Ready for their close-up
Gibson, Johnson should make positive contributions this season
CHICAGO -- A couple of weeks ago, at the Bulls' mind-numbingly dull media day, I was obsessed with the idea that the Bulls need a singular go-to scorer to replace Ben Gordon, the Gucci-wearing, 3-point-dropping, late-game gunner who led the team in scoring 43 times last season.
Derrick Rose is the natural successor to Gordon's honorary title as Last Shot Taker, given his skill set and position as point guard, but most people I questioned assured me that the team will have to find its late-game identity organically and that more than one guy could assume Gordon's status. Joakim Noah even patted me on the shoulder good-naturedly as I rambled on about it.
I bring this up because -- in a game that probably no one watched live -- rookie James Johnson dropped in a game-winning, buzzer-beating jumper from the baseline to beat the Utah Jazz in London's O2 Arena the other day. The shot came off a Derrick Byars miss, and if you forgot this was a preseason game, Byars' taking the last shot is a good reminder. Perhaps Byars was inspired by wearing Gordon's old No. 7 jersey, but mostly it was because Rose sat out the game, flying to London on his 21st birthday just to make some promotional appearances for his personal brand that he's touting. Tyrus Thomas missed the game, as well.
NBA preseason games, though objectively useless, are interesting only in that they offer a pretty good barometer on how a team is going to play, at least for the first month. And seeing Johnson hit that fallaway shot, and his teammates swarm him, was a positive visual moment for Bulls fans who are hungry for the next level, be that a competitive second round of the playoffs or even the NBA finals.[+] EnlargeCARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty ImagesJames Johnson should make a large contribution to the Bulls' frontcourt this season.
The Bulls, like most teams in the hunt for the big three of 2010, didn't try to add salary this season. They waved goodbye to Gordon, who decamped to Detroit, and brought in familiar Jannero Pargo and draft picks Johnson and Taj Gibson as their offseason moves. Judging by the first two preseason games, all three look ready to contribute in the regular rotation.
Johnson, who probably can play all three frontcourt spots, is a load. Given his extensive martial arts background, the Wake Forest star likely is starting with a competitive spirit, and ability to focus on the court, that has been lacking in past rookie big men on the Chicago roster. Sure, Eddy Curry could do a backflip, but when you forget to jump when standing upright, all the freaky athleticism in the world won't help you under the basket.
Johnson scored 18 points and added eight rebounds in London, and Gibson had 19 and nine in his debut against Indiana on Oct. 2. Now, I was as critical as anyone on draft night, when the Bulls took two seemingly similar forwards, eschewing Pitt's DeJuan Blair and Sam Young, among others.
I thought the Bulls might target a guard in the draft, a guy such as Toney Douglas, and there were rumors of major trade talks, which could have led to myriad acquisitions of veterans.
But the Bulls wound up going big and young, and the results of that decision are why I'm more convinced than ever that Chicago is going to be a major contender in the East this year.
Think about it. As guards, they're going to have Rose, a 6-foot-3 player with track star speed who's not afraid to attack in traffic and can actually finish over the rim, and either wily Kirk Hinrich, also 6-3, or 6-foot-6 John Salmons, who inherits Gordon's scoring guard role. Small forward Luol Deng, not known for his physicality, hopefully is healthy enough to regain some of his luster as a sleek, midrange scorer, plus Pargo the shooter off the bench.
At forward, Noah (6-11, 232 pounds) and Thomas (6-10, 225) will be complemented by Johnson (6-9, 245) and Gibson (6-9, 225), plus veteran center Brad Miller (7-0, 261).
Johnson and Gibson don't need to challenge for starting jobs because their greatest value is going to come off the bench. When Noah goes out, Gibson can replace him and the Bulls still will have a lean shot-blocker in the middle. Johnson can provide similar brute force in the low post when Thomas is out. Basically, it's as if the Bulls have cloned their talented young forwards, and the clones might get better than the originals in time.
This is a team that can compete with anyone down low, even with the natural rookie stumbling blocks expected of Johnson and Gibson. Last year, the Bulls were 10th in total rebounds and third in blocked shots. Those numbers should only go up.[+] EnlargeNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesRookie Taj Gibson will help the Bulls become one of the contenders in the Eastern Conference this year.
Hopefully, Johnson and Gibson will help the team achieve its newfound focus on defense. To a man, everyone stressed the need for a better defense this year. Last year, the Bulls scored 102.2 points a game and gave up 102.5. They shot 45.7 percent and allowed teams to shoot 45.8 percent. They committed 14.5 turnovers a game and forced 14.4. They won 18 games decided by 10 or more and lost 19.
See a pattern here?
The Bulls were a perfect .500 team that got hot late, going 17-11 after trading for Salmons and Miller at the deadline, but with Rose at the point and a playoff classic series against the Celtics still stirring in our memories, much more is expected this year.
A friend and I were discussing our reticence toward paying heed to preseason basketball Wednesday. With so much going on in Chicago, from the premature demises of the Olympic dream and the 2009 baseball season to the birth of the Jay Cutler era, the Bulls have rightfully gotten short shrift in the public eye.
That is going to change dramatically on Oct. 29, when the Bulls open up with San Antonio at home. The next day, they travel to Boston and two days later to Miami, where they'll face Miami and Dwyane Wade. The Bulls go to LeBron James and Cleveland in the second week of the season and face Chris Bosh and Toronto the week after.
As we all know, Wade, James and Bosh are the featured players in the 2010 free-agent derby, and you will read and hear innumerable rumors and guesses about where they're going to end up. It's never too early to start the guessing game, but for some reason, I think the Bulls are going to find their own identity this season, and maybe they won't need to dream about superstars from other teams.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.