Definitive Blueprint for Chicago Bulls to Become Title Contenders by 2014
By the way the Chicago Bulls set up their contracts in the summer of 2012, it is apparent they are putting together a blueprint for a major push in 2014 to land a star free agent and move to win not just a title, but titles in the future.
There are several steps for what they need to do to get back to Jordan-era heights when they weren’t just perennial contenders, but even perennial favorites.
Here are those steps, in chronological order.
1. Get Derrick Rose Back, Healthy and Better Than Ever
The first thing that Rose will need to put behind him is the #noreturn fiasco, which he’ll do the moment he starts playing. The whole thing was just dumb. It’s over. The season is over. And the controversy will be over as soon as he starts playing again.
When he comes back, there will probably be a couple of differences to Rose’s game. First, there has been a considerable amount of talk that he worked tremendously on his jump shot over the course of his rehab. If he can boost his three-pointer to the .370 to .380 range, then he will become a nightmare to defend.
He’s added a left-handed tear-drop runner. He’s improved his mental understanding of the game. His grasp of when to pass and when to shoot should be improved. You won’t see as many forced shots getting blocked when there are open shooters out on the perimeter.
The other aspect of Rose’s return is tremendously underrated, which is his defense.
Last season, opposing point guards scored 21.0 points per game against the Bulls, making Chicago 23rd in the NBA. When Rose started intermittently in 2012, the Bulls were fourth at 18.2 points given up to opposing point guards. In Rose’s MVP season, Chicago gave up just 16.7 points per game to point guards.
That’s a difference of 3.3 points per game directly attributed to the point guard position. The Bulls gave up 3.7 more points per game last year than in 2012. To argue that Rose’s loss doesn’t impact the Bulls on defense is to willfully ignore the reality revealed in the numbers.
And the other numbers support it. Rose’s opponent’s Player Efficiency Rating per 82games was better than any point guard except Rajon Rondo in 2012. His Synergy numbers, .77 points per play against in 2012 and .78 in 2011 are also elite level numbers.
When Rose comes back, the best-case scenario is he will be a combination of Chris Paul’s shooting and decision making, Russell Westbrook’s explosiveness and scoring ability, and Rondo’s perimeter defense.
And yes, that kind of talent can win you championships.
2. Have Jimmy Butler Develop a Step-Back Jumper
Jimmy Butler’s breakout season was cited as one of the highlights of the year by Tom Thibodeau recently in an interview heard on the Waddle and Silvy show on ESPN 1000 in Chicago. During that interview, Thibodeau confirmed that Butler will be the starting shooting guard for the Bulls next season.
Jimmy “G Buckets” is starting to show that the sky is his limit, and he can touch the sky with his 40-inch vertical. He is highly effective at getting to the rim, and even more exceptional at drawing contact and making teams pay at the stripe.
He averaged .46 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempts and shot .803 from the free-throw line. Only two other players had a higher free-throw attempt per field-goal attempt rate while shooting better than 80 percent of the freebies, Kevin Durant and James Harden. That’s pretty good company.
Butler was also ridiculous from three once he took over full-time duties as the starter.
From March 24 to the end of the season, Butler shot .528 from three. That’s not effective field-goal percentage, that’s actual three-point percentage. That combined with his ability to get to the line gave him an extremely effective true shooting percentage of .590 over that span.
The addition to that is Butler has the potential to be the best day-to-day perimeter defender in the NBA as well.
James, on demand, might be the league’s best defender, but his energies are required to run the offense. Butler’s main responsibilities are on defense.
Last season, his opponent’s Player Efficiency Rating was a diminutive 10.7, the second best in the Association, according to 82games.com. That is even more remarkable when you consider that he routinely guards the best perimeter player on the other team, especially as Luol Deng suffered through injuries down the stretch.
Butler is an elite defender with an increasing ability to score.
The one thing absent from his game is a step-back jumper. As a result, he has almost no mid-range game to speak of. On the season, he was just .329 between the restricted area and the three-point line on the season. Between his ability to get to the rim, and/or draw contact and his ability to shoot, if he can learn to create separation off the step back, Butler could be an All-Star as soon as next season.
He really is that close.
As a starter, he was already averaging almost 15 points a game. Adding even one mid-range jumper per game to that total would bump his scoring to 17, giving him Paul George-type numbers. He coupled that kind of scoring with elite perimeter defense to make the All-Star Game. So Butler really is close to being an All-Star.
3. Be Smart with Luol Deng
Right now, based on the comments I get, it seems the biggest controversy surrounding the Bulls fans is whether or not the team should trade Luol Deng. That’s a position that has strong arguments on both sides. The answer depends on the return.
Trading Deng for the sake of trading Deng would be foolish. The main argument for it is Jimmy Butler has developed to the point where he can step in for Deng. This makes sense until you consider that the Bulls have been trying for years to find the right shooting guard. Now they finally have him, so they’re going to trade their small forward, move the shooting guard to small forward and still have the need at shooting guard?
You don’t want to dig one hole to fill another, and you don’t want to fix what’s not broken.
You can make an argument that right now Deng doesn’t give you enough considering the money he’s making. Last year, he made $13 million and gave 16.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. That’s not great, but it’s not bad.
Deng, though, is also one of those players you simply can’t judge by the box score. What he provides in on-court leadership, defense and in overall “glueness” is all near the top of the NBA. There’s a reason why opposing coaches have made him an All-Star two years running.
He’s also in the final year of his contract. What if he is willing to come back for less? How much would it be worth to keep him? Is he worth $7 million? How about $5 million? Don’t ignore the possibility of his long-term value to the Bulls if he stays either.
The other thing to consider is the remarkable chemistry the current group has together.
When Deng has started with Carlos Boozer, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, the Bulls have won 85 percent of their games. And that’s not even including the addition of Jimmy Butler in the starting lineup.
Once he started the Bulls gave up 4.4 fewer points (subscription required) per 100 possessions when Butler and Deng were on the court together.
And frankly, we haven’t even seen the trio of Rose, Butler and Deng either. On the defensive end, that’s a potentially devastating group. All three provide tremendous help and close out on shooters like Boris Diaw closes out on a box of donuts.
Having said all of that, there is speculation from Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com that Deng could be the main chip in a trade that could land Kevin Love.
In a case like that, depending on the price, you have to consider it. The important thing here is not whether you trade Deng or keep Deng, but it’s whether you maximize Deng.
If you can get more out of him, then do it, but don’t trade him just for the sake of trading him. And, in considering his value, consider all of it, not just the box-score value. Then make a decision.
Be smart..Deng it.
4. Draft Minutes
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If you were to re-draft the 2011 NBA draft, the following players would probably be your top seven players, Kyrie Irving, Kenneth Faried, Kawhi Leonard, Chandler Parsons, Jimmy Butler, Isaiah Thomas and Nikola Vucevic.
At least, that’s your top seven players so far in career Win Shares.
Of those players, only one, Irving, was a lottery pick. The others were all taken with the 16th pick or later. Butler was the last pick of the first round. Parsons and Thomas were taken in the second round.
That year, there wasn’t a lot to the lottery. It was more like a “litterly." But there was a lot to the draft.
You could win with a starting five of Thomas, Butler, Leonard, Faried and Vucevic.
The moral of the story here is that a “weak” draft doesn’t mean a “bad” draft. This year’s draft could be a lot like 2011’s. There may not be many automatic superstars, but there are a ton of potential difference-makers.
The key is finding out who they are. The Bulls have done a good job with later draft picks in getting Taj Gibson and Butler. The jury is still out on Marquis Teague and Nikola Mirotic, but both have shown reasons to be optimistic about them.
They’ll have the 20th pick, which is their best selection in a while, and this year the mocks are making a mockery of the draft. One person’s 15th pick seems to be the next person’s 25th. Players like Tim Hardaway Jr., who many were predicting wouldn’t even be drafted a month ago, are now saying he could go in the mid to late first round.
Should the Bulls get a center or a wing? Should they get a pure shooter or a playmaker? It’s really hard to say, and so much depends on who is available by the time things come to them.
The most critical thing is they draft someone who will play actual minutes on the court whoever it is.
If it’s a wing, he needs to actually let Deng cut his playing time. If he’s a center, he needs to be a player who absorbs minutes from Noah. The Bulls need to reduce the minutes those two players play, and they need to use the draft to work in that direction.
Minutes, minutes, minutes. That’s what matters this draft.
5. Sign Players Who Will Play
In case we haven’t figured it out yet, no matter how much Tom Thibodeau says about having enough to win, he’s not going to play players whom he doesn’t feel comfortable are going to execute within his defensive system—even if that means Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah scrambling up and down the court with their arms and legs sticking out of coffins.
The backup point guard is Kirk Hinrich, so Derrick Rose should be fine. Taj Gibson will (again) more than ably fill minutes for Carlos Boozer, so that’s fine.
After that, things get a little dicey.
Center depth is weak. Hopefully, the Bulls will bring back Malcolm Thomas, who showed a lot promise last year in the summer league and gives the Bulls a third power forward, but not a second center.
Nazr Mohammed may come back. He actually started getting some minutes last season down the stretch when Noah’s foot problems flared up. He did win the team's award for MVP (Most Violent Push) for sending LeBron James sprawling to the ground.
But will a year-older Mohammed really be the solution as the backup center going forward? Probably not.
If the Bulls don’t draft a center, they need to look to bring a new one onboard.
They’ll probably entertain the idea of Greg Oden, but someone is going to offer him more than the taxpayer mid-level exception (which is why he won’t go to Miami either). There are some other centers available, but the ones who aren’t flawed are too expensive.
They could make a grab for Samuel Dalembert, whose defensive instincts would fit well with the Bulls, but there will be competition from Miami.
That’s why it might make more sense to draft a center (Kelly Olynyk has a cool first name) and sign a wing or two.
Players like Carlos Delfino, Francisco Garcia and Mike Dunleavy Jr. could do well enough as backups, and should be obtainable for the taxpayer exception of $3.2 million. Ronnie Brewer could be added for the NBA veteran’s minimum.
The overall complement of players suggests that going for a center in the draft makes more sense, unless the Bulls see a Butlerian-steal in the 20th spot.
6. Amnesty Carlos Boozer and Bring over Nikola Mirotic in the Summer of 2014
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In case you missed it, Nikola Mirotic didn’t win the Rising Star award this year in the ACB (the Spanish league he is in) as he did in the previous two years. Instead, he had to settle for MVP. I guess you can’t be considered rising once you’re on the top. Oh yeah, and his team won the championship, too.
Meanwhile, Carlos Boozer did not win the MVP in the NBA. Surprised? Well, not unless MVP stands for Most Verbally Punished. Then Boozer might be in the running.
The real problem with Boozer isn’t what he does. He did average about 16 points and 10 boards a game last year, and he did have a monster week, where he won the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award. What he doesn’t do is give what Bulls fans feel is $15 million worth of production, but he does get that much worth of paycheck.
The Bulls will see Deng’s contract fall off the books next summer.
The wide speculation is that the Bulls will amnesty Boozer in 2014, sign Mirotic for $5 million and use the remaining freed up funds to acquire a superstar to play alongside Derrick Rose, or use one or both of them to acquire a player via trade.
Mirotic makes that possible because of the promising career he’s shown in Europe. He’s been touted by some as the next Dirk Nowitzki, but projecting how any Euro will fare is like reading tarot cards.
It’s hard to say who the Bulls would land in free agency, but if nothing major (i.e. LeBron James) pans out, Nowitzki would be available.
Who better to tutor the next Nowitzki than the previous Nowitzki? Granted, maybe he doesn’t want to leave Dallas, but if the Mavs don’t land a big-name free agent this summer, maybe he wants to win another ring more than staying in the big D. And at least he wouldn’t have to worry about getting a center in Chicago.
Anyway, the point here is that the bird in the hand is an aging, maimed, shadow of his former self. He squawks loud, but that’s about it. The birds in the bush are either young and beautiful, or at least nobly aging bald eagles with rings on their fingers. It makes sense to amnesty Boozer in 2014.
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There are a few other things to keep in mind. The Bulls will have another first-round draft pick next season, but where that falls is completely unknown. If things go as expected, it will be a late one.
They also have the Charlotte Bobcats' pick, which will come sometime before the end of President Obama’s second term (literally). Depending on how the Bobcats do they could it next year, 2014, 2015 or 2016.
In both cases, there are too many variables to discuss specific, but what is worth mentioning is that they are assets which could be used in a trade involving Deng and/or Boozer if the opportunity to land a superstar such as Kevin Love presents itself. So is Mirotic.
John Paxson and Gar Forman need to keep their ears to the ground and pick up on any potential trades that could bring a second superstar to the team. If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that predicting such things is useless, but that draft picks are a huge part of any deal. The Charlotte deal, and even Mirotic, might be worth including should the right deal present itself.