Which Eastern Foes Present Toughest Challenges to Chicago Bulls Next Season?

John Wilmes@@johnwilmesNBAContributor IAugust 12, 2014

Which Eastern Foes Present Toughest Challenges to Chicago Bulls Next Season?

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    The Chicago Bulls enter the 2014-15 with their most talented roster of the Tom Thibodeau era—but they’re far from indestructible. 

    The Eastern Conference has improved alongside the Bulls, and there are a number of teams capable of stopping them en route to the NBA Finals. LeBron James and his newly loaded Cleveland Cavaliers are only the beginning of the East’s depth this season.

    While Chicago has Derrick Rose, the best point guard in the conference when healthy, and a loaded frontcourt, there are still teams with more talent on the wing, more overall speed and more shooting.

    By preying on any number of these disadvantages, these Bulls foes could have their fanbase tossing and turning with anxiety come springtime.

Washington Wizards

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    Unless you have a short memory—or one wiped clean by such an active free-agency period—you’ll remember that the Washington Wizards eliminated the Bulls from the playoffs in April.

    What’s more, they did it swiftly, needing just five games against an anemic Chicago offense.

    Without Rose, the Bulls had no answer for the speed of John Wall. Perhaps scarier for fans was how Nene and Marcin Gortat often had their way in the lane, as a possibly injury-hampered Joakim Noah was reduced to something much less than the Defensive Player of The Year.

    Adding Paul Pierce certainly shouldn't hurt the Wizards. His game is aging gracefully, and he was still a clutch-time dynamo for the Brooklyn Nets last year. But Pierce is a far inferior defender to his Wizards predecessor, Trevor Ariza, who had the Bulls in fits in the postseason. Chicago will be glad to see him gone.

    And with Rose back and at least halfway operational, Wall won’t be able to freelance and torture the Bulls with rundown blocks. Trying to containing the former MVP will take too much out of him.

    Add in the Bulls' new array of shooters (Doug McDermott, Aaron Brooks, Nikola Mirotic) and impressive depth in big men (Pau Gasol and Mirotic have replaced Carlos Boozer), and they should be able to overcome the Wizards this year.

Charlotte Hornets

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    Even with all the big men the Bulls have on hand, it’s going to be hard to stop Al Jefferson. Like a nightmare borne from a time machine, his back-to-the-basket scoring presence can demand a double-team at virtually any spot within the three-point line.

    And now Big Al and his Charlotte Hornets have one of the best, most versatile young shooting guards in the league with Lance Stephenson. “Born Ready” is known primarily for his hijinks—so much so that most league observers forget that he’s a world-class creator and defender.

    Charlotte lost Josh McRoberts to the Miami Heat this summer, so their frontcourt productivity may suffer a bit unless Jefferson can take another giant step. Young bigs Noah Vonleh and Cody Zeller are probably not yet ready (if they ever will be) to shore up the paint alongside him.

    But with Stephenson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker on the perimeter surrounding king bee Jefferson, and with Thibodeau-like coach Steve Clifford barking them into tight units, this team could improve a ton.

    So much so that they may take the vacancy left by Stephenson’s Indiana Pacers at the competitive end of the East. The Bulls are sure to have Hornets games circled on their calendar.

Atlanta Hawks

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    Consummately overlooked, the Atlanta Hawks are building something especially difficult to beat these days. They’ve got shooting at every position and an increasing know-how in using it.

    Sound familar? Then you must have watched the San Antonio Spurs race through this year’s postseason toward their fifth Larry O’Brien trophy.

    Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer left the Spurs to head things up in Atlanta last summer, and despite losing his best player in Al Horford midseason, his team was able to put a seven-game scare into the top-seeded Pacers during Round 1 of the playoffs.

    The Bulls have at least part of the Hawks antidote in that they have bigs—Noah and Taj Gibson—who can readily chase shooters out to the arc.

    But if Budenholzer and Company can become more sophisticated in their use of misdirection through elite shooting and smart passing, catalyzed by the extremely underrated Jeff Teague’s lane penetration, there won’t be a team in the league that wants to face them.

Toronto Raptors

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    The Toronto Raptors are bringing everybody back. Their surprisingly effective campaign in 2013-14, in which they went 48-34, led to a busy summer spent re-wooing their collection of fresh free agents.

    The Raptors are young. The average age of the seven-man rotation is 25.3. They lost to a demonstrably more seasoned Brooklyn Nets team in a hard-fought seven-game series in Round 1 of the 2014 playoffs, but don’t think they didn’t learn from it.

    The Raptors’ poise and comfort grew over the course of the series, climaxing with an incredibly smart play by 23-year-old Terrence Ross, a key Raptor who looked otherwise out of sorts as a playoff virgin against Brooklyn.

    There’s enough talent and depth in Toronto to give anyone shivers. General manager Masai Ujiri has assembled a crew much like the one he rolled out with the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets—a similarly motley collection of players just waiting for the right coach and roles in order to thrive.

    The Bulls would be the favorite against the Raptors in almost any scenario, but don’t be surprised if we see that perception change over the course of the season. With another year together, this young roster could very well play to a conference-leading mark in a season marked by lots of change in the East.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    With LeBron James (and ostensibly Kevin Love, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports) heading to Cleveland to join a recently re-signed Kyrie Irving this offseason, a classic NBA rivalry has been renewed.

    Cleveland fans, historically burned by Michael Jordan and his warriors of the 1990s, must have enjoyed it immensely when this matchup was turned on its head during LeBron’s last tenure at home. They may experience similar joy in the near future—but can the Cavs put it together quickly enough to outdo the Bulls in their first season as a superteam?

    The team is assembled from fresh pieces. David Griffin hasn’t been an NBA general manager for six months yet, and David Blatt is even less experienced as a head coach in the league. Love and Irving combined have played as many playoff minutes as I have. Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson are talented but have never produced consistently as pros. Anderson Varejao is a walking injury report.

    But still: If you have LeBron James next to his most complementary teammate yet in Love, you have the chance to beat any team on any night.

    Bulls fans just better hope their greater continuity of culture, heading into Year 5 with Thibodeau and maintaining the bulk of their defensive core, is enough to stump the Cavs before they take off.