|With core intact, Bulls look to make noise in Eastern Conference after quiet summer|
|Written by Admin|
|Saturday, 27 October 2007 12:19|
Simply making the playoffs isn't good enough anymore for the Chicago Bulls. Winning a series won't cut it, either.
``Knowing where we went last year, I think we could do a lot better,'' forward Luol Deng said.
The Bulls went to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since their golden era, and now, they want more. To get there, they're relying more on improvement from within than any major roster additions. That's because there weren't any in the offseason.
Chicago barely made a ripple over the summer after causing a big wave a year earlier, when it signed Ben Wallace. Now, the Bulls are preaching the virtues of continuity.
``We went into the offseason knowing that it was going to be quiet, that we were going to try to keep our guys together and maintain some continuity,'' coach Scott Skiles said. ``We don't make any secret about it: We like our core group of players that have been here and we'll just try to add to it.''
That core group - Deng and guards Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich - has taken the Bulls from the bottom of the NBA to a contender for the Eastern Conference championship. They won 49 games, swept defending champion Miami after back-to-back first-round playoff exits, and put up a fight after dropping the first three games against Detroit in the conference semifinals. They won two before bowing out in Game 6.
It was a big step for a franchise that hadn't won a series since capturing the title in 1998 and endured a painful rebuilding process.
``We're definitely excited about where we're at,'' Hinrich said.
Taking that next step won't be easy. The Bulls may be better, but the East is, too.
LeBron James and defending conference champion Cleveland aren't going away, and the same probably goes for Detroit. Like the Bulls, Toronto figures to be a year older and better. Miami, New Jersey and Washington should be in the mix, and then there are New York and Boston.
The Knicks could be dangerous if newcomer Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry coexist, and the Celtics finally have someone to complement Paul Pierce - Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
The Bulls? They still don't have a proven inside scorer.
Veteran forward Joe Smith could help, but the Bulls certainly did not raise many eyebrows when they signed him. They went for a big man in the draft, taking Joakim Noah with the ninth pick, but he's known more for his energy than his moves around the basket. The same goes for Tyrus Thomas, the raw forward who at times electrified the crowd with his dunks and blocks as a rookie last season.
The Bulls had a chance to land a dominant big man before last year's trade deadline, but passed on Memphis' Pau Gasol because the Grizzlies asked for Deng in return.
Their reluctance to trade him is understandable. Same goes for Gordon.
Deng is coming off a breakout season in which he set career highs in scoring (18.8), rebounding (7.1), assists (2.5), steals (1.18), field goal percentage (.517) and foul shooting (.777). Gordon, often the subject of trade rumors, averaged a career-high 21.4 points.
Both are fourth-year players and have made it clear they want to stay in Chicago.
Both will become restricted free agents at the end of the season if they don't sign extensions by the Oct. 31 deadline. A year ago, Hinrich signed a five-year, $47.5 million extension at the last minute, and a similar scenario might unfold this season.
``Everybody's talking about it and it should be in the back of my mind,'' Deng said. ``But honestly, I just want to focus on basketball. ... I'm happy here. I like the situation I'm in. I'd love to be here.''
There are other issues surrounding the Bulls, such as forward Andres Nocioni's health and their ability to avoid a slow start.
Nocioni missed 28 of 29 games down the stretch last season because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot and wasn't his usual energetic self during the playoffs. He dropped 10 pounds during the offseason and appears to be fine.
The slow starts?
The Bulls have overcome three in a row, and they'd rather not make it four straight. They're older now, more mature and, they think, better.
``Last year, we did great but we can do a lot better this year,'' Deng said. ``We have a lot of experience now, and I think we're more mature in terms of how to handle games and in terms of knowing what we need to do out there.''