This article is part of our NBA Team Previews series.
By Jan Levine
RotoWire Staff Writer
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Chicago entered 2008-09 with major questions, with a new head coach and rookie point guard running the team. The journey was never smooth, as calls for GM John Paxson's and coach Vinny Del Negro's heads came from the rafters of United Center when the team sat 24-30 on the year. A trading deadline deal revamped Chicago, bringing in John Salmons and Brad Miller while shipping out Andres Nocioni, Drew Gooden, Michael Ruffin and Cedric Simmons. It was just the tonic the Bulls needed, as the team went 17-11, including 12-4 down the stretch, to qualify for the playoffs where they took the defending NBA Champion Celtics to seven games in the first round.
This year finds the Bulls in a bit of transition again as Paxson stepped down from his role as GM, replaced by Gar Forman. In addition, Ben Gordon, who was unable to sign a long-term deal with Chicago the past two years and was the team's leading scorer, landed a five-year, $55 million contract with Detroit. Chicago welcomes in more frontcourt help in draft picks James Johnson and Taj Gibson along with the return of Luol Deng from a right tibia stress fracture that ended his season in February. With Derrick Rose a year wiser and Salmons playing a full year with the team, the backcourt is set, and the team's frontcourt has good depth and excels in the shot-blocking department. While Chicago won't challenge the upper echelon of the East, they should finish above .500 and make the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Rose will be the team's starting point guard, seeing 35 minutes per game there, while Salmons will see the bulk of the minutes at shooting guard. Joakim Noah should see 25-30 minutes per game at center with Deng logging 30 at small forward, and and Tyrus Thomas getting 25-30 at power forward. Off the bench, Hinrich will play both guard spots while Jannero Pargo will provide instant offense off the pine. The Bulls will juggle six or seven big men, mixing and matching throughout the season. Noah had a middling regular season, but took a step up in the playoffs, and will mainly be backed up by Brad Miller, an excellent shooting and passing big man who should see 20-25 mpg. Deng will try and regain that mid-range game that was his hallmark. Thomas finally had the breakthrough year that was predicted for him, but consistency is still a question. Johnson and Gibson will get leftover minutes - Johnson at the 3 and 4 due to his athleticism and versatility and Gibson at the 4 and 5 due to his length and ability to block shots.
Joakim Noah: Noah had a breakout playoff performance, upping his season averages from 6.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game to 10.1, 13.1 and 2.6, respectively, in the playoff loss to Boston. That performance earned Noah the starting center job heading into trading camp. Noah's main strength is the energy he brings to a game, but that energy doesn't automatically translate into production, especially offensively. Noah knows his strengths and limits his shots to close to the basket while using his energy to be a game-changer defensively. With Miller, Gibson and even Thomas able to play center, Noah will need to have that energy nightly to continue to see consistent playing time.
Brad Miller: Despite a drop of almost four minutes of action after his trade from Sacramento, Miller remained nearly as productive as a Bull. That may change this year as the Bulls have several bodies that can play in the frontcourt, which could limit his minutes especially later in the year. When he is on the floor, Miller provides solid shooting percentages, with a decent amount of rebounds and assists as an excellent passing big man. Miller is entering the final year of his contract, which could pave the way to a deal out of town if Chicago is out of contention or needs another part at the deadline.
Aaron Gray: Gray had a solid start to the year but playing time dwindled dramatically once Miller was in town. He'll be the 11th or 12th man.
Luol Deng: Deng, who signed a six-year, $71 million contract last offseason, had his second straight injury-shortened season, missing the final 22 games with a stress fracture in his right tibia. When he's on, Deng is a highly skilled offensive player, with an excellent mid-range game and the size and strength to play in the paint. However, he lacks the athleticism of some other NBA small forwards, which limits his potential to an extent. If Deng is healthy, his ability to score from 15 feet and in should net him lots of points on the back end of Rose's ability to break down the defense and dish to him. Deng provides good rebound numbers for a small forward and is a high-risk, high-reward pick due to his injury history.
Tyrus Thomas: While he still leaves some fantasy owners wanting more, Thomas finally became a viable option last year, averaging 10.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.9 blocks in just 27 minutes of action. His game remains limited offensively, relying mostly on put-backs and dunks. However, the steals and blocks indicate huge upside. Thomas is still just 23 years old, so his raw offensive ability can improve, and the Bulls' brass is finally starting to believe in his talent. The caveat is that Thomas is inconsistent, and with his contract up at the end of the year, the team could turn to Johnson or Miller if he struggles.
James Johnson: Johnson, selected 16th by the Bulls, averaged 14.8 points on 51.4 percent shooting in two seasons at Wake Forest. Though questions persist about his habit of losing focus, his ability to score with either hand and in a variety of ways impressed Chicago. Johnson also was impressive in summer league play, showing versatility as he has 3-man skills based on the way he can handle the ball and make plays off the dribble, with the size and bulk of a 4. With Thomas and Noah able to play the 4, Deng expected to be 100 percent and the selection of Gibson, Johnson may have to fight for minutes but will play both forward spots.
Taj Gibson: Gibson, selected 26th by the Bulls, is an athletic big man who can move well for someone of his size. He is a proficient scorer from both inside and outside, and has a knack for finding a way to make an impact even without the ball. The Bulls were impressed by Gibson's maturity and length during his workout and interview process. He has a 7-4 wingspan, which should prove valuable on defense, allowing Chicago to mix and match up front. His weaknesses are most pronounced in half-court sets, as he needs to get stronger while his jump shot is only effective in a clear rhythm. But with the Bulls hoping to emphasize more open-court offense and upgrade their defense, Gibson is positioned to contribute.
Derrick Rose: Rose, the first overall pick in 2008, averaged 16.8 points, 6.3 assists, 3.9 boards and .475 shooting from the floor on the way to a near-unanimous Rookie of the Year selection. He then flashed his considerable potential by torching the Celtics for 36 points and 11 dimes in Game 1 of the playoffs. Rose seems well on his way towards becoming one of the truly elite young point guards in the game. And there's significant room for improvement. Rose's outside shot is spotty at best - he made just 16 threes on the season, hitting on just over 20 percent of his attempts, but he took 700-800 shots daily this offseason to improve in that area. His defense could use some work - especially off the ball - and you'd like to him average more than one steal per game. In addition, with a year under his belt, look for him to get to the line more than three times per game and shoot better once there.
John Salmons: Salmons had a quiet but extremely productive season, averaging 18.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.6 treys and 1.0 steal on 47.3 percent shooting from the field and 83 percent from the line. He was a top-50 fantasy player last season, and his production remained consistent even after coming to Chicago from Sacramento right after the All-Star break. All signs point to an increase in his numbers across the board since he will be an even bigger part of the team's offense this season with Ben Gordon off in Detroit. Salmons has proven that he can maintain his efficient shooting percentage with an increased workload, as his field-goal percentage dipped less than half a percent last season even though he attempted about four more shots per game. With a good shot at surpassing 20 points and two treys per game while maintaining an ultra-efficient line, Salmons offers a lot of upside, especially considering where he's likely to be drafted given his lack of name recognition.
Kirk Hinrich: Hinrich's thumb injury accelerated Rose's development last season; by the time Hinrich was fully healthy, Rose was well on his way to being named Rookie of the Year. Hinrich performed well down the stretch and in the playoffs as a sort of combo guard, but was used primarily when Gordon and/or Salmons were unavailable. He was a prime candidate to be traded this summer, but a number of deals - most notably, one that would have sent him to Portland - fell through. Though he posted new career lows in nearly every category last season, Hinrich proved that he still has the ability to run a team and to score - particularly from the perimeter. With Hinrich signed through the 2011-12 season, he is likely in Chicago to stay, and will open the year as the team's sixth man and first guard off the bench.
Jannero Pargo: Pargo, who played last year for Dynamo Moscow, signed a one-year deal worth approximately $2 million with the Bulls. Pargo spent parts of 2003-06 with Chicago and showed that he could be an effective scorer off the bench. While he clearly can't replace Ben Gordon, he will be looked on to fill a similar role as a scoring guard off the bench.
Lindsay Hunter: Hunter is around to once again be Derrick Rose's mentor, a role he ably filled last year. His minutes will be extremely minimal.
Joakim Noah: Thomas, no longer a sleeper, has been hyped in this role the past few years, so we will go with Noah. The light went on for him in the playoffs, and while he needs to get stronger, his energy and willingness to go to the boards and block shots make him a solid sleeper.
Brad Miller: The Bulls' frontcourt depth could relegate Miller to a supporting role and cut his minutes even further. His best bet for action might be a trade before the deadline due to his expiring contract.
Article first appeared on 9/21/09