Bucks or Bulls? 2010-11 Central Division prediction

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Bucks or Bulls? 2010-11 Central Division prediction

Friday, Sept. 24, 2010
11:10 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com
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.

17. How will the Central Division race play out?

Over the past few months, a lot has changed in the Central Division. Obviously the departure of LeBron James from Cleveland shook things up a bit, but offseason moves by the Bulls, Milwaukee and, to lesser degrees, even Indiana and Detroit, have also had some influence.

By acquiring Carlos Boozer and bringing in six other new additions, Chicago completely re-shaped its roster, while keeping the core of forwards Luol Deng and Taj Gibson, center Joakim Noah and All-Star point guard Derrick Rose intact. Add to that an expected emphasis on defense from new head coach Tom Thibodeau and it's easy to see why many observers expect the Bulls to be an upper-echelon Eastern Conference team.

But their neighbor to the north, the Bucks, also had a busy summer. After a surprising regular season that resulted in a playoff berth in which they took favored Atlanta to seven games in the first round, things were already looking up for Milwaukee. Australian center Andrew Bogut had a breakout season--albeit abbreviated, as a horrific season-ending injury sidelined him for the team's stretch run and postseason--and point guard Brandon Jennings was one of the league's top rookies, first gaining attention for a remarkable early-season 55-point outing, then gaining accolades, as he showed his game had some substance to go along with the flash.

Of course, the Bulls had something to do with Milwaukee's success. Not only was former Bulls head coach Scott Skiles responsible for the team's grittier mentality, but a trade-deadline deal that shipped former Bulls swingman John Salmons to the Bucks was a big reason for their success, as Salmons flourished in his role as a go-to scorer.

Milwaukee made Salmons an offseason priority, re-signing him in free agency, then making shrewd deals to acquire scoring swingman Corey Maggette, banger Jon Brockman and promising young wing Chris Douglas-Roberts from Golden State, Sacramento and New Jersey, respectively. Another wing player, Carlos Delfino, also re-signed with the team, well-traveled power forward Drew Gooden and veteran backup point guard Keyon Dooling were picked up in free agency, and high-upside power forward Larry Sanders--who subsequently justified his status as a potential rookie sleeper with his summer-league play in Las Vegas--was then selected in the draft (with a pick acquired from Chicago in the Salmons trade). With low-profile yet valuable role players like versatile forward Ersan Ilyasova and defensive stopper Luc Richard Mbah a Moute still in the fold, there's no reason the Bucks can't surpass what they achieved a season ago.

The Pacers, who seemingly still have yet to recover from the notorious "Malice in the Palace"--despite having no players on the roster who were active participants (longtime Pacer Jeff Foster took a peace-making approach) in the infamous brawl--were also active this summer.

A late-offseason four-team trade that netted Indiana young point guard Darren Collison and veteran small forward James Posey, with starting power forward Troy Murphy sent to New Jersey, was the source of optimism for fans in the Hoosier State. Collison, who had an outstanding rookie campaign in New Orleans with Chris Paul injured for much of the season, is regarded as the team's point guard of the future, a position at which Indiana has had much turnover in recent seasons. The team also drafted two promising youngsters in unheralded athletic swingman Paul George and scoring guard Lance Stephenson.

The loss of Murphy hurts--the organization hopes Tyler Hansborough, who showed signs of potential as a rookie, is fully recovered from a debilitating bout with vertigo last season--but along with center Roy Hibbert has improved every season he's been in the league. Although star forward Danny Granger appeared to regress last year, it's hoped that a humbling USA Basketball experience will result in a motivated, productive and better all-around season.

It's a been a steep decline in Detroit, as the former perennial-contending Pistons have been reduced to a shell of their former selves. Yes, Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton and Ben Wallace are still on the team, but the latter two look to be on the downside of brilliant careers, while Prince has struggled with health issues.

The Pistons were mostly quiet in the offseason--with the exception of acquiring former All-Star Tracy McGrady in free agency. Regardless of whether "T-Mac" can recapture his past form, he joins a crowded wing rotation with the aforementioned Prince and Hamilton, along with former Bull Ben Gordon and the super-slender Austin Daye, who showed flashes of promise as a rookie.

Forward Charlie Villanueva, like Gordon, was regarded as a disappointment in his first year in Motown, after coming over as a free agent the previous summer. Villaneuva will share frontcourt minutes with Wallace, holdover Jason Maxiell, first-round pick Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko, who was one of the team's bright spots as a rookie. In the backcourt, Rodney Stuckey, Chicago native Will Bynum and sleeper second-round pick Terrico White provide some youth.

As for the reeling Cavaliers, James wasn't the only player to leave Cleveland, as veteran centers Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas also left in free agency. That could turn into a bright spot, as minutes in the post are freed up for defensive specialist Anderson Varejao and highly-regarded youngster J.J. Hickson.

Perhaps the team's biggest offseason move was the acquisition of guard Ramon Sessions, which says it all about the state of affairs for the Cavs. Veteran scorers Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams are back, but this will clearly be a rebuilding season, with new head coach Byron Scott patrolling the sidelines and a new front office in place.

Central Division predicted finish:

1. Milwaukee: The Bucks' combination of experience, chemistry built over last season and savvy offseason moves make them the front-runner.
2. Chicago: It will take time to build chemistry and adapt to a new system, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if Thibodeau's Bulls jell by the playoffs.

3. Indiana: If Granger is focused, Hibbert continues to make progress and Collison is truly the answer at point guard, things will be looking up.

4. Detroit: Figuring out a set rotation and solidifying post and point-guard play could be issues.
5. Cleveland: Little reason for optimism.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms 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.

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

Position battles to watch for at Bulls camp

After the Bulls traded for veteran center Robin Lopez and signed guards Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo in free agency,  the starting lineup for the 2016-17 season was 80 percent complete with Jimmy Butler moving over to small forward. The only real question remained: will Nikola Mirotic or Taj Gibson start at power forward?

Arguments can be made for both players, but early in camp it appears Mirotic will have the edge, based on his three-point shooting ability. The Bulls need to create floor spacing for their wing players (Wade and Butler) who are most effective driving to the basket, and Mirotic has the ability to knock down the three (.355 for his career, .390 last season). Mirotic is also an underrated defensive rebounder with decent size at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds.

Mirotic got off to a fast start last season in a starting role, but eventually went to the bench after a late November-early December shooting slump. His second NBA season was also sidetracked by an emergency appendectomy in late January that caused him to miss almost six weeks of action. Mirotic finished the season strong, and went on to play a lead role with his former Bulls teammate, Pau Gasol, on Spain’s national team at the Rio Olympics. Mirotic will be a restricted free agent at season’s end, so he has a lot riding on establishing himself as a bonafide NBA starter.

It's a similar story for Gibson, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and is looking to land one more big contract when he turns 32-years-old next June. Gibson is known for his relentless work on the boards and his ability to defend power forwards and centers. He’s also 100 percent healthy after dealing with the after-effects of ankle surgery last season. But given the Bulls’ spacing issues, it makes sense for the coaching staff to go with Mirotic alongside Wade, Rondo and Butler, and to pair Gibson with young perimeter threats like Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine and Isaiah Canaan on the second unit. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg could use Gibson in a backup center role, with McDermott getting minutes at power forward in small ball lineups. Gibson will play, but don’t be surprised to see his name come up again in midseason trade rumors.

So, where does that leave 2015 first-round draft pick Bobby Portis? Portis looked good in Las Vegas Summer League play, showing off improved low-post skills and a consistent three-point shot. But unless Portis has a big preseason, it’s hard to imagine him getting consistent rotation minutes early in the season. Portis could earn some time as a stretch five backing up Lopez, but those minutes might also go to Gibson or second-year center Cristiano Felicio. Portis worked hard all summer, and should be a better all-around player in his sophomore season, but he faces an uphill battle to earn regular minutes. It will be interesting to see how many of the Bulls young players wind up logging time with the Bulls’ new D-League team in Hoffman Estates. Portis might not be involved as a No. 1 draft pick, but Felicio and second-round selection Paul Zipser might want to get familiar with the trip out to the Sears Center.

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The other major training camp battle involves the backup point guard spot behind Rondo. The coaches have a wide variety of options, starting with former Notre Dame star Jerian Grant, who came over in the Derrick Rose trade with the Knicks. The soon to be 24-year-old Grant is the son of long-time NBA player Harvey Grant and nephew of former Bulls star Horace Grant. The Bulls were interested in selecting Jerian Grant in the 2015 draft, but he went off the board a few picks before their turn in the first round.

Grant was a big-time scorer at Notre Dame, but struggled to get on the court in his rookie season with the Knicks. After Kurt Rambis replaced Derek Fisher as head coach of the Knicks, Grant finally got some consistent playing time, averaging 16.8 ppg over the last four games of the season. He’s not a great three-point shooter, hitting just 22 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie, but his ability to get to the basket and create open shots for teammates would give the Bulls consistent point guard play throughout the game.

Canaan was signed late in free agency to give the Bulls another long-range shooting option. He hit 36 percent of his 3’s with Philadelphia last season, averaging 11 points a game. The 25-year-old Canaan figures to be specialist with the Bulls, much like Aaron Brooks who could score points in bunches, but didn’t excel at running a half-court offense. Even though Canaan only stands 6 feet tall, he’s really a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, much like Brooks, D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson and C.J. Watson who proceeded him.

6-foot-6 Spencer Dinwiddie was considered a potential lottery pick at Colorado before suffering a devastating knee injury that dropped him into the second round. Dinwiddie didn’t get a lot of playing time for Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, but he’s completely healthy now and showed during Summer League play he’s capable of scoring over smaller point guards in the post. His size, scoring ability and defensive skills might push him ahead of the other candidates when all is said and done.

The wild card in the backup point guard derby is this year’s first-round pick Denzel Valentine. Even though he played a wing spot at Michigan State, Valentine was the floor general for Tom Izzo, and is an exceptional passer with outstanding court vision. Since playing time behind Wade & Butler might be limited, Valentine could wind up running the point on the second unit, with Butler on the court as the primary initiator on offense. Valentine’s shooting ability gives the Bulls another floor spacer, and at 6-foot-5, he’ll have size advantage over smaller backup point guards.

Boiling it all down, Hoiberg and his assistants figure to do a lot of experimenting during the preseason to find out which players execute best together. But once the ball goes up for real on Oct. 27, Hoiberg has to decide on his best 9 or 10 players for a consistent regular-season rotation. Matchups could dictate which backup point guards find the floor, but even this early in camp it’s pretty obvious the Bulls are intrigued by Valentine’s potential, and he should get consistent playing time in his rookie season.

Joakim Noah appreciative of time with Bulls despite 'low blow'

Joakim Noah appreciative of time with Bulls despite 'low blow'

Joakim Noah may be wearing a different uniform, but he's still wearing the same heart on his sleeve.

That much was made clear in his comments made to the New York media on Wednesday.

Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million deal with the Knicks after eight seasons with the Bulls, was asked about comments Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf questioning Noah's future as a main contributor on a team.

Reinsdorf told the Chicago Tribune earlier this month that Noah was "not a frontline player," referencing the team's decision not to bring him back in free agency.

Noah responded to those comments in classy fashion - while also getting his true thoughts across:

“He’s entitled to his opinion,’’ Noah said. “I feel I have no regrets about my time in Chicago. I gave it everything I had. To me that’s all that matters. I did everything I could for that organization. I thought it was a little bit of a low blow, but at the end of the day I have nothing but respect for that organization. I’m just excited for this new chapter of my career.”

No one would ever question Noah's heart, but it's undeniable that his body is beginning to show wear, and his performance has reflected it.

Noah played in just 29 games last season before a season-ending shoulder injury, averaging career-lows in points (4.3), field goal percentage (38.3%), free throw percentage (48.9%) and steals (0.6). That came on the heels of a 2015 season in which he missed 15 games and averaged 7.2 points, the lowest since his second season in the league.

But the Knicks are hoping a rejuvenated Noah, playing in his hometown, will find some magic in his 31-year-old body and be able to get the Knicks back to the playoffs.

Noah, Derrick Rose and the Knicks will square off against the Bulls at the United Center on Nov. 4.