Will the Chicago Bulls Be the Best Team in the Eastern Conference Next Season?

James Tillman IIIAnalyst IJuly 22, 2013

Will the Chicago Bulls Be the Best Team in the Eastern Conference Next Season?

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    One of the biggest questions hanging over the Chicago Bulls during the past 14 months has been: When will Derrick Rose step on the court again?

    Now, it seems that question can be put to rest as the Bulls star recently stated that he will play in the team's preseason opener, according to HoopsHype.com.

    So with Rose set to return next season, do the Chicago Bulls become the top dog in the Eastern Conference?

    Let’s see how Chicago stacks up against some of the better teams in the conference.

5) Brooklyn Nets

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    The Brooklyn Nets finished with the fourth best record in the conference, but were eliminated by the Chicago Bulls 4-3 in the opening round of the 2013 playoffs.

    Thanks to a blockbuster trade with the Boston Celtics, the Nets upgraded their roster with the acquisitions of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry.

    In addition to a formidable starting five of Garnett, Pierce, Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson, the Nets' bench will also have some depth with Terry, Shaun Livingston, Reggie Evans, Andray Blatche and Andrei Kirilenko—giving the team a solid 10-man rotation.

    Head coach Jason Kidd expressed that he feels the Nets have the "horses" to compete with Miami.

    Whether or not that statement will hold true remains to be seen.

    While the additions of Garnett and Pierce will enable the Nets to be one of the top four teams in the conference for the second straight year, Chicago has enough to finish ahead of them in the standings next season.

4) New York Knicks

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    The New York Knicks finished second in the East with a 54-28 mark. Although they were eliminated by the Indiana Pacers 4-2 in the second round of the playoffs, this team is loaded with offensive firepower.

    Carmelo Anthony, who led the league in scoring with 28.7 points per contest, can play both forward positions, often creating favorable mismatches for the Knicks.

    In addition to Anthony, New York also features four other players who recorded double-digit scoring averages during the 2012-13 campaign. They include:

    J.R. Smith (18.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG)

    Amar'e Stoudemire (14.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG)

    Raymond Felton (13.9 PPG, 5.5 ASP)

    Tyson Chandler (10.4 PPG, 10.7 RPG)

    You may ask "well, what about defense?"

    To help address that issue, the Knicks acquired former Lakers player Metta World Peace, which instantly improves the defensive makeup of this team. 

    In fact, according Bradford Doolittle of ESPN.com, The Lakers were four points better on defense for every 100 possessions he was on the floor last season.

    How do they measure up against the Bulls? Offensively, both clubs have multiple players who can put the ball in the basket, but defense is what separates these two teams.

    While MWP will bring a defensive-minded attitude the Knicks have been lacking the past few seasons, his presence alone will not be enough to prevent a healthy Bulls team from overtaking them in the race for conference supremacy.

3) Chicago Bulls

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    Rose alone instantly helps the Bulls become a better team than the injury-plagued version fans witnessed last season.

    In addition to Rose, the emergence of Jimmy Butler and the acquisition of Mike Dunleavy, the offense will certainly have a flavor to it that was absent during the 2012-13 campaign.

    The Bulls may have also found a couple of gems in Tony Snell and Erik Murphy, as both players are capable of hitting the long-range shot at a respectable percentage.

    Those factors, along with the return of a Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, puts the Bulls ahead of the Nets and Knicks on this list.

    In spite of the many positives the Bulls have heading into 2013-14, there are still a few questions that will need to be addressed.

    For instance: How long will it take before Rose can play heavy minutes on a nightly basis? And, at what point will he return to his pre-injury form?

    The next area of concern has to do with Jimmy Butler. Will he play well consistently in the starting lineup as he did when he filled in for Luol Deng during the playoffs?

    Aside from injuries, one of the factors that has kept this team from taking the next step is the absence of another scorer in the backcourt. It will be interesting to see if Butler will address that need.

    Another name I'd like to include is Luol Deng. Will he be able to bounce back from a season in which he accumulated the worst field-goal percentage of his career (.426), while connecting on just 32 percent of his shot attempts from beyond the arc?

    These are the questions, for the time being, that prevent me from ranking the Bulls as one of the top two teams in the conference.

     

2) Indiana Pacers

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    Remember when the Bulls eliminated the Pacers 4-1 in the first round of the 2011 playoffs? Well, these are not those same Indiana Pacers from two seasons ago.

    With a 49-32 mark, the Pacers finished with the third-best record in the conference and pushed the Miami Heat to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals—a series that could have gone either way.

    Similar to the Bulls, the Pacers bread-and-butter is defense and rebounding. They finished second in the league in points allowed per game (90.7) and first in the league on the glass—pulling down nearly 46 boards per contest.

    Also like the Bulls, the Pacers played without their star player in Danny Granger, but still came within one victory of derailing the Heat's championship run.

    With Roy Hibbert and David West anchoring the defense, and with Danny Granger and Paul George leading the way offensively, the Pacers are as balanced at both ends of the floor as any team in the East.

    Based on that balance and the fact that Indiana’s postseason run was deeper than Chicago without Granger in the mix, they will only be that much better with him in the lineup.

    This is why I am picking the Pacers to finish ahead of the Bulls in the standings next season.

1) Miami Heat

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    I will get straight to the point by saying the Miami Heat are the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference.

    Not only did the Heat have the best record in the league at 66-16, they also won 27 consecutive games between early February and late March.

    Although the Heat were pushed to the brink by the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs, the Heat emerged as champions for the second straight year, and barring any major changes, don't appear to be going away anytime soon.

    The Bulls played the champs to a 2-2 split in their four-game set during the regular season, but it did not prevent them from watching another postseason run come to an end at the hands of LeBron and Co. for the second time in three years.

    For all the talk about Miami's weakness in the frontcourt and lack of physical presence, they found a way to win in spite of those deficiencies.

    In order to be the best, you have to beat the best and no team in the conference has beaten Miami in a playoff series over the past three years.

    So like it or not Bulls fans, the Heat are the number one team until someone can beat them four times in a playoff series.