Chicago Bulls basketball returns tonight for the start of the 2014-15 season as Tom Thibodeau's team kicks off the preseason by hosting the squad that ended its run in the first round of the NBA playoffs this past April. The Bulls face the Washington Wizards in the first of eight preseason games that will lead up to the regular season opener against the New York Knicks on Oct 29.
There's nothing that elicits mixed feelings in sports quite like the preseason. On one hand, real basketball is back -- or closer, at least -- and a new season offers plenty of intriguing possibilities for our Bulls. On the other, the preseason is objectively too long and mostly worthless. The performance of Derrick Rose in the preseason last year hammered home the point, as Rose shined in exhibition contests before struggling through his first 10 games of last season until his year was ended by another knee injury.
The return of Rose is a cause for cautious celebration and remains unquestionably the biggest storyline around the team on the precipice of the new campaign. Even NBA players whose careers have been defined by injuries -- Anfernee Hardaway, Grant Hill, ect. -- didn't miss what was essentially two full seasons before they turned 26 years old. Rose is in uncharted territory here, so everything he does is about to be magnified under the guise of the Bulls' title aspirations.
It's not all about Rose this season, of course. Carlos Boozer has mercifully been cut to make way for Pau Gasol, the 34-year-old who has spent the last decade becoming one of the best big man in the modern history of the NBA. Gasol is the headliner in a package of offseason additions with an obvious focus on offense. That group includes two sweet-shooting rookies in Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic and newest addition to Tom Thibodeau's reserve point guard lineage, Aaron Brooks.
I count myself as a preseason skeptic -- do we really need eight games on top of a schedule that's already way too long? -- but I'll be watching tonight, because that is what we do. If we're going to be watching, we might as well be watching for a few things in particular. Here are three that I think are worth keeping an eye on during this merry preseason.
1. Where is Derrick shooting from?
Derrick Rose took 72 three-pointers as a rookie. He attempted 60 in his sophomore season in the NBA. In Rose's third year, when he became the youngest MVP in league history, Rose jacked 385 threes. Ever since, Rose has gone from a player who was taking under one three-pointer per game to a player attempting nearly five per night.
The trend hasn't exactly been beneficial, even if the added threat of his long-range shot has opened up some driving room. Rose hit just 33 percent of his threes as the MVP and 31 percent in the injury-plagued year that followed. When he came back from injury last season, he made 34 percent of the 4.7 long-range attempts he averaged through 10 games.
As Kirk Goldsberry detailed at Grantland, Rose was once among the best mid-range shooters in the NBA before starting to jack from the outside. The new-wave of NBA thinking says mid-range shots are among the most inefficient in the game -- ideally, you want shots at the rim and three-pointers. Does it make sense for a player who has never really been a good outside shooter, though?
That's the thing with Rose: he was once a special player because he his size, speed, strength, quickness and explosion was unrivaled. That's his bread and butter; how he became a top high school recruit, the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, the Rookie of the Year, the MVP. Wanting to get better at three-point shooting is admirable, but is it beneficial for the current version? I'm not so sure.
Rose had his age 24 and 25 seasons wiped out by injuries, years when development would have occurred. Had Rose stayed healthy, the three-pointer would have been the last thing his offensive game really needed, and therefore made sense as a point of emphasis. Now, though? Rose is just trying to regain his position as the player he once was, not explore unfounded territory. If Rose can dial up his mid-range attack once again -- floaters, layups, pull-ups -- it could go a long away towards getting him right.
The fact is, Rose has never been a particularly good three-point shooter. While the shot should still be in his arsenal, it would likely be beneficial for both the player and the team if he was taking three threes per game instead of five. For a player with usage rates as high as Rose, he's simply going to hurt the offense if he's missing that many long-range shots. Let's not kill Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Gasol on the offensive glass so early. More mid-range shots, at least early in the season, would seem to be better for everybody.
2. Who are the first subs off the bench?
The presumed starting lineup will have Jimmy Butler next to Rose in the backcourt, Mike Dunleavy installed at the three and Gasol and Noah up front. While Thibodeau will (probably?) play extended rotations in the preseason, it will still be interesting to see who he's turning to first off the bench. We know Thibs likes to stick with his rotations strictly, so the first few faces you see off the bench tonight will likely be the first few faces you see during the regular season, too.
I'm guessing it's Kirk Hinrich as the first sub, likely checking in for Dunleavy with about four minutes left in the first quarter. From there, Gibson in for Gasol seems obvious enough. What happens from there is still undetermined.
Is Brooks checking in for Rose and moving Hinrich off the ball? Is Jimmy Butler going to captain the second unit and ensure himself 40-plus minutes per night of action? What happens at the wings, where McDermott and Tony Snell would conceivably be the next wave of bodies but could also be be victims of a short rotation? Is Mirotic getting minutes ahead of Nazr Mohammed?
It's going to be interesting, because one of the things the Bulls achieved this season is what appears to be really solid depth. By the end of last year, Thibs was killing the starters with a seven-man rotation that left the Bulls as something similar to the walking wounded by the time that playoff series with Washington started. Early indications are he's going with a nine-man rotation, but that's far from set. My guess is Mirotic and Snell get squeezed, Hinrich, Brook and Gibson log real minutes, and McDermott's playing time varies. We'll see.
3. Who closes in the front court?
There's been some noise this offseason about Taj Gibson not being happy about Gasol leapfrogging him in the starting lineup. The obvious concession there seem to be that Gibson will be on the court at the end of games -- Thibs called him the team's best fourth quarter player at media day -- but in place of whom? The Noah-Gibson pairing that has routinely been so effective seems like the obvious call, but how does Pau respond to that? Hopefully at this point in his career, Pau will be cool with a slightly diminished role. After all, the Bulls have the dude for three freaking years, they might as well try to preserve him.
There's other stuff, too: How's Jimmy's outside shot looking? How's Noah moving after offseason knee surgery? Does Thibs' defense still hold up even with several new additions that profile as minus-defenders?
It'll be fun, at least as much fun as meaningless basketball can be. I am ready for this season. Let's do it.