For the Chicago Bulls, the most important word in the 2015-16 season is "fresh."
As in, a fresh start under new coach Fred Hoiberg, whose offensive mentality will be in stark contrast to the defensive philosophy stressed by former coach Tom Thibodeau. Or as in keeping their key players fresh throughout the season, as Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah dealt with injuries during the regular season and the injury bug bit Pau Gasol in the playoffs.
So much in Chicago, of course, depends on the health of Rose. He played 51 games a season ago, scoring 17.7 points and averaging 4.9 assists per game. By the postseason he had hit his stride, however, averaging 20.3 points and 6.5 assists per game.
With him healthy, the Bulls are a championship contender. If he is injured again, however, the Bulls are nothing more than a decent enough squad to make the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference but not a contender against the league's top teams.
Certainly, this offseason was an intriguing one for the Bulls, and few teams will be more interesting to watch this season. Hoiberg's spread offense was always fun to watch at Iowa State, but there are questions as to whether players like Gasol and Noah fit the scheme.
Hoiberg isn't worried about that, however. In early June, he talked about how he felt the team's roster fit his philosophy, noting of Rose, "If we can get the wings out running, you get that first big running to the rim, and you give Derrick space on the fast break, that's going to create a lot of opportunities," per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.
He was optimistic about Noah as well.
"When you create space for him and allow him to be a passer and a playmaker, he can bust the ball up the floor after a rebound with guys who can knock down shots."
And Gasol, too.
"Pau has ability to get up and seal in transition or go right into a drag screen and pop with his ability to shoot."
Frankly, he seemed pretty excited about how everyone fit in the scheme.
And why not? The Bulls are a deep team that has largely been together for several years now. Jimmy Butler's contract extension was the key move this offseason outside of signing Hoiberg—Butler led the team in scoring last year and has become one of the league's top shooting guards—while keeping Mike Dunleavy was a smart decision.
The Bulls have a ton of depth down low, with Gasol, Noah, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and draftee Bobby Portis, while Doug McDermott will be looking to make an impact in his second year in the league. This is a deep team that, should it stay healthy and quickly adapt to Hoiberg's system, could compete for the Eastern Conference title against the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks.
For the team's full schedule, be sure to check out NBA.com.
Analyzing Marquee Matchups
Cleveland Cavaliers (Oct. 27, Jan. 23, Feb. 18, April 9)
Everybody in the Eastern Conference is gunning for the Cavs, and the Bulls in particular will be looking to knock their Central Division rivals down a peg. That will be easier said than done, of course.
The fact that the Cavaliers were able to retain LeBron James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson makes them not only favorites to win the East, but also to win the NBA title, period.
The Bulls, of course, have added incentive every time they face the Cavs. James has been tormenting them in the postseason for years, and he did so again last year, as Cleveland knocked Chicago out of the playoffs in six games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
In the past six seasons, a James-led team has knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs four times. So yes, the Bulls and their fans feel a certain way about King James, and you can bet they would like nothing more than to hand him a few losses both this season and come the playoffs.
Miami Heat (Jan. 25, March 1, March 11, April 7)
The Heat missed the playoffs last season, yes, but that can be chalked up to losing Chris Bosh as much as anything else. Few teams had a better offseason than the Heat, who kept Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng and added Justise Winslow in the draft.
If the Bulls are going to earn the top seed in the East, the Cavs and Heat are probably going to be their top competition. While the Hawks will be dangerous and the Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks are worth keeping an eye on, veteran teams like the Cavs and Heat look like the top contenders.
The Bulls are deeper than the Heat and stronger on the block, though the Heat have superior options on the wing. And of course, these teams have had their share of playoff battles in the past, so there is no love lost here, though those series were about Rose and James.
These should be fun matchups to watch regardless, and they could have quite an impact on the Eastern Conference standings.
If a beat-up Bulls team without Rose for a chunk of the season was able to get to 50 wins last year, there's no reason this team can't replicate the feat if they stay healthy. While there are likely to be some hiccups with a new coach and scheme, the Bulls have too much talent and veteran presence to slump for long.
And frankly, Hoiberg's approach could be just what the doctor ordered for a team that probably needed a bit of a jolt after the Thibodeau era.
Look for the Bulls to finish 52-30 on the year and finish just behind the Cavaliers for the Central Division crown. They aren't going to unseat LeBron James and company as Eastern Conference champions, but they are certainly the team best equipped to give the Cavs a run for their money.