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The Ben-less Bulls

By George Ofman

Ben Gordon is gone, and to the Pistons, no less.

He leaves behind nearly 20 points a game, a solid reputation on and off the floor, and the ability to carry a team in the fourth quarter.

Fantasy Fix:
  • Ditch Forte?

  • So who replaces the leading scorer who also doubled as your go-to guy?

    Better hope the sophomore jinx is just a hoax.

    Derrick Rose, come on down! And bring some help. You'll need it.

    Pundits, or in this case, the ill-informed, might blurt out the Bulls are better off without Gordon because he was a defensive disaster and stymied Rose's growth as The Man.

    This is the same so-called liability that played on Bulls teams that finished first in the league in defending the shot in '04-'05 and '05-'06, and second in the league in '06-'07.

    Then Scott Skiles was shown the door and and when he left he took the Bulls' ability to defend anything with him.

    Yet, despite the departure of Gordon and his suspect defense, the Bulls should finish second in the Central Division. This is like being handed the keys to a Yaris. It runs, but don't expect a Lexis.

    Then again, the Eastern Conference is an invitation to mediocrity, save for a very few. A .500 record could earn you a sixth seed, maybe even a fifth and possibly a lead role on Survivor. The Bulls checked in at 41-41 last season, good enough for the seventh spot and a spectacularly entertaining - though very deceiving - seven-game playoff thriller against the Celtics, replete with myriad overtimes, gushing admirers and oozing optimism about what lies ahead.

    What lies ahead could be another .500 season, another trip to the post-season and perhaps, another one-and-done.

    It all depends.

    Can Luol Deng retrieve his game of three seasons ago when he averaged nearly 19 points on 52 percent shooting?

    Can Kirk Hinrich adhere to coming off the bench and retrieve his game of three seasons ago when he averaged 16 points a game?

    Can Tyrus Thomas harness a bundle of talent and become the impact player he says he wants to be?

    Can Joakim Noah ruffle enough feathers to be a worthwhile contributor on a consistent basis?

    Can Vinny Del Negro learn to coach better?

    That's a lot of questions to answer.

    Deng claims he's a rhythm player so start dancing again. Deng missed the last 29 games of the season because of a stress fracture in his right tibia. Some fans were stressed out because Deng was starting to look and play soft before being rendered useless. Let's face it: you expect more from a guy getting paid $71 million, and you should. Deng has to be in rhythm with Rose first, something he had trouble adjusting to. Here's your dance partner, Luol.

    Hinrich also missed a slew of games because of a thumb injury. He's more than a role player; Hinrich is arguably the Bulls best defensive player and you know he'll average more than 10 points if he plays 80 games, even if he comes off the bench.

    And then there is Thomas, an enigma wrapped up in a body that can conquer the court. But will he let his mind into this picture? Remember, Thomas is all of 23 and had he stayed in college, this would be his rookie season. Still, his numbers have steadily risen while dealing with seemingly more head coaches than Matt Forte rushing yards. There is no doubt he has talent. Thomas managed 18 double-doubles last season.

    Noah is character, though he started to emerge in the second half of the season. He averaged nine and nine in February, March and April and made his presence known in the playoffs. Fewer fouls might mean more minutes.

    Del Negro reaped a heap of criticism in his first year - deservedly so. He needs to stress defense since the Bulls finished 23rd last season. He needs to understand what a clock means especially late in games. And he needs to allow Rose to grow even if it means letting him play crucial fourth-quarter minutes. This could very well be Del Negro's last season no matter how the Bulls fare.

    I predicted the Bulls to go 43-39 last season. I'm predicting exactly the same this season, with a trip to the playoffs and . . . another first-round knockout. It won't matter who they play.

    -

    George Ofman, an original member of The Score and a veteran of NPR, has covered more than 3,500 sporting events over the course of his career. Comments welcome.


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