NBA Season Preview: Chicago Bulls

Full disclosure– I am a Bulls fan.

Last Season: 48-34 good for 2nd in the Central division and the 4th seed, lost to Washington Round 1 of the playoffs; Leading scorer– Luol Deng (19), Leading rebounds– Joakim Noah (11), Leading assists– Noah (5.4)

Changes: Added– Aaron Brooks (signed), Cameron Bairstow (draft), Doug McDermott (draft trade), E’Tuwan Moore (signed), Nikola Miritic (signed former draft pick), Pau Gasol (free agent), Resigned– Kirk Hinrich, Nazr Mohammed, Lost– Carlos Boozer (amnesty), D.J. Augustin (free agent), Greg Smith (traded for draft rights to overseas pick), Jimmer Fredette (free agent), Lou Amundson (waived), Luol Deng (midseason trade), Mike James (waived), Ronnie Brewer (waived)

Positions

Point Guard: Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, Aaron Brooks

Derrick Rose is back!  Hopefully for the whole season, and hopefully as at least 85% of what he was in his MVP season.  His time with USA Basketball has been much criticized, but its really hard to judge the stats from that time– he wasn’t handling the ball like he will for the Bulls, wasn’t playing the minutes, was working with 20 point leads most of the times. . . USA Basketball’s leading scorers were most effort guys like Kenneth Faried– who just soak up missed shots for put backs.  I think Rose showed just enough to show that, given a full season, he can be an All Star level point guard again.  Rose was also, incidentally, the best defending guard throughout the tournament for Team USA– something that gets glossed over a lot in the discussion of his poor shooting.

Hinrich is in a steep decline in his career.  If this was Captain Kirk circa 2008, or even 2010 he would be one of the best backup point guards in the league right now.  Sadly, he is just not that player anymore.  He still brings plus level defense, shooting, and all around heart to the table, and the combination of him and Rose are tall enough to play in tandem in some smaller lineups.

If I told you the Bulls had signed a third point guard with high level scoring skills, streaky but solid shooting, and a checkered career that includes being waived by Sacramento and a stint overseas, would you expect it to be a success?

I do.  Look at the history with these guys– Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin, John Lucas III, C.J. Watson. . . the list goes on.  Aaron Brooks will fit this role perfectly, and is a better defender than most of the others on the list.  The third point guard in Thibodeau’s teams will score.  A lot.

Shooting Guard: Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell, E’Twaun Moore

Butler is an All Defense Team level candidate at shooting guard, and I expect with Rose back to free up the shots he is taking he will regain some of what he was perceived as losing from his offensive game last year.  Regardless, this guy can guard the best twos and three in the league.  He will see heavy minutes, will guard Carmelo and Lebron and sometimes Durant when they are in town.  Points are just gravy when looking at Jimmy’ s contributions.

Tony Snell played really well in Summer League this year.  Playing next to McDermott the two young players showed a lot of chemistry, and Snell had a much improved shooting percentage.  If he can carry those improvements forward into the season Snell is going to be a solid backup at this position, and can expect to play when the opposing teams better offensive options are out to give Butler rest.

Moore does not project to play many minutes, though he has decent shooting percentages which the Bulls might need off the bench (42% field goal, 35% 3 point).

Small Forward: Mike Dunleavy, Doug McDermott

For the first time in a long time the Bulls go into a season without Luol Deng projected to start at small forward.   Best case scenario for the Bulls here– McDermott earns the starting job and shoots 40% from 3’s.  Worst case scenario– McDermott gets no playing time and Dunleavy’s percentage from 3 (38% last year) falls down below 33%.  McDermott profiles as being a younger, more athletic, better shooting version of Dunleavy.  The two players will be virtually interchangeable in the role they play on this team– which will mostly be “stand int he corner and hit the three” when Noah/Rose dishes it.  Neither will be asked to defend the better wing player, as Jimmy Butler or Taj Gibson will be taking those duties.

This is the thinnest position for the Bulls, which I think is a good thing– it will force Thibs to play McDermott despite his being very slow to give rookies minutes.  Besides the Dunleavy/McDermott 3 point tandem team, expect Jimmy Butler to play here shifted up (alongside either Snell or Hinrich at the 2) or Miritic or Taj to play shifted down (when Pau and Noah are both on the floor).

Power Forward: Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, Nikola Miritic

Pau Gasol is a former All Star.  He looked dominant for Spain at the World Cup, and I expect him to be rejuvenated now that he is away from the dysfunction that has been the Lakers last few seasons.  He has a great scoring touch from the outside and solid low post and elbow skills, which will complement the high post positions that Noah is best at.  He’s projected to start alongside Noah in a twin towers formation, but will realistically also back Noah up.  (Rotation will be something like Noah 5, Pau 4; Pau 5, Taj 4; Noah 5, Taj 4).

Taj Gibson is another all defense, all effort, level player.  His post skills took a huge leap last year.  He’s one of the best defenders in the league, and was a candidate for both most improved player, and sixth man of the year last year.  I expect him to play a lot, and play in high pressure situations, and generally be awesome like he has the last few years.

Miritic may not see a lot of minutes as a rookie, but there has been a ton of hype about him from his play overseas.  Long term projections have ranged from “Dirk” to “Darko” so I will be watching his play very closely.  Realistically, as the fourth big man in rotation after Noah, Pau, and Taj I would peg him for 10 or fewer minutes a game, especially early going, but he can score, and the transition should be easier for him with another native Spanish speaker alongside him.

Center: Joakim Noah, Nazr Mohammed, Cameron Bairstow

Noah was an MVP candidate, All NBA selection, Most Improved Player candidate, All Defense Team selection and All Star last year.  He brings defense, scoring, and assists that no other player in the league has at that position for a long time.  The only question will be how will the offense that the Bulls found with him work with Rose added back to the mix– I expect “really well” since the main problem Bulls teams had back in 2010-2011 was no viable second option, and D.J. Augustin shot a lot of shots last year (and Rose is a lot better than Augustin– no disrespect, really sad to see D.J. go).

Realistically as I mentioned above Pau Gasol is the backup center on this team.  I do not expect Nazr Mohammed or the rookie second round pick Bairstow to see anything but emergency and garbage time minutes.

Outlook: The Bulls starting lineup consists of a former MVP, an All Defense Second Team player, a 3 point shooter with close to 40% average, a former All Star and two time NBA Champion, and last year’s first team All NBA center.  Add to that one of the best coaches in the league, legitimate backups at every option, and playing in the East and the outlook is inevitably good.  The Bulls have been one of the best defensive teams since Thibodeau’s arrival, and have added scoring to the team with Pau, McDermott, Miritic, and oh yeah, healthy Derrick Rose.  I’m projecting a top 3 playoff seed and showdown with Cleveland in the Eastern Finals.

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