Chicago Bulls - Bull Riding
Last Years Record: 49-33
Key Losses: PJ Brown, Michael Sweetney
Key Additions: Joe Smith, Joakim Noah, Aaron Gray, JamesOn Curry
1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?
Well, it’s the draft… and unfortunately that’s about it. I don’t mind trading in PJ Brown for a younger PJ Brown— er, Joe Smith, but it’ll be much of the same. Smith might start, but he’s basically just a placeholder who can hopefully hit a 15-footer and rebound a little bit. The draft is where it’s at - Joakim Noah, Aaron Gray and JamesOn Curry. Here’s what we have…
- Noah may not have a pretty offensive game, but he has two things I like: a ridiculous motor and a work ethic. When you’re 6′11″ (and I think he’s closer to 7′) all it takes to be a good defender is effort. Sure, there are things to learn, but as a big rookie if Noah can just agitate people, that’s a lot from a big man. And he never stops trying; in that way he’s almost the opposite of Tyrus Thomas - he doesn’t have the ridiculous athleticism, but he never seems to tune out and take possessions off. Plus, all the reports have him as one of the hardest workers in the gym, and that means good things for the future.
- Aaron Gray was a steal. This guy was mentioned in the lottery before a somewhat underwhelming senior season. He has virtually zero athleticism, but he’s blessed with an NBA body – to wit, 7-foot, 270 lbs. – and has soft hands and fantastic touch around the basket. He may need to get a little stronger, and he might need to get in better cardio condition, but he’s already providing something this team with something that only the corpulent Michael Sweetney had last year - true post moves. Gray really can score around the basket, and though he probably won’t see much more than 10 minutes per game this year, his upside is fantastic for a second-round pick. I continue to believe he’s just as good for the Bulls as Spencer Hawes would have been, and he was drafted a round later.
- JamesOn Curry is an interesting case. He’s 6′3″ - big for a PG, somewhat small for a two, but more than good enough to take minutes from Chris Duhon. He’s a more explosive offensive player, and a MUCH better jump shooter. The reason Curry was at Ok. State instead of a higher-profile school is a drug arrest now long in his past, and I think it’s safe to say he’s a great value pick in the late second round in terms of talent. As a Du-hater, I’m happy Curry is in town. I’d still love to see Chris shipped out for a big man… or perhaps some new fitness equipment for the Berto Center… or maybe just some new nets… or just cut him, I don’t really care.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
Depth and defense. This Bulls team is absurdly deep, and virtually everyone is young. Ben Wallace, Joe Smith and Adrian Griffin are the only players over 27. That means the Bulls have the ability to play a sort of NBA version of the Nolan Richardson-style 40 minutes of hell defense. Now, Skiles won’t go quite that far, but he will demand that everyone hustles non-stop on defense and he has a bench deep enough to yank those who don’t. That’s why the Bulls have been among the best defensive teams in the league since Skiles arrived. Now consider the fact that the Bulls’ essentially add two 7-footers to a team that’s biggest defensive problem the last couple years was height. Clearly Joakim Noah and Aaron Gray are defensive upgrades over the likes of Luke Schenscher (no offense to the big Aussie). At the 2-guard, where the team defense has suffered the most in the last few years, Ben Gordon is another year older and stronger, and Thabo Sefolosha is working hard on his already-solid D. All in all, I see the Bulls being the best defensive team in the league this year.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
Scoring, particularly from the big men. Last year, the Bulls really struggled to win when Ben Gordon didn’t have a good scoring night. Kirk Hinrich proved reluctant to step up his scoring, Luol Deng didn’t emerge as a real scoring threat until later in the year, and there was NOBODY on the interior with any real scoring ability (except perhaps Michael Sweetney, who was too fat to stay on the floor). To some extent, these weaknesses should be less of a problem this year - Gordon will hopefully be more consistent, Deng should be ready to contribute as a scorer from the drop this season, and with the addition of Noah and hopefully the improvement of Tyrus Thomas, there should be enough interior scoring by way of garbage points and putbacks to make up for the lack of true post players. Plus, the aforementioned addition of Aaron Gray should help in this department. And Joe Smith is a PF who can score, if not from the low post. Still, this is not going to be a light-em-up scoring team; they’ll make their mustard with defensive intensity and intelligent play.
4. What are the goals for this team?
I think the team’s goal is an NBA Championship; and I like that. I think a more realistic goal is an NBA Finals appearance. Most importantly, I think there is a Conference Finals or Bust sign hanging from this team’s collective neck. If they don’t at least play in the Eastern Conference Finals, this season has to be considered a disappointment for the Bulls. After taking it to Miami in the first round last year, they need to take another step forward and play for a chance to go to the finals. There’s nobody in the East that’s clearly better than the Bulls right now - the Celts have a wicked top three, but not much else; the Pistons have added virtually nothing and are another year older and further removed from their glory days; Miami is ancient, and Dwyane Wade won’t be healthy until January, it seems; Cleveland was lucky to reach the finals last year (and get absolutely smoked) and have done NOTHING to improve, instead deciding to leave two of their critical secondary players unsigned. Basically, the East (though better) is still weak, and the Bulls need to consider moving the team in a different direction (can you say Kobe Bryant?) if they don’t at least play in the conference finals this year.
5. What is Kirk Hinrich?
This might seem a strange question to people who haven’t followed the Bulls closely for the last few years, but Bulls fans really wonder whether Hinrich is a real point guard in this league, or just a backup shooting guard playing the point. It’s clear he’s a great defender for his size and position. He has scoring ability - his 3-point shooting percentage was a career-best (and impressive) 41.5% last year, and his scoring average and FG % have improved each year. But what about playing his position? His assist average has actually been going down, and his assist-to-turnover ratio last season was 2.62, worst since his rookie year. With a team that now features several guys capable of hitting shots, why is this happening? Though the City of Chicago (and the coaching staff and front office) loves his effort and defensive intensity, he needs to answer a lot of questions about his ability to set up his teammates. This is a make-or-break year for him in that respect. I do think he has the ability, but with all the talent that now surrounds him there are no more excuses for not tallying more helpers. I’d rather see his scoring average drop (16.6 ppg is unnecessarily high for a point guard) and his assists improve. A point guard on a championship contender should be up around eight or nine assists, not the 6.3 he’s averaged lately.
So, what are we looking at?
This team is ready. I truly believe that. And if they’re not, it’s time to make some wholesale changes. Because John Paxson has presided over steady improvement since taking the GM job, I’ve been prepared to trust him when he chose not to make deals for Pau Gasol, KG and Kobe. I think he’s put together a roster that has as good a chance to win a championship by committee as any team out there, but if there’s no progress this season we need to look for a way to find that superstar leader - probably that means making a deal for Kobe Bryant. Looking at the big picture, though, I see the Bulls finishing among the top three teams in the conference again and playing the Celtics in the Conference Finals. So there’s your bold prediction…
Predicted Record: 56-26
Thanks for reading, and as always please tear me to shreds in the comments section - I’ll be more than happy to fire back.