Hollinger's Team Forecast: Chicago Bulls
Coming off a 49-win season and a second-round playoff appearance, the Bulls were a trendy pick to win the East before the season started (pardon me while I don a trenchcoat and sunglasses). Those hopes came undone with remarkable speed, as the Bulls got off to a 2-10 start that included a pair of 30-point losses and ranked last in the league in offensive efficiency for much of the first half of the season.
The Bulls were bad enough that coach Scott Skiles, who was considered among the league's safer coaches entering the season, was shown the door after just 25 games. With the team mired at 9-16, longtime assistant Jim Boylan stepped into the fray, but nothing much changed. The Bulls never got within six games of .500 and finished the year at 33-49, four games out of a playoff berth and about 20 behind where most people thought they'd be. Why they expected to turn things around by firing the coach and promoting his top lieutenant still puzzles me, but their problems went much deeper than coaching.
W-L: 33-49 (Pythagorean W-L: 31-51)
Offensive Efficiency: 101.0 (26th)
Defensive Efficiency: 104.2 (13th)
Pace Factor: 95.7 (9th)
Highest PER: Luol Deng (17.07)
Here's the scary part: They were nearly completely healthy. Of Chicago's key players, only Luol Deng (19 games) missed any serious time, and given the team's depth, that shouldn't have been much of an issue anyway.
It was a puzzling decline. Perhaps early-season rumors of a trade for Kobe Bryant distracted their younger players, particularly restricted free-agents-to-be Deng and Ben Gordon. Perhaps Skiles' taskmaster style finally rubbed them the wrong way and they stopped playing as hard -- Chicago's grit had been a defining characteristic the previous three seasons but was MIA a year ago. Perhaps it was the result of horrible chemistry, as players bickered at coaches and each other all year.
Or perhaps they just weren't that good. Both Kirk Hinrich and Gordon had exceeded their career norms by a healthy margin in 2006-07, and both fell back to earth last season, with Hinrich's fall being exceptionally hard. It didn't help that Ben Wallace proved to be a spectacular bust as a free agent. Not only was the Bulls' big heist from the summer of 2006 among the league's least effective offensive players, but he provided little of the defensive presence that won him four Defensive Player of the Year trophies as a Piston.
For the year, Chicago ranked just 26th in offensive efficiency, and their problem was a straightforward one: They couldn't make shots. The Bulls were dead last in both 2-point shooting percentage and overall field-goal percentage (see chart), as they had all kinds of trouble creating opportunities close to the basket. Inevitably their possessions ended with an 18-foot jumper by Deng, Hinrich, Gordon or Andres Nocioni, and that's a tough way to survive for long. Chicago shot decently on 3s, rebounded well and didn't turn it over terribly often, but all those bricks on 2s did them in.
Worst 2-Point Shooting Percentage, 2007-08
|TEAM||OVERALL FG%||2-PT FG%|
Defensively, the Bulls slipped just as much as they had on offense. They led the league in defensive efficiency in 2006-07 and seemed primed to do it again, given that they had virtually the same team returning and Skiles once again calling the shots.
Instead, little stood out about the Bulls' defense last season, and that's kind of the problem. The same gang that suffocated teams into the league's second-lowest opponent shooting percentage and second-highest turnover rate sunk back to the pack in both categories last season, ranking ninth and fifth, respectively. Throw in high rates of opponent free throws and 3-pointers, and their true shooting percentage allowed was actually worse than the league average. So much for Big Ben and company dominating with defense.
With the season going off the rails the Bulls made a major deal at the trade deadline, swapping Wallace and Joe Smith to Cleveland for Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Cedric Simmons and Shannon Brown; it was technically a three-way swap with Seattle that also saw little-used Adrian Griffin shipped to the Sonics. It was a cap-neutral deal that seemingly just reshuffled deck chairs on the Titanic, though one must presume that Hughes and Gooden will be more effective going forward than Wallace and Smith.
But that trade may have put even more heat on Bulls general manager John Paxson. He balked at chances to land the likes of Kevin Garnett and Bryant when the Bulls were seemingly teeming with assets; when they finally pulled the trigger, it was to take Cleveland's leftovers?
The Bulls also left fans scratching their heads with a bizarre offseason coaching search. Chicago opted not to keep interim coach Boylan and at first pursued former Suns boss Mike D'Antoni, but dithered on offering him a contract and watched the Knicks swoop in and nab him. Then they went after former Bulls coach Doug Collins, who would have been a bad fit with a young team given that he's even more demanding than Skiles.
Those talks fizzled, and then the Bulls pulled a real stunner -- hiring low-level Suns exec and former player-turned-commentator Vinny Del Negro. He was an NBA guard for several years but has no coaching experience at any level and will be undergoing some serious on-the-job training. At least he was smart enough to hire two highly experienced assistants (Bernie Bickerstaff and Del Harris) to help him cut his teeth.
Biggest Strength: DepthChicago's greatest strength is that this team is built for the regular-season grind, possessing enviable depth at every spot on the floor. Nowhere is this more evident than at small forward, where the Bulls have Deng playing ahead of Nocioni -- himself an accomplished scorer and one whose name has come up often in trade rumors over the past year.
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The other positions have nearly as much depth. Rose and Hinrich, obviously, should make for a strong tandem at the point, and Hinrich can slide over to the 2. At that spot, he, Hughes, Gordon (if he signs) and young defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha give the Bulls an embarrassment of riches; in fact, it seems probable that Chicago will make a trade to clean up the rotation a bit here.
Up front, it's a similar situation. Power forwards Tyrus Thomas and Gooden might be peas in a pod -- talented space cadets who need to improve their focus -- but there's no question that both would start for a big chunk of the league's teams; here they'll likely split the minutes. And in the middle, Joakim Noah's assorted off-court dramas disguised a very productive rookie season, while second-round banger Aaron Gray was one of Chicago's few pleasant surprises a year ago.
Biggest Weakness: Inside scoringIs there anyone on this team who can reliably get them points in the paint? For all his gifts, Deng has been mostly a midrange jump shooter through the course of his career, helping limit his percentages and output. Nocioni, Hinrich and Gordon are even more perimeter-oriented, and while their shoot-first, ask-later approach helps keep up the pace and keep down the turnovers, it's the reason the Bulls were so lousy from the field last year.
That puts the pressure on players like Thomas and Noah to produce some offense inside, but both are slender, athletic types who are more comfortable playing off others than acting as primary offensive options. The only true post player on the team is Gray, the backup center.
And that takes us to the Rose vs. Beasley debate. Chicago unquestionably had a guy available who would have given them points in the paint, had it drafted Beasley. Instead, it's incumbent on Rose to be a dynamic penetrator and create easy shots at the rim for the likes of Deng, Thomas and Noah, or the Bulls will once again struggle to score.
OutlookChicago still has as much young talent as any team this side of Portland, and its potential for cap space in 2009 and again in 2010 (when Hughes comes off the books) makes its future a lot brighter than its present.
But we're dealing with 2008-09 here, and it could be another rocky year in the Windy City. While winning the lottery helps, NBA point guards typically need at least a year before their play really zooms upward, so Rose may have his struggles -- especially since he played only one year of college ball and needed half of that season to get his bearings.
It's a similar situation up front, where Thomas and Noah are undoubtedly talented but still learning how to be pros, and giving up both pounds and experience to their opponents every night. It doesn't help that two of Chicago's best players play the same position, meaning they have to either go small to get Deng and Nocioni on the court at the same time or, more logically, trade Nocioni for a true frontcourt player.
Either way, it seems more likely that they miss the playoffs than make it. There are a great many wild cards here -- how well Rose plays, how well the young bigs adjust to their increased roles and how Del Negro handles his first coaching assignment -- but ultimately too many of those have to turn in Chicago's favor to consider it likely that the Bulls will return to the postseason.
Prediction: 39-43, 4th in Central Division, T-9th in Eastern Conference
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.
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