I'm sure most Chicagoans was saying that to their pull-out sections in the Trib and Sun-Times this week. I mean, just looking at the team, there's obviously no Michael Jordan, no Scottie Pippen, no half-shell of Scottie Pippen we saw last year. And if you've outgrown that (and unless you're Jay Marriotti, you probably have), there's not even an Elton Brand, Ron Artest, or Brad Miller. Or as the aforementioned 3 are referred to in Chicago: "Bird, McHale, and Parish".
And so it goes, 7 years since a 6th world championship (and playoffs, and winning record). I would label this the first full season of the 3rd rebuilding project since then. Since John Paxson took over at the end of the 02-03 season, only 2 players remain (Curry and Chandler). Kirk Hinrich was selected as Paxson's first ever draft pick, and has turned out to be a fantastic choice. But beyond that last season was an unmitigated disaster. Using the meaningless end-of-season performance(most noticeably the performances of the teen towers) as reason for playoff predictions, The Bulls themselves, many experts, and even I had them pegged for resurgence. But after a terrible start Coach Bill Cartwright was fired, and Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall were sent to Toronto. While the team's defense subsequently improved, through the end of the season the team gave Paxson no reason to stop gutting the team. Over the offseason Jamal Crawford, Marcus Fizer, Kendall Gill, and Eddie Robinson were all sent packing in various ways.
The message was simple: Paxson and Skiles wanted their type of player. Commitment, hustle, defense, rebounding, remembering plays...things that should be inherent to any player but sadly was lost on the Bulls squads of previous seasons. The message was sent last season in picking up D-League talent like Linton Johnson and Ronald Dupree. Moving forward though using the draft, trades, and free agency, they have gotten their type of guys to also possess NBA talent. Getting a group of players like that together, they reasoned, would improve the image and attitude of their team and head everything back in the right direction. As (slightly) similar teams like the Jazz and Bucks showed last year, a team that plays hard and plays together can win their share of games in this league. And while training camp and preseason has shown that the mood has changed, will the win total? Not until a few questions are answered:
Who will score the points?
Defense and effort are great, but you still win by scoring more points than the other team. Jamal Crawford, at 17.3ppg, was the team's leading scorer, and he's gone. Have the Bulls done enough to make this difference up? While Crawford did provide volume, at 38% it wasn't provided efficiently. Can this team find another reliable scorer? Or will it be a case of many players slightly raising their output? Ben Gordon was picked #3 in the draft to fill the scoring void, but has shot terribly in the preseason so far. I have a feeling though that after an initial struggle he will provide a breakout game that will enable him to at least provide a reliable, offensive-minded 6th man off the bench. Kirk Hinrich can be good for one of those games every other week, but he shouldn't be consistently burdened with scoring while also having to run the offense. As far as the post players are concerned, Curry and Chandler should see a slight bump in scoring (and more on this later) that will also help ease the burden. Now for the others on the floor....
How are things on the wing?
The SF spot was the team's worst position last year, with a revolving door of crap named Eddie Robinson, Linton Johnson, and Ronald Dupree offering some defense but little else. Inversely, Crawford's scoring helped matters, but his slight frame (for a 2) forced him to be overmatched on defense when he wasn't partially bailed out by Hinrich. This is the area where the team has improved the most, with rookies Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni. I was not high on Deng during the draft hype, but he has wowed everyone with his preseason play. If you want to see the prototype Paxson/Skiles player, Deng looks to be it, using his basketball instincts (at 19 no less) to mask whatever deficiencies he has athletically. And it not like he's Dalibor Bagaric as far as athleticism is concerned. Nocioni is in the similar mold, but has a different skill set. While Deng uses his touch and moves to get points in the paint, Nocioni comes projected to be a fearless slasher (and this gives me the opportunity to re-show his dunk on Garnett) and 3-point threat (and Deng has worked on his 3-point range as well). He's a physical defender that can hold his own in the post, and you can bet he will drive opponents crazy with his shady 'fouling and flopping' techniques. While both are rookies, they are more than likely going to start at the 2 and 3, with their true positions depending on the matchups that are presented. But looking with respect to what the Bulls had to put out there in their place last year, this should be an instant improvement, with great room for development.
The Bench: productive, selective minutes? or shit sandwich?
To define success for the bench for this season, a lot can be derived in how many minutes are being played. The less they play, the better they will be in the time they are given, and that will also mean that their younger counterparts have done their job. Antonio Davis, Othella Harrington, Adrian Griffin and Eric Piatkowski all are veterans of the league and provide their well-known, if limited, skills to fill their roles off the bench. All of them are coming off unproductive years however, and at their ages that usually is a trend that does not reverse. But if their minutes are limited and they are only called on to do what they can do, they should be fine. If not, you have deeper reserves like Chris Duhon, Frank Williams, Jannero Pargo, Tommy Smith, and Jared Reiner that can possibly provide the same things with fresher legs. Now if *they're* playing a lot of minutes, that's serious trouble for everyone. So if you've been following along you'll notice I left out something....
Who's going to back up Hinrich?
Poor Kirk, the Bulls are asking a ton from him this season. Not only is he the primary ballhandler, he also serves as floor leader, scorer, defensive stopper, and face of the ad campaign. The lack of size at the 2 will force Kirk to guard opposing scorers, and while he can handle the job it will wear him out if he is called on too often. Paxson did not provide him with the usual "veteran floor general" backup that teams usually find. He has rookie Chris Duhon, who is a 4-year Dukie, but he's still never played in an NBA game before. I thought Frank Williams would be a help, but he was a non-factor in the preseason and will start the season on the IR, as is Pargo. Ben Gordon can also handle the ball in spot situations....but look for this to be a problem throughout the year, unless Pax can find someone internally or externally to help poor Hinrich out once in a while.
Will they survive the annual Circus Trip of Death(tm)?
If you don't know the history, read the grim details. Last year continued the trend as they went 0-fer yet again, and after that point was when Pax went on his purging spree. The trip starts very early this year, after the 4th game of the season, stopping at Sacto, Golden State, Denver, Lakers, Phoenix, Utah, and Cleveland. The question isn't necessarily how many games they can win, but how will they handle the losses? Factoring in Curry and Davis missing the first 2 games of the season before they even hit the road, things could get very ugly very quick. The problem with a coach like Skiles is that his fiery outbursts will be his undoing if the players stop listening. The Paxson/Skiles mold that they tried to find was to get players who would handle this without giving up on the season, and it'll be Skiles' biggest test to see if he can keep the team together even if they go winless on this trip yet again.
The big question:
Repeat after me. Curry and Chandler, Curry and Chandler. I been over this at length, and recently for that matter. Basically the season comes down to them. So at the end of it all I have two predictions: If Curry and Chandler's development keeps along at this slow rate, the improvements in other areas will still get them to 32 wins. However those two can make that next step (and like I said, while not probable it can happen), they will get to .500 and in the East that'll mean game 3 of the playoffs at the United Center. I mean....its possible right?
Next week: league-wide predictions...and I know I'm cheating by letting a bunch of games transpire first.