Bulls, D.J. Augustin a perfect match
Former lottery pick has rejuvenated his career with team desperate for playmaker
CHICAGO -- D.J. Augustin is used to making new friends.
He moved from New Orleans to Houston after Hurricane Katrina. Then he moved to Austin, Texas, to play college basketball. He has gone from Charlotte to Indiana to Toronto in the past three seasons.
In his short tenure in Chicago, Augustin has ingratiated himself to the tight-knit Bulls. Well, most of them anyway.
"A lot of hate," Butler said. "He doesn't like me because I like country music and wear cowboy boots. It really angers me."
Butler was (sort of) kidding. He agreed with a reporter that Augustin fits right in because seemingly everyone picks on the "confident cowboy" (Joakim Noah's words) in the Bulls locker room.
"I'm used to it," Butler said. "Welcome to the party."
But what about on the court, Jimmy?
"On the court, he's one hell of a player," Butler said, turning serious. "He does so much well, getting into the paint, finding open guys, getting to the rim. And please don't let him get his feet set because I think it's going in 100 percent of the time."
Augustin's arrival in mid-December didn't seem like a season-saving moment, but that is what it has been. Augustin has nicely filled in as this season's Nate Robinson. He's quieter than Nate, certainly less weird and probably more effective.
For all the talk about the front office throwing in the towel on the season, if it really wanted to lose dramatically, it would have stuck with Marquis Teague as Kirk Hinrich's backup. Or maybe it didn't realize Augustin would be this good.
With Augustin playing big minutes, the Bulls are 18-13, having improved from 8-12 to 26-25.
With one game left until the All-Star break, the Bulls are no longer the walking dead. They are in fourth place in the weak Eastern Conference. They have survived another crippling Derrick Rose knee injury and the trade of franchise linchpin Luol Deng. Noah and Taj Gibson are dominating the paint, and the guards are seeing dividends.
Augustin, like Robinson before him, has rejuvenated his career with the Bulls, playing in an offensive point guard-dominated system. He's also made this team watchable.
"It's been great. It's been a blessing," Augustin said. "I didn't expect to come in and play as much as I've been playing. Coach Thibs has been letting me play, and it's been great for me and my confidence."
So what's this about the Bulls being an unwelcome home for free agents?
Augustin's payday is next. While the Bulls would love to have him back next season -- a Rose confidant told me he wants to see Augustin playing next to his friend -- this D.J. might be doing a high-priced residency somewhere else.
When I suggested that Thibodeau is going to make him rich, Augustin laughed.
"He's been pushing me and giving me that confidence that I needed," he said. "Defense comes first with him, and if you don't play good defense, you don't play at all. So I've just been trying to play good defense."
But it's been on offense where Augustin has shined. Through 31 games with the Bulls, the 6-foot guard is playing 31 minutes a game, averaging 13.8 points and 5.7 assists. He is shooting 42.4 percent on 3-pointers, which is higher than his overall shooting percentage. This is a far cry from his disastrous tenure with Toronto. Augustin averaged 8.2 minutes in 10 games for the Raptors before they released him.
"The toughest part was being there and not playing," Augustin said. "The part about getting waived wasn't tough because I kind of figured I was going to get traded or something was going to happen. When it happened, it didn't really bother me. I was waiting on the next opportunity."
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The Bulls, desperate for point guard help, called him the day he was released, he said. He waited a day before signing.
Drafted in the lottery by Charlotte in 2008, he had his qualifying offer rescinded before the 2012 season. He had his worst season in Indiana, which released him. Toronto barely played him before waiving him.
"This league is pretty much based on opportunity and situations," he said. "Some guys get drafted into good situations, and some guys get drafted into bad situations. It takes them a while to find a team that fits their style and the right situation for team. That's just what the NBA is."
Augustin joined the Bulls during their 3-13 slide. They won his first game against the Bucks and then lost four straight to fall to 9-16.
I first saw Augustin in an 83-82 loss to Orlando, his third game with the team and second at home. The Bulls had scored fewer than 80 points in four of the previous five games, and I asked a scout to describe the Bulls' offensive struggles.
"Uncanny is a word I'd use," he said.
The same scout said the Bulls would be much better after Augustin got settled into the offense. They'll be fine, he told me.
I didn't quite believe him, but then the Bulls scored 90 of more in their next four games, going 2-2. They were fun with Augustin on the court. He could cross guys over, get in the paint, make no-look passes and hit 3s.
The Bulls opened 2014 with five straight wins, which coincided with the Deng trade. There was no letdown after that moment.
"We don't have any [jerks] on this team," Augustin said. "Everybody's pretty humble. Everybody gets along."
By the numbers, the Bulls aren't much better when Augustin is on the court instead of Hinrich, but there's also no drop-off, which is crucial.
With Augustin on the court, the Bulls were scoring 91.4 points per 48 minutes (before Tuesday's game) but getting outscored by 2.8. With him off the court, they're scoring 90.4 points, outscoring teams by 2.9.
Augustin was a plus-2 in 31 minutes during Tuesday's 100-85 win over the Hawks, scoring 13 points with four rebounds and four assists. He scored all his points in his first 13 minutes on the floor, hitting four of his first five 3-pointers while helping the Bulls build on a sizable first-quarter lead.
He is getting open looks thanks to the stellar play of Bulls bigs Noah and Gibson. Noah, who is playing at a first-team All-NBA level, had a triple-double, which included 11 assists. Gibson, who is turning into an untouchable, added five assists. Augustin doesn't have to carry the load on every possession.
"I've never been on a team that shares the ball like we do," Augustin said.
But it certainly helps his free-agent numbers that he came into an offense centered around Rose.
"You come in and the point guard is the first option on damn near every play," Butler said. "But that's good for him because you gain confidence and shooting the ball and you know where everyone is on the floor and you're making a lot of good plays."
According to ESPN's Hollinger NBA Odds, the Bulls have a 91.5 percent chance of making the playoffs. Their 0.4 percent chance of winning the NBA title is ahead of their 0.1 chance of winning the lottery.
The Bulls don't have championship aspirations, but as Augustin knows, there's no point in focusing on the future or the past. Just live in the present and every so often good things happen.