Team Name: Chicago Bulls
Last Year's Record: 48-34
Key Losses: Carlos Boozer, DJ Augustin
Key Additions: Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Brooks
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
The Bulls were positioned with significant salary cap space for the first time since 2010, and like that year they missed out on their top target but look to have made some nice fallback moves. Carmelo Anthony is still a Knick, but Pau Gasol signed a 3-year deal to leave the Lakers for Chicago. Gasol will be playing his age-34 season, but even at that advanced age and recent injury history he should be a significant upgrade over the Amnestied Carlos Boozer.
The Bulls also cashed in a lot of their asset cache in bringing in rookies Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic. McDermott was acquired in a draft-day trade with a multitude of picks, and so looks to be clearly a target for the front office as a way to improve the team's outside shooting. Mirotic had been drafted back in 2011 but a full Mid-Level Exception was used (or at least equivalent, it was technically using cap space) this year to finally bring him stateside. Though still only 23, Mirotic has been continually proving himself amongst the best competition in Europe and should be able to be counted on for frontcourt minutes immediately.
And for the second consecutive year, the return of Derrick Rose serves as the most important move. His play ultimately determines how far this team can go.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
Defense and depth, especially in the frontcourt. Newcomers Gasol and Mirotic join Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah, the best defensive duo in the league (with Noah winning the Defensive Player of the Year award last season). Adding Jimmy Butler on the wing with Tom Thibodeau's scheme should have the Bulls amongst the league's best on the defensive end yet again.
And with all the offseason acquisitions and return of Rose, the skeleton crew that logged heavy minutes to close out should have a lot more help. The Bulls looked to add offense this year, and brought in multiple options for Thibodeau to provide both in-game breaks as well as season-long alleviation for his stars. This year's roster looks to be the most complete since their 'bench mob' (all teams have them, sure) from 2010-12.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Even without Rose for nearly the whole time, the Bulls racked up a lot of regular season wins. This is a testament to their style of play: their defense and top-5 MVP play from Noah bolsted by an attitude of every game being Game 7 of The Finals. All together it meant that they, as Thibs would say, 'had enough to win'.
But though they were favorites going into the playoffs against the Washington Wizards, that regular season success was revealed to be a bit of a mirage as they were pretty handily disposed in 5 games. Noah had broken down a bit by that point and the Bulls offense that ran through him and relied on superior discipline and ball movement was exposed as something that can't be counted on against top defenses.
That offense is still a lingering question even after all the roster improvements, as they still have only Derrick Rose as someone with elite shot-creation ability. They did add a lot of outside shooting and some superior post playmaking from Gasol, so there's little doubt the offense will be improved. And Rose can win some games down the stretch by himself, but what will happen when he needs help? Thibodeau may likely opt for a defense-first lineup to close games that will make scoring points tough when Rose isn't performing basketball miracles.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Though it's a return season for Rose, the goals are still very high. This team is looking to make the NBA Finals, and anything less than an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals would be an extreme disappointment. The majority of the Bulls key contributors are either in their prime or a little past it, and the time is now for them to take advantage of yet another down season for the rest of the conference.
The Cavaliers new Big 3 should be a force for years to come, but as with LeBron's last super-team it may be where the first year will be the time to get them. The Bulls pose the biggest threat to do just that.
5. ...Derrick Rose?
He's still a thing. He's still THE thing to put the Bulls back into title contention. Tom Thibodeau's defense, Noah's progression into an All-NBA player, the addition of Gasol and McDermott, it won't matter much of Rose can't come back to be the player he was.
What will be key for this season is that Rose gets there by the time the playoffs roll around. The 10 games he played last season were rough, and he looked to be a shell of himself at times during the World Championships. Not just the 2 major non-contact knee injuries, but simply the time he's missed since his MVP year means that it may still take some time for Rose to be himself again.
But as we've seen in years prior, the regular season is merely prelude. So even if there's sloppy play, poor shooting, and - yes - a minor injury here and there, as long as Rose is back near his established level by the time the playoffs begin, the Bulls should be primed to make a run. The season should be an exciting, if nerve-racking, journey of seeing Rose make progress and all the improvements the team's made providing help along the way.