The Chicago Bulls were once among the league's true contenders, but this season marks the second consecutive campaign in which their title chances have been set aside.
Injury has sadly removed Derrick Rose from the Bulls lineup for the bulk of the season once again, and without their superstar guiding the course of most every offensive possession, what can we realistically expect from Chicago this season?
The root of Chicago's winning ways
Rose is both productive and valuable, but make no mistake, Chicago is largely successful because of its defense. Tom Thibodeau changed the way the Bulls played defense upon his introduction to the franchise, and since that point, he's used Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson up to their full potential. It's those three players who align most with Chicago's successes and who will go on to keep the Bulls afloat in another year without Rose.
Last season, the Bulls finished second overall in defensive efficiency, and we can expect them to again fall in the league's top three in the year to come. Rose had developed into an unexpectedly solid defender before his trouble with injury began, yet Thibodeau and the Bulls will have no trouble replacing his work on D with the pretty decent work that Kirk Hinrich does on that end of the court.
There are some net losses in the Bulls rotation (replacing C.J. Watson with Nate Robinson and Marquis Teague, replacing Ronnie Brewer with Marco Belinelli, replacing Omer Asik with Nazr Mohammed, etc.), but that alone shouldn't undermine a stout team defense from relying on the same principles and fundamentals that keyed their success in years past.
Volume shooters in volume
The 2011-12 Bulls were plagued by their glaring lack of shot creation, as is to be expected when the team's primary shot creator is out of the lineup for a majority of the season. Rose is deserving of having the ball in his hands, and when he was removed from the court for any prolonged period of time, the rest of the Bulls struggled to cope. Watson, Deng and Carlos Boozer failed in their attempts to create stable offense for Chicago last season, so much so that this year's Bulls will attempt a decidedly different approach.
Though Deng and Boozer are still likely to get their fair share of offensive touches, the Bulls added Belinelli, Teague, Vladimir Radmanovic and Nate Robinson in an effort to bolster the team's offense. None of those players is even remotely capable of compensating for Rose's absence on an individual level, but there is apparently some hope that those reserves can offer some scoring and shot creation as a collective.
That effort isn't entirely misguided; after all, the Bulls don't have a ton of tradeable pieces to work with at present and were simply looking for a short-term stopgap rather than a long-term solution. They could have done far worse than signing a bunch of shoot-first offensive players, even if a majority of those players put up points inefficiently.
All of that considered, the Bulls should be a bit better offensively this season than they were in last year's playoffs, albeit not enough to realistically vault them up into the next tier of competition.
Where will the Bulls finish in the Eastern Conference this season?
With a slightly improved offense and a likely consistent defense, we should actually expect the Bulls to take a bit of a dive in terms of their overall record and seeding next season. What Chicago pulled off in the 2011-12 regular season was absolutely commendable, but the Bulls also benefited from their own internal continuity in a lockout-altered season. While other teams were struggling to integrate new pieces, the Bulls were able to run a familiar system with the same basic parts. Rose was gone, but Chicago had Thibodeau to lean on and the advantage of their team D.
Their weaknesses will be a bit more apparent this time around, and the Bulls' opponents will have more time to prepare. The schedule will be kinder but the slate will be tougher, and the result of their skid should put the Bulls somewhere in the middle playoff seeds out East. Miami, Indiana and Boston should best Chicago in terms of regular season record, and Brooklyn and New York will likely put up a fight for those middle seeds.
But the Bulls have the framework and defensive success to fall somewhere in the 4-5 range—a superficial regression based on their conference-leading record a season ago, but a mark more reflective of where Chicago actually stands.