By Steve Aschburner, for NBA.com
Posted Oct 16 2009 1:50PM
No team in the NBA seems as stuck between what it could be, vs. what it is, as the Chicago Bulls. To illustrate, let's think back to the most memorable play of the team's 2008-09 season and postseason.
You know the one: Joakim Noah swiping the ball from Boston's Paul Pierce, breaking down court with three giant dribbles, then gathering and soaring in for a fierce slam dunk, fouling out Pierce in the process. It came in that triple-overtime Game 6 thriller against the Celtics, and it opened eyes across the nation both to the Bulls and to Noah.
Soon enough, though, folks eyes drooped closed again.
Forty-eight hours later, Chicago lost the terrific series in seven games -- no shame in that, though the 10-point spread of the 109-99 final felt more like 20 next to the white-knucklers that preceded it -- and slipped from the postseason scene. Which is kind of how it goes for the Bulls: Great promise, false starts. Overheated expectations, underwhelming results.
Noah just happens to be the reigning poster boy among his teammates. The 6-foot-11 center from Florida starting his third year looks at various times like a) an overmatched college kid, b) a flaky Big-Bird character who doesn't seem all that serious about his craft, or c) a zealous defender, eager rebounder and capable passer who at least knows what he can and cannot do with the ball on offense. The thing is, Noah can be all those things in the span of one game, occasionally one quarter. That's not easy for someone who averages just 24 minutes.
And it's like that up and down the Bulls' roster. Tyrus Thomas is a similarly gifted athlete who, at times, channels a rage in his game into rebounds ripped down with one hand and dunks rained on flinching foes. At other times, Thomas tries to get by on athletic ability alone and gets exposed by mere mortals utilizing some basketball fundamentals.
More ready-set-go-stop-go-stop-go types: Forward Luol Deng earned himself a fat contract with his 18.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 51.7 percent shooting in 2006-07. But he slipped in performance the next season, navigated not-so-successfully through injuries that year and in 2008-09, and now is seen as a soft player who relaxed once the ink on his deal was dry.
Guard Kirk Hinrich has his admirers around the league, yet he fits naturally at neither of the two backcourts. Using him off the bench makes sense, then, but he'd be playing somewhere else by now if Chicago management hadn't overpaid him.
John Salmons hasn't been in Chicago long enough to tease and disappoint, but he did some of that in his stops in Sacramento and Philadelphia. Then there is Derrick Rose, an electric point guard as a rookie but a player who had serious room for improvement (as in jump shot). Whether Rose devoted the time and work to his game to grow it, well, we won't know for at least several weeks yet.
You could apply the same lens on the front office for various one-step-forward, two-back moves and the longest ongoing search for a low-post scorer in recent NBA memory. Uh, guys, Artis Gilmore's not walking through that door anytime soon. Heck, even Ben Gordon was a riddle/mystery/enigma sort, vacillating from explosive scorer one night to defensive liability the next. At the moment, it's Gordon's 20.7 points nightly that the Bulls are scrambling to replace. One more thing to pull them off the scent of real team and individual development.
"I worked really hard to get stronger and improve my shot during the offseason,'' Noah told the Chicago Tribune last week. "I understand my role. I'm not trying to do too much. But we have a different team now with [Ben Gordon] gone. He was a big part of what we did. If I need to step up offensively, I will. If not, I will keep affecting the game by busting my [butt].''
The Noah who averaged 10.1 points and 13.1 boards in the series against Boston would be enough to satisfy the Bulls and Chicago fans. Which really is what it comes down to: players playing to their potential and doing it consistently. Oh, and staying healthy.
Unless this is the truth of the Chicago Bulls who have strung together seasons of 47, 41, 49, 33 and 41 victories: They are a bunch of role players and sidekicks in search of a leading actor, a superstar, a (dare we say it?) Dwyane Wade via summer 2010 free agency. Until then, they're a bunch of swell guys -- "Everyone we have on the team plays a team game,'' Deng told media reps in London -- playing for the Little Engine That Can't Quite.
1. BOOZER MAKES BULLS DEBUT, HEALTHIER THAN EVER
If only ... Carlos Boozer batted his eyes at the Bulls via a summer radio show, hoping to incite a trade. It didn't happen but that doesn't mean it can't. Boozer as a low-post option would add that long-coveted dimension to Chicago's attack.
2. JAMES JOHNSON IS THE REAL DEAL
And if he isn't... Maybe Taj Gibson is. Chicago appears tired of waiting for Tyrus Thomas, going for a big forward twice in the draft in a quantity-hoping-for-quality approach.
3. ROSE SCORES LESS, CELEBRATES MORE
Actually, it would be a good thing if Derrick Rose were to boost his scoring average by two or three points to about 20 per game. Just as long as he takes care of his teammates with his passing and defends his position with his quickness, rather than waiting for another turn to score.
-- Steve Aschburner
LAST YEAR: 41-41, second in Central
FINISH: Lost in first round
2008-09 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2008-09 Stats|
JOHN SALMONS, GUARD
18.3 PPG | 4.2 RPG | 3.2 APG
Last year, Salmons' scoring was a happy bonus. Now, with Ben Gordon gone, the Bulls have to have it.
DERRICK ROSE, GUARD
16.8 PPG | 3.9 RPG | 6.3 APG
When Rose gets used to his teammates over time -- and he has the same, healthy teammates to work with -- his skills as a distributor should show more.
LUOL DENG, FORWARD
14.1 PPG | 6.0 RPG | 1.9 APG
A fractured right tibia was only part of Deng's trouble last season and the latest in a string of injuries. Staying healthy has to be his and the staff's first priority.
TYRUS THOMAS, FORWARD
10.8 PPG | 6.4 RPG | 1.0 APG
Oh, to be 23 years old and talked about already as if you're a washout. Thomas's lack of consistency has the Bulls looking to others from inside and outside the organization.
JOAKIM NOAH, CENTER
6.7 PPG | 7.6 RPG | 1.3 APG
Was it the playoff intensity that swept up Noah and coaxed the best basketball of his still-young NBA career out of him? Or was that a breakthrough?
|Taj Gibson||6-9||225||F||Opened eyes with big Vegas games|
|Kirk Hinrich||6-3||190||G||Best backup PG in the NBA?|
|James Johnson||6-9||245||F||One tough rookie, Chicago's no-bull Bull|
|Brad Miller||7-0||261||C||Bigger role for Noah helps Miller do more with less|
|Jannero Pargo||6-1||185||G||Backup to the backup, in case of Hinrich trade.|
ADDED: James Johnson, Taj Gibson
LOST: Ben Gordon, Tim Thomas, Anthony Roberson
LUOL DENG, FORWARD
So Deng has been a wonderful ambassador for the NBA in his adopted hometown of London and a one-man army in making Great Britain's national team competitive on a world stage vs. nations with deeper hoops roots. As the hardcore sports fans of Chicago like to say: "We're happy for him!" The six-year contract worth more than $70 million that Deng signed prior to last season painted a big target on his back. He'll need to play hungry to win fans back.
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