Hopes high for new Bulls

By The Associated Press

CHICAGO – The afro is gone, and Ben Wallace is wearing Chicago’s red and white instead of Detroit’s red and blue.

“I look real good in it,” Wallace said.

The Bulls agree.

The new hairdo and uniform aside, the four-time Defensive Player of the Year is on a team that is expected to contend for the Eastern Conference championship. Nothing new there. But for the Bulls, it’s a change.

After two straight first-round playoff exits, they want more.

The Bulls finished with 41 victories last season after winning 12 of their final 14 games to make the playoffs and gave eventual champion Miami a scare last season, before losing in six games. Then, they made some major moves in the offseason while keeping their young core of guards and forwards intact.

Chicago signed Wallace to a four-year, $60 million contract and traded underachieving center Tyson Chandler to New Orleans for veteran forward P.J. Brown.

“We like our roster, but we don’t know what we have yet,” general manager John Paxson said. “There are still a lot of unknowns.”

The biggest is this: How will the younger core respond to expectations that haven’t been this high since two guys named Michael and Scottie were in uniform? The first hint will come on Tuesday, when the Bulls open the season at Miami.

“If there is a downside to (the expectations), then we’re not ready for it,” coach Scott Skiles said. “We should have beaten Washington two years ago. We led the series, 2-0, and then lost it. We could have beaten Miami. We haven’t had any real (postseason) success, but we’ve had the experience of it.”

After helping the Pistons win a championship and reach four straight Eastern Conference finals, Wallace was fourth in the NBA last season in rebounding (11.3 per game), ninth in blocks (2.2) and 10th in steals (1.78), but he had a rough ending in Detroit.

Wallace reportedly did not get along with coach Flip Saunders and refused to enter a game. Now, he’ll work with the more feisty Skiles, who had heated words with the Pistons last season.

Wallace shrugged that off and compared Skiles’ attention to detail to that of Larry Brown, who coached Detroit to a championship.

“I like what (Skiles) brings to the table, the fact that he coaches everyone the same way and doesn’t play favorites,” Wallace said. “If the guy’s not getting it done, he’s not afraid to let him know. As far as the words he had with the Pistons last year – I’m a Bull now. If they don’t like him, I don’t like them.”

At 32, Wallace may not have many prime years left, and he has never averaged double figures in points during a career that began in 1996, so the Bulls did not fill their need for an interior scorer when they acquired him.

Instead, they strengthened a defense that was already good but committed too many fouls. Although opponents shot a league-low 42.6 percent, they attempted 505 more free throws than the Bulls.

Chandler had a habit of collecting quick fouls, but that should not be a problem with Wallace, who has fouled out just four times in his entire career.

The Bulls see Wallace as a perfect fit, a hard-nosed veteran to complement an aggressive young core. Guard Ben Gordon looks at him and sees a player who would have fit in immediately had he been acquired in midseason.

“When you acquire a new player, you worry about the chemistry,” Gordon said.

Skiles sees someone who adjusted “like that” to the Bulls’ defensive system.

“Instead of being resistant to it, he fit right in,” Skiles said.

And Paxson sees “a man.”

“We’ve lacked that on our team,” he said. “He has a resume, and that’s important in this league. He commands respect just because of that.”

The points will have to come from the perimeter, where the Bulls have balance if not a player who will average 25.

Although Wallace’s signing raised expectations, Chicago’s success largely depends on Gordon, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni.

Gordon believes he can jump into that 20-points-per-game range after averaging a team-high 16.9 last season.

“Everybody knows how I feel about Kirk,” Paxson said. “He knows it; I’ve told him. He fits what we’re trying to do here.”

The Bulls raised expectations, now they’ll try to meet them.

Hinrich, who averaged 15.9 points and 6.3 assists last season, could become a restricted free agent if he doesn’t sign an extension before the opener. Paxson made it clear Hinrich is part of his long-term plan, but won’t panic because the Bulls would have the right to match any offer the guard receives next summer.

“Everybody knows how I feel about Kirk,” Paxson said. “He knows it; I’ve told him. He fits what we’re trying to do here.”

The Bulls have raised expectations, now they’ll try to meet them.

“This is the most optimistic I’ve been because we’ve got some guys with big-time experience and I think it’s going to help a lot,” Gordon said.