The Chicago Bulls are in full "no excuses mode" as the 2013-14 NBA season is ready to tip-off. They have Derrick Rose back, they have their most complete roster yet, and they have every expectation of winning the NBA Championship.
Here is a brief recap of last season.
- Record: 45-37
- Second in Central Division
- Fifth in Eastern Conference
- 2013 NBA Playoffs: Beat the Brooklyn Nets 4-3 in the first round. Lost in the second round to the Miami Heat, 4-1.
The 2012-13 season was highlighted by the team’s biggest successes coming through their greatest hardships. The Bulls were repeatedly short-handed and continued to perform the impossible, in spite of having so many injuries.
Three signature moments—ending the Miami Heat’s 27-game win streak, the improbable Game-4 triple-overtime comeback over the Nets, and a Game-1 upset of the Heat in Miami—were all amplified by the fact that the Bulls were severely undermanned.
Thus, the most positive and negative aspects of the Bulls’ season were simultaneously conveyed: it was seemingly impossible for them to stay healthy, yet they had a fight within them that no other team in the league could match.
If they can stay healthy this year and Rose can return to MVP form, there is no limit on how successful this team can be.
The Bulls have Rose returning this year, and they have also added Mike Dunleavy to their bench via the mini mid-level exception. Tony Snell and Erick Murphy were added via the draft.
Of these four, the most significant additions are Rose and Dunleavy arriving, who is not just a three-point shooter but also a far more versatile player than Kyle Korver or Marco Belinelli were in the past.
The rookies probably won’t see much playing time, as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau tends to “red-shirt” his first-year players.
They lost Nate Robinson and Belinelli this offseason, who were both obtained last season as stop-gaps until Rose was healthy.
The two central themes of the Bulls season were both distinctly visible during the preseason.
Rose could not have possibly had a better re-entrance into the world of NBA games. He showed that his explosiveness and speed are still there, and he also showed that his jump shot has gotten even better. He has shown that he can make the Bulls an effective offense once again.
He was second in the league in scoring for the preseason, averaging 20.7 points per game. Playing 27.4 minutes, he added 5.0 assists, 3.3 rebounds and a surprising 1.3 steals. He also shot 44.4 percent from deep and had an effective field-goal percentage of 54.8.
While it is true that it was "only the preseason," for Rose, who hadn’t played in 18 months, the preseason actually did matter, and it couldn’t have gone any better.
However, in regards to the Bulls' injury situation, there were enough problems to have Bulls' fans thinking, “not again.” Two freak injuries sidelined key players for multiple games. For instance, Joakim Noah, slipped on a wet spot on the floor, pulled his groin and only played 19 minutes.
Kirk Hinrich got kneed in the head by his teammate, Murphy, and missed games due to a concussion and a shoulder injury sustained from the contact.
While neither injury looks to be a prolonged issue—both look like they will play on opening night, according to Aggrey Sam of CSN Chicago—there is an understandable skittishness related to the injuries. This is especially true in regards to the center position, where the Bulls are thin headingin to the regular season, as they have only two pure centers on the roster.
More encouraging, though, is that Dunleavy has quickly picked up the Bulls schemes on both ends of the floor, and Tom Thibodeua has rapidly developed a comfort with Dunleavy’s abilities.
As the season progresses, this could be the most important development. Dunleavy’s versatility will mean more playing time for him, and that, in turn, should lead to fewer minutes for Luol Deng.
Depth Chart Breakdown and Grades
|Chicago Bulls Depth Chart|
|Point Guard||Shooting Guard||Small Forward||Power Forward||Center|
|Derrick Rose||Jimmy Butler||Luol Deng||Carlos Boozer||Joakim Noah|
|Kirk Hinrich||Mike Dunleavy||Mike Dunleavy||Taj Gibson||Nazr Mohammed|
|Mike James||Kirk Hinrich||Tony Snell||Erik Murphy||Taj Gibson|
Apart from Rose, the Bulls have no true superstar, but what they do have is across-the-board strength. Their starting five is one of the deepest in the league, if not the best. Their first three players off the bench—Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson—are starting-caliber players.
Point Guard: A
The Bulls are as deep as any team in terms of their one-two punch at point guard. Rose is in the conversation for best point guard in the league, along with Chris Paul.
Hinrich is one of the top backups in the lague because of his leadership, defense and ability to run an offense, although his scoring is hardly elite.
Mike James and Marquis Teague add depth.
If there is a question with the Bulls point guard position though, it’s regarding where the offense comes from if Rose goes down with an injury, or if his knee gets sore and he has to miss a few games.
Shooting Guard: B
Jimmy Butler steps into the starting shooting guard spot after a breakout season. He is an elite perimeter defender and, along with Luol Deng, should make for a ruthless defense, especially with the pair executing Thibodeau’s brilliant system.
The key for him will be whether he can sustain the success he had shooting threes last season, when he knocked them down at a 38.1 percent rate for the year and a 47.5 percent rate after the All-Star break. If he can hover in the 40 percent area playing beside Rose, he will help stretch the court, and that will make Rose even more unguardable than he already is.
The Bulls have no “pure” backup at the shooting guard position. The time should be split between Hinrich and Dunleavy. Regardless of which player they choose, the same, “three-and-D’” is going to be expected of the backup. Dunleavy should provide more of the three, with Hinrich providing more of the defense.
Their biggest issue here is again that they have no true shot-creator, although Butler has an ability to get to the line and draw fouls, and Hinrich can handle the ball and create for his teammates.
Small Forward: A-
The last time Luol Deng was actually healthy, we were fresh off the lockout and learning what the new CBA meant. Now, his wrist is completely mended, and his thumb isn’t broken. He’s not nearly dying of some kind of spinal tap complication either. Things are looking up!
He’s better, and it’s showing. He averaged 16.4 points and shot 50 percent from three during the preseason. He also drew fouls and went to the stripe 58 times.
Deng is more aggressive and productive. That may be due to his contract year, feeling better or the return of Rose. Maybe it’s some combination of all three, but regardless of the reason, he could be in for a career year.
Dunleavy has picked up quickly on the team schemes and should see extensive minutes. While his shot has not been falling in the preeseason, he’s been able to help the Bulls through his ball-handling and passing.
As he continues to acclimate to his new surroundings, look for him to take on a more prominent role with the team.
Tony Snell may see some playing time in spot-duty and/or emergency duty, and while he has the potential to be the prototypical Bulls wing, history dictates that it’s rare for rookies to penetrate Thibodeau’s rotation, so don’t expect to see a lot of him.
The weakness here isn’t so much a weakness at the position as it is in Thibodeau’s love for Deng. If he overplays Deng, the Bulls could be in big trouble by midseason.
Power Forward: B+
The Bulls power forward position has been quietly one of the most successful in the NBA over the last three years. In terms of net production they were the fifth most successful in 2011, second in 2012 and fifth last year, according to HoopsStats.com.
Carlos Boozer provides scoring, Gibson provides defense, and both provide rebounding. Boozer starts, but Gibson finishes. Neither has the prototypical “complete” game, but the tag team works better than many may realize.
The Bulls are shockingly successful when they have a higher efficiency than their counterparts at the position. In fact, per HoopsStats, when they have won that battle, counting all regular season and postseason games in the Thibodeau era, they are 162-13.
However, when they lose it, they are only 10-76, so consistency is the critical factor to watch out for.
The Bulls are essentially an inside-out team, and their power forward play is pivotal to the team’s success, with or without Rose in the lineup. When they control the paint, the team wins. When they don’t control the paint, the team loses.
Gibson has shown a big improvement on the offensive end this preseason, and if that holds into the regular season and playoffs, the Bulls will be an extremely tough team to beat.
He gives the Bulls a little bit of everything. Last year, Noah became just the sixth player to average 11 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two blocks for a season while sustaining a defensive rating below 100, according to Basketball-Reference.com. If the positional grade were solely assessed on Noah, it would be higher.
However, Nazr Mohammed, the backup, is barely viable, and there is no one currently on the roster behind him. The Bulls are extremely thin at this position, and with Noah already experiencing health problems, this could be a situation which magnifies as the season progresses.
For more, check out my power rankings for each player in the team roseter: 2013-14 NBA Season Preview Player Power Rankings for Chicago Bulls
What to Watch For
Breakout Player: Taj Gibson
Gibson worked on his jump shot and his post moves during the offseason, and the preseason has shown that it worked. He’s legitimately improved his scoring and is now more of a two-player than he has been in the past.
He averaged 12.9 points on 59.2 percent shooting along with 7.6 boards in the preseason.
Look for him to get more looks and playing time. He should experience a career high in minutes, points and rebounds this year. He has an outside shot at winning the Most Improved Player and/or Sixth Man of the Year award.
Team MVP Prediction: Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose will easily be the MVP of the team; this is about as obvious a selection as you can get. The bigger question is whether he’ll be in the running for MVP of the league again.
If he does work his way back into the conversation, it will have to be as the best player in the league. Narrative won’t be sufficient this time. That’s not to say he didn’t deserve it before, but the truth is that few of the people who voted for him in 2011 believed he was the best player; they felt he was the most valuable. That kind of award usually only comes once (unless you're Steve Nash).
Multiple winners tend to be the best-in-the-world types.
If he can provide the Bulls with a combined 45 points, either through scoring or passing, and maintain an effective field goal percentage around 52.0 percent, he could work his way into the best-player conversation and his second MVP.
Most Disappointing Player: Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler will play well, but expectations have been driven so high that it will be almost impossible for him to live up to them. Carlos Boozer will play well below his contract, but since that’s expected, it’s going to be hard to call him a disappointment.
Butler should average between 12 and 14 points, six boards, two dimes and two steals per game. For some, that is what they expect, and he won’t be a disappointment. However, for those who are projecting an All-Star performance for him, they will be disappointed.
However, his defense is absolutely real, and a nomination to the All-Defensive team is not at all improbable.
Player Most Likely to Be Traded: Marquis Teague
Some have postulated the Bulls will move Deng before the trade deadline, but there is at most a one-percent chance of this happening. While there are layers of reasoning to this, it is all predicated on one basic fact: Deng has more value to the Bulls than he would anywhere else.
As a result, there is no way the Bulls can improve immediately by trading him, and since they are in win-now mode, that’s just not going to happen.
However, they do have Marquis Teague—a young point guard with more promise than achievement and one whom other teams have shown interest in—wasting away on the sidelines. Chicago has a need for another center. If they can move Teague for a big, they will. However, the general trading rule is “never trade big for small,” so there’s not a great chance of that happening.
Biggest Rivalry: Miami Heat (and not the Indiana Pacers)
Much to the chagrin of the Indiana Pacers and George Hill, the Bulls do not regard their Central Division foes as their rival. Indiana’s Central Division title from last season has a massive asterisk next to it as far as Chicago is concerned.
The team they have to go through, and the team they’ve been talking about, is not the Pacers but the Heat. It’s the Heat who have sent Chicago packing in the postseason twice in the last three years. It’s the Heat who are the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions and the two-time defending NBA champions. It's the Heat who are the bulls-eye in the Bulls' eyes.
Indiana, Brooklyn and New York, at most, are just teams to go through in order to get to Miami. In fact the Bulls are so focused on Miami that there could be some concern of a let down if they do get to the finals.
Best-Case Scenario: 65-17, NBA Champions
The Bulls have won 85 percent of their games when Rose, Deng, Boozer and Noah have all played. They have been an absolute buzz-saw when healthy—and that was without Jimmy Butler, who is easily their best option yet at shooting guard.
With that, though, comes a major disclaimer: it’s only happened 59 times overall. In fact, provided Noah plays opening night, it will mark just the eighth time in the last 118 games (regular season or postseason) where the quartet all started together.
If they stay healthy and keep their core on the court, 65 wins is a very realistic possibility, as is the hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end.
Worst-Case Scenario: 55-27, Miss Conference Finals
The worst-case scenario for the Bulls is still decent. They are just too well coached and too used to overcoming adversity for them to not finish well.
However, they’ve already encountered freak injuries this year, and with the plethora of them they’ve faced over the years, it’s hard to not get a strange sense of déjà vu all over again.
If the Bulls have another turnstile of injuries and then overplay other players to compensate, it could just keep resulting in more injuries and fewer wins.
If that happens, the Bulls will get bounced in the second round of the playoffs or the Eastern Conference finals. It is crucial they stay out of the injury cycle.
Final Prediction: 62-20, NBA Champions
All preseason stats for this article were obtained form Real GM.