Friday, Apr. 16, 2010
By Mark Schanowski
Now that the Bulls are back in the playoffs for the second year in a row, it's not unreasonable to ask if the late season-drive to earn the right to play mighty Cleveland was all worth it. Forget about the chance to get into the draft lottery. Only the most optimistic fan could actually believe the Bulls would cash in a less than one percent chance to get one of the top three picks for the second time in the last three years. And, by making the playoffs, the under-publicized part of the John Salmons deal with Milwaukee......the right to swap 1st round draft picks......won't hurt quite as much. The Bulls will now send their number 15 pick to Milwaukee, and pick in the Bucks' slot at number 17. At that point in the draft, there's not much difference in moving down two picks, so it shouldn't have much impact on what type of player the Bulls will get. Besides, don't be surprised if the Bulls package their number 1 pick, plus Kirk Hinrich to a team with cap room. The NBA salary cap is now projected to be around 56 million dollars for next season, so the Bulls might explore various ways to trim their payroll a little further and create the possibility of going after two premiere free agents.
But, let's get back to the monumental task at hand. How many games do you realistically expect the Bulls to win against highly-motivated LeBron James and the Cavs? Please post your predictions in the section below or send me an e-mail. I'm guessing they'll find a way to win one, which means the fight to get into the playoffs will extend the season by about 13 days. And, with the Bulls about to head into one of the most important off-seasons in franchise history, maybe an early exit isn't exactly the worst thing. The Bulls need to move quickly on Vinny Del Negro's status, and do everything in their power to ease concerns around the league that the franchise has become dysfunctional. Former Dallas Mavericks' coach Avery Johnson said on Friday the Bulls will have to repair their image before they can even think about attracting a top level head coach or free agent. And, until the head coaching situation is addressed, that cloud will hang over the Bulls and complicate their off-season plans.
ROSE AND NOAH GET ANOTHER CHANCE TO SHINE ON NATIONAL STAGE
Still, there are positives from the Bulls getting back to the playoffs, most notably the chance for Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to show the rest of the country that they've emerged as elite players at their positions. NBA fans know all about Rose after his outstanding playoff debut against Boston last season, an All-Star appearance this year, and the countless high-flying highlights that have appeared on national sports shows. But not everyone is aware of the monumental strides Noah has made in his career this season. You might have forgotten a lot of Bulls' fans were upset when the team used the 9th pick in the '07 draft to select Noah, and labeled him a bust after a so-so rookie year. Joakim also got off to a slow start in year 2, and was ripped for his poor conditioning. But somewhere in that 2nd season, the light turned on for Joakim, and he's never looked back, emerging as one of the top 10 centers in the league after tirelessly working on his game last summer. Now, he'll get the chance in front of a national audience to show just how much he's improved against one of the best centers ever to play the game, Shaquille O'Neal. Who would have ever guessed the Bulls would have an edge at the center position in this series with Noah facing Shaq? But that's the way I'm looking at it, especially with the way Joakim has attacked opposing centers with his spinning jump hooks and lefty finishes at the rim. He may not be the most graceful big man in the NBA, but Noah has turned himself into an offensive threat, able to drive to the basket and to make that 15 foot jumper, even with the ball spinning sideways! Joakim played with a relentless passion over the last couple weeks trying to get the Bulls into the playoffs, and now that they've arrived, he'll look to "shock the world" in this series.
The same can be said for Rose, who took the offensive load on his shoulders down the stretch, and added the three point shot to his repertoire. As good as Rose was in his rookie season, he's made dramatic improvements in year 2. He's now almost unguardable with his ability to blow by defenders and finish at the rim, plus an outside shot that's become more consistent throughout the season. Rose should be able to score at will against Mo Williams, who's a shoot-first point guard that doesn't like to get worn out by playing defense. I'm sure Cavs' coach Mike Brown will use his big men to "hard show" on the high screen-and-roll, and discourage Rose from penetrating all the way to the basket. But Derrick has so many counter options right now that he'll find a way to get his 20 points or more. The larger questions is, which Bulls players will step up to help him on the offensive end?
KEYS TO THE BULLS STAYING COMPETITIVE
1. Don't let LeBron's "supporting cast" get off. You can pencil James in for 30 to 35 points in every game of the series, and that's okay if the Bulls can contain the rest of the Cavs. Antawn Jamison, Shaq and Mo Williams are all former all-stars, capable of putting up big scoring games once they get it going. The Bulls can't recklessly double team James and let one of the other Cavs' starters beat them.
2. Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng must make a high percentage of open jumpers. This has been the biggest problem for the Bulls all season long, lack of a consistent outside shooting threat to go along with Rose. How many times has Derrick broken down the defense and kicked the ball out to an open shooter, only to watch them clank a wide-open jumper? Ben Gordon was huge in last year's playoff series against Boston, and the Bulls found out during the season just how much they miss his ability to light it up from the outside. And, just when John Salmons was starting to pull out of his season-long slump, the Bulls traded him to Milwaukee, where he's averaged 20 points a game in leading Milwaukee to the playoffs. That leaves Hinrich, Deng, and to a lesser extent, Flip Murray. Those 3 guys have to be able to hit the open shots they'll be getting when Rose penetrates into the lane and draws 2 or 3 Cleveland defenders.
3. Avoid foul trouble. Taj Gibson has been a revelation as the number 26 pick in the draft, but his one consistent problem has been picking up early fouls which forces the Bulls to sit him for long stretches of the game. Gibson has a tough match-up against Jamison, a savvy veteran who can bury jumpers from the three point line and also has has a wide array of flip shots and hooks in the lane. If Gibson can't avoid foul trouble, the Bulls will have to turn to Hakim Warrick and James Johnson, and neither of those players is considered a great defender.
4. Don't get intimidated. Cleveland is the favorite to win the NBA title this season, and led by James, they carry themselves with a certain arrogance that can unsettle younger teams. We all remember Noah barking at James for dancing on the court during a Cavs' win over the Bulls earlier this season. James is determined to break through for a championship in his 7th NBA season, just like Michael Jordan did. And, like Jordan, he doesn't want to mess around with a first round opponent that finished with a .500 record during the regular season. The Bulls have to withstand an all-out attack by Cleveland in Game 1, and show the Cavs they are in this series for the long haul.
5. Bulls need bench production. Vinny Del Negro really shortened his bench rotation in last year's playoff series, and I expect he'll do the same this year. So, the Bulls need to get consistent production from veterans Brad Miller, Flip Murray and Hakim Warrick. Cleveland's bench is a lot better than it was last season with the addition of guys like Jamario Moon, Leon Powe and Anthony Parker. Parker will be in the starting line-up, but that allows the Cavs to bring Delonte West off the bench, and personal issues aside, he's an explosive scorer and underrated defender. With West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Moon and "Boobie" Gibson, Cleveland has a 2nd five that should be able to outplay most teams they could run into in the playoffs.
Don't forget to tune in to Comcast SportsNet for expanded pre and post-game coverage throughout the playoffs. Saturday's game is on ABC, but Kendall Gill will join me in studio at 4:30 for all your post-game coverage, including coaches' news conferences and interviews with all the key players. We'll also be streaming the post-game news conferences on CSNChicago.com. Enjoy the playoffs!
Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.