Tom Thibodeau has never been big on excuses.
Good thing, because the Chicago Bulls head coach won't have any this year.
New and Old Weapons
The Bulls are rebuilt—bigger, stronger and better. Derrick Rose is back (again) and is expected to perform to his full capabilities. The lingering concerns about his rebuilt knees won't be going away anytime soon, but there's absolutely no doubt about one thing: He'll be fresh.
Rose has played just 49 regular-season games in the past three seasons combined.
Everything begins with him for the Bulls, and Rose's absence has basically been the difference between the past two seasons of fighting for middling playoff position and the days when Chicago was the best team in the East.
If that feels at all hyperbolic, consult the record books. The Bulls topped the NBA in net rating in 2011-12, posting a plus-9.3 that was a full point better than the second-place San Antonio Spurs, per NBA.com. And their .758 winning percentage in Rose's last healthy year was also tops in the league (tied with those pesky Spurs).
It's impossible to overstate the impact a healthy Rose has on the Bulls' fortunes. Even if they hadn't made any other moves, Thibodeau would be heading into the upcoming season with immense pressure to get the Bulls back to their high-functioning days of 2011-12 when they ranked fifth in the NBA on the offensive end.
But the Bulls did make other moves, most of which will only increase the pressure on Thibs to capitalize on the influx of offensive talent.
Pau Gasol is a part of the frontcourt rotation now, and his passing skill will immediately make the lives of the team's bigs and shooters easier. If somebody's open, Gasol will find him. Among big men last year, only Kevin Love and Joakim Noah assisted on a higher percentage of their teammates' buckets, per NBA.com. The Spaniard facilitated 18.4 percent of the Los Angeles Lakers' field goals when he was on the floor.
Relatedly, Thibodeau will no longer be saddled with the amnestied Carlos Boozer's declining offensive efficiency. Taj Gibson, who flashed a vastly improved mid-range jumper last season, made C-Booze expendable before Gasol rolled into town.
Now, he'll get even more opportunities to thrive as Noah and Gasol (not to mention Rose) keep the ball hopping.
Toss in Tony Snell and his promising summer league showing and rookie Doug McDermott's truly elite marksmanship, and there's more firepower on this Bulls team than any in recent memory.
Oh, and Chicago finally imported Nikola Mirotic, yet another skilled scorer.
Thibodeau told Aggrey Sam of CSN Chicago, "We’re excited about that. Getting Derrick back, adding a couple of good young players, the addition of Pau, Nikola, I think that’s important. You have to have depth and so, we had it my first two years here, then we didn’t have it the last two and hopefully we’ll regain it."
All the tools are there, and it'll be on Thibodeau to put them to use.
And in a note that shouldn't need to be included, there's no reason to even discuss pressure on Thibodeau as it applies to defense. He could craft and coach a top-five crew of stoppers in his sleep—seemingly regardless of personnel.
End of story. Let's move on.
Ripe for the Picking
It's not just the added firepower putting increased pressure on Thibodeau to perform; it's also the Bulls' current situation in the East.
Put simply, the conference is there for the taking.
The Miami Heat are no longer a superpower, the Cleveland Cavaliers probably aren't quite seasoned enough to seriously contend and the Indiana Pacers lost Lance Stephenson—a key offensive player in an attack that couldn't afford to get any weaker.
Maybe the Washington Wizards are ready to take the next step, and Paul Pierce's veteran experience makes that possibility more realistic. But the Wizards didn't make the kinds of additions Chicago did—not by a long shot.
The Bulls head into this season in a position that should seem familiar, if distantly so: They're conference favorites.
Thibodeau should be feeling an additional bit of urgency as well.
Noah, the team's defensive centerpiece, will turn 30 this year. That's a concern Nate Duncan of Basketball Insiders discussed in the context of a possible (but far-fetched) Noah-for-Love swap:
Noah will be 30 this year. He relies on athleticism more than most. Love will be 26. Love is already much much better. Easy call.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) July 22, 2014
The biggest issue is the age disparity b/w Love/Noah. It is hard to believe Noah will age well, and he's already really struggling to score.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) July 22, 2014
Sure, Noah played 80 games last year. That's great. But given his style of play, accumulated nicks and bruises over the years and, again, his age, it's easy to see a decline on the not-too-distant horizon. Plus, the Bulls can't rely on Gasol's health forever, and who knows how long Rose will manage to stay upright?
Toss in the practical concern of having to either extend or cut ties with Jimmy Butler soon, and you can see that the Bulls' situation, while better than it's been in years, isn't guaranteed to stay so good forever.
All the more reason for Chicago to strike now. And all the more reason for Thibodeau to be feeling the pressure to perform.
"We have enough" is a popular Thibodeau refrain, though he's used it in the past most frequently when—because of injuries—the Bulls definitely haven't had enough.
Now, they have more than enough. It'll be up to Thibs to make sure Chicago's rare combination of talent and opportunity don't go to waste.