Without Derrick Rose for much of the last two seasons, the Bulls have struggled to tread water in an increasingly weak Eastern Conference. Now, with Rose back and several new players added to the mix in the offseason, Chicago once again looks like one of the Eastern Conference’s elite.
Can they live up to lofty preseason expectations?
Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 Chicago Bulls
Five Guys Think
If we’ve learned anything the last few years, it’s that Chicago will always be one of the league’s most successful regular season teams if only because of Tom Thibodeau’s tenacious coaching style. This year, though, they may have more talent on this roster than any Eastern Conference team this side of Cleveland. Derrick Rose If He’s Healthy (apparently his new full name) worked out some kinks playing international ball this season, but what makes this team really exciting is its depth, supplemented this summer by the additions of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Aaron Brooks. Carmelo Anthony would’ve been nice, but the team is more well-rounded this year and looks every bit the part of a championship contender. Simply because of the way Thibodeau values the regular season, they probably will end up with the best record in the conference.
1st Place – Central Division
In my opinion, there are two teams that are clearly a notch above the competition in the Eastern Conference and that is the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. Both of these teams have the pieces to contend this season and made some excellent moves over the summer. Not only will the Bulls get a healthy Derrick Rose back (hopefully), they’ll also bring in new faces like Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic and Aaron Brooks, all of whom should help Chicago’s offense. That was a big weakness for the Bulls last year, but all of those players can score and getting Rose back will help them on that end as well. Chicago has a terrific head coach in Tom Thibodeau and the pieces to really make noise in the East. Right now, I have Cleveland and Chicago penciled in as the East’s best teams and there’s a significant drop off after those two.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Alex Kennedy
The combination of Derrick Rose’s return and LeBron James’ return to Cleveland gives the Bulls a legitimate shot at winning the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers should be the favorite to win the conference, but it is the Bulls that may emerge on top once it is all said and done. Obviously, that mostly depends on Rose, but the Bulls will need Pau Gaosl to do some heavy lifting, as well. In terms of raw basketball talent, Gasol is an upgrade over Carlos Boozer, but he will need to rediscover the consistency and toughness that he used to help Kobe Bryant win back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. Newcomers Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott will give coach Tom Thibodeau some more weapons on the offensive end. If he can figure out how to mesh their collective talents with Rose, Gasol and Joakim Noah, and if the Bulls can find a way to remain healthy over the long and strenuous season, they may emerge as the eventual Eastern Conference champions over the smaller Cavaliers, even if they do cede the Division to Team LeBron.
2nd place – Central Division
– Moke Hamilton
The good news is the Bulls will finally get back a fully healthy Derrick Rose. The bad news is Rose didn’t look particularly good during the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Still it was great for Rose to get back into the mix of highly competitive competition, which also allowed the former MVP to get his legs back under him. Chicago was able to lure former All-Star Pau Gasol in free agency, which will undoubtedly add firepower to the lineup next to Rose and All-Star center Joakim Noah. The addition of international star Nikola Mirotic and rookie Doug McDermott will have the same effect. How far the team ultimately goes this season rests on Rose’s rehabilitated knees. The supporting cast has improved, but Rose must return at an All-Star level for the Bulls to reach new heights.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Lang Greene
We’ve learned over the last two years that this team is far from reliant on Derrick Rose. They’re going to be competitive no matter who is out there, and this team arguably has the deepest and most talented power forward and center rotation in the league after the additions of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic to Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah. What I’m really concerned about, even in the case that Rose is healthy, is the firepower on the wings. Can the combination of Mike Dunleavy, Doug McDermott, Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell play championship-caliber basketball? To me, that’s an even bigger question mark than can Rose stay healthy? If they were a little bit more proven on the wing, I’d be willing to bet on Rose staying healthy and putting them infront of the Cleveland Cavaliers. But, as assembled, I cannot.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Chicago hasn’t exactly been an offensive juggernaut over the course of the last couple of years, but they added a whole bunch of it in the offseason this summer. Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott all can score the ball, but the team’s best offensive player still has to be considered Derrick Rose. Despite a slow FIBA World Cup tournament, Rose has shown enough flashes of his former self to make it more than probable that he’ll still be the center of the Bulls’ offensive plans.
Top Defensive Player: It would be hard to pick anyone other than the reigning Defensive Player of the Year as the Chicago Bulls’ best defensive player, so Joakim Noah it is. Always an energetic, intense player, Noah is a perfect fit in Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system. He moves through rotations with ease and, despite his 7-foot frame, can actually guard a number of different positions. For a number of years he was one of the league’s more underrated defenders, but not anymore. Now he’s got a Defensive Player of the Year award to defend (and live up to).
Top Playmaker: However good (or bad) Derrick Rose ends up being this year, he more than proved this summer that he hasn’t lost that quick first step. He’ll still get to the rim with greater ease than most of the guards in the NBA, and he also appears to be taking a more unselfish playing style into the new season. He’s got more talent alongside him than he’s ever had, which gives him every opportunity to be the playmaker he’s always been.
Top Clutch Player: No one on this roster has more game-winners under his belt than Rose, so despite two years of rust it still has to be him. Maybe he won’t always be the person that makes the last shot, but the ball will end up his hands when the clock winds down. Of course, the way the last couple of seasons have gone, we could be talking about Aaron Brooks the way we’ve talked about Nate Robinson and D.J. Augustin the last few years, but if he stays healthy, Rose will be Chicago’s most important player in close games.
The Unheralded Player: With Carlos Boozer gone, this was supposed to be the year that Taj Gibson finally was given the opportunity to start and show what he could do as an everyday NBA starting power forward, but with the addition of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, Gibson is now part of arguably the most talented and crowded frontcourt in the league. Despite all that, he’s a perfect role player with tremendous work ethic and more than enough talent to step in and do whatever is asked of him. Don’t be shocked if, despite not starting, he does finish games thanks to his imposing defense, just as he did for the Bulls last year.
Best New Addition: While the Bulls added a lot of serviceable rotation players this summer, none is likely to have quite the immediate impact on the team as Pau Gasol. He’ll get all of Carlos Boozer’s old minutes, but because he can actually play a little defense he’ll be infinitely more valuable as the team’s starting power forward. As he showed playing for the Spanish National Team this summer, he’s got plenty of basketball left in those legs, and playing for a legitimate title contender like the Bulls should rejuvenate his career. He might not put up personal bests in terms of statistics this season, but he’ll be a big part of Chicago’s success.
– Joel Brigham
Who We Like
1. Jimmy Butler: Entering a contract year, Butler is really the only two guard the Bulls have on the roster (Kirk Hinrich and Tony Snell notwithstanding), which means that, once again, Butler is going to play a ridiculous amount of minutes. He’s young and hungry, though, so having him on the floor that much, particularly considering his defensive abilities, isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as the minutes don’t kill him. He regressed from three-point range last season quite a bit, and to be a worthwhile long-term backcourt mate to Rose he’s going to have get those percentages back up this year. Despite all of that, at his salary Butler remains arguably the best value in the NBA.
2. Doug McDermott: By the time it was all said and done, Chicago traded two top-20 picks and two second-rounders (the cost of dumping Anthony Randolph) to acquire McDermott, a player they’ve apparently had their eyes on for a really long time. All those threes Butler didn’t hit last year, McDermott will be expected to knock down this year, but he’s actually a more well-rounded player than the Creighton alum he’s most often compared to in Kyle Korver. McDermott is a little more Wally Szczerbiak than Korver, and he should inject a new dimension into Chicago’s offense. He’s also a perfect fit for the culture of the Bulls’ locker room.
3. Nikola Mirotic: While Thibodeau isn’t a huge fan of playing rookies, he proved last year with Snell that he would if a.) they were good enough, and b.) the need arose for them to see more minutes. Mirotic, a former Spanish League MVP and first-round pick, is certainly good enough. It’s why the Bulls worked so hard to get him over here and paid him as much as they did. Opportunity could be an issue with so crowded a backcourt, however, but there’s no question that Mirotic will be one of the most NBA-ready and mature rookies in the league this season. One injury to Gasol or Noah will give Mirotic a huge boost in minutes, and then we’ll really get to see what all the fuss has been about the last three years.
4. Derrick Rose: He certainly has his detractors, but the reality is that Chicago is only as good as Derrick is. Based on ten regular season games last year and what he did at the FIBA World Cup over the summer, it’s clear that Rose has some rust to shake off before returning to his former self. It is encouraging, however, that his athleticism remains and he seems as strong and confident as ever. He may only be 75% of what he was in his MVP campaign, but with so much offensive firepower on this team now, he won’t be asked to shoulder anywhere near as much of the load as he was two or three years ago. He’ll bounce back. Let’s just hope he’s able to stay healthy for a full season.
5. Tom Thibodeau: While this could be considered both a good thing and a bad thing, nobody values the regular season like Tom Thibodeau. Almost every year, the Bulls end up with a better record than anyone expected and as a result earn a desirable playoff seeding, and that’s a testament to how Thibodeau views regular season games. To him, every contest is a series of repetitions that fine-tune these athletes for the postseason. He doesn’t let his guys take days off for no reason, but most of his players don’t want to sit, anyway. Thibodeau is a defensive guru, as well, and as long as he’s there the Bulls will be one of the better defensive units and most successful regular season teams in the NBA.
– Joel Brigham
Obviously under Thibodeau the Bulls are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, as they led the league in opponents’ PPG last year (91.8 ppg) and were second in opponents’ field goal percentage (.430). They were also in the top ten in rebounds and blocks and really shouldn’t have too much of an issue repeating that success this season, even with an improved Cavaliers team in their division. It certainly can’t get any worse with former starter Carlos Boozer gone.
Outside of Derrick Rose, the Bulls really don’t have any playmakers in the backcourt. Butler, Snell, Dunleavy and McDermott all have their strengths, but none of them specialize in ball handling, which means Rose, Hinrich or Brooks will have to have the ball in their hands at all times. Good ball handlers are what break down defenses, and if Rose is unable to do it for Chicago, who will?
– Joel Brigham
The Salary Cap
The Bulls used their one-time amnesty to waive Carlos Boozer, helping to open cap space to sign Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and rookie Cameron Bairstow The team renounced Kirk Hinrich to maximize their space, then used their $2.7 million Room Exception to bring back the veteran point guard. Now the team is limited to minimum contracts (or trades) to add to their roster, which is currently just 12 deep. Jimmy Butler is eligible for a contract extension until Halloween, otherwise he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer.
– Eric Pincus
The Bulls were the biggest winner of the FIBA World Cup, as Derrick Rose proved he is healthy and Pau Gasol looked like he was in fantastic shape for Spain. Aside from health, the key question for the Bulls will be the minutes distribution and the closing lineup. In Noah, Gibson, Gasol, and Mirotic, the Bulls have four viable big options. Unfortunately the most likely plan is to start Noah and Gasol together, which does not seem the best use of the team’s talents. (One would guess that Gasol would not have signed if he were not at least projected to start.) It is ironic in a league with an ostensible dearth of centers that Gasol has played there so rarely the last few years. But he really is a center at this point in his career, especially defensively where he lacks the quickness to get out on shooters or defend quicker power forwards off the dribble.
It will likely fall to Joakim Noah to defend power forwards on most nights, and while he may prove a better one-on-one defender there with his quick feet than at center where he can get overpowered on occasion, forcing him to defend away from the basket is in some respects a waste of his defensive abilities.
Offensively, Noah could struggle to space the floor for Gasol’s postups. The Bulls surely hope that Gasol can shoot the three as effectively as he did in FIBA play, although shots above the break may still prove beyond his range.
Gasol really would work better as the center with the second unit when he can dominate backup centers and serve as the scoring hub with Mirotic to space the floor for him when Rose is out of the game. Starting Taj Gibson with Noah would also keep the 34 year-old Gasol’s minutes down during the regular year. Ultimately, any pairing of the four bigs would work very well except the likely starting combination of Gasol and Noah.
The other key question is the health of Derrick Rose. He looked explosive at times in the World Cup despite a dismal statistical performance, so he should be able to get back to a high if not MVP level. The greater issue is the risk of reinjury, which after two straight seasons with major injuries is of course rather high. The list of players who have missed two straight years due to injuries and returned to their prior level is short, if not nonexistent.
Whether coincidental or not, the Bulls were very healthy last year aside from Rose after the hiring of Jennifer Swanson as Director of Sports Performance, so there is some reason for optimism.
The Bulls finish number one in defense under coach Tom Thibodeau, perhaps the team’s most valuable asset unless Rose can return to All-Star form. Gasol proves he is not done as a viable second option, Doug McDermott plays his way into the starting job, and Mirotic merits plenty of time as well. Jimmy Butler rediscovers his 2012-13 touch on 3s, Rose does return to All-Star form, and the Bulls suddenly are a top-seven offense.
Every Chicago fan’s worst nightmare healthwise. (As a Chicagoan, I won’t even type it.) McDermott proves unready to start at the three, leading to more Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks than anyone should ever have to see. Tony Snell is no better than last year and merits only spot minutes. Gasol is overmatched attempting to carry the offense at 34, while Joakim Noah regresses from his career year as he turns 30. But even if uh, someone misses most of the year, the Bulls squeaked out 48 wins last year with a skeleton crew. With the new additions and actual depth this year, the defense should remain stout as ever while the offense can’t be worse than last year’s horrendous finish. 50 wins should be the realistic floor.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
What will Derrick Rose contribute?
A lot of people expect the Bulls to be among the best teams in the league this year, and while that’s completely possible, it all comes back to how healthy and reliable Rose proves to be. If he’s an All-Star again, Chicago will be in the conversation for a championship, but if he plays like he did for those ten games last season, the Bulls are in trouble. They need him, and with some of the key players on this roster getting up in age, they need him now.
– Joel Brigham
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