Last season, the Chicago Bulls won 50 games and finished as the third seed in the Eastern Conference. However, they couldn’t get past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, even though they put up a good fight. This summer, they opted to return just about their entire team rather than make any big changes; that is, outside of replacing head coach Tom Thibodeau with first-time NBA head coach Fred Hoiberg. Will the coaching change pay off and allow the Bulls to advance further in the postseason? Is this team, as currently constructed, a championship contender?
Basketball Insiders previews the Chicago Bulls’ 2015-16 season.
The Bulls haven’t gotten a lot of attention this offseason since they elected to bring back their same team rather than make big, headline-grabbing additions. But I like this approach, because I think continuity and chemistry is important and this Bulls team was already very talented. I’m looking forward to seeing how Jimmy Butler follows up his breakout campaign, how Derrick Rose does after a relatively healthy 2014-15 campaign and, most importantly, how the team plays under new head coach Fred Hoiberg. I was a big Tom Thibodeau fan, but I like Hoiberg a lot as well. The Bulls will play differently under Hoiberg, and we’ll see if that results in progression or regression. I think they’ll produce similar results as last season, finishing once again as a high seed in the Eastern Conference.
2nd Place – Central Division
My hope for the Bulls is that Derrick Rose continues to progress and eventually rediscovers some of the magic that he once possessed. Quietly, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah are getting old and Pau Gasol, though he has admirably defied father time, is already old. The truth is, the Bulls may be closer to pulling the plug on a number of their rotation pieces and taking a few steps back than many realize. If head coach Fred Hoiberg doesn’t hit the ground and the Bulls end up winning 46 games and get bounced in the first round, what then? Fortunately for Bulls fans, I don’t expect that to happen. I think the Bulls are the second-best team in the Eastern Conference and expect them to eventually get another crack at LeBron James, but, of course, that depends on Rose and Hoiberg. I can’t see them topping the Cavaliers in either the Central Division or in a seven-game playoff series, but they still have my respect as being one of the best teams in basketball. I suppose my sign-off will be this: nobody has the Warriors winning the title last year and nobody had the Mavericks winning in 2011. Impossible is nothing, and if there is a dark house team I would pick to shock the world in 2016, it would be the Bulls. But EVERYTHING would have to break right for them (or, not break at all, depending on your perspective).
2nd Place — Central Division
However we felt about the Bulls at the end of the last season is more or less how we feel about the Bulls now because they are almost the exact same team that was ousted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of last spring’s playoffs. Derrick Rose looked better in those playoffs than he has since tearing his ACL in 2012, but the emergence of Jimmy Butler is really what got Bulls fans excited a year ago and he should be the focal point of optimism yet again this year. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah aren’t going to get any less rickety, and even Taj Gibson seems to be dealing with chronic health issues now too, but that core, along with breakout second-year stretch-four Nikola Mirotic, is still one of the best in the Eastern Conference. They’re not winning a championship with that group, but it’s still fair to talk about them as a possible Conference Finals team because at their best, that’s what they are.
2nd Place – Central Division
Will Derrick Rose stay healthy? That is the question asked every season. The Bulls have battled over the years without their franchise player and they have been right in the mix come playoff time. But Rose is the key to how deep they can go, and that depends on him staying injury-free. This season, the Bulls will be playing under first-year NBA head coach Fred Hoiberg. There will be a new system, and a new way things are done following the departure of Tom Thibodeau. What won’t be new are the faces on the team.The Bulls are returning most of their players from last year (including inking Jimmy Butler to a mega-deal), but did add the intensity-driven Bobby Portis in the draft. In addition to its star players, watch for Nikola Mirotic to continue progressing after a breakthrough second half.
2nd Place – Central Division
Tom Thibodeau led the Bulls to five consecutive trips to the playoffs, but a difference in philosophy with the team’s front office ultimately led to his departure. The Bulls’ core group remains the same, but the franchise is hoping the addition of new head coach Fred Hoiberg helps push the squad in a new direction. The positives are abundant. Derrick Rose seems to have shaken off his knee troubles, guard Jimmy Butler is ascending to stardom and forward Nikola Mirotic has the goods. But there are some question marks for sure. Joakim Noah is aging and headed to free agency and veteran forward Pau Gasol is another year older. But there’s no reason why this team shouldn’t be among the few squads entering the season with legitimate title hopes.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Lang Greene
Top Of the List
Top Offensive Player: Jimmy Butler
It would be fairly easy to argue that the best offensive player on the team should be Derrick Rose, but that wasn’t the case last season and there’s no guarantee it will be the case this coming season, either. Butler did lead all Bulls players in points per game last season with 20 PPG, and he proved to be someone who could both knock down three-pointers from a stand-still and create his own shots from all over the floor. He draws fouls well, attacks the bucket with ferocity and was really consistent scoring the ball last season for the first time in his career. With Rose and Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, this team has plenty of offensive talent, but Butler looks like the best of the bunch for now.
Top Defensive Player: Jimmy Butler
Butler is also the team’s best defender. While Joakim Noah is only 18 months removed from winning Defensive Player of the Year, he continues to deal with various injuries and looked a step slow and less intense during the 2014-15 campaign (with much less screaming too). Butler, meanwhile, has established himself as one of the premier shutdown perimeter defenders in the league and is consistently tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player. It will be interesting to see how much of an defensive burden he’ll be asked to shoulder, because as we saw in the playoffs last year it really deadens his legs on offense when he’s chasing around elite talents like LeBron James. With that said, he’ll presumably get more rest under new head coach Fred Hoiberg than he did under Tom Thibodeau. If his legs are fresher, he could be an even better defender this year.
Top Playmaker: Derrick Rose
As crafty as Butler is on offense, nobody on that Bulls roster can break down a defense and get to the basket quite like Derrick Rose. In fact, there aren’t a whole lot of players in the entire league who have the ability to do what he does, and thankfully we saw in the postseason last year that the explosive first step is still there even after all the knee issues. He’s been more conservative over the last 12 months, attacking quite a bit less, but he still led the team in assists last year with 4.9 APG and is still going to be the guy asked to create some offense when the team needs it. As long as he stays healthy, he should be able to handle that with aplomb.
Top Clutch Player: Derrick Rose
Rose has hit more than enough game-winners over the course of his career to put to bed any question anybody may have about who would take the last shot in a tight Bulls game. As good as Butler may be, Rose has repeatedly come up big in huge moments – most recently in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, when he banked home a miracle three-pointer to clinch a home playoff victory at a time when the team was still very much in it. Rose actually is one of the more entertaining guys in the league to watch during crunch time. The kid has alligator blood.
Top Unheralded Player: Mike Dunleavy, Jr.
While Mike Dunleavy, Jr. is “just” a role player, it should say a lot about what kind of a role player he is that LeBron James would publicly recruit him for his own elite team. While he’s not flashy at all, it is without question a good thing that the Bulls were able to re-sign him for a bargain-basement price of $14.4 million over three years this past summer. He’s 34 years old, but he’s an underrated defender and shoots well from deep (40.7 percent last season). He brings plenty of positives to the table without taking anything off of it, which is why he’s one of the most underrated players in the league.
Top New Addition: Fred Hoiberg
While it may be cheating a bit to select a coach as the best new addition to the team, since Chicago is bringing back the exact same roster as they did last year with the exception of a couple of rookies, the only new personnel expected to have a real impact on the team this year is the new coach. And to be honest, Hoiberg will have a huge effect on this team, changing the general team philosophy from one of defensive aptitude to offensive specialty, and of course Hoiberg is known for being a much more laid-back, easy-going guy than Thibs was during his tenure in Chicago. The front office likes him as well, which also will be different. This team needed a breath of fresh air and Hoiberg will supply precisely that. The change of pace had better help, because the clock’s ticking on this current iteration of the Bulls.
Who We Like
Pau Gasol: While not everybody paid attention to the FIBA EuroBasket this summer, those who did know that Gasol still has a whole lot of gas left in the tank. He was named the tournament MVP, topped all scorers with 25.6 PPG and, of course, led Spain to the gold medal (not that anybody needed any convincing that Gasol was a very talented basketball player). Coming off one of the best years of his career, Gasol actually should play a lot fewer minutes this year and maybe see a little dip in his stats, but the hope is that the limited playing time will keep him fresher for the postseason. He broke down in the Cleveland series this past spring and the team doesn’t want to see that happen again. No doubt about it, he’s one of the most important players the Bulls have.
Nikola Mirotic: There’s a strong argument that Mirotic, with his big-time three-point shooting and strong rebounding, should be a starter for the Chicago Bulls this year ahead of either Gasol or Joakim Noah. Whether that actually happens, the second-year forward is set up for an expanded role this season and should be featured prominently in Hoiberg’s new offense. Expect a lot of screen-and-roll and a whole bunch of drained three-pointers from Niko this year, as he seems like the Bulls player most ready for a breakout campaign.
Taj Gibson: While there isn’t anything particularly sexy about Gibson’s game, he remains the driving force for Chicago’s frontcourt off the bench, having averaged 10.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG and 1.2 BPG last year in a little over 27 minutes per night. He’s coming off an offseason in which he had an ankle injury surgically repaired and he did turn 30 years old this past summer, but he’s still a stout defensive presence and hard-working bench mob stud who will help anchor what should be a pretty deep reserve rotation for the Bulls this season.
Doug McDermott: While Summer League success rarely translates over to the NBA, it’s worth nothing that McDermott was, once again, one of the stars in Las Vegas this July. He scored the ball well, even though he shot the three atrociously, which will have to change considering how badly the Bulls need him to knock down some deep balls and keep defenses honest. But he looks like he has it in him. His rookie year was marred by injury and mediocrity, but he’ll have a larger role and more minutes under Hoiberg. Stacey King said McDermott could be the Most Improved Player this year, which is nothing short of insane, but he almost certainly will be better than he was a year ago. Expect a big step in the right direction for McBuckets this season.
Bobby Portis: In a frontcourt as loaded as Chicago’s, there’s no way Portis is getting any sort of minutes early in his NBA career, but Gasol, Noah and Gibson all have histories of injuries, which means Portis could at some point stumble his way to 15-20 minutes per game for stretches of this season. It’s hard to “like” a guy who’s not playing much, but Portis is a logical and entertaining fit for a Bulls team that loves its hard-nosed big men. This young man, who describes himself as “crazy,” is sort of insane in the best way possible, and this will be the first year of what should eventually be a lucrative career as a Bull. Growing pains are imminent, but he sure is a fun kid to watch hoop.
Chicago is still one of the premier defensive teams in the NBA, though it will be interesting to see if and how Hoiberg’s reputation as an offensive guy will change that. The Bulls were ninth in the league last year in points allowed with 97.8 PPG, and they were fourth in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage at 43.5 percent. They also were third in rebounds and fifth in blocks, all which hammers home just how effective Chicago was on defense just a year ago. The personnel is exactly the same, so it’s hard to see things falling off too much, and in fact their familiarity with each other (if not the system) also should be considered a strength.
Chicago’s biggest problem a year ago was injuries, and that still could be an issue for them this coming year, as most of the team’s most integral players have dealt with either big time injuries or big time minutes in the last couple of seasons. While Hoiberg won’t lean on his horses quite as heavily as Thibodeau did, the damage may have already been done to some extent. Just look at what happened to Luol Deng after multiple years leading the league in minutes. Last year, Butler led the NBA in minutes and Gasol finished in the top 25 despite his age. That, combined with Noah’s issues and Rose’s fragile knees, make for some frightening basketball this season.
The Burning Question
Does Coach Hoiberg make the difference?
For years, the Chicago Bulls front office has been waiting and waiting for this group of players structured around Derrick Rose to contend for a title. Between the injuries to Rose and the existence of LeBron James in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls have fallen short every time they’ve gotten even within sniffing distance of the NBA Finals. Despite Tom Thibodeau’s success in his first half-decade of NBA coaching, there’s been a general feeling that he had simply worn out his welcome in Chicago over time. Hoiberg is supposed to be the shot in the arm that the team needs, but if he can’t do anything with this team either, it might just be that the roster isn’t talented enough. This feels like this team’s last year to make a run at things as currently constructed, and if it doesn’t work out, some form of a rebuild may be coming shortly thereafter.
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