It's time again for our part in the annual Blogger Preview series (and SBNation's giant NBA Preview).
Team name: Chicago Bulls
Last year's record: 50-32, 3rd in the Eastern Conference, lost 2-4 to Cavaliers in East Semifinals
What significant moves were made this offseason?
There was only one, the dismissal of Tom Thibodeau after 5 seasons (and 2 seasons remaining on his contract) followed by the hiring of Fred Hoiberg. After a publicly tumultuous relationship with Thibodeau, the Bulls front office brought in someone they have deep ties to with, as Hoiberg is someone who was a Bull as a player but more importantly is a longtime colleague of Bulls GM Gar Forman. It was a telegraphed move that speaks to the cronyism evident in Chicago (in all aspects!), but fortunately it so happens that Hoiberg had accumulated a well-regarded body of work coaching Iowa State after working briefly in the Timberwolves front office.
Bobby Portis was the Bulls first round pick, and while he already looks to be a useful high-motor big there just likely won't be many minutes for him. Portis takes over the 5th big role from the retiring Nazr Mohammed.
There were literally no other moves with the roster. While limited in their flexibility after the acquisitions of the prior year, the Bulls front office (Forman along with Vice President John Paxson) indicated through their inactivity that they expect improvement to come through internal development spurred on by Hoiberg. That, or they forgot to pay for their shared phone minutes plan again.
What are the team's biggest strengths?
The Bulls roster is nearly all holdovers for another reason: it's a very talented group. They're especially deep in the frontcourt, assembling one of the most formidable front line starters and backups in basketball.
Pau Gasol had a fantastic bounce-back year in his first run with the Bulls, culminating in an All-NBA second team selection, and he may be the team's 4th most valuable big man when all are healthy. Joakim Noah just two seasons prior was defensive player of the year and received enough MVP votes to reach the top-4. Taj Gibson is one of the best frontcourt defenders in the league and would've been a starter by now on a lot of other teams. Nikola Mirotic had a fantastic rookie year and should improve given his acclimation to the league, plus Hoiberg's more three-point-heavy style utilizing him as the Bulls' first stretch four in forever.
In the backcourt, the Bulls have potentially the best tandem in the league with former MVP Derrick Rose and All-Star Max-Contract-Earning Jimmy Butler. Having a minor (for him!) knee surgery before the playoffs last year, Rose had a solid postseason and entered the offseason healthy for the first time in years, able to focus on basketball for once and not rehab. Butler made an unprecedented leap in his skill level last year to become one of the best shooting guards in the league. Regression would normally be expected, except Jimmy has demonstrated that he's an insanely hard worker and if anything is more likely to just further add something to his game this year.
What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
You may have noticed that the strengths contained a lot of best-case scenarios and mentions of potential. The reality over the past few seasons is that this roster that displays a lot of talent also has a lot of question marks to accompany it. There are issues with durability, a lack of athleticism, and shallow depth in certain areas that are causes for concern.
Pau Gasol is 35. Noah had an awful year after knee surgery in the summer of 2014, and is the type of high-activity big man that is prone to break down early. Gibson had a substantial ankle surgery this summer and has yet to play in the preseason.
The frontcourt should be ok even with these questions due to their depth, but that's not a feature at the backcourt and wing spots. Derrick Rose already suffered a broken face in the first play of practice, and the Bulls did not bolster their backup options in the offseason leaving a group of really unappealing options (put it this way: it may be ‘led' by E'Twaun Moore). Starting small forward Mike Dunleavy is already out for at least the first 6 weeks of the year after back surgery, and being 35 it's not unreasonable to wonder if such a procedure may never allow him return to the level he was last year. The Bulls had drafted two wing players in the previous first rounds, but neither Tony Snell nor Doug McDermott have shown yet that they're starting-quality options.
What are the goals for this team?
Thank goodness the Bulls are in the Eastern Conference, and thus can legitimately fashion themselves as a contender. And outside of the Cavaliers, their ceiling may be the highest out of all other challengers. For that reason, the goal, as it has been since their run in Rose's MVP 2010-11 season, is to beat LeBron James and get to the NBA Finals.
As mentioned, there are a ton of question marks that could keep them from playing to their ultimate potential, but the hiring of a new coach does not mean this is any kind of rebuilding or re-tooling year. It's the same veteran-laden roster as last year. While that had a sense of finality when it came to Thibodeau, it's this upcoming year that could be the last for a lot of these Bulls. Noah and potentially Gasol could be free agents this summer, and Rose has said he's already thinking about his own free agency the summer after. That could be #DerrickSaysStuff to where he's confused as to what year it is. But it wouldn't be surprising if major changes are in store if the Bulls fail to capture the East crown this year, and that could include a change with their hometown hero point guard.
How will the new coach make a difference?
Hoiberg was hired because he once sold Gar Forman his house. But it's a fortunate coincidence that Hoiberg also professes to bring a high-tempo, free-flowing offensive style as a counterpoint to Thibodeau. The ‘stagnation' in Thibs's offense may have been a bit overblown (the guy knew three-pointers were worth more points than two-pointers), but it's certainly true that his offensive philosophy was to have coach-controlled plays nearly every possession. Hoiberg's teams have historically been more loose when possessing the ball, employing the players to read and react to the defense (and quickly) instead of spending a majority of the seconds of the shot clock to get into their set plays.
Another major change should be the minutes allocation. This was the biggest point of contention that the front office had with Thibodeau, where they believed their coach was over-using his best players in the regular season at the expense of a healthier squad heading into the playoffs. The minutes restrictions they imposed on Noah and Rose rankled Thibs all of last season, and while there's no such formal limitations this year it should be understood that the Bulls won't be relying as much on them (plus old-timers like Gasol, Dunleavy, and Kirk Hinrich - who returned for his 87th season as a Chicago Bull) to free up opportunities for Mirotic, Snell, and especially McDermott. McDermott has deep Iowa ties to Hoiberg and Forman, who after a disastrous rookie season following his lottery selection has a chance to thrive (or just not be awful?) given Hoiberg's need for 3-point shooting.
Hoiberg already has a major decision on his hands when it comes to the starting lineup, as not only did the two-centered Gasol and Noah lineup have its issues it also seems antithetical to what Hoiberg wants to do offensively. So far there's been no indication of a change, and while everyone is saying the right things now these are both former all-stars in contract seasons and may not want to head to the bench, even if it benefits the team to start a more balanced (Gasol/Gibson, or Noah/Mirotic) pairing instead.
It'll be very interesting to see if this change in offensive philosophy and workload distribution actually helps the team. The end may have looked ugly for Thibodeau (and Gar Paxdorf certainly greased the wheels of his exit as well) but this was a universally-acclaimed top coach in the league, and it's easy to simply wonder how can Hoiberg be better? While there's been rookie head coaches who've succeeded recently (Steve Kerr, and to a lesser extent Brad Stephens), historically, taking a coach out of college hoops and placing him in the NBA has been disastrous. And this is not a young roster that may be so eager to be changed.
Hoiberg's lack of structure and discipline when it comes to offense could mean a real problem on the defensive end. The normally-superlative Thibs defense slipped to 10th last year (the decline of Noah and Gibson being a primary reason) and that unit could plunge even further from the top at the expense of an offensive improvement. But maybe they do so much better on offense it more than makes up the difference. It's tough to say how some of their best offensive players (Gasol and Rose, namely) will even potentially fit in what's been called 'Hoiball'. But a healthier year, with more contributions from Mirotic, McDermott, and a hopefully-healthier Derrick Rose, could get the Bulls to a top-5 offense in basketball, and that would be a serious change for the Chicago Bulls.