Saturday, March 1, 2014

Chicago Spring 2014 Sports Preview

Yes, it's been awhile since I've written anything here. Perhaps it was the freezing Chicago cold, the ridiculous amount of snow we've gotten, or the general unhappiness/laziness that winters here (and the failures of our respective sports team) brings with it. But now, even as Mother Nature dumps yet another 5 or so inches on our favorite city, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

There is certainly something to the "hope springs eternal" expression that not so coincidentally mentions the season that quickly approaches. Spring is the thawing out season, the one where green returns to nature and hope returns to Chicago sports. There is the start of a new baseball season, the end of both professional and college basketball seasons with an eye to the future, the NFL offseason, spring college football sessions, and the tail end of what hopes to be an exciting NHL season. Spring, perhaps more than any season, gives us the feeling of starting fresh. So, with that frame of mind, let's take a look into how our favorite teams will fare beginning this spring and beyond.

Chicago Bulls

For me, the Bulls are in NBA Salary Cap Hell. The last two Derrick Rose-less seasons have closed the championship window for the roster as it currently stands. The dubious duo of Gar Forman and John Paxson shipped off Luol Deng in a shrewd move to save cap space with an eye to the future. So, just what future do they possibly have in mind? Here's what I'm hoping will happen, though expecting it to happen with these two at the helm is doubtful at best.

This offseason is shaping up to be one of the strongest since the 2010 summer season of The Decision. LeBron James has the right to opt out of his contract, as does Carmelo Anthony. The Bulls, hoping to position themselves for a move at a big time free agent to pair with Rose, shipped off Deng and most likely will amnesty Carlos Boozer. Doing so clears up a good amount of cap room to make a run at some free agents. With the NBA salary cap projected to be around $62.1 million next season, without Deng and Boozer the Bulls expect to sit around $46.6 million this offseason with 6 players under contract. That leaves the Bulls around $15.5 million to build the rest of their team. Not as much as everyone thinks, right?

Rose is the biggest question mark.
What this means for sure is that a big name free agent like Carmelo Anthony is not coming to the Bulls, barring some miracle sign and trade deal. So, in typical Bulls fashion, GarPax will have to form a roster from good, but not great, players. They'll have to first figure out the Nikola Mirotic situation. The Bulls' hope of landing him for around the $5 million mid level exception seem to be gone, and they'll likely have to cough up $7-$10 million a year for a player who has never played on this side of the pond. That puts 7 players under contract, with anywhere from $5-8.5 million with which to construct the rest of the roster.

The Bulls have the chance at two first round picks, with current projections having those picks somewhere around 16th and 19th overall. Based on the NBA rookie salary scale, the 16th overall pick's salary will be $1,468,900 per year, and the 19th will be $1,266,000. That takes up yet another additional $2.7 million in salary, leaving the Bulls with 9 players and anywhere from $2.3 to $5.8 million left to sign more players. 

For me, this leaves out any chance at signing Lance Stephenson, who I think would be the perfect compliment to Derrick Rose and the rest of the roster, and puts the impetus on the Bulls to either draft well, hopefully sign Mirotic for less than is projected at the moment, or somehow move other pieces currently on the roster (like Mike Dunleavy) to create even more cap space.

The point is, the Bulls are in a dire situation that there may not be a great move out of. If they're able to land Mirotic, they might have to go out on a limb and consider dealing someone like Taj Gibson, a fan favorite, to create cap space to help other more ailing problems on the roster. I don't envy GarPax and the pressure they have to make it work this summer. Really, though, nothing matters if Rose doesn't come back healthy and somewhat of the same player he was before. The Bulls, and their salary cap nightmare, are all in on that presupposition (if you can call it that) and if he comes back and isn't the same player, or gets hurt again, then none of this matters at all.

None of this even takes into consideration the cloud that is developing between the front office and Tom Thibodeau, who from all accounts isn't the biggest fan of the two upstairs. They fired Ron Adams, his best assistant coach, for no reason, and they went and traded Deng away this year. I don't always agree with Tom and his impractical tendencies sometimes, but he's one of the three best coaches in the league and you don't go around alienating the guy to the point where there are rumors he's going to leave. So, not only do GarPax have to figure out the Thibs situation, they have to rebuild the team on the fly and hope Derrick comes back as somewhat of the same player. It's going to be one hell of an offseason.

Chicago Bears

It is a testament to the popularity of the Bears and the NFL that draft projections and potential free agent signings dominate local sports news even in the offseason. The Bears do, though, have a huge offseason on their hands - one that could decide the near future of this organization.

I felt that right off the bat, they made great decisions to bring back Jay Cutler (his enormous deal still leaves the Bears some flexibility), Tim Jennings, Matt Slauson, and Roberto Garza. The offense, which for the first time in a long time was a strength of this team, is going to be back and presumably better than ever with a full season with Marc Trestman under their belts. Jay is going to have the added pressure of living up to his contract, but with the continuity of a system friendly to his talents, should be primed to finally have that breakout season we've been waiting for from him. The goal for him, obviously, is to stay healthy.

Emery has a lot of work ahead of him
No, for this team, it's the defense. For a team with dozens of free agents, the opportunity for Phil Emery to rebuild this team is ripe for the taking. The only problem is that there are needs everywhere. on defense. For me, it starts up front with rebuilding a defensive line that was woeful in 2013. They need help at end and tackle to begin with. Do the Bears bring back Henry Melton or let him walk? Do they try to bring back Corey Wootton? These are tough questions, but for me, nothing about those players screams must have unless the price is right.

The Bears could look to free agency for a quick fix on the defensive line, like they did with Jermon Bushrod on the offensive line last year, making Martellus Bennett's brother Michael a likely target. There aren't a lot of top line defensive end targets in free agency, but there is depth. That's where I would spend my money if I were the Bears, considering the strength of the DT position in the draft.

The plethora of needs could lead the Bears to consider trading down out of the 14th overall slot in the first round to accumulate more picks. I'm definitely supportive of the move considering the strength and depth of this draft, but if the right defensive player is there and the deal to trade down isn't, drafting an upper echelon defensive lineman like Tim Jernigan, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, or Aaron Donald is certainly a good decision.

Linebacker is quite the conundrum. You have a steadfast starter in Lance Briggs, and then a decision whether to bring back James Anderson and DJ Williams. I would try to bring back one of the veterans, because rookies Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene left a lot to be desired. Granted, their positional coach was fired this offseason so there could be more to their lack of development, but the excitement we felt over the athleticism of these two rookies was quickly waned as they struggled in the middle of the worst defense in the league.

Lastly, I would really like to see the Bears bring back Charles Tillman at the right price, but most importantly, I want to see some sort of dedication to bringing in a top level safety talent. Watching a player like Earl Thomas absolutely dominate for the Seattle Seahawks makes me long for the days of Mike Brown on the Bears, and wish we had someone even marginally better than the jokes that Major Wright and Chris Conte were.

There's a ton of work to be done, but somewhat unlike the situation with the Bulls above, I have faith that the outcome will be one we can enjoy. The new leadership of the Bears under Phil Emery has been impressive thus far, with the revamping of a stagnant offense done in basically one offseason. If anyone can do it for the Bears, its Emery.

Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball

Wow, what a mess this program has become in one season. Remember the excitement from last year, when the Illini were one blown call away from a shot at the Sweet 16? Now, we replace that with hopes, even if they're far fetched, that the Illini can get an invite to the CBI. What the hell happened here?

First, the team has no elite Big Ten player on the roster like Brandon Paul. Rayvonte Rice is a nice, good, complimentary player, but he has hit a wall in Big Ten play because he doesn't have that extra gear that players like Paul do. That leaves a mess of horrible offensive play that makes games hard to watch. Encouraging signs can be seen in two freshmen, Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, both of whom seem to be players who will make a big impact at the Big Ten level for this program.

I'm excited for next year, when transferees Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks, and Darius Paul join a roster that only loses the disappointing Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey to graduation. Also joining them are incoming recruits Michael Finke, from Champaign, and stud Leron Black from Memphis. I have a feeling that Black could be a freshman that makes a major impact on this team, similar to DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul back in 2009.

More important here, however, is the big picture. This past week, the program missed out on yet another upper echelon Chicago recruit when Charles Matthews committed to Kentucky. That makes it several Chicago area recruits now who have formed a great bond with John Groce and the Illini program only to head off to a blue blood program. What seems to be the problem here? Is this program ever going to realize its potential?

Groce and Nunn give the Illini a bright future
Part of it for me is the damage that was done to it in the last years of Bruce Weber's tenure, where he alienated Chicago area coaches and damaged Illinois' perception in that community. But the other part of it is reality. Illinois doesn't have the luxury of showing up at any of these schools, offering a scholarship, and getting a quick commitment from a top national prospect. Right now, we're the bridesmaid, left holding the ring at the altar as someone more important and exciting comes along. How do you fix that problem? You make yourself more important and exciting.

To do that, Groce needs to win, and he needs to make this program relevant. It's a slower process than  we hoped for, and this season certainly doesn't help. But these one and done prospects don't want to be part of a rebuilding process. They want to walk into a situation where they stand to win in what usually turns out to be their only year in college. We as alumni and as fans need to give Groce time to build. This is his second season. To be sure, I've looked upon this team with a more skeptical and critical eye, but let's check back in a year or two before we start jumping to conclusions that he isn't the man for the job. Remember, this is the guy we all loved as he took us into the tournament and almost the Sweet 16 with a team that Bruce couldn't even make the tournament with.

Illinois Fighting Illini Football

Is this even worth talking about right now? That's how irrelevant and poor this dumpster fire program has become. It's an embarrassment to our school, one where it feels like Ellen Degeneres can garner more attention on campus than our football team. I've written about this before a few times, but this is (hopefully) the last year of Tim Beckman as our coach. I think he's terrible at just about everything that is required for this job.

Coming into this season, Illinois has to find a new quarterback for the first time in awhile as Nate Scheelhaase graduates. The bet here is on transfer Wes Lunt from Oklahoma State, an Illinois kid with a ton of talent and passing prowess. He'll have to fight off rising sophomore Aaron Bailey and senior Reilly O'Toole for the job, but what hope that even brings this tepid program is uncertain. There are gaping holes all over the place, whether from the recruiting weaknesses of Ron Zook's later years or all of Tim Beckman's years.

The only hope for a reasonably successful season (in my eyes, meaning 4 wins or more), is for the defense to be slightly less terrible and the offense to be just as prolific as last year. You figure if that's the case, they'll have to win 4 games just by default, right?

The most important thing here, though, is long term. This is a program that I've maintained can be an upper half of the Big Ten competitor year in and year out with its location, size, and resources, and yet has not had the management necessary to achieve that level. I think it is obvious at this point that Tim Beckman isn't right for the job, but if he does get fired after this season, what will it take from the Illinois administration to make this right? Will they have the support from the boosters and board of trustees to make a splashy, expensive hire, or will they have to settle for a MAC up and coming like we supposedly got with Beckman? Either way, it is going to be a tough sell for anyone to come into this mess. I hope, more than anything, that we can just get to a level of competitiveness and go from there.

Chicago Cubs

Ah, springtime. That time of year where we start Cubs' sentences with "maybe..." before trailing off into mediocrity. Not this year, though. We won't even mention "maybe." The Cubs will suck yet again this year, but at least nowadays they're not sucking for the sake of sucking. There's a plan here, and it is starting to bear fruit.

The focus for everyone is on the prospects. We have Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and several others that makes the Cubs' farm system one of the best in the league. Prospects are far from certain to turn out as quality major league players, let alone stars, but there is no reason not to be excited at the accumulation of talent that this organization has undertaken in recent years.

We clamored for years to have a plan, a slow rebuild where things are done the right way. We got that a couple years back when Theo Epstein joined the organization, so we need to give him that chance. It would be so "Cubs" of us to cry and cry for a real plan, and then complain that it isn't moving along fast enough. We've waited 106 years. We can wait a couple more if that's what it takes to put a perennial contender on the field.

The only concern I have is with the off the field activities. The Cubs are desperate to open up revenue streams to pay off the debt they incurred buying the team, and so they can then reinvest back into the franchise to make them competitive in more ways than one. The biggest source of this will obviously be the Wrigley Field renovations, but the pesky roof top owners are preventing that from happening at the pace Tom Ricketts would have hoped for. If the Cubs get that figured out, along with a new television deal that should bring untold riches into the Cubs' coffers, then the prospects should be hitting Clark and Addison right around the same time the team can invest big money in free agents that can take the team over the top.  For now, we wait, and try to enjoy the upcoming summer with some beers and baseball.

Notre Dame Football

Its hard to label last season as disappointing for the Irish, considering the difficulties they had to overcome. Their starting quarterback, the one who led them to a 12-0 BCS Championship game appearance, was ineligible because of academic issues. They had injuries to key players, like Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. That being said, the team still finished 9-4 with a good bowl win, and games that could have gone either way against Stanford, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Pitt. That team was a few plays away from 10-2.

There are reasons for optimism heading into this offseason. First and foremost is the return of Everett Golson. If you've forgotten what he brings to this team, see below:

His athleticism, football savvy, and pure talent are only going to be magnified as he spent a ton of this "time off" working with reknowned QB guru George Whitfield. He bulked up, and comes back to Notre Dame humbled and ready to assume his role as a leader. He will be a difference maker this season.

More reasons for optimism? The talent on the offensive line, at running back, the speed at wide receiver, the depth and athleticism on defense, and the change in coordinators on defense. I wasn't surprised to see Bob Diaco leave for UCONN (although I was surprised to see Chuck Martin leave for Miami), but I think that Brian VanGorder's hire to replace him will do wonders in both recruiting and defensive scheming.

Spring practice starts Monday, so we'll get an idea then of how Brian Kelly wants this team to shake out. This is a year that could define his tenure with the Irish. He has his quarterback back on the roster, and he has a lot of talent to work with. Us Irish Fans are still waiting for the explosive offense that he was known for, so if we start to see it at least somewhat this year, it will mean good things for the Irish moving forward.

Chicago Blackhawks

I saved the Hawks for last because they're actively playing right now and have the best shot at immediate success. Starting tonight in an epic outdoor showdown at Soldier Field, the Hawks have a shot to hit the ground running, find their stride, and try to defend their title in the Cup Playoffs. They have been somewhat of an enigma this year, with periods of incredible offensive strength followed by times where they simply can't buy a shot.

Tonight's game is the launching point for the rest of the season
They're experiencing some problems with production on their lower lines, and like they've had the past couple years, are lacking depth at center. Michal Handzus is not the answer. The hope is that the Hawks are lucky enough to bring over Teuvo Teravainen, their Finnish superstar in the making, to bolster that depth as the season comes to a close in April. Teravainen is a superb player in the mold of Patrick Kane; what he loses in size he makes up for in playmaking ability and puck skills.

The big problem for the Hawks, though, is special teams. Their weaknesses here have seesawed the past couple years, with power play being the problem last year, but now it is the penalty kill. The Hawks have really struggled here and it is difficult to ascertain why. Joel Quenneville has shifted around several of his penalty killers, but one can't help but point to the loss of Michael Frolik as a big part in that. To me, though, penalty kill is about grit and effort. This team should get it straightened out; they're veterans who know how to turn it on when need be.

All told, the Hawks are the most exciting aspect of Chicago sports to follow this spring. They have a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup again, and the group of talented, experienced leaders and veterans to get it done. These little ruts, such as the struggles in overtime and on the penalty kill, should work themselves out. The Hawks know that what matters is playoff results, and they know how to get them. It is incredibly hard to repeat as Stanley Cup champion, and it is possible it doesn't happen this year for the Hawks. But one thing's for sure - it will be fun as hell to watch.