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Competition Discussion: Chicago Bulls

(Previously: Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte).

The season is still a ways away, but most of the rosters are set, barring the requisite Michael Jordan comeback rumor (just kidding, but only a little).  We have an idea where our team stands, but we can't really know unless we discuss everyone else.  In that spirit, I'm going to throw up a "competition discussion" thread for each of the other 29 teams over the next couple months or so.  We'll go in alphabetical order from A to Z.  Today's team: Chicago.  Jump to the comments to discuss the Bulls and make a prediction on their record.

Last year's record: 41-41 (Pythagorean record: 40-42)

Playoffs: Lost to Boston 4-3 in first round

Offensive Rating: 108.4 (14th)

Defensive Rating: 108.7 (18th)

Pace: 93.1 possessions/game (9th)

In: Jannero Pargo, James Johnson, Taj Gibson
Out: Ben Gordon, Tim Thomas, Linton Johnson

Projected starting lineup: Derrick Rose, John Salmons, Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah

Key themes:

  • What type of progression will we see from Derrick Rose this year?
  • How wise was it to let Ben Gordon walk in free agency?  What will the effect of that loss be?
  • Was their hot stretch down the stretch last year after the trade for John Salmons and Brad Miller a mirage or a sign of things to come? 
  • What's the long-term plan here?  Are they punting the season and hoping to strike it rich in the 2010 free agent market?  How wise is that?
  • How healthy is Luol Deng?  Can he go back to being a rising star in this league after two subpar seasons?
  • John Salmons posted a 59.6 TS% in his 26 games with Chicago.  His career TS% is 54.4%.  Will we see a regression back to the mean, or is Salmons' shot just that improved?
  • Tyrus Thomas will be a restricted free agent after the year.  What's his future in Chicago?  Will he display some actual consistency this year
  • How much has Vinny Del Negro grown as a coach?  Can he rise to competency before his contract runs out after next year?  Will he cost the team wins like he did last year?

Last year, the Bulls nearly knocked off the defending champion Celtics in a classic Round 1 series that had everyone in the basketball world buzzing, whether it was pseudo-analysts who barely tune into the NBA until the playoffs or guys who follow the game every day.  Four games went into overtime or deeper, and a fifth was decided at the buzzer in regulation.  It was one of the top playoff series of the decade by any measure, that's for sure. 

Naturally, the overwhelmingly positive opinion of the young Bulls has carried over from their near-miss against the defending champs.  One ESPN panelist even said the Bulls would win 55 games (!) this year.  I'm glad I can be here for a reality check.

Fact: The Celtics were decimated by injuries to Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe and were nowhere near the team that won 62 games in the regular season.

Fact: The Bulls lost their leading scorer from last year, letting him walk for absolutely nothing.  Unless you consider Janerro Pargo an adequate replacement for Ben Gordon. 

The Bulls are therefore hoping for the following things to happen in order for them to become an upper-eschelon Eastern Conference team, despite being hopelessly mediocre last year (a fast finish against a really soft schedule doesn't mean a sign of things to come); losing to a Celtics team missing its best player and its best reserve; and letting their leading scorer in both the regular season and the playoffs leave for nothing. 

  • Derrick Rose takes a Kevin Durant-like step into superstardom: Rose was very good for a 20-year old rookie last year, but in terms of tangible production, he was merely slightly above-average.  Slightly above-average for a 20-year old rookie is the equivalent of a 28-year old being an all-NBA second-teamer, but it's still a big jump into superstardom for Rose.  Not to mention that he must do that without his leading scorer taking pressure off defenders.  Without Gordon, Rose will be under pressure to create nearly every play, and that may not exactly be the optimal on-court situation needed for development into a superstar.
  • Vinny Del Negro improves to being an above-average coach: The late-season soft schedule and the Salmons/Brad Miller trade salvaged VDN's first year, but he still was unable to design a diverse enough offense to take advantage of more of his players' skills.  The once-proud Bulls defense also faltered, and VDN embarrassed himself a couple times by running out of timeouts in key close playoff games.  He'll have to improve quick; he's only on a two-year contract and the Bulls' early-season circus road trip is an immediate challenge.
  • Hope Luol Deng returns fully healthy: Deng's been nicked up the past two years, missing 19 games in 07/08 and 33 last season (40 if you include the playoffs).  Gordon's departure opens up the small forward position for him, but he has to prove he can stay healthy to seize the position back.  Even when he was healthy last year, he massively struggled to fit into VDN's "system." 
  • Hope John Salmons adequately replaces Gordon: Salmons was a very good player in his time with the Bulls, but you'd be hard-pressed to expect the career 54.4 TS% shooter to match his 59.6% TS% in his Bulls tenure. 
  • Hope Tyrus Thomas becomes a consistently reliable player, despite jerking around his minutes, taking him further away from the basket and sitting him in crunch time so Brad Miller can guard perimeter-oriented power forwards: Yeah, good luck with that.  Thomas is Chicago's Andray Blatche -- a talented, but inconsistent player about whom Bulls fans argue incessantly over whether his lack of development is his fault or his coaches' fault.  The end result is that nobody wins ... again.   
  • Hope rookie forwards James Johnson and Taj Gibson contribute something: Expecting the 16th and 26th picks in the draft to help much as rookies means you probably aren't as good as you think you are.

Long-term, it seems the Bulls are shooting for 2010.  They have just $37 million in committed salaries for next year and could have even more room if Salmons opts out and Thomas is renounced.  The 2010 free agent class is large and the Bulls have more talent than most teams in the sweepstakes, but you have to wonder why they didn't just use their expiring contracts to make a big move and surround a key superstar with both Rose and Gordon.  Either way, that's water under the bridge.  The whole strategy could work out marvelously and we could all be lauding the long-term patience of the Bulls front office by the start of the 2010/11 season.

For next year, though, the bottom line is expecting anything more than .500 out of this squad means you expect nearly every hope to break their way.  In fact, I think you could argue none of the hopes break their way, meaning they essentially punted a season in order to get under the cap.  That worked out really well for them in 2000, right?

Mike's prediction: 39-43, third in the central, 9th in the East.

Team Mike Prada JakeTheSnake Truth About It Rook6980 bwoodsxyz
Atlanta 47-35 44-38 45-37 45-37 45-37
Boston 57-25 55-27 54-28 44-38 56-26
Charlotte 32-50 32-50 29-53 34-48
Chicago 39-43 40-42 42-40 40-42 44-38