Fred Hoiberg Presents: The 2015-16 Chicago Bulls & Change You Can Believe In

Change was omnipresent when the Bulls opened their season against the Cavaliers on Tuesday.

New head coach and schemes.

*Salutes Fred Hoiberg*

New players.

*Head nods to Bobby Portis, Doug McDermott*

And a new vibe around the United Center.

*Side-eyes Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler*

There is always talk about change when a new season begins in sports. But seeing is believing and if it isn’t to you, then you’ll fall for anything.

But as far as I’m concerned, nothing signified that change was real and coming more than the fact that Kirk Hinrich was a DNP-coach’s decision in the Bulls’ 97-95 win.

Hinrich was a crutch for Tom Thibodeau, despite a significant decline in skills. The former Bulls coach would lean on Hinrich to get the Bulls through significant portions of ballgames on grit, heart and heady plays on both ends of the floor. And unless he was physically unable to give it a go, Hinrich answered the call more often than not.

Unfortunately, the production simply wasn’t there for Hinrich, who has spent 10 of his 13 seasons in the Bulls organization. He was the worst player in the NBA among regulars as far as the Player Efficiency Rating goes, and posted a higher turnover rate (15.3 percent) than assist rate (13.8). In fact, that 13.8 percent assist rate was a career worst. That’s bad considering Hinrich’s duties included being lead distributing guard off the bench on most nights.

With that apparently sidelined, the Bulls can move on to bigger and better things with a new approach and some fresh ideas.

Jimmy Butler will star for the Bulls this season and they will go as far as he carries them. This isn’t to slight Derrick Rose, but until he can prove to be healthy and get his game back to an elite level, Butler is the go-to-guy here.

Butler did everything Bulls fans have wanted Rose to do over the years. He honed his craft and improved multiple facets of his game, all while remaining one of the league’s best defenders.

He improved his field goal (from 39.7% to 46.2%) and 3-point shooting efficiency (28.3% to 37.8%), while maintaining good numbers from the free-throw line as the 80% career free-throw shooter connected at a career best 83.4% clip. The advanced numbers jumped, too, dropping his turnover rate to 7.7% and increasing his assist rate to 14.4%. All this helped Butler lock up The Association’s Most Improved Player award.

After Butler, it will be interesting to see how Holberg sets up his role players.

Can Joakim Noah ease into a role as a high-energy reserve whose primary job is to clean up missed shots and facilitate in the offense when necessary? Can he stay healthy enough to be that guy in the first place?

Will Taj Gibson be able to continue being a force on both ends of the floor with quality rebound skills and possible improved offensive efficiency? At times, Gibson became too much of a black hole when he got the ball in the post. That won’t stand in Hoiberg’s offense that is predicated on ball movement and finding open shooters.

Speaking of which, will Doug McDermott, Nikola Mitotic and Tony Snell thrive in a new environment where young players won’t be saddled to the bench simply for missing a defensive assignment?

Can McDermott find the kind of confidence it will take for him to regain his touch from the perimeter?

Will Snell find a level of consistency on either end of the court after showing flashes throughout the last two seasons?

Can Mitotic be more of the player Bulls fans saw down the stretch and less of the guy they saw struggle against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals?

The one player who should thrive in this system is Pau Gasol. A true professional who knows his body and his game and how to make it work at this stage of his career. He is the player Bulls fans should have the fewest concerns about.

Then, there is Derrick Rose. Rose will have the biggest adjustment to make moving forward. After being the alpha dog on the court since his arrival, injuries have held him back and currently have him paying in a supporting role.

Honestly, it’s a role Rose should thrive in. Before he was the guy the Bulls relied on to score big buckets in big spots on a nightly basis, Rose was an elite distributor. He did it at the high school level at Simeon for some of the best teams in Illinois high school basketball history.

Rose moved on and did it again at college under John Calipari at Memphis. As a freshman on a veteran squad, Rose set up his teammates and always put them in a great spot to get off a good shot. If not for Mario Chalmers’ miracle 3-pointer, the talk of that game likely would’ve been Rose’s composure as a freshman point guard on a national title team.

While it might be considered a step back for some, the Bulls offense could reach new heights if Rose reprised his role as more of a traditional point guard in Holberg’s offense.

If he can accept his new role and thrive in it, I like the Bulls’ chances against any team in the East if they can stay healthy.

If not, the Bulls still have enough pieces to win 50 regular season games and a playoff series. But that simply won’t be enough for a team that has championship aspirations.


Putting the 2015 Cubs to rest

12144919_10101727695935667_2108481201452191529_n copy 2Shortly after the Cubs’ 8-3 loss to the Mets in last Wednesday’s deciding game of the NLCS, a friend made a request.

“I’m going to need a post telling me why this outcome is OK and why next year will be better.”

Simple request. And I figured there was no better time to share than right before the start of the World Series.

In short: The 2015 Cubs are truly unlike any Cubs team this fan base has ever seen.

These Cubs weren’t like the 2003 team with a veteran lineup pieced together and a rotation built with young arms at the top, but nothing behind them in the depth department. It wasn’t like the 2007 or 2008 teams, built solely to generate a higher price tag for when the team was to be put up for sale.

Unlike the last three playoff teams that preceded this one, the foundation for the 2015 Cubs wasn’t set in the previous offseason. Instead, it was set in October 2011.

I remember listening to Theo Epstein’s introductory press conference in my car and losing count of how many times he used the term “sustained success.”

While the media became enamored with a buzz word,  Epstein laid out his plan to bring young talent through the minor leagues by invoking (and eventually applying) the economic concept of vertical integration with regards to teaching players how to play baseball how the organization saw fit.

Everyone was going to be learning the same things the same way and pulling from the same side of the rope. Dominican League, Arizona Fall League, affiliated minor leagues and at the big league level, The Cubs Way was going to be a thing.

It is player development in its purest form, comparable to the way Branch Rickey laid it out in the early 1900s. And for the first time since Dallas Green was running the show in the 1980s, Cubs fans saw that concept play out before their very eyes.

Fans followed (and in most cases: obsessed over) the progress of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and others as they climbed the minor league ranks and earned their big league roster spot. And then watched that group take walks, smack dingers and stack wins throughout the summer.

So, if you’ve found yourself wondering what’s the deal with Cubs fans emotional attachment to this team, it’s because this group of players has been a part of the fabric of Cubs fans since at least 2011.

The 2015 season was fun, but this should be just the beginning.

Famous last words? Perhaps.

I understand the skepticism, pessimism and probable snickering from the peanut gallery that followed after that last sentence. Baseball is an odd game that will give you the world in one moment and take it all away in the next. Which is why I’ve tried to preach the idea of enjoying the successes, while not being bogged down by the shortcomings or failures. But just know the snickering and skepticism is pretty much unwarranted.

Five of the six players who accumulated 2.0 fWAR or better are under contract next season — three of which will be 26 or younger in 2016. That group is headlined by Kris Bryant (6.5, 24 in 2016), Anthony Rizzo (5.5, 26) and Addison Russell (2.9, 22). Add Kyle Schwarber’s 1.9 fWAR in 273 plate appearances and you could see where fans would be optimistic about the future. And this doesn’t account for Starlin Castro, who was a 1.6 fWAR player after August 1, or Jorge Soler — whose up-and-down season most resembled that of a rookie — who could build on a rather historic postseason run.

Of course, the Cubs need pitching. Desperately. But because they haven’t emptied their wallets on big-name, high-cost, post-prime position players in free agency, they can go out and spend on pitching in the short term while their pitching prospects continue to grow in the minors.

An offseason of change is closer than we’re used to because the team made a deep October run. And that bodes well for fans who are itching to find a team that won 97 games last year make the improvements to win more in October.

After an October filled with good- (and not-so-good-) natured ribbing from White Sox and Cardinals fans, I found myself more empathetic than annoyed with rival fans.

A friend of mine who is a staunch White Sox fan claimed I couldn’t possibly know that fandom’s struggle. But if anyone knows what White Sox fans were feeling during October, it’s Cubs fans — right?

Since 2008, 26 of the 30 MLB teams have made a postseason appearance. And if you guessed that the White Sox are one of those four teams to be left out of the playoff picture, you’d be correct.

The White Sox (2008), Padres (2006), Marlins (2003), Mariners (2001) have the longest active postseason droughts. The 2012 White Sox had a golden chance to break their drought, finishing three games out from winning the division, which was won by the Detroit Tigers — who went on to win the American League Pennant.

Since then, the Sox are 212-274 and coming off a season in which they paid $34 million to four free agents who registered negative fWAR numbers with Adam LaRoche (-1.4, $12.5M), Emilio Bonifacio (-0.7, $4M), Melky Cabrera (-0.3, $13M) and Zach Duke (-0.3, $4.5M) being unable to live up to the first year of their respective contracts.

If anyone can empathize with a fan base whose ownership failed at investing in the draft and organizational development while simultaneously throwing money at free agents, it’s a Cubs fan who lived through Tribune Co. and Sam Zell ownerships.

As for the Cardinals, the feeling is anticipation.

Anticipation for a rivalry that should be as intriguing and dramatic as Yankees/Red Sox or Dodgers/Giants. Save for brief moments in 2003 and 2008, really hasn’t lived up to its billing as long as I’ve been deeply involved in the rivalry since August 2004.

The Cardinals organization has the kind of success that has only been rivaled by the Braves and Yankees of the 1990s, as far as my generation of baseball fans is concerned.

Not since the Astros of the early-to-mid 2000s have the Cardinals had a steady foe to fight. Sure, the Cubs, Pirates, Reds and Brewers have had their cracks at the Cardinals, but none seemed to have the kind of staying power those Astros teams had back in the day.

Now, no team poses a bigger challenge to the Cardinals moving forward than the Cubs. The combination of young talent on the big league roster, prospects on the fringe, monetary resources and baseball braintrust has the Cubs positioned to take on the Cardinals in a way no team since those aforementioned Astros teams has done.

Even then, the Cardinals are still well positioned with a strong front office and enough financial flexibility to keep a firm grasp at the division. Those guys simply aren’t going away. Not with that rabid fan base expecting greatness. Not with a farm system that churns out competent ball players on an annual basis.

But after seeing how the Cubs played the Cardinals in the second half of the regular season and in the postseason, it’s safe to say the Cubs aren’t going away, either.

Depending on what the Yankees, Red Sox and/or Dodgers do this offseason, the Cubs will likely enter 2016 as the most overhyped team. And yet, I expect them to go about their business the same way they did when they entered the 2015 season with a significant amount of hype.

They’ll strike out a ton, but they’ll walk some. They’ll probably hit a bunch of homers, too. The offense will have peaks and valleys. That’s par for the course when talking about an offense built around young power hitters.

The pitching could stand to be better. Jake Arrieta will experience some regression to the mean, but a 4-WAR season out of him isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Same for Jon Lester. But even then, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks are two solid back-of-the-rotation arms who give you a chance to win their starts more often than not.

But those are all problems for another day. And I suppose we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. But until then, here’s hoping you enjoyed 2015. I know I did.

NLDS Home Game 1: Cubs 8, Cardinals 6

Monday represented a lot for yours truly:

  • Second playoff game (and win) for me this postseason.
  • First home playoff game since 2008.
  • Third postseason game for me at Wrigley Field (all three have been LDS games; Cubs are 2-1)

It was a fun atmosphere from the outset. A complete 180 from what I felt in Pittsburgh. I’ll credit Cubs fans for a change in attitude when it comes to this team. It’s taken a while, but folks have really come to embrace this young team and the idea that The Plan they were sold in October 2011 was more than lip service.

It’s still surreal to talk to Cubs fans confidently about this team, rather than worrying about what lurks around the corner. In fact, it’s refreshing.

So, here are some pictures. Enjoy. I know I did.

21 hours, 50 minutes in Pittsburgh: A first-person account of Wild Card Wednesday

At some point during the darkest days of Cubs baseball between 2010 and 2014, I promised myself that I would take myself to the team’s next postseason game. When that started to look like a reality this summer, I started putting money away to save for a potential trip. A little here, a little there … every bit helped.

As it turned out, my savings turned into a plane trip, game ticket and some spending money to do tourist-y things. You can check that out in the attached photo gallery.

As for the experience itself:

***The seats were good.


Section 317, Row H, Seat 19 puts you in the second tier of the upper-deck right behind home plate. I lucked out getting an aisle seat (more on that later) … but more important than that was the great view of the city as a backdrop. A seat in the upper deck gives you a good sense of where fly balls are going. Looks nice at night, but I bet it looks prettier during the day. Doesn’t look like there’s a bad seat in the house. Would recommend sitting up top again. Good value buy if you’re on a budget.

***The player intros were pretty neat. Great to see Jung-Ho Kang in attendance. I noticed Cubs players gave him a nice hand. The Pirates seemingly introduced anyone and everyone in their org, which was a nice touch. It’s easy to forget that a lot more goes into running a successful baseball team than 25 players, a manager,  a handful of coaches and the GM who puts it together. Again, that was a nice move. Fist bump to the Pirates for that.

A) On the other hand, I chuckled when the Cubs were introduced with the background music being the Kanye West/Jay-Z track “No Church In The Wild.” The lead track from “Watch The Throne” really was a tone-setter for that album and wouldn’t be surprised if that put some of the young Cubs in a good place. It definitely put me in a good mood.

B) I was confused by the Pirates hype video, in which the theme was basically “It’s our time because we’ve been waiting a long time.” Yeah, that whole waiting a long time schtick got a good chuckle from the handful of Cubs fans in my section with one remark “Long time? Who do these guys think they are — the Cubs?” I was DEFINITELY confused by the pre-game hype video referencing “When Sid Slid” which is one of the low-points in Pirates history. Not familiar with the reference point? Watch this video.

That portion led to boos from fans, which I felt set the tone for the weird vibe that seemed to be ever-so-apparent throughout the night. More on that in a bit.

C) So much for getting to Jake Arrieta through chants and crowd noise. The early chants of AR-RI-ETA followed by clap, clap, clap-clap-clap weren’t taunting in any way. If you were to judge by the cadence, you would’ve thought Cubs fans were leading the way. Pirates fans in my area found it odd that I was chanting loudly with their Arrieta chants, but other Cubs fans joined in, too. Leave it to Cubs fans to turn a jeer into a rallying cry.

***So, the Cubs opened up the scoring with a Dexter Fowler single, steal and Kyle Schwarber RBI single. If the Cubs are going to advance deep into the postseason, they’re going to have to string some innings like that together. And if you haven’t been paying attention until now, just know that this is pretty much Cubs baseball now. Work deep counts, steal a bag (whether it’s an actual steal or going first-to-third) when you can, and hit the ball hard somewhere. The Cubs took advantage of Gerrit Cole, who missed high and wide with his fastball and really knocked the crowd out of it early.

A) The crowd was already in a weird place. The joint had some nervous energy. Remember all that talk about how the Cubs were better off not playing at home because of recent past experiences (e.x.: 2007, 2008) … well, the Pirates fans might have been feeling the same way. Couldn’t go anywhere without someone fearing that Arrieta was going to “Bumgarner us” as one fan put it. Add the “When Sid Slid” moment from earlier and it really made things a bit more tense. I had two Pirates fans to my right who really couldn’t handle the situation and — to be honest — I loved it. I felt as if I was playing with free money as a fan. No pressure … which says a lot considering my pre-game feelings. Still, the fan two seats to my right was losing his shit with every pitch. He complained that every pitch that was called a ball was a sign that Cole was afraid to throw strikes and every called strike was a mistake that was in a Cubs batter’s wheelhouse. That guy wasn’t long for the game, as he left shortly after the Schwarber homer and never returned to his seat. Very bizarre.

B) I felt as if I had put together a decent rapport with the young lady in the seat directly to my right in the early innings. She was a bit of a trash talker and I’m an awful trash talker. Which kind of made things tense for a second. After the first inning, she says: “You know one run isn’t winning this game, right?” and I responded: “You might be right. But Jake Arrieta is pitching, so…” I let the “so” hang there for a minute. She rolled her eyes and let out an audible “UGH.” I tried to mend fences after the Cubs took a 3-0 lead by buying her a beer. (See, I’m a nice person.) In retrospect, that was probably a mistake considering 1) beer cost ($8 for Yuengling…not bad, all things considered) and 2) she was way past drunk in the early innings because she was drinking vodka out of a water bottle she brought in. Hat tip to her. That’s the oldest trick in the book. She spent much of the early innings complaining about the fan next to her, who really was going to town with everything that didn’t go the Pirates way. Dude totally gave the bannister a workout with his fists. She remarked after the second inning: “He realizes we have seven more innings to go right? We play nine innings of baseball here in Pittsburgh. We have a lot of comeback wins.” I responded dryly: “How many against Jake Arrieta?” I’m not convinced that part of that beer wasn’t spilled on my sweater shortly thereafter. Alas, the young lady wasn’t long for the game. She left in either the fifth or sixth and did not come back. Hypocrite.

***I loved PNC, but there were a handful of things I didn’t like about it. I’ll be brief. I hate Kiss Cam, the noise meter and the constant reminders to make noise. Generic stuff like that bothers me at a game for some unknown reason. Also, it was interesting that they made an announcement to get up and make noise by telling fans that TBS was about to cut in with a live shot. That was the first thing that sparked the crowd. And one of the last until the middle-to-late innings. I felt as if the bathrooms nearest to my section was too small. Not a lot of space. Not a lot of stalls. I know that seems weird coming from a Cubs fan, but at least Wrigley maximizes its space with troughs. Love them or hate them, the troughs on two sides allows for the most people to use the restroom in the quickest manner. If you don’t like missing game time due to bathroom breaks, you should like troughs at Wrigley. I didn’t like that the signage at PNC didn’t tell you the pitch that was thrown, but I did like that it informed you what the horizontal and vertical movement was. That is something not for the casual fan, but for a guy like me, it helped me kind of figure when Cole or Arrieta was working with less than their best.

***Bases loaded, one out for Starling Marte after that Andrew McCutchen rocket had me feeling like…

Then the double play happened, which had me feeling like…

Taylor just gets me, you guys.

***Truly a remarkable effort by Addison Russell to turn the double play there. A few pitches after fumbling the hard-hit ball by McCutchen (107.3 mph off the bat) that might’ve been a double play, Russell was able to compose himself and start the inning-ending 6-4-3 twin killing on a ball that was hit even harder (109.4 mph) by Marte.

Truly impressive.

And if you’re curious to know how I reacted, just think of the Pedro Strop fist-pump .gif after his performance against the White Sox in Game 1 of the series at The Cell. That was me. A lot easier to pump fists with all the room in your area after fans start leaving.

***Tony Watson hitting Jake Arrieta led to some of the most awkwardly tense moments of the game. The immediate aftermath of the plunking in which benches and bullpens cleared was the only time I felt threatened as a fan. Which is a compliment, considering the game’s score and the high stakes that come with a playoff game. The on-the-field skirmish led to some loud verbal jawing between fans in the rows behind me, but luckily nothing came of it beyond words. Though, it felt like that had been bubbling all game.

And here’s the thing about what happened when the dust cleared. Pirates fans really seemed resigned to their fate when the game resumed — especially when Arrieta stole second on the first pitch after action resumed. I looked around. Slumped shoulders took over bodies and the look of resignation filled faces. After the seventh inning ended, fans began to trickle out. Many wished me good luck in the next round and in the future. Classy gesture, but there were still six outs to get and the Pirates were in grand slam range. “Getting Bumgarnered” was brought up again by Pirates fans in the section, but there was no way I was going down that road with the game still in the balance.

***There was something oddly poetic about Aramis Ramirez’s last AB being an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play. Something about the last great third baseman in Cubs history being retired by a great stab by the Cubs current star third baseman. Poetic. Yeah, that’s what I’ll call it. Some people worried about this kind of scenario. But Ramirez really wasn’t himself this year. And the guy who carried the offensive load in the Cubs last postseason win wasn’t walking through that door.

***The End Pt. 1

Jake Arrieta finished what he started. The Cubs won. And my text and replies were non-stop and kept rolling through in the first moments after the Cubs clinched it. A sincerest thank you to each of you who reached out via text, Twitter, Facebook and other social mediums. I had long-time Cubs fans check in, friends of mine who were Cardinals fans send messages of encouragement, White Sox fans who respect my fandom and who appreciated that kind of postseason game, friends and family who don’t even like baseball but knew what that win meant to me. It was surreal. I think I got to everyone at some point that night, later that morning or sometime on Thursday. If not, my apologies. Just know that I read it and appreciated that you thought to send me a note in that moment when you could’ve been doing something else.

***The End Pt. 2: Cubs fans gathered behind the Cubs dugout to celebrate with each other until the Pirates turned off the lights and security sent fans on their happy way. Cubs fans travel well and I can’t say enough about the kind of crazy commitment many made to be there. I talked to fans who traveled from the south, east, west who traveled that day to make it to that game. I talked to fans who came in from Philadelphia, Arizona, Denver, Florida that day. Obviously, one needs expendable income to make that kind of trip. But one also needs to be a little off-center to make that kind of monetary and emotional commitment. *tips cap*

That was fun. Let’s do that 11 more times this postseason. Sound good?

***Nuggets and tidbits: Church Brew was the No. 1 non-baseball highlight. It’s a brewery that used to be a church that had great brews (I went with their Pipe Organ Pale Ale and ThunderHop IPA. The food was good, too. I had their lunch pizza (which I could’ve totally shared, but ate it all because I was really hungry and hadn’t eaten anything all day) and it was some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. The crust was thin, but crispy. The cheese was plentiful and the pepperonis were tasty. Excellent brick oven pizza. … The Heinz Historical Museum was great. Six floors of fun, though I only conquered four. The sports museum was full of really awesome stuff. … I didn’t know that the walls of Forbes Field were on the campus of Pitt until I saw a Bruce Miles, so I cut short my museum trip to Uber my way to campus. I was lucky enough to get a driver who knew exactly where it was on campus and dropped me off right there. It was pretty awesome to see a piece of baseball history in the middle of a pretty nice college campus. … I hope to make a return trip to Pittsburgh. Hopefully, I’ll get to try Primanti Brothers sandwiches if I plan my trip better in a future trip.

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