The Chicago Bulls are turning over a new leaf.
Every team has some sort of identity, and the Bulls have employed one of the most set-in-stone philosophies ever since Tom Thibodeau took over. They're going to win by playing suffocating defense, and any offensive boost is just gravy.
Signing Pau Gasol and bringing over Nikola Mirotic from Real Madrid is just part of Chicago's evolution, cementing an offseason of growth that should allow the team to play high-quality ball on both sides of the 94-foot-long hard court.
Is the stellar defense gone? Not at all, but it'll be accompanied by a new style of play in Chi-Town.
The Bulls have been a team built around a standout defense for quite some time now, but they're attempting to make the leap and become a squad that can win games on both ends of the court.
Thibodeau became the head coach in the Windy City before the start of the 2010-11 season. Take a gander at his teams' offensive and defensive ratings ever since:
|ORtg||ORtg Rank||DRtg||DRtg Rank|
As you can see, Thibs can coach a good offensive team. He just needs Derrick Rose on the court, as those putrid rankings over the past two seasons correlated with the former MVP's absence from the lineup, the result of one knee injury after another.
However, the Bulls aren't just banking on getting a healthy Rose back for the 2014-15 campaign; instead, they're actively trying to add key offensive pieces that Thibodeau can use to support the dynamic point guard.
Gasol was the offseason's big signing, and he should immediately fit in quite nicely next to either Joakim Noah or Taj Gibson. With the former, he can help create beautiful frontcourt basketball, giving Chicago an unmatched combination of passing skills from its big men. With the latter, he can play as a center, holding down the fort on the interior and operating as an offensive hub from either the low blocks or the elbows.
At this stage of his career, the 7-footer's contributions come almost solely on the more glamorous end of the court. He averaged 17.4 points and 3.4 assists per game during his final go-round with the Los Angeles Lakers, and the team's offense took on whole new elements when he was on the floor.
That's exactly what he should do, as he gives the team a third player who can capably control the ball—Rose and Noah being the other two. However, he's not the only new addition whose key contributions will come on the offensive end of the court.
Adding Key Rookies
Mirotic may not have been selected in the 2014 NBA draft, instead going at No. 23 three years prior, but he's set to be a rookie during this coming season. Now on board for three years and $17 million, the forward, who used to play for Real Madrid, is coming to Chicago.
"This is not your typical rookie," writes K.C. Johnson for The Chicago Tribune. "Though he must adjust to the pace of the NBA game and rigors of an 82-game season, not to mention learn a system and opponents, Mirotic, 23, has a wealth of big-game experience in Euroleague competition with Real Madrid."
There will certainly be on-court adjustments.
As Johnson noted, the speed of the game is different, but the style is as well. Plus, the level of competition is significantly higher, as Mirotic is transitioning from a league in which he was routinely one of the best players on the court to one where he's by no means a star.
"Nikola will have to get used to the speed and strength of the NBA game," explained Thibodeau, per Johnson. "There are different rules. There will be an adjustment there. What I'm anticipating is he will get better as the season goes along."
It's not just Mirotic who will be making adjustments, though.
Doug McDermott will be doing the exact same thing, transitioning from thriving as college basketball's leading scorer while playing for Creighton to making a name for himself in the brutally difficult NBA.
So far, it's been a successful jump, though the former Blue Jay has only been playing against competition at the Las Vegas Summer League. As Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney explains, he's already striking fear in the hearts of opponents as soon as he takes the court:
Doug McDermott has yet to play an NBA game, but one can already trace his sphere of on-court influence. When the 6-foot-8 forward comes curling around a screen at the Summer League, defenders abandon their principles in a moment of pure panic. When McDermott hunkers down into a screen, he nags at the attention of multiple opponents. He is so efficient with his timing and his movements that every step must be followed closely, lest the ball swing his way and splash through the net in a single, fluid instant.
Through his first four games in Sin City, McDermott is putting up 18.0 points per game, shooting 44.2 percent from the field, 44.4 percent from downtown (while taking 6.8 shots during the average outing) and 95.7 percent at the charity stripe. It sure seems like he's ready for the pros.
However, Thibs has notoriously avoided playing his youngest players. Take a look at how much playing time rookies have received during his tenure with the Bulls:
|Season||GP||MPG||Draft Position||Year Drafted|
|Omer Asik||2010-11||82||12.1||No. 36||2008|
|Jimmy Butler||2011-12||42||8.5||No. 30||2011|
|Marquis Teague||2012-13||48||8.2||No. 29||2012|
|Tony Snell||2013-14||77||16.0||No. 20||2013|
|Erik Murphy||2013-14||24||2.6||No. 49||2013|
Of course, Thibodeau hasn't had any NBA-ready rookies at his disposal. Omer Asik came close given his international experience and delayed arrival, but he still wasn't on the level that Mirotic and McDermott are currently on.
For once, the Bulls are drafting and bringing aboard players who are ready to contribute, not selecting prospects with extremely high potential who will take plenty of development to be adequate rotation members.
This is uncharted territory for Chicago, at least during the Thibodeau era. Not only are two rookies going to play significant minutes, more than Tony Snell did last year, but one (McDermott) might—and should—end up in the starting lineup sooner rather than later.
Taking the Noah/Rose Offense to a New Level
The Chicago offense hasn't been particularly creative over the last few years.
When the Windy City point guard was in prime form, he was a dynamic creator who was tasked with producing an inordinate amount of the Bulls offense. During the 2010-11 season, his last fully healthy one, he posted a usage rate of 32.2 percent, per Basketball-Reference.com.
To show you his importance, just consider the responsibility he was granted when being eased back into the lineup last season—before he went back down, of course. His usage rate checked in at 31.5 percent.
During this past campaign, only six players throughout the entire Association played more than 30 minutes per game and had a usage rate higher than 30 percent: Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Rose and Russell Westbrook.
That right there should give you a good idea of how utterly dependent the Bulls have been on Rose's offense, if the dip in offensive rating that corresponded with his injuries didn't already do the trick.
However, Rose isn't the only key part of the point-scoring efforts; we can't just forget about Noah.
Chicago loves using the ponytailed big man as an offensive hub, letting him run the show with the ball in his hands when Rose isn't on the court. He's perfectly capable of facilitating from all areas of the half-court set, and his ability to run the fast break is simply divine.
Because Noah isn't a scorer, usage rate doesn't show his true involvement. However, the combination of that (18.7 percent) and his assist percentage (26.4 percent) does the trick.
Basketball-Reference.com shows that only 25 players spent at least 30 minutes per game on the court and matched or exceeded both of the aforementioned numbers. Here's the breakdown:
- 22 guards: Eric Bledsoe, Trey Burke, Michael Carter-Williams, Mike Conley, Stephen Curry, Goran Dragic, James Harden, Jrue Holiday, Kyrie Irving, Brandon Jennings, Brandon Knight, Ty Lawson, Kyle Lowry, Jameer Nelson, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Jeff Teague, Isaiah Thomas, Kemba Walker, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams
- Two forwards: Kevin Durant and LeBron James
- One center: Joakim Noah
Any guesses which player should stand out?
Rose and Noah have been incredible fallback options for Thibodeau, who can focus all his energy on building the defense, but now he has the pieces to get more creative. Gasol can fill a role similar to the one Noah plays, which gives the head coach even more flexibility with his play-calling.
And for the first time in a while, he has multifaceted scorers joining the stars in the rotation. McDermott and Mirotic should make big impacts right off the bat for that very reason.
These are no longer the same Bulls that we've watched in the past.
The defense is still there, and Rose and Noah will continue to be the leaders of the team. However, the offense is primed to be far better than it's been since the point guard's first major injury, even if he's not able to play at 100 percent while regaining his sea legs.
All other teams in the Eastern Conference should be getting nervous. The unevolved Bulls were already scary enough.