Coming into last season, the Bulls seemed to be ascending with young players and a good young coach. Everything seemed to be pointing in the right direction, and they were more of a threat to win 50 games than to lose 50. The one thing you'd have to say is that they relied too heavily on jump shooting, and last year basically all of their perimeter shooters shot worse percentages than the year before. Their lack of inside scoring finally caught up with them.
The other thing that hurt them was the rumors of a blockbuster trade for Kobe Bryant early in the season. A team like Detroit would have taken that kind of talk in stride, but it unsettled the younger guys for the Bulls. The bottom fell out for them because they don't have that one superstar to carry them, and they don't even have three or four All-Stars like the Pistons have. They're still looking for that franchise guy.
Will Derrick Rose be that guy? They were a guard-heavy team and yet they didn't have a true starting point guard. So he was the right choice for them with the No. 1 pick, a terrific player. As good as he is, he played only one year of college, so I don't expect him to be on the level of Deron Williams or Chris Paul right out of the gate. The best-case scenario is for him to reach that level, but even that might be unfair. Even if he turns out to be not quite as good as them, he is still a tremendous addition to a team that appeared to have a lot of young talent one year ago.
I've always thought of Kirk Hinrich as a combo guy. He could play alongside Rose at times in the backcourt. But if you're going to be a good team, I think you need a guy like Hinrich as your third guard. If Hinrich is starting at the 1 or 2, then most nights whoever he's playing against is probably getting the better of that matchup. Hinrich is not in the top half of the league among starters at either guard position. But if he's your third guard and playing 25 to 30 minutes at both positions, then you have a very strong team in the backcourt.
There are going to be questions about Ben Gordon after he signed a one-year contract that allows him to be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Will he care about the Bulls? Let's face it, he wants no part of the Bulls after they wouldn't give him the long-term money he was looking for. He will not be a Bull after this year. Obviously, they have a logjam in the backcourt, and a midseason deal may become necessary.
Is Gordon best used off the bench? The problem there is he's such a dynamic offensive guy that it's hard to limit his minutes. Larry Hughes is not as dynamic offensively, but he's a better defender, more versatile and he gives them size. They were able to unload Ben Wallace's contract last year by getting Hughes, but his contract is just as onerous [two years and $26.5 million left]. Unless they make another deal, they're going to have serious rotation issues. Thabo Sefolosha will have to get most of his minutes at small forward because there won't be much room for him at shooting guard. Hughes will have to play some small forward, too. Andres Nocioni will have to spend most of his time at power forward, and Drew Gooden will have to play some minutes at center -- all because of their crowded backcourt. This team is going to have to play small a lot.
Tyrus Thomas didn't make any real strides last year. The reality is he's probably not the player they would have expected as the No. 4 pick in 2006. He blocks shots and comes up with spectacular rebounds, but he's a tweener who right now is not skilled enough to play the 3 and not big enough or physical enough to be a 4 man.
Joakim Noah, like Thomas, is an athletic, long guy who puts his energy into defending, shot-blocking and rebounding. But he's another guy who gives them no interior scoring. Gooden will put up some numbers for them, but he isn't the answer up front either.
Rookie coach Vinny Del Negro is a complete wild card. I've always had a lot of respect for GM John Paxson, and I respect him for going with his conviction and not making a safer hire. But is he the right guy? Nobody knows. The smart thing was to surround him with older assistants such as Bernie Bickerstaff and Del Harris to help prepare him and answer any question at any time. There will be no situation that those guys will be unable to help him with.
A big question is whether Del Negro can get this team back to defending as well as it did a couple of years ago. I would think the change of voice at the top will allow these guys to play looser than they did for Scott Skiles, so that should help. But they still haven't addressed the low-post issue, they have a brand-new staff and they're entrusting the team to a rookie with one year of college experience. They have a lot of questions, but they're not without talent.
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