This article is part of our NBA Team Previews series.
By Jan Levine
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
A baby has to crawl before he walks and runs. Basketball teams are the same way; they need to move incrementally from level to level. Chicago seems to be taking the baby-step approach, moving from embarrassment to "happy to make the playoffs" in 2004-05, then from playoff participant to giving Miami all they could handle in 2005-06. Last year, they avenged that defeat by sweeping the Heat before falling to their arch-rival Pistons, in six hard-fought games. The next step would be to challenge for the Eastern Conference title, but are the Bulls prepared to take it?
The Bulls were up-and-down most of last season, posting a 5-9 record through November. They went 14-3 in December, only to play .500 ball the next two months before closing the year on a 16-6 run. They improved their scoring margin substantially, increasing their point differential from 0.6 in 2005-06 to 5.0 in 2006-07. The difference showed in Chicago's record; their 49-33 marked an eight-game improvement from the previous season. They showed improvement in other trouble spots -- opponents rebounds and free throw differential - though there is still room for growth.
With all their young core players receiving or due for substantial raises, Chicago was mostly quiet in free agency, opting to make most of their roster tweaks in the draft, while adding a mid-level exception player in Joe Smith. The starting lineup is set at most positions with Kirk Hinrich at point guard, Ben Gordon at the two-spot, Ben Wallace at center and Luol Deng at small forward. The one open spot is at power forward with Smith expected to get the first shot there, though Tyrus Thomas, Nocioni and Joakim Noah are all expected to log minutes at the spot. As seen last year, Chicago boasts excellent depth, including Chris Duhon and Thabo Sefolosha at guard, Viktor Khryapa and Nocioni at small forward, Thomas, Nocioni and Noah at power forward, and Noah and Aaron Gray at center. It will be a challenge for Coach Scott Skiles to find a regular rotation, so expect some mixing and matching early on until he finds the right blend.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Skiles has the luxury of several players with the flexibility to play multiple positions, which should allow him to find minutes for them all over the floor. Hinrich and Gordon should once again log big minutes, though Sefolosha could cut into that playing time slightly if he shows the ability to knock down the jumpshot. Sefolosha's minutes will come at the expense of Duhon, though Duhon is also excellent defensively and has coach Skiles' confidence.
In the front court, Deng took advantage of the injury to Nocioni to see even more minutes at small forward, but with all Chicago's depth, look for his minutes to decrease slightly from last season's 37.5 mpg to the neighborhood of 35 per game. Wallace is starting the downward slide, but Noah can play some center, which should enable Wallace to rest more during the regular season.
At the four spot, Smith was signed to be the starter but he may not finish the year there. Thomas spent the offseason working on his mid-range, and if he is able to at least be effective from there, it will open up the floor for him to drive. Nocioni should be 100% after battling plantar fasciitis much of last year. He'll be used to spread the defense, and is effective guarding bigger players, allowing Skiles to go small with him at the four.
Khryapa saw minimal playing time last season but also can be used at several positions. His size and wingspan make him a solid defender. Griffin will also be used for veteran leadership and defense.
Ben Wallace: While Big Ben brings an inside presence to Chicago, he's clearly not the factor he once was. The constant pounding down low has taken a toll on the undersized center, as evidenced by the decline in his numbers almost across the board. His biggest contribution might have been his breaking a team rule by wearing a headband in a November victory over the Knicks, which seemed to spur the team forward. Wallace battled minor injuries thoughout the 2006-07 season and will probably see a slight reduction in minutes this year to keep him fresh. That could cause his rebounds and blocks per game to drop even further, making him less of a fantasy force.
Aaron Gray: The Bulls passed on Spencer Hawes, who would have provided the team with a badly-needed low-post threat, to take Joakim Noah. They're gambling that their selection at No. 49, Pittsburgh's Aaron Gray, will be a second-round steal and back-to-the-basket scorer. Gray has a nice array of low-post moves, can score out to 15 feet and rebounds well. He's got good size for an NBA center, but is not athletic and struggles on defense against more athletic players. He may start the season at the NBDL, but he had a solid summer league season and could get minutes, especially if paired with some of Chicago's better defenders.
Martynas Andriuskevicius: Andriuskevicius, who was assigned to the Dakota Wizards of the NBA Development League, missed most of the year after suffering a skull fracture, severe concussion and a two-centimeter hematoma on the left side of his brain stemming from a sucker-punch from teammate Awvee Storey. Andriuskevicius has made a full recovery but will likely open the year in the NBDL to build strength.
Luol Deng: Deng built on his success in the second half of the 2005-06 season, (he averaged 16.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals after the All-Star break) to have an All-Star caliber year with numbers up across the board. One key was scrapping the three-point shot from his arsenal to focus solely on the midrange game, resulting in a rise in his FG% from .463 to .517. Another was that Deng, after being unable to work out after the 2004-05 season due to wrist surgery, made good use of last offseason, adding 13 pounds of muscle, mostly in his upper body. That additional strength has helped him on forays to the basket, resulting in more free throw attempts and makes. Chicago showed how highly they regard Deng by refusing to include him in a deal for Pau Gasol at the trading deadline. He's expected to lose some time to the returning Andres Nocioni, so his scoring average could drop slightly, but his other numbers should be excellent. He is expected to sign a long-term deal to remain in the Windy City.
Joe Smith: Smith was signed to a two-year deal by Chicago this offseason. He's never really fulfilled the promise that made him the No. 1 overall pick in 1995, but he'll be a veteran presence and start at power forward, at least initially. Given all the other options on Chicago's bench, don't expect this situation to last the year. . Smith will give you modest point and rebound numbers but little else and might see just 20-25 minutes nightly.
Andres Nocioni: Nocioni looked like a valuable mid-round fantasy selection based on his performance late in the 2005-06 season, but his 06-07 was a bust. He played through several nagging injuries early in the year,averaging 15 points and six rebounds while shooting 47% from the floor through mid-January, when he was moved to the bench to provide a spark for the reserves. But the plantar fasciitis in Nocioni's right foot worsened, sidelining him for all but one game over two months. He returned just before the playoffs but was still hobbled by the injury. A free agent this summer, Nocioni signed a five-year, $37.5 million deal to remain with the Bulls. He's expected to be 100% for the start of the year, but with the addition of Joe Smith, Nocioni won't start. He should see quality playing time at small and power forward and be a source of three-pointers.
Tyrus Thomas: Thomas was selected by the Blazers with the fourth pick in the 2006 NBA draft, and then traded to Chicago for LaMarcus Aldridge, selected at No. 2 by the Bulls. After their respective rookie seasons, it appears Aldridge would have been a better fit in Chicago. Thomas has the length and jumping ability of a power forward, but the height and weight of a small forward. He has displayed flashes of his talent, showing that he will be a dynamic shot blocker and rebounder. The rest of his game needs development, as seen in his weak field goal and free-throw percentages. Thomas used his time in the summer league to work on his perimeter and midrange game to complement his ability to drive to the basket. Competing with Joe Smith and Andreas Nocioni for minutes, Thomas won't be a starter but should see a rise in minutes in his sophomore season, which should lead to an increase in his numbers across the board.
Joakim Noah: Noah might have been the first overall pick in the 2006 draft, but he elected to return to University of Florida for his senior season. Good decision for the Gators, who won their second straight national championship. Bad decision for Noah's draft position - he fell to Chicago at number nine overall. Noah may be groomed to replace Ben Wallace; like Wallace, he has no real offensive game to speak of, and most of his points will come from either running the floor or short put-backs. He could be paired along side Wallace to provide the Bulls some height down low, but needs to add some bulk before he'll be able to handle the middle solo. His boundless energy and ability to run the floor should allow him to should fit well into coach Scott Skiles' defensive scheme and see decent minutes as a rookie. He will provide fantasy teams with some rebounds and blocks. Noah is rehabilitating a small rotator cuff tear in his right shoulder but is expected to be ready for the start of the season.
Victor Khryapa: The Bulls acquired Khryapa as part of the LaMarcus Aldridge/Tyrus Thomas deal, but the trip east did little to enhance his fantasy value. As with his stint with the Blazers, he was never really able to crack the rotation in Chicago, playing in just 33 games. Khryapa's limited playing time will come at both forward spots. His main value will come on defense due to his long arms; he will not produce enough to warrant a fantasy spot.
Adrian Griffin: Griffin provides more veteran leadership and defensive intensity to the Bulls. He will see minimal time at small forward and shooting guard.
Kirk Hinrich: Hinrich's stint playing for the USA in the FIBA World Championships, going up against Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Paul daily in practice might have built his confidence going into the season. He improved his field goal percentage for the third straight year -- to the point where it is no longer a detriment to his owners. Save for a slight rise in points, his other numbers were fairly similar to his prior two years, despite a drop of one minute of playing time per game. Hinrich is entrenched as the team's starting point, and will be spelled as times by either Thabo Sefolosha or Chris Duhon. Given all the athletes they have up front, Chicago may look to run more this year. Look for Hinrich to have a slight drop is scoring points but an increase in assists this year.
Ben Gordon: Gordon opened the season as a starter, moved to the bench, and then was re-inserted back into the starting lineup. Even coming off the bench, Gordon played starter's minutes - more than 30 mpg - so the move had little effect on his overall stats. He played his way back into the starting lineup by doing a better job of maintaining his focus and not "taking plays off." Gordon's numbers were fairly consistent both pre and post All Star Break despite a three-minute increase in playing time in the second half of the year. He improved his rebounds and assists per game to an almost-passable level for a two-guard, but his main value is in his scoring, three-pointers and FT%, and he also markedly bumped up his FG%. He has the ability to handle the ball while Hinrich is on the bench, which allows Gordon to stay on the floor with Sefolosha or Duhon to provide the team with a scoring threat. Look for more of the same this year out of Gordon, who is expected to sign a long-term deal to remain with the Bulls.
Chris Duhon: Duhon, who had surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back last offseason, was nicked up much of the year, and other than a solid February, struggled much of the season. In the past, he has filled in at both guard spots or used in a three-guard offense, but his role is being diminished as Thabo Sefolosha's increases. Duhon's contract expires after this season, which should be his last in Chicago.
Thabo Sefalosha: Sefolosha battled inconsistency and some minor injuries as a rookie but displayed flashes of the tall, defensive-minded guard the Bulls selected as a complement to Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon. He used the summer league games this year for a very specific purpose, getting more comfortable on the offensive end, making the simple play and hitting his shots. Look for Sefolosha to see a slight uptick in minutes and be used in three-guard sets ahead of Chris Duhon, though his overall numbers will be limited.
JamesOn Curry: Curry, who was selected 51st in the 2007 NBA Draft, is a long shot to make the Bulls. He had a solid summer league campaign, showing the ability to be a pass-first point guard, but questions about his defensive ability will likely keep him in the NBDL to start the year.
Tyrus Thomas: The Bulls really don't have a sleeper but Thomas - if the midrange game he displayed in the Orlando Summer League is for real - could become the starting power forward by midseason. If that happens, Thomas' numbers across the board will rise substantially.
Ben Wallace: Without Michael Sweetney there, this was a tough choice, but Wallace won out. Wallace will still have decent rebounding and block numbers but those monster seasons are a memory as minor injuries, age and a reduction in playing time will cause a further drop across the board.
Article first appeared on 9/26/07