Thursday, October 19, 2006

(Deep Breath) Da Bulls, Da Bulls, Da Bulls . . . Preview

I had a draft last night to divide a set of season tickets for the Chicago Bulls. Growing up, my family had full season tickets starting pre-MJ, and running all the way through the glory years. Through family events, and a reduced interest in going to 41 games in the Tim Floyd era, the tix are now divided six ways. It's complicated, but the important thing here is that I get great tickets (center court about 15 rows up) to five games, with the chance to pick up a couple more, and access to playoff tickets in the same location.

I'm actually quite please with my allocation this year. I have the Heat and Wizards in the East, two contenders with whom the Bulls have some degree of bad blood. From the West I have the Grizzlies and Nuggets. While neither is a powerhouse, each is a playoff caliber team, and my wife and I are Syracuse fans, so we enjoy seeing Carmelo play. I also have a Raptors game early in the season, and might have a chance to pick up the Sonics and Rockets games. Not a bad haul for only controlling a hand full of games.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the upcoming season. The Bulls' home opener is 15 days away, and with the Bears on a bye week, now seemed a good time to take a closer look. The Bulls are a deep and talented team this year. It's a fairly novel concept in the post-MJ era. The concern is that the Bulls may be too long on depth and too short on talent. But, if someone steps up to become a consistent scoring threat, and Scott Skiles finds a consistent rotation of 8 guys or so, then this team could actually contend for the title.

The Bulls have 13 legitimate NBA players. I believe that in order to find a rhythm and take the next step, the Bulls will have to limit their rotation to eight or nine guys. Let's start with the man in the middle, the NBA's highest profile free agent this past off-season, Ben Wallace. Wallace is a defensive beast. Rumors of his gradual demise are premature. He was the only player in the league in the top-10 in blocks, rebounds and steals. While, at his age -- he just turned 32 -- you expect to see some slight decline, there is no reason to believe that Wallace won't make major contributions at the defensive end for a couple more years, at least. Offensively, he doesn't score, but he does move the ball well. He ranks among league leaders at the center position for assist and turnover rates. Plus, his offensive rebounding keeps defenders honest. Thus, he's an upgrade from Tyson Chandler at the offensive end, too. Nominally, Malik Allen is the back-up, and Skiles seems to like him. In reality, he contributes little. He has no post offense, is prone to turnovers, and doesn't do much on the offensive glass. He is a willing defender who lacks the skill to be more than average. He's one of the guys I hope Skiles trims from the rotation. The Bulls are better off going small when Wallace rests.

And there is plenty of depth at power forward to do just that. In order to get everyone minutes, sliding someone up to center a few minutes a game seems like an obvious call. The starter, for now, is PJ Brown. Like Wallace, he is an effective ball handler for a big man. Unlike Wallace, the 37 year old Brown is starting to show his age. His scoring and offensive rebounding slipped a lot last year. He also brings a lot to the locker room and is a quality defender. Still, he's better suited to backing up, and is the most natural choice to slide to center when Wallace rests. The future starter at the four spot is rookie Tyrus Thomas, and I think the future will come sooner than later. Thomas has unlimited upside thanks to his athleticism. He is already a great rebounder and shot blocker. He is also phenomenally aggressive attacking the rim, although his repertoire of offensive moves is pretty limited. He should be the starter by season's end, with Brown backing up both Thomas and Wallace. The Bulls also may get a few minutes a game in their post rotation from newly acquired Viktor Khryapa. Khryapa is a hard worker, which should appeal to Skiles. He's also looked pretty good this pre-season. However, his past production in Portland indicates that he's far more effort than talent, and with the Bulls' glut of forwards, Khryapa is another player who Skiles should usually leave out of the rotation.

In Portland Khryapa played a lot of small forward. That won't be necessary with the Bulls. Starter Luol Deng is the player most likely to make the leap this year for Chicago. Deng is still a baby at 21 years of age (I just mean he's young, not that he's immature). He made great progress in his sophomore campaign last season, despite missing the entire off-season with a wrist injury. With a full off-season under his belt, year 3 could be a huge one. Deng greatly improved his ball handling last year, while increasing his aggressiveness going to the basket. He also cut back on his threes, which are not a strong suit. He's learning who he is as a ball player, so, imagine how good he'll be when he figures it out, and when he adds some offensive moves. Deng attacks the basket in a straight line right now, but he's a good enough ball handler to add some creativity and become vastly more effective on the offensive end. He could make the jump to a 20 point a night player this year. Defensively his long arms and effort make him pretty effective. As he learns more about the NBA game and opposing players, he has the potential to be an all-league defender.

The biggest obstacle to Deng taking that next step is if his back-up, Andres Nocioni, beats him to it. I'm guessing Nocioni makes a strong push for 6th Man honors this season. Nocioni's shooting and ball handling were much improved last season as he adjusted to the North American game. And, he was the Bulls' best player in the play-offs. Nocioni runs the court, plays hard on D, is fearless in the paint, and never stops hustling. The crowd loves him for it, but it probably makes him better suited for explosive stints off the bench, than the starting line-up. While he can maintain the frenetic pace for 34 minutes a night in a short playoff series, it's hard to imagine him not losing some steam if forced to play that much for 82 games. But he can play alongside Deng, especially with Wallace on the floor, and I'd like to see the Bulls' front court rotation reduced to Wallace, Thomas, Deng, Nocioni, and Brown.

The back court situation is somewhat clearer. Four men -- Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Chris Duhon, and Thabo Sefolosha -- will share the minutes. Hinrich is the leader, coming off a summer spent representing his country with Team USA. Hinrich didn't improve as much as expected last year. Maybe improved confidence from his time on the national team will help. Hinrich is sometimes too fundamentally sound. He shoots 41% from the floor, which is low, but wouldn't be a problem if he took more 3's and fewer long 2's. Fewer than a third of Hinrich's shots came from beyond the arc, too few for a shooter as good as Captain Kirk. Hinrich needs to force the issue a little from three, rather than just settle for two-point jumpers that come in the regular offense. He is, however, a sound defender and ball handler.

Ben Gordon also failed to improve much last season. Like Hinrich, he should probably be taking a higher percentage of his shots from beyond the arc. For all the talk of Gordon's "giant killers" in the lane, Gordon shot a better percentage from three than from two. Unlike Hinrich, Gordon doesn't bring a lot to the table when he's not shooting the basketball. He has worked hard to make himself an average ball handler. And, despite the weaknesses many observers spot in Gordon's defense, the Bulls gave up a comparable number of points when he was on the floor as when he was not. The bottom line is that Gordon's future is probably not stardom, but rather a high volume shooter -- either off the bench for a good team, or as a starter for a bad team. For now, he'll be something in between for the Bulls. He'll provide an offensive spark when he's on, but my guess is Skiles will exile him to the bench when his shot is not falling.

Chris Duhon is the anti-Gordon in some ways. Like Gordon, he's a good shooter from three. Unlike Gordon, Duhon knows that's his best attribute as a scorer, and he takes most of his shots from long range. He did go to basket more last season than as a rookie, and gets to the free throw line more than you might expect. Ignore Duhon's assist numbers, they reflect another contrast between Gordon and Duhon -- Duhon's scarcity of shots attempted -- not good ball handling. Duhon is disturbingly turnover prone. Duhon's greatest strengths are on the defensive end. But with the Bulls' depth, his minutes will be squeezed if he can't at least match last year's offensive production.

The man putting the pressure on Duhon and Gordon is Thabo Sefolosha. The Swiss rookie provides the Bulls with the size they've been missing and seeking in the back court. He's athletic, rebounds and plays good defense. His offensive game is not fully developed, but he should be in the Bulls' rotation right off the bat. His presence will allow Hinrich to stay at the point, and reduce Duhon's minutes. On nights Gordon's shot isn't falling, Sefolosha figures to play big minutes because he'll play better defense and rebound better than Gordon. He won't be ready to start this year, but if his offense develops, he'll push Gordon to the bench, or out the door entirely.

As I mentioned, the Bulls are very deep. Even some of the guys not discussed above, like Adrian Griffin and Mike Sweetney, bring skills to the table that will prove useful in certain circumstances. But only five guys can play at a time, and Skiles needs to make sure that his best players are playing the majority of the minutes. Khryapa may be an ok NBA player, but he shouldn't be playing at the expense of Deng, Nocioni, or Thomas. Skiles should restrict his rotation to nine guys. Wallace should start at center, backed by Brown. Thomas will eventually be the starter at power forward, with both Brown and Nocioni providing depth. Deng is the quick forward, and the guy with the chance to take the team to the next level. Nocioni will sometimes play alongside Deng, and sometimes give him a rest. Gordon starts at the two-guard, but Sefolosha figures to play when Gordon's shot isn't falling. Hinrich is the point, and Duhon is well suited to a role as a back-up point who can play D and knock down the occasional 3. The pieces are in place. If they're used right, the Chicago Bulls are well positioned for a deep postseason run. It's been too long since we could say as much.


Blogger Jeeves said...

I'd love see a small lineup of Wallace, Noc, Deng, Gordon, and Hinrich out there occasionally when we don't have to worry about defending the low post.

I know Noc isn't perfectly suited for the 4 but he held his own last year when he slid over to the position.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Criminal Appeal said...

With Deng's height and length, he's something of a hybrid forward too. There are few power forwards who are both strong enough to overpower Deng and long enough to negate Nocioni's strength and tenacity. The Bulls suffered some defensively and on the boards when Noc and Deng played together last year, but I think Wallace makes all the difference there. I don't see any reason why those five guys can't be on the court together 10-15 minutes a night.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Q said...

Excellent post, I'm right with you on pretty much every point. I've been on the Noc bandwagon for a while now, I'm glad I'm not alone. The season tix through the MJ years must have been incredible. Good blog, I look forward to reading through the season.

8:54 PM  
Anonymous Hideki Matt Suey said...

Agreed, excellent analysis. Only, you don't think they shoot enough 3s? I agree 3s are better than 2s from a foot inside the line, but still...they seemed a little too attached to the long-ball last season.

In related news, after last night's game v. Spurs, I fear a certain stiff named Viktor may be too fundamentally sound to stay out of the rotation. Not that good or flashy, but plays hard and makes some good decisions - that's Skiles' dream scenario.

2:40 PM  

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