Is This the Most Stacked Chicago Bulls Roster Since the Michael Jordan Era?

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Is This the Most Stacked Chicago Bulls Roster Since the Michael Jordan Era?
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Is this the most stacked Chicago Bulls roster since the retirement of Michael Jordan? Is it enough to push them over the top and win an NBA title?

Looking over the past 15 years, it’s not tough to determine what the best roster to date has been. And it’s not tough to deduce that Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls head coach, has something to do with it.

Much of that roster remains, so it’s probable the Bulls will enjoy a similar level of success this year.

Each of the three rosters—2011, 2012 and 2014—have slight variations, and the players who haven’t changed aren’t exactly the same either. Here’s a position-by-position comparison.

 

The Starters

Point Guard

As the starting point guard, resident superstar and 2011 MVP, Derrick Rose is the obvious rudder of this team. The Bulls’ offensive plunge to 23rd in offensive rating last season was primarily due to his absence.

So, any question about the Bulls' chances this year begins with whether he’ll be the same player he was before he went down.  

Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago explains in an interview with ESPN.com's Headlines that Rose is back, both physically and mentally.

Physically, he looks the same as he did before the injury. Now, obviously the big key for him is going to be how he performs in the preseason, specifically in that first game Saturday night against the (Indiana) Pacers.

But you talk to his teammates, Tom Thibodeau, the coaches, the Bulls personnel—they tell you that Derrick physically looks like the same player. And they know there’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment when he comes back. 

And they know he’s going to have to knock some of the rust off that builds up over time, but they are very confident—and so is he, frankly—that he’s going to come back and be the MVP caliber player that he was before he hurt his knee.

About Rose being “mentally ready,” Friedell said, "I really couldn’t help but feel like, Derrick, after a year a half of uncertainty, feels like he’s all the way back to where he needs to be mentally."

We haven’t seen Rose play. That doesn’t mean no one has. Everyone who has seen him play has said the same things. Rose is as good, or better, than he was before he was hurt.

The 2012 version of Rose was actually better than the 2011 version in many ways. He was showing improved decision-making, passing the ball more in a natural flow of the offense and playing to what the defense was giving him.

The numbers bear that out. Per NBA.com (subscription required), prior to the onset of Rose’s injury issues, the Bulls were the fourth-most efficient offense in the NBA in 2012.

If Rose has continued to improve on his jump shot and his grasp of the game and is back to where he was before he was injured, both physically and mentally, this should be his best season yet.

Some will see this as being wildly optimistic, but let’s bear in mind that a 25-year-old improving is hardly unique. The typical year it takes to be fully healthy has already transpired, meaning the typical adjustment time will be lessened.

 

Shooting Guard

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Jimmy Butler is better than Keith Bogans. This is just a truism. And if he gets on the court consistently, he’ll offer the Bulls more than Richard Hamilton ever did.

The Butler speculation runs a bit wild in Chicago, so let’s be clear. It’s unlikely (but not impossible) that Butler makes the All-Star Game. He’s not the next the Scottie Pippen, and he’s not the next Paul George, either.

He’s also not as overrated as some fans of other teams have suggested.

The reality is probably somewhere in the middle. He should be adequate, but not brilliant offensively.  He should average around 12-14 points, six rebounds and three assists. It would not be a shock if he made the All-Defense team.

And most importantly, he’s easily the best athlete Rose will have played with in the backcourt. Butler has a 39-inch vertical, and per the Draft Express pre-draft measurements database, a 3.15 three-quarter sprint. (For comparison purposes, John Wall’s was 3.14). So, he’ll be able to help the Bulls in an area where they’ve lacked, the fast break.

Butler is going to have a solid season. I’ve written extensively about why already, so rather than just repeat myself, I’ll send you here.

The bottom line is that Butler doesn’t need to be George or Pippen. He just needs to be better than Bogans and actually on the court, unlike Hamilton.

Butler wins this battle over either former starter, and it’s not even close.

 

Small Forward

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Luol Deng had an awful season in every way a player can last year. Statistically, it was horrendous. He shot a mere .426 from the field and just .322 from deep. His torn wrist ligament and broken thumb probably didn’t help that much, either.

A Google search on “Luol Deng wrist” reveals no new news on Deng’s wrist. In this case, no news is good news.

Two ways that ligaments heal are rest and surgery. Last summer, Deng didn’t get the chance to rest the wrist. This summer, he did. He should be healthier. The lack of reports to the contrary supports that conclusion.

On the other hand, he’s had a plain old beating put on his body by the extraneous minutes he’s played the past two years. The rest he’s enjoyed this summer should help with that, but another series of games where he’s consistently going over 40 minutes isn’t going to help him.  Thibodeau will have to be careful there.

The Rose factor must also be considered. In 2012, Deng’s effective field-goal percentage with Rose on the court was .485 compared to .451 while Rose was on the bench. In 2011, those numbers were .518 and .467, respectively.

Rose makes Deng a better player. Observationally speaking, Deng‘s jumper seems much better in catch-and-shoot situations. Rose sets him up for those extremely well because of his ability to penetrate and collapse defenses.  

Deng will be better offensively this year than last, but he probably won’t be as good as he was in 2011. The 2012 version is a good approximation. Defensively, he’ll be his best yet because he won’t have to spend large amounts of time guarding both wings simultaneously with Butler at his side.

We’ll call this one a draw.

 

Power Forward

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Carlos Boozer arguably had his best year as a Bull last season, although, statistically, that’s a tough argument to uphold.

Over a stretch of games in January, he was actually looking the like the player the Bulls had intended to sign, averaging 21.0 points and 11.2 rebounds over 13 games. Perhaps more importantly, Boozer showed up against Miami, notching 19 points and 15 boards per contest against the Heat.

In the playoffs, Boozer didn’t pull a disappearing act either, as he averaged 16.4 points and 9.4 boards.

Those aren’t superstar numbers, but they’re actually visible, which, compared to previous postseason ventures, is a plus.

Overall, Boozer will still be the same.  He’ll give the Bulls about 18 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes. His minutes will vary depending on how much Taj Gibson is playing and what else is happening. He may even lose some power forward minutes to Deng and/or the newly acquired Mike Dunleavy.

But at least there’s a chance Boozer can step up when needed. The 2014 Boozer will be more reliable than the 2011 or 2012 version.

 

Center

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Joakim Noah is an improved player on both ends of the court. He, more than any Bull who spans the 2012 and upcoming seasons, developed his game in Rose’s absence.

While Bulls fans have been pining for a second superstar on the team, they may not realize Noah has become one. He was ranked 21st among NBA players this season by SI.com, just three behind LaMarcus Aldridge, whom some fans were eager to exchange Noah for.

It’s not just that Noah developed his offensive game, it’s how he developed it. Noah became the best passing big man in the NBA and a more reliable scorer, enjoying career highs in points (11.9) and assists (4.0).

Noah is now the perfect pick-and-roll partner for Rose. He can set the pick and then stay at the elbow while Rose drives. There, he can be an easy outlet pass for Rose if the bigs are there to stop his shot. Then, Noah can knock down his tornado shot, hit one of the three-point shooters with a pass or feed Boozer or Deng on a cut.

The 2014 Noah easily wins this contest over the previous versions.

Overall, the starting five is as good, or better, than in the Bulls' peak years of 2011 and 2012.

Chicago is 50-9 in games where Rose, Deng, Boozer and Noah have all started. Butler alone makes the current starting five better. A definitely improved version of Noah and a possibly improved version of Rose make the group even better.  

 

The Bench

The bench, particularly during the 2012 season, was remarkable. In spite of the plethora of injuries incurred by the Bulls, “Next man up” became the mantra (to the point of being a punchline), and the next man was always stepping up. The Bulls were 18-9 in games without Rose.

One thing that needs to be mentioned here is that the bench wasn’t seen as special until Thibodeau started coaching them. A similar thing happened last year.

I like to joke (semi-seriously) that last offseason all I heard was, “How are we supposed to win with Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli?” This offseason, the most frequent protest is, “How are we supposed to win without Robinson or Belinelli?”

Part of what makes Thibodeau a great coach is that he actually coaches. He makes players better. And he knows how to work them into his system. This group will be good, but they’ll get better as the year progresses.

 

Point Guard

As good as C.J. Watson was from the three, from two, he wasn’t very good, hitting a lower percentage (.357) from inside the three-point line than outside of it.

Marquis Teague averaged 9.1 points and 5.8 points per 36 minutes last year, albeit in far more limited minutes. He scored 99 points on the whole season. He was an awful shooter, with a field-goal percentage of just .381, and he had minus-1.0 win shares.

Of course, Teague was a 19-year old rookie and Watson was a seasoned veteran in his late 20s. Teague can penetrate and collapse defenses, meaning he can run the Bulls offense the way it’s meant to be run, provided he can learn on the job. That wasn’t the case with Watson.

Having Rose to help mentor him certainly won’t hurt Teague in that endeavor.

Watson is the better player, no question, but Teague has more upside. He already showed progress in the Summer League, averaging 18.3 points and 4.8 assists per game. He shot much better, .440 overall and .750 (on just eight shots, so don’t get too excited) from three-point land.

Teague probably won’t get near the minutes Watson did, but he’ll be more in the rotation than he was last year. Look for him to progress as the season goes on, similar to what Butler did last season.

Watson wins this comparison, but by the time the postseason begins, the gap will be much smaller than it is right now.

 

Shooting Guard

Kirk Hinrich and Ronnie Brewer are similar in some ways and different in others. Both are far more critical on the defensive end than the offensive end. Brewer is able to guard the small forward position, but Hinrich isn’t. Hinrich, however, is able to play both guard positions.

In fact, Hinrich probably will serve as the primary backup at both positions.

On the other hand, Hinrich is a much better shooter than Brewer (.390 from deep, compared to Brewer’s .260-two-year average with Chicago). Furthermore, Hinrich created 44 percent of his own field goals, compared to just 26 percent for Ronnie Brewer.

Most of the offense Brewer provided was cutting on the baseline for an alley-oop.

Hinrich’s value is that he has the ability to play off of Rose and bail him out of traps as both a shooter and ball-handler. Watson was able to do that to a degree as well, but Watson didn’t have the size to guard most 2s.

Hinrich and Brewer have slightly unique skill sets, but Hinrich’s offense provides an essential factor that was missing in 2011 and 2012, giving him the overall advantage over Brewer.

 

Small Forward

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Mike Dunleavy is commonly discussed as a lateral move from Kyle Korver, but he is actually an upgrade in many ways.

Over the past three years, based on data from 82games.com, Dunleavy’s teams have given up 3.4 fewer points per 100 possessions, while Korver’s have given up 3.5 more points when he played. Dunleavy is a much better team defender, and that’s what’s critical in the Bulls system.

Dunleavy also handles the ball better, creating 16 percent of his own shots last year compared to just four percent for Kyle Korver. He gets to the line twice as often, 2.4 times per 36 minutes compared to 1.2. He averaged 5.4 rebounds to Korver’s 4.7. And he had 2.7 assists to Korver’s 2.3.

Korver is a better shooter, but Dunleavy isn’t bad, hitting .428 from deep last season compared to Korver’s .457.

Dunleavy does literally everything else better, which could be very significant. The Bulls need the rest of his skills more than they need the difference between an outstanding three-point shooter and an even more outstanding three-point shooter.

Dunleavy wins out over Korver.

 

Power Forward

Taj Gibson is essentially the same player. There’s not enough difference to compare. We’ll just call this one a draw. Suffice to say, according to HoopsStats, the Bulls were second in the NBA in net efficiency from the power forward position.

 

Center

Nazr Mohammed is a significant downgrade from Omer Asik in terms of ability, albeit an overstated one, regarding potential impact.

There’s been a kind of conflation of the 2012 and 2011 versions of the Bulls when it comes to Asik. People tend to think of the 2012 version in terms of minutes played and then impose that version of Asik on the 2011 version, which lost to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bulls couldn’t beat the Miami Heat in 2011 with Asik, so how are they supposed to beat the Heat without Asik? After all, Asik was often the player finishing games.

That’s a lot of oversimplification, if not flat-out lying.

First, Asik wasn’t a part of the rotation that regularly. He only played 12.1 minutes per game in 2011 and 14.7 minutes per game in 2012. And he only averaged 11 minutes a game in the Heat series.

Second, he literally almost never played in the clutch minutes of games. According to NBA.com, (subscription required), in 2011, with the score within five and five minutes or fewer remaining in the game, Asik played a total of nine minutes.

In 2012, that number grew all the way to 10.

In the two years combined, Asik played just 19 clutch minutes. That’s it.

The Bulls have a pretty good center you might have heard of, Joakim Noah. It’s not like the Bulls need Asik’s defense to be successful. After all, we are talking about the co-First-Team All-Defensive center here.

What they need is someone who can competently play minutes while Noah is on the bench. As the season progressed, Mohammed learned the defense and gained more of Thibodeau’s confidence, and his minutes went up. On the whole, the Bulls had a defensive rating of 99.8 with Mohammed on the court, compared to 98.8 points when Asik was on the court in 2012.

Mohammed was not as good as Asik, but he wasn’t an utter disaster.

When you factor in minutes, Asik would take about seven games to reach 100 possessions. So that means every seven games, his defense is the difference in one point compared to Mohammed.

And that’s assuming Mohammed’s numbers don’t improve in his second year in the Bulls’ complex defense, which history shows tends to happen to Thibodeau’s defenders. Is saving one-seventh of a point per game really that significant?

Asik is better, but the legends that have grown about the greatness of Asik’s impact are getting silly. Asik was not the reason the Bulls were winning 62 games in 2011, and his absence won’t hinder them reaching that benchmark in 2014.

Asik wins the battle, but the battle is not nearly as important as advertised.

 

Wild Card

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

This year’s “wild card” off the bench will probably be Tony Snell. John Lucas III held that role in the 2012 season. Lucas was amazing in a start against the Miami Heat in which he scored 24 points, leading the Bulls to a massive upset.

Lucas was a streaky shooter, though, and when he wasn’t hitting, it didn’t stop him from shooting, so it wasn’t always good.

Snell’s shot is pure butter, and he loves to play defense. That’s the combination Thibodeau loves.

Don’t be surprised if he gets more minutes as the season progresses. He may even emerge as a scale-tipper before the end of the season.

Snell is a better player with more potential than Lucas.

Overall, the bench in 2012 was the best version because they had time together and knew each other. They were awful offensively, but they completely shut down teams defensively. The “Bench Mob” turned around more than one game by cranking up the defensive intensity.

The 2014 team is a mix of players who have played together, new veteran additions and rookies. They are the right mix of roles and have a chance to be better than their predecessors by season’s end.

When you view the totality of the team, starters and bench together, this version of the Bulls is better than the best of 2011 or 2012. The pieces just fit together better.

They have more offensive diversity than they had in the past with Rose, Butler, Hinrich, Deng and Dunleavy all able to play multiple positions. Additionally, Noah can guard most players in the league.

That’s going to allow the team more offensive flexibility, providing options when teams are playing to shut down Rose’s scoring.

This isn’t just the most stacked roster, it’s the most well-stacked roster too. (If you’re confused, think Jenga.)

The depth at the wings means the injury problems should be checked, and as a result, there’s less of a chance of it toppling over in the playoffs. That there are more players who can create shots for themselves means stopping Rose doesn’t equal stopping Chicago.

This won’t just be the most stacked team since Jordan retired. They intend to be the first championship team too. They have the roster to do it.

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