It’s easy to forget, since it feels like eons ago, but there was a time in the recent past where the Chicago Bulls looked close to being the kind of team that could compete for a championship. Obviously, Derrick Rose’s knee injuries the last two years derailed any progress they had made toward that end, but with him healthy again and a summer free agency season that brought in more than enough talent to put them back on the radar, it’s time to take Chicago seriously again.
How seriously we take them, though, depends entirely on how quickly the Cleveland Cavaliers become the Eastern Conference juggernaut they appear destined to be.
The good news is that the Bulls really are championship contenders this season, even if Cleveland ends up as good as we think they’ll be. Despite all the talent on that Cavaliers roster, nobody should be fitting them for rings just yet. There are potential weaknesses there, just as there are some ways in which Chicago could ultimately prove to be the better team.
There are a number of reasons for this, the first of which is that for as good as Cleveland’s offense is expected to be, Chicago’s could actually end up being one of the better offensive teams in the conference, as well. Yes, the Cavaliers have three of the top ten offensive players in the league in their starting lineup, but what we haven’t yet seen is how LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving all fit together.
Remember that in LeBron’s first season with Miami it took a long time to figure out how he and Dwyane Wade were going to share the ball. It wasn’t always pretty. If there’s anything close to that sort of discord offensively in Cleveland, Chicago could have a window for taking the conference this spring.
The Bulls could potentially hit roadblocks of their own by also integrating some new pieces offensively, but Chicago’s new weapons are complementary, meaning they shouldn’t have quite as hard a time figuring out how to work in players with exponentially smaller usage rates than the three guys fighting over the rock in Cleveland.
Chicago shouldn’t have their problem, mostly because the majority of the most important players on this roster are returning from a year ago, and continuity is certainly something that’s valuable in all professional sports. These guys know each other, know their coach and know their organization. LeBron hasn’t played for the Cavs in four years, and Love is completely new. While there is a chance that Cleveland will get it figured out by the postseason, the Bulls should hit the ground running, which should give them an immediate advantage.
Regardless of offense and continuity, the Bulls unquestionably are the superior defensive team, not only because Tom Thibodeau is arguably the best defensive coach in the league, but because Chicago’s personnel is more talented on that end of the floor. Joakim Noah is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and guys like Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson also are considered among the league’s best defenders.
For those that aren’t quite as strong, Thibodeau’s defensive system allows for rotations to mask those weaknesses. Whoever is on the floor, the Bulls will be a strong defensive unit. LeBron James has his own impressive resume filled with defensive accomplishments, but his supporting cast—especially those that are expected to play the lion’s share of the minutes—is nowhere near as strong.
On the subject of Thibodeau, he’s also a more established head coach than Cavaliers first-year skipper David Blatt. While Blatt is plenty decorated, he’s unproven at the NBA level and Thibodeau is widely considered one of the league’s three best coaches. In terms of coaching, it’s hard not to predict that Chicago will have the advantage.
The Bulls also are a deeper team, with perhaps the most talented frontcourt rotation in the entire NBA. To along with Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, however, the new Bench Mob also will feature Mike Dunleavy, Jr., Tony Snell, Kirk Hinrich and Doug McDermott. Nothing against Tristan Thompson and Mike Miller and Shawn Marion, but Chicago’s second unit is clearly superior.
With one of the best defenses in the league, incredible depth, a size advantage and of course the leadership of a former MVP and one of the best coaches in the league, the Bulls have to be considered serious title contenders on par with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Will they ultimately beat them? It’s hard to tell this early, but could they beat them? Absolutely.
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