Chicago Bulls 2008-2009 Season Preview

This my entry for the '08-'09 blogger previews series. You can get the full list and schedule of previews here.

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Team Name: Chicago Bulls
Last Years Record: 33-49
Key Losses: Chris Duhon, Scott Skiles (head coach)
Key Additions: Derrick Rose, Vinny Del Negro (head coach)

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

The Bulls entered the offseason after an incredibly disappointing campagin with many speculating that there'd be significant changes in the roster, already overhauled a couple months prior with the trade of Ben Wallace and Joe Smith netting Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes.

The first major goal of the summer was to get a new coach. Scott Skiles had been fired the previous Christmas Eve, and his bumbling apprentice Jim Boylan was let go after his interim tenure completed at the end of the season. The Bulls 'process' to find a new coach ranged from confusing to embarrassing, with countless candidates interviewed over the course of several weeks, including two high-profile near-hires in Mike D'Antoni and Doug Collins, who both pulled out of the running after reports of a done deal had surfaced. The Bulls eventually wound up with first-time head coach (on any level) Vinny Del Negro, a former NBA veteran and broadcaster who was serving in the Phoenix front office. The Bulls are rolling the dice with such a novice coach (though hiring veteran - and expensive -  assistants Del Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff will help), but they should be applauded for at least taking a chance rather than falling back on a failed retread.

Then in May, with a 1.7% chance, the entire direction of the franchise was altered. The Bulls had won the draft lottery after being slotted for the 9th pick, and a month later drafted point guard Derrick Rose. A team searching for a top-level talent and leader now potentially had it, and the goal going forward was to create a team around him.

Unfortunately the Bulls had plenty of roster uncertainty even before Rose was drafted, namely their two best players, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon entering restricted free agency. With not much cap room available around the league, and themselves creeping towards the luxury tax, the Bulls were in a difficult position of bidding against themselves with each player, with the danger of each taking the Qualifying Offer and walking from the team next offseason. The Bulls and Luol Deng wound up agreeing to a 6 year deal, while Ben Gordon turned down the Bulls offer and instead took the Qualifying Offer as training camp began. Gordon's situation is now settled at least for the season, but the issue of his potential departure still looms as they try and decide what to do with numerous other guards on their team. While Gordon is likely their best existing complement to Rose, he also may be gone with no compensation after the season.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

Depth. The Bulls have as many as 10 players that deserve minutes in the rotation (Rose, Hinrich, Gordon, Hughes, Sefolosha, Deng, Nocioni, Thomas, Noah, Gooden). This allows for plenty of flexibility as well as damage control in the event of injury or trade. In fact, look for the Bulls to deal from some of this depth, especially from the backcourt, to thin out the roster. If not, while it's good to have options, Del Negro will have a tough time keeping everyone content with their minutes.

Another strength with this deep roster is the ability to run the floor. Del Negro promised to bring some of the fast-paced philosophy from Phoenix, and with a guard like Derrick Rose leading young athletic big-men like Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah on the break, complemented by shooters like Gordon, Deng, and Hinrich, they have the players to pull it off.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

Inside scoring. John Paxson's Bulls have been long-criticized for not ever getting a low-post scorer. But the real issue was not finding the next skilled big man, but that their existing bigs not being able to even convert layups, let alone hook shots. As a result the Bulls have had to work hard for their baskets, trending their offense towards relying exclusively on jumpers. Some of this hopes to be mitigated by employing a fast-break offense, but a lot will depend on Rose to break down defenses in a way that the other guards on the roster couldn't, opening up better opportunities for his teammates. This is also a huge season for Tyrus Thomas, who is entering his 3rd season as the likely starting PF, who's shown flashes of his top talent but will now be responsible for major minutes and major contributions in that time.

4. What are the goals for this team?

One major goal is to get the team's defense back to what it before last season, a top-5 unit that thrived on hassling opponents into bad shots and turnovers. With the personnel mostly constant from those happier times, the onus is on Del Negro to get the team motivated on that end of the floor. Likely years away from being a great offense, the return to a top defensive team is imperative if they hope to challenge for a playoff spot, which is the ultimate aspiration for the team this season.

That playoff goal should be pursued with emphasizing the development of the younger players on the team, specifically Rose, Thomas and Noah. Even veterans Luol Deng and Ben Gordon are at the ages where they should still be seeing progressions in their games, as opposed to the regression that occurred last season. If the youngsters play well, the Bulls will be on their way back, and the season can be deemed a success even if a playoff bid falls short.

5. So what is this team? The 49-win team of '06-'07, or the team that won 16 fewer games the season afterwards?

Likely somewhere in the middle. While many of the same players remain, that 49 win team also had a not-yet-mummified Ben Wallace, as well as a roster playing incredible defense under Scott Skiles. The conference as a whole should be tougher than it was that season as well.

The Bulls are fortunate to have aquired Rose without being the type of completely talent-starved team that usually gets the top overall pick. But while not a full-scale rebuilding effort, the fact that Rose and other young players will be playing significant minutes means that they likely won't be sniffing 50 wins. But a .500 record and playoff appearance is certainly attainable, especially if Del Negro can get the team playing defense again, and if Derrick Rose is as good as Bulls fans believe. So while they're ultimately a team in transition that may look significantly different by April, the Bulls should not be settling for another lottery appearance. One impossibly lucky draw should be enough for a while.

Predicted Record: 43-39

 

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