With two real games played so far I feel like we're starting to get a glimpse of where everybody is at and what we can expect from them as the season progresses.
In our first game, we looked like a team that had a lot of potential last year and made some logical offseason improvements (defense, passing and to a lesser extent shot selection).
In game 2, we looked like the early 2008-09 Bulls.
So we've had a chance to see the good and the ugly. While the season will probably go somewhat in between the extremes of game one (impressive home win) and game two (ugly road loss), the question will be: do we lean towards good or bad?
The following is a player by player analysis of the team, coach and management, in parenthesis is my opinion of how far they has come since last season, both in terms of individual skill but more importantly how they are contributing to the team.
Joakim Noah (positive) - Noah has come into camp in very good physical shape. He looks stronger and slightly more focused this year. It still looks like he shoots with two hands, but his shot appears to be going in more often. Defensively, he hasn't played particularly well in the first two games (mainly against Perkins and Duncan) so that is an area that I look for him to improve in as the season goes on.
Taj Gibson (positive) - He really plays within himself. He's a smart player, especially intelligent on the floor for a rookie. He looks like he'll make a good role player for his career, possibly as a starter if he develops areas of his game, but not likely a star. If he were a little taller and bigger he would really be a force in the NBA. I look for him to continue being a very solid option off the bench and an average to above average backup. If he ends up starting this season, that probably either means he has more talent than anybody could imagine or Tyrus is hurt/playing like crap. I really hope Taj continues to be a solid role player and backup, but he's a pleasant surprise thus far.
Tyrus Thomas (neutral/positive) - Tyrus has looked like the 2nd half of last year Tyrus thus far, which is good. If he can play the kind of defense, both on the ball and off the ball, that he played in our victory against the Cavs last year, then he'll be a solid starter at the 4 position. He hasn't taken as many terrible jumpers as I saw in the preaseason and last year's regular season, which is a good thing. Playing around the rim, catching alley oops and grabbing offensive rebounds is his game. If he has an open mid range jumper, fine, take it, but I don't want to see him catching the pass and trying to create from 18-20 feet out.
Kirk Hinrich (neutral/positive) - He's looked better so far than last year, but remember last year he was also hurt. He also makes 9.5 million a season, over 50% as much as Salmons, and more than anybody not named Miller or Deng. He's a necessity at guard with the way our team is currently constructed. With the poor choices made on Pargo and Hunter to round out our guard spots, we're leaning on Kirk more than we should have to. When your 6-7th man's health is of vital importance (trust me, this year it is), then you know you made some poor choices or had some very bad luck. Sadly, it's the former for us. Defensively, he's been spotty this year. Daniels was a bad matchup for him vs Boston, but in reality Hinrich just picked up some quick fouls against him. He's looked like the old offensive Kirk, which is good, if he can keep playing the way he is and minimize defensive errors, he should give us exactly what we need: reliable, smart, able to score and defend guard play.
Derrick Rose (neutral - neutral/positive) - Taking into account the injury and his first two games, I think we're seeing a slight improvement so far. If he can get healthy in the next month or two, hopefully he becomes the star we expect. If he's slowed by injury all season, it's really going to be a challenge for us to do anything except limp into the playoffs and exit in the first round again. In game one his defense looked a lot better. He stayed in front of Parker and played the screens very well. In game two, he looked a lot worse, more like the Rose that couldn't guard Rondo if his life depended on it our round 1 loss. What is a little more troubling is his lack of aggression. In game 1 we were shooting well and moving the ball around, so I was less concerned. But in game 2, we clearly needed to attack Boston and Rose just didn't do it. In fact, the only time I remember him attacking the basket hard was when Rondo stole the ball and knocked it out of bounds. Rose came back and drove hard to the hole, making a layup. If that's what it takes to get him fired up, then he needs to grow up quickly. I know he's young, but he needs to turn into the leader he can be, and fast. I'm not a big believer in the 4-year plan, it fails time and time again. We have the talent to do better, and Rose needs to be the person it starts with. A positive that I have seen is that his jump shot looks better this year. If he continues to improve on that, it should play a major part in his rise to stardom on this team. He doesn't need to follow the 5-year plan that Parker followed before he developed a jumper.
John Salmons (neutral) - A trickier one defensively, as he had a solid night vs the Spurs on D but disappeared against the Celtics. If he can get back to last year's defense, I think he'll bet a net positive on that end of the floor. Offensively, I still think he makes an OK 2nd option, good 3rd option type player (we seem to have a lot of those, as always). He obviously has shot the ball poorly in the first two games, but if you look at the types of shots he's taken they are mostly good shots. When players shoot 40-50%, the short term variance (luck) is going to be huge. Two bad shooting games means very little to me with him, particularly when he looked good at times in the preaseason. I expect him to be the same player he was last year. One last point, to the Salmons haters in the thread today: relax. I saw a lot of crazy comments being made. One guy said we wasted money signing Salmons. We didn't sign him, we basically got him for Nocioni. If you remember how bad Noc's defense had become, you should love Salmons. I also heard another guy say he'd rather have Gordon than Salmons. Straight up, of course, anybody in the league would. But Salmons costs us 5.5 million this year. If Gordon wanted to sign for 5.5 million, everybody in the league would've tried to sign him. He cost twice that much, to put some perspective on the matter. I think having Pargo and Hunter as the 4-5th guard options is much scarier than the thought of Salmons starting at the 2. And the announcers talking about Salmons missing shots because he's adjusting to the 2 is ridiculous as well. If Brad Miller were our point guard getting open mid range looks and missing them, it would have nothing to do with his new position, pure nonsense. To conclude, I'm neither high nor low on Salmons. I think he'll be a consistently solid player in our rotation. If we have to lean on him too much, I may start to worry a bit, but as a starter and a 3rd scoring option he should be fine.
Brad Miller (neutral) - I think we can all agree he was an upgrade from Drew Gooden. He plays a more controlled offensive game than Gooden and is an all around smarter player. He's been sufficient as tag team lead and now backup Center as Noah develops. I don't want to trade him, but there is no denying in this economic climate, a 12.5 million dollar expiring contract can be quite valuable. If a trade presents itself to fill in any weak spot and add a legitimate 2nd scoring option to Rose, then it's going to be tough to pass it up. We might have to make a 2nd minor trade if we lose Miller, to secure our backup center role, but if Noah keeps progressing and one of the 2-4 position starters is lacking (and probably if we're in contention), we probably cannot afford to pass up on a good trade involving Miller. It's likely that the team that trades for Miller does so as a pure salary dump, so if we like him that much we can get him back for much less than 12.5 million next season.
Luol Deng (neutral) - This is one guy that is tough to analyze this early in the season, mainly because he's been out with injury and by all accounts is not 100% yet. In the first two games we've seen some flashes of solid defense, but he's missed too many rotations. On offense, he's still taking terrible shots. While he hit them in game one, even Kobe Bryant shouldn't be taking some of the catch and shoot shots that Deng seems to prefer over driving to the hole or passing the ball 19 feet away. If he continues to take these poor shots, he's going to slide into the negative for us this season. I don't expect him to be the player he was a few years ago, but an above average 3/4 combo who can hit smart shots from outside or use his length to outplay smaller guys would be perfect for our team. Combine that with solid defense, unlike what we've seen from him in the first two games, and Deng is giving us exactly what we need. Becoming a good 2nd scoring option on our team is a little unrealistic for Deng at this juncture, at least night in and night out. But if he and Salmons can combine for a decent 2nd scoring option that play good defense, that will more than suffice for this part of the rotation.
James Johnson (neutral/negative) - Has not given me anything except "he's one of those middle round potential draft picks." Not that you should expect a lot from non-lottery rookies, but I'd rather have seen the Bulls take a 3rd big man with this pick (and then not sign Gray) or a 4th guard (and not sign Pargo/Hunter) than take a combo forward that doesn't look like he can play in the rotation this year. This is another "it's still very soon" analysis, but so far I give it slightly negative points.
Aaron Gray (negative) - He's not a very important part of the Bulls, being less than 2% of their salary and playing as 3rd string center, so his improvement or lack there of should be taken in stride. He's always just been sort of a big body, but now he's hurt so it looks like he'll digress or stay the same (which is a net loss for a young backup) this season.
Jannero Pargo (negative) - He didn't have a positive impact on our team 3 years ago. He looked fine on the Hornets two years ago, but then went to Europe. Somehow he's our 4th guard, which on this team with Salmons as a transition 2/3 and Rose starting off hurt really means that Pargo will see more minutes than most 4th guards. He's looked like crap out there so far defensively, and offensively at best he's been quiet, at worst he's a streaky shooter that takes us out of the flow of our offense. I know his strengths don't play well to a controlled game, but if he can't play defense this year then we really need Rose and Hinrich healthy all season, as well as Salmons healthy and able to guard other team's 2. One thing everybody seems to agree on so far is that this was a pretty poor signing. So far it looks like everybody is correct, which is especially sad in a year with a lot of veteran and solid guys that could've been had for cheap at the end of the summer and taken the 4th guard slot.
Lindsey Hunter (negative) - It may sound harsh, but "why is he on our team?" really applies here. He isn't a 17 year Bulls veteran. He can't play anymore. If he has a coaching presence for our team, then I can understand keeping him on the team, but in a year where assistant coaches were shuffled, why not put him on as an assistant? With Pargo hurting us at the 4 guard, we really have no possible hope or potential for the 5th guard to overtake him. Why didn't we sign a flyer to a minimum contract? A young guy that might be able to develop against Hinrich's smarts and Rose's aggression during practice. I didn't understand this signing at all. When you combine it with the Pargo signing, it just adds up to two wasted roster spots on a team that can't really afford to do that.
Vinny Del Negro (neutral) - With his performance last year, he needs to be in the positive for improvement, staying steady will not allow the team to improve and will likely get him canned sooner or later. Other coaches keep talking up a storm about how good of a learner he is and how much potential he has as a coach. However, I don't see any direct evidence of this so far, but the "expert's" are keeping me from putting him into the neutral/negative category. He fails on 2 for 1s too frequently and he fails on rotations. The way he's handling the media has also been less than what you expect from a coach. In game 1 his rotations were fine, there wasn't too much to complain about, except for TT not coming in late and Pargo being in the lineup too long. The former is just one gripe, and the latter is probably more of a result of Rose's ankle, so I considered that a good step for Vinnie. However, the Boston game looked much worse in terms of rotation. If Salmons were playing solid defense, I'd of supported VDN not taking him out in the 2nd half, but he wasn't. You can live with missed shots if they are solid attempts, but not when a player is also playing poorly on defense. I think we'll really tell more about how far Vinny has come (if at all) as the season continues and (hopefully) Rose's ankle is healed and our rotations don't have to include as many tough "should I rest Rose another minute or two and keep Pargo in" questions.
Management (negative) - Finally last year, after so much anticipation and everybody saying we NEEDED to make a move, the management actually made the move. I'm referring mainly to the trade with the Kings, which was a very good one for us. The Hughes trade was fine too, but that's more of a makeup of the poor signing of Wallace a few year's back, which caused us to take Hughes which caused us to trade Hughes. This year, it started with the draft. The JJ pick was "well, didn't expect that, but let's see if we can see why they took him." So far, not great. The Taj pick was similar in my mind, and it's looking like a good use of the 26th pick to me. Hindsight is 20/20, but imagine if the Bulls had used their first pick on a 4/5th guard (Ty Lawson anyone?) and made a small move (cash considerations and/or future pick swap) to acquire an early 2nd round pick to nab up Blair. We wouldn't of had to sign Gray, we wouldn't of had to sign Pargo, and we could've taken a veteran guard as our other 4/5th spot instead of Hunter (one that can possibly play, Jason Williams or somebody like that). With Blair as our 3rd Center, we'd have more flexibility if somebody went down (like Hinrich or Salmons or TT) to trade our main piece (Miller's 12m expiring contract) for a true 2nd scoring option. Maybe that's not Stephen Jackson, but we all know that's not the last quality player that will be available before the deadline, and expiring contracts are particularly valuable this year. Instead? we are stuck with two signed guards that cannot play and a 3rd string center that hasn't ever looked like anything except a big body. If you notice, I haven't even mentioned their half assed attempt at pretending to want Gordon, or their lack of pursuing a real 2nd scoring option (or go into the tax to get it as the most profitable team in the league last year).
In conclusion, our ball movement in game one, as well as our improved defense, got me very hopeful. I know it's silly to expect that night in and night out (it really shouldn't be), but if we can play that way more often than last year, it'll be a good improvement and give us a chance to grab a 4-6 seed and possibly get into the 2nd round of the playoffs. Without everybody improving and clicking and staying healthy, we probably have no shot at getting any further than that. Even if that all happens, the talent and experience of the top teams is remarkable to me this year, so it's going to be as tough as ever to break through to the conference finals and beyond for any team not from Cleveland, Orlando or Boston.
And we did not even need to win against Boston tonight. You can't expect to beat Boston very often on the road when they shoot well, but if everybody played the way they did in the first game and we lost by 5-10 points, that would be a small victory (as much as you can take a victory from a loss) for the team and we would be starting the year off on a very good note. Instead, we get a lot of good, bad and ugly from this team, which is par for the course.