Season Preview: Return of the Rose, A Breakdown of the Chicago Bulls

Contributor Steve Graham Offers A Take on His Beloved Bulls.

With Rose Back, Bulls Are Legitimate Title Contenders

For the past three seasons, the Chicago Bulls have been one of the league’s best teams. For two of those seasons, they had the best record in the NBA. Then, in the 2012 playoffs, their superstar, Derrick Rose, tore his ACL. Last season, playing without Rose all year, they still managed the 5th seed and advanced to the 2nd round of the playoffs before losing to the eventual-champion Miami Heat. They showed all the heart that a Tom Thibodeau-coached team should have. They showed toughness, played great defense, and even without an elite scorer, they kept themselves in every game. They’ve proven to be one of the few teams that can push the Heat. So now, with Rose back leading the team, there is every reason to be excited about this season. All they have to do is stay healthy.

Rose’s Return

Prior to tearing his ACL, Rose was one of the best players in the NBA. His explosiveness is unrivaled, he can create his own shot, and he is arguably the best closer in the game. His well-deserved MVP award is indicative of these abilities. With Rose on the floor, no lead is safe for any opponent. We’ve seen him put away countless games. This is the one thing the Bulls lacked last season – someone to take over and finish in the fourth quarter.After not playing a competitive game for over a year and a half, Rose is back, fully healthy, and according to many who have seen him up close this preseason, he looks better than ever. He doesn’t appear to have lost any of his explosiveness (according to him, he’s even improved his vertical leap by several inches), and he’s also worked hard on his jump shot. There is every reason to believe that we will see Rose in near-MVP form, and if he stays healthy, he could easily compete for that award. But the health concern is there. It has always been there, given his style of play. And now, returning from ACL surgery, it is there more than ever. The coaching staff will likely be a bit conservative with him this year, so we might see him in only 70 games or so.  It would be safe to assume he won’t see much action in those stretches of schedule which include three games in four nights.

Now let’s take a look at the rest of the Bulls Roster:

Jimmy Butler

Following a breakout season last year, the 3rd-year player has now earned himself a starting gig at the 2. His ideal position might be small forward, but that’s currently locked up by Luol Deng, and the Bulls have lacked a productive shooting guard for several years. Butler is known for his defense, but his offense is developing nicely. When Deng is finally gone, fans may not notice.  Butler’s playoff performance only strengthened the case for letting Deng go.

Luol Deng

The aforementioned Deng is in the final year of his contract, and assuming he doesn’t take a pay cut, this should be his final season in a Bulls uniform. This, combined with the emergence of Butler, makes Deng the subject of many trade rumors. That will surely continue this year, but I won’t get into that here. Deng is very productive on both ends of the floor, and this year should be more of the same. He decided against surgery for torn ligaments in his wrist, but he’s been playing through that for over a year, and it doesn’t seem to affect him much. When Rose was out, Deng was the #1 guy, but was a bit overmatched in that role. Having Rose back should take a load off his shoulders, and actually help his numbers.

Carlos Boozer

Boozer is in the 4th year of a bloated 5-year contract, but could also be playing his final season for the Bulls. He could be amnestied after this year, which would delight many fans. His defense is non-existent, and Taj Gibson has proven himself a fully capable starting power forward. However, even after factoring in his shortcomings, Boozer has been a large part of the Bulls’ success over the past few seasons. Despite a reputation for being injury-prone, he’s only missed three games in the last two seasons, and provides an offensive spark on a team with few scorers. Boozer stepped up in a big way last season, and there’s no way the Bulls would have made it as far as they did without him. This year they should not have to rely on him as much, which is a good thing.

Joakim Noah

Noah is usually under-appreciated in the “best centers in the league” discussion, but he certainly belongs in that conversation. He should be a contender for the Defensive Player of the Year Award, but as with most of this team, the true test will be if he can stay healthy. Noah took second-team in the NBA All-Defensive team awards in 2010-11, and was honored with a place on the first team last year.  Noah battles lower-body injuries seemingly every year, but he plays through them and still logs high minutes. We will find out how much of a toll this takes on his body.  Noah is flat-out relentless on the boards and in the paint.

Taj Gibson

He could start at power forward on many NBA teams, but in Chicago he’s the #1 guy off the bench. A great defender with an improving offensive game, his greatest challenge will be health. Another big man who constantly deals with foot issues, the Bulls will need him healthy come playoff time.  Gibson’s style of play, combined with Thibodeau’s philosophy, may make a full season of health unlikely, but the staff will be smart to ease up this year.

Mike Dunleavy

The Bulls’ main free-agent acquisition on the offseason, Dunleavy will take over the role Kyle Korver played two years ago. He stretches the floor well, and with Rose, he should get plenty of open looks from downtown. He will be a key contributor off the bench this year.

Kirk Hinrich

Before Rose entered the league, Hinrich was this team’s starting PG. Now, he’s the very capable backup to Rose. He also plays tough defense, but misses a lot of time with nagging injuries. If all goes well, the team will be able to afford that.

Nazr Mohammed

The Bulls’ biggest (only?) weakness is their lack of size. Losing Omer Asik a couple seasons ago hurt. Noah and Gibson are great interior defenders, but after that, they lack depth down low. They currently have Nikola Mirotic stashed over in Europe, but for now, they’ll need someone to eat up minutes. Mohammed did a decent job last season.

Tom Thibodeau

Though he showed himself to be one of the best head coaches in the league upon taking over the role in Chicago four years ago, Thibodeau’s win-at-all-costs philosophy is sometimes criticized. He plays his starters very heavy minutes – Deng led the league last year at 38.7, and Noah was not far behind at 36.8. That is despite Deng’s wrist issue, and Noah’s foot issues. While the players often play through nagging injuries, a little extra rest can’t hurt. This year, Thibs may be forced to tone it down a little, so that the team enters the playoffs at full health.

Healthy Outlook

If you haven’t already sensed a theme, the mantra for the Bulls this year should be “Stay Healthy.” If that happens, the sky is the limit. Noah, Gibson, and Hinrich all have injury issues, and Deng and Boozer are susceptible as well. But assuming Rose returns close to full strength, he could carry this team to a top four finish and home court in the East. Should Rose suffer any significant injuries, the rest of this team is still playoff-worthy. This is all a testament to defensive-minded coach Tom Thibodeau. However, the playoffs are not the goal. The Bulls have an MVP candidate (Rose), a Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Noah), and a Coach of the Year candidate (Thibs). They have all the pieces right now to win a championship. All they need to do is avoid significant injury. If that happens, they should contend for the first of second seed. Many people may believe that Indiana or maybe even Brooklyn is the new #2 in the East, but honestly, the only team I’m worried about is Miami.

Fully healthy, the Bulls can win 60 games, and it’s no stretch at all to put them at the #1 seed.  They’ve taken the #1 seed over Miami before, but it hasn’t meant much, as the Heat have emerged from the East for 3 straight years. Still, I fully expect these two teams to meet in the Conference Finals once again, and it would certainly help to have home-court advantage. In any event, it should be a heck of a ride. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait long for a preview – Miami hosts Chicago in the NBA’s season opener Tuesday night (TNT, 8pm EST).

Steve Graham has been an avid Bulls fan since he was 9. Basketball was his first sport, and like any young kid, he became a huge Michael Jordan fan. While that may just sound like someone jumping on the bandwagon, I can assure you that he has remained a loyal Bulls fan ever since then. Even through the lottery years, when they were a perennial floormat, he still checked every box score. Now, his loyalty is paying off, as the Bulls are once again worth watching.

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