The Bulls need a big season out of Joakim Noah to be successful in 2012-13.
Chicago enters the season with a new starting point guard, a revamped bench and an uncertain future for franchise superstar Derrick Rose. The team returns most of its core unit, but will it be enough to compete for the league's best record for the third-straight season?
Not even the Mayans could accurately predict that one.
But as we gaze into the Bulls' crystal ball, you can bet on the fact that this Tom Thibodeau-led squad will feature tough-as-nails defense, aggressive rebounding and energetic hustle. These ingredients will be an essential framework for the squad's success.
However, there are still plenty of questions that need answers for Chicago to take the next step toward a title. Here are 10 bold predictions for the Bulls heading into the 2012-13 NBA season.
With Derrick Rose expected to miss most of the 2012-13 season, the Chicago Bulls need someone to step up and fill the scoring void. That load will fall squarely on the shoulders of Carlos Boozer.
After another disappointing performance in the playoffs last spring, Boozer should feel the pressure to step up his game this season. While he may not be a dominant, No. 1 scoring option, expect the former All-Star to improve his scoring output to at least 20.0 points per game.
Despite all the criticism he receives, Boozer is an incredibly efficient offensive player. He is a career 53.7 percent shooter from the field, and he made 53.2 percent of shots in 2011-12.
However, he took just 12.8 field goal attempts per game and averaged 15.0 points per contest last season, while attempting just 2.1 free throws per game (via Basketball-Reference.com).
The coaching staff will push Boozer to be more aggressive on offense. If he takes 16 shots and gets to the line at least six times per game, he should have no problem averaging at least 20 points a night.
The highlight of the Bulls' acquisitions for its remodeled bench is former New Orleans Hornets shooting guard Marco Belinelli, but veteran Vladimir Radmanovic will be a more valuable option off the bench throughout the season.
While the 26-year-old Belinelli has the bigger upside at this point in both players' careers, Radmanovic has the veteran presence the Bulls will need to stabilize the bench. His role is clearly defined: knock down open treys and be a solid team defender.
On the other hand, if the Bulls struggle to find offense without Derrick Rose, Belinelli will surely feel the pressure to fill the scoring void in his role off the bench. If the second unit becomes a combination of one-on-one attacking with Nate Robinson and Belinelli, the Bulls will be in trouble.
Belinelli must play to his strengths and avoid disrupting the team chemistry by trying to take over on offense when the Bulls struggle to score. It may take some time for him to find his niche, and Radmanovic has played the same role for most of his career. He will fill the same spot on the Chicago bench unit right away as Belinelli takes some time to fit in.
Nate Robinson was the latest addition to the Bulls' fresh new bench.
With a starting lineup featuring Kirk Hinrich, Rip Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah and eventually Derrick Rose for the final portion of the season, the Bulls have the core group to capture the Central Division title for the third-straight season.
The Bulls already know the starting lineup can be competitive with nearly every team in the NBA. But one of the team's most important strengths the past two seasons has been its depth, led by the Bench Mob.
The new-look bench this year has big shoes to fill, and only time will tell if it could live up to the task.
Taj Gibson is the lone returning player from last year's five-man second unit, and Jimmy Butler moves up the depth chart to fill the void on the wing. Shooters Marco Belinelli and Vladimir Radmanovic have the task of spreading the floor, while Nazr Mohammed and Nate Robinson will add depth to both the frontcourt and backcourt, respectively.
That unit has similar, if not better, overall talent than the former Bench Mob, but it will take time to build the same chemistry. Over the course of the year, expect the second unit to gradually improve, and they should provide enough of a boost to contribute to a division champion.
The Bulls' main competitors are the Indiana Pacers, but Chicago added the right free agents to provide enough depth to hold off the Pacers over the 82-game grind.
During the NBA Summer League, Jimmy Butler had a terrific session and played with a swagger that the Bulls have not seen before. It appears that the second-year forward out of Marquette is ready to show the NBA that he belongs on the big stage.
Butler showed flashes of talent in his limited time last year, and his smooth offensive game will be an immense improvement over Ronnie Brewer, whose spot Butler is expected to fill.
Bulls fans might be happy with small improvements and a bit more contribution from the 6'8" wing, but Butler has the capability to do much more. He will prove in his second season that he could eventually earn a starting position in the NBA as he becomes a vital option off the Chicago bench.
Butler may be expected to replace Brewer, but he should have his sights set on Luol Deng's spot in the starting lineup. A big year from Butler may convince the Chicago front office that they could slide him into the starting lineup, and then use Deng as trade bait.
Taj Gibson has NBA general managers salivating at the possibility that he may become a free agent at the end of this season. If the Chicago Bulls were smart, they would lock up Gibson to an extension as soon as possible because his price tag will shoot up every time he takes the floor.
Gibson has proven himself as a fierce shot blocker and versatile defender. He is one of the more athletic power forwards in the NBA, and he is slowly improving his offensive game. The next step in his development is to improve his shot selection, which will come with more experience.
According to a study by 82games.com, 54 percent of Gibson's shots last season were jumpers. On those shots, he had an effective field goal percentage of 37.4 percent. He took 31 percent of his shots described as "close," and with those he owned a 53.2 eFG percentage.
With the loss of Omer Asik, Gibson will likely play extended minutes at the power forward and center spots. His defensive versatility will to continue to demand praise from the NBA experts, and an improved offensive game could propel Gibson into the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.
Kirk Hinrich and Tom Thibodeau are a match made in basketball heaven.
It's no surprise that Thibodeau values defense more than any other aspect of the game, and he should have no problem inserting the former Bull into the starting lineup until Derrick Rose returns.
Hinrich has a high motor and is one of the biggest pests on the perimeter in the NBA. He fits perfectly into the Bulls scheme and has the ability to guard small, quick point guards or long, athletic shooting guards.
With Hinrich, the Bulls will remain one of the top three defensive teams in the league. The Bulls have a premiere low-post defender in Joakim Noah and an excellent wing defender in Luol Deng. What Chicago lacks is a defender who could wreak havoc with his on-the-ball pressure on opposing point guards.
Hinrich is the perfect fit to fill that void, and he will thrive in Thibodeau's system. He will force opposing teams into running their offenses late in the shot clock. The league coaches will reward Hinrich for his defensive versatility with a spot on the All-Defensive Second Team.
Luol Deng continues to down play his wrist injury after his taxing performance in the London Olympics. The All-Star put on a strong performance for England, and it appears he will not need surgery and will be ready to start the NBA season on time.
If Deng could play through the last few months with that type of pain and avoids surgery, don't expect the Bulls' workhorse to miss an extended period anytime soon. Barring an unfortunate injury, Deng will be a mainstay in the Chicago starting lineup, and he will surely be among the league leaders in minutes played.
Deng is in incredible shape, and even though the Olympics may have taken a toll on his body, he has enough left in the tank to survive the long NBA season.
Expect Deng to miss a game or two due to a few bumps and bruises, but with more time off in between games than the shortened 2011-12 season, he will have enough recovery time to play 35-40 minutes each game.
One thing is clear in the NBA Eastern Conference: The Miami Heat are the clear-cut favorites to win the conference for the third-straight season, but the rest of the slots for the playoffs are up for grabs.
The Boston Celtics' big three was broken up in the offseason when Ray Allen decided to sign with Miami, but Boston proved once again in last year's playoffs that they cannot be counted out.
With the addition of Kirk Hinrich to the starting lineup until Derrick Rose returns from his injured ACL, the Bulls actually become a better defensive unit. Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson still form a formidable frontcourt.
If the Bulls hang around between fourth and sixth in the East until Rose gets back, they could catch fire at the end of the season. Chicago is capable of winning at least 50 games, even if Rose plays in the final 15-20 contests. That should be good enough for third in the East, setting up a favorable postseason path.
Joakim Noah is surely still feeling the pain from a sprained ankle that sidelined him from the final three games of the playoffs. But it likely is not the physical pain that ails him.
The pain of not being able to help his team when it needs him most will be a strong motivator for Noah heading into the 2012-13 season. After a slow start last year, Noah turned his season around to average 10.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per contest.
According to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, Noah said that the pressure of his four-year, $60 million deal with Chicago contributed to an average performance.
"I've always been a player who reacts well to criticism and doubters," Noah said. "I feel my teammates were always behind me. But I knew as well as anyone how poorly I was playing. And not only wasn't I playing well, but I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. I wasn't playing loose out there. I was playing tight."
It's time for Noah to turn the corner and become the All-Star center that the Bulls envisioned when signing him to an extension. With Derrick Rose out, the door is open for Noah to become more aggressive on offense and to become an even more important leader on the floor.
The Bulls' defensive anchor will average at least 12 points and 12 rebounds per game in the 2012-13 season and earn his first All-Star nod. But that's only if Noah can stay away from the injury bug that has haunted him in the past.
The Bulls are determined to show the NBA that they aren't a fluke after their early exit against the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2012 postseason. The only way to prove that, though, is to win when it counts.
Chicago's confidence will grow stronger throughout the season if the team stays competitive in the Eastern Conference without Derrick Rose. The Bulls' offensive problems stem from relying on the former MVP to do too much, and without him, the team will have to learn how to score and how to win on its own.
That type of confidence will benefit the Bulls when Rose returns. Rose may not be in top form after playing 15-20 games heading into the playoffs, but he will provide enough to help the Bulls emerge as an Eastern Conference finalist.
As the No. 3 seed, Chicago will have a favorable matchup in the first round. They would likely meet the Boston Celtics or Brooklyn Nets in the second round. A healthy Rose and a confident supporting cast will prove to be enough to get the Bulls past either one of these teams and back into the conference finals.
But the road ends there. The Heat handle Chicago in five, but the Bulls don't hang their heads like they did after being eliminated in 2011. They will have made it much further than the basketball world expected, and it will fuel the fire to make a run at the championship in the 2013-14 season.