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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
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
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)