Tuesday, Nov. 16, 20104:44 PM
By Mark SchanowskiCSNChicago.com
When we first heard the news Carlos Boozer would miss the opening month of the regular season because of a broken right hand, it wasnt inconceivable to think they could start the month of December in a significant hole in the Central Division race. But thanks to a surprisingly effective offense, Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls at 5-3 heading into a seven-game, 11-day road swing against some of the better teams in the Western Conference. Add in a slow start for Scott Skiles Bucks, and the Bulls find themselves in first place as they begin the toughest road trip of the season.
We knew Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah would continue to improve their games, but theyve been even better than expected. Rose ranks in the NBAs top 10 in both scoring and assists, and looks like hes ready to enter the discussion of the leagues best players. Meanwhile, Noah continues to make amazing progress on the offensive end, finishing at the basket with both hands and showing even more consistency on that side-spinning 15-foot jump shot. If Noah stays healthy, he should have an excellent chance of being named the back-up center on the Eastern Conference all-star team behind Dwight Howard.
As for the rest of the team, Luol Deng is off to an excellent start, averaging 20 points and six rebounds a game while showing a lot of confidence in the 3-point shot he worked on during the offseason. Deng is hitting at a 44-percent clip from beyond the arc, and that long range threat has opened up driving lanes for Rose.
Taj Gibson would have to rank as the Bulls unsung hero over the first eight games. The second-year forward out of USC is averaging 14 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots a game, while shooting an incredible 60 percent from the field. In case you were wondering, his numbers are better than Miami free-agent addition Chris Bosh, whos struggling to find his way playing alongside his two superstar buddies in South Beach. Thibodeau will have to be creative in finding minutes for Gibson once Boozer returns to the line-up in early December. Taj played a lot of center at USC, so dont be surprised if he gets some time backing up Noah in addition to the 15 minutes or so he figures to get playing behind Boozer.
One of the encouraging developments over the last several games is the improved play of the shooting guard combo of Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer. Bogans has emerged as a difference-maker on the defensive end, coming up with six steals in the blowout win over Golden State. And, Brewer is finally rounding into top game shape after a couple of significant hamstring injuries. The Bulls were hoping Brewer could emerge as a defensive stopper, and an open-court finisher playing alongside Rose. His minutes have been limited early in the season, but he is shooting 47 percent from the field, and should be able to get a few easy baskets every game on fast-break chances.
The Bulls got some positive news about Kyle Korver, who banged his right knee in the win over Washington. An MRI exam revealed Korver only suffered a bone bruise and shouldnt miss much time at all. Hes solidified his reputation as one of the games best 3-point shooters, hitting 57 percent from long distance through the first eight games. Thibodeau has been careful in using him to avoid bad defensive matchups, but the feeling here is Korver will be even more effective once Boozer returns to draw double teams in the low post. Those two players worked effectively together in Utah, and theres no reason to think they cant do the same in Chicago.
Im also encouraged by the early contributions of Turkish center Omer Asik. Even though NBA referees are giving him a rough go, hes been every active in limited minutes and shown the ability to finish strong around the rim. His free-throw shooting needs a lot of work, but the Bulls will work around that deficiency if he continues to rebound and block shots the way he has so far.
As for the rest of the bench, C.J. Watson is still struggling with his role as Roses back-up, but hes looked better in recent games. And right now, James Johnson, Brian Scalabrine and Kurt Thomas have fallen out of the rotation.
It will be interesting to see how the Bulls fare in these upcoming games against some of the elite teams in the West. If they can keep their heads above water (the .500 mark) over the next two weeks, they should get a big lift from Boozers return which could come in the Dec. 1 home game against Orlando.
What do you think of the Bulls play through the first eight games? Please post them in the comments section below. Dont forget, you can watch five of the seven games on the trip on Comcast SportsNet.
Around the league
We mentioned Boshs problems in Miami, and its no secret the rest of the league is enjoying the early struggles for Pat Rileys traveling All-Stars. Dallas owner Mark Cuban went on a local radio station and talked about the Heat not having the size to battle inside and mentioned how delicious it is to see that team struggle. He also mentioned Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is having a great time watching the Heats slow start as well.
Realistically, Miami will get better as the season goes on, and dont discount the possibility of Riley swinging a trade to bring in an interior defender. The Heat might also add veteran free-agent center Erick Dampier, who still hasnt signed with anyone after weeks of visiting potential employers. The Heat will probably wind up winning somewhere around 55 games, which might not be good enough to take the Southeast Division title away from Orlando.
Have you noticed Oklahoma City isnt the same team since assistant coach Ron Adams left to re-join the Bulls? Under Adams direction, the young Thunder made a huge improvement on the defensive end a year ago. But now that Adams is gone, theyre giving up 106 points per game, pretty much canceling out the offensive brilliance of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. A lot of the so-called experts had Oklahoma City pegged as the top challenger to the Lakers in the West, but right now they look like they might struggle just to make the playoffs.
How about the job Jerry Sloan is doing in Utah? The Jazz lost Boozer and Korver as free agents, and theyve been playing without injured center Mehmet Okur. But Sloan has done a masterful job of working Al Jefferson into his system, while getting big contributions from guys like Paul Millsap, C.J. Miles and Ronnie Price. And, dont forget about the leadership of former Illini star Deron Williams, who is still the No. 1 point guard in the NBA in my book. That stretch of erasing double-digit deficits in consecutive road wins over Miami, Orlando, Atlanta and Charlotte is something you dont often see in the NBA, where the home teams usually rule.
Another tough break for the Portland Trail Blazers, who are now dealing with the likelihood theyve already seen the best of All-Star guard Brandon Roy. Doctors told Roy they couldnt operate on his ailing knee because there wasnt any cartilage left to repair. Hes now dealing with a painful bone on bone situation which only figures to worsen over time. The Blazers are still waiting for the return of injured centers Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla, and if Roy cant return to top form, theyre promising future could be gone in a hurry.
Bottom line, the Lakers and Celtics look like the teams to beat once again. Well see which teams emerge as challengers over the coming weeks and months
Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNet Central, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10 p.m.