As Bulls players begin to trickle in to the Berto Center to prepare for what could be a very special season, CSNChicago.com is getting fans ready to hit the ground running, too.
NBA training camps don't open until the end of the month, but from Monday through Friday up until Bulls' media day, we're discussing everything from Derrick Rose's comeback to the top competition in the Eastern Conference — with a twist.
CSNChicago.com has compiled the insights of anonymous behind-the-scenes league insiders (an assistant coach, a front-office executive, a retired player and an advanced scout), to go along with in-depth reporter breakdowns and complementary statistical analysis to ensure that die-hard hoops fans are up to speed when the balls officially start bouncing.
Today’s Topic: Can the Bulls reclaim the Central from the Pacers?
"Well, the thing about it is, it’s to your advantage if you can not only get home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs but try to stay away from Miami in the second round. So that means you have to beat out the Indiana Pacers, win your division, get home-court advantage and maybe get the second seed or, if Miami falters during the regular season, get the No. 1 seed. I think it’s going to be really important in that regard, where you don’t have to play multiple great teams. I give the Bulls a really, really good chance of being there in the Eastern Conference Finals.
"I think their biggest competition is going to be the Indiana Pacers — I really like Indiana’s team, as well — besides Miami. They may not have what you call a superstar, but Paul George is as close to being a superstar without being a superstar as you can get. And you saw the damage that Roy Hibbert can show you in a playoff-type situation when he protects the rim. He’s a great defender — he’s a lot like Asik used to be with the Bulls and now in Houston — where he doesn’t foul, he goes straight up vertically, he’s decent in screen-roll, he gives you a great weak-side presence defensively and on the ball defensively.
"So I think you’ve got rim protection, which you must have in the playoffs, to keep LeBron James, Derrick Rose, those guys from driving to the rim repeatedly. You saw the difference in the stats in the playoffs of points in the paint when Hibbert was on the floor compared to when he was off the floor. David West is their true leader in that locker room. They’ve got him back, signed as a free agent. With Paul George, I think they’re a really, really good team.
"They do remind me a little bit of the Pistons of yesteryear. But yet, Danny Granger, it remains to be seen how healthy he’s going to be. He didn’t play basically at all last year. Now, when you can bring a guy who’s been the best player on the team in the past, how will that affect their chemistry? That will have to iron itself out, but still, it gives them another talented player. So they’ve got talent. It’s just seeing the chemistry and if they can stay healthy.
"But they’ve got everything that they need because they’ve got shooting, they’ve got length on the perimeter, they’ve got good defenders. Paul George is as good as there is in the league defensively at that spot. Then, you’ve got Hibbert defensively. And they’ve got toughness and they’ve got experience, so they’re going to be right there with the Bulls and Miami, in my mind, along with Brooklyn. I think those are the top four teams in the conference."
As the back-to-back defending champs, Miami obviously has the Bulls’ attention. And even after knocking Brooklyn out of the playoffs, the Bulls can’t ignore the upgrades the Nets made this summer. But the Pacers might be the team to be most concerned with.
Equipped with a much-improved bench (for a third straight season, C.J. Watson has the potential to be a postseason factor), Indiana has to be taken seriously as a title contender. Quietly, it’s been building steadily for some time now, going back to the Pacers’ feisty first-round showing against the Bulls back in 2010, the surprising battle they gave the Heat last season and pushing Miami to the limit last spring.
As the source mentioned, All-Star swingman Paul George is now the face of the franchise, with Roy Hibbert being its anchor inside and blue-collar veteran David West embodying the team’s toughness. The Bulls match up with that trio fairly well — Luol Deng vs. George, Joakim Noah vs. Hibbert, Carlos Boozer vs. West — and even if you give Indiana a slight advantage at any of those spots, there’s no contest at point guard. Indianapolis native George Hill is solid and works for the Pacers’ style of play, but he’d have to be considered the starting lineup’s weakest link, especially when compared to Derrick.
Then, there’s the Danny Granger-Lance Stephenson conundrum. Granger was the team’s star before last season, which he basically entirely missed due to a knee injury. Who knows how he’ll play this season, but the younger Stephenson seems like a better fit as the starting shooting guard, giving the inside-oriented team more athleticism and a tougher defensive presence. Although he has his flaws, he made major strides last season, and looking toward the future, he’s a favorite of team president Larry Bird, while this is the last year of Granger’s contract. Personally, I’d go with Granger off the bench to keep the continuity built from last season, add more scoring to the second unit and keep George at his natural position of small forward, but regardless of who starts, I’m confident that the wing duo of Luol and Jimmy Butler will match up well with them.
That decision won’t be easy for Pacers head coach Frank Vogel, but he has to be pleased with his second-unit options. Either Granger or Stephenson will be the first player off the bench, and as previously alluded to, former Bull C.J. Watson is in Indy, backing up Hill at the point, which is a huge improvement from D.J. Augustin, who looked overmatched in the playoffs. Indiana’s late-summer trade with Phoenix for Luis Scola was one of the best moves of the offseason, as the veteran could probably still start for many teams in the league and similar to Watson, is a big boost compared to what they had before at the position, the irritant Tyler Hansbrough. Chris Copeland, an older rookie for the Knicks last season (but not the oldest NBA newcomer in New York, as Pablo Prigioni took that title), was another solid pickup, as he gives the Pacers another shooter and can play on the wing or as a small-ball power forward, something they didn’t previously have, as West and now Scola aren’t exactly known for their foot speed. Ian Mahinmi was better than I expected last season, but backup center is still not Indiana’s strong suit, so Hibbert staying healthy is of the utmost importance.
If, as some observers suspect, the Pacers look to trade Granger once he proves he’s healthy, particular if the chemistry isn’t working out, I believe rookie swingman Solomon Hill could fill a limited-minutes reserve role effectively. Personally, I think Granger will stick around, like Luol in Chicago, as both teams have championship aspirations and would rather lose their longest-tenured players in free agency than potentially blow a title opportunity.
But to answer the question posed, yes, I do think the Bulls will take back the division, if only because Thibs pushes so hard in the regular season and Vogel might have to tinker with the Granger-Stephenson dynamic early on. Also, it should be noted that the one road game in the regular season that Derrick attended (and sat on the bench for) last season was in Indiana, for what it’s worth. Basically, the Bulls don’t like the Pacers (the feeling’s mutual) and even with Derrick out last season, wanted to hold on to their two-year Central reign. With all hands on deck, Derrick’s return should give the Bulls the edge, especially since that’s the lone definitively one-sided positional matchup. It doesn’t hurt that C.J. is on the other team, since whether or not his “Deron Williams is the best point guard I’ve played with” comments were misinterpreted or not, Derrick doesn’t forget much.
Tomorrow: How much of a threat to the Bulls are the Nets?