What to Watch for in Bulls' Pre-Season Opener

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What to Watch for in Bulls' Pre-Season Opener

Thursday, October 1st

Here's a few things to watch for in the Bulls' opening pre-season game against Indiana, Friday at 6 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet Plus.

1. LUOL DENG'S QUICKNESS...... How much did the right leg stress fracture and long summer of rehab affect his ability to drive past defenders and get to the rim? Deng looked like a future All-Star after his outstanding playoff series against Miami in 2007, but he's been held back by a series of injuries over the last 2 seasons. The Bulls need him to be a reliable scorer, combining his mid-range jumpers with an aggressive driving game. Will his health hold up over the course of a long season?

2. IMPROVED OFFENSIVE PLAY OF NOAH AND THOMAS..... Both players spent a lot of time in the gym this past summer working on their offensive games. Tyrus says he has complete confidence in his 15 to 18 foot jumper, which would open the door for him to fly past on-rushing defenders for one of his patented dunks. Noah did a lot of work with a shooting coach to improve the form on his mid-range jumpers and the consistency of his free throw shooting. If both players can make opposing defenders honor the threat of a mid-range jump shot, it will open up the Bulls' offense considerably.

3. THE ROOKIES.... How much playing time will James Johnson and Taj Gibson earn as rookies? It sounds like the Bulls have big plans for Johnson, their top draft pick out of Wake Forest. At 6-8, 250 pounds, Johnson has the size to play power forward and the ball handling and outside shooting skills to play some small forward. Keep an eye on him during the pre-season games to see if he has the confidence to contribute meaningful minutes off the bench. Gibson is more of a project at this point. The Bulls want to get him in the weight room to improve his strength, much like they did with Horace Grant when he first came into the league. Gibson is a versatile defender and extremely aggressive. With the injury to Aaron Gray, the Bulls might experiment with Gibson as their 3rd center behind Noah and Brad Miller.

4. JOHN SALMONS AT THE "2" GUARD...... With Ben Gordon taking his 21 points a game to Detroit, the Bulls are counting on a big season from Salmons, who's played both shooting guard and small forward during his NBA career. Salmons should be able to score 16 to 18 points a game, but will he be able to defend shorter, quicker shooting guards? And, after the injury issues he had at the end of last season, will an increased work load have him worn out come playoff time?

5. DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE...... The coaching staff has talked about a renewed commitment to defense ever since the playoff series against Boston ended last spring. They plan to be more consistent in their approach to defending the pick and roll, which is the staple of most NBA offenses. The Bulls are counting on an improved defense to make up for some of the scoring they lost with Gordon's departure.

6. ROSE IN FULL BLOOM........ Derrick Rose had an eventful summer, not all of it pleasant, thanks to the academic irregularities reported involving his former college and high school. But Rose spent a lot of time working with personal trainers in Los Angeles to improve his jump shot and finishes at the rim. He also practiced with the U.S. Olympic developmental team, and should be a fixture on future national squads. Derrick turns 21 next week, and it's going to be a lot of fun watching him take his game to an even more dynamic level this season.

I wanted to answer some of the e-mail questions we've received lately, and as always, I invite you to keep them coming.

Question from Steven, Wilmette, Illinois:

Since the Bulls lost their scorer, can we look to the deadline to find a scorer rather than wait till the off season? Maybe we can acquire a guy like Stephen Jackson or Jason Richardson to play the 2-3 for Deng if things don't work out. Could that happen?

Mark Schanowski: It's always a possibility, but I'm pretty sure the Bulls are going to wait until next summer to make their move for a big time free agent like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire. They probably could have worked out a trade for Carlos Boozer over the summer, but the front office wasn't convinced he was the right guy to be handed a max contract. Stephen Jackson has had a lot of attitude issues during his career, so I don't think the Bulls would be interested in him, and Jason Richardson has bounced around since coming into the league with so much promise out of Michigan State. I thought Richardson would develop into a great pro, but so far, it hasn't happened.

Question from Marc, Olive Branch, MS:
Hey Mark, do you still believe that the Bulls organization will try & make a move for Chris Bosh? They STILL need a low post presence that'll hopefully take this team to the next level. GO BULLS!!

Schanowski: My read on the situation is Wade will be the number 1 target for the Bulls in free agency, followed closely by Bosh. When you look at the top players in the league, it's probably something like LeBron, Kobe, D-Wade, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Bosh would be in that 2nd tier of all-star players, who would be great additions, but not necessarily franchise players. Personally, I'd rather see the Bulls pursue Stoudemire over Bosh. I think Amare is a more dominant scorer, whose talents would mesh perfectly with Rose in the pick and roll game. The Bulls are still hoping Tyrus Thomas might take a big step this season towards becoming the kind of player they expected when they picked him 4th overall in 2006. And if that happens, they might even think about a guy like Atlanta's 6-7 shooting guard Joe Johnson in free agency next summer.

Question from Ty, Chicago, IL

What did you think of MJ's HOF speech? I was very surprised at all the low blows.

Schanowski: I'm right there with you Ty. I was in Springfield for the speech, and I couldn't believe M.J. would pick that occasion to take so many shots at rivals and former colleagues instead of thanking his teammates, coaches and family for all their help through the years. As you can tell by all the criticism Jordan has received in the national media, a lot of people had their eyes opened regarding the down side of Michal's famous competitive, win-at-all-costs attitude. I thought his speech was very heavy-handed, and I'm guessing he would do things a little differently if he had it to do over again.

Question from Andy Larson, Barrington, IL:

My question is why don't the Bulls take risks to make their team better? Now i know the Ben Wallace free agent signing in 2006 was a risk but it seems like that was the last time they did so. The time is now for the Bulls. Let me know your feedback. Thanks

Schanowski: As I mentioned earlier, the Bulls seem to be putting all their eggs in the 2010 free agent class. I would have liked to have seen them roll the dice on a trade for Carlos Boozer this past summer, and see how his skills would have meshed with Rose. If they worked well together, sign Boozer to a long-term extension. If not, let him walk, and go after someone else in free agency. I think the Bulls front office is a little more cautious after getting burned on that huge contract they gave to Ben Wallace. It really hurt team chemistry, and sent their building plan back a couple years. It forced them to trade an emerging player in Tyson Chandler, and altered decisions they made in the draft and trade markets. The upside is they were able to get in the draft lottery in '08, and win the rights to draft Rose, so I guess things could work out well in the end. If they can get Wade next summer to go with Rose, they will instantly become a championship contender for the next 5 to 7 years.

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USA TODAY

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What the Bulls are getting in point guard Cameron Payne

NBA Buzz: In wake of trade deadline, Bulls again caught in the middle

NBA Buzz: In wake of trade deadline, Bulls again caught in the middle

Thursday's trade with Oklahoma City points out the problem with trying to stay in playoff contention while also rebuilding the roster with more young and athletic players.

The Bulls obviously hurt their postseason chances by dealing locker-room leader and rock-solid pro Taj Gibson and their best 3-point shooter in Doug McDermott. And, at first glance, the players they got back don't look very impressive.

Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson made it clear that one of the objectives in Thursday's deal was to free up playing time for his last two first-round draft picks, Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis. He also made it clear that newly acquired point guard Cameron Payne would play a lot over the final 25 games of the season.

So, how does Fred Hoiberg now deal with an unwieldy number of players expecting to get minutes? If Payne is going to play, that probably means Rajon Rondo is out of the rotation. But will Rondo sit by quietly so the Bulls can preserve his $14 million salary slot for possible trades this summer? Or will the front office be forced to offer him a contract buyout?

And what about the other two players acquired in the Oklahoma City deal? Long-range specialist Anthony Morrow is suffering through one of the worst seasons of his career, hitting just 29 percent of his attempts from 3-point range. Will he get the minutes previously given to McDermott, or is he a candidate for a buyout? Paxson cryptically said Morrow's role is "still to be defined."

Joffrey Lauvergne, a 6-foot-11 center, has some ability, but he's a restricted free agent at season's end and it's hard to project him getting any meaningful playing time behind Robin Lopez and Cristiano Felicio.

So let's add it all up. Hoiberg now has four point guards — five if you count Isaiah Canaan — and three centers to juggle, plus he'll have to find minutes for Valentine, Morrow and Paul Zipser at the wing spots behind Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade.

How will Portis fare as the new starting power forward? And what to do with Nikola Mirotic? His fading confidence is probably at a new low after the team's failed efforts to find him a new home before the deadline.

It will be fascinating to see if this team can manage to hold onto a playoff spot after losing Gibson and McDermott, to say nothing of the maddening inconsistency we've witnessed over the first 57 games of the season.

Good health will be critical, with the team's two best players, Butler and Wade, each enduring some bumps and bruises in the final weeks leading up to the All-Star break. We've seen what the Bulls look like without Butler, and it's not pretty. They're 1-5 in the games Butler missed because of illness and a right heel contusion.

The story is different when Wade has been out. The Bulls are 5-4 in the games he's missed because of illness, injury or just plain rest. Still, the 12-time All Star has shown the ability to raise the level of his play when the games matter most, and you can expect he'll be a big factor for the Bulls down the stretch. Don't forget, Wade almost single-handedly took an undermanned Miami team to within a win of the Eastern Conference Finals last season with a turn-back-the-clock playoff performance.

Hard to gain much from looking at the remaining schedule. Only 11 of the remaining 25 opponents have winning records, but we've all seen how that's gone in the past. If the Bulls can head into April around .500, they should be in position to make a strong closing run with a pair of matchups against the NBA's worst team, Brooklyn, along with games against the Pelicans, Knicks, 76ers and Magic to close out the regular season.

Of course, since Hoiberg has been told to give significant minutes to Portis, Valentine and Payne the rest of the way, it's possible making the playoffs isn't quite as important as it was at the start of the season. Questions about Butler's future will start up again as we approach the NBA Draft in June since Paxson wouldn't commit to trying to build around the three-time All Star, and if Butler goes, it's a pretty safe bet that Wade follows him out the door.

Life's never easy in the NBA when you're stuck in the middle. Maybe the trade with Oklahoma City is the signal we've been waiting for that a full rebuild is on the horizon.

[MORE BULLS: What the Bulls are getting in point guard Cameron Payne]

Here are a few stories from around the Association that have caught my attention.

Off to see the Wizards

The Wizards have been on fire since Dec. 12, putting together a 25-12 record. In case you haven't noticed, fourth-year forward Otto Porter is among the league leaders in 3-point percentage, shooting 46.5 percent to go along with 14.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. It's going to cost the Wizards a small fortune to sign the restricted free agent this summer.

Washington's backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal is finally starting to reach the potential everyone saw when the Wizards upset the Bulls in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. The two are combining for an average of 45 points and 14 assists per game, with Wall now a perennial All Star capable of taking over games with his scoring and playmaking. Beal probably should have made the Eastern Conference All-Star team as well with his 22.2 points per game scoring average, shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from behind the 3-point line.

The Wizards also made an under-the-radar pick-up, getting Bojan Bogdanovic from Brooklyn for a first-round pick in this summer's draft. You probably haven't watched a lot of Brooklyn Nets basketball over the last couple years, but Bogdanovic is a good 3-point shooter who can also score off the dribble, averaging 14 points a game this season, while shooting 44 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from 3-point range. Bogdanovic will be a major upgrade for a Wizards bench that's struggled this season.

Moving to Canada

Toronto made two good moves before the deadline, acquiring a starting power forward in Serge Ibaka and a backup small forward in P.J. Tucker. Ibaka's ability to block shots and stretch the floor from the 3-point line should help the Raptors on both ends, while Tucker gives them another strong perimeter defender to go along with DeMarre Carroll in a possible playoff series against LeBron James and the Cavs.

LeBron loading up

Speaking of the Cavs, they're expected to add former Illini star Deron Williams to their bench once he clears waivers and completes a buyout with Dallas. Williams gives Cleveland the additional playmaker James has been demanding for the last couple months and sets up a potentially epic Finals matchup against Golden State. Williams gets a chance to compete for a championship late in his career, and he's still capable of being a difference maker in big games, averaging 13 points and seven assists per game. Cleveland is now loaded in the backcourt with Kyrie Irving, Williams, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and swingman Kyle Korver.

No luck for the Celtics

The one contending team that didn't make a move at the deadline is Boston. Danny Ainge talked trade with the Bulls about Butler and with Indiana about Paul George, but in the end he wasn't willing to give up those precious Brooklyn first-round draft picks he's been hoarding for years. Keep in mind the Celtics reportedly love University of Washington guard Markelle Fultz, who's expected to be the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, and they'll have enough cap room to make a run at free-agent swingman Gordon Hayward, who played for Brad Stevens at Butler.

Even with the addition of Butler or George, the Celtics might not have been able to take down King James and the Cavs in this year's playoffs, but they are still lurking as the rising power in the East. Now, we'll all have to wait to see what Ainge does in the days leading up to the draft.

Quote of the week

Gibson gave the Chicago media one last lengthy session before boarding a private jet with McDermott to their new home in Oklahoma City.

On his time in Chicago: "Every day I came to the locker room just seeing my name on the back of a Bulls jersey was a dream come true."

So what will it be like to join a new team after eight and a half seasons in Chicago? "I'm like a kid going to a new school. I don't know where to sit on the bus."

Something tells me Russell Westbrook and the Thunder will let Gibson have any seat he wants.

Good luck in Oklahoma City, Taj (and Doug). You will be missed by Bulls fans and media.