Bulls

Who will be the NBA's surprise team in 2010-11?

Who will be the NBA's surprise team in 2010-11?

Friday, Sept. 24, 2010
10:35 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

A historic summer for the NBA has passed and for the Bulls, while they didn't acquire quite the star power many expected andor hoped for, optimism runs high, both within the organization and throughout the team's fan base. With the offseason coming to an end, the time to fully delve into the upcoming NBA season is here. Instead of a traditional season preview, issues both throughout the league and in Chicago will be probed daily here on CSNChicago.com up until the squad officially convenes for training camp toward the end of September.

16. Who will be the league's surprise team and which team will be the most disappointing?

The Sacramento Kings aren't the Oklahoma City Thunder. Tyreke Evans isn't Kevin Durant. And while it's improbable the Kings make the drastic leap their fellow young-gun Thunder did last season, it shouldn't be completely unexpected that they are a much improved squad in the 2010-11.

There are some other choices to make some positive headway in comparison to their dismal 2009-10 campaigns--Washington, if Gilbert Arenas resembles his old self and meshes with top pick John Wall and the rest of the Wizards' young talent; New Orleans, with a healthy Chris Paul, new coaching staff, front office and some underrated offseason additions; Philadelphia, with veteran head coach Doug Collins, a new regime calling the shots and a versatile and youthful Sixers roster; New Jersey or whatever team ends up with Carmelo Anthony--but Sacramento is more of a sure bet.

Evans, the reigning Rookie of the Year, has a chance to eventually become a superstar in the league. His powerful 6-foot-6 frame, the versatility to play all three perimeter positions (although he's best with the ball in his hands), incredible scoring instincts and a lot of room for improvement all indicate stardom. Most impressive, however, is how he injected a semblance of hope to a team that had been floundering since their halcyon days last decade, when Chris Webber and company had them in contention on an annual basis.

It's far from a one-man gang in "Sac-Town," as Evans is only the centerpiece of the organization's youth movement. Power forwards Jason Thompson and Carl Landry (the latter was acquired last season in a deal that sent former Kings leading scorer to Houston) have complementary games, as Thompson is a more of a face-up, finesse player with size and length, while the undersized Landry possesses a physical mentality. Young wings Donte Greene and Omri Casspi are both long, athletic and active types. Greene has displayed flashes of potential with his shooting range and athleticism, but has lacked consistency, and Casspi, a native of Israel, was one of the better rookies in the first half of last season before struggling a bit down the stretch.

Paired with Evans in the backcourt is the solid and underrated Beno Udrih, who offers a safety net similar to what former Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich provided Derrick Rose early in his career. Oft-injured swingman Francisco Garcia provides long-range shooting, while free-agent acquisition Antoine Wright adds some experience and toughness on the defensive end.

One of the more overlooked offseason moves was Sacramento's swap with Philadelphia, in which the Kings swapped big man Spencer Hawes and former Bull Andres Nocioni for shot-blocking center Samuel Dalembert. Hawes simply wasn't panning out as expected and "Noce" appears to be in the twilight of his career, and Dalembert--whose contract expires after this season, giving Sacramento some flexibility going into next summer--fills a real need for his new team with his defense and rebounding.

But perhaps the biggest stride Sacramento took this offseason occurred back in June, when they selected Kentucky big man DeMarcus Cousins with the fifth overall pick and Marshall big man Hassan Whiteside in the second round. Both players were considered steals, but their pre-draft stock dropped for reasons that concerned some observers.

Cousins teamed up with the aforementioned Wall during their lone college season, but was hardly in his shadow. However, unfounded doubts about his character and work ethic plagued him, and his perceived adversarial stance toward the media didn't help. Regardless, Cousins' combination of size, strength, shooting touch, footwork, rebounding and passing ability--he's viewed as having Derrick Coleman-like qualities, in both a positive and negative sense--made his selection a no-brainer, something confirmed by a strong summer-league performance in Las Vegas, at which fellow youngsters Evans, Thompson and Landry were in attendance to provide encouragement and build camaraderie. It wouldn't be a shock to see the Alabama native contend for Rookie of the Year.

Whiteside, on the other hand, is considered much more of a project. Unlike Cousins, he didn't play in the spotlight in college (or even high school, for that matter) and although he put up gaudy stats during his freshman campaign, his maturity was questioned to the point that he went from being a potential late-lottery pick all the way to the second round. While he needs to add weight and adjust to the level of competition, his long-term potential as an athletic shot-blocking phenom with uncanny quickness and range on offense (he's been compared to a young Marcus Camby) is worth the gamble.

Sacramento's collection of young talent--the 29-year-old Dalembert is their oldest projected rotation player; Wright, Garcia and Udrih are the only other players who have played at least five seasons in the league--make it unlikely that they'll make the postseason in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. This is a team, however, that jumped out to a hot start last season--Bulls fans may remember their 35-point comeback win last December at the United Center--before being beset by injuries and the inconsistency of youth. But with a such a talented young core (hopefully any immaturity issues will be mitigated by being in sleepy Sacramento), Kings coach Paul Westphal's up-tempo approach and the example of the Durant-led Thunder as inspiration, the potential is there to be a spoiler--not just in the future, but right now.

In terms of disappointments, a handful of teams stick out as obvious candidates. In the wake of Amar'e Stoudemire's departure, Phoenix could struggle. Speaking of Stoudemire, the Knicks might not be as formidable as some think, even with players better suited for Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun style. Memphis, after a better-than-expected 2009-10 season, re-signed swingman Rudy Gay to a huge extension, but otherwise didn't make many significant offseason upgrades.

The Charlotte Bobcats, though, are a team on the verge of a true letdown. Following the franchise's first-ever postseason appearance, starting center Tyson Chandler was dealt to Dallas and starting point guard Raymond Felton signed with New York. Not exactly the recipe for success.

Forward Gerald Wallace, the face of the franchise, made his first All-Star appearance, but "Crash" isn't regarded as a true go-to guy. Stephen Jackson enjoyed a renaissance of sorts after being traded from Golden State early last season, but it's a well-known fact that Jackson doesn't necessarily deal with losing situations well. That pair, however, should be the least of Larry Brown's concerns.

Young backup point guard D.J. Augustin will have the first opportunity to replace Felton as the starter--unless rumors of New Jersey's Devin Harris being shipped to Charlotte as part of a proposed four-team deal for Carmelo Anthony, turn out to be substantiated; Augustin could be traded to the Nets in that scenario--while former Illinois prep star Shaun Livingston parlayed a solid comeback season in Washington into a free-agent deal in Charlotte. Erick Dampier, who came to Charlotte in return for Chandler, was recently waived by the Bobcats (Dampier is currently sifting between potential offers from Miami and Houston, among other teams), leaving Chicago native Nazr Mohammed as the likely starter at center, with free-agent acquisition Kwame Brown--in an ironic reunion with Bobcats owner and Bulls legend Michael Jordan, who selected Brown with the first overall pick for Washington back in 2001--as the primary backup. Boris Diaw--also rumored to be in the potential Anthony deal; the Frenchman would be shipped to Utah--has been somewhat underwhelming as Charlotte's starting power forward, where he shares time with former Bull Tyrus Thomas, the recipient of an extension this summer.

Even if Charlotte's starters are considered serviceable (the addition of Harris would certainly be an upgrade), the bench is full of question marks. Youngsters like Gerald Henderson, Derrick Brown and Chicago native Sherron Collins are basically unproven, while the likes of shooter Matt Carroll, forward Dominic McGuire, center DeSagana Diop and veteran Eduardo Najera don't strike fear into the hearts of the opposition.

Last year's Bobcats team was successful because of a focus on defense, sharing the ball and buying into Brown's coaching philosophy. But the NBA is a game where talent often prevails and Charlotte simply doesn't have enough of it. Not only will the Bobcats struggle to meet raised expectations, but it shouldn't surprise anyone if the mercurial Brown decides not to ride out the storm.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Bulls fail to close another close game in loss to Raptors

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Bulls fail to close another close game in loss to Raptors

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, David Watson, and John Sabine react to the Bulls 93-92 loss to Toronto.

0:45 - Reaction to losing another close game

2:00 - Kendall Gill stops by to give Matt Peck a hard time about Derrick Rose

3:30 - On Wendell Carter Jr and wanting more

4:45 - Viewer comment on Bulls shooting 46 three-point attempts

7:20 - Concern over Lauri Markkanen

8:10 - Viewer comment still believing in Lauri

9:40 - Viewer comment on Wendell Carter and Daniel Gafford

12:10 - Viewer comment on running more pick n roll w Zach and Lauri

15:35 - Viewer question on Otto Porter and Hutchison

16:30 - Viewer trade idea: Kevin Love for Markkanen

17:15 - Any comfort in coming close to beating two of the top teams in the East?

20:30 - Viewer comment on losing games

23:00 - Viewer comment on Coby should start

24:05 - Viewer comment pandering to John Sabine

24:40 - Sabine shares his weird dream that involves Jim Boylen

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

In Bulls' loss to Toronto Raptors, Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford rejuvenated the United Center

In Bulls' loss to Toronto Raptors, Denzel Valentine and Daniel Gafford rejuvenated the United Center

Monday night, 14,775 fans attended the Bulls' latest in a line of hard-fought defeats: a 93-92 loss to the Toronto Raptors. That's the smallest reported crowd at the United Center for a Bulls game since Dec. 16, 2004.

For stretches, though, it felt like a full house. 

"The UC was great tonight, the fans were awesome," Denzel Valentine said.

The starters carried the team, to start: Of the Bulls' 50 first-half points, 46 were scored by Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter. But it wasn't the usual suspects that pushed the Chicago faithful's decibel count to levels unheard of in the earlygoing of this season.

Thank Valentine and Daniel Gafford, in large part, for that. With the Bulls trailing 61-58 at the 4:45 mark of the third, Jim Boylen turned to a bench-dominated unit of Coby White, Valentine, Thad Young, Gafford and LaVine to spark his group. It was a potential tipping point in the game: The Raptors were in the midst of an 11-3 run and the Bulls' offense was fizzling. White, Valentine, Young and Gafford had four points between them upon entry.

With that move, the fates tilted towards the home side. For a time.

"It was great minutes from them," Satoransky said of Valentine and Gafford after the game. "I think [Denzel] is feeling more himself right now. And DG will always bring that energy. He's one of the most athletic guys I've ever seen, his energy... will always refresh our game."

It certainly did in this one. Gafford blocked three shots and notched 10 points over the game's final quarter-and-a-half. Valentine scored all 13 of his points for the night after that juncture in the third, shooting 5-for-9 from the floor and 3-for-7 from 3-point range. The Bulls finished the night 12-for-46 from 3-point land.

"Just energy," Valentine said, of what that bench unit brought. "We started playing defense. It started on the defensive end, started in transition, getting rebounds. Played with a little bit more life. Playing with each other too. We were moving the ball together."

"We go in, we produce with the minutes that we get," Gafford said. And on what the fans gave back: "There was definitely energy. I was blocking shots, Denzel was knocking down shots, we were getting stops on defense. We were doing everything we needed to do to win the game, and the crowd helped us do that."

Of course, they didn't do it alone. In spite of not scoring, White played a solid defensive game and finished the night with eight rebounds and five assists. Young and Kris Dunn each hit crucial 3-pointers in the third. But watching Valentine and Gafford ignite the home crowd made it even more surreal that neither of them cracked the regular rotation until mid-to-late November.

"We got a bond," Gafford said. "He finds me when I'm open, and I find him when he's open... We just go out and play basketball."

That strategy helped the Bulls build an 85-77 lead with eight minutes left in the game, but the team's good fortunes faded fast from there. After an alley-oop from Valentine to Gafford gave them their 84th and 85th points of the night, the Bulls didn't score for the next five-and-a-half minutes of game action. The Raptors surged down the stretch. The Bulls scrapped, but ultimately faltered when it mattered most.

Both Gafford and Valentine found themselves in the Bulls' closing lineup — Valentine by way of the hot-hand, Gafford in Carter's stead after he fouled out with just under four minutes remaining. A Valentine transition layup, Markkanen 3-pointer and Gafford layup represented the Bulls' only points of the final eight minutes.

"We gotta learn how to put it away. If we can't at the end of the third quarter, we gotta put it away at the beginning of the fourth," Gafford said. "We just gotta learn how to put it away, seal the deal." 

But, as a team, they didn't. And thus, the bottom line doesn't change. The Bulls won a(nother) moral victory or two tonight, but when the final points were tallied, they were on the short end. That's the only stat that matters, especially to those 14,775 that stood behind their team, in person, tonight.

"It’s disappointing when we don’t win games. It’s disappointing when we don’t win home games," Boylen, who has presided over only 10 home victories in his tenure, said. "Nobody is running from that."

"No excuses, nobody cares, we just gotta come out and play hard and learn from our mistakes," Valentine said. "It's tough, because we lose the last three and we were up in the fourth [quarter], I think, in all of those games. So it's tough. But hopefully at some point we'll figure it out."

Gafford and Valentine provided a jolt, but because of the result, they're only would-be heroes — their combined performance amounts to nothing more than an all-too-familiar silver lining. In some ways, that stings even more.

"That's why this game is so frustrating," Satoransky said. "Because I know we were there. Fans were engaged and I think we played very well, and we missed a lot of shots. You know, that always hurts."

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