Big Ben Wallace has brought the championship feeling back to Chicago, Isiah Thomas is about to get torn a new one by the tabloids in New York, and Ron Artest is continuing his rap act in Sacramento. That’s right, ladies and gentleman… it’s the start of another NBA season (cue the John Tesch music). Here’s my preview of the Bulls and the rest of the NBA:
1) A New Bull Market – From the moment that I can first remember ever watching sports until my college years, the Chicago Bulls were my favorite team. My bedroom was a shrine to Michael Jordan with posters, basketball cards, and books. At the same time, I shot hoops on a daily basis at the playground with my MJ-endorsed Wilson basketball while wearing my #23 jersey and shorts. While the Bears and White Sox continuously found ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory during my childhood, MJ, Scottie Pippen, and the rest of the Bulls came through to give me the most vivid sports memories of my lifetime.
That obviously all changed after MJ’s schooling of Byron Russell for his real final shot in 1998 to clinch the 6th Bulls championship. (Wizards? I don’t know what you’re talking about.) Virtually overnight, the Bulls went from being the ultimate standard of excellance in the world of sports to the laughing stock of the NBA.
It has taken eight long and stomach-churning seasons with an astounding number of setbacks that I don’t want to rehash here, but the Bulls have finally climbed back to the position where they are legitmate contenders to reach the pinnacle of the NBA once again. Let’s give kudos to John Paxson for making some incredible personnel moves through the draft and free agency to bring the Bulls back to life.
As you probably know, the Bulls’ most signicant change from the offseason is the addition of Ben Wallace, which finally gives the team a defensive presence down on the block as well as some big-time veteran leadership. This move was augmented by the acquisition of P.J. Brown from Charlotte in exchange for Tyson Chandler (the last vestige of the Jerry Krause Era) and the draft night additions of Tyrus Thomas, Viktor Khryapa, and Thabo Sefalosha. All of these guys fit the mold of what John Paxson and coach Scott Skiles are looking for: long, fast, and athletic defensive players. It’s clear that the Bulls will be the top defensive team in the league this season.
Of course, the common question posed by nearly everyone is whether the Bulls will have enough offensive firepower to go along with the stifling defense. The conventional wisdom is that the balance of power in the league is with the run-and-gun offenses, such as the Phoenix Suns, as opposed to the defensive-oriented teams like the Bulls and Pistons. To me, however, this is a load of propoganda advanced by those that want to bring back the 140-135 regulation scores from the early ’80s. As evidenced by the meltdown by the Mavericks in the NBA Finals last year and the failure of the Suns to even advance to the Finals despite scoring at will over the past couple of seasons, a top flight defense is an absolute necessity to win a championship. That’s been the common thread between the Bad Boy Pistons, the MJ-led Bulls dynasty, the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, and every other championship squad from the past two decades. I’ll take a great defensive team over a sexy scoring unit every single time.
That being said, I believe that the Bulls will be able to get quite a few points for a two big reasons. First, the Bulls can score fast break points in transition as well as anyone. While most defensive-oriented teams have the reputation of slowing down the game to limit scoring, the Bulls instead have a deep athletic team that loves to run and keep the tempo of the game high. Second, the nucleus of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, and Luol Deng are all poised to make the proverbial leap to the next level. Many would argue Hinrich is already there, although his shooting percentage still needs to come up a bit to match his superior ball handling skills. Gordon has always been an electrifying scorer, but we’re still looking for a little more consistency from him. The real X-factor is how much Luol Deng improves this season. If he stays injury-free, he could very well become the top all around player on the team that’s the go-to guy that the Bulls have been lacking. In my opinion, how well the Bulls will do this season will depend upon the progress of Luol Deng more than anyone else.
Which brings us to where I believe the Bulls will end up…
2) Eastern Conference Projections – The Eastern Conference is as competitive as ever, but this might finally be Chicago’s turn to shine again. (The Chicago Tribune has a nice summation of the team’s strengths and weaknesses in today’s paper.) I still have a man crush for Dwyane Wade, yet Shaq’s decline is going to be a lot more pronounced this year for Miami. Unless Wade can start scoring over 30 points a game without any injuries or burning out from having played more games than any other player in the NBA over the past year (a result of going to the NBA Finals plus playing for Team USA), the Heat aren’t going to put Pat Riley in a position to cash in on his Three-Peat trademark in 2007-08. At the same time, I believe that the Pistons are going to miss Ben Wallace a whole lot more than they care to admit. Detroit fans can squawk about Nazr Mohammed giving them similar production in the low post, but they know in their hearts that the soul and leadership of that team laid in the big afro.
As a Bulls fan, there is one team from the East that would really scare me in a playoff situation: the Cleveland Cavaliers. I get the feeling that LeBron James’ presence in Cleveland is karmic payback for all of those years that MJ made Craig Ehlo his bitch. Sure, the team around LeBron makes the first few Jordan Bulls clubs look extremely balanced by comparison, but he has simply killed the Bulls since he’s come into the league like no one else. As a basketball fan in general, I can’t get enough of watching Bron-Bron, but I want no part of him going up against the Bulls in the postseason.
On the bottom end of the spectrum, despite the well-documented ineptitude of Isiah Thomas with the Knicks, he has somehow fleeced the majority of the national and New York media into believing that his team will actually improve this season with him taking the coaching reins as opposed to Hall of Fame Xs-and-Os man Larry Brown. I call bullshit. Isiah had underwhelming coaching performances with the Indiana Pacers when they were absolutely loaded with talent while competing in the vacuum immediately following MJ’s real retirement after the ’98 season, so it’s incredulous to believe that he’s going to turn around a bunch of overpaid babies this time around. There are still better than even odds that Greg Oden is going to end up in a Bulls uniform next to Ben Wallace next season (this is the hope that’s going to massage the fact that Oden is going to tear through the Illini and the rest of the Big Ten with Ohio State this year), which only Atlanta or Charlotte can prevent. Regardless, with the proverbial athletic freak in Tyrus Thomas already on the roster (it took less than four quarters of play in the NBA for him to break his nose) as a result of the Eddy Curry trade, Isiah Thomas is already in contention for being the best GM in Bulls history.
All in all, I’m drinking the Bulls kool-aid this season. As long as they can avoid the Cavs in the postseason, I foresee them winning the East and heading toward their first NBA Finals since the Jordan era.
Eastern Conference Final Standings Prediction: (1) Chicago Bulls, (2) Cleveland Cavaliers, (3) New Jersey Nets, (4) Detroit Pistons, (5) Washington Wizards, (6) Miami Heat, (7) Indiana Pacers, (8) Orlando Magic, (9) Boston Celtics, (10) Milwaukee Bucks, (11) Philadelphia 76ers, (12) Toronto Raptors, (13) Atlanta Hawks, (14) New York Knicks, (15) Charlotte Bobcats
3) Western Conference Projections – Somehow, Texas, the world’s hotbed of football, now boasts arguably the three best basketball teams in the world. It’s a boring pick, but it’s difficult to pick anyone other than the San Antonio Spurs to come out of the West as long as Tim Duncan is at full strength. The Dallas Mavericks are still going to be in the mix, yet my feeling is that they squandered their best chance for a championship with their collapse in the 4th quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals last year – that was as close as you could get to a Buckner/Bartman type of performance in pro basketball (for the college basketball version, please see the Arizona Wildcats vs. the Illinois Fighting Illini in the 2005 NCAA Chicago Regional Final). There’s a lot of bad chi around Mark Cuban’s team IMHO. The real wild card for me is Houston, with the Tracy McGrady/Yao Ming combo poised to finally fulfill its potential plus Bonzi Wells, Shane Battier, and my main Illini man Luther Head. From my perspective, the Rockets are going to vault past the Mavs and become the new challenger to the Spurs this year. (If you have access to the Wall Street Journal, there’s an insightful piece today about how Houston is beginning to apply “Moneyball”-style quantitative analysis to basketball.)
As for the rest of the West, as long as the Phoenix Suns continue to refuse to play defense, whether or not Amare Stoudemire is healthy, they aren’t getting very far. As I alluded to before, I’m personally sick of how we’ve had several years of talk about how open floor offensive-oriented teams such as the Suns and Mavs are going to take over the NBA and how every league rule change has been made to aid them (for other sports, see also Peyton Manning’s Colts and the lineup for the Yankees), yet when it comes to the playoffs, the teams with the better defensive units always prevail in the end. We’re also heading into year 2 of bizarro world where the Clippers are considered to be a step ahead of the cross-the-hallway Lakers. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Kobe Bryant, with him chucking up 50 shots a game, is doing the reverse-MJ career arc. The Lakers at least rewarded Illinois great Brian Cook with a nice new contract extension the other day. On another note, if Sam Smith has anything to do with it, Kevin Garnett will be involved in about 20 personnel moves by the trade deadline in February (15 of which will be with the Bulls). We won’t even get into the fact that Don Nelson is back on the sidelines with Golden State. (I long for the days of Run-TMC and the Killer Crossover.)
Meanwhile, the Utah Jazz have become my second favorite NBA team for an obvious reason: Jerry Sloan’s club boasts three members of the 2005 Illini Final Four team on its roster with Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Roger Powell Jr. When taking into the consideration of Head’s presence in Houston and James Augustine initiating his pro career with the Magic this year, that means that the entire starting lineup from that Illinois team has made it to the NBA, which IlliniBoard points out might be the first for any college program since the “Fab Five” Michigan team. (Let me know if you can think of any other college squad since the early ’90s that has accomplished this – I don’t have time to research this subject right now.) I held out the hope that the Jazz-Rockets matchup last night would yield a moment where Williams, Brown, Powell, and Head would all be on the floor at the same time (FYI – if you have DirecTV, NBA League Pass is free for everyone this week), but it looks like Dee and Roger are going to be relegated to mostly garbage time minutes. Still, I got a huge kick out of watching Deron and Luther guard each other for awhile in the second quarter… it got a little misty in the Frank the Tank household there.
But I digress. As much fun as all of the West will be, the boring old Spurs still have too much. Plus, there seems to be a trend with them winning every other year.
Western Conference Final Standings Prediction: (1) San Antonio Spurs, (2) Houston Rockets, (3) Dallas Mavericks, (4) Los Angeles Clippers, (5) Phoenix Suns, (6) Los Angeles Lakers, (7) Denver Nuggets, (8) Utah Jazz, (9) Minnesota Timberwolves, (10) Sacramento Kings, (11) New Orleans Hornets, (12) Memphis Grizzlies, (13) Seattle Supersonics, (14) Golden State Warriors, (15) Portland Trailblazers
4) Over/Under on Number of Games Ron Artest Will Miss Due To Suspensions – 12
5) Over/Under on Number of Games Ron Artest Will Miss Due To Promotions For His Rap Album – 15
6) NBA Finals Projection – You know that I love the Bulls, but Tim Duncan and company are due again. The pick: San Antonio Spurs over Chicago Bulls in 6.
(Images from Bulls.com, Slam Online, Jim Bell Designs)