We're less than two weeks away from Opening Night in the NBA, and Bulls season previews continue to trickle in. The two latest I'll be taking a gander at are from John Hollinger (ESPN Insider Only) and the triumvirate of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman that make up the wonderful Yahoo! Sports blog Ball Don't Lie.
You may recall Hollinger's player previews from a couple of weeks ago, but this time around he takes a closer look back at last season, what happened this offseason and then forecasts what will go down this upcoming season. As for the Ball Don't Lie crew, each member takes a look at the Bulls from a different lens.
So let's dive right into these, shall we?
First, Hollinger takes a look back at just how the Bulls were able to be so successful last season with Derrick Rose missing so much time. To the surprise of nobody, two of the main reasons were elite defense and rebounding. The Bulls were first in the league in defensive efficiency, and they also did several other things on that end extremely well. One was the fact that they guarded the three-point line tremendously, only allowing 17.3 percent of their shots against to come from behind the arc. Another is the fact that they played such great defense without fouling, as they held the third-lowest foul rate in the league.
As for the rebounding, we know the Bulls made a killing on the offensive boards last year. So no real shocker that they owned an offensive rebound rate of 32.6. But as Hollinger points out, it's often rare to see a team that's so dominant on the offense glass AND also elite defensively. That's one of the big reasons this Bulls club has been so special the past few years in the regular season.
Whether the Bulls can match some of those numbers this year remains to be seen, which brings us to what happened this offseason. Hollinger notes the obvious pattern of "financial decisions," and he certainly isn't too crazy about anybody the Bulls brought in besides Nate Robinson. He calls Mohammed "uninspiring" (although he looks great so far!) and Belinelli "barely replacement level." The term "sneaky upside" is used to describe the Kyle Korver trade that resulted in a trade exception that
can be used until next July probably won't get used. And as for the Kirk Hinrich signing, Hollinger posits that the Bulls likely made that decision "more with their hearts than heads." While Hinrich has looked pretty good so far this preseason, I still question how effective he'll be over the course of the year (and whether he can stay on the floor).
Looking ahead to this season, there's the obvious question with Rose to worry about, and Hollinger has him pegged for 20 games played. That would bring him back at the beginning of March, which is a pretty fair estimate.
Hollinger feels that the revamping of the bench will actually hurt a tad more on the defensive side rather than the offensive side, as Ronnie Brewer and Omer Asik were key components to the Bench Mob's success shutting teams down. I'm really not sure Jimmy Butler isn't nearly as good as Brewer already defensively, but there's no doubt that Asik's presence will be missed.
Overall, Hollinger leaves us with this and his prediction of 43-39, barely squeaking into the playoffs as the eight seed in the East:
The good news is that Thibodeau's robust D will keep them in games, even if it does decline a bit from the past two years. Look for them to stay in the top six or seven teams on defense, offsetting what's likely to be a 20th-ranked or so offense. Yet the net effect is that, even with a quarter-season of Rose, Chicago makes the playoffs. Which doesn't seem so crazy, given how well the Bulls did without him a year ago.
I personally feel the win total is a tad on the low side, but it's certainly realistic and very possible, especially if there are more injury problems.
Ball Don't Lie
First of all, I really chuckled at the fact that the Bulls were described as "very emo" to begin this preview. But anyway, Dwyer is first off, and naturally, he dives into the cost-cutting offseason, which he attacked vehemently like we did as it was going on:
If only the team's best player wasn't on crutches, and likely a year away from consistently showing the sort of all-out, MVP-styled play we became used to from Derrick Rose before he tore his ACL last April. And though the thought of all those returning 20-somethings is warming, those budding vets have been told via action and inaction that 2012-13 (and, in a way, 2013-14) absolutely will not count. That this is a champion in waiting; waiting a really, really long time.
And that even when the waiting seems about over, that the team's ownership will not make the financial commitments necessary to grow and sustain a winner on the same level that the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, and (potentially, should they extend James Harden's contract) Oklahoma City Thunder do. Despite a rabid fanbase that has poured endless amounts of cash into Jerry Reinsdorf's pockets over the last quarter century.
All while, as we've belabored intensely at Ball Don't Lie for years, the Bulls leave themselves enough outs to make all the cost cutting reasonable:
"Ben Gordon wasn't worth the money. We once threw the max at Ben Wallace, so we're not afraid to spend. Cutting Carlos Boozer with Taj Gibson's extension kicking in is reasonable on several levels. The team wasn't going to win anything in 2012-13 anyway with Derrick Rose only playing 15 to 20 games of B-level Derrick Rose basketball. And we're set to pay the luxury tax this year."
(In a season without majorly punitive tax penalties, and with four months left still to trade Rip Hamilton and dive below the tax ceiling).
I won't go any more into this stuff, as we did it enough this summer and into this fall to last a lifetime. Although I'm sure there will be more bitching, especially after the White Sox trade for Alex Rodriguez. But I digress
Dwyer lays out two plausible scenarios, both of which mainly have to do with Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. On one hand, Thibs could once again draw every last ounce of talent from this team and win more games than anybody expects. On other other, Thibs' "insistence for attaining perfection" and overuse of certain players could wear on the team, causing an implosion that takes the Bulls out of the race before Rose even suits up.
Dwyer shies away from going in either of these extreme directions, and takes the more likely safe middle-ground of 44 wins.
Devine, who's using a Halloween theme of "Fear," for his previews, looks at two things: what makes the Bulls scary and what the Bulls should be scared of.
Devine says the Bulls are scary because of a "persistent will to destroy," which has obviously been the trademark of Thibs' Bulls the past couple of years. Even when faced with key injuries, the Bulls have been successful in the regular season because they bludgeon teams with effort every single night. Some teams take nights off, but that's very rare for the Bulls. I'd say this is a pretty good way to put things:
But I still think they're going to be a very difficult team to beat on most nights, because I just can't envision a team coached by Tom Thibodeau and led by Joakim Noah and Luol Deng doing anything other than continuing to charge opponents until one side or the other has no life left. The relentlessness and lack of defensive mercy cultivated throughout Thibodeau's first two years at the United Center is not absent merely because Derrick Rose is, and I think that's still going to be enough to win enough games to stay in the running for a bottom-of-the-bracket playoff berth.
The funny thing is, Devine wrote this immediately after saying he agreed with Jeff Van Gundy that a .500 season would be "a heck of the year." And at the end of this section, Devine says don't be surprised if the Bulls "matter in April." It shows how much people believe in Thibs.
On the other end of the spectrum, what should the Bulls be scared of?
Devine says the possibility of Rose coming back too soon should be terrifying. Because of Rose's competitive nature, he may be inclined to push himself to come back early and help the team make a run at a title. That of course, could result in disaster.
Honestly, I'm not too worried about Rose rushing back. While I know he's a competitive guy, I think both he and the Bulls organization realize how serious this situation is and will take as long as necessary to ensure the rehab is 100 percent successful.
And finally, Freeman's task during these previews has been to examine each team's struggle to find an identity. At this point, we know what the Bulls' identity is, or at least what they want it to be. In Freeman's words:
Tom Thibodeau has created the Bulls in his image: a hardnosed, defense-oriented outfit with the belief that their own toughness can overcome a team that might seem superior on paper. That identity has served them well over the past two seasons, and there's no indication that they're ready to change things up.
Of course, the Rose injury throws everything a bit off, and although the Bulls did fine last year without him (in the regular season), the circumstances this season are a little different. So while the Bulls know what they want to be, they may not necessarily have the horses to be successful.
Freeman closes by saying this will be the most difficult season yet for Thibs, and I can't say I disagree. Without Rose and with so many new guys, Thibs will have to quickly get this team to gel and stay afloat as they wait for their savior to come back. I have faith that Thibs can do it, but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise if things went off the rail.