The Bulls are, quite possibly, the hardest team in the league to gauge right now. Every one of their significant players is a question mark. Other than predicting Larry Hughes will shoot a pull-up 18 footer on 85% of the fast breaks that he’s involved in, there’s nothing that you can say with any conviction about this current Bulls roster. It’s a poser.
Theoretically, they could be great. This is still, essentially, the same 49-win second round team of the 2006/07 season, with only a few changes. The corpse of P.J. Brown has been replaced by Joakim Noah. The corpse of Ben Wallace has been replaced by Drew Gooden. And Chris Duhon has been replaced by Derrick Rose, which may or may not be an upgrade. (Sarcasm!) So, with those three upgrades, along with the return of Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Andres Nocioni and Kirk Hinrich, plus the overdue-but-genuinely-forthcoming breakout of Tyrus Thomas, the Bulls should easily be able to usurp that 2007 team.
Well, no. The other change between then and now is the entire coaching staff. As outlined in the Milwaukee Bucks preview, Scott Skiles’s coaching jobs seem to always have a shelf-life, but until it goes wrong, he can make teams overachieve. The Bulls achieved what they did in 2007 despite having only the NBA’s 20th-best offence, purely because they had the best defence in the league. Skiles was directly responsible for that. However, after he lost the team last year – and after his replacement Jim Boylan proved to be about as much use as a surfboard with handlebars – the Bulls defence regressed to being middle of the road, and the offence was no better.
It’s not known what new coach Vinny Del Negro will try to do, and it’s futile to guess. But it’s a safe assumption to say that he won’t bring the level of defence that Scott Skiles did, because almost no one does. The hiring of Vinny The Black, and the new assistant coach line-up of Bernie Bickerstaff, Bob Ociepka and Del Harris, shows a clear intent to focus on the long term, and to concentrate on player development, something that was spotty during the Skiles era. It’s the right approach, and winning the lottery gives General Manager John Paxson a second chance to clear up the collateral from the Ben Wallace signing. Yet, for all long-term projections, the Bulls are currently awash in highly paid underachievers.
Additionally, those players have regressed. Players were paid in accordance of what they were expected to go on and achieve, but after last year’s diarrhoea of a season, no one did what they were supposed to. Nocioni used to play with a clean form of aggression, one where willpower and effort overcame his inability to dribble in traffic and penchant for leaving jump shooters often. But these days, he chucks up jumpers, and he pouts. Ben Gordon briefly became a near-All-Star 20-ppg scorer, with good scoring efficiency and an improved ability to dribble without falling over, but this desire to fit in with the offence seems to have left him. Luol Deng’s jump shot was infallible, but only for one year. And Kirk Hinrich has managed to get worse at every facet of the game. This isn’t the team it once was, despite it still being the same core.
The talent is still there. The Bulls still have a 20-point scorer at shooting guard, a potential 21/8 small forward with fine defence, and a combo guard with elite defence and a good jump shot. Added to that, they now have a young Stephon Marbury at point guard, plus whatever you think of Thomas and Noah. Furthermore, only one of those players is over 25. As young cores go, this one is still good.
As of right now, though, the roster is a confusion. All the pieces that used to fit seamlessly, no longer do. And they’re not as cheap as they used to be, either.
It’s turnaroundable, if that’s a word. The players that broke themselves can mend themselves. But it will take dramatic improvement from a unit that spent all of last year going backwards. Hinrich needs to find his footspeed again. Gordon needs to develop some humility. Deng needs to get his jump shot back, and add four feet of range to it. Nocioni needs to pretend he’s playing for Argentina every night. Thomas needs to learn how to make lay-ups. Noah needs to learn how to make lay-ups. Thabo Sefolosha needs to learn how to shoot. Hughes needs to learn how to not shoot. And Gooden needs to stop messing about with his facial hair. (This won’t help his performance any. It’s just a general point.)
If this was another team, we’d probably be watching them intently, fawning openly, doused in our own happy sweat at the exciting and potential-laden duo of Rose and Thomas, despite them sounding more like the compelling protagonists in a Baroque-era love story. But that’s not going to happen here. This is the Bulls. It’s been nothing but false dawns for ten years. No one’s leading them anything. This time, they’re going to have to win our trust, by winning something.