Team Name: Chicago Bulls
Last Year's Record: 42-40
Key Losses: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, E’Twaun Moore
Key Additions: Dwyane Wade, Robin Lopez, Rajon Rondo, Denzel Valentine
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
Woo boy. After a year of ugly transition where the same exact team was brought back under a new coach, the Bulls fully went through with their overhaul of the Tom Thibodeau era. There is now only one player remaining from the team that went to the 2011 Conference Finals (Taj Gibson).
Derrick Rose, the longtime face of the franchise and onetime hometown savior, was dealt to the Knicks before the final year of his contract, and the Bulls received a capable starting center in Robin Lopez as the main return. With his spot gone, it made it more obvious that Joakim Noah would leave in free agency, and he joined Rose in New York. Both Gasol and Moore then also left without compensation.
The Bulls then looked to use their cap space, but not hand out a ‘stupid’ (some would call them necessary) long-term contract, so they were stuck with toxic options like Rondo, and then serving as a safe landing spot for Wade after he had one contract dispute too many in Miami.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
As a franchise...hmm..hubris and cronyism? Maybe National TV slots.
It’s a struggle to think what’ll be a true strength. There are areas where they should be pretty good. Their late-game shot creation should be among the better teams in the league with Wade and emerged star Jimmy Butler, both very adept at generating high-efficiency looks even when defenses are stacked against them. They should also be among the league leaders in Free Throws generated, a boring but effective offensive tactic.
Their rebounding should also be improved with the addition of Lopez and the bigger starting guards, with Taj Gibson and Butler already solid for their positions.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
The Bulls are serving as an inverse case of what the trend is in the NBA, opting for two of the lowest volume 3-point shooters in the league as their new starting backcourt. Jimmy Butler moves up to small forward, and has only sporadically been an above-average three-point shooter himself. The Bulls have to really hope that Nikola Mirotic can break out and take the starting PF spot to provide some kind of spacing in their lineup. Similarly hope that younger players like Doug McDermott and first round draftee Denzel Valentine hit enough threes to where at least bench units can make up some of this outside shooting deficit.
Defensively it could be a real challenge too. At least they do not need to rely on Pau Gasol for 30 minutes a night as he yelled “Olé!” for opponents on their way to the rim, so there’s room for improvement there. Additionally, both Rondo and Wade are adept at creating turnovers, something the Bulls were league-worst in last year (Rose’s defense became an abomination in his final season in Chicago). But Rondo and Wade are also over 30, and known to coast on that end of the floor.
4. What are the goals for this team?
It’s clear: make the playoffs. The Bulls brass, in defending their lack of championship success, were always quick to point out their streak in making the playoffs. When they missed the postseason last year (in the Eastern Conference!) they then pointed to their regular season victories over the past ten years, as if that was something people kept track of.
The Bulls knew they were in position to overhaul the team, but didn’t go the route of either full-on tanking (there were rumored draft-night deals involving Butler) or building around Butler and Mirotic. It’s easy to speculate that part of the reason for not doing so was the expected apathy this would generate for Chicago’s ticket-buyers. Instead, in signing high-priced (if short-term) veterans, the Bulls are hoping they stay competitive and relevant to try and attract another free agent over the course of the next two offseasons. The addition of Wade especially is also seen as a way to bring in veteran leadership to buoy both the young players (Bulls do have a lot of rookie-salary players on their bench) and their second year head coach.
5. What direction will this team go?
The Bulls are also really good at (saying they’re good at) flexibility. And in not really choosing a path, this team could really go an any number of directions.
They’re somewhat top-heavy in talent if guys play to their potential: Butler is an established top-15 player in the league, Wade proved last playoffs he’s far from done, and Rondo did put up some gaudy stats last season and in another contract year could replicate that. A Lopez-Mirotic-Gibson frontcourt trio is very solid as well. Maybe getting some expected contributions from McDermott/Valentine plus an unexpected boost from somebody like Bobby Portis or Cristiano Felicio gets the Bulls in the conversation with the second tier (i.e., not-Cleveland) in the conference, with enough star power to look really interesting to free agents going forward.
But it could also go really south. Fred Hoiberg’s biggest deficiency last season was handling an NBA locker room, and Butler’s increased headstrong-ness will only be surpassed by Wade and Rondo. Tactically, Hoiberg was brought in to employ an up-tempo, quick-decision, outside-shooting offensive system. Will he adapt to his personnel, or will the players be doing their own thing? Can Hoiberg get an NBA team to play defense? What happens to a ‘three alphas’ locker room when losses start to occur?
This season could really run the gamut: a healthy and successful one, to a version so bad they wind up dealing Butler at the trade deadline. I suppose the element of surprise is one way to stay relevant.