Vince Carter. Shaquille O’Neal. Rasheed Wallace. Hedo Turkoglu. Ron Artest. All of these players were acquired by teams intent on making major improvements. Heck, even the New Orleans Hornets dealt the oft-injured Tyson Chandler for Emeka Okafor. Meanwhile, the Bulls lost their leading scorer and then signed Jannero Pargo (back from Europe!) and Lindsey Hunter (kept alive by the dark arts!). Oh, and they bought out Tim “The Human Waste” Thomas. Not exactly an extreme makeover.
Unless something fantastic happens — like mass exposure to cosmic rays — the Bulls won’t be great this season. However, they might still be pretty good. For that to happen, though, the following hopes will have to be fulfilled.
1. Derrick Rose makes The Leap: It seems like a pretty safe bet that Rose will continue to improve, especially if he keeps seeing the shot doctor. The question is: how muchwill he improve? Is Derrick ready to shift into the All-Star gear, or will running the show without the Ben Gordon crutch turn him into the next Allen Iverson (as Steve Aschburner suggests)? I’m going with the former, because this kid’s better than the Answer. Yeah, I said it.
2. Luol Deng has a comeback year: That 20 points per game Ben Gordon took with him to Detroit will have to be replaced by committee, but the Bulls are probably hoping that most of the scoring slack will be picked up by The Seventy-One Million Dollar Man. For that to happen, Luol has to get healthy, stay healthy, and party like it’s 2006-07. Fortunately, he’s skipping the European Championships in favor of rehab. Now if we could just find him a good training montage…
3. Tyrus Thomas has a breakout year: Thomas is by far the team’s most polarizing figure. Some fans love his potential (Tyson Chandler 2.0 anyone?) while others hate the fact that he can’t seem to live up to it. Not consistently anyway. Well, Ty’s contract is up next summer, which means that the future of his career (not too mention his wallet) is on the line this season. Will the Contract Year Phenomenon kick in or will his Never Gonna Get It syndrome earn him a one-way ticket out of Chicago next summer (or by the trade deadline in February)?
4. John Salmons can play shooting guard: Well, we know he can play the position. But can he play it full time? Salmons broke out last season, setting career-highs in points (18.3) and three-point shooting percentage (41.7). Not bad for a 29-year-old who had never averaged more than 12.5 points before. On paper, John looks like a perfect fit at the two-spot: he’s tall (6’7″), plays tough defense, shoots well from deep, takes it to the rack, and has chunky facial hair. All things being equal, there’s no reason why Salmons shouldn’t be a better SG than Ben Gordon. But if all things were equal, the Bulls would have made the 2008 NBA Finals like all those experts predicted.
5. The rookies develop quickly: James Johnson and Taj Gibson: the front court of the future or a waste of draft picks that could have been packaged for a veteran player? I guess we’re going to find out. Johnson averaged 16.6 points and 7.0 rebounds in the NBA Summer League…but his shooting percentage was dismal and there are those nasty rumors concerning his lack of focus. Meanwhile, Gibson missed the final three Summer League games (out of five) due to a foot injury. Oh, and did I mention that he committed 19 fouls in the two games he did play? I guess what I’m saying is: don’t expect someone on the Bulls to win Rookie of the Year for the second season in a row.
6. That seven-game series versus the Celtics was no fluke: The team really gelled at the end of last season, making it into the playoffs and pushing the defending (but injured) NBA champions to seven games in the first round. Of course, Kevin Garnett didn’t play and the Bulls’ leading scorer will be filling baskets for a division rival. This begs the question: does that stirring postseason performance mean anything at this point? Let’s hope that, at the very least, it developed some chemistry and sense of trust in the players. It would be a shame if all that series did was provide a few more games for ESPN Classic.
7. John Paxson and Gar Forman know what they’re doing: John and Gar — whom I will hereafter refer to as John-Gar the Barbarian — have a plan in place: develop the core players and save money for next summers free agent bonanza. They might even be able to use a few assets and/or expiring contracts to swing a midseason deal or two. But if they can’t make a trade or sign a hotshot free agent, the Bulls might be virtually the same team next summer that they are right now…which isn’t a thrilling prospect. After all, if the 2007-08 season taught us anything, it’s that a team can’t remain “young and up-and-coming” forever.