IF YOU had mentioned John Salmons last February, Chicagoans might have wonderered if you were talking about a new downtown seafood restaurant. The 6'6" Salmons had played with little distinction for 6½ seasons with the 76ers and the Kings. But shortly after Sacramento shipped him to the Bulls as part of a three team, seven-player swap, he became a Windy City favorite, rallying the then sub- .500 Bulls to a 17--11 finish and the seventh seed in the East.
Between Sacramento and Chicago, Salmons achieved career highs in three-point shooting (41.7%) and free throw shooting (83.0%) while finishing as the Bulls' second-leading scorer with 18.3 points per game (improving on his personal best by 5.8). Chicago G.M. Gar Forman says that Salmons's businesslike approach helped him make a quick transition after the trade; besides, with forward Luol Deng sidelined, "we needed him out there for major minutes right from the get-go."
Salmons was so prolific that the Bulls felt comfortable letting top scorer Ben Gordon sign with the division rival Pistons as a free agent. Gordon's departure—and the return of Deng from a stress fracture of the tibia—means that Salmons moves from small forward to shooting guard, where he'll not only assume a greater share of the scoring load but, with Derrick Rose, also give Chicago its tallest set of perimeter defenders since the Michael Jordan years.
Another novelty: The Bulls finally have big men who can score. In addition to developing players like Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah, there's 12th-year center Brad Miller, who came from the Kings with Salmons and was the team's best three-point shooter in the playoffs (71.4%).
How far can Chicago go this season? "I think that we can do some things," says Salmons, with typical understatement. But unlike last year, he and the Bulls won't be sneaking up on anybody.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2008--09 statistics
KEY BENCH PLAYERS: G Kirk Hinrich, 9.9 PPG; F-C Brad Miller, 7.8 RPG; F Taj Gibson (R), 2.86 BPG; G Jannero Pargo*, 8.1 PPG • New acquisition • (R) Rookie, college stats • *'07--08
COACH: Vinny Del Negro (second season with Bulls) • 2008--09 RECORD: 41--41 (second in Central)
POINTS SCORED: 102.2 (eighth in NBA) • POINTS ALLOWED: 102.5 (21st in NBA)
Percentage of Joakim Noah's shots that came in the paint last season, the highest figure in the NBA. The third-year center made 57.7% of those attempts; his shooting dropped to 23.8% outside the paint.
ENEMY LINES | A RIVAL SCOUT ON THE BULLS
I'm sure we'll see Derrick Rose up there with the elite point guards in a couple of years. I was very impressed with his midrange jump shooting. His athleticism going to the basket is off the charts. He looks to distribute, he can control the tempo and he's tough defensively.... People wonder if Kirk Hinrich is a shooting guard, but to me he's a player more than he is any one position. He defends point guards, twos and threes. He's a utility player whose toughness comes through, and teammates play off his enthusiasm.... Luol Deng's health coming off his stress fracture is a big factor. If he can get back to his old level, then that's a very solid rotation in the backcourt and on the wings.... Tyrus Thomas is not going to be the answer up front. I think he got selfish at times, as if he was stepping up to be the Man. He needs to try to be Horace Grant but with a little more athleticism.... I like Joakim Noah's energy. He keeps the ball alive on the rim, and he's got good hands. He knows how to find his niche and what he can do to help the team—he's sort of the opposite of Thomas in that way. I don't know if he has the ugliest free throw stroke in the league, but he's right there.
JOHN BIEVER (ROSE)
DERRICK ROSE The reigning Rookie of the Year has already established himself as a leader.
JOHN SALMONS There was nothing fishy about his post-trade play.