Thursday, October 15th
by Mark Schanowski
So, what have you observed about the Bulls' play so far in the preseason?
The regular season opener against San Antonio is two weeks from tonight, and it's pretty obvious, the Bulls need to get Derrick Rose back on the court as soon as possible to work on offensive execution for those early season games against the Spurs, Celtics, Heat and Cavs. It's also become apparent the Bulls' desire to have a better defensive team on the floor this season is very much a work in progress. The injuries to Rose and Tyrus Thomas, coupled with Brad Miller missing games because of the flu, has forced the coaches to give minutes to the rookies and free agents in camp. And while the play of James Johnson, Taj Gibson, Chris Richard and Derrick Byars has been encouraging, we won't get an idea of what kind of team the Bulls will have this season until they can settle into their regular rotation, which means Joakim Noah, Tyrus, Luol Deng, Rose and John Salmons starting, with Miller, Kirk Hinrich, GibsonJohnson and Jannero Pargo as the guys off the bench.
So, in the spirit of the Bulls' 6 championships, here are 6 things I've observed through 3 weeks of training camp.
1. JOAKIM NOAH'S SUMMER WORK IS PAYING OFF
As I wrote in an earlier column, Noah told me before camp he worked very hard in the summer with coaches at the I.M.G. Basketball Academy in Florida to improve his low-post offensive game, and get some consistency on his jump shot. The early returns are encouraging. Did you see the 2 lefty finishes in last night's game at Minnesota? Noah rarely looked to attack in the low post during his first 2 NBA seasons, but now that his confidence is up, he's looking for opportunities to score. Improving his left hand finishes at the rim, including a nice jump hook, will make him a more versatile offensive player. No one's predicting he'll be an All-Star, but he certainly could be a guy who averages 12 points and 8 rebounds a game.
2. CAPTAIN KIRK IS STILL A KEY TO SUCCESS
With Rose forced to watch these pre-season games from the bench, we're getting a reminder why the Bulls gave Kirk Hinrich that 5-year, 45 million dollar contract extension a while back. He's looked sharp running the team from the point guard spot and he's showing an improved shooting touch from 3-point range. Hinrich's ability to play both guard postions will be invaluable this season, and there's no reason to think he can't give the Bulls 30 quality minutes. Last season was wrecked by the thumb injury that sidelined him for two months, but he showed in the playoff series against Boston he can be a real asset on both ends of the floor.
3. BULLS ROOKIES WILL CONTRIBUTE THIS SEASON
I know I was one of the few media guys who campaigned for the Bulls to select Taj Gibson with the 26th pick in the first round, and so far, he's been even better than I expected. Gibson is 24 years old, and that maturity is apparent in so many ways on the court. He has a well-rounded offensive game, with the ability to make a perimeter jumper and drive to the basket. But he's even better on the defensive end, with an understanding of rotations and good judgment on when to go for the blocked shot, and when to get good position for a defensive rebound. Johnson is more of a work in progress. He lost the weight that was slowing him down in summer league, and looks very active on both ends. He has the ability to handle the ball from the small forward positon, but he has to be careful not to force his offense with other good scorers on the floor. Down the road, Johnson has more potential, but I think Gibson will get more minutes initially because of his defensive mindset and high basketball I.Q.
4. DWYANE WADE IS THE 1 FREE AGENT TARGET NEXT SUMMER
Because of the potential shown by the Bulls' rookies so far, John Paxson and Gar Forman probably aren't as concerned about finding a low post scorer in free agency. Wade is one of the top 5 players in the league, and a difference maker on both ends of the floor. He's also from the Chicago area and spends most of his summers here. Paxson wanted to draft Wade back in 2003, but Pat Riley surprised a lot of NBA observers and beat him to the punch. Knowing Pax, I'm sure he'd like to rectify that situation and do everything in his power to bring one of the league's most popular players back home.
5. BULLS DEFENSE STILL NEEDS TO IMPROVE
The coaches have talked about getting better on the defensive end since the Boston series ended last spring. They will have more size this season with Salmons at the shooting guard spot and 6-9 Luol Deng at small forward, but TALKING about getting better on defense and actually doing it are two different things. Having Rose sidelined because of injury also hurts because he was the weakest individual defender on the team last season, and certainly needs the extra work.
6. COACHING STAFF CHEMISTRY SHOULD BE BETTER
Vinny Del Negro appears to be a lot more relaxed and confident in his 2nd season as an NBA head coach, and he should have better chemistry with his assistants now that veteran Del Harris has retired. Both Harris and Bernie Bickerstaff are former NBA head coaches, and I'm sure they butted heads with Vinny at times last season. Pete Myers now takes on an expanded role, and Pete is very populuar with the current players. Plus, the Bulls have added Randy Brown and Sidney Green to work with players on individual skills, Green with the big men and Brown with the perimeter guys. Having that extra attention should pay off for everyone involved.
The regular season schedule is brutal, with the Bulls facing a number of playoff teams early on, and then making the dreaded "circus" road trip in mid-November. If they can be close to .500 going into December, they should be able to make a run at the 4th seed in the East. But if they get off to a bad start, making the playoffs in an improved Eastern Conference could be a struggle.
What do you think? As always, your comments and e-mails are welcome...enjoy the hoops...we've got the last 3 preseason games for you on Comcast SportsNet.