Last Years Record: 41-41
Key Losses: Tyson Chandler, Darius Songaila, Othella Harrington, Eric Piatkowski, Janerro Pargo
Key Additions: Ben Wallace, P.J. Brown, Adrian Griffin, Viktor Khryapa, Tyrus Thomas (draft), Thabo Sefolosha (draft)
1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?
This offseason produced the most significant free agent acquisition in the history of the Bulls franchise, signing Ben Wallace from the division rival Pistons. Like many have speculated, there could be a time in the near future where Wallace’s 4-year, $60m contract may turn out to be an albatross, but with cap space to spare and a chance to deal a blow to a fellow Eastern Conference contender as well as improve their own roster, in the short-term the move was a coup for the Bulls. They managed to add a star (albeit a defensive one) without having to part with their young core, and elected to deal the now-redundant Tyson Chandler to maintain cap flexibility.
But beyond upgrading from Chandler to Wallace, the Bulls significantly improved their depth by adding well-regarded roleplayers like P.J. Brown and Adrian Griffin. Unlike past seasons, the Bulls rotation won’t be filled out with washed up veterans (see the ‘key losses’) playing heavy minutes for the sake of ‘leadership’, these additions will add production along with experience. And it’s rare for a playoff team to also acquire a prospect as exciting as #2 overall pick Tyrus Thomas (a gift from the Knicks resulting from last summer’s Eddy Curry trade), who with fellow lottery pick Thabo Sefolosha will not be immediately forced into heavy responsibility, but have a chance to as the season progresses.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
The strength of the Bulls the past two seasons has been defense, and they just added the reigning defensive player of the year. The one thing keeping them from being the best defense in the league was their tendency to commit too many fouls, a stat that their new experienced frontcourt will help reduce. They’ve lead the league in defensive FG% each of the previous two seasons, with a team effort that head coach Scott Skiles demands (remember the Tim Thomas era in Chicago?) from everyone on the roster, to be lead by defensive aces like Wallace and their best guard defender, Kirk Hinrich.
Skiles may be the best pure coach in the league, and with a team loaded with versatile, willing defenders (and seemingly few egos), I’m excited to see how many different looks he will throw out there each game with this now extremely deep roster. Skiles’ is not exclusively a defensive coach, his offensive plan for the Bulls does its best to mask the lack of a low-post scorer and uses disciplined spacing, screening, driving/kicking and good-ole’fashioned ball movement (fun fact to impress with at dinner parties: The Bulls were the fifth-highest paced team in the NBA last season) to spread the scoring load among Hinrich, Luol Deng, Andres Nocioni, and their best pure scorer, Ben Gordon. And as deep as they are defensively, the roster is also constructed to allow the starters to rest without having too much of an offensive dropoff when the second unit is on the floor.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
Being deep and versatile on offense sure is swell, but in the NBA there are times in every game where a team just needs to give the ball to their guy and let him go get a basket. The Bulls don’t have ‘that guy’, meaning on every possession the team offense needs to be clicking to get a high percentage shot attempt. When the offense is running smoothly, the Bulls’ varied weapons can be hard to stop, but the overall inconsistency also leads to long scoring droughts. Gordon comes closest to being that go-to guy, but as of yet is not truly dependable each game. The burden is not only on Gordon, as each of the Bulls young scorers need to get their shooting percentages up and turnovers down. They rely heavily on outside shooting, and do not get to the free-throw line enough to make up for poor shooting nights. The Bulls will be looking to Gordon and his fellow young teammates to make the necessary next steps in their careers, where the mistakes go down and efficiency goes up.
Many assume that any team that acquires Ben Wallace will become worse on offensive, but one thing that Wallace does well on offense is avoid turnovers. Adding Wallace and Brown will make the offense better by substantially reducing the dropped passes and moving screens (well, the ones the refs call, anyway) Bulls fans are used to seeing from their frontcourt.
4. What are the goals for this team?
With many players on the roster entering their third and fourth seasons in the league, the goal for them will be improvement and establishing their future with the team before the clock of their rookie contracts are up. But overall the team’s stakes have been raised: upon signing the 32-year old Wallace (and jettisoning the 24-year old Chandler) along with other veterans, GM John Paxson sent a clear message that the timeframe for a championship has been accelerated. Generously, you could consider it a 4-year window (the length of Wallace’s contract), however I think of it as perhaps only 2 years.
Can they be a top contender by then? Keeping in mind that the existing roster had made the playoffs in two consecutive seasons, and gave Miami fits in last year’s opening round, the expectations would’ve been raised regardless. With their summer additions the bar is even higher.
5. Do you see any more moves being made?
Continuing with this implicit indication of an accelerated championship timetable that was signaled by the Ben Wallace signing, I don’t think it’s out of the question that Paxson’s next move will be a trade-deadline blockbuster. Likely packaging a member of his young core (outside of Hinrich, and to a lesser extent, Deng) with either draft picks, expiring contracts, or recent draftees (they have assets to spare) to land a ‘superstar’ to play alongside Wallace and be that go-to guy that the team lacks on offense. Pax has shown patience thus far in his tenure in terms of holding on to his drafted talent, but he also has indicated that while he’s happy with his tough young team, he’s not satisfied until the Bulls win the whole thing.
Predicted Record: I have them winning 55 games, getting the second seed in the East. Some teams are said to be built for the playoffs. It’s hard to predict whether this new mix of players will be ready for a deep playoff run, but they are definitely built to win a lot of games in the regular season. As you’re likely tired of hearing by now: the Bulls play defense and are deep, two things that can keep them in every game they’ll play. They may have nights when the shots aren’t falling, but there will be very few games when they’re not putting out an effort, meaning they should beat up the lesser teams in the league without fear of playing down to the competition. But will they be a cohesive playoff-ready unit? If they are, there’s no team in the East that can beat them.