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Coaches for Regime Change – The Del Negro Bulls and Carlisle Mavericks Debut

Ah, pre-season: the most meaningless time of the sports calendar. 

Except when your team has a new coach and some new starters. 

With the Bulls and the Mavericks both having new coaches, it made for a bit more careful viewing, given the game was a pre-season opener. In the final analysis, the Mav’s (predictably) had a better regular unit, and the Bulls had a slightly better garbage unit.

With the Bulls, it appears newbie coach Vinny Del Negro was sincere when he said he wanted to do some running. The Bulls were pushing the ball on the break as much as possible. Not quite to Phoenix proportions, but that’s not for lack of trying. When not running up and down the court, the offense seems to largely consist of two things: a motion offense with lots of screens and (particularly when Derrick Rose is in), penetrating and kicking out to a spot-up shooter.

Rose, heralded as a rookie wunderkind, looked much, much more comfortable than when I last viewed him in the summer league. Clearly, he’s still feeling things out and isn’t incredibly assertive, but he looked very good for an early entry player in his first pre-season game. The court vision is there, the distribution was adequate and when he decided to accelerate, he got to the rim. The jump shot isn’t on display just yet and he’s not the guy you want taking deep shots at this point. Attempts to get him the ball on the baseline for a quick jab to rim weren’t successful, but that may get ironed out soon. His best scoring move is off his dribble and the screens will fall in line eventually. Rose probably needs a couple months, but this was a respectable start.

The rotation was a little askew with Ben Gordon and Joakim Noah out with injuries, but exactly how askew is a little hard to say. Drew Gooden started at center with Tyrus Thomas at the power forward. Who starts at center will be an interesting question. Gooden isn’t that much shorter than Noah and outweighs him, but Noah is more disruptive on defense and a better shot blocker, thus creating a give and take between offense and defense. The starting back court was Rose and Kirk Hinrich. While Kirk is likely to see some minutes at the shooting guard spot, it isn’t clear that he’s necessarily starting over Gordon, much as it isn’t yet clear who the two starters are out of Gooden, Noah and Thomas.

The best news of the night: even though the Bulls aren’t yet comfortable in the new offense and were missing shots, they were getting open shots and weren’t just throwing up bricks as the clock wound down as was so often the case last year. While the post game was still largely missing, you’ll have nights where the jumpers won’t fall. Usually with the type of roster the Bulls have, there should be a hot hand or two on a given night.

As for that missing post game, the drawback with playing Drew Gooden at center is that he’ll occasionally come up against someone with a serious size advantage on him (Erick Dampier is thick) and his post game is swapped for jump shots. This isn’t all bad, and Gooden did quite well on the receiving end of the penetrate and dish system. However, that’s not going to work with Noah’s… unique… set shot. Likewise, Tyrus Thomas wasn’t showing post moves tonight, although reports of his jumper improving over the summer held true for this game. Aaron Gray can definitely score in the post, but he’s just a little slow for the tempo Del Negro’s looking for. He wasn’t completely lost in transition as I feared he might be, but he’s definitely going to be the trailer on the break and if the other team runs back, he could get caught out of position. Don’t get too excited about his 14 points and 9 rebounds, a lot of that came in garbage time. I like Gray quite a bit, but this doesn’t seem to be the optimal system for him and if Noah makes progress on his offensive game, foot speed will impede Gray’s minutes.

Small forward should be interesting. Deng will get as many minutes as he can handle, clearly, but tonight, a very quiet Thabo Sefolosha played minutes at small forward, while Andres Nocioni played power forward. With the options at guard and power forward so plentiful, small forward is likely where Nocioni and Sefolosha will be in a zero-sum game for minutes.

Larry Hughes, while continuing to show why he’s not a spot up shooter, was very active and taking advantage of good spacing (if you’ve been watching a Scott Skiles team, you may have forgotten what it looks like when an offensive isn’t bunched up) to drive to the rim and draw fouls, which is what his game is all about. Whereas Sefolosha was more passive, Hughes took it upon himself to be active. Hughes isn’t a great fit for the system. His big years were in Washington with a mad gunner in Gilbert Arenas stretching the backcourt defense and letting him drive more. If he can keep getting 10 free throw attempts, it evens things out, and he still has good size on defense.

In terms of the posse trying to fill out the roster, I didn’t see all that much. Darius Washington is trying very hard to make a case for sticking around with 14 points in a hair over 14 minutes, including 2 of 3 from beyond the arc. Perhaps a devotee of Friedrich Nietzsche, Washington’s scoring was a manifestation of the concept of “will to power” – he wanted to score and wouldn’t be denied. On the other hand, 14 minutes theoretically at the point and you’d like to see some assists, not a goose egg in the column. Demetris Nichols is worth continuing to look at. Thankfully, Michael Ruffin didn’t rear his ugly game. Yes, he can rebound and play defense, but his offensive game makes Noah look like a young Kareem. It’s early. You don’t know what the free agents will look like after a couple weeks.

The Bulls rotation this year will look a lot like the Bulls rotation last year, except with Rose starting. It isn’t going out on a limb to say they’ll score more this season, though.

As for the Mavericks, they’re running, too. The tweaks with Dallas are mostly in the back court. Antoine Wright started as a big shooting guard and used his extra 4 inches to abuse Hinrich. Jason Terry started the second half at shooting guard (hey, you know he likes to shoot) for a smaller take on the position. Jose Barea, who must’ve been using a very generous tape measure when he was pronounced 6′ tall, played a lot of minutes at point. Barea is a lot of fun to watch, especially since he manages to drive to the hoop and score in ways a guy of his size has no business doing. In fact, you’re not entirely sure how he gets away with it. I suspect Carlisle is just severely limiting Jason Kidd’s minutes after an Olympic summer and we’ll see what the rotation really looks like when the games count.

Erick Dampier was running the floor harder than I was expecting and beat Drew Gooden to the rim for a couple dunks. Brandon Bass was much more dominant than his stat line indicates. He could be a serious candidate for 6th man of the year. DeSagana Diop seemed incrementally more in control, though still no scoring machine. Beware Gerald Green’s numbers: he was another garbage time wonder. Not to say this couldn’t be the year he shows up, but don’t put too much stock in this particular display.

It’s hard to say what the finishing order will be in the Western Conference, and it isn’t clear if the Bulls are any good this year, so it’s doubly hard to make a pronouncement about the prospects of Dallas this year after watching the debut. I’d say they’ve got a pretty strong core of 7-8 players and then you really start to see the drop-off. Short bench for a running team isn’t a good thing, especially with your probable top two guards both over 30 years old. Dallas will win their share of games, but you should be concerned about wear and tear if they don’t substitute liberally and early in the laughers.

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