Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Season Preview: Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls’ drafting of Derrick Rose in 2009 kicked of the beginnings of the all-American sports fairy tale. 2 years of the ragtag, scrappy bunch, with hard-nosed Kirk Hinrich and hot-shooting Ben Gordon teaming with the ROY to lead the upstarts to rollicking back-to-back 1st round exits. In 2011 the script played out perfectly; here comes the defensive genius Coach Tom Thibodeau, bringing with him a championship caliber defense. Then came the trumpeted signing of all-star Carlos Boozer, and the transcendent Rose nabbing MVP. The thrilling  Eastern Conference loss against the newly minted Miami juggernaut. The stars were aligned; the young star and his carefully assembled cast had taken playoff lumps, grown together, they were ready to join the Big Boys on the center stage in the battle for the Larry O’Brien trophy. I mean, that’s how this movie HAS to play out, right?

 In December 2011 Derrick Rose signed a max extension worth $93 million in December...and the film started to spool out of control.  Rose missed 27 of the 66 games last year with a variety of foot and back  ailments. The team gamely tried to stick to the script. With the stifling defense better than ever, the Chicago cast racked up win after improbable win without their star point guard, even besting mighty Miami, and earned the top seed in the playoffs. But Derrick Rose’s  devastating ACL injury in the closing moments of Chicago’s game 1 victory over the 76ers ended any championship aspirations and left Chicago facing harsh realities coming into the 2013 season.

While Rose’s rehabilitation is right on schedule, the franchise is taking it’s time, and may sit him for the entirety of the season. Kyle Korver is gone; journeymen Marco Belinelli (11.8 ppg, 37.7% 3 pt) and Vladimir Radmanovic (4.5 ppg, 37.6% 3pt) will attempt to fill the role of resident sharpshooter. Defensive gem Omer Asik fled to Houston, and in his place 14 year vet Nazr Mohammed steps in. Exit gunners CJ Watson and John Lucas II, replaced by savvy game manager Kirk Hinrich (6.4 ppg, 2.6 apg, 36.4% 3pt), scoring dynamo Nate Robinson (11.2,36.5% 3pt) and rookie Marquis Teague. The new faces will join  disappointingly productive forward Carlos Boozer, human Swiss Army knife Luol Deng, super-sub Taj Gibson, and defensive pillar in the middle Joakim Noah. The Bulls are going to have to be the ultimate improv group until their main attraction is ready for top billing again, but fans are keeping their fingers crossed that this supporting cast can keep the show rolling in Chicago.

8Marco BelinelliSG266-5195$1,957,000
5Carlos BoozerPF306-9266Duke$15,000,000
21Jimmy ButlerSF236-7220Marquette$1,066,920
9Luol DengSF276-9220Duke$13,305,000
22Taj GibsonPF276-9225USC$2,155,811
32Richard HamiltonSG346-7193Connecticut$5,000,000
12Kirk HinrichSG316-4190Kansas$3,941,000
48Nazr MohammedC356-10250Kentucky$854,389
13Joakim NoahC276-11232Florida$11,300,000
77Vladimir RadmanovicSF316-10235$854,389
2Nate RobinsonPG285-9180Washington$854,389
1Derrick RosePG246-3190Memphis$16,402,500
25Marquis TeaguePG196-2190Kentucky$857,000
Coach: Tom Thibodeau

Carlos Boozer
When did 15 ppg and  8.5 rpg on 53% shooting become not enough? When you’re signed to be the Inside Presence Robin to the MVP Point Guard Batman. Even more confounding? Boozer’s numbers were down last year from 2011, yet Chicago seems to have come to peace with who Boozer is, and he actually was considered to play better in the strike shortened season.  He’s not going to be Karl Malone to Rose’s hyper-athletic Stockton, or even a bulky Bosh to Rose’s miniature LeBron.  It’s not Boozer’s fault, really; he benefited from playing with 1st LeBron James, then superior creator Deron Williams, in offenses designed with him in mind. This isn't at all a slight on Rose, but his attacks are to score 1st, score 2nd, pass 3rd. The issue with Boozer isn't just his inconsistent offense; he was also pretty bad on D, which is why the defense stiffens up when Gibson was on the floor. With Rose out until at least after the new year, look for Thibs to try and get Booz established early and often, either at the elbow extended, top of the key, or on the move to the hoop. Boozer’s production will be key to any chances Chicago has while Rose recovers.

Joakim Noah
If Derrick Rose is the heart of Chicago’s offense, Joakim Noah is the soul of their suffocating defense. The agile, energetic 7 footer was known for his motor coming into the league, and in his 5 years with the Bulls has yet to disappoint. He’s fast enough to hedge on the pick-n-rolls and hustle back to his man, quick enough to switch and guard on the perimeter for short stretches, he’s always active around the rim, and even added an awkward-yet- effective 15 foot set shot to his repertoire. I’m pretty sure the list of teams that wouldn't trade their center straight up is short: the Lakers, the 76ers, the Knicks, and MAYBE Indiana. Noah’s 10.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg, and 1.4 bpg don’t jump off the stat sheet, but The Bulls won at an astounding 68% clip without Rose last year, and Noah was vital to every one of those wins. To come close to those numbers in 2013, they’ll need Joakim to stay healthy and provide the backbone to their devastating D.

Luol Deng
Luol Deng is the prototype for prototypical small forwards. His 15.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, and 36.7% from 3 may not be eye popping, but  Deng is also latched on the other team’s best perimeter player.  The term “jack of all trades, master of none” fits him to a tee. 2012 saw the 6’8” 230 lb Deng make his 1st All Star team, yet the Bulls will need much more if they’re going to keep pace in the improving East. There are 2 concerns about the Londoner: 1) the discovery of injured ligaments in his wrist that may require surgery after the season, and 2) the alarming minutes (39.4 mpg in 2011-'12) Coach Thibodeau plays Deng, be it preseason exhibition or meaningless January game. Somehow, Deng must try to improve on his scoring output and get his field goal percentage back to a respectable 46-47% (he shot a ghastly 41% in 2011-’12) while Thibs finds a way to ease up on his minutes. A daunting task.

Taj Gibson
If we could somehow combine the attributes of Boozer and Taj Gibson, we'd have a fearless, sweet shooting, tough defending power forward. While Taj lacks the offensive polish and prowess of Boozer, he makes up for it with athleticism and excellent defense. Gibson could start on most teams in the NBA; his 7.7 ppg and 5.3 rpg seem modest until you realize he does it in only 20 minutes a night. His offense is beginning to catch up to the rest of his game, so much so that many a fan has howled for Gibson to snatch the bulk of the power forward minutes from Boozer. While it remains to be seen if Thibs would go that far, look for Gibson’s role to expand this year.

There seems to be a growing sentiment that, with Rose’s timetable for return so unclear, so much roster turnover, and the lack of a big name piece being added, the Bulls’ 2013 season is basically a lost cause. Would the front office consider shelving Rose so he can focus on being 100% in 2014 and maybe struggling *cough*tanking*cough* enough to get a lottery pick in next year’s draft? Who knows? But I DO know, 2 years removed from the ECF and Rose’s magical MVP season, the Bulls seem stuck in neutral while the rest of the Eastern hopefuls (Indiana, Boston, Miami, New Jersey, and even New York) are participating in the basketball arms race to get better. I wonder if the adrenaline-like rush to “Win for Rose” that the team had last year, buoyed by the knowledge that he’d be back from his various minor dings, will be sustainable now that the severity of his playoff injury has set in. Can the patchwork team repeat the magic of last year? Chicago isn't catching anyone by surprise. I can’t see the Bulls repeating their run. Look for Chicago to hang tough in most games due to that exceptional D,  but be doomed by their difficulty scoring baskets. I see 37-42 wins and a dogfight for the 6-8 playoff spot in their future.


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