start with Scott Skiles and his coaching staff. I feel they have done a great job of keeping this young team together with a positive attitude. It can be disheartening when things do not go your way, and the 0-9 start was a real test. There was also a dropoff about two weeks ago and it looked as though the players were starting to get tired. Defensive efforts started to slip, but the team emerged from both of those with flying colors (RED and BLACK!) and may even be a stronger club because of them.

    Scott has done a great job of getting the guys to work together. This starts to answer a question I received from Tarran in the Bahamas: “It is a lot sweeter when your team starts winning like the Bulls are now. Do you think the team is as tight-knit of a bunch as it was when you were playing?”

    Six trophies at Grant Park
    Sure they had MJ, Scottie and Phil, but trusting each other and staying close helped the Bulls dynasty teams along the way, too.

    (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

    I don’t think that many teams in the NBA are as close as the Bulls were in the 90s. Times have changed and it seems that in general, guys in the league do more things on their own. However, this team is somewhat of an exception to that. For example, the Super Bowl party I mentioned last week was attended by just about everyone from the players to the coaches. They all came and had a good time. Last year, I remember about three guys showing up for the team Super Bowl party.

    The coaches have the team playing together and trusting each other on the court. Off the court that trust continues and over time they will become even closer. This is, after all, only the first year this group has played together.

    A guy who continues to impress me and excite me is Ben Gordon. Ben has emerged as a go-to-guy down the stretch of games. In the team’s last win at Toronto, he scored 15 in the fourth quarter and it was almost as if it wasn’t even a surprise to anyone. His knack for getting good shots off and making them has people taking about another guy who used to play here… and while I’m sure Ben is flattered by the comparison, I think that is a little premature right now. Still, he is definitely a major part to why the Bulls are winning now.

    This brings up the question from Dan Hula at DePaul University: “I know Ben is not the best defender, but he is such an explosive player that I don’t understand how he has not cracked the starting line-up yet. What will it take for Big Ben to make the starting five?”

    I know that a lot of fans out there are thinking the same thing; however, as many of my past coaches have told me, it’s not who starts the race that is important, it’s who finishes it. Ben does need to work on his defense—I feel that would help him—but I also feel he is in a great situation right now, very similar to Toni Kukoc when he was with the Bulls. There is no question that he’s talented enough to start, but right now he makes the team a whole lot better coming off the bench. Can you say Sixth Man Award?

    I’m going to stay away from grades at this point, because there are still way too many games to be played—those will come at the end of the season. But these are my thoughts on the entire roster, from top to bottom. Call them my midterm report card comments, in no particular order:

    Bill gets a haircut
    Needless to say, Bill's plans over the All-Star break do not include a trip to the barber shop.

    (Courtesy of Bill Wennington)

    Chris Duhon has been a real nice surprise so far. Not too many in the know would have picked Chris to even be on the team right now. His heart and desire to work hard and his defense have been great assets to the Bulls. His shooting has improved in the last few games as witness against the Raptors when he hit 4-of-7 all from behind the arc.

    Othella Harrington has been the most consistent post player night in and night out. The classy veteran has shown that he’s a true professional by always being ready when his turn is up. Whether he’s coming off the bench or starting, playing a lot of minutes or just a few, he is always prepared to play.

    Eddy Curry came to camp in great shape and has done a great job scoring in the low post. He’s recognizing defensive help situations a lot better. Curry has had big games in the last two weeks and it’s clear that his confidence is growing. It’s crazy to think about, but Eddy is getting better every day and there is no telling how good he might become.

    Tyson Chandler seems to have accepted his role and is flourishing by playing good defense and rebounding. Even though he hasn’t been in the starting line-up, he also is a player finishing the games when it counts.

    Kirk Hinrich is playing well and seems to be the heart and soul of the team. His intense work ethic and toughness on defense have provided stability on both ends of the court. Kirk shot the ball poorly for awhile, but seems to have shed that slump against Toronto, making 11-of-16.

    Andres Nocioni is a hard working defender who always frustrates his opponents. His shot selection has improved greatly and he’s learning how to drive to the basket with great authority for strong finishes. Considering what he has been through already this year—the Olympics, moving to a new country, the birth of his first son, being away from his wife and son for three months, and adjusting to the NBA—I would say he is doing quite well.

    Luol Deng also has done a terrific job adjusting to the NBA game. He’s adapted to the speed and size of his opponents well. His shot has been consistent so far this season, but more importantly his defense—both one-on-one and help defense—have helped this team to be a good defensive team and win games with their “D.”

    Jeff Macy shows off his bling
    Jeff Macy sports some tight ice on the team plane.

    (Courtesy of Bill Wennington)

    Eric Piatkowski is another reserve player whose minutes go up and down from game to game. He’s dealt with it in the right manner and he’s always ready to contribute. He also provides some surprisingly tough defensive pressure and is shooting the lights out from behind the three-point arch at a 44% rate, sixth best in the NBA.

    Antonio Davis has provided stellar minutes in games and rebounded well, but his true calling has been his leadership on the court and in the locker room. He has helped the coaches set the tone for the season.

    Adrian Griffin has come off the bench in difficult situations and provided stability in ball control and defense when things have gotten a little wild on the court. Adrian is another player who does not play every night, but doesn’t complain and is always ready to do his job.

    Jannero Pargo provides a potent offensive punch when he is in the game. He’s a shooter who can light it up when he is on. It was Pargo who scored 14 points in the fourth quarter versus Charlotte in late January to help secure a win.

    Frank Williams hasn’t had the opportunity to play a lot, but he does work hard in practice and is trying to get into the rotation. It is very difficult to be on the injured list and not get playing time, but Frank has remained positive and he helps the team get better everyday in practice.

    Jared Reiner also has not played a lot, but is working on his game everyday doing what the coaches ask and more.

    The strength coaches—Erik Helland and Jeff Macy—have done an excellent job keeping the guys strong and fit. Check out the photo to the above right... that's Assistant Strength Coach Jeff Macy… I’m not exactly sure if he was just “chilling out” or showing me one of his “core” strength workouts.

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    The trainers—Fred Tedeschi and Marc Boff—have done a remarkable job of keeping guys out on the floor. The only thing that has been tough is the travel problems, the last being the five-hour delay in Minnesota (I’ll spare you the painful details). Come on, Fred, please get with the program and put an end to all of the rain, snow, and fog.

    I apologize if you think I’m guilty of painting such a rose-colored picture, but I really am excited about this team and what it is working towards. Besides, if I write nice enough, maybe I’ll get a raise.

    Or at least a bonus? A contract extension? A “that a boy”?

    It doesn’t matter—this is fun. Have a great break, guys, you deserve it.

    Send your questions and/or comments to Bill at bullsvip@bulls.com and check back next week to see if he responds to your e-mail.

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  • Past columns: Tough Times in Texas (02.10.05_ | Man of the People: Bill Responds (02.02.05)
  • Thrown Under the Bus (01.25.05) | Team the Theme for Skiles’ Squad (01.18.05)
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