Slowly, cautiously … excitement is mounting. On paper, the Chicago Bulls of 2010-2011 may not be a bona fide powerhouse on a league-wide level, but they’re chock full of talent and the team’s management did a pretty respectable job of filling out the roster during the off-season. On the court, the Bulls have looked a little tentative in the early going of the preseason, but there’s still plenty of optimism lingering in the air thanks to strong showings by a couple of key players.
Naturally, when we speak (or, in this case, write of) the Bulls, we want to mention point guard Derrick Rose. But what about the guys who leave the United Center after the game without that name printed on their driver’s licenses? Who are the players poised to make the biggest contributions? That’s the topic of this week’s Top Five.
(Oh, and by way of a disclaimer, we’re leaving Carlos Boozer off the list. Nothing personal — and we’re still not buying into the conspiracy theories regarding his injured hand — but we’d like to focus on the depth chart heading into opening night on Oct. 27 in Oklahoma City.)
1. Joakim Noah
Drafted by the Bulls in the first round in 2007, center Joakim Noah made headlines with some disciplinary and injury issues in his first couple of seasons. But there was no mistaking this big man’s talent and, as reported here, Joakim was signed to a five-year, $60 million deal earlier this month.
Everyone is assuming DRose will become the face of the franchise but, with his trademark do and (shall we say) expressive features, Noah could steal plenty of attention and photo ops. He’s a vocal leader who doesn’t shy away from the media or lack confidence. The team did him a huge solid in signing him to that extension and will now expect him to run, box out, rebound and score with the top centers in the league. So do we.
Noah is also important because of the depth he provides. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has reportedly told Joakim that he could play some minutes as a power forward in Boozer’s absence. If successful in this role, his value will rise considerably.
2. Luol Deng
It’s been an interesting run for Luol Deng. Some might call it a struggle. He was a first round draft pick (seventh overall) of the Phoenix Suns in 2004, who was then traded to the Bulls for Jackson Vroman. His six years since have been wrought with injuries too numerous to mention. (Well, we could but we ain’t got all day.)
The good news is: a) Deng is still only 25 years old, and b) He had a solid 2009-2010 season, appearing in 70 games and averaging 17.6 points per game (PPG). That was the second best PPG rate of his career behind his 18.8 PPG 2006-2007 season.
What’s more, Luol is excited about getting back to one of the strengths of his game —mobility — under Thibodeau’s revamped offense. Deng’s freedom to move and newfound comfort level will be crucial in getting the Bulls’ offense off the ropes so its defense, also new and (we hope) improved under Coach T, can work its magic.
3. Kyle Korver
So there was no ESPN special or enraged tearing down of billboards. But Kyle Korver — a 2003 second-round draft pick of the New Jersey Nets, who spent four-plus seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers before being traded to the Utah Jazz in 2007 — was nonetheless an important NBA free agent signing in the 2010 off-season. Important for the Bulls, at least.
Yes, we’re fully aware that, technically, Ronnie Brewer should probably take Kyle’s place on our list. Brewer was also an important free agent signing and is expected to be the starting shooting guard for the Bulls, assuming his nagging hamstring issues don’t get the better of him. And there’s no denying that the Brewster is an important part of a team desperate for outside shooting.
But we have a funny feeling about Kyle. (Funny in a good way.) He’s been tearing it up in the preseason thus far, which, if nothing else, means he’s making Brewer sweat and giving the team some nice inside-the-roster competition. But, most important, as mentioned, the Bulls really need three-point shooters. It’s probably the one hole on the depth chart that remains largely unfilled. So Korver is key — either as a better-than-average bench player or even a surprise starter.
4. Taj Gibson
It’s interesting to compare Taj Gibson with Luol Deng. Both are 25 years old, yet Gibson has only one NBA season (a long one — 82 games, including 70 starts) to his credit. Drafted in the first round of 2009 (26th overall), Gibson played admirably in his rookie year, averaging 9 PPG in 2009-2010.
If anything Taj is a personification of how much this team’s construction has been affected by the Boozer injury. He provides critical depth as a fill-in starter while Boozer is out. But, as mentioned above (and below, for that matter), Coach Thibodeau could do some creative things with the lineup while Boozer recovers. So we could see Taj grab some bench in later parts of some games.
Nonetheless, look for Gibson to make the most of his increased playing time in the initial portion of his sophomore year.
5. Omer Asik
Is it possible to feel good about a player often referred to as a "project"? Well, we do. Omer Asik was born in Bursa, Turkey, and drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2nd round (36th overall) in 2008. The Bulls then snagged him in a three-team deal also involving the Denver Nuggets. Listed at 7 feet, he’s a classic center who provides an unmistakable presence in the low post.
What’s exciting about Asik is Coach T’s recently revealed plans to sometimes team up Omer with Joakim Noah on the floor. With Noah at power forward and Asik at center, the Bulls will have a "Twin Towers" attack that many fans haven’t seen since, well, ever. Derrick Rose has already gone on record as favoring the approach saying:
Omer and Jo are going after everything. No matter how many fouls they get they're going to try to tip balls out to hustle. That's what we need on our team. We're just trying to be this grimy team where we don't care about our stats or anything. We're just trying to go out there and trying to win.
Noah and Asik have even given themselves a Brangelina-esque nickname: Jomer (pronounced "jo-MAIR"). A "grimy" team with wacky celebrity nicknames? The 2010-11 Bulls are going to be interesting bunch.