WCC Notebook: Bulls impress vs. 76ers, Jordan Howard, Blackhawks outside looking in, Cubs Spring Training update

By Thomas Gibbons

The Chicago Bulls beat one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, the 76ers, on live television Wednesday night.

Zach LaVine. Dagger.

Tank, tank, tank…and more tank. It is the one workd surrounding the Chicago Bulls since they traded Jimmy Butler during the 2016 NBA Draft. Since then, the Bulls have managed to draft Lauri Markkanen, a budding star, and Wendell Carter Jr., who’s rookie season got cut short by injury but showed promise as a member of the young core in Chicago.

While all the tank talk is alive and well, it is not what we are seeing on the United Center floor. Head coach Jim Boylen has his team playing hard and after a rough start to his tenure, players have responded to him and are playing their best basketball of the season. I know, Bulls fans want the best possible draft pick and have been dreaming of Duke star Zion Williamson since he stepped on the court at Cameron Indoor. Those dreams are fading while the Bulls are winning games, but you cannot turn a blind eye to the growth we have seen from this team.

Markkanen put together a stunning month of February, averaging 26 points and 12.2 rebounds per game. LaVine is one of the league’s most improved shooters and what I especially like from LaVine is his aggressiveness to go to the hoop. Otto Porter Jr. has given the Bulls a much needed boost on the offensive and defensive ends, reaching double figures in all but one game with the Bulls and ranks 15th in the league in steals.

Markkanen, LaVine, and Porter, along with Carter Jr., and Chandler Hutchison are the guys John Paxson will build around. This summer’s free agent class is loaded, highlighted by Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, and Kawhi Leonard. But with acquiring Porter Jr., the Bulls will not have room for a max contract offer. The Bulls will have to continue to build through the draft and hope LaVine or Markkanen can become a top player in the league because everyone knows it’s a star driven league and you do not win without one.

The Bulls have a few players on the roster who can surround these core pieces. Shaquille Harrison, Wayne Selden Jr. and Ryan Arcidiacono could all return next season. Denzel Valentine will look to recapture a role off the bench after a solid sophomore season. Kris Dunn may not have the staring job next season but could be slotted in the backup role.

Dunn was once viewed as the possible point guard of the future but that narrative is all but dead. Along with several injuries, he is still not a consistent shooter and does not get to the foul line. I think he suits best in a backup role and while he is still under contract for next season, it’s unclear if he will return. The Bulls need an upgrade at the position and could do so in the draft by selecting Ja Morant from Murray State in June or signing someone like Darren Collison. It’s their weakest position on the roster and will be a priority this offseason.

Forget about the tank for just a couple of minutes. The Bulls are playing their best basketball of the season and are doing so as a team. The heart, the hustle, and the effort is all there. Is Jim Boylen growing on you? From what was a rough start has shifted to some promise. While the Bulls are currently the 4th worst team in the association, they did not look like Wednesday night.

The Chicago Blackhawks are back on the ice Thursday night and their playoff chances are all but gone.

Before puck drop tonight, the Blackhawks are nine points out of the last Wild Card spot. Four teams are ahead of them, too. It would take a lot for everyone but the Blackhawks to collapse.

The seven game winning streak that lasted from late January into mid February put the Blackhawks in the playoff conversation, something no one saw coming after only one win in their first eight games of 2019. But led by their power play along with a valiant effort from Cam Ward and Colin Delia, the Blackhawks were being mentioned in the same sentence as the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche in the fight for the second Wild Card spot.

How quickly things could change.

The Blackhawks lost to both the Avalanche and the Stars two weekends ago, two games they had to win. And after dropping both contests on Saturday and Sunday, their hole grew deeper.

The fight is not over, but I’m here to say the Blackhawks are going to have trouble getting up after another bell-ringing punch. The focus for the rest of the season is seeing who is worth keeping around next season. The line pairings yell that.

Saad-Toews-Hayden

DeBrincat-Strome-Perlini

Kahun-Anisimov-Kane

Kunitz-Kampf-Kruger

Colliton is experimenting and while these lines may change fairly quickly in game, this is what he is starting with. The special teams units have changed too. It’s a must win mentality from here on out, but it is also a great chance for players like Jon Hayden and Brandon Perlini to prove their worth in hopes of being apart of the 2019-2020 campaign.

After Joel Quenneville was fired, the Blackhawks were written off. And Colliton’s rough start got the Blackhawks mentioned with the number one pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. But they turned a corner only to have fallen back to the bottom of the conference.

This team has many holes, most notably on the blue line and forward depth. The Blackhawks will have quite a bit of cap space this summer, promising prospects who could make the team next season, and maybe draft a player who would play right away in Chicago. While this season is a loss, next season shines a light of getting back on track.

Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweeted Thursday afternoon that multiple teams approached the Chicago Bears at the NFL combine and discussed potential trades for running back Jordan Howard.

Jordan Howard’s name has been in trade rumors for quite some time now. A trade at this point is imminent. Matt Nagy’s offense deals with quick, athletic backs, like Cohen, and Howard does not fit. He’s a downhill runner with limited explosiveness and is not a receiving threat. This is not saying he is a bad football player. Howard rushed for over 1,000 yards in his first two seasons in the NFL. He runs hards, falls forward, and runs the zone scheme very well. But his skills limit him in a system like Nagy’s. This draft is filled with athletic backs who would be a better fit with the Bears than Howard.

It was reported recently by the Chicago Tribune that the Bears were offered a third round pick for Howard during the season but decided to keep him for the playoffs. A third round pick for Howard now in time is unlikely, but I think the Bears can land a fifth- round pick for the running back, the round in which they drafted him.

Talks are ongoing and it seems it is only a matter of days before the Bears part with Howard. The new league year begins on March 13th.

The Cubs are doing pretty well in Mesa and Opening Day needs to hurry up.

The daily reports from Cubs Spring Training have been mostly positive. Kris Bryant is hitting home runs, Yu Darvish is throwing all of his pitches, and Tyler Chatwood’s command is improving.

A lot of pieces have to fall into place for the Cubs to be the best in the division, but I have faith in this club. Their starting rotation can be one of the best in baseball, and a middle of the order consisting of Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javy Baez can produce big numbers.

Today’s report: Jon Lester pitched 3.2 innings, giving up 3 earned runs and striking out four and 2018 first round selection Nico Hoerner went 3-3 in the 7-5 loss to the Rockies.

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