[Thanks to Alex for today's game preview. You can sign up for the ones he didn't. -yfbb]
The Bulls’ frontcourt and backcourt each received a drastic upgrade over the weekend with the reintegration of Joakim Noah (over the immortal Nazr Mohammed) and Jimmy Butler (over Tony Snell) into the starting line-up on Friday against the Milwaukee Bucks. And yet, it STILL took a clutch trey from Mike Dunleavy with 5.8 seconds left in regulation to seal a ONE-POINT victory over the one of the worst teams (currently 5-19) in the NBA. The next night, Saturday the 14th, the Bulls brought Luol Deng back but were promptly blown out, 99-77, by a Raptors team already in the middle of an aggressive asset fire-sale. The Bulls team as a whole shot 36% from the field that night. If Bulls fans somehow think this Chicago team is going to be that much better while still lacking anybody who can create his own shot, they are in for a rude awakening. While Kirk Hinrich is considered day-to-day with an injured back (and, let's face it, even when he returns, actually), the team’s pathetic point guard rotation of Marquis Teague and D.J. Augustin (a cast-off from the horrible Toronto Raptors) will ensure that this is going to be a long, long season.
Tonight, the Bulls (9-13, 3-10 since November 18th) will play host to the Orlando Magic (7-17), a team loaded with fantasy basketball studs (Vucevic, Afflalo, and to a lesser extent Oladipo) that is still savvy enough to stay tank-tastic in anticipation of the loaded 2014 draft. History would suggest that our Bulls should have the upper hand here, but it’s pretty clear that this is not last year’s Bulls team. With the future of Derrick Rose much, much foggier than it was even at the height of the "Return" hype last spring, this squad and its overseers are unraveling somewhat quickly. And there may be no coming back. Joakim Noah is averaging fewer rebounds than he has at any point in the NBA since his sophomore reason in 2008-09, and Luol Deng’s tenure with the team is almost definitely coming to a close as he seeks to hit free agency pay dirt this summer.
The Magic are in an interesting place right now – with an innovative GM in Rob Hennigan, they remind me of the 2008-09-era Oklahoma City Thunder: most of the pieces are in place, but they’re not quite ready to congeal just yet. That Thunder team finished 23-59 and missed the playoffs. The next year, boasting the same core plus rookie James Harden, they finished 50-32 and took the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to six games in a tough first round match-up. The Magic front office knows what they have in this bunch, and they know that, as long as they keep tanking, they’ll very likely be getting a final young piece to put this squad over the top and into contention for years to come in a suddenly wide-open Eastern Conference.
PG – Jameer Nelson – Though Oladipo was playing some point over the summer and has been handling the ball a fair amount, Nelson remains the team's nominal point guard, and has been doing a fairly good job of it, averaging 12.8 points and 6.1 dimes, albeit shooting 38.8% from the field with 2.6 turnovers per. Of course, he is a relative minus on defense, his listed height of 6' masking the reality that he is probably closer to 5'9" or 5'10" and has trouble staying in front of bigger point guards.
SG – Victor Oladipo – With Michael Carter-Williams 's recent, mysterious "skin infection" in his right knee keeping him out for several games now, Oladipo might have a real chance at stealing Rookie of the Year honors at the end of the regular season. He has been solid this season (and did have one spectacular game, against MCW in fact, where both rookies had efficient triple-doubles; Oladipo nabbed 26-10-10), averaging 14 points, 3.6 assists and 4.6 rebounds (and, yes, an ugly 3.7 turnovers -- but darn it, he's not a point guard, Jacque Vaughn!), and is going to be a very good pro for many years to come.
SF – Arron Afflalo – There was a time, not so long ago, when there was a genuine debate about whether the Bulls should try to nab Arron Afflalo or Courtney Lee. Hard to believe now, considering Afflalo's stellar season as one of the better-scoring wings in the East (Lee, on the other hand, is now a bench player for the Celtics averaging a middling 6.8 ppg in what's been billed by optimistic Celtics fans as a "rebound" season following an abysmal first season with the team last year). Afflalo is averaging 21.5 points on 46.4% shooting from the floor, an elite 40.6% from three and 87.5% from the free throw line; plus filling out the rest of his robust stat sheet with very-solid-for-a-perimeter-player-who-isn't-the-primary-ball handler 4.5 rebounds and 4 assists. He is making a very fair $7.75 million a season and has a player-option to opt out of his contract at the end of the '14-'15 season, when he could get egregiously overpaid by some desperate team after they whiff on the main free agents that summer.
PF – Glen Davis – The man they call "Big Baby" apparently popped his left shoulder in Orlando's nail biter against the Thunder yesterday, the same shoulder he dislocated almost a year ago to the day. He has pledged to play through it for now. Of course, the real thing that had been holding him out after a strong start for the Magic last year was a break in his left foot, the surgery for which ended his season in January. He's doing well in the 13 games he's seen action this year, averaging 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds, but shooting a poor-for-a-forward 45.6% from the field. If he can stay healthy, Hennigan may be able to move him before the deadline for a pick or some other, cheaper assets. Davis is averaging 66.67% from three this season, but as last night's not-so-clutch tying-triple attempt (it was an air ball) against OKC proved, that's only because he's been lucky and it's a tiny sample size.
C – Nikola Vucevic – The secret steal in the epic D12-Bynum-Iggy shuffle of 2012, Vucevic, who had been buried on the roster in Philly, was a revelation last season for Orlando, averaging 13.1 points, 11.9 boards and a block. This season, the 6'10" USC product is keeping up that pace, averaging 14.1 points, 11.4 rebounds, and another block. Vucevic, along with Oladipo, has to be considered one of Orlando's surefire keepers.
Key Bench Players
SF – Tobias Harris – Harris, yet another awesome steal by Hennigan in a J.J. Redick salary-dump to Milwaukee last spring, has been shaky in his three appearances this season, shooting only 37.5% from the field for 8 ppg and 3.3 rpg, but once he gets his legs back should become more productive for the Magic and can play some four in small-ball line-ups. Last season, after the Redick trade in February, Harris averaged 17.5 points and 8.3 boards for Orlando in 27 games, but now that the arrival of Oladipo has forced Afflalo's move to small forward, Harris is no longer a starter.
SF – Maurice Harkless – Harkless has been okay coming off the bench this season, but has seen his playing time erode since Harris returned from injury against Cleveland on the 13th (he had returned on November 24th but was then shelved again for another three weeks). Harkless is averaging 7.2 points to go with 3.3 rebounds, shooting a solid 36.6% from three.
PF – Andrew Nicholson – If Orlando can work out a trade package for the now-healthy Glen Davis, they really should. It's clear that Andrew Nicholson has the chops to work as at least a competent starting power forward in this league, averaging 12.7 points, 6 boards and 2 blocks a contest over three starts this season; his season averages are 9.8 points, 5.3 boards and half a block in just 21.4 minutes per game, which per 36 minutes translates to 16.5 points, 9 boards, and 0.9 blocks. The second-year 6'9" forward is a stud in training, but like any developing big will experience his share of growing pains along the way, so starting behind Davis for now is fine.
The Bulls’ Starting 5: Teague, Butler, Deng, Boozer, Noah.
Overall Performance Outlook: Look for our shooting woes to continue against a younger, faster Orlando squad.
Random Thought: Isn’t it weird how Oladipo’s ceiling is projected to be the shooting guard version of Luol Deng?
Tip at 7:00 CST/8:00 EST on WGN Chicago.