Players acquired via free agency or trade:
Joe Smith (two years, $10 million)
Players acquired via draft:
Andres Nocioni (re-signed, six years, $45 million)
Malik Allen (signed with New Jersey), Michael Sweetney (left unrestricted, unsigned), P.J. Brown (unsigned), Andre Barrett (made restricted, unsigned, may yet return), Martynas Andriuskevicius (left unrestricted, signed in Spain)
(The following entry may well be written with a small hint of bias. Or, alternately, it may be written with huge seething dollops of it. I’m a Bulls fan, just so’s you know.)
Has anybody ever told you that you need a dominant post scorer to win a title? If not, then you’re not a Bulls fan. Since the dawn of time (or since the Eddy Curry trade, whichever), this edict has been hurled at Bulls fans and management alike by people of all backgrounds and IQ levels, and never more so than in the immediate aftermath of the Pau Gasol trade-that-never-was at the last trade deadline. Forget the fact that Detroit managed this supposedly impossible feat just three years ago: these people remain steadfast in their opinion. And why shouldn’t they? People say it on the TV, after all, so it must be true.
After General Manager John Paxson did not pull the trigger on a deal for Gasol due to the excessive demands of Grizzlies GM Jerry West and the continued breakout of Luol Deng, talk of the Bulls’ need for a ‘dominant’ post scorer continued. “Experts” then shifted their attention to Kevin Garnett, ignoring for a moment the fact that such a move was never realistically possible due to the Bulls salary cap position. After that avenue also passed the Bulls by, people rolled their eyes, and widely discredited the Bulls offseason as something of a wash, given the lack of a big trade.
What seems to be overlooked, though, is that having a post-up, back-to-the-basket scorer isn’t nearly as important as having big men that can make shots. By that, I mean having big men that can hit shots from close in and mid range (or from further outside if possible). For example, in their championship seasons and ones subsequent, Detroit didn’t have a dominant post scorer. They had an inside scoring weapon with Rasheed Wallace’s fall-away from the post, but that accounted for about six points a game. What they did have was three offensively capable big men in Rasheed, Corliss Williamson and Mehmet Okur, who, despite being primarily face-up scorers, were scorers nonetheless, and whom could finish shots inside, even if they didn’t create much down low. Additionally, the team with the most wins in the NBA last year (Dallas) does not have a post-up scorer. They have a big man who is an elite scorer in Dirk Nowitzki, but that’s a different thing altogether. (Note – I know they lost in the first round. But that’s not why. They lost because they choked.)
In contrast, the Bulls last year had a slew of offensively inept big men. Their man options on that end where either the 41% shooting of reserve Malik Allen, who could only score via the pick-and-pop jump shot, or P.J. Brown who had exactly the same issues going on. Failing that, they had either the amazing inconsistency of Michael Sweetney to turn to, or they could give shots to Tyrus Thomas, who could not consistently hit anything outside of dunks all year. And let’s not mention Ben Wallace here, because we know what his finishing is like. The Bulls’ hotchpotch of big men featured no one who could consistently make a lay-up, and, apart from two decent mid-range shooters with nothing further to add, their big man offence constituted a whole lot of nothing. That is, unless you wish to include 6’7 outside shooter Andres Nocioni into the discussion. And that’s hardly nullifying the issue.
But Chicago still did not need a post-up, slow-the-game-down interior scorer. If they could realistically obtain one for a decent price, then it would have been a move worth doing, as long as that player was not Zach Randolph (but there’ll be more on him in the Knicks post at a later date). However, they could not. And obtaining a second- or third-tier one such as Al Harrington or Shareef Abdur-Rahim just really was not worth it.
What they needed was big men who could score the easy shots offered up within the flow, not get blocked by the rim, men who could break a zone defence, and who the guards could trust to pass to without their ears pricking up in anticipation of imminent danger.
Did they achieve this?
Well, not really. Not yet, anyway.
The Bulls did noticeably upgrade their big men, though. Replacing the foursome of Brown, Sweetney, Allen and Martynas Andriuskevicius was hard to do without upgrading, and therefore upgrade they did. Joakim Noah was drafted in the first round, a player who isn’t particularly consistent offensively and who was drafted in front of Spencer Hawes (a superior interior scorer), but who was drafted there due to his superior all-around game, which is something of a mantra for the Bulls. Joe Smith replaces the role P.J. Brown held last year, jigging around the mid-range area looking for some jump shots to clank, but who will do so with two added bonuses not previous brought by Brown: Smith is not completely immobile, and can get his lay-ups above the rim. Aaron Gray offers little offence, but you’ve never seen a man set backscreens better. And nobody replaces the spot once held by Andriuskevicius, so that’s a net positive.
Additionally, another need was addressed with the drafting and signing of Jimmy Curry. Behind the starters, the Bulls guards lacked offence and outside scoring. Every team needs a token chucker (see The Bench Player Handbook for more on that), and Curry provides Chicago with such a player. He won’t play much, but if he does, he could help.
That, aside from re-signing Nocioni to a marginally oversized deal (but one necessarily so due to an alarming amount of open market interest: namely, one team, Memphis), was all that Chicago did. It’s all that needed doing, really. Apart from signing Devin Brown, of course.
While the Bulls changed basically all of their big man rotation, none of those players brought in are exceptional scorers. Joe Smith is a decent scorer, and Noah will be reasonably efficient in what few shots he takes. But while they have improved on the weakness of the previous season, it’s not by a large amount. They still don’t have a particularly adept group of offensive big men, and they didn’t improve their wing players any. Then again, they didn’t need to.
Improvement in this area has to come from within, namely from Tyrus Thomas. He, along with Ben Wallace, carries a load of the pressure in terms of how far the Bulls go this season. Both were inconsistent last season, Wallace due to a combination of nagging back/groin injuries and old age, and Thomas due to rookie rawness. Yet on the occasions that they played decent minutes together, the makings of a decent pairing were formed. Both are good passers and dribblers of the ball, fine rebounders and exceptional shot-blockers, and the duo’s versatility allows them to match up with any other frontcourt pairing out there – Wallace’s strength and Thomas’s speed being able to overcome any exaggeratedly-important height disparity. I may have made some words up there, but you get the idea.
The problem, though, was that neither could score well. And Thomas will have to be the one to correct that. It’d be more fun if it was Wallace that did, but…nah. I’m a gambling man, but I’m not taking those odds.
If Wallace is more consistent – or at least comparable to last year without any kind of gaping drop-off – and if Thomas continues to develop his offensive game whist reining in the fouls, the duo has the ability to tip the Bulls’ fortunes over the top, in spite of neither being the mythical post-up scorer that’s apparently such a necessity. Chicago still retains their backcourt core, with starters Hinrich, Gordon and Deng all still young and improving, and so it’s the frontcourt that holds the key to the Bulls season.
Regardless, they’re going to win the division. Blatantly. And then the East. And then the world. Maybe.