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The Bulls and The Draft: Proceed With Caution

With the NBA draft just over a week away, it is once again time to take stock of the Bulls roster and plans going forward. Besides last season, when the Bulls surprised the league by winning the NBA Draft lottery and selecting franchise point guard, Derrick Rose, the draft has not been so kind to the Bulls. Their draft history reads like a textbook on failure – Mark Randall, Byron Houston, Corie Blount, Dickie Simpkins, Jason Caffey, Travis Knight, Keith Booth, Corey Benjamin. Geez! I'm not going to go back year-by-year, but who would of you wanted to have more - Jason Caffey or Michael Finley? Mind you that these picks were made in the Jordan-era, but when the Bulls had the opportunity to select higher and in a more desirable draft position, post-Jordan, their drafts were peppered with mistakes, busts and simply, pure bad luck. Remember Marcus Fizer, Jamal Crawford, Dalibor Bagaric, Eddy Curry and Jay Williams? Since the Jay Williams debacle, the Bulls have drafted some nice pieces – Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah, and of course, Derrick Rose. Yet, out of these past few drafts, where the Bulls have selected in the top-10, they have not been able to draft a “franchise player” until Rose was in their lap. Unfortunately, this year’s NBA draft class ranks as one of the shallowest in recent memory, along the lines of the 2000 draft, where the best player selected did not come until round two – Michael Redd.

This year, the Bulls have two first round picks – their own at number 16 and number 26, which the Bulls received when they sent Thabo Sefalosha to Oklahoma City at last year’s trade deadline. The Bulls will not be looking for stars, rather key pieces who can come in and play right away. To get a better idea of who the Bulls might select, let’s examine the team position-by-position:

Point Guard – The Bulls should be set at this position for the next ten years with Rose manning the spot. Nobody expected the kind of impact Rose had on the Bulls last season. The idea going into the season was to bring Rose off the bench and ease him into the game. Going into the season, I thought a good season for Rose would be 11 or 12 points and maybe 4 or 5 assists per game - I'd be happy with that. That plan was scrapped in the pre-season when Rose’s play forced the team into giving him the keys to the car. Rose showed the league what all of the prognosticators had indicated – Derrick Rose will not just be a star, but a superstar – just look at what he did in the playoffs, on the big stage, this past season. With an off-season of hard work and perhaps playing in the Team USA camp this summer, Rose should be able to take the next step in the 2009-10 season.

After Rose, things get a little bit more complicated. The question is, does the team keep Kirk Hinrich, the previous starting point guard? Hinrich played his role superbly this season, providing outside shooting, a more than capable fill in for Rose and strong defense off the bench. This is all great, but do you really want to pay $10 million to a piece off the bench?

Shooting Guard – The second question – does the team give unrestricted free agent, Ben Gordon a huge pay-day? In the last two off-seasons, Gordon has turned down offers in excess of $10 million per year. With yet another year of leading the team in scoring, Gordon expects to be paid that amount, if not more. Yes, Gordon is a fantastic and rare pure scorer, but his ball handling and reluctance to pass the ball can be detriments to the team. The decision very well might come down to do the Bulls keep Hinrich or Gordon? What will temper the loss of one of these two players is having John Salmons for an entire season. Salmons was the big 2-guard that the team has been missing for years. Salmons can hit the outside shots, as well as create for himself and take the ball to the lane. His size allows him to guard many of the shooting guards in the league that Gordon cannot. Additionally, Salmons can play at the small forward position, making him even that more an important and productive piece. If Gordon leaves, the next player will have to really step up.....

Small Forward – Here’s the hoping that Luol Deng will pick up where he left off at after the all-star break and before his season-ending injury. It seemed that Deng took a step back last season, but in all honesty, he was injured for most of the season. Deng is still viewed as part of the Bull’s core, is only 24 years old and should have his best basketball ahead of him if he can stay healthy. We will mention Salmons here again, as he will spell Deng at times when he is not playing shooting guard.

Power Forward – Now this is where things are a bit trickier for the team. Tyrus Thomas is the clear starter at this position. Thomas has yet to live up to his potential and hype, but in the second half of last season, Thomas showed glimpses of what the Bulls had hoped for when they traded LaMarcus Aldridge to Portland for the rights to Thomas. Thomas is a player who is capable of leading the league in blocked shots and averaging near a double-double, yet Thomas is incredibly inconsistent – some nights looking like a potential star and other nights where he just looks overmatched by bigger power forwards. Now, news out of the IMG Academy in Florida says that Thomas would like to play at the small forward position. This is not a good development for a team that is counting on him to guard the likes of Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer and Dirk Nowitzki. Thomas is really under the gun next season to produce. More on this position later.

Center – The Bulls seem set at this position for next season. Joakim Noah, after getting into shape late in the season, has the makings of one of the better centers in the league. You would be hard pressed to find another player in the game that has the intensity, desire and energy that Noah brings to the game. He does a bit of everything – passes well out of the post, hustles for rebounds and has developed into one of the better shot blockers in the league. He is never going to average 20 points per game, but averaging a double-double along with two blocks per game is a rare commodity in this league….just look at his performance against the Celtics in the play-offs. And remember, Noah will only be going into his third year and his first of starting from day 1. Backing-up Noah was another steal at the trade deadline for the Bulls – Brad Miller. Miller is older than the previous version the team saw in the early 2000s, but Miller has to be one of the best back-up centers in the league. He compliments Noah perfectly, even allowing Noah to slide over to power forward when Miller is in the game. Although some of his skills have eroded, Miller is still a fantastic passer out of the post, a rebounding presence and someone the Bulls can run a pick and roll with. For the 2009-10 season, the Bulls should be set at the center position.

What does all of this mean for the upcoming NBA Draft? Well, the Bulls will have some questions to answer. Do they draft a point guard and trade Hinrich? Do they let go of Gordon and draft shooting guard? And do they need to look for a power forward who can provide some low post scoring? Or do they just draft the best available player regardless of position. From my perspective, with the #16 pick, the Bulls should zero-in on a few players that should be available – DeJuan Blair (PF/Pittsburgh), James Johnson (SF/Wake Forest), Earl Clark (SF/Louisville), BJ Mullens (C/Ohio State), and Tyler Hansbrough (PF/UNC). Out of these choices, Blair and Hansbrough would provide the most immediate assistance. Blair is tough as nails around the basket – think Ben Wallace – but is not much of a scorer. Hansbrough, from reports, had a fantastic combine performance and has shown well in individual workouts. He is not going to be a superstar, or even Kevin Love, but he is a hard worker with a high motor. The interesting picks though could be Johnson, Clark and Mullens. Johnson is a small forward in a power forwards body (6’8”, 257lbs) – he can bang down-low, but also has the speed to slash into the lane or even step out and hit a three pointer. Clark could be the second coming of Shawn Marion. Either of these two could spell the end of Tyrus Thomas’ tenure in Chicago. Mullens is the most raw out of these front court players. Before entering college, Mullens was considered a top-5 pick in the draft, but while at Ohio State, never really showed flashes of greatness. Still, it is not often that you have the opportunity to draft a seven-footer who has a potentially pretty good offensive game. Picking Mullens though would be a project with an eye on developing him for the 2010-11 season when Brad Miller will most likely depart.

With the second first round pick, the Bulls can take the best player available regardless of position. Depending on the Hinrich-Gordon situations, taking a back-court player might be the best option. If Hinrich is the odd man out, a back-up point guard might be the way to go with players like Darren Collison and Ty Lawson expected to be available. Both, although not scorers, have great slashing ability, good vision and are solid defenders. Either would make a good back-up to Derrick Rose. If it appears that Gordon is on his way out of town, players the Bulls will consider would be Wayne Ellington, Toney Douglass, Chase Bundinger and Terrence Williams. Ellington is a sniper with decent size for the position. Douglass, although undersized for a shooting guard (6’2”), is a great on-the-ball defender. Bundinger is a bit of an enigma. He is an outstanding athlete with explosive jumping ability and a good shooter, but sometimes his head is not in the game and isn’t much of a defender. Williams too is an enigma. He never really lived up to his potential at Louisville, but can do a bit of everything when on. With a strong supporting cast, Williams’ all-around game could shine and be a steal at this juncture of the first round.

Needless to say, this week leading up to the draft could get very interesting. Do the Bulls trade their picks for an experienced big-man, such as Chris Kaman? Do they package their picks and a player (Hinrich) to move up in the draft? Or do they keep their picks and concentrate on free agency and trades after the Gordon situation sorts itself out? Only time will tell. Check back in the days leading up to the draft for the latest developments and analysis.

Brad Marcus!

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