Below is my entry in this year's NBA Blog Previews. If you're a frequent reader, a lot you may have read before...often. But even for those sick of my offseason whining analysis, there's at least a juicy prediction at the bottom to be mocked in April.
Team Name: Chicago Bulls
Last Year’s Record: 41-41
Key Losses: Ben Gordon, my faith in the franchise
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
Letting Ben Gordon walk. The significant move of the offseason was effectively made during the last season, in acquiring Brad Miller and John Salmons from the Kings at the trade deadline. Not only did it put the 2009 payroll already very close to the luxury tax, but in acquiring a scoring guard like Salmons they were hedging against a Gordon departure, which wound up happening on the first day of free agency.
The Bulls should be able to compensate for the loss of Gordon to maintain their ultimately average level, through the addition of Salmons, a healthy season from Luol Deng, and steps up in the careers of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Tyrus Thomas. Jannero Pargo is back for a second go-around with the franchise, attempting his best Gordon impression up until the point where the shots actually need to go in. With a couple of late first-round picks in a weak draft class, the Bulls went with two older bigs in James Johnson and Taj Gibson for added immediate frontcourt depth.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
The Bulls have a very talented, versatile, and cohesive top-7 rotation. Rose won the rookie of the year last season, but also has various areas of improvement (drawing fouls, 3-point shooting, and defense) that could get him quickly to all-star level. If he can get there (and perhaps beyond towards superstardom) it makes all the difference for this team making everyone else's job easier.
Noah has gone from draft-night punchline to a starting-caliber center in his two seasons, and while never becoming a force on offense he's already a significant contributor, extremely active on defense and perhaps the best ballhandling quick center in the league. Tyrus Thomas is slated for his 3rd straight 'no really, he'll make the leap this year' season, but even if he never 'gets it' he always was at least an average player. Salmons and Deng are a very solid two-way wing combination.
And possibly most underrated aspect of the Bulls roster is their top two reserves, Brad Miller and Kirk Hinrich. Miller really stabilized the Bulls frontcourt last season as a complement to the athletic but raw Noah and Thomas, and though he's getting older Miller has skills that will age well. And Hinrich is possibly the best combo backup guard in the league, with the ability to defend either position, serving as both a low-turnover PG or a 3-point shooting SG to fit a lineup need.
This is a team that when they're clicking will play very well together, and while they'll feel Gordon's loss when needing a bail-out in possessions or games, replacing his minutes with Hinrich/Salmons/Deng will lead to an improved defense.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
Coaching is certainly an issue, and while one can assume Vinny Del Negro will improve in his second year on the job, that may be because he only had upwards to go. Beyond the occasional timeout mismanagement, Del Negro's Bulls sometimes looked like a team that had no coach. A roster that was once a top-5 defense under Scott Skiles fell to the bottom 10 in the league, and while the Bulls were an improved offensive team after the trade deadline, it was never one that looked organized, instead being simply more talented than their softer end-of-season scheduled opponents.
This could be an even bigger problem with Gordon departing, a player who was able to create his own offense. While the Bulls will be hoping improved ball-movement and unselfishness will raise everyone's game, there are many times in a game where they'll need playmakers, and Gordon was the best they had beyond Rose.
As mentioned above, the top-7 are good enough to not need many rotation decisions from VDN, but a key injury could really throw the season off course. Quality depth is another weakness as the Bulls had to skimp in filling out their roster in their goal to avoid the tax this year and getting under the cap next summer.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Seeing how a first-round playoff loss to a team missing its best player was seemingly treated with such extreme excitement and praise, no doubt it will be important for the Bulls to at least look like a team on the rise, whether it's true or not. And to do that they have to make the playoffs again, entering 2010 free agency as an attractive destination for players looking for a competitive team with the cap space to pay up.
A season where the playoffs are missed could bring a repeat of Bulls free agency past, where Jerry Krause had a league-worst roster and whiffed on plan A through plan Ron Mercer.
5. No really, Gordon was pretty good, but what's the big deal?
The Bulls were average last year, they'll likely be so again this year. Through some internal improvement, they may even wind up slightly better this offseason. But they would have been a favorite for a 4th seed (as opposed to being lumped in with Miami, Atlanta, and several other teams) if they swallowed the tax for one season while holding all their assets, and able to put together the best trade packages together for the next star player to be sold off.
The loss of Gordon was truly significant in signalling a change of direction of the franchise. Where the winning of the 2008 draft lottery could've been seen as the most significant piece of an already talented team ready to contend soon, letting Gordon go meant that in the name of avoiding the luxury tax, the Bulls were instead going to try and get under the cap and re-build around Rose and a 2010 free agent.
And with a declining cap and some decisions to be made on several key players (Hinrich, Salmons, and Thomas) before getting far enough under in that summer, the Bulls may not be able to pull it off. A better plan would've been to use a decade of record profits as justification for a luxury tax bill (even for a non-elite team), and using their expiring contracts to obtain even more talent. The elite teams in the league stockpile good players and get even more, not let them walk in the name of flexibility. And Gordon was the best player ever to have played through his entire rookie deal only to let walk for nothing, a truly spectacular failure from the Bulls standpoint. Things could certainly work out ultimately, but it's a huge risk and the Bulls will need to perform this season as well as get lucky in free agency to make the gamble worthwhile.
Projected Finish: I see this team as fairly fragile, but also with potential for a surprisingly successful season. They really do have talent that could claw their way to a 50 win season, but an injury or some turmoil could have it spiral down in the mid-30s. I could see either scenario playing out, but it's likely that while nothing horrible goes wrong, not everything goes right either, and little bumps in the road keep the Bulls near .500 all year. 40-42.