Monday, October 29, 2012

2012-13 NBA Season Preview: Chicago Bulls

With the NBA season fast approaching, I figured I'd throw my two cents in on how I see things playing out.  These projections were created using Wins Produced (WP) from the Wages of Wins Journal and The NBA Geek.  To gauge how rookies and incoming international players perform, I used the amazing projections of Arturo Galletti.  If you haven't read any of that stuff, you should.  I march on with the scrappy Chicago Bulls.  Enjoy.

Chicago Bulls 45-37 (3rd Central)*

TOP NINE PRODUCTION (numbers listed are 2011-12 WP)
PG Kirk Hinrich 1.4
SG Rip Hamilton 0.1
SF Luol Deng  5.5
PF Carlos Boozer 6.1
C Joakim Noah 11.4
F Taj Gibson 4.7
G Marco Belinelli 2.1
F Vladimir Radmanovic 1.4
C Nazr Mohammed 0.6

*With a miraculous Derrick Rose recovery, the Bulls actually project to win 50 games.  This preview assumes, however, that Rose will miss most of the season.

With only 39 games of the reigning MVP at their disposal, the Bulls last year somehow scraped their way to 50 wins, one of only two teams to reach that plateau in the lockout-shortened season (the Spurs also won 50).  The most productive frontcourt rotation in the NBA carried a backcourt that got below-average play from each of its members not named Derrick Rose or Ronnie Brewer, and head coach Tom Thibodeau once again coaxed maximum effort out of each and every one of his players.  The Bulls' relentlessness and unwavering discipline overwhelmed opponents frazzled and stretched thin by a condensed schedule, but that advantage was negated come playoff time, and--once Rose was lost--Chicago's charge was stopped in the first round by the Sixers.  Faced with a majority of the season without Rose, and with several key members of the NBA's wins leader over the past two seasons due for new contracts, the Bulls entered the off-season at a crossroads.

One route available to the Bulls was to hope Rose followed the footsteps of athletes like Adrian Peterson and returned much faster than anyone thought possible from an ACL tear and keep the band together to make another run at the #1 seed.  Of course, that would have meant matching Houston's $25 million offer sheet to Omer Asik, guaranteeing Kyle Korver's $5 million salary for 2012-13, and picking up Ronnie Brewer's $4.37 million team option.  Assuming the Bulls would have foregone adding Marco Belinelli, Vladimir Radmonovic, and Nazr Mohammed, the obligations to Asik, Korver, and Brewer would have put Chicago's 2012-13 payroll at around $84.3 million.  Considering Jerry Reinsdorf has never been a big spender (even in the MJ-Pippen days), and that the success of the season would still be resting on a medical miracle, it is not surprising the Bulls let Asik, Korver, and Brewer walk.

Another path that could have been taken would be to follow the blueprint of the 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs.  Like the Bulls, those Spurs were in the midst of a stretch of gaudy regular season win totals followed by disappointing playoff exits.  The Spurs had one super-duper star in David Robinson, and a collection of solid, steady scrappers surrounding him.  When Robinson went down 6 games into the season with a balky back, the Spurs went into shutdown mode, getting an average of 57 starts from their other four starters.  San Antonio skidded to a 20-62 record, won the lottery that May, and selected Tim Duncan that June, sparking a decade-and-a-half of dominance.  With the advanced knowledge that their own super-duper star would be limited to a handful of games in 2012-13, should the Bulls have similarly tanked their season in the hope of teaming Rose with Shabazz Muhammed?

Based on the moves made by the Bulls front office, it seems they are thinking more of the latter than the former.  While they would have been expensive, Asik, Korver, and Brewer were productive (a combined 15.67 WP last season).  Asik teamed with Taj Gibson to form the most formidable defensive bench tandem in the league, while Brewer and Korver solved the shooting guard problem the Bulls and their fans always seem to think they have.  The drop-off from those three to Mohammed, Belinelli, and Radmonovic will be stark, and Chicago will go from having one of the best benches in the NBA to having a real depth problem.  Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson should be able to provide the same level of production C.J. Watson and John Lucas III provided in Rose's absence last year, which won't be that good, but also won't be the disaster the new bench bunch will be, either. Rip Hamilton is probably done as a player, which actually won't hurt that much since I don't think he'll be healthy enough to play all that often.  What does hurt is his $5 million salary, which could have been used to bring back useful players like Brewer or Korver.

The draft was another head-scratcher, as the Bulls used the 29th pick to select Marquis Teague, who looked unprepared to run the point at Kentucky, let alone orchestrate an NBA offense.  If he sees more than 10 minutes a night, I will be shocked.  Instead of taking a raw project who probably won't be ready to contribute for another two seasons, the Bulls would have been better served snagging a more polished player such as Jeff Taylor, Jae Crowder, Will Barton, or even Quincy Acy.  The Bulls have been one of the best drafting teams in the league in recent years, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt on Teague, but my initial take-away is that he will prove to be a wasted pick.

So we can expect to see the Bulls sitting in on the lottery next spring, right?  Nope.  Despite the front office's best efforts, a high lottery pick does not appear to be in the Bulls' future.  The frontcourt trio of Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah should still provide enough to carry the Bulls to victory against most teams, while Tom Thibodeau has proven he can coax nightly excellence from nearly any roster.  Instead of embracing either path laid out above, the Bulls instead are toeing the line, cutting salary and drafting projects while also hoping their coach and front line can keep the cheap scraps collected this offseason afloat until Rose's return.  The sad truth is, though, that even with the gang back together and a full season of Rose, the Bulls would probably have the fourth best shot at winning a title, well behind Miami, Oklahoma City, and the Lakers.  If Bulls fans truly want to return to championship glory, they should pray Rose takes his time coming back, Noah, Deng, and/or Boozer miss boatloads of time, and Thibodeau burns out and quits.  Only then will Chicago find themselves in position to give Rose the running mate he truly needs.  Until then, expect another overachieving regular season followed by a first round flameout.    

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