8 Reasons Chicago Bulls Can Win Central Division
The Bulls did just fine without Rose last season, going 18-9 in games that he missed. Sure, things came apart without the team's superstar in the postseason. But winning in the regular season and winning in the playoffs are much different.
To win the division in the NBA, a team has to have above-average overall depth (check). It has to play terrific team defense every night (check). And it has to have enough talent on the roster to roll through the less-superior teams (check).
The Bulls certainly pass that test. There is no reason to believe that Chicago can't win the Central for the third straight year, especially if the team gets Rose back for a month at the end of the season.
Here are eight reasons why the Bulls can win the division in the 2012-13 NBA season.
8. Kirk Hinrich Is an Improvement over C.J. Watson at PG
C.J. Watson did an admirable job when inserted into the starting lineup last season. But the return of Kirk Hinrich to the Windy City is an upgrade at starting point guard, and he will be even more valuable as a backup combo guard when Derrick Rose returns from his ACL injury.
Captain Kirk reuniting with the Bulls was arguably the team's biggest offseason move. He brings a grittiness on the defensive end that head coach Tom Thibodeau will love and that Watson lacked. Hinrich has the ability to effectively defend opposing point guards or shooting guards, while Watson was a liability guarding anybody.
Watson averaged 9.7 points per game during the 2011-12 season, while Hinrich averaged just 6.6 points per contest on a dysfunctional Atlanta Hawks team. Hinrich will fit in better with this veteran Bulls squad and hopefully can produce as much offense as Watson did a year ago.
With Omer Asik patrolling the middle, Watson was bailed out plenty of times after getting burned on the perimeter. Hinrich's peskiness on the perimeter will be a much-needed asset if Chicago wants to remain one of the top defensive teams in the NBA.
7. A Healthy Rip Hamilton with a Full Offseason
Out of any of the players on the Chicago roster last season, the aging Rip Hamilton appeared to have the most trouble adjusting to the lockout-shortened schedule. The 13-year veteran missed 38 of the team's 66 games.
In the second of his two-year deal with the Bulls, Hamilton will get back to his routine of having a full offseason training regimen. More importantly, the 34-year-old shooting guard will have more recovery time in between games during the season.
It's obvious that Hamilton was not the missing piece to the Bulls' championship puzzle last season. But, there is still reason to believe that he could make positive contributions to the squad.
The team's starting lineup will be Kirk Hinrich, Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah to start the season. This veteran unit, with 45 seasons of NBA experience combined, will take little time to find chemistry. Hamilton will play an essential role in this balanced-scoring starting five.
6. The Return of Derrick Rose to Finish the Job
He's all in.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, take a look at this commercial by Adidas. If Derrick Rose comes back in the final month of a heated division race, he could be the difference-maker the Bulls need to win the Central crown.
Rose doesn't even have to be at MVP form. His presence alone will motivate the troops in a similar way Willis Reed inspired his New York Knicks teammates in the 1970 NBA Finals.
On the court, Rose will, once again, become the starting floor general. Rose will be an improvement over Kirk Hinrich, even if the superstar puts up average numbers based on his lofty standards.
Almost equally important is that Hinrich becomes the primary backup at both point guard and shooting guard. Rose and Hinrich form a solid backcourt, and Hinrich could hold his own defending against stud shooting guards while Rose handles the opposing point guard.
According to a recent update given by Rose in an interview with Comcast Sportsnet Chicago (h/t ESPN), Rose said that he is two to three weeks ahead of his rehab schedule.
And that is music to every Bulls fans' ears.
5. The Growth of Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler
Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler are the lone returning members of the team's bench from a year ago. Gibson played a major role in helping the Bulls allow the least amount of points per game in the NBA while Butler played effectively in his limited minutes as a reserve.
Butler will see an increased role as he fills the void left by Ronnie Brewer. Even though Brewer was one of Chicago's best defenders a year ago, the team is not giving up much on the defensive end by inserting Butler into the mix.
Butler is just as athletic as Brewer and has a prototypical NBA build with his 6'7", 220-pound frame. He also possesses a smooth jumper and an improving arsenal of moves on offense, and he will contribute more on that end of the floor than the offensively challenged Brewer did.
It's time that Gibson takes the next step in his offensive development.
He averaged 13.6 points per 36 minutes of action last season. If he could boost that total to over 15 points in the same amount of minutes, the Bulls' front office should have no doubt in their minds that Gibson could handle the starting power forward role, and the team could afford to amnesty Carlos Boozer. Boozer averaged 18.3 points per 36 minutes in 2011-12.
4. A Healthy Luol Deng to Start the Season
Even after the London Olympics, Luol Deng still said that he will likely not need surgery on his wrist (via Ian Whittell of ESPN) and will be ready to begin the NBA season in the Chicago starting lineup.
That is terrific news for the Bulls. With Rose out for an extended period, surgery for Deng would have meant that the All-Star would have likely been shelved for the first two months of the season. Instead, Chicago's best perimeter defender will be ready to go.
Deng is the Bulls' work horse, leading the team in minutes per game (38.0) last season. He is a steady scorer and an effective three-point shooter, and he is the team's hardest player to replace outside of Rose.
A weight was lifted off the squad's shoulders when Deng announced that he will likely begin the season on the floor and not on the inactive list. That takes a lot of pressure off Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, who were expected to carry the load and keep the Bulls in the race until Deng returned to the lineup.
Tom Thibodeau has done a marvelous job molding the Bulls into a tough-minded defensive team that led the NBA with the best record in the past two seasons.
Will somebody please give that man an extension?
Jeff Van Gundy said it best in March 2012 while Thibodeau was keeping Chicago atop the league despite his team missing several key players for an extended period of time due to injuries (via K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune).
There are a lot of great coaches in this league and a lot of people have done great jobs both last year and this year,. But nobody - nobody - has done a better job than Tom has. And he's probably doing even a better job this year (2011-12) than he did a year ago (2010-11). With all the injuries they've had, they just keep rolling along. I said to my assistants the other day, they could probably have all five starters out and they'd still beat everybody.
Thibodeau has gotten the most out of his players than any other coach in the league the past two seasons. However, he faces his toughest challenge yet in 2012-13. The Bulls bench received a makeover, and it will be difficult to match the terrific chemistry of the Bench Mob of the past couple of seasons.
Thibodeau also has to figure out how to win with his players knowing they won't have Derrick Rose for most of the year. Last season, team morale remained high because the players knew that their MVP would be back eventually. The locker-room culture will be totally different in 2012-13 because the team knows Rose will be out for nearly the entire season.
The key to the Chicago Bulls' success the past two regular seasons has been the team's depth. With a healthy roster, the Bulls consistently played 10 deep against any team in the NBA. If a player missed time with an injury, the next guy on the depth chart stepped up to fill the void, and the team didn't skip a beat.
While many of the faces from a year ago will not be back in the Windy City for the 2012-13 season, the Bulls still added enough depth to remain one of the most balanced teams in the NBA.
The team's starting unit will likely be Kirk Hinrich, Rip Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah on opening night. The reserve unit is Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Nazr Mohammed. Vladimir Radmanovic is also another veteran who will see extended time off the bench.
And that's without Derrick Rose. When he returns, Hinrich moves to the bench. That's 12 players whom Tom Thibodeau should feel comfortable playing against any team in the league.
It may take a while for the newcomers to find a way to blend as well as the old Bench Mob, but the Bulls have the coaching and the selfless veterans to make for a quick transition. The Indiana Pacers are the only team in the division that could compete with the Bulls' depth, but even that is a difficult battle for the Pacers to win.
During the long, 82-game haul, a deep roster could be the difference between a top seed in the conference and a middle standing. While Chicago may not be constructed to win in a seven-game playoff series, they are built to thrive during the regular-season grind.
As the old saying goes, defense wins championships. And, there is no better defensive team in the Central Division than the Chicago Bulls.
According to stats from ESPN, Chicago was first in the league in points allowed last season (88.2 per game) and second in opponents' field goal percentage (42.1 percent). The Bulls primary competition in the division, the Indiana Pacers, were 10th (94.4 points per game) and sixth (43.5 percent) in the same categories, respectively.
Granted, Chicago lost one of their best interior defensive players in Omer Asik. The combination of Asik and Taj Gibson off the bench was arguably the most lethal paint presence in the NBA, and the Bulls will definitely miss that duo when closing games out in the fourth quarter.
But Joakim Noah is still an above-average defensive center and can effectively anchor the paint with help from Gibson. Newly acquired backup center Nazr Mohammed is not quite as good as Asik, but he is still an effective reserve center on the defensive end of the floor.
The addition of Kirk Hinrich and the loss of C.J. Watson immediately improves the Bulls perimeter defense against opposing guards. Watson struggled against athletic point guards last year, but Hinrich's ability to pressure the ball will be a huge plus.
Hinrich can also guard some shooting guards well, which will help minimize the loss of Ronnie Brewer, another excellent defender. Jimmy Butler will also help nullify Brewer's departure.
In addition, the Bulls have one of the best defensive small forwards in the game in Luol Deng. So even though Chicago has lost a few of their defensive weapons, they still have enough to remain in the top five in the NBA in team defense.
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