The Chicago Bulls ended the 2013-14 season with the same question hovering over them that they had the previous year: What is the future for Derrick Rose? The team has lost in the playoffs with its best player on the bench due to a knee injury each of the last two years.
Despite Rose's absence, the Bulls have defied the odds since 2012 by winning a total of 93 games in the regular season and putting together arguably the best defensive team in the NBA under head coach Tom Thibodeau. Their inability to score cost them in the playoffs against Washington, losing a five-game series in the first round.
Even with the early postseason loss, it was hard to call last season anything but a success for the Bulls, considering the injuries they had to deal with. Rose played just 10 games; Luol Deng was traded to Cleveland in January; Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy combined to start 128 games.
Instead of resting on their laurels and hoping Rose will return to his MVP form after essentially missing two full seasons, Chicago's front office took a proactive approach this offseason. Pau Gasol joined the Bulls to give them a dynamic scoring option to pair with defensive stalwart Joakim Noah.
Even though Chicago missed out on Carmelo Anthony, Gasol is a fantastic consolation prize. His 17.4 points per game last season would have led the Bulls if one excludes what Deng did since he was traded after 23 games. To make room for Gasol, Chicago had to amnesty Carlos Boozer and his $16.8 million salary for next season.
The Bulls also added Doug McDermott, who averaged 26.7 points per game as a senior at Creighton, in the draft. Adding him and Gasol, as well as a healthy Rose, suddenly puts this team in the mix for the top spot in a muddled Eastern Conference.
With so much intrigue surrounding them this season, as well as the release of their schedule from NBA.com, these are the matchups, odds and predictions for the Bulls in 2014-15.
You can view the Bulls' entire regular-season schedule at NBA.com.
|To Win Eastern Conference||3-1|
|To Win NBA Championship||10-1|
Most Intriguing Matchups
Cleveland Cavaliers at Chicago Bulls
When: Friday, Oct. 31 at 8 p.m. ET
Based on the preseason odds, the Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers are the two favorites in the Eastern Conference.
In 2010-11, when the Bulls had the best record in basketball and Derrick Rose won the MVP award, they were eliminated in the conference finals by LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Now, James has gone back home, but the potential for a matchup between the King and former MVP is too good to pass up.
On top of LeBron elevating Cleveland back to prominence, or at least relevance, this matchup provides an opportunity to see Rose go head-to-head with another great young point guard in Kyrie Irving.
The East is no longer a one-team conference. Miami will still be a playoff team, but no one is afraid to play the Heat with LeBron gone; Cleveland will be a playoff team with LeBron, but is there enough around him to make the Cavs a serious title contender?
Chicago has been one of the best teams in basketball when Rose is healthy. The Bulls won 62 games in 2010-11 and 50 games in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season before their MVP tore his ACL.
Brooklyn is still lurking, despite losing Paul Pierce, not knowing what's going to become of Deron Williams and losing a lot of money, and should play more fundamentally sound basketball with Lionel Hollins coaching the team.
Washington made several moves in the offseason, signing Pierce away from Brooklyn and adding frontcourt depth with DeJuan Blair, to improve on its 44-win campaign from last season. Even a team like Charlotte, which was a borderline playoff team last year with 43 wins, will be better with the addition of Lance Stephenson and drafting P.J. Hairston, assuming he can stay out of trouble.
Yet when you get down to brass tacks, the Bulls and Cavaliers should be the top two teams in the East when the regular season ends. When healthy, you can argue that Rose is the second-best player in the conference after LeBron.
Gasol understands the trajectory Chicago is on, which played a role in his signing with the team over the summer, via ESPN.com:
Gasol said Tuesday that, after speaking with Bulls players Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, 'instinct told me to pick Chicago.'
The 7-foot Spanish forward said Chicago was a logical choice since 'without doubt, it is one of the championship favorites in the East alongside Cleveland.'
When you have a player of Gasol's caliber singling out the Bulls and Cavaliers as two of the favorites to win a championship, you better believe that their first matchup of the season is must-see television.
San Antonio Spurs at Chicago Bulls
When: Thursday, Jan. 22 at 8 p.m. ET
A lot of the discussion around the Bulls in this article has revolved around the team being a championship contender. Well, to quote the great Ric Flair: To be the man, you have to beat the man.
The defending-champion San Antonio Spurs return basically the same team that steamrolled Miami in the NBA Finals last June. They have the best coach in basketball, Gregg Popovich, though Thibodeau's reputation keeps growing as the Bulls win without superstar talent.
Now, with superstar talent starting to converge on Chicago, Thibodeau has his chance to stand toe-to-toe with the only current coach who can definitively say that he's better than the Bulls' leader.
It's also fitting that the Bulls and Spurs would be must-see television in the regular season because these are the only teams to lead the league in wins over the last four years besides Miami.
Popovich had nothing but praise for Thibodeau and his coaching style when providing three reasons why Chicago remained so successful last season prior to a Bulls-Spurs game, via Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune:
One, (coach Tom Thibodeau) makes the same demands and keeps the same standards. He is relentless in trying to get them better in every aspect of the game. Second, they have a group that has character — and they care. Third, they play outstanding defense and that keeps you in games on nights you can't put it in the hole.
In many ways, the Bulls have tried to model what the Spurs have built. That sounds redundant since every NBA franchise obviously wants to be where San Antonio is, but few go about it in the way Chicago does.
Where will the Bulls finish in the regular season?
The Bulls don't play the free-agent game very often, but when they do, it's usually on their terms. Gasol was forced to sign at their price when he could have gotten more money from the Los Angeles Lakers.
They've tried to draft a mix of foreign and domestic players, with varying degrees of success. Nikola Mirotic is finally going to play in the United States after being drafted in 2011; McDermott had the shooting touch in college and the Bulls clearly think it will translate at this level, giving up two first-round picks to acquire him from Denver.
A one-game sample in the regular season isn't going to tell us everything about how close or far the Bulls are to competing with the best franchise in basketball, but it can be a great confidence booster in their quest to win a championship for the first time since Michael Jordan's last shot with Chicago in 1998.
Just looking at the Bulls on paper, they are going to be better than they were in 2013-14. Rose is healthy and was selected to play for Team USA over the summer. Gasol is a dynamic big man who scores inside and outside. Noah is a ball of energy who plays defense as well as anyone in the sport.
The individual pieces look very appealing to the eye. However, Michael Wilbon of ESPNChicago.com broke down how the Bulls still lack a strong option to create shots after Rose:
The Bulls still didn't add a single player who can get his own shot in the playoffs when defenses blitz Rose as Miami did in the last postseason series Rose actually played. All of the above 3-point shooters [Dunleavy, McDermott, Mirotic] need ball movement, scheme or a set-up man to get their shots. Simply having them on the floor guarantees nothing.
That puts even more pressure on Rose to stay healthy so he can create shots and facilitate to other players. There's been no indication he's had any problems with rehab, though proving it on the court is all that matters.
Another problem for the Bulls is determining how much Rose plays. Moke Hamilton of SNY.tv was asked that very question on Twitter and had an interesting response:
Now, we are talking about the Bulls playing without their best player for 12 games, assuming he's healthy all year and just gets regular rest, and a lineup of players who can score but still need that facilitator to get the ball in their hands.
That does hurt their projection, though not enough to prevent them from being one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. If there weren't any restrictions on Rose and McDermott develops into a 12-15 point player, suddenly this offense looks formidable.
But those are two huge questions without a clear answer right now. They're still very good, so don't worry about them in the grand scheme of things.
Predicted Record: 52-30 (first place in Central Division)
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