The following is my entry in the NBA Blogger preview series, follow all the team previews at SBNation.com:
Team Name: Chicago Bulls
Last Year’s Record: 41-41
Key Losses: Kirk Hinrich, Brad Miller
Key Additions: Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, CJ Watson, Ronnie Brewer, Tom Thibodeau (head coach)
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
The Bulls have spent the past 2 seasons clearing out long-term contracts in preparation for the 2010 free agent class. Rotation players John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas were shipped out for expiring contracts at the trade deadline, and the Bulls used their 2010 first-rounder to dump Kirk Hinrich and his two remaining contract years on the Wizards. Bulls fans knew to expect that most of the team that made the playoffs the past two seasons would be gone, but a strong group remained in Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and Taj Gibson with enough cap space to entice a star to join them.
Didn't work out, as the Bulls failed to land any of the top free agents. But the front office regrouped in making solid signings to fill out their roster, leading with Carlos Boozer. Boozer is one of the biggest acquisitions in franchise history, and finally ends the drought of frontcourt scoring that has plagued them for years. Coming from Jerry Sloan's Jazz, he should be a great complement in the pick/roll game with Rose on offense, and also fits in well on defense alongside an athletic tall big like Noah.
With Boozer in the fold as the team's major piece, the Bulls worked to fill out their collection of wings, making solid signings in young veterans Kyle Korver, CJ Watson, and Ronnie Brewer. Each filling a role and two of them having played with Boozer in Utah, these weren't inherently exciting signings, but were smart moves to be made in the wake of missing out on the biggest fish of free agency.
The Bulls also made a major change in firing Vinny Del Negro and hiring long-time NBA assistant Tom Thibodeau, who had become one of the league's hottest coaching candidates after gaining notoriety as architect of the Celtics defense. While a first-time head coach like Del Negro, Thibodeau comes in with a much more accomplished resume.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
Defense, rebounding, and overall physicality. With all the faults of the Vinny Del Negro era (and oh, there were many), he did have the Bulls playing as a top-10 defense for most of the season (finished 11th after the midseason trades and an injury to Noah). Anchored by Joakim Noah (one of the best help defenders in the game and an improving shotblocker) and supplemented by an underrated perimeter defender in Deng, Thibodeau's defense-first mindset should fit in well with this roster.
Kirk Hinrich will be missed on that end of the floor, but he was always undersized for the position compared to new acquisition Ronnie Brewer. Boozer isn't known as a great defender but he's a physical one, and Noah ought to cover a lot of his mistakes. The bigs off the bench include second-year player Taj Gibson and rookie Omer Asik, the former having proven to be an above-average defender and the latter excelling in shotblocking while playing overseas.
A big concern will be the maturation of Derrick Rose on that end of the floor, but while we can't buy into mere words, Rose at least acknowledges the problem and maintained it will be a focus of improvement, and a special project of Thibodeau.
The Bulls also should augment that D with very good rebounding, as their entire starting frontcourt of Deng, Boozer, and Noah is amongst the best at their positions. They are simply a big and athletic lineup overall, from Rose's superlative strength as a point guard on through Brewer and that frontcourt. A lot of teams in recent Bulls history came in with an inherent physical disadvantage, but this one certainly wont.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
The Bulls were one of the league's worst offenses last season due to a reliance on the least-efficient shot in basketball, the long two-point jumper. And they weren't even that successful at making those. Inside scoring should be much improved with Boozer, but the Bulls still have a glaring lack of 3-point shooting. The Bulls only shot 33% from the arc last year, exacerbated by shooting the 2nd-fewest attempts in the league. They may be shooting even fewer with Hinrich leaving, and though Korver is one of the best marksmen in the league he'll be coming off the bench.
Rose spent this summer working on increasing his range, and Deng always seems just a foot away (literally) from becoming more of a threat, but this will be a major issue for the Bulls offense this season as opponents will likely pack the lane to defend the drives of Rose and crowd Boozer in the post. Thibodeau has mentioned an increased emphasis on the 3-point shot as opposed to Del Negro's offense, but they simply may not have the personnel to keep opponents honest.
4. What are the goals for this team?
After two seasons of water-treading as collateral damage for reaching roster flexibility, the time is now for the Bulls to start building towards title contention. They're not at that tier yet, and the superteam in Miami (joining incumbents Orlando and Boston) may always keep them a step below.
But the Bulls should be out of defined mediocrity and up towards the top half of the conference, battling the Hawks and Bucks for the next few playoff spots. Winning a weakened Central Division is certainly possible and would guarantee the Bulls a top-4 seed, being favored in the first round of the playoffs.
5. What could derail those goals?
The offensive woes mentioned above could keep the Bulls from 50 wins, but an unforeseeable hurdle this season could be staying healthy. Carlos Boozer missed many games in his Jazz career, and (unfairly or not) becoming known as someone willing to sit out for longer than the diagnosis would suggest. There's a worry that a new fat contract could lessen Boozer's desire, but he also has something to prove in Chicago after being effectively let go by his former team.
Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are also to be watched on the injury front, each suffering through plantar fasciitis through last season, with Noah missing 18 games due to the injury. They should be fully ready for this season, but it's the type of injury that historically plague big men throughout their careers in some form.
Another concern is that while the suggested improvement in coaching is all but assumed, what Tom Thibodeau can do in a head coaching role is still technically an unknown. He certainly won't fail due to lack of preparation, but there are certain things that a new coach can't be prepared for until he takes that lead position, and there may be growing pains especially in locker room management. The Bulls did a good job this offseason signing players with a set rotation (and hierarchy) in mind, hopefully easing the transition for Thibodeau.
What the Bulls do have that can mask a lot of deficiencies is a budding star in Derrick Rose. He'll pull out games that maybe they shouldn't win, and if he makes the improvements to his game and leaps into stardom, they really have a roster that complements him well.
I'm not counting on any major setbacks, but the Bulls path to 50 wins will see minor challenges throughout the season keeping them just short. The more important thing is that with a lot of new players and a new coach, the Bulls should improve over the course of the season, playing their best ball when it's time for that first round playoff matchup. Ideally at home.