With the announcement that the Bulls have signed Aaron Brooks to the veteran's minimum salary, it's become clear that the Bulls' roster will be just about exactly the same next year as it was this year. It appears that Bulls' management believes that the problem with last year's team was not the roster, but instead that it was 100% Tom Thibodeau's fault. I was a vocal critic of Tom Thibodeau during his final season in Chicago, as his stagnant offense drove me batty, but let me be perfectly clear: Tom Thibodeau was not the only problem with the Bulls roster last year. They just flat weren't good enough.
Chicago couldn't beat a Cleveland team operating without Kevin Love, two games worth of J.R. Smith, and with Kyrie Irving limping around on one leg. Part of that was a problem of Thibodeau's strategy, but even if the Bulls had gotten through Cleveland, there's no guarantee they would have beaten the Hawks and they would have been blown off the floor by any of the Western powers, and especially by Golden State. The Bulls were pretenders all year and they were exposed in the playoffs by half a Cleveland team. (Yes, it obviously does help to have LeBron, but he's not going anywhere.)
After running some preliminary numbers on next year, using the predictive version of Real Plus-Minus and Box Plus-Minus, an aging curve, and some reasonable minutes estimates, point to this conclusion: The Bulls will have a tough go of it to get to 50 wins next year and really aren't contenders at all.
*Replacement mins are just minutes that will probably go to end of the bench guys. Replacement level in the NBA is, by most estimates, -2 points per 100 possessions. So that's what I used.
Those 1.71 and 1.23 numbers correspond to the Bulls' estimated net rating. Plugging those numbers into a basic wins calculation presents the Bulls as a 46 win team and a 44 win team, respectively. Based on my wins projecting work in the last few years, Eastern Conference teams appear to get a 2-3 win bump every year, by virtue of playing 52 of their games against weaker competition, while the West has the inverse issue. So, adjusting for the Bulls playing in the East, they look like a 46-48 win team. That's just not a contender in any sense of the word.
There are caveats, obviously. These projections are based on the assumption that Derrick Rose doesn't make a massive leap back towards his former superstar level. It also assumes that the decline we saw from Joakim Noah is real and will continue, as he is on the wrong side of the aging curve. On the other hand, even if I bump Rose back up to his 2011-12 level of adjusted plus-minus goodness and put Noah back on the trajectory he was on pre-knee surgery, the Bulls look like a 53-54 win team, plus 2 wins for playing in the East, so a 55-56 win team. That'd be a very good season, but that's still barely to the level of being a real contender for the title, and that's one of the most optimistic scenarios I can envision. The best, best case scenario is that Fred Hoiberg is the offensive genius he's been touted as and he's able to raise the performance levels of all of the Bulls' rotation players and Rose and Noah return to their former dizzying heights. That would make the Bulls contenders, but that is a scenario with an exceedingly small chance of occurring.
I don't mean for this to come off as overly critical of the Bulls' front office. I'm not sure there was much else out there for them to do to take a swing and raise this team to the level of the league's true elite. It's more of an attempt to preemptively tamp down expectations. Chicago is probably not going to be much better than they were last year, due to keeping largely the same roster and the steady march of age slowly wearing down their best players.