No one can say coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t have the pieces he needs anymore. Derrick Rose is back. He came roaring out of the gates at Team USA practice, looking better than ever with his increased bulk and smooth jump shot.
"I've been preparing for this for a long time," he told reporters on the scene, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune (subscription required).
It's probably big for everyone else because they haven't seen me. It's kind of weird. People are kind of like in awe to even see me run down the floor, like I'm handicapped or something. This is only the beginning of a long journey. But my confidence level is through the roof.
Rose looks like an uber-elite point guard again, in a point guard-driven league. And the Chicago Bulls have added considerable depth to buttress his offensive efforts by bringing in Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Aaron Brooks.
The Bulls have more talent and continuity—their defensive-minded core of Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler remains intact—than any team in the Eastern Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are a big threat, but they’ll likely need a year to calibrate their many moving pieces—they’re very young and unproven outside of James, plus they have a new coach.
In this, Thibodeau’s fifth season in Chicago, the door to a conference championship (or even an NBA title) is more open than it’s ever been. Thibodeau has consistently gotten a startling amount through barely cracked windows, but now we’ll see how he and his team handle their newfound top-dog status.
The Bulls enjoyed high expectations for all of 10 games this past season, before Rose tore his meniscus and was called out for the remainder of the year. By January, Luol Deng was traded away and Chicago was facing a steep hill just to make the postseason. Intensive preparation and ceaseless motivation from Thibodeau and Noah led the team to a surprising 48-34 record.
They were ultimately without the necessary firepower, however, to make noise in the postseason. The up-and-coming Washington Wizards beat them four games to one in the first round despite the Bulls having home-court advantage. Struggling to score at all (the Bulls’ final game saw them put up a measly 69 points), the series was a referendum on the thin roster Thibodeau was given.
His short rotation was backed only by the likes of Jimmer Fredette, a turnover-prone guard with only occasional scoring touch, who can’t guard a broken broom. The Bulls were running plays for Kirk Hinrich jumpers and D.J. Augustin drives; these were their best options.
But the team was making its way through the second straight season in which little-to-no Rose plagued them and their fanbase. Any modicum of success was greeted with fanfare in the face of such tremendous bad luck. Now, the point guard's old maladies are ostensibly gone. Thibodeau and his organization have to deliver at a higher level.
One might say the Bulls’ biggest current problem—aside from Rose’s always-tenuous health—is having an unwieldy wealth of options. Their frontcourt, in particular, has more potent players than it does playing spots. Thibodeau will be able to give the invaluable Noah more rest than he’s seen since Omer Asik was in town.
There are a host of new mix-and-match lineup scenarios for the coach to balance. Between Gibson and Noah, they can always run a league-tops defender out. Between Gasol, Mirotic and McDermott playing the 4 spot in smaller sets, they can always have a scoring big on the floor. In any event, the first-team All-NBA Noah won't have to be run ragged, as he has been in the past out of necessity.
The insane minutes Jimmy Butler clocked last season (his 38.7 per game tied Carmelo Anthony for the most in the league) should also see a downtick with the emergence of Tony Snell, who looked more confident and savvy as he had his way at Las Vegas Summer League. With a squad that goes legitimately 10 or 11 players deep, the Bulls coach no longer has to run his men into the ground and risk further injury just for a chance to win enough games to make the playoffs.
In order for Thibodeau to truly inspire championship-level confidence from Bulls fans, though, he’ll have to shift more of his paradigm toward offense—the Bulls were dead last in points per game last season. His front office seems to be pushing that priority to the top. From the Chicago Tribune’s Steven Rosenbloom:
Thibodeau always starts with defense, but that has not proven to be enough. The Bulls have to score a lot more than they have, and so, it appears management is giving Thibodeau a roster that will force him to suffer through some bad defense if it means a shooter stays on the floor.
I’ll believe this when I see it. I can’t imagine Thibodeau suddenly turning into George Karl or Mike D’Antoni. But the Bulls’ defensive emphasis has made them too easy to guard because their best defenders aren’t shooters who scare opponents.
Gasol, McDermott and Mirotic are all extremely intriguing weapons, and Rose is a proven dynamo with the ball. But this collection still demands some creativity from Thibodeau to consistently score against playoff-level defense, so it’ll be interesting to see how he orients his new pieces as passers and scorers.
It's likely that he'll implement plays with more off-ball movement, as the team has more able passers and shooters, and there's also high-low post potential within the frontcourt. Rose will have a less daunting pile of scoring work than ever before this year so long as Thibodeau can strike the right balance.
New work has come swiftly to Thibodeau and his re-upholstered team. But opportunity has never been this big, and Thibodeau now has the resources to fully deliver on the notion that he's one of the league's leading coaches. We know what he can do with very little, but in 2014-15 Thibodeau must come through with a war chest.