Friday, Sept. 10, 2010
By Aggrey Sam
A historic summer for the NBA has passed and for the Bulls, while they didn't acquire quite the star power many expected andor hoped for, optimism runs high, both within the organization and throughout the team's fan base. With the offseason coming to an end, the time to fully delve into the upcoming NBA season is here. Instead of a traditional season preview, issues both throughout the league and in Chicago will be probed daily here on CSNChicago.com up until the squad officially convenes for training camp toward the end of September.
3. What does Tom Thibodeau need to do to turn the Bulls into a contender?
There's no baseline for how Thibodeau, in his first head-coaching job since he was at Salem State in Massachusetts -- back before star player Derrick Rose was even born -- will fare. However, it's fair to assume the Bulls will have more of an identity than they did during the last two seasons.
That's not a shot at former Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro (who should be better at game management -- for various reasons, most notably having some experience under his belt -- among other aspects of coaching, with the Clippers), but as management referred to during both the hiring process and Thibodeau's introduction to Chicago, he's basically a basketball junkie, who, after years of being an understudy, has formed an idea of what he'd like to with his own squad. And of course, there's the defensive mindset everybody mentions when describing "Thibs," who is regarded as the architect of the current Boston Celtics' stout defense and has been closely involved with the defensive stylings of Jeff Van Gundy's teams in the past. In short, this is a very serious man who will put his nose to the grindstone and instill the same type of mentality in his players.
At the same time, he's basically a novice. The Bulls, as currently constructed, aren't a team composed of authority-challenging knuckleheads, but after experiencing at least a modicum of success -- whether in Chicago or in previous stops -- the players are conscious of what they feel constitutes the characteristics of a successful team. For the most part, they are a group that shares a strong work ethic, a single-minded devotion to winning and an ambition to be taken seriously as a true NBA contender.
In Rose, the face of the franchise and a hometown product, Thibodeau will have a prodigious and remarkably humble star to work with. One of the primary criteria he'll be judged upon is whether he can help develop Rose's game -- the mental aspect superseding the physical, as his gifts and weaknesses are so clearly evident and only his personal aspirations can control what he's capable of doing on the floor -- and take him from a youngster with vast potential to a league-wide, transcendent superstar.
Depending on whom you ask, Rose was either not given enough direction or was kept on a leash far too short during his first two NBA seasons. Regardless of whether he was put in the right situations most of the time, his game evolved to the point where he can be considered a legit go-to guy (remember when there was a "debate" last season about whether he could and should take over games?) and at the very least, a leader by example.
Now, his maturation process must continue with him developing from a point guard by nature of his position into a true floor general, who controls the game even when he's not putting up gaudy numbers. One would assume playing alongside the likes of Chauncey Billups for USA Basketball this summer will help speed up that growth, but it's one thing to sublimate your game when playing with a team of stars and quite another to do so for 82 games with your actual team. Thibodeau will share that burden, especially on the defensive end, an often-overlooked shortcoming that should probably be focused on as much as his outside shooting, particularly when one considers Rose's physical tools to be a strong defender.
While Rose's progress will be examined closely -- as mentioned, his natural skill development will take care of some things on its own -- perhaps more important, with Thibodeau's defensive background, is Joakim Noah's role. When evaluating the Celtics, point guard Rajon Rondo's quickness and ball pressure get the lion's share of individual attention, but the gambles he takes wouldn't be possible if it weren't for having the likes of Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins in the paint to erase some of his mistakes.
Like the Boston duo, Noah isn't necessarily a Dwight Howard-style shot-blocker, but his length, presence in the paint and adept help defense certainly anchored the Bulls' defense the past two seasons. As lauded as the now-departed Kirk Hinrich was for his defensive effort on the perimeter, Noah was Chicago's most important defender, as was evident during the Bulls' skid in his absence.
Noah won't have to be sold on defense -- or rebounding, for that matter -- but as a young player, he can still be further molded into more of a force, the type Chicago hasn't seen since the Dennis Rodman days. Conversely, his continued offensive development will be key.
While new addition Carlos Boozer is a pretty well-rounded offensive player, Noah -- an underrated passer, even without being a major scoring threat -- is likely to be Chicago's best interior passer, something made even more important with Brad Miller gone. Rose racks up assists by virtue of his outstanding dribble penetration and Boozer is sure to draw at least the occasional double team, but Noah's court vision and ability to find teammates out of the high post will open things up for slashers like Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer, post players Boozer and Taj Gibson and shooters like Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson. Thibodeau's ability to take the team's vocal leader's game to the next level -- especially if Noah comes back with more refined post moves and is able to knock down the elbow jumper (don't worry about how pretty it looks; by the end of last season, he was able to be a threat from 15 feet out) on a more consistent basis -- will make his debut season in Chicago much easier.
Now, in Boozer, Thibodeau faces a different sort of challenge. Offensively, the Alaska native brings everything the Bulls need -- a low-post scoring threat with the ability to play physically, rebound at a high level and even knock down outside jumpers -- to the table in a power forward. Defensively, however, Boozer's willingness to play with the same type of effort has been questioned -- and that was under tough-as-nails Jerry Sloan in Utah.
Thibodeau, though, has seen this kind of situation before. When the Celtics formed their "Big Three," Ray Allen wasn't known as the most committed defender. Now? Maybe he won't make the league's all-defensive team, but his determined effort against some of the league's best shooting guards can't be impugned.
While it would be a stretch to say Boozer's job would be in jeopardy if he wasn't a stout defender here in Chicago, last year's starter at his position -- first team NBA all-rookie team selection Gibson -- has already made a name for himself on that end of the floor. Perhaps that will serve as motivation for Boozer, but Thibodeau's task will be to mold him into, if not a standout, at least a solid defender in the team concept.
In the case of Deng, Thibodeau has to be excited. Maybe some Bulls fans don't appreciate everything the product of Sudan is capable of doing (just a few years ago, many observers considered him one of the league's up-and-coming players at his position and even overall), but the long and versatile small forward has plenty for Thibodeau to work with.
With the presence of Boozer, he'll have less weight on his shoulders as Chicago's third option, so Deng's offense won't be the issue. Neither will his defense, even though quicker small forwards will always give him issues. The problem with Deng -- outside of injuries, which are beyond his control -- has been consistency.
Not to overdo it with Celtics comparisons, but prior to the arrival of the aforementioned Garnett and Allen, Paul Pierce -- while clearly in a higher tier than Deng at their shared position -- was viewed by many as a player who showed up when he felt like it, as evidenced by the Celtics' dismal performance prior to the arrival of his fellow superstars. Say what you want about Pierce now -- and I'm sure most Chicagoans will -- but he comes to play, even on days when his shot isn't falling or he doesn't get the touches he feels he deserves.
If Thibodeau can tutor Deng on how to make an impact every night, even when his scoring isn't impacting the game, watch it coincide with increased team success. Not that Deng doesn't do that on occasion already, but with the additions the team made, it will be even more important for him to grasp that concept now.
As far as the team's reserves and role players, they are already tailor-made for Thibodeau. Mature, defensive-minded veterans like Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans, active, live bodies like Gibson and Brewer and players with games catered to specific roles like the sharpshooting Korver and backup point guard Watson make it clear that the Bulls are a well-balanced group -- they could probably use another outside shooter and maybe another big man, but that's another story -- pending chemistry.
Chemistry -- that's the one thing that can't be evaluated before the season begins, particularly with so many new players on the team. It can be assumed that while Thibodeau is known for his defensive strategy, after all these years as an assistant, he probably has developed some theories he'd like to try out on the offensive end, especially with his notorious habit of watching tape (it's likely he caught a few Bulls games here and there, even before he got the job) deep into the night, and it's been reported that he's worked with and observed many of his new players in the Berto Center this offseason, so familiarity is building.
In a few weeks, it'll be time to put everything into action for training camp, then the preseason and subsequently, the real thing. Will the Bulls win a championship this upcoming season, as Boozer suggested is possible? It's doubtful. But with the pieces he has at his disposal and a mind that's been chomping at the bit for this very opportunity, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Bulls challenging for the opportunity in the near future.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.