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BULLS SEASON PREVIEW

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Welcome to the official BlogABull.com season preview. Mike Aparicio and I  break down the questions heading into this important season, with the Bulls coming off their first playoff berth since the days of the dynasty...



Matt: Mike, I'll start things off with Ben Gordon. What do you expect out of him this season? Can the Bulls be a playoff team with him still as only a 6th man or does he need to be a big-minute starter for the Bulls to improve as a team?

Mike: Ben looked a little shaky in the preseason. He definitely earned a look in the starting lineup after winning the sixth man award last year, but it wasn't long before Chris Duhon was starting again. Ben didn't seem to look any more comfortable though returning to that role. With Du carried off the court on a stretcher Wednesday night with a neck injury, Skiles might be forced to start Ben and give him big minutes to start the season.

Ben's role was pretty clear last season: come in a provide a scoring punch. As a starter, he has to take a little bit different focus, getting his teammates involved more and playing tough D. It'll take a little time to adjust but I think he'll get it together. His ability to become more than just a scorer will ultimately determine whether Skiles leaves him in the game for long stretches. Kirk was the only Bull to average more than 30 minutes last season and Skiles is pretty adept at managing his rotations, so I think they can still be a playoff team with Ben playing the same role as last season.

Matt: Maybe it really is a different mindset that makes him more effective off the bench. In the short-term I think that's fine, although I'm not sure Ben can do any better than last season in terms of winning games as a sixth man. The per-minute numbers will probably be there but a lot of shots had to fall in at the right time for Ben to give the Bulls those victories.  In terms of his career though, eventually I think he'll have to be a starter to carry the offensive load he needs to on the team.

Mike: Most championship teams have at least two All-Stars. Does this Bulls team have any legit All-Stars? Which Bulls do you see eventually developing into All Stars?

Matt: While you're right that most teams have two All-Stars, I think Paxson visions this team as more of a Pistons-type squad of many near-stars instead of a couple superstars. This core definitely has that potential.

As you can tell by what I wrote about Gordon, I have no idea where to peg him right now, but I've many a time professed my love of Luol Deng. He kindof has an old man's game so it's easy to forget he was just 19 last season. He's a consistent jump shot from being a perennial all-star, although we may be asking too much to see it this season. Tyson Chandler also has a chance to be an upper-tier center if he develops any semblance of an offensive game. I'd say Hinrich and Sweetney have the chance to be fringe all stars.

Mike: For this season then, which Bull do you think will have a breakout year and which will have a really down year?

Matt: By virtue of more minutes, Mike Sweetney will greatly increase his career averages of 7pts and 5rebs. Conversely, I think Othella Harrington will take a step back. His career projection was going down the past few years before joining the Bulls, and he was an unexpected savior last season in the frontcourt, especially after Curry went down. Luckily for the Bulls, new addition Darius Songaila should pick up the slack for any lack of production from Othella.

What's your ideal starting lineup/rotation. Do you think Skiles will continue to use his entire roster like last season?

Mike: As a big NBA Live fan, this is something that I've given a lot of thought in my Bulls dynasty. I haven't seen enough of the new guys to know how the rotation is going to shake out, but here's my depth chart:

C: Chandler/Harrington/Allen
PF: Sweetney/Nocioni/Songaila
SF: Deng/Thomas
SG: Gordon/Piatkowski/Badsen
PG: Hinrich/Duhon/Pargo

The Bulls are a little thin at guard and have an abundance of power forwards. Sweetney and Harrington are very similar players, as are Songaila and Allen. Chandler is really the only legit center on the roster, and even that's a stretch. An extended injury to Ben or Kirk could really sink us, so I think John Paxson has to make a deal sooner rather than later to balance out the roster, even if it means giving up some of our young talent.

Tim Thomas is a guy with a unique combination of size and guard skills that could really give the Bulls a lift, but with his injuries it's been difficult for Skiles to get a good look at him. He could be a key guy off the bench, but where do you play him? He doesn't rebound well enough to play PF, and he's probably not suited for SG. So that leaves SF where you've already got Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni. With Noce's toughness and rebounding, he'll probably see more time at PF this season, especially if Thomas earns decent minutes.

Matt: You're right, an injury in the backcourt would mean big trouble. Even possibly losing Duhon for these first few games will bring problems, although from the limited time I saw Eddie Basden I think he'll be a quality addition to the guard rotation, and in front of Pike on the depth chart.

Tim Thomas has the potential to be very valuable to this team if he even has the slightest desire to play defense. As one of the few pure scorers on the team he would be a welcome addition to the bench, and as an added bonus allow Nocioni to play more PF like you mentioned, which I think is actually a better spot for him. But if Thomas stays unwilling to defend like he has throughout his career, Skiles simply won't play him.

In the frontcourt we know that the starters will occasionally get into foul trouble, so I expect a lot of lineups with combinations of Nocioni/Songaila/Allen/Harrington manning the 4 and 5 spots. I like that Paxson made sure to provide a very deep roster, as we know Skiles at one point or another will use them all. I honestly don't think the loss of Curry will be that noticeable, but I'd sure be more confident in that if Antonio Davis was still around. Songaila and Allen are nice additions, but they are not the defenders that AD was, and we know a good team defense has to start in the middle.

Do you think from leadership standpoint the team will suffer from the losses of 2 captains in Davis and Adrian Griffin?

Mike: We definitely lose a lot of leadership with A.D. and Griffin gone. This is a really young team. Pike and Harrington are the elder statesmen of the team, and they've been role players for most of their careers. Thomas is an eight year vet, but he doesn't strike me as the leader type. The Bulls could use someone with several years of playoff experience to guide them.

Matt: My worst-case scenario for this season is that Scott Skiles' (who is so much of a part of this team's success) act wears thin after a rough start and the players tune him out. With a young team fighting for contracts this still may be a ways away, but do you think Pax and Skiles present such a united front that no one player can be above that? Or is it a genuine concern of yours that Skiles message will burn out like he did in Phoenix? He did just get a big extension (doesn't that whole fiasco seem so long ago?) so I'm hoping it doesn't happen for a while.

Mike: The extension pretty much showed that Skiles is Pax's guy for the long term. If I'm not mistaken, Skiles is like the 3rd longest tenured coach behind Jerry Sloan and Greg Popovich. There aren't a lot of proven coaches out there better than Skiles at the moment. I think Pax has realistic expectations for the season. This team hasn't improved as significantly as other teams in the East and the early season shakeup with the Curry trade seems to have thrown off the chemistry the Bulls had to finish last season.

I think the players have definitely bought into Skiles' system and Pax has created a roster of mostly hard-working, professional guys who are committed to it. (Tim Thomas remains the biggest question mark, but at least his contract is up after this season.)

My worst case scenario is that a rash of injuries hits the team and tests our depth. Any long-term injury to Chandler, Hinrich or Gordon could sink any chances we have at a playoff berth. As disappointing as that might be, we have a potentially big summer ahead and not making the playoffs should make the core guys even hungrier next season.

 I know we should be focusing on the upcoming season but it's hard not to think about the money we'll have available to sign free agents next summer, not to mention two first round picks. What moves would you like to see Pax make next summer, and are there any particular players you'd like to see the Bulls pick up in the draft? Or should Pax use the picks as trade bait to bring in a more experienced player?

Matt: In my opinion the only long-term answers that are set at a position are Hinrich at the point and Deng at the 3. This season will answer the two major questions on this team, one in the frontcourt and one in the backcourt. I've already expressed concern over the future of Ben Gordon. If he truly is 'only' a 6th man scorer extraordinaire, they will need to find a starting 2 to play with Kirk.

In the frontcourt we will find out this season if Tyson Chandler can handle the center position all season. If his PF counterpart can't handle bodying up opposing centers (allowing Chandler to help on the weak side and save his back and his fouls) they can look in the offseason for Joel Przybilla or another 'true' center. With cap space and those picks they aren't limited to the free agent market. Some other team looking to clear payroll will become the Bulls' best friend.

Both the picks the team owns (their own and the Knicks') won't likely be top 10 this season, so trading them won't be a major loss. I would say that they don't need any more young players, but quality role players can be found in the mid-first round, and Paxson as we know loves major-college players who can contribute right away. So if the picks are kept Pax can get some value.

Mike: Pax has done a nice job getting us assets and cap room to leave maximum flexibility going into next summer. I think our best bet is a trade, and then to fill out the roster with a couple more pieces like Przybilla. He could be a nice piece and we could probably get him for the mid-level. (That would have sounded crazy just a year ago.)

Back to this season, the Central Division is possibly the deepest in the league. The Pacers, Pistons, Bucks, Cavs and Bulls could all potentially make the playoffs. Where do you see the Bulls finishing in the division and in the Eastern conference?

Matt: I guess this is full prediction time. Like I've said several times this summer, they may improve over last season but get fewer than last season's 47 win total. The goal of this season in my mind is to improve as a unit and make it back to the playoffs again, to give this still very young team more postseason experience. I'd say the Bulls will still finish ahead of the Bucks with around 43 wins, but below the Cavs/Pistons/Pacers, who will be the elite teams in the whole conference. We can all cross our fingers for another Ron Artest meltdown to help the cause like last season, but they should have enough to make the top 8 in the conference and securing a playoff berth.

Mike: I initially pegged the Bulls to match or exceed last season's record. I thought they could sustain the pace they played at last season without the 0-9 handicap to start the season. But the Curry trade, their mediocre preseason play and a look a the deeper Eastern conference in the preseason has made me a little more skeptical.

The Magloire trade was huge for the Bucks. They cleared up their logjam at SF and brought in a legit center to ease some of the pressure off Andrew Bogut, who doesn't look ready to play big minutes. TJ Ford looks as good as he did two years ago. I'd actually pick the Bucks to finish as high as 3rd in the division. I'm not convinced the Cavs will be as good as everyone thinks. I see third place or maybe fourth place finish for the Bulls in the Central division.

I think a playoff berth is within reach, but we'll be among several teams fighting for the 7th and 8th spots instead of looking at home court advantage. Although anything could happen in the NBA. Just look at last season.