The Chicago Bulls proved last year that they needed only a modicum of talent and a Tom Thibodeau defense to be competitive, winning 45 games and a playoff series despite losing Derrick Rose for the entire season. As scrappy and tough as the 2013 Bulls were, the return of Rose upgrades the 2014 Bulls from "feisty underdog" to "contender". The team has progressed in some ways (Jimmy Butler!) and regressed in others (Omer Asik) since Rose's last healthy playoff run, but has kept the same Thibodeau-inspired mentality and defensive precision. This mentality, while one of the team's greatest strengths, can also be its greatest weakness. The attitude that leads Chicago to play all-out on every possession, that enforces precise defensive rotations during the dog days of March, that inspires Luol Deng and Joakim Noah to play forty minutes a night while injured, fosters regular season success. But by the time May comes around, this "all-out" mentality has taken its toll. Joakim Noah has dealt with chronic injuries that have been exacerbated by heavy minutes, and Luol Deng, after a cascade of smaller injuries, was only kept out of the lineup by a near fatal illness last spring.
In addition to the necessity of Thibodeau managing minutes so that the team is healthy and rested for the playoffs, the Bulls also face a more challenging road to the NBA Finals than in 2011 or 2012. The Heat are another year older, and possibly more vulnerable, but still have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. In addition, Indiana and Brooklyn have made enough improvements to be considered legitimate contenders. This means that even with a number one seed, the Bulls will likely have to beat three elite teams to win the championship, a task not many Eastern Conference teams have needed to accomplish in recent memory.
The Bulls' title hopes start (and end) with Derrick Rose. I'm of the view that Rose was not the best player in the league during the 2011 season, but it's not unreasonable to suggest that he is one of the league's ten best players. Purely as a basketball fan, I can't wait to see him operating at full health. You don't need me to tell you that Rose is electric, one of the best at getting to the rim, and one of the league's most dynamic finishers. Rose's shot creation is the key to kickstarting what can be a punchless Chicago offense, and operating in crunch time against the Heat, Pacer, and Nets defenses. One of the indelible images of the 2011 playoffs is Rose being blanketed by LeBron James in 4th quarters, with the rest of the team unable to exploit mismatches elsewhere on the court. Building effective counterattacks into the Bulls system, likely involving Luol Deng or Noah operating from the elbow, will also be necessary for the Bulls to find crunch time success.
After Rose, Joakim Noah is Chicago's most important player. Noah is an elite disruptor, facilitator, and energizer whose biggest concern is durability. Last season was the first year in which he played more than 2000 minutes and he has missed at least 16 games in three of the past four years. Noah suffered from plantar fasciitis last year, which is usually treated by not playing basketball, and another flare-up could limit his playing time again this year. It is only with Noah on the court, though, that the Bulls both become a scary defensive squad and can play a true center who is competent on offense.
Luol Deng, by all accounts, has earned the love of Tom Thibodeau. This love is a double edged sword, as Deng has led the league in minutes per game each of the last two years and is often forced to take a role on offense that he does not have the skills to excel in. This was apparent at times last year when Chicago's offense, especially without Nate Robinson, would devolve into a replica of the UK's Olympic offense; hand the ball to Deng and get out of the way. While Deng is a fine player, and person, asking him to be a team's primary shot creator is not a recipe for success, either in the Olympics or in the NBA. The return of Derrick Rose, the development of Jimmy Butler, the signing of Mike Dunleavy, and a restful summer should all contribute to Deng having a more manageable set of responsibilities this year.
Deng has a large expiring contract which, combined with Carlos Boozer's two remaining years, has Chicago involved in a wealth of trade rumors. The Bulls are in a funny place, with two expensive, but useful, forwards in Boozer and Deng, and two younger, cheaper backups of similar quality in Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler. Right now, there are enough minutes to go around, as the Bulls are not particularly deep, and Butler has become the starting shooting guard. However, a team built around Rose, Noah, Gibson, Butler, and ACB MVP Nikola Mirotic should remain a contender for the remainder of the decade, plus a few cheap additions and whatever they received for Deng and Boozer.
The problem is finding trading partners. There aren't many teams looking to trade young assets for expensive veterans, and many of the teams that would be interested don't have many young assets. The Bulls do have a future Bobcats pick to use as a sweetener, but it is protected and probably won't be conveyed for a few more years. What is more likely is that the Bulls play out the string with Deng and Boozer, try to resign Deng on the cheap, and use the MLE and picks to find another gem like Gibson, Butler, or Mirotic. Absent an unexpected trade for Horford, Aldridge, or another top 30 player, it appears that the Bulls will stay in the 55-60 win zone the Mavericks populated for most of the last decade, hoping that the playoffs break favorably one year.
The most underappreciated cog in the Bulls machine is Taj Gibson. Arguably the third most valuable player on the team, Gibson only receives about 22 minutes a game, making him the one player on the team that should probably get more minutes. Most of Gibson's value lies on the defensive end, where he can guard inside and out, blocking a surprising amount of shots, making the correct rotations, and generally being the kind of long armed, physical nuisance whose impact shows up in on/off stats rather than the boxscore. Gibson's offense is not superlative, but his offensive rebounding, screen setting, and general activity seems to have a positive effect.
While Gibson is appreciated for all the little things he does, Carlos Boozer is often maligned for not doing those same things. Boozer tries, but does not have the athleticism and awareness to be a good defender, and has been pushed farther and farther from the basket since his heyday in Utah, now rarely drawing fouls despite all the "and-1's" he thinks he deserves. Boozer's a much better passer and jump shooter than Gibson though, and the Bulls have been desperate enough for offense that he's seen more playing time than Taj, though the pecking order is often reversed in crunch time. I don't want to be unfair to him. Despite his defensive shortcomings, Boozer does have value to a team that has problems scoring, but he is paid at least twice what he deserves and will be moved if the Bulls can receive any sort of value for him, which they probably won't.
The rest of Chicago's purported playoff rotation is made up of role player extraordinaires Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, and Kirk Hinrich. I thought Butler deserved consideration for 6th Man of the Year last year, but he's already 24 and the idea that he's some sort of budding star a la Paul George or Kawhi Leonard seems to be far-fetched. He is a very good player already; the rare "Swiss Army knife" wing player who can play defense, shoot, cut, pass, and fits perfectly as a role player on a contender. Dunleavy was one of the best value signings of the summer, a veteran shooter that can stretch the floor and provide much needed respite for Deng and Butler. Through 3 & D contributions, Hinrich continues to be an effective player despite rarely venturing below the free throw line in the half court. The rest of the bench - Nazr Mohammed, Marquis Teague, and questionable draft choice Tony Snell, should not see many meaningful minutes.
Anything less than a championship, their first since 1998, should be a disappointment for Chicago. They have a tough, experienced, defensive minded roster headlined by one of the best shot creators in the league. If they stay healthy and find a plan B on offense, two accomplishments that have eluded them thus far, it is not difficult to imagine them toppling an older, tired Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. They are also set up to contend for the rest of Derrick Rose's prime, especially if Mirotic decides to come to the United States. (As he was a 1st round draft pick, the salary scale may work against Chicago in his decision making process.) Even without him, however, both the present and future seem bright for Chicago, as long as the injury bug that has plagued this team can be tracked down and squished.
Thanks to Sham Sports for salary info.