Wednesday, December 16
By Mark Schanowski
Okay, let's start with the premise there are no moral victories in professional sports. But with that being said (apologies to Larry David & Curb Your Enthusiasm), it looks like the Bulls are trying to go back to the defense-first style that helped them get off to a 6-4 start this season. Led by an inspired effort by Joakim Noah, who finished with 11 points, 20 rebounds and 6 blocked shots, the Bulls outrebounded the league's tallest team and outworked them on both ends of the floor. Problem is, the Lakers have Kobe Bryant and the Bulls don't, and there-in lies the fundamental problem for your 2009-2010 Chicago Bulls.
This Bulls' team is offensively challenged. They shoot a low percentage from the field and the three point line, and they don't have a go-to scorer who can create his own shot or get to the free throw line down the stretch of close games. Granted, Derrick Rose is trying. The reigning NBA Rookie of the Year has been much more aggressive over the last few weeks, taking close to 20 shots per game, and his scoring average is climbing steadily. But Derrick still looks at himself as a point guard first, and he just doesn't have that selfish streak you find in so many of the game's great scorers (like Kobe). It was great to see him take the final shot of regulation against Golden State last Friday night. And, even though he missed the shot, it showed he's starting to realize how the Bulls' fortunes are riding on his performance.
Another issue for the Bulls is the puzzling season-long slump of John Salmons. One of the reasons the Bulls decided to let Ben Gordon go in free agency was the outstanding play by Salmons late last season and in the playoff series against Boston. The coaches and front office hoped Salmons would build off his career season, and become a consistent 18 to 20 point scorer while playing 35-plus minutes as the Bulls' starting shooting guard. But 23 games into the season, Salmons is still searching for his shooting stroke. He only played 29 minutes against the Lakers last night, and managed just 2 points on 1-5 shooting from the field. After last Saturday's loss to Boston, Salmons admitted he's struggling to get anything going and he looked devastated while acknowledging his numbers are down in all the key offensive categories. Maybe we were all fooled by his great play at the end of last season. After all, over his 7-plus seasons in the league, he's a 9 point a game scorer, and 44 percent shooter from the field. Now, the danger for the Bulls is that Salmons won't opt out of the final year of his contract, which would put them on the hook for his 6.7 million dollar salary, and prevent the Bulls from having enough cap room to make a maximum salary offer to one of the elite free agents.
But that's a problem for another day. Right now, the Bulls are looking forward to the return of Tyrus Thomas in about 2 weeks, which will give them the fresh legs off the bench they've been looking for during the current slump. During training camp, the coaches thought they were two-deep with quality players at every position, but the injuries to Thomas, Kirk Hinrich and Jannero Pargo have seriously cut into that depth and forced Vinny Del Negro to play his starters for heavy minutes. Now, we're hearing about Joakim Noah's rotator cuff injury, which required a cortisone shot. Noah has been the team's MVP, but the strain of playing big minutes against bulkier centers is obviously taking its toll. Getting Thomas back will allow Del Negro to give Noah more rest, and hopefully keep him healthy for the second half of the season.
Given the woeful state of the Eastern Conference, this season is far from over for the Bulls. They're only 2 games out of the final playoff spot, and judging by last night's effort against the Lakers, it looks like the worst is over. The schedule is much more favorable in the weeks ahead, starting with Thursday's visit by the New York Knicks. I'll see you courtside with Kendall Gill to preview the game during Sportsnite at 6:30, then Neil Funk and Stacey King have the call at 7 on Comcast SportsNet.
As always, your comments and e-mails are welcome. Here's to better Bulls' basketball over the holidays and into the New Year!
Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.