by Russ Bengtson

(For the rest of the season previews, go here.)

I’m not sure what’s more frustrating—rooting for a bad team that is going absolutely nowhere, or rooting for a good team that can only go so far. (OK, actually I know full well which is more frustrating, I’m just trying to make Lang feel better.) The Chicago Bulls are a very good team. Will they make the playoffs? Yes. Will they win 50 games? Yes (52-30 sounds about right). Will they be better than last year? Yes. Will they be amongst the top four teams in the East? Yes. Will they win an NBA Championship? No (although they should reach the Eastern Conference Finals). And that’s where the problems start.

Actually, the problems start in the paint, where the Bulls haven’t had a legitimate low-post scoring threat since Michael Jordan circa 1998 and Bill Cartwright (and his Killer Fatal Elbows of Death) circa 1993. This is a problem that is blatantly obvious to everyone except John Paxson, apparently, who has done next to nothing to address it. The tragedy of it all is that Michael Sweetney had the ability to be that guy, but instead focused his attention on becoming the next Kobayashi and should have a tremendous future in Sumo, should he choose to pursue it. P.J. Brown did a decent job last year for a 60-year-old—and I suppose there’s still a chance he returns for another go-round—but forcing fans to watch both he AND Ben Wallace shoot free throws for another season is just plain cruel. (New addition Joe Smith, an 80 percent career shooter from the stripe, will be a relative delight.)

The problems continue in the backcourt where, unless Ben Gordon received a few packages intended for Rick Ankiel, the Bulls give up size to everyone except the Spirit. Gordon is a tremendous spree scorer, and Kirk Hinrich is a talented floor general and defender—both are All-Star talents—but 6-3 backcourts just don’t cut it in 2007. If it was 1957 they could body Cousy and Sharman, but it isn’t. Hopefully second-year Swiss two-guard Thabo Sefolosha has been working out hard this summer, because minutes will be there for the taking. (Sorry, Chris Duhon.)

Anyway, enough of this glass half-empty stuff. There are positives, of course, starting with small forward Luol Deng, who should finally become an All-Star in name as well as game. Deng, who spent the summer playing for his semi-native England following the sort of breakout playoff performance that led divisionmates Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince to League-wide stardom, will be a household name come Christmastime. Count on it.

Then there’s the one household name the Bulls already have, former Piston Ben Wallace. His numbers dropped across the board last season as he struggled some while adjusting to a new system, a new coach, and a dearth of headbands (you’ll never see this in real life). Oh yeah, and a bunch of people stressing about his max-money contract (which, according to ESPN’s Trade Machine, will pay him more this year than Deng, Gordon, Tyrus Thomas and Chris Duhon combined). Headbandgate is over, and the contract junkies will move on to new prey—Rashard Lewis and Shawn Marion seem likely candidates. Freed to just play ball (in his new $15 sneakers), Wallace will hopefully return to his Rodman-with-a-carry-on defensive and rebounding form and continue imparting his hard-earned wisdom to his younger teammates.

Which brings us to second-year jumping jack Tyrus Thomas. Getting by primarily on his freakish physical ability and an uncanny sense of timing, Thomas played a mere 13.4 mpg last year and still earned second-team All-Rookie honors. If he can do a better job staying out of foul trouble, and build on some of the success he had in the playoffs (he averaged 8 points and 5 boards in 17 minutes per against the Pistons), he should see an increase in minutes and effectiveness. It would be a bonus if he could add a consistent low-post scoring move, but these things take time. (In the weight room especially—at 6-9, 215 pounds, Thomas isn’t exactly Tim Duncan. Hell, he’s not even Tim Thomas.)

Currently, the Bulls’s best low-post scorer is probably freshly re-signed small forward Andres Nocioni, who’s coming off the world’s worse case of plantar fasciitis and just signed a new five-year deal for somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million. Nice neighborhood. The Argentine is by far the Bulls best flopper, and even if he has a propensity to wander out to the three-point line too much, he simply CAN’T be as bad in the playoffs this year as he was last year. That’s a plus. It would also help if he didn’t miss 29 games and he played more of them like this.

Then there’s lottery pick Joakim Noah, who went from the possible first overall pick in ’06 to ninth in ’07. A fortuitous drop after the Knicks lottery went wrong (OK, who forgot to freeze the envelope?), Noah should see some minutes behind Wallace, Thomas and Smith. The concern is that he’s a mere carbon copy of Wallace—a pure energy guy with little or no offensive skills. We’ll see. Worst case scenario, he can be dangled as trade bait for a true low-post scorer or a big two. That is, of course, if the Bulls ever actually make a trade.

I went to Chicago in late February last year to report a Bulls story that ran in SLAM 108. What I found was a team that got along very well, a coach who trusted his front office, and a front office and city that loved their players. All well and good, but also scary. Because I’m not sold that the Bulls as currently constructed are a championship team. Contender? Yes. In the wide-open East, anyone can make the Finals (I can think of a good 10 or a dozen teams that, assuming they make the playoffs to begin with, could get on a run.) But I can’t see the Bulls competing with the Spurs, Suns or whoever makes it out of the West without a low-post threat or a true alpha-dog scorer (I’m not convinced that either Deng or Gordon is, or will ever be, that). And when you love your players as much as Pax and Skiles seem to, you’re averse to trading them. If the Bulls don’t make a move, they might plateau this year. And while 52-53 wins and a second- or third-round playoff exit may be good enough in some cities (last year it was 49 and the Conference Semis), most cities aren’t Chicago.

Dream scenario? Get the key young guys (Sefolosha, Thomas and Noah) playing early and often. Turn a couple of the other young pieces (second-round picks Aaron Gray and JamesOn Curry, and still-young small forward Victor Khyrapa, for starters) and an expiring contract (Chris Duhon) into a veteran who can actually score in the paint. Keep the offense running much the way it did last year, with lots of cutters and drivers and mid-range jumpers and kickouts for open threes, only with a legit low-post option to keep defenders honest. Don’t be afraid to deal a major piece if the right offer presents itself, but avoid giving up too much for shiny brass rings like Shawn Marion or Kobe Bryant. (OK, maybe trade for Kobe. Andrei Kirilenko would fit nicely into Skiles’s gameplan, but matching his contract would be an adventure.) And then go out there and beat Detroit. Please.