The Bulls Are Weird: A 2016-17 NBA Preview

The Bulls were projected to be good and interesting a year ago.

They had a new coach who emphasized ball movement and offensive efficiency and returned a healthy Derrick Rose who was expected to be inspired, fresh and ready to be one-half of an effective back-court tag team with newly minted All-Star Jimmy Butler.

That didn’t happen.

The Bulls were the antithesis of good and interesting, hovering around mediocrity most of the year and missing the playoffs. Further, the offense never lived up to its billing (21st in scoring, 22nd in field goal percentage) and the defense (16th in points allowed) took a step back from the Tom Thibodeau regime.

An offseason in which the Bulls’ front office was expected to steer this team toward a younger, more flexible core never went in that direction. Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah  and Mike Dunleavy Jr. were sent packing this summer. But rather than go young, the Bulls signed free agents Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade.

A few years ago, adding either of these players would have opened eyes for all the right reasons.

Wade is a three-time NBA champion and future Hall of Famer with a knack for making big plays on both ends of the floor. Rondo is a starting caliber lead guard with the ability to facilitate an offense and distribute the ball to players in high-efficiency scoring areas.

But in 2016, neither is that guy any more. Not only have both players lost a step, but neither aids the Bulls where they need the most help — shooting the ball. Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic are the Bulls’ best perimeter threats, and that simply is not enough in the modern NBA. Yet, the Bulls will have to make it work because that is what the front office has provided.

The NBA is full of young talent with playmakers on both ends of the floor at all five positions. Centers and forwards who can shoot, dribble and pass. Guards who can get points on the block and rebound. And players who don’t have readily defined positions who can do it all.

And then there are the Bulls, who don’t have any of what is mentioned above.

What makes the 2016-17 Bulls interesting (at least on the surface) is that they are going against the grain so hard, how can it not be interesting? In a league where everyone zigs, the Bulls are zagging.

Frankly, this could be one of those things where if a combustible team blows up in spectacular fashion, a true rebuild could rise from the ashes.

But first, we must get through an 82-game season.

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Here’s a story about a boy, a hat and some thoughts about a Cubs World Series

The Braves-Indians World Series of 1995 was the first to feature a patch on the side of the cap, and I’ve been obsessed with owning one ever since.

Unfortunately, growing up a Cubs fan meant the odds of getting one with your favorite team on it was slim. Just two years later, I got my World Series logo hat. But not because the Cubs were in it.

For those of you who don’t know me that well, my parents are divorced and at the time my father was living in Florida. Among the baseball-loving Puerto Rican (and Latin American) community, there was a ton of Marlins love. And my father knew that I was enamored with Marlins ace Livan Hernandez, a Cuban defector who pulled Florida into its Fall Classic matchup with the Cleveland Indians.

Hernandez’s defection was the first of significance in my lifetime and his story intrigued me, even as an 11-year-old kid.

My father bought me a Marlins World Series cap and they won the World Series. To me, that was a cool story. But it still didn’t fill the void in my baseball-loving soul.

Nineteen years later, my mother made it whole when she bought the cap pictured above. The Cubs clinched the National League pennant on Saturday night. I put together the box score for the Chicago Tribune that evening.

Yet, it didn’t feel real until I had that hat.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s fitting that this is the Cubs team that made the World Series.

The Cubs weren’t going to back their way in on the strength of a pixie dust-aided 83-win season. They weren’t going to do it as the hot Wild Card team that takes the National League by storm.

If the Cubs were going to win the pennant, they had to be the best team in baseball to do it.

They needed batters with patience and power in the lineup for hot summer days when the wind was blowing out. And pitchers who threw strikeouts and ground balls in order to avoid allowing the kind of gopher balls that plagued Cubs pitchers over the years.

They needed the kind of speed and smarts on the bases to play small ball when the wind was blowing in and he defensive IQ and ability in the field to catch everything in an effort to thwart opposing rallies.

Check a Fangraphs leaderboard and the Cubs are at or near the top of every important category. Pitching. Hitting. Defense. This team had it all. And they needed every bit of it just to get to the World Series.

And they did it in the way Theo Epstein said would happen back in 2011 when he became Cubs president of baseball operations.

They did it mostly with homegrown talent. The 25-man World Series roster features 14 players who were acquired during the rebuild period between 2012 and 2014, two holdovers from the Jim Hendry Era and filled the rest via free agency or trade from 2015 and/or 2016 after clearing the books of the previous regime.

It’s basically the team every knowledgable Cubs fan has ever wanted. It’s a mix of young talent from the pipeline (including nine players who were top-100 prospects at some point during their minor league tenure with the Cubs) and veteran leadership via free agency.

Save for Aroldis Chapman, this is an easy team to embrace. It’s what made the 162-game trek an easy ride. And the fruits of that labor are the franchise’s first World Series appearance since 1945.

I don’t know who is going to win, nor will I make a prediction. Honestly, I’m just happy to have my hat.

The Cubs have a chance to win the NL pennant. And that’s kinda cool.

So, tonight’s a night, eh?
 
The Chicago Cubs can clinch their first National League pennant in 71 years with a win tonight (or Sunday) against the Dodgers. I’d prefer NOT to think about Game 7, so let’s not go down that road.
 
Instead, I prefer to live in the present and embrace this moment. Because, frankly, this moment doesn’t come around often. Saturday presents the Cubs’ first opportunity to clinch a spot in the World Series since 2003 when they dropped three straight en route to blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Florida Marlins. They also lost three straight after going up 2-0 against the Padres in the 1984 NLCS.
 
That’s it.
 
The LCS has been a thing in baseball since 1969 and the Cubs have had a chance to clinch World Series bids twice since the inception of the championship series.
You can talk about ghosts all you want, but the main reason the Cubs haven’t won a pennant since 1945 or a World Series since 1908 is because they simply haven’t given themselves enough opportunities to get there.
 
Hard to win a tournament you’re not qualified to play in.
 
Yet, your favorite sports talkers will continue to talk about that stuff until the Cubs pull off the whole trick. And they’ll do so, in part, because no professional American sport promotes mystique while simultaneously de-emphasizing the stardom of its players than MLB.
 
Using Baseball-Reference’s WAR as our guide, this NLCS features features seven of the NL’s top 40 pitchers and 9 of the NL’s top-30 position players.
 
We’re at home (or in my case, a newsroom cubicle) watching 16 of the 100 best players the Senior Circuit has to offer and folks are wasting newsprint and web space on something as nonsensical as a goat. Go figure.
 
I’m looking forward to tonight. I don’t know what will happen. I won’t pretend to know what will happen. I just hope for the best.
 
Bonus points if that best case scenario comes in before deadline, too. 😉

Cubs, Dodgers & the LCS that has everything

Well, almost everything.

Unfortunately, the Cubs-Dodgers NLCS I’ve dreamed about for years won’t be as perfect as I imagined because Vin Scully won’t be on the radio broadcasts.

It’s a shame, too. Vin hasn’t broadcasted a Cubs postseason game since 2008 (ew!) or seen them in the LCS since 1989 when it was on NBC. Charley Steiner and Rick Monday do a good job, but Vin is on another level and him broadcasting a legitimately good Cubs playoff team would’ve made for good listening.

What a Cubs-Dodgers LCS lacks without Vin, it makes up with on-the-field star power.

Using Fangraphs’ fWAR as our standard, this NLCS has the following:

  • Ten of the NL’s top-50 players (min. 300 PA) — Bryant, Seager, Turner, Rizzo, Fowler, Zobrist, Russell, Pederson, Grandal, Baez
  • Six of the NL’s top-50 (min. 100 IP) starters — Kershaw, Hendricks, Lester, Arrieta, Maeda, Lackey
  • Two of the NL’s top-10 relievers (Jansen, Chapman)

I’m not sure MLB could have scripted a better LCS.

And frankly, I’m not sure beat writers and columnists could have asked for anything better. (Yes, that includes a Nationals series that would’ve featured Dusty, Bryce, Daniel Murphy and the Chicago ties of Mike Rizzo).

Two of the most heralded front offices in baseball with the Epstein/Hoyer/McLeod brain trust going up against Friedman/Zaidi/Byrnes/Colletti group. Ton of smart, decorated baseball names in that group.

Friedman and Cubs manager Joe Maddon have a history. As do Epstein and Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but I’m sure we’ll get to the rest at Bleacher Nation in the coming days.

In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

Let’s re-visit my questionable NLDS Game 4 tweets

The Cubs faced a 3-run deficit when I sent this tweet. At this point, I was trying to find a ticket for Game 5. I had no interest in watching at home or at a bar because after spending so many days this summer at the ball park, I didn’t want to end my season home alone if I didn’t have to.

The Giants winning this series wasn’t inconceivable and no one knew that better than Cubs fans. Their team’s last two best-of-5 series wins both came against teams with the NL’s best record. — the 100-win Cardinals as a 97-game Wild Card winner in 2015 and the 101-win Braves in 2003 as an 88-win NL Central champion.

The Cubs spent nearly $300 million to address areas of concern after 2015. They added a contact hitter with patience (Ben Zobrist), an defensive wizard in the outfield with a six-year track record of quality contact and on-base skills (Jason Heyward) and a reliable innings-eating rotation starter (John Lackey).

In July, they Cubs used a chunk of prospect capital (and public good will) to acquire closer with elite swing-and-miss stuff (Aroldis Chapman) in a straight-up rent-a-player deal.

All that came with October in mind. Trim strikeouts in RBI situations. Tighten up outfield defense. End games with a pitcher with swing-and-miss stuff.

Those things weren’t playing out. The offense looked mostly listless. The defense (at times) looked shaky. And the closer blew a lead because Conor Gillaspie turned on a 102-mph fastball up in the zone.

When baseball happens, it happens quickly.

Just ask the Giants.


Armed with a 5-2 lead, the Giants sent Derek Law to the mound to close it out and send the series back to Chicago. Law threw 35 pitches in a scoreless two-inning relief stint in their Game 3 win. He faced 10 Cubs batters in 2.1 innings of postseason work — allowing one walk and no hits while striking out three.

Then Kris Bryant singled through the shift to innocently start a rally.

In came Javier Lopez — a lefty with four World Series rings (three with San Francisco, one with Boston) – assigned to face Anthony Rizzo. Lopez faced 46 batters in 24 postseason appearances with the Giants prior to Tuesday and opponents owned a .119/.196/.143 slash line against him with a 30.6 percent strikeout rate.

Rizzo coaxed a walk to put two on with no outs.

Sergio Romo, who limited 64 batters to a .159/.172/.206 slash line with one extra-base hit in the 2012 and 2014 playoffs as a closer and high-leverage ace, came in to face Zobrist. And for the second straight night, Romo allowed a ringing extra-base hit as Zobrist’s RBI double put the tying run at second with no outs.

Chris Coghlan entered the on-deck for Addison Russell was Chris Coghlan as Joe Maddon was willing to play some percentages with Coghlan (.379 OBP vs. RHP since re-joining the Cubs in June; .852 OPS vs. RHP since the All-Star Break) against Romo (.790 OPS vs. LHB in 2016).

Out went Romo, in came Will Smith. Then came Willson Contreras (.854 OPS in 79 PA vs. LHP) for Coghlan, who delivered a game-tying single to center field.

Including playoffs, Cubs hitters have reached base in 36.5 percent of their plate appearances against Will Smith. At that rate, his next free agent contract won’t likely be in the NL Central.

Smith sought redemption against Jason Heyward and his .586 OPS against lefties in 2016. Looking to make a smart baseball play, Heyward (a double-play candidate because of his high ground-ball rate) squared away in search of his third sacrifice bunt of his career…but he bunted it too hard, allowing Smith to get the lead runner at second.

But a funny thing happened on the turn.

The normally sure-handed Brandon Crawford made his second error of the game, allowing Heyward to move to second. For all the things Heyward hasn’t done and doesn’t do (I’ll eventually get into that this offseason in a Bleacher Nation post, as long as Brett OK’s it and I find enough information worth sharing and analyzing) his speed allowed that play to happen. He made it from first to home in 4.12 seconds — his fastest time this year, according to Fangraphs. A good throw keeps Heyward at first. But for how long?

Hunter Strickland came in to face Javy Baez, sending Smith to the showers. He put Baez in a two-strike count early, but didn’t put him away as Baez turned a two-strike fastball into a run-scoring single to plate Heyward to give the Cubs a 6-5 lead. It was a lead the team wouldn’t relinquish as Aroldis Chapman struck out Gorkys Hernandez, Denard Span and Brandon Belt to end the game — and the Giants’ season.

Hopefully, Bruce Bochy doesn’t take it on the chin in the coming days. He did what any manager with a crummy bullpen would do. He played percentages that most likely would play in his favor and hoped for the best. Any anger should probably be directed at a front office that didn’t use resources to shore up a bullpen that blew 30 saves in the regular season and two in the postseason.

Alas, I had to tweet this:

And this:

#CubsTwitter takes a lot of grief from all sides. And while some (much? most?) of it is warranted, many have kept it real through four playoff games. A mix of honesty, optimism, pessimism, realism and .gifs … always with the .gifs. I appreciate that.

Hopefully, there are fewer dumpster fires and more .gif parties in the coming days and weeks.


Even though the Giants’ Even Year Magic came to an end, it doesn’t mean Taylor Swift’s even year album release streak needs to end, too.

Swift dropped an October album in 2010, 2012 and 2014. And to be honest, each has been better than the last. I’m genuinely curious to see what direction she goes in for her next album.

‘1989’ was the perfectly crafted pop album. Good luck topping that. Though, I could go for an acoustic re-release of 1989, to be honest.

Would she go back to her traditional country roots? Maybe dabble in the new wave of modern country? I can’t see it. Not right now at least.

An EDM/pop album would’ve made sense if not for the breakup with Calvin Harris and the public rebound with that dude who everyone likes but I had never even heard of prior to their romantic dalliance.

Whatever she does, it better not disappoint.


Whoever comes next for the Cubs will be no easy task.

The Dodgers possess this generation’s best pitcher (Clayton Kershaw), a lineup mixed with steady veteran leadership (Adrian Gonzalez, Chase Utley) and players with upside (Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig) and a 6-foot-5-inch, 270-pound closer who possesses a 98-mph cutter. However, they’re not great on the road and the rotation and pen both have question marks.

The Nationals have a lineup full of upside, led by the 2015 NL MVP (Bryce Harper), a postseason menace (Daniel Murphy), a young speedester (Trea Turner) and other solid pieces (Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman). But if the Nationals beat the Dodgers, Max Scherzer won’t be able to go until Game 3 of the NLCS with Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez going in Games 1 & 2. And the availability of Stephen Strasburg is in the air. Closer Mark Melancon is low-key filthy.

If you want an on-paper advantage in pitching matchups early, the Nats are probably your team tomorrow. If you want home field advantage against a poor road team and better weather in road games, you’re likely pulling for the Dodgers.

Me? I’m rooting for a few hours of sleep.

Cubs? Giants? Pressure? What Pressure?

The Chicago Cubs followed a 97-win season and an appearance in the NLCS with an offseason of hype backed by $285 million worth of free agent expenditures and came out and won 103 games in the regular season.

The team that Vegas installed as the offseason favorites is also their postseason fave.

But if you check your nearest calendar, the year is 2016 and the Cubs’ first-round opponent is the Giants. This is a franchise that has won a World Series in every even year since the start of the decade. They won in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Those teams won 92, 94 and 88 games, respectively.

After Wednesday’s Wild Card win, the ESPN postgame all but cited #EvenYearMagic as a reason why they’ll add a fourth World Series trophy this decade.

The Giants might win this series. Heck, they might go on to win it all.

Madison Bumgarner is a living legend and is backed up by more than $200 million dollars worth of free agent starters in Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. This is a good ballclub.

If the Cubs lose, it won’t be because of pressure or goats or black cats. It’ll because they didn’t play their best ball over the course of a five-game series. It will be maddening, sure. But it’s baseball. This isn’t like the NBA where your team gets to pick on some lowly just-above-.500 squad that backed into the playoffs and out of the draft lottery.

All the teams who play in the MLB postseason are good. Really good. That’s what makes this the most fun professional postseason tournament — with the Stanley Cup Playoffs a very close second.

(I guess the Cubs are a good team, too. They did win 13 of 21 (.619 win pct.) against the other three NL postseason participants. They also finished with a 31-25 (.554) mark against teams with winning records. That’s better than the Giants (27-33, .450), Dodgers (31-26, .544) and Nationals (31-29, .517). Not that it matters now. Baseball’s postseason truly is a second season. Everyone starts clean.)

Winning a World Series for the first time since 1908 seems like a tall mountain to climb. But think of it this way:

Middle of the Night Baseball Musings

Too busy sneezing to fall asleep, so I figured now is a good time to write things on my mind.

No one said it was going to be easy.

When the Chicago Cubs take to the diamond shortly after 8 p.m. central time in search of their first pennant since 1945 and world title since 1908, they will do it against the San Francisco Giants.

No one said it was going to be easy.

Make no mistake, the Giants are a good baseball team. They won 87 games and had the seventh best run differential in baseball at plus-84. They went 12-7 against the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers and 5-2 against the Washington Nationals, who won the NL East. They had winning records in one-run games (28-27) and extra innings (11-7), but finished with a sub-.500 record (27-33) against teams with winning records.

(Again, that’s a losing record despite going 17-9 against two of the three NL division champions.)

Naturally, none of that matters in October. Everyone has a clean slate.


Joe Maddon’s Cubs have a clean slate, too. Their 103-win campaign only matters because it was what put the Cubs here in the first place.

The 2016 Cubs aren’t your #SameOldCubs. This isn’t the 1998 team that needed a Game 163 and a career-altering season from Sammy Sosa. This isn’t the 2003 or 2007 Cubs who were sneaking into the postseason while everyone else in the NL Central was taking a step back. Heck, these aren’t even the 2008 Cubs who were pieced together for the sole purpose of driving up value in order for Sam Zell to sell and make a quick buck.

These Cubs have combined stellar pitching (1st in ERA, 5th in FIP), a deep offense (2nd in OBP, 10th in slugging, 3rd in weighted on-base average) and a superb defense (1st in DRS) to become the best team in baseball.

And yet, none of it matters starting Friday.


Love what Mets outfielder Jay Bruce said after the Mets’ 3-0 loss to the Giants on Wednesday at CIti FIeld. This from Ken Rosenthal’s piece:

“Anybody in the playoffs is a good team. The thing that sets the Cubs apart is that they have sluggers, but those sluggers also get on base a lot. If you catch a slugging team in the playoffs that doesn’t get on base and they go cold, then it’s like, ‘Uh-oh.’ The Cubs get on base and they slug. And their pitching is very good. They’re obviously the team to beat.”

Nothing captures the essence of October like the block quote above. And I must say I’m impressed with Bruce’s insight here.

As mentioned above, the Cubs are good at reaching base. They are also good at slugging. But if they get on base, but can’t slug? That’s trouble. And if there’s no one on base when they slug? Also, likely to be trouble.

But that can be said about every postseason team. For all the talk about “pitching wins championships” you simply can’t win if you don’t score. The Cubs’ offense was relentless in the 2016 regular season. They’ll need to do that again if they want to raise a World Series banner over at Clark and Addison.


 

I’ve been asked a dozen times (or more) about my nerves heading into Friday. And to be honest, I really don’t have any. There is a heightened sense of anticipation because I haven’t been to a baseball game in 15 days. That feels like a lot considering I attended more than 30 regular season games in 2016.

But nerves? Not really.

This isn’t a flash-in-the-pan built on black magic and pixie dust. It isn’t the final year of an extended run with key players with expiring contracts that are up after season’s end.

However, if the Cubs don’t win, it’ll be disappointing.

It will be an annoyance to hear #1908 and #SameOldCubs and everything else that Cubs fans have heard since they donned the blue hat with the red ‘C’ on it. But it’s nothing Cubs fans haven’t heard before. This is old hat for us.

But they’ll come back next year after a winter of Bears football, Bulls basketball and Blackhawks hockey with many members of their core returning — most of whom will still be in the prime of their careers. They’ll be back again to go through the 162-game ringer in hopes to take a spin at the wheel once again and hope for better fortunes.

This is how baseball works in the Wild Card era. Variance rules all.


Bring up the Cubs and people get weird.

Fact and logic go out the window in exchange for narrative, conjecture and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

“Because they’re the _____” is silly and an overwhelming majority of people would agree with this sentiment. Until you bring the Cubs into the conversation. It’s weird. And it’s why any logically thinking person should want the Cubs to win the World Series. Eliminate the narrative. Cut out the hocus pocus. Let’s talk ball.

The main reason the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 is because they simply haven’t qualified to make the postseason enough times to even get there. MLB adopted a playoff format in 1969 and the Cubs have qualified for it seven times prior to this year.

Hard to win anything of significance when you’re missing the tournament more than 80 percent of the time.

A Cubs World Series win means baseball writers locally (and nationally) have to actually write about ball moving forward. A Cubs World Series could literally create change in sports media as we know it. Admittedly, as someone who works for a newspaper company, it would be neat to be a part of progressive change in my field of employment.

I really enjoy how the Boston Red Sox are covered now. There is a nice mix of traditional and modern reporting. An easy-to-read blend of anecdotes, analysis and game info. Columnists have had to find new talking points. Ironic there are certain people you see less and less of now that the Red Sox have three World Series titles since 2004 and are perennial contenders.

But that can’t happen in Chicago unless the Cubs get the monkey off their back.

Preferably sooner, rather than later.


 

I’ve rambled for nearly 1,000 words at this point. So, here are my preferred postseason outcomes:

  • Cubs/Indians: Someone’s championship drought ends and the world will be better for it. Cubs bats vs. Indians arms intrgues me. Like 2015’s Cubs/Mets NLCS — but without mainstream media NY fanboys clogging my timeline. Thankfully, we’re clear of Jason La Canfora’s silliness.
  • Cubs/Blue Jays: #MakeBaseballFunAgain with a matchup that features two offenses that ranked in the top half of the league in slugging and HR/FB%. The Cubs rank in the top-10 in line drive rate, while the Jays are in the top-10 in hard-hit rate.
  • Cubs/Rangers: Lost in thinking about the Cubs/Indians droughts is the fact that the Rangers have never won a World Series. They should have won in 2011 and would hae done so had they put anyone other than Nelson Cruz out in right field for the ninth inning. These two teams played an entertaining three-game set in July and a rematch over seven games would be a treat for baseball fans.
  • Cubs/Red Sox: This series has it all. Made-for-TV storylines. Potent offenses. High-end pitchers. Big personalities. You’ll probably be annoyed if you’re not a Cubs or Red Sox fan. But since Cubs and Red Sox fans have had to deal with their fair share of annoyances over the years, turnabout is fair play.
  • Dodgers/Anybody: If the Cubs don’t make it, I’m rooting for a Game 7 return from Vin Scully for one last game.

TL;DR: I’m either going to have an enjoyable October or a miserable one.

Who’s up for an adventure? I know I am.