Monday, September 27, 2010

Chicago Bulls: 2010-11 Season Preview (Part 1)

Back in May, I posted a "Season Preview ... Review" in which I looked back at my predictions from last October and compared them to what actually happened last season. That would seem like a good place to start my annual "Bulls Season Preview" - except that so much has changed since last May.

Prior to the end of last season, the Bulls traded away John Salmons and Ty Thomas. After the season, when it appeared the Bulls actually had a shot of signing two of the "Big 3" free agents, we traded away Captain Kirk to free up the required cap space. When the "Big 3" copped out and went to Miami, the Bulls had to rebuild via a different model.

I posted some quick thoughts about the Bulls' off-season moves back in July, and I stand by what I said at that time:

Turns out, we never had a shot at Wade or LeBron, and we never even had a chance to sign Bosh. The "Big 3" agreed to play together a long time before free agency started, and all of the meetings were for show (literally, as Wade and Bosh might make a documentary about the "experience").

What has been lost in all of this is just how good of a summer the Bulls have had when weighed against plans and expectations. If Miami wasn't stealing all of the attention, more people would be talking about how the Bulls have addressed some major needs and really improved.

With signing of Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver, along with signing JJ Redick to an offer sheet (that Orlando is expected to match), the Bulls have done just that. We also signed former-draft-pick Omer Asik to add some depth to the front line. We're not done, but if Redick is matched, we can go after other SG options: Ronnie Brewer or Josh Childress. We still need a backup PG, possibly Shaun Livingston or Kyle Lowry. Once we fill those needs, the Bulls will be a significantly improved team from last season.

But beyond the improvements the Bulls have made to the roster, the organization put on a great display of integrity and class. It's somewhat buried in the link above, but worth linking again and pointing out:

It was also made known to James that the Heat would take care of his friends the same way the Cavs did -- special treatment at the arena, changing practice and travel schedules to allow for money-making late-night parties in various cities, and perhaps even hiring a James associate in a high-paying position in the organization.


The Bulls' chances were diminished for two central reasons. Wade wasn't willing to go to his own hometown. And the Bulls made it clear James' friends would not be given the privileges they were given in Cleveland or the high-paying jobs.

So maybe the Bulls didn't land LeBron (or Wade or Bosh), but the organization did the right thing. Instead of getting caught up in doing or saying anything to lure a FA to Chicago, the Bulls took the high road. I'll admit it sucks to lose out on those "top tier" FAs, but I could not be prouder to be a Bulls fan this summer. I'm glad the Bulls made the difficult (but correct) choice not to pander to the needs of a prima dona punk. LeBron has won as many NBA titles as I have, and is not bigger than the game of basketball.

Orlando ended up matching on Reddick, so the Bulls signed Ronnie Brewer instead. We then traded for CJ Watson (from the Warriors) to backup Rose at the PG spot, and signed Keith Bogans for some backcourt depth. We added veteran Kurt Thomas for some toughness and leadership up front, and it's looking like the Bulls will round out the roster with one more big body, and that will be a wrap. So with new head coach Tom Thibodeau replacing VDN, this truly is a new-look Bulls team from last season.

So that leaves me with a lot of guesswork tough predictions for the upcoming season. Here we go:

  • BENCH:
(Also: Kurt Thomas, Keith Bogans + unknown additional big)


    Taj surprised a few people last year with a lot of production, and even took over the starting role when TT fizzled and was eventually traded. Over the course of the year he averaged 9p/7.5r/1.3b in about 26 mpg. Although we shouldn't forget that he was not a one-and-done project in college, he is already 25 years-old after just his rookie season.

    Age and experience shouldn't diminish what we got out of the 26th pick, and he should be an absolutely perfect player to have coming off the bench. Solid, consistent production is all we're asking for, and we should get it. Hopefully he helps preserve Boozer a bit by racking up some minutes at PF. And let's hope he doesn't end up starting a bunch of games in place of an injured Boozer.

    Prediction for 2010-11: 7p/5r/.9b

    I would love to predict an upswing in Taj's numbers, but I see a drop in his minutes as he plays behind Boozer, so I have to predict a corresponding drop off in his production. Despite the decreased minutes and role, Taj will will still produce efficently, and will be a very nice addition to the second-unit.


    Hard to know what to say or predict about Asik. He is a big (HUGE) body, and definitely gives us size off the bench. Almost everything I know about him comes from watching YouTube highlights, so we'll go with that instead of analysis:

    Scouting Video:

    Looks legit for what we'll be asking him to do: spell Noah and play solid D.

    Prediction for 2010-11: 4p/5r/1b

    I have no idea what kind of minutes Omer will get, and no idea what to expect. So the above prediction is a complete and utter guess. Seems about right for a legit 7-footer who will get decent minutes as a backup center.


    KK is known for looking a lot like Ashton Kutcher:

    And not known for playing great D:

    But all joking aside, he is known for having one very exceptional basketball skill: shooting the 3. Last year with the Jazz, KK only played in 52 games at only 18 minutes per, so he only hoisted 2 three-point attempts per game. However, he managed to make 53% of those attempts - which led the league.

    Not sure how he fits into Thibodeau's defensive scheme, but I'm hoping the Bulls can find more minutes (and more 3-point shots) for Korver this season. Let's not forget that Ray Allen wasn't known as a defensive stud back in the day, but now he holds his own with the Celtics. And that's all we need from Korver, simply to hold his own at that end so that we can take advantage of the spacing he creates at the other end.

    Prediction for 2010-11: 9p/3r/2a

    Most importantly, I'm looking for Korver to put up 3.5-4 three-point attempts per game, and hopefully knockdown about 45-50% of those shots. Not entirely far-fetched.


    The Bulls selected James Johnson 16th overall and he only managed to earn 12 minutes per game during his rookie campaign. Part of that is explained by the fact that he was drafted as a project, and was not in the best shape to start the season ... so the experiment continues for another year.

    Blogabull links to an interview that indicates James Johnson lost about 25lbs from last season, which is a huge step in the right direction. If JJ comes in as a quick/long wing (rather than a slow/overweight wing), that should already be a significant improvement from last year.

    JJ put up 4p/2r in about 12 mpg last season, but could be expected to play ore minutes behind Luol this season. I'm extremely hopeful that Thibodeau's presence will help JJ improve on the defensive end, as he could be asked to help out guarding bigger wings (Melo, LeBron) if Deng gets in foul trouble or needs rest.

    Prediction for 2010-11: 6p/3r

    I know, I know: not a huge jump from last season. But we don't want/need a huge statistical improvement from JJ. What we do need is a more disciplined version, both mentally and physically. When JJ does get his minutes, he won't be asked to take a lot of shots, but rather fall into his role in the second-unit.


CJ Watson was a back-up PG on the Warriors, so it's hard to imagine that Bulls' fans got to see him play very much. Here's how I would describe him: Start with Ben Gordon. Now imagine that he's not quite as good of a shooter, but he actually knows how to dribble. That's pretty much CJ Watson. He's a streaky shooter who can give you a huge scoring burst off the bench every once in a while, or he can be an average shoot-first back-up PG.

The Bulls needed both of those elements, so I loved the trade for CJ. He will handle the ball in the 2nd-unit, giving Rose some rest, and should do pretty well playing alongside Taj and Korver. What do we really expect from a back-up PG anyway? Keep the expectations where they should be, and CJ will surely make everyone happy.

My one concern is that he only averaged 2.8 dimes in 27 mpg last season, so he'll definitely need to create more for others rather than looking for his shot. But he can definitely get to the rim and knock down shots when he is playing well:

Prediction for 2010-11: 7p/4a


Thibodeau has never been a head-coach at the NBA level, but I can say with confidence: This is definitely a major upgrade for the Bulls. Despite not knowing exactly what to expect from another rookie head coach with no experience, we have a general idea what we can expect based on Thibodeau's reputation. DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE.

Thibodeau helped to drastically improve the Celtics D when he joined their staff as an assistant coach in 2007-08. Here is an interview between Kevin Pelton (Basketball Prospectus) and Tom Thibodeau from that time:

The Celtics Defense: Tom Thibodeau Q&A

One of the biggest free-agent additions of the summer of 2007 came not on the court but on the sideline. Tom Thibodeau, long Jeff Van Gundy's right-hand man in New York and Houston, left the Rockets after Van Gundy's departure and joined Doc Rivers in Boston to take responsibility for the Celtics' defense. While Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett are the most important newcomers in Boston, Thibodeau deserves credit for molding the team's several new parts into a cohesive defensive unit that ranks as one of the best in modern NBA history.

Earlier this season, I took a look at the Celtics defense and noted that, measured by Defensive Rating relative to league average, Boston was playing the best defense since 1973-74, when the league began tracking turnovers, allowing us to calculate per-possession defensive ratings. The Celtics have slipped slightly from that lofty perch, but not far. Their Defensive Rating is now 8.8 percent better than league average, which would rank them second in NBA history behind the 2003-04 Spurs, who were 9.3 percent better than league average.

So, during media availability at the All-Star Game in New Orleans, I avoided the reporters flocking to Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and sought out Thibodeau (idly chatting with a member of Houston's PR staff) to talk defensive philosophy, the individual talents of many of the Celtics, and more.

Kevin Pelton: Over the course of your career, you've been associated with a number of outstanding defensive teams. How does this year's Celtics team compare to the best of those?

Tom Thibodeau: Right now, I'd say the New York teams were much more physical because at that time you were allowed to play much more physical and we had greater size. This team is probably a little bit more versatile. We have guys that can play multiple positions and I think Garnett makes us very unique because of his ability to guard multiple positions. Then a guy like [James] Posey is a terrific team defender, so he gives us that balance there. There's room for improvement with our team right now. We're still moving along and we have to be able to sustain it over the course of the season and obviously carry that through the playoffs. Each and every day, we're still working at it.

KP: This Celtics team ranks amongst the league leaders in steals, while most of your teams have not forced a lot of turnovers or come up with a lot of steals. How is this group different?

TT: It's still the same type of defense that we've always played. Our big thing is to get back, get set, apply hard ball pressure, keep the ball out of the paint, challenge shots and then finish your defense with the rebound. Once we do those things, we want to also use our instincts and [Rajon] Rondo's terrific at reading the ball and getting into passing lanes and that sort of thing, so we want to take advantage of those skills. And of course Garnett is terrific at extending the defense, so we move up the floor with him. I think you combine all those things and the fact that our three top players--Kevin, Paul [Pierce] and Ray are committed to defense, so each and every day they practice hard. They don't take any practices off...a guy like [James] Posey [either], all those guys. Their commitment--and it started from day one--is really what set the tone for us.

That same strategy and defensive forcus should translate directly to the Bulls, as long as the team buys in. That should be made easier by having someone like Joakim Naoh, an energy guy who feeds off defense and rebounding, and who really is the heart-and-soul of this Bulls team. Having one of our best players geared toward defense, and sure to buy into Thib's system, should help the rest of the team fall into place.

And here is an excellent breakdown of exactly how Thibodeau can help make the Bulls better at the defensive end (click for pictures and video):

How Tom Thibodeau Will Make The Bulls’ PNR Defense Even Better

When the Bulls hired Boston Celtic assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, they knew that they are getting one of the best defensive minds in the NBA today. In fact Thibodeau is the man credited for Boston’s top rated defense (according to Synergy, who used Points Per Possession to rank them). However, just because Thibodeau is coming in doesn’t mean that the Bulls defense was terrible last year (they were in fact ranked 8th), and when you think of their roster, it makes sense. You have a big physical and athletic point guard in Derrick Rose, long-athletic wings, and a mobile yet physical big man in Joakim Noah. It’s scary to think about what Thibodeau can do with this roster, and that is without adding LeBron James. What I wanted to do is take a look at some changes the Bulls defense might make with Thibodeau in charge. Specifically the pick and roll.

Surprisingly enough, the Bulls were better/equal to the Celtics when defending the pick and roll (both in terms of defending the ball handler and defending the roll man), according to Synergy (Celtics’ stats in the white and Bulls’ stats in the gray):

Despite the Bulls holding their opponents to a lower points per possession number, the Boston Celtics were able to force more turnovers. Turnovers are important because they allow the team forcing them opportunities to run and get baskets in transition. With the way the Bulls’ roster is currently set up, the more they can get in transition, the better. So what do the Celtics do differently to force all these turnovers?

So what about the offensive end? We can expect some improvement based simply on the fact that we have improved personnel (see: Boozer, Carlos). But we can also expect some improvement from having a consistent offensive approach. I don't know exactly what that will be yet. During the VDN-era, I often complained that despite watching 70-75 Bulls games each season, I was never quite sure what our half-court offense was. Some nights we looked like a pick-and-roll team, others a drive-and-kick team, and still others a stand-around-and-watch-Derrick-do-something-awesome team.

I'm hoping and assuming that Thibodeau (or someone on his staff) will develop and implement an offensive identity for this Bulls team. And if they need ideas, start here: pick-and-roll with Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer. The best young/explosive/creative PG in the league paired with a consistent 20ppg PF that has spent his whole career running the pick-and-roll?? Seems like an obvious choice, but it's a can't miss ... especially now that D-Rose has developed that sick little jump-strop-floater-baby-sky-hook from the baseline, and 3-point range (more on that later).

Whatever offensive scheme Thibodeau decides on, we can be sure of one thing: this team will be significantly improved on at least one end of the floor, and that's a great start for a team that made the playoffs under VDN.

Click here for my: Chicago Bulls: 2010-11 Season Preview (Part 2) STARTING LINEUP: DERRICK ROSE, RONNIE BREWER, LUOL DENG, CARLOS BOOZER, JOAKIM NOAH and my overall predictions for the 2010-11 Bulls.

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