By Jan Levine
RotoWire Staff Writer
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
After posting consecutive losing months in February and March, Chicago went 9-1 in April to finish the season 41-41 and gave Miami all it could handle in the playoffs before bowing out in six games. This year, expectations are the highest in the Windy City since the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen days, largely due to the way the Bulls played against Miami and the signing of Ben Wallace to a four-year, $60 million deal. Wallace should steady a squad mainly composed of young guards and forwards and should prove better in his role as the last line of defense than Tyson Chandler, who was shipped off to New Orleans for P.J. Brown after five disappointing seasons as a Bull.
Chicago last season averaged just 1.63 more points than they surrendered, which contributed to their .500 record. The Bulls also had problems on the defensive glass, allowing opponents to grab 41.73 boards a game. Wallace's addition should go a long way to shoring up that weakness. The Bulls also need to find a way to cut down on their fouls, as they allowed 505 more free throw attempts and saw 469 more made free throws, a difference of more than five points a game.
Another key will be for coach Scott Skiles to figure out a way to mesh all the new bodies while using a consistent starting lineup, something the Bulls didn't do well last season; having gone through different 13 starting lineups in 82 games. Chicago boasts excellent depth, but unless Skiles settles on a fairly set rotation, the Bulls may once again struggle with consistency and fail to mesh as a unit until late in the season.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Skiles will once have his hands full trying to get enough playing time for much of the roster but the one benefit he has, is that many of the players can play multiple positions. The Bulls did not give Wallace big money for him to sit, so he will see the lion's share of playing time at center, backed up at the position by Brown, Sweetney and Malik Allen.
Andres Nocioni carried the Bulls down the stretch and in the playoffs, so he would seem to be penciled in as the team's starting small forward. Noce can also play the two- and four-spots, so it would not be surprising to see Skiles utilize him all over the floor. When Nocioni is either on the bench or at another position, Deng will most likely slide in at the three-spot, though he too can play multiple spots on the floor, but he is not as good defensively as Nocioni. Khryapa will also be used at several positions, as his size and wingspan make him a solid defender.
Brown is long in the tooth, but like Wallace, is being counted on to provide veteran leadership on the floor. Brown will hit the open jump shot while grabbing rebounds and should start at power forward until Tyrus Thomas is ready to assume a bigger role. Thomas, who came over in a draft-day trade from Portland for LaMarcus Aldridge, has tremendous skills but he is extremely raw, playing only one year of college ball at LSU.
Kirk Hinrich is the team's point guard and will play 35-minutes per game in that role. Ben Gordon is instant offense, so he is better suited to being a sixth-man, but for now he is a starter and should log 30-35 minutes. Chris Duhon may lose some minutes following the signing of Adrian Griffin and drafting of Thabo Sefolosha, but he is an excellent backup point guard who improved his three-point shooting last season. Griffin will also be used for veteran leadership and defense while Sefolosha will match up against bigger guards, since he is long and an aggressive defender.
Ben Wallace: Wallace is expected to provide the Bulls with a rebounding and defensive presence in the middle that was lacking previously with Chandler and Eddy Curry. Wallace was upset with the way he was used offensively in Detroit, so look for Chicago to give him a few more looks and he has been working with Skiles on his free throwing shooting in an attempt to improve his horrible 41.8 career percentage from the line. Wallace showed signs of slipping last year, as his points, rebounds and blocks were all lower than 2004-05, and he averaged less than 10 boards a game in March and April. That said, Wallace should be revitalized in the Windy City, just don't expect double-digits in points.
Mike Sweetney: Sweetney drew Skiles' ire due to his weight and lack of conditioning. After starting 30 of 32 games from November-January, Sweetney spent much of the rest of the year as either a DNP-CD or on the court for minimal minutes. Look for him to be a back-up at center and power forward and see between 15-20 minutes nightly.
Martynas Andriuskevicius: Acquired from Cleveland for Eddie Basden but may open the year in the NBDL to build strength.
Luke Schenscher: Schenscher is expected to make the Bulls as their 15th player, who will bang in practice and play sparingly during the course of the season.
P.J. Brown: Brown was brought in to be a veteran presence and start at power forward. He will hit the open 15-foot jumper and grab his share of rebounds, making him more valuable in leagues where he qualifies as a center. Brown wore down in the second half of 2005-06 with the Hornets, prompting a cut in minutes from 34.0 before to 27.2 after the All-Star Break. With several back-up forwards on the Bulls' roster, don't look for him to play more than 30 minutes a night, but his value is enhanced by his fine free-throw shooting.
Andres Nocioni: Toward the end of last season, Nocioni played like a guy deserving of mid-round fantasy draft consideration. In the month of April, he averaged 17.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.1 threes per game and shot 45.3% from the field. He upped the ante in the playoffs, averaging 22.3 points on 56% shooting from the field as the Bulls stretched eventual NBA champ Miami to six games. Nocioni is the kind of player Skiles loves; he's tough, defends and doesn't back down from anyone. Nocioni and Luol Deng split time last season, but Nocioni should be entrenched as the starting small forward this year. With his ability to score efficiently and rebound plus his three-point capabilities, Nocioni could be a sleeper this year.
Luol Deng: Deng benefited from Skiles' allowing him to see time at both small and power forward last year rather than competing exclusively for minutes at the three with Andres Nocioni. Deng put up solid numbers toward the end of last season, averaging 16.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals after the All-Star break. It remains unclear what his role will be this year as the Bulls won't have to go small as much this year with the acquisitions of Ben Wallace and Tyrus Thomas. Deng will most likely start the season backing up Nocioni at small forward, but will also see time at power forward and even shooting guard. If he plays 30-plus minutes a night, he should put up fantasy-worthy points and rebound numbers, while grabbing his share of steals as he plays for a long-term contract extension with his rookie contract set to expire at the end of the year.
Tyrus Thomas: Thomas has the length and jumping ability of a power forward, but the height and weight of a small forward. He is also on a suddenly very deep Bulls frontcourt, and could have trouble earning minutes with Ben Wallace, PJ Brown, Andres Nocioni and Luol Deng also battling for time. But when he is on the court, no matter which forward position he plays, Thomas should immediately be a dynamic shot blocker that can also help out a bit on the boards. That may be his only immediate fantasy contribution as his offensive game needs further development, but a shot blocking specialist with upside could be worth a late-round flier.
Victor Khryapa: The Bulls have been high on Khryapa for a few years and were able to acquire him as part of the LaMarcus Aldridge-Tyrus Thomas trade. Khryapa was bothered by injuries and saw minimal time with Portland but should see more minutes in Chicago. Look for him to be used at both forward spots, though his main value will come on defense due to his long arms.
Malik Allen: Allen will reprise his role as a backup power forward that has an effective jump shot from 10 feet outside the key. With all the frontcourt depth in Chicago, his minutes will be limited.
Kirk Hinrich: Hinrich had a pretty similar 2005-06 campaign to the numbers he posted in 2004-05. What may help him get to the next level is the confidence he gained while playing for the USA in the FIBA World Championships and having to go up against Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Paul daily in practice. Hinrich should spend most of the year at point guard with Ben Gordon now seemingly entrenched as the two.
Ben Gordon: Gordon set aside concerns about his smallish frame (6-2, 200 lbs.) and stamina to break into the Bulls starting line-up last season. He was able to produce on offense and avoid exploitation on defense with Kirk Hinrich often taking the opposing two-guards. In the 47 games that Gordon started, he improved his totals to 18.9 ppg and 2.2 threes per game while shooting 44% from the field (and the three-point line), 82% from the free-throw line, dishing 3.3 assists, and grabbing 3.0 rebounds in 33.7 minutes. With improved focus during the playoffs and this offseason, expect a bump in Gordon's numbers across the board.
Chris Duhon: Duhon, who had surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back this offseason, has filled in at both guard spots and been on the floor when Chicago uses a third-guard offense his first two years in the league. However, his minutes could be cut substantially this year with Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon as the starters and the drafting of Thabo Sefolosha to serve as a big guard compliment to Gordon, making Duhon solely a backup point guard.
Thabo Sefolosha: Sefolosha is tall, defensive-minded guard that can hit the three-pointer as a complement to Ben Gordon. Look for him to be used in three-guard rotations, though his overall numbers will be limited by his lack of playing time.
Adrian Griffin: Griffin will see time at shooting guard and small forward and provides veteran leadership and defensive intensity to the Bulls.
Andres Nocioni: Nocioni really came on down the stretch and showed his value in both the playoffs and World Championships. Chicago is a much better team when the "irritant" is on the floor, so look for coach Skiles to find a way to use him at multiple spots in the lineup. It would not be a shock if he went 15 and seven this season.
Michael Sweetney: Let's see, fat, out of shape, poor rebounder and Big Ben in town; none of these bode well for Sweetney to see the light of day this season.
Article first appeared on 10/13/06