5 Things Chicago Bulls Must Figure Out Before Start of 2014-15 Season
The Chicago Bulls head into the 2014-15 season with their best chance at a championship since head coach Tom Thibodeau’s era began in 2010.
They’ve got new depth, including more scoring punch than ever with Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott, Aaron Brooks, Nikola Mirotic and, of course, a renewed Derrick Rose on board. They’ve also got the continuity of Thibodeau’s system in place, which has led them to no worse than a .549 winning mark in each year he’s been around, despite the repeated roster tumult of injuries and major trades.
Now, the Bulls have something close to their ideal scenario. A team jammed with complementary skills and team-first attitudes, and a window with which to (potentially) sneak by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers as their new, complex squad figures out their myriad loose ends.
But although the Bulls’ outlook holds fewer tests and obstacles than Cleveland’s in the short term, they still have a handful of their own issues to sort through.
How to Ease in Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose is the most central cog to the Bulls’ championship hopes. If his play in this summer’s FIBA Basketball World Cup tournament is any indication, however, Chicago shouldn’t expect the dynamic point guard to fire on all cylinders right away.
Rose has looked every bit as quick and athletic as ever playing through the field in Spain, but he’s also shown a lot of rust on the finer points of his game. Just like during his 10-game return in 2013-14 (abruptly ended when he suffered a torn meniscus against the Portland Trail Blazers), Rose has had difficulty making the extremely difficult shots he used to butter his bread with.
Not all layups are made equally, and Rose’s shots at the rim come with him moving at blistering pace and releasing the ball from strange angles, often relying on very subtle use of the backboard. It might take until after Christmas for the Chicago-born star to consistently make those baskets again, so the Bulls better plan on getting their points in other ways and not leaning too heavily on Rose.
Expect Pau Gasol, as a result, to have some heavy lifting as a scorer early on. There’s a good chance he’ll be their best option until Rose finds his rhythm.
Who Starts in the Front Court
With the arrival of Pau Gasol comes the question of whether he’ll start. As their best non-Rose scorer, it would seem like a no-brainer. But Taj Gibson excelled last year, ultimately rising into the role of go-to guy in a rough 1-4 postseason series loss to the Washington Wizards.
Joakim Noah has been a starter as long as Thibodeau’s coached the Bulls, so his spot is all but untouchable—especially since he won Defensive Player of the Year honors last season. But whom he shares the floor with at the game’s beginning is another issue.
Whether Thibodeau goes with Gasol or Gibson won’t necessarily make a statement about which player he prefers—or thinks is better. It might not say anything about whether he wants a more offensive or defensive look either. Sometimes these decisions come down to personality management.
Gasol is a likely Hall of Famer and has reacted poorly in the past when benched by then-Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni. Thibodeau already knows Gibson can accept a sixth-man role, and it’s probable that he’ll give Gasol the starting nod to make sure he feels respected, welcome and wanted.
Who Starts at Small Forward
Mike Dunleavy Jr. started at small forward for most of the Bulls’ 2013-14 season, but this wasn’t by design.
When the team’s front office shipped Luol Deng off to the Cleveland Cavaliers in January, Thibodeau was left with many options. If Dunleavy retains his starting spot this fall, it will be a testament to continuity and the importance of veteran presence.
Behind him in the lineup are two younger, more promising options: Doug McDermott and Tony Snell. Rookie and sophomore, respectively, “McBuckets” and Snell both have a lot of potential. McDermott was the best scorer during the 2013-14 NCAA season, and no one was especially close. He's also the NCAA's fifth all-time leading scorer. Snell is a lengthy, relentless defender seemingly manifested by Thibodeau’s defensively geared imagination.
Both players impressed in the Las Vegas Summer League. Performing well there is hardly a guarantee of NBA success, but their play reminded Bulls fans that Dunleavy is hardly a lock to start.
A New Offense
With all of the Bulls’ new weapons, they’ll surely have to develop some X’s and O’s that were previously not possible. Gasol, McDermott, Brooks and Mirotic give them much more shooting and lane penetration than they’ve had under Thibodeau.
A Rose-Gasol pick-and-roll is one obvious play the Bulls will look to perfect at training camp. Both players are terrific passers and finishers, and both can make shots from mid-range. But Gibson is another worthy roll man, having averaged 18.2 points in last year’s postseason against a bulky, agile Washington front line.
And Rose’s one-man, lane-driving show will count for a lot more with shooters like McDemott, Brooks and Mirotic spreading defenses on the wings. It’ll be much harder for defenses to key on Rose as long as the Bulls develop enough familiarity to provide the right spacing.
One of the biggest knocks on Thibodeau has been his relentless drive. Though it leads to excellent results in the standings, his ceaseless work ethic often seems correlated to the alarming injury rate of his roster.
The counter argument has always been this: Give Thibodeau some depth, and he won’t have to squeeze so much productivity out of a thin rotation. Now, the Bulls coach has that depth. Noah, Gasol and Rose have all had their bodily problems in recent years, and they’ll need ample rest to stay healthy for the playoffs.
If Thibodeau can develop a new “bench mob”—a phrase coined for the team’s impressive second unit in 2010-11—it will put many fans at ease. The Bulls have proved their coach’s system, alone, to be nearly enough for home-court advantage in a weak Eastern Conference. The goal, now, is to grab the conference’s No. 1 seed while keeping all of their men healthy.
Can Thibodeau strike that balance?