Enemy: Chicago Bulls
Coach: Tom Thibodeau
Potential Starting 5: Derrick Rose*, Richard Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah
Other Key Players: Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson, Nate Robinson, Jimmy Butler, Marco Belinelli
Threats: Interior hustle, Steady players on the wing, Multi-faceted offense, Team defense
Grizzlies 2011-12 Record vs.: 1-1
Few fan bases have grown as accustomed to winning as Chicago Bulls fans did during the 90’s. Michael Jordan really spoiled the city, as he, Scottie Pippen, and the great Phil Jackson set the bar for success in the NBA at astronomical heights during their dynastic reign of terror. As a result, Bulls fans have been eager to latch on to any shade of hope that they can find, telling them that the next Bulls dynasty is around the corner. In the early 2000’s, after stockpiling lottery players in the wake of their initial post-Jordan foibles, they looked to be in great shape for the future, with a core group constructed around Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Tyson Chandler, and Eddy Curry. However, that team fell off the horse quicker than a drunken rider at a rodeo, and it was back to the drawing board. Fortunes began to look up again, when the Bulls net top pick Derrick Rose, in 2008, and the franchise has yet to look back. Which leads us to where they are today: they’re a very talented team capable of causing absolute chaos in the regular season, but find themselves one debilitating step away from becoming the NBA equivalent of a guy that gets stuck in the friend zone. Rose’s injury aside, there are still lingering concerns about whether or not this team can seal the deal as constructed. A little more frugal than their fellow large-market friends in Miami and Los Angeles, the Bulls will not wave a magic wand to spend their way to a title, and thus must rely on San Antonio-like player development to push them over the top. A consequence of this type of management style, the Bulls lost the majority of their wildly effective Bench Mob in the offseason. CJ Watson, Omer Asik, John Lucas III, Kyle Korver, and Ronnie Brewer are all in the process of settling in elsewhere, which left the current roster with a number of question marks heading into this season.
I’m not going to focus on the Bulls’ starting lineup all that much, because the fact of the matter is that we know what they’re going to get out of them. In the post, Joakim Noah is quietly one of the best young big men in the game, with his high level of activity, relentless aggression on the boards, and an emerging post game, while Carlos Boozer will again be steadily disappointing, but still produce at a level of “enough to get by.” On the wings, Luol Deng was rewarded with an all-star appearance, and has proven to be as stable as they come, while Rip Hamilton, when healthy, is an incredibly reliable and extensively seasoned assassin from mid to long range. Of course, now Rose’s ACL poses a problem in which the Bulls will have to call upon a former strength, depth and resiliency, to alleviate. As indicated earlier, it is quite troublesome to note that this depth appears to be fleeting, but the Bulls will attempt to do what fiscally responsible contenders before them have learned to do with efficiency: avoid over-paying role players and move on. In lieu of the Bench Mob guards of old, Kirk Hinrich returns to Chicago along with Rose-like rookie, Marquis Teague, and frequent traveler, Nate Robinson. All three of these guys will get plenty of burn to showcase what they can bring to the table with Rose out of action at least until the all-star break. The construction of the rest of the group remains largely similar, as Marco Belinelli and Vladamir Radmonovic will step in to fill the Kyle Korver-sharpshooter requirement, Jimmy Butler hopes to assume the Ronnie Brewer role, and Kyrylo Fesenko and Nazr Mohammed will battle it out in audition for Omer Asik’s place in the lineup next to the uber-productive Taj Gibson. Barring further injury, however, the Bulls roster and payroll projects to be a little bit lighter beyond the trade deadline, seeing as they currently sit above the luxury tax line, a place that they have yet to find themselves in franchise history.
From the Grizzlies perspective, it was an early season “three-letter-word” whipping at the hands of the Bulls and tough matchup, Rose, that sent Jeremy Pargo plummeting back to Earth. Believe it or not there was a brief (very brief) point in time in which we were lead to believe that Chris Wallace finally caught the ever-elusive “lightning in a bottle,” as Pargo showed out tremendously in his first couple games last year. Then he decided he was never going to pass the ball again. Anyways, I digress. That night, my girlfriend and I invited a couple who happen to be Bulls fans over to watch the game. Needless to say, there has never been a point in time… I’m talking the Thabeet draft pick, the Pau trade (before we knew who Marc was), the back-to-back-to-back playoff sweeps all considered… in which I was more embarrassed of the Grizzlies (although the subsequent playoff flop vs. LA gave it a run for its money). I know we were Conley-less and lost Randolph along the way, but that game was over from the opening tip, and there is no excuse for getting beat on by 40 under any circumstances. The next go around, we were able to redeem ourselves to some extent, winning handedly on Martin Luther King Day, but undoubtedly aided by the fact that Rose was hanging out in a suit. Assuming both teams are at full strength, the Bulls figure to be a handful for us. We do an excellent job of pressuring the ball and getting teams to turn the ball over, but we do a miserable job of handling teams that do that to us. Along with the pressure they exert, the Bulls do a fantastic job of communicating and rotating as to not expose themselves to open shooters. As a side-note, this is something that the Grizz must become more efficient at doing, in order to gamble and force turnovers the way that we do, with some degree of sustainability. Regardless, the Bulls will likely be without Rose when we play them and while I’m not confident that it will equate to an easy victory in our favor, it can’t hurt our cause. If pressed, I say we split the season set.