After a four game win streak, I figured it was a good time to deliver the "State of the Bulls", always a dangerous task with a tough game looming ahead of them later this evening, since it's likely to contradict half of what I say regardless that they aren't meant to predict the outcome of any given game. So here are my random thoughts about every major persona associated with the team right now.
You can't really start with anyone else. For better or for worse, we're counting on Derrick Rose like the rebellion counted on Luke Skywalker. Over the past few weeks Rose has gone into all out attack mode, playing with an aggression level we haven't seen before. He's starting to draw contact at the rim and get to the free throw line pushing his TS% to around 55% over that period.
This is the Derrick Rose that can lead the Bulls as a franchise player. I still don't see superstar status for Rose in the future, but I was starting to get skeptical about even his second tier status, and his growth over the past couple weeks has elevated him back into a "it's likely he's a regular all-star even if he's not a future MVP candidate". It also means that the MVP candidate upside for Derrick Rose is creeping back onto the table even if I don't find it likely.
As pointed out repeatedly, Derrick's maturation is biggest selling point to big name players. "Look <superstar>, we've got an unselfish PG who doesn't necessarily want the spotlight, but will be great for as long as you're here. You can be a star here, win here, and get a heck of a lot of the glory". All-star Derrick Rose gives the Bulls the best advantage they'll have over every other team in such a debate. Derrick has shown us in the past few weeks that he can deliver on that.
Joakim probably isn't quite to the point where we can say "he is who he is", but we're probably pretty close to that point. He can gain strength in the upcoming off seasons. He can improve his jumper a bit, though it's no longer anywhere near as bad as it looks [which perhaps isn't saying much], but we're past the point where Joakim comes in and completely changes his game most likely.
Here's what Joakim can give you:
Ball handling for a big man
Transition offense in getting the break started quickly or running the floor
Interior help defense
Perimeter help defense
Perimeter man defense
Post offense against smaller players
Here's what Joakim can't give you:
A consistent jumper or any offense that provides spacing
Post offense against bigger players
Interior man defense against bigger players
An effective play in the pick and roll as the pick setter
The good is a lot better than the bad, but the bad does include several fairly important functions. Noah is near ideal as a non-star center if he's paired with a multi-faceted offensive oriented PF. If Noah were to sudden develop a floor spacing jumper or a legit post game the Bulls could go to frequently [or basically any offense that he could create on his own repeatedly] then he'd be an all-star center. As is, Noah's the type of player that fans will love on a rookie deal, but might sour on quickly if he gets a monster contract extension.
Luol Deng has proven a lot this season. He's proven that he's healthy and given that he's playing with a broken finger presently, he's proven that he's not going to puss out on lesser injuries. Those two things alone were more than many Bulls fans dared to dream entering the season.
Beyond that, he's played at a fairly high level. He doesn't have a shot creation oriented game, and I think that will always make his value questionable on a contract as large as the one he's playing for. However, Luol Deng brings a lot to the table. His rebounding has covered up the fact that our rebounding out of Noah has been atrocious for much of the season. He's shown quite a bit of play making ability in the passing game, and he's playing very good fundamental defense.
He's also starting to shoot more threes as he's averaging an attempt a game vs only one attempt every 2.5 games last year. He needs to increase his volume, but it's a step in the right direction. In my own personal "what if" game for the Bulls, what would Luol Deng's offense look if Mike D'Antoni was the coach, and he was forced to shoot a lot of threes ranks right up there.
Deng's contract isn't necessarily pretty, but the 30% deferral of money on it makes the present value of it significantly less than the paper value, which means teams won't be nearly as scared of Deng as you'd think. It's the ultimate contract in terms of a cheap organization. Overpaying a guy's cap value in order to shrink his cash value. It limits team flexibility in order to improve cash flow. That's bad for a team looking to build a champion, but it's not so bad for perpetually rebuilding team and may even be advantageous if they need to dump salary.
He's probably considered a core piece by management. If I were in charge, I'd be interested in forcing Deng to shoot threes in volume or I'd be interested in trading him. In the right situation, the jack of all trades and master of none might be a huge help to a team. Can the bulls bring in the pieces to make this that situation? Either way, he's done a great job rebuilding his value and up until the last couple of weeks, he was the team's best player. Of course, that team wasn't winning many games.
It's hard to imagine a way in which Tyrus stays with the team. They've been trying to trade him for years, he's never consistently put anything together, and rumors of a bad attitude often linger [which doesn't extend to his charity work, as he's genuinely one of the most charitable guys on the team when it comes to those types of projects, especially those involving kids].
After watching Tyrus for four years, there's a part of me that wants to figure out a way to keep him, especially since he's been moonlighting as "good" Tyrus since his return from injury. However, I've seen "good" Tyrus for weeks at a time only to have him disappear again later. Can Tyrus ever give you consistent shot creation offense? Can he become a 18-20 ppg type PF? It's hard to say yes, but you can't rule it out. He can get to the line at will with his athleticism, and he's the type of player you could realistically see having a good jumper as his career progresses.
When Tyrus is into the game, he's a game changer and though he's never shown the ability to do that consistently, it's always hard to give up on a guy who does it occasionally and has the threat of becoming a consistent game changer. While I think it's highly unlikely that Tyrus goes on to become a star player, would it really shock you if he developed into an all star in three years? I don't think he'll ever put it all together, but you can see so many individual pieces in his game that it's not that difficult to see how it could happen.
Hopefully, this situation is never addressed because the Bulls get one of the big three which easily trumps any potential gain they'd get out of attempting to continue to work with Tyrus vs on one of the guys they'd have to massively overpay.
With Salmons the main question is, "Does he opt out?" That's all Bulls fans are hoping for at this point out of John. I think the answer is yes. Even if he can only earn 3 years 12 million, it might make more sense for him to opt out rather than to try and prove himself next season when he's a year older, and the Bulls will be looking to move on.
If his season finishes bad enough, he'll have no choice but to opt in, but I think the option of getting added security this off season is going to be much better than next. The salary cap is likely to shrink again next year, and the pool of money out there is likely to be much smaller. Salmons, in my opinion, opts out unless he's just absolutely abysmal the rest of the way. If he can end the season with 3-4 good weeks, he's gone for sure, and he might be gone even if he can't.
Can the Bulls trade Hinrich? Would they if they could? Where is his value at? It's hard to answer these questions. He's playing out of position and his defense doesn't show up in the box score. He's the type of player who could really help a lot of teams and with just two years left wouldn't be a long term commitment for anyone.
However, it's hard to justify the 17.5 million left on his deal for those two years if a team isn't moving off an even longer term deal. Hinrich presently has an 8.7 PER and a 45.6% TS%. It requires a huge leap of faith for another team to figure he's going to come in and play better for them in a position that more naturally fits his abilities.
The Tyrus Thomas injury did more to help Taj Gibson than anyone could know. He really played poorly to start the season off, and if Tyrus had stayed healthy, Taj could have found himself without much playing time fairly quickly. However, with the Bulls having no choice but to go small or play Gibson a significant minutes he had a lot of chances to play through his mistakes and improved rapidly.
Gibson's ceiling is fairly low. As a 24 year old rookie, it's hard to project much more future growth. Even his physical development in terms of strength and size probably has limited upside at this point. However, Gibson brings enough to the table that it's easy to project him as a high quality 4th big man or a low quality 3rd big man. He's relentless in his hustle, a good offensive rebounder, a capable jump shooter when given an open shot, a decent shot blocker, and shows the capability of becoming a good defender.
Gibson needs to improve his defensive rebounding [primarily learn to box out more effectively], defensive consistency, and add strength. If he could do those things then he'd be a nice PJ Brown or Joe Smith type of player for the Bulls and move into that #2/#3 big man type role rather than the #3/#4 type big man role I'd presently project him into.
Regardless of whether he's able to improve or not going forward, Gibson has proven out to be an excellent draft pick for where he was selected. Worst case scenario, he moonlights as cheap 4th big man for the next year and a half filling a role a team typically has to spend at least 2-3 million a season on for around one million.
James Johnson's had almost the anti-Gibson season. He's shown flashes of being good, but he's rarely gotten the chance to play through his mistakes. His energy and hustle is far from relentless. When he brings it, good things happen, but he spends much of his limited playing time standing around rather than playing all out while on the floor. He hasn't built any confidence whatsoever, and he's on his way to becoming a draft bust.
There were rumors of poor work ethic in the summer, and his inability to get into proper basketball shape validates those to some extent. Johnson needs to take the game of basketball far more seriously if he's to fulfill his potential. He's not as old as Gibson, but as a 22 year old rookie he's fairly advanced in his learning curve already as well.
I think Johnson can redeem himself. He has the physical tools to become a dangerous NBA player, but he needs to completely dedicate himself to the game in order to do that. That means getting his body fat down to 7-8% and playing with constant motion while on the floor. If he can do those things, then he'll earn more court time and work through some of his offensive problems. If not, then he's not bringing nearly enough to the table offensively or defensively to stay on the court and will continue down the path to draft bust.
Vinny Del Negro
I've always stated that Vinny Del Negro wasn't the problem with the team. I don't think he's the solution, but definitely not the primary problem. He was the most likely casualty because he's the cheapest and easiest guy to replace to shake things up.
Can Vinny possibly do enough in his second year to justify the third year? Two weeks ago, I would have said that was impossible. Today? Who knows. There's disagreement on whether that third year is guaranteed, and believe me, that likely makes a considerable difference in the decision making process.
If the Bulls can continue to play well and get up to my preseason prediction of 45 wins while finishing the season strong and having a good playoff series [even if it's ultimately a loss, as long as it's a hard fought loss] then I think Vinny has to at least have a chance to stay doesn't he?
For a team that has a core of Rose, Deng, and Noah as it's likely long term pieces, he's gotten the most out of those three guys. Derrick Rose is starting to turn into a star, Deng has been healthy and playing well, Noah's thrown around in MIP conversations. Is Del Negro the cause of all of that? Probably not, but apparently he's not holding anyone back.
He's typically played the younger guys [outside of Johnson] and not relied on vets when they've stunk [Brad Miller was exiled for awhile, and Gibson has played more minutes even when both were struggling]. He's done a lot of the things we always bitch that coaches don't do.
For all of those claiming he's ruining Derrick Rose, he's done the one thing a coach has to do to develop a kid. Played him a ton. This may seem like a no brainer, but when I say played him a ton, I mean played him a ton. He was 13th in the NBA in total minutes played last season, and he missed a game.
Is Vinny the guy to lead the Bulls into the future? If the team rallies around him and continues to win, then there's no reason to answer "no" to that question. 50% of coaching is how well the players buy into what you're trying to do, and the Bulls appear to be doing that. This isn't a 50 win caliber roster, especially with Hinrich and Salmons shooting falling off the map.
The end point here is that while things sure felt helpless for Vinny at 10-17, a four game win streak certainly starts to change your mind on what might be possible in the future for him if the team keeps it up.
Gar Forman/John Paxson
As much as fans complain about the GMing of the Bulls, they went hard to position the team for 2010. A plan I've endorsed for almost three seasons. If they are successful in bringing in a big name free agent this off-season, then some will say they were lucky, but nothing would be further from the truth. They've gone hard after 2010 and made sacrifices to make it happen.
Whether those sacrifices pay off will likely define their legacy. I've generally been supportive of the management team [whomever you want to decide is pulling the strings]. On an individual basis, I have a hard time arguing with most of their transactions, but they haven't found a way to put it all together into a great team, and if they fail to land a star in 2010 it would be hard to fully endorse a management group that's built you to "mediocre" and kept you there for 6 years no matter how bad it was before they came on board.