The Chicago Bulls face an enormous frontline test this year within the Central Division, and if the initial returns are any indication, they may not like what they get on their report card.
Their Bulls frontcourt over the last three years has been a huge part of the team's success. Luol Deng and Joakim Noah have been All-Stars, and both have made appearances on All-Defensive teams. Boozer, while not the 20-point, 10-rebound player Bulls fans had hoped for when he signed as a free agent, has been better than he’s credited with being. His backup, Taj Gibson, is good enough to start for half the teams in the NBA.
That frontcourt has a track record of efficiency. According to Hoopsstats.com, it was fifth in the NBA in net efficiency in 2010-2011, despite Kurt Thomas starting 39 games as Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer alternated injuries that season.
That is the past, though. The head of the class right now is no longer Chicago, even if they weren't out of sync. Indiana owns not just the Central Division’s best frontcourt, but the league’s best—and they made sure there was no doubt of that in the first contest between the two teams, a convincing 97-80 win by Indiana on Wednesday, Nov. 6.
Roy Hibbert, per NBA.com/STATS, is defending the rim with the ferocity of a mother grizzly protecting her cubs, yielding an NBA-best 40-percent shooting rate from inside the restricted area. Paul George is second. David West is fourth.
The Pacers’ starting frontcourt outscored the Bulls’ 46-27. Chicago's starting frontline shot just 9-of-30 from the field. It was ugly. While the Pacers frontcourt wasn't exactly lights out at 17-of-43, it was much better than the Bulls were. Frankly, the Bulls aren't going to beat the Pacers inside.
They must stretch the court if they’re going to compete against Indiana, and shooting 5-of-15 from deep is not going to do that. The Pacers are just too good defensively in the middle to allow Chicago to wedge the ball inside and force shots. Indiana is bigger and more physical than Chicago.
Unless the Bulls have a major turnaround, the Pacers are going to lap them before the All-Star break. They now have a 3.5-game lead in the Central, and Chicago is sitting the cellar.
Things don’t get easier for Chicago in terms of the rest of the division.
Detroit, already with a pair of terrific young players in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, added Josh Smith during the offseason. That trio of players, through the early part of the season, has averaged 45.9 points and 29.1 boards per game.
That’s not quite as impressive as it sounds since Smith is making just 40.9 percent of his attempts. He is inexplicably taking 7.0 threes a game. If the Bulls can keep the ball out of the restricted area and lure Smith into scratching his ever-itchy trigger finger, they can beat the Pistons by getting them to beat themselves.
However, if Detroit takes the ball inside, they have a size advantage that can pummel the Bulls. The Pistons own the best field-goal percentage inside the restricted area in the NBA, and they lead the league in makes from there as well.
On the other end of the court, though, Detroit is horrendous defending the interior, giving up the third-highest shooting-percentage (68.0).
So, unlike the Pacers, the Bulls can take the ball inside against the Pistons.
For now, anyway. Drummond is an elite young player with an improving offensive skill set. With younger players, their defense tends to come around in their third or fourth season. Drummond already has more than a block and steal per game, so there's promise there.
Long term, this core could present more difficulties for the Bulls.
There is a degree of early-season regression or progression to the mean at play here, depending on which team you’re discussing. The Bulls frontcourt is clearly playing far from its best ball, but so is that of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Tristan Thompson is a player who started to emerge last year, nearly averaging a double-double on the season. Anderson Varejao was playing at an elite level before he went down with injury last season, boasting a career-high PER of 21.7.
And then there's new acquisition Andrew Bynum, who just 15 months ago was considered by many to be the second-best, if not the best, center in the NBA. He, because of his knee issues, was last seen playing about the same amount of time as Derrick Rose.
If Bynum gets things going, his strength and skills in the low post is difficult to defend, even for a player with the defensive acumen of Noah.
So, the same “needs to shake off the rust” latitude must be extended to him as to the Bulls superstar. Earl Clark has been the team’s starting small forward so far, but that role will fall to No. 1-overall pick, Anthony Bennett, sooner than later, no matter how disastrously his career has begun.
Once that frontcourt starts clicking, it has a combination of size (in Bynum and Varejao) and athleticism (in Bennett and Thompson) to be downright terrifying.
And, while the Milwaukee Bucks aren’t terrifying anyone at the moment, they are a looming threat if they ever figure out what they have in John Henson.
Sporting a tandem of Henson and Larry Sanders, (which is not a Wipeout-meets-HBO comedy team, as the names might leave you to believe) is not bad thing in a Division that has the most stacked frontlines in the league.
That pairing could be a threat in future years, and Ersan Ilyasova—if he finds the magic which earned him his current contract—could fill out that frontcourt quite capably. Furthermore, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is as long as his name, shows promise as well.
Certainly, while those are the the four easiest of the 16 division challenges per year the Bulls frontcourt is going to face, they are by no means easy.
If the Bulls aren't hitting their outside shots and have to force the ball inside, Sanders shot-blocking abilities could give them fits. And Henson is the type of player with the quickness to expose every defensive liability that Boozer has.
To beat the Bucks, the Bulls will need to make their shots. And Taj Gibson, who has a propensity for foul trouble, will need to stay out of it, or Henson will be exposing Boozer all night.
The Bulls set the tone for the Central Division by assembling a dominant frontcourt, but now everyone has built teams to compete with them. This makes future decisions that the Bulls’ front office must execute all the more daunting.
Will letting Deng walk in free agency and amnestying Boozer really help Chicago compete in the future? Forget championship runs—just getting to the second round of the playoffs could be problematic if they can’t compete in their own division.
How the Bulls perform within their own division this season will have major ramifications going forward. If things don’t rapidly improve, though, the best shot the current core had may have been torn form them when Rose tore his ACL.