As it turns out, the Bulls did not trade up in the draft (i.e., no Gerald Henderson), nor did they pull off any blockbuster trades, ala the Cleveland Cavaliers (who acquired Shaq) and Orlando Magic (who got Vince Carter). Instead, they opted to add toughness, depth and versatility to the front court…while maintaining a little financial flexibility for next summer.
With the 16th pick, the Bulls selected James Johnson, a 6’7″(ish), 257-pound power forward from Wake Forest. Johnson – who comes from a family of black belt kick boxersand is himself undefeated (21-0) – averaged 15.0 PPG and a team-leading 8.5 RPG during his sophomore year. He also led the Demon Deacons in field goal percentage (54.2), blocks (48) and was second in steals (44). Johnson has a good handle and can beat defenders off the dribble (he played point guard in high school). He also has size (did I mention he’s 257 pounds?), strength and a decent shooting touch. There aresome “buts,” though. Johnson has been criticized for inconsistency, lack of focus (scouts say he occasionally takes possessions off) and weight problems. Sounds awful Eddy Curry-ish, doesn’t it? I’m just sayin’.
According to Bulls GM Gar Forman: “”We love James’ versatility. He can play small forward. He can play power forward. He can play inside. He can play outside. At his size, he can rebound the ball, put it on the floor and push it in transition. He can penetrate. He’s a very good passer for a big guy. He can make plays for himself and his teammates off the dribble.” Added Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro: “James has a lot of skill. For a big guy, he has a feel for the game and can do a little of everything.”
With the 26th pick, the Bulls took Taj Gibson, a 6’9″, 210-pound power forward from USC. Gibson, who’s already 24 years old, averaged 14.3 PPG, 9.0 RPG (a team-best), 2.9 BPG (another team-best) and a field goal percentage of 60.1 (yet another team-best). Over his three-year career at USC, Gibson set the Trojans’ all-time record with 253 blocks, which also happens to be third-best in Pac-10 history. His age gives him maturity (or so the Bulls believe), and his wingspan(seven feet, four inches) gives him some serious length and shot blocking ability. However, he’s a wee bit on the skinny side — at 210, he’s almost 50 pounds lighter than the shorter Johnson — and his offensive game is pretty raw. So don’t expect him to bang bodies with the big boys or put up a lot of points.
According to Forman: “Taj gives us great length, which is something we need. He runs the floor well, which is important for our bigs to run with Derrick [Rose]. He also can play out on the floor some and can handle and pass it. USC ran offense through him. And he can make a 15-footer.” Added Del Negro: “Taj gives us length. He runs the court. He’ll block shots. He shot the ball better than I expected in his workout here.”
Management and the coaching staff seem to love these guys, but the two picks raise some serious questions. In addition to Johnson and Gibson, the Bulls also have Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah, Brad Miller, Tim Thomas, Aaron Gray and Jerome James at the power forward and center position. Mind you, James — who played only two games for the Knicks in 2007-08 and never set foot on the court last season — probably will never suit up for the Bulls before his contract expires next summer. Gray, meanwhile, will most likely be exiled to the bench an relegated to Human Victory Cigar status (i.e., you won’t see him unless the Bulls are up or down by 30 points).
Still…that’s a pretty crowded front court, right? And Gibson’s skill set sure sounds familiar doesn’t it? As Tam Bamford of the Bleacher Report put it: “There is no question, watching the Bulls last season, that the Bulls needed more depth in the lane. But what sense does it make to draft a tall, skinny Gibson and an athletic ‘tweener’ in Johnson when the Bulls have a tall, skinny Noah and an athletic ‘tweener’ in Thomas already?”
It makes sense to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: “The addition of two forwards brings into question the future of Tyrus Thomas, whose window to extend his rookie contract opens July 1. Historically, the Bulls have been reluctant to extend rookie contracts in the first summer of eligibility, and adding Johnson and Gibson crowds the front court further.”
It sure seems like the Bulls wanted some Tyrus Thomas insurance, doesn’t it? Remember: This is a contract year for Thomas. Assuming that the Contract Year Phenomenon holds true, Tyrus could end up playing great next season, and that would make him potential bait for a Chris Bosh deal at the February trade deadline or during the summer of 2010 (as a sign-and-trade).
What’s more, the Bulls opted not to draft any guards. Does that mean they’re serious about re-signing Ben Gordon…even if the Detroit Pistons break the bank to steal him away? Losing Ben would leave the Bulls with a serious lack of depth at the shooting guard position, which would radically increase Kirk Hinrich’s value to the team (sorry, Portland.) And even if the Bulls do re-sign Gordon, dealing Hinrich would leave them without a reliable backup at the point.
At any rate, these picks seem to indicate that, for the moment, the Bulls are standing pat with what they have. It now seems very unlikely they’re planning to make a major move right now. Next summer? Maybe. But right now they appear to be opting for incremental improvement and financial responsibility.