Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away,and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Chicago Bulls.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
This is a team that jumped 21 wins to the top of the NBA standings mainly by adding a competent coach, to say the very least, and 1,883 minutes of Carlos Boozer. Yes, Derrick Rose improved as he should, but the Bulls were seriously lacking at the off-guard slot, they fielded possibly the worst offensive bench rotation among playoff teams and Joakim Noah missed nearly half the season.
And they still won, over and over again. Sure, a few of those coin-flip games went their way, but Bulls fans can point to nearly as many coin-flip games in which the team fell just short. Did the Bulls overachieve? No doubt. But when you max out your talent and bring consistent, unending effort in wearying concert? It goes from "overachieving" into something else. Chicago Bulls basketball, if you will. The Red and the Black.
Why can't this group do it again? Sure, we've seen teams relent following a year of doing every little thing correctly. We've seen teams tune out even the breeziest and/or best of head coaches. We've seen that elasticity stretch both ways. But why not? Why not Chicago? Why not with this group that genuinely cares for each other, and doesn't want to let each other down? Why not with a frontcourt featuring Noah and Boozer working in what appears to be the best shape of their NBA careers, even coming off of a five-month lockout? Why not Derrick Rose, if he stops fading to the left on that jumper and starts getting to the line more?
Why not do it again? No, 62 wins won't happen, but a pro-rated 50 could. If this was the team to buck the trend and make it to the top last year based around stifling "D" and obvious "O," why can't this group -- of all groups -- be the one to break the trend of busting it for one year and breaking down the next? Does this look like a team that wants to ease off?
For all the cracks about Joakim Noah's hair or slingshot set shot, Boozer's passive/aggressive screams, Brian Scalabrine's everything and Rose's laconic nature, at the heart of this team lays a humorless crew. Stern to no end, scarily focused. You can't bet against that until it wins or cracks. Chicago cracked last season in the face of a 6-foot-9 power point forward who they couldn't stop from raining in fadeway jumpers or locking down on Rose on the perimeter, but you get the feeling the outcome of the Eastern Conference finals stung Chicago as much if not more than losing the NBA Finals stung Miami. Miami knows its title will come, eventually.
Chicago? The Bulls know they have to do it right … [expletive deleted] … now.
History tells us the Bulls will relent. That the team can't keep up that intensity for consecutive years and that they took advantage of changing tides and several close regular-season wins over Miami to take the league's top seed. You bet against what you've seen before, and you usually end up on the losing end.
This team doesn't appear ready to adhere to that paradigm, yet. At the very least, it won't join those ranks easily, thanks to the leadership at the top. You can go ahead and do the right thing and doubt these Bulls. Frankly, I'm too scared of what this crew can do to follow up on what logic is screaming at me.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Chicago Bulls
I'm really excited to see what the Bulls will look like when they don't have to start Keith Bogans at the two, then make their way through games with a Frankenstein's Monster shooting guard composed of Bogans' arms and legs, the torso of Ronnie Brewer and the head (and, most importantly, hair) of Kyle Korver.
Sure, the team Chicago fielded was pretty OK last season, if you like that whole "62 wins, top seed in the conference and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals" thing. But if there are two things that Keith Bogans should not be starting, they are "parties" and "82 games." Also, 4,891 combined minutes for those three guys -- nearly as many minutes as Luol Deng played last season, I think -- is waaaay too much floor time for those three players on this Bulls team. They're not terrible players by any stretch; they've each got useful talents (perimeter defense for Bogans and Brewer, 3-point shooting for Korver and Bogans) that can help a team. But they're all flawed.
For a team with championship aspirations and a starting lineup featuring four well-paid, locked-up (once Derrick Rose signs his max extension) star-caliber players, two-guard was the spot where the Bulls could realistically make a change that could take them to the next level. And so, they did.
The worry, of course, is that the change they made won't be enough for the Bulls to actually take that next step. That the Rip Hamilton fans remember -- the dude with the quirky mask and the fun side-dribble, the guy who'd make his defender run a marathon through a hedge maze before getting free for that sweet mid-range J, the 2004 Rip Hamilton -- is a different guy than the 2011 version, and that this year's model isn't really good enough to swing the championship.
All of that may well be right, but it also might not. (Analysis!)
On one hand, Hamilton's field goal, Effective Field Goal and True Shooting percentages have tailed off since 2008, when he both turned 30 and signed a three-year, $37.5 million contract extension to stay with the Detroit Pistons. He actually posted worse eFG% and TS% numbers last year than Korver and Bogans, and was just a tick better than Brewer.
His offensive rating (the number of points a player produces per 100 possessions) has been lower than his defensive rating (how many he allows per 100) for the last three years, after posting positive efficiency differentials every year since his last season with the Washington Wizards. According to 82games.com, the Pistons were a couple of points better without him on the floor than when he was on it last season. And, perhaps most troublesomely, Rip has missed 78 games since the start of '08-'09 after missing just 57 through his first nine years, a sign that years of wear and tear on his slight frame could be starting to mount.
(Of course, 27 of those missed games came last season, after Hamilton had soured on the Pistons and was clashing with since-fired coach John Kuester. So it's possible that "Missed 1 game -- stomach virus" and "Missed 2 games -- sore right foot" are actually more like "Missed 1 game -- trying to get traded out of town" or "Missed 2 games -- putting foot down to prove a point.")
On the other hand, Hamilton has steadily put up somewhere about 19 points, 4.5 assists, three rebounds and a steal per 36 minutes over those three seasons. His free-throw numbers (both attempts and percentages) have been remained pretty consistent with what they were through his ages 27 through 29 seasons. While his shooting drop-off coincides with hitting 30 and getting paid again, it also coincides with Joe Dumars trading away Chauncey Billups and handing the Pistons' offense over to Rodney Stuckey, whose talents for distributing leave something to be desired. And while Rip didn't exactly cover himself in glory in handling his problems with Kuester, he wasn't necessarily wrong about the coach.
It's possible that, finally out of a bad situation, playing for a smart and well-respected coach and once again lined up next to an elite point guard who can create shots, Hamilton finds the fire of old. He's not deadly (or prolific) from distance, but a rekindled Rip who's making shots might help the Bulls improve their spacing on offense, making them tougher to guard and taking some of the scoring onus off Rose. If his signing pushes their offense from "all Derrick Rose" to merely "almost all Derrick Rose," it could make a big difference come May, and for the price of a two-year mid-level exception contract (with an option for a third), it's certainly worth the risk.
But if you're a Bulls fan worried that an awful lot seems to now be riding on an about-to-turn 34-year-old shooter who's made 41 percent and 43 percent of his shots the last two years, I can understand your concern.
Carlos Boozer confuses me a lot.
He seems really mad all the time, and I'm not really sure about what. He's going to make a lot of money through the year 2015, he gets to be on TV all the time, he eats nice cakes with friends at nightclubs -- it seems like he's living the dream. And yet he's always yelling, and grimacing, and doing more yelling. I just don't understand it.
(Also, I don't understand most of what he's doing when I watch him play defense or try to finish over taller defenders.)
Maybe he's mad that Bulls fans don't like that he seemed offensively out of sync for most of the season after starting the year on the bench with a right hand injury, or that no one seems to believe that he'll be a legitimate second scoring option on a title team until they see it with their own eyes. Or maybe he's mad that a shady businessman his tailor hooked him up with soaked him for a milli. That'd make me mad, too, for sure.
Maybe knowing that his coach has his back will cheer Carlos up. I'd hope so. I think I'd like trying to understand a happy Carlos better.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
CHICAGO BULLS: "Amadeus"
Derrick Rose is an amazingly great player, a worthy MVP and the most effective point guard in the league. However, his performance against the Heat in last spring's Eastern Conference finals proved he still has plenty of room to grow. Faced with a very tough defense and a clogged lane, Rose struggled to score at a clip necessary to make up for the Bulls' limited options at the offensive end. He was good, but not quite good enough, and for the team with the best record in the NBA that served as a disappointment.
The challenge for Rose, whether this season or in one soon after, is to elevate his game for the very great to the truly transcendent, which just happens to be perhaps the toughest leap for any athlete. Greatness can be attained through hard work and athletic gifts — transcendence requires something a bit more ineffable. It's a distinction dramatized well in the 1984 Oscar-winning film "Amadeus," in which the great composer Antonio Salieri finds himself continually upstaged and out-performed by the historically amazing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In the view of director Milos Forman, genius can't be emulated or explained; it just is, and no matter what Salieri does he can't attain it.
Basketball players don't display genius at the age of five like Mozart did, so we shouldn't deem Rose a disappointment if he's unable to topple the Heat this season. But the context of his career will remain the same until a moment of playoff glory convinces us that he's reached the pantheon. Otherwise, he'll be remembered but not idolized, his name resigned to the history books instead of everyday conversation.