Tuesday, March 2, 2010
by Mark Schanowski
On the surface, it's hard to get excited about the addition of a player who averaged 2.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in 5 regular season games, but the Bulls' signing of free agent big man Chris Richard could help them get through a tough month of March. After watching the Bulls get out-rebounded to the tune of 63-37 by Atlanta Monday night, it was painfully obvious how much they miss injured center Joakim Noah. And with Luol Deng also sitting out because of a swollen left knee, the Bulls were totally out-manned against the Hawks' frontline of Al Horford, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams. Deng should be back for Thursday night's game against Memphis, but Noah could be out for weeks because of the ongoing plantar fasciitis injury to his left foot. Noah has been the team's 2nd most valuable player behind Derrick Rose all season long, and the Bulls really aren't the same without his hustle, defense, rebounding and leadership. In retrospect, the Bulls should have given Noah a couple more weeks of total rest with hopes of getting him ready for the playoffs. But because he is so valuable, they tried to get him back for limited duty as soon as possible and Noah aggravated the injury by playing 27 minutes in last week's overtime win over Portland. Don't be surprised if he sits out most of this month.
So, that's where his University of Florida teammate comes in. Richard may not put up big numbers, but he gives the Bulls another reliable big man to spell Brad Miller. Richard is a strong post defender, and isn't afraid to play a physical style against some of the league's top centers. With Noah out, the Bulls have been giving up way too many offensive rebounds, and that's an area where Richard can help. He's really more of a power forward than a center, which means the Bulls should be able to play Miller and Richard together, giving them a better chance of controlling their defensive glass. The Bulls' coaching staff strongly supported keeping Richard when the trade deadline deals left the team with one player too many on the roster. John Paxson and Gar Forman decided at that time to keep Lindsey Hunter, leaving the team with seven guards, but to their credit, they realized that's a luxury they can't afford with Noah sidelined. So, Hunter has been let go with the promise of another job in the organization, and Richard has been added to the roster for the rest of the season. He'll practice with the team on Wednesday, then be ready to do battle against Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and the rest of the Grizzlies' big men Thursday night. Again, it might seem like a small addition, but given the fact Miller has been playing extended minutes on a sore knee, having Richard available should give the Bulls a much more balanced roster.
MARCH SCHEDULE LOADED WITH .500 OR BETTER TEAMS
Unfortunately, Noah has plenty of company on the Bulls injury report. We told you about Deng and Miller battling sore knees, and All-Star guard Derrick Rose has two sore knees after a pair of open court collisions in his last 2 games. Kirk Hinrich also missed practice on Tuesday because of a variety of bumps and bruises, so the Bulls are definitely banged up heading into one of their toughest stretches of the season. 10 of the 15 games in March are against teams with .500 or better records, and that doesn't include the Miami Heat, who are just under the break even mark, but are still a dangerous team because of Dwyane Wade. If the Bulls are going to make the playoffs, they'll need to find a way to come up with 6 or 7 wins this month, and take advantage of a more favorable schedule in April.
Everyone talks about how superior the Western Conference is this season, and the Bulls have two games against the Grizzlies, two against Dallas, and one each against Utah, Houston and Phoenix this month. Fortunately, 5 of those games will be played at the United Center, giving the Bulls a decent chance at coming away with a few wins. Vinny's guys also play the Heat twice and have single games against Cleveland and Orlando. If they can get to April within a game or two of .500, they should have a chance to make their typical strong closing run and grab the 6th or 7th seed in the East. But if the injuries become too much of problem over the next few weeks, just getting into the post-season field will be a real challenge.
We'll have the next 2 games for you on Comcast SportsNet, Thursday night against Memphis and Saturday against the Dallas Mavericks, who are the NBA's hottest team right now. The trade with Washington that brought in Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood makes the Mavs one of the top challengers to the defending NBA champion Lakers in the West. Dallas now has a deep and talented team with Dirk Nowitzki, Butler, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd leading the offense, and Haywood providing another 7-footer to anchor the defense. Unfortunately, the Bulls are catching the Mavs at the wrong time, but that's life in the NBA!
Kendall Gill will join me at the United Center to preview the game against Memphis during the 6:30 SportsNite on Thursday, and we'll also be live at 6:30 on Saturday. How many games do you think the Bulls will win in March? Please post your comments in the section below.
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.