This is BlogABull's yearly entry for the NBA Blog Previews. You can follow along at SBNation.com/NBA for the rest of the Central Division and the entire league.
Team Name: Chicago Bulls
Last Year's Record: 50-16 (that's 62 wins in a 'normal' season, you guys)
Key Losses: Omer Asik, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, CJ Watson, Half of Derrick Rose
Key Additions: Kirk Hinrich, Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, Adidas commercials
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
As much as the Bulls organization will emphasize that their 'core' is still intact, there were massive changes made to their bench. And the Bulls didn't just have great depth, but perhaps the best bench unit in the league (though perhaps an unoriginal nickname), and the 'Bench Mob' was something that helped make up for a lack of top-heavy talent that other title contenders possessed.
In order to keep their team payroll around the luxury tax threshold, the Bulls halved the cost of their bench by letting their free agents and partially-guaranteed contracts go and signing cheaper replacements. The one instance where they relatively splurged was in re-acquiring long-time Bull Kirk Hinrich to be the starting PG while Derrick Rose is out. However, doing so invoked a hard cap which the Bulls cannot surpass all season.
Elsewhere on the perimeter, the new Bulls bench of Belinelli, Robinson, and 2nd-year returnee Jimmy Butler could show more versatility than the role players they're replacing, but it's yet to be proven whether they can be as good and compatible with eachother.
Losing backup center Omer Asik perhaps made the most financial sense (unlike the others, with Asik the Bulls were faced with matching a 3-year deal with a huge raise in the 3rd season) but his departure will have the biggest impact on the court. Asik may have had hands of stone, but he was among the best defensive big men in basketball and his presence allowed the Bulls defense to never skip a beat when going to their second unit. The Bulls did bring in Nazr Mohammed to try and compensate, but that load will be really shouldered by the more minutes the rest of their frontcourt soak up, with perhaps more use of small-ball as well.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
While Derrick Rose was in and out of the lineup all of last season, what kept the Bulls chugging towards their gaudy regular-season record was their size. Joakim Noah is one of the best centers in the league, outlandish yet simultaneously unheralded for his skills on offense and versatility on defense: Noah has the athleticism to effectively protect the basket while also challenging guards who get close. Carlos Boozer is a consistent disappointment as a nearly-max-contract free agent acquisition, but remains an above-average offensive post forward who really contributes on the glass. This may be the last year before Taj Gibson wrestles a starting spot (either from Booz or through signing with another team in the offseason) as he's made a claim to be one of the best defensive bigs in the NBA. You'll notice I said this about Asik too, but that's a clue as to why the Bulls were so good. With Asik gone the Bulls lose a luxury, but with those three remaining (hopefully healthy, they were immaculately so last season) it's still a very formidable group.
Combining that size with a SF like Luol Deng who is one of the better defenders and rebounders at the position (with an ability to slide up to PF at times as well), the Bulls have won with that frontcourt defense and ability to dominate the offensive glass. Even with Derrick Rose's heroics the Bulls can often play an ugly brand of basketball, but they can overpower a lot of teams in doing so, using misses as merely a chance to get a better shot off the rebound.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
It's shot creation, and that was the case even before their former MVP got hurt. When Derrick Rose was around to bail the Bulls out of nearly every failed possession, the question was still how their offense could handle when defenses (namely the great kinds, like Miami's) focused in on limiting Rose. The team attempted to help that issue when they signed Rip Hamilton before last season, but that wasn't even given much of a chance to work out given the injuries each of the Bulls starting guards faced, and with Rip it's not likely going to get much better.
Without Rose, the offensive outlook is fairly bleak. There's always shots created by ball (and player) movement, and the offensive glass will still get the Bulls more garbage buckets than opposing fans can stand, but there will be stretches and even quarters where the Bulls offense will really sputter.
Carlos Boozer's never been much of a classic post-up player, and as his athleticism has waned he's struggled to finished when diving towards the rim. Boozer will still provide solid offensive production but it will be on contested fadeaways. Luol Deng similarly drifted more to the outside after his wrist injury (and shot more poorly too), and even at full strength was never great at creating his own looks. Nobody else really even comes close as someone you'd consider a reliable scorer, outside of those few games where Nate Robinson really heats up off of the bench.
The Bulls did look to supplement their roster with more ballhandlers than before, with Hinrich, Robinson, and Belinelli each at least showing some of that capability. That will help when Rose returns, though it certainly isn't the classic #2 option as it is a failsafe when he's trapped. When he's out rehabbing, a lot of the rest of the Bulls will be on their own to get points, something they traditionally have not been able to excel at.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Though the Bulls made some decisions based on money that lowered the potential of their roster, they certainly didn't go the other way and 'tank' in the wake of Rose's injury. I don't think they'd be very good at it anyway, given the amount of returning talent and the way coach Thibodeau has proven he can get the absolute best out of his roster. (And that suits me just fine, because tanking sucks.)
So while the Bulls will undoubtedly struggle with Rose out, they need to be in a position to where when he returns they can still get a playoff spot. And preferably a high-enough seed to avoid the Miami Heat. Because beyond them (and heck, they can have a catastrophic injury in round one too!), with a healthy Derrick Rose the Bulls are just as valid of a threat as the other next-tier teams in the conference. That puncher's chance in the playoffs probably won't work out, and it's more important to make sure Rose doesn't over-exert himself in trying to achieve it, but it's something to shoot for this season.
5. What are a best and worst case scenario for the Bulls this season?
Making the playoffs at all is not as perfunctory as one would assume, and things could swing very wildly this season given the health of several key players.
The first is obviously Derrick Rose. If he's on a normal track (based on past ACL surgery recipients) he could be back right around the All-Star break, theoretically plenty of time to ramp up his minutes to his pre-injury state. It seems even beyond the wildest optimism to suggest he'll be at an All-NBA level in that first year, which unfortunately is what the Bulls need him to be at for them to win a title.
But if their other major contributors stay near the level of the last two seasons, and Thibodeau proves that it was his coaching that created the bench's success moreso than the individual components that were shuffled out this past offseason (including a bounce-back season from Hinrich, who's going to be counted on a ton), then the Bulls could find themselves not at the peak of their powers but still at the top of that 'not Miami' class.
But if Rose suffers a setback, or the Bulls frontcourt has a major injury (always possible given their history), or Deng never quite returns to his two-wristed self, or the Bulls bench takes a larger step back than anticipated, things could go awry. And you can get bleak enough to almost convince yourself that 8 teams in the conference will wind up better, but only almost. Outside of the catastrophic (which you'd hope they used up after Rose got hurt) they should still win a lot of ugly games on the back of their defense, or at least enough games to sneak in the playoffs. Then, hopefully, Rose is there to at least get us believing in another run at the Finals. Before that happens it may not be that entertaining of a watch.