Deconstructing the Chicago Bulls Implosion – Part 3: The Frontcourt
There’s more than a little bit up in the air with the Bulls frontcourt. Players with contracts up. Players who might be traded. Players who can’t be properly evaluated because they haven’t received proper coaching. Much like the rest of the Bulls, the front court is a mess. Let’s look at what’s there and try to sort it out.
Before getting into the actual players, it’s worth revisiting the coaching problem for the front court. When the Bulls fired Bill Cartwright, they never bothered to hire a big man coach. Mind you, this was the same genius who decided to trade established frontcourt stud Elton Brand for an unproven high school kid and then not have a big man coach to continue their development (remember. The negligence of not having a big man coach to develop their lottery picks continued until the last part of this past season when Mike Brown was added to the bench. Not particularly known as a scorer in his NBA playing days, Brown didn’t really have much time to teach much to his pupils. As a result, you’ve got some players whose progress is a little hard to evaluate, seeing as how they’ve been denied an important part of the learning process. (And please don’t try and tell me Pete Myers is a great big man coach.)
Joakim Noah: Out of all the players on the Bulls, Noah is the only one I’m 100% comfortable saying that his heart is in the right place and is completely motivated. He wants to win, the rinky dink atmosphere surrounding the team rubbed him the wrong way and he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. Noah’s effort is never in question, but his offense is. A garbage scorer, he probably has the greatest need of anyone on the team to show him some offensive footwork and a legitimate scoring move. He also could stand to put on 20lbs of muscle, but that will come easier. If they keep no one else, Noah should stay.
Aaron Gray: The best low-post scoring option, Gray’s got great size and lousy speed. In many ways, the opposite of Noah’s strength and weaknesses, Gray can command a double team on offense, but needs a fair amount of work on his defense. Being slow of foot, he especially needs some help learning about defensive positioning and footwork, to minimize his liabilities. He also needs to do some serious work on his conditioning over the off-season. He isn’t in good enough shape to play starters minutes, to judge by the last game of the season. The biggest problem that isn’t correctable is the foot speed issue. Gray is a half court banger and the rest of the Bulls are built to run. Visibly disgusted with the state of coaching, I can see where you might chicken out and trade him, but a player of his size that already has moderately well developed and effective post scoring should be kept unless you’ve got an exceptional prospect coming in.
Drew Gooden: The other post scorer on the team, Gooden was traded for, so it’s not likely he’s going anywhere. As the only finished product at the 4, you can probably pencil him in to start. Historically maligned for disappearing in games and questionable effort/motivation, Gooden still looked good in Chicago. Possibly because he seemed to be the primary scoring option at times. If he can play to his potential, you could see 20 points and 9-10 rebounds a game. If not, he still ought to be getting 15 and 7 with this group. It should also be noted Gooden has very good range for a big man.
Tyrus Thomas: Thomas is an enigma. As an early entry candidate, he really needs coaching. We know he’s freakishly athletic and very fast for his size. He can rebound a little. Past that, it’s unclear. Thomas is at his best in the open court and when he has room to drive to the basket. His 12-15 foot jumper appears sporadically. His post game largely consists of dunking and lay-ups. Bluntly, without coaching, you really don’t know what you’re looking at with Thomas. I’d hate to see him traded without a real attempt being made to teach him what an NBA power forward is. The ideal scenario is to get the new coaching staff in place, work with him over the summer and see where he is in January before deciding whether or not to punt. The Suns would find his athleticism very, very interesting. If you get too crowded, he’s a candidate to go, but his value isn’t at its highest after this season.
Andres Nocioni: Nocioni is something of a man without a position, during his stint with the Bulls. He’s not really a power forward, but he’s physical enough to get away with playing there a little bit and he’s getting paid too much to only play 20 minutes at small forward. Superior defender with the ability to get under the opponent’s skin at 2 positions. Decent-to-good rebounder. Good cutting the rim and occasionally excellent from beyond the arc. If Deng goes, he’s probably starting. If Deng stays and signs a long term contract, Nocioni is probably your most tradable asset.
Cedric Simmons: A trade throw-in, he’s signed for another year. Unless there’s significant improvement, I wouldn’t expect to see him on the court. Could be an expiring contract trade throw-in and nobody would notice.
Luol Deng: Welcome to the wide world of the maligned player. Deng was poised for a breakout year, but ended up banged up for most of the year and was distracted by a ridiculously long soap opera of a trade rumor for Kobe Bryant and what seemed to be a contentious contract negotiation. Deng is probably the best player on the team, prior to any off-season trades. Very complete, the only knock on his game would be wanting to put a couple more feet on his jumper and get a consistent 3-point threat out of him. Ice cold from mid-range, a solid defender, the question is how far can he take it when healthy. That said, he may have soured on the franchise and may need to leave. Too many local knuckleheads are up in arms that an injured Deng wasn’t first team all-NBA. If he wants to stay, you keep him. End of story. If he doesn’t, it’s sign and trade time.
Nocioni: See above.
Demetris Nichols: Who? Might be at training camp next year. Might not.
What do the Bulls need? Depending on what happens with Deng and Nocioni, they may need a small forward. While the center might be solid in a couple years with the current players, it can be upgraded in the short term. Low post scoring at any position is a need.
You’ve got three players in Noah, Gray and Thomas that are young players denied proper instruction, and there’s a question how well anyone besides Deng was utilized. Without superstars, any position could really be improved with a big trade.
Tomorrow: Looking at the Back Court