The Chicago Bulls' offseason cannot be fully understood without context. Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Kirk Hinrich didn't just wash up to the majestic shores of the United Center out of nowhere -- their arrival is the actualization of years of tough decision-making that put the Bulls in this position.
They're here because the Bulls chose not to match the Rockets' poison pill offer sheet to Omer Asik in 2012 in part because they thought the contract would be unmovable (Asik was traded to New Orleans last month). They're here because of a 2010 trade that sent Tyrus Thomas to the Bobcats for a first round draft pick that kept getting pushed back. They're here because Kyle Korver was dealt to Atlanta for a trade exception that was never used. They're here because the Bulls swung for the fences with a pitch to Carmelo Anthony before striking out just as they've done repeatedly over the last 15 years.
Then there's the decision to bring back Kirk Hinrich instead of D.J. Augustin, a choice that retains a physical defender hell bent on cutting off penetration for opposing point guards at the opportunity cost of re-signing the only guard who could actually get the offense going last season. Let's not dismiss the choice to amnesty Carlos Boozer, either, because making a $16.8 million donation to the Boozer family bank account did not always seem like the type of move Jerry Reinsdorf would green light.
The Bulls have been targeting this offseason as one of change for a long time, and the decision to trade Luol Deng in January let you know they were serious. When Anthony decided to accept something just short of a max contract in New York, the front office's shot at hitting a home run in free agency hit the grass just short of the fence. At this point, the Bulls are just hoping it takes a lucky enough bounce to give them a groundrule double.
The Bulls are coming off a season in which they finished with the NBA's third worst offense and were eliminated in the first round after scoring only 69 points in their final game. The intent this offseason was clear. The Bulls had to improve the offense, and the return of Derrick Rose is the first step towards doing that. To complement Rose, the Bulls added three new players to the roster who each primarily focus their talents on the offensive end.
Doug McDermott will have obvious limitations at the NBA level, but he's a ridiculous shooter and crafty mid-range scorer who should be the rare rookie to contribute under coach Tom Thibodeau right away. Mirotic is the type of player that would help any offense as a stretch power forward. Just look at the impact (and paychecks) of Ryan Anderson and Channing Frye if you're having second thoughts about the viability of his skill set. Gasol lost the ability to adequately defend the pick-and-roll years ago, but he's as skilled as anyone out of the low post or the high post. Add these three to Rose and the offense stands to improve.
The question is whether it has improved enough to give the Bulls a realistic chance to come out of the Eastern Conference. The front office chose to make Gasol their Plan B because it felt like he was the best player left on the market. They may very well be correct if the 34-year-old stays healthy over the course of his three-year deal. The problem is that signing Gasol did not fix the Bulls' two biggest problems, ones that overlap in the Venn diagram of Chicago's shortcomings: a) the quality of wing play remains a huge question mark, b) Rose is still the only player capable of breaking down a defense and creating easy looks for his teammates.
The second part of that equation has been the Bulls' biggest flaw for years, ever since LeBron swallowed up Rose in the 2011 conference finals and the Bulls' offense collapsed alongside its historically young MVP. The Heat don't exist anymore and the Eastern Conference seemingly lacks an elite squad -- will that in itself be enough to push the Bulls through? It possible, but not exactly a comforting bet.
If you're looking for a best case scenario, this is it:
- The Bulls become something just short of Spurs East with one or two less creators. There are terrific passers and unselfish players scattered throughout the lineup now. There's more shooting than Tom Thibodeau has ever had. These are characteristics that can define a great offense. If they get the Bulls back to being mediocre on that end, it would still count as a massive improvement.
- There is no substitute for skilled size, which is the best thing you can say about the Gasol signing. Age won't stop making him 7-feet tall. He's the type of player who makes everyone better offensively -- offering a bail out option on the inside as well as a heady passer ready and willing to share the ball with the open man.
- Despite the way Mirotic's season ended, he still might be really good. Forget the Dirk comparisons, I'd lock into the Rashard Lewis ones. His mere presence gives the Bulls lineup combinations that were never possible before with Rose and Thibodeau. I'm looking for four-out lineups with Rose-Dunleavy-McDermott-Mirotic-Noah as a change of pace set that could get a sputtering offense going.
The problem here is that the margin for error is just so small. The Gasol contract could look ugly quick if last season's injuries are only the first sign of a future Hall of Famer breaking down. It's tough at this point to expect Rose to play a full season, and when he misses time we know Hinrich won't be able to boost the offense in the same way D.J. could have. The Bulls are also placing a heavy bet on Tony Snell and Jimmy Butler to take a sizable step forward. They're guessing McDermott can be worth the hefty price they paid for him.
There were better wing options available. The Bulls could have signed Lance Stephenson, though it might have required giving away Dunleavy. They could have overpaid for Trevor Ariza like Houston did. Instead, the Bulls will hope that the best case scenario for these signings pays off. After missing the face of the franchise for the last three postseasons, maybe they think they're due for some good luck.
With some good luck, the Bulls could potentially come out of the pitiful Eastern Conference to reach the NBA Finals. With some bad luck, they're locked into a roster that lacks quality wings and supplemental shot creators. This isn't what the Bulls had in mind when they slow-played their own improvement over the last few seasons for a lottery ticket this summer, but they should be used to the disappointment of not hitting their numbers at this point.
It might be hard to get excited about, but this is what the Bulls are. They can pass and they can shoot and they can defend. If Derrick roars back, it could be a very good team. It's just a little unsettling that a franchise that should be doing everything it can to alleviate the burden from Rose's shoulders did nothing nothing of the sort this offseason.
Derrick has help, but he will still be expected to carry so much this season. You've heard this story before.