Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sky is the Limit for Bulls

We all know how special last season was. The Bulls won 62 games and Derrick Rose became a full-fledged superstar, winning the MVP. But more importantly, the Bulls were relevant again. The play of the Bulls all year had a similar uniting effect across the Chicago sports landscape that the Hawks season had a year before that. Just like the Hawks, everywhere you went were Bulls fans that had been dormant since the MJ glory years only to be reawakened by last year's Bulls team. And we'll even include the Bulls bandwagon jumpers, those fans that self-profess themselves to be the biggest Bulls fans even though they didn't live through the early post-Jordan era of Ron Mercer, Jalen Rose, Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler (before he was good), and finally the beginning stages of Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, and Ben Gordon before the basketball gods were kind enough to land Rose on our doorstep in the second-luckiest draft in Bulls history. There, the Bulls landed the 1st pick in the 2008 NBA Draft after only a .17% chance of doing so going into the lottery.

Last year was close, but not enough
But even after all of that, the Bulls still flamed out last year, losing to the hated Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat exposed the Bulls deepest flaws, forcing an early exit to a otherwise-special Bulls season. Yet, regrouping for the shortened season ahead, the Bulls have a chance to eclipse even last year and come out on top. Even the Bulls we know and love from the first three-peat in the early 90s had major obstacles to overcome before they won their first title. With the elite defense the Bulls play under coach Tom Thibodeau, the addition of a scoring guard (Rip Hamilton) to shore up the scoring problems encountered last year, and a shortened season that can only benefit a deep team like the Bulls, now is as good a time as ever to challenge the Heat and make it to the NBA Finals. Doing so is going to require more of the special team effort the Bulls seemed to have last year, when there was no team in the NBA that had quite the chemistry of the Bulls. If they can match that chemistry, keep up the same intensity (which shouldn't be a problem under Thibodeau), and above all else STAY HEALTHY, I don't see a reason why the Bulls shouldn't be right up there again. Let's take a look at the 11-deep rotation the Bulls figure to run as a way of introducing the season.

Jimmy Butler, G/F, 6'7, 200 lbs:

The rookie from Marquette is a huge feel-good story that is similar to the Blind Side. But aside from that, he figures to play a big role as a substitute for Luol Deng. When he was drafted, it was clear that Bulls management felt they were walking a fine line having Deng logging so many minutes. Butler also fits the mold of college players the Bulls like to draft, having been a part of winning Marquette teams that made deep runs into the NCAA tournament. When he was brought on, I figured that he would be the primary defensive backup to Deng, being drafted with defending LeBron James specifically in mind. But he showed more than that in his preseason action, demonstrating some offensive skill and ability that will be invaluable to the Bulls if he continues to develop it. Excellent defense is valuable of course, but we found out last year with Keith Bogans what a liability dedicating one full position on the court solely to defense can be. If Butler can play both good defense and knock down some shots, his playing time could rise considerably, especially to spell Deng during some of the tough schedule's busiest moments.

Kyle Korver, G/F, 6'7, 212 lbs:

Korver, an elite shooter, must be more consistent
Korver was hot and cold last year. He shot a respectable 41.5% from three point range, but down considerably from his 54% shooting the year before. He hit some huge shots for the Bulls, but at times was far too streaky of a shooter to be relied upon consistently as a Bulls deep threat. I figure him to continue to get big minutes this year even if he doesn't improve his consistency, because his reputation as an elite shooter means that the opposing defense needs to keep an eye on him the entire possession. And when he is on, he's lethal. His ability to hit shots off quick screens and while moving make him extremely valuable, again, when he is consistent. I look for him to be more valuable this year shooting the ball as he settles into the system and realizes how many open looks he gets when Rose is on the court. The only drawback, of course, is that Korver plays bad defense, something that does not endear himself to Thibodeau. He will never have the ability to be a defensive stopper, but much like Carlos Boozer, has to learn to use the system's defense to his advantage when facing up a superior player. Having spent a year in Thibodeau's system already, I look for him to at least be an adequate defensive player for the Bulls. If he does, Korver will be able to carve out his niche from the constant fight for minutes that a bench player must participate in.

Omer Asik, C, 7'0, 255 lbs:

If you glance quickly at his numbers from last year (2.8 ppg, 3.7 ppg, 0.7 bpk), you'd think that Asik was a marginal player who didn't figure much into the Bulls plans. Yet here, we have a situation where the stats don't tell the entire story. Not only did he do this only averaging 12 minutes per game, getting especially few minutes early in the season, but Asik passed the eye test. He was a huge player for the Bulls down the stretch last year as a defensive stud for the second team. Not to mention that this was his first year in American basketball, let alone the NBA. Asik proved so valuable for the Bulls on defense down the stretch last year that the Bulls refused to part with him even amongst the numerous trade offers coming their way all year. He's going to have to prove that he's recovered from the broken leg he suffered at the end of the year, prove that he can take the next step in his offensive development, and prove that he's just as good defensively as he was last year. If he does, his role will only continue to expand, and "Asik and Destroy" will be a common refrain at the UC this year.

C.J. Watson, PG, 6'2, 175 lbs:

Although Watson admittedly would get frustrated with his limited role last year, he understood how tough his job, as the backup to the NBA MVP, would be. He didn't let any frustration get the best of his work ethic and he continued to provide key leadership and offensive spark for the Bulls Bench Mob last year. With Watson at the helm, the Bulls managed to have one of the more efficient bench groups in the NBA. Without a competent backup to Rose, the Bulls would struggle to maintain the effectiveness of such a bench and force Rose to take on even more minutes. As it stands now, the Bulls have to feel comfortable letting Rose lose a few minutes a game, especially with the shortened schedule, and leave the offense in Watson's hands. If Watson ever wanted to prove that he deserves the extra game time, now is his opportunity. I think that he can seize that opportunity and run with it. A good backup to Rose could be a huge hidden factor to the team's success.

Ronnie Brewer, G, 6'7, 225 lbs:

Catalyst for the Bench Mob
Brewer was signed last year under the expectation that he would start in the backcourt alongside Rose. But after he got hurt in the preseason, Bogans took his minutes and became a favorite of Thibodeau's, starting the rest of the year and relegating the talented Brewer to the bench. But instead of sulking and complaining like the typical NBA player would, Brewer embraced his role, a mentality that is common to this era of the Bulls. Under Rose, the Bulls function so much like a group of buddies rather than professional teammates. Brewer is a perfect example of this. He showed up to work everyday and played good basketball, regardless if he felt he should be starting or not. He played excellent defense and contributed on offense, even if he does have an unorthodox shot. I look for Brewer to get even more minutes this year as the primary backup to both Hamilton and Deng, veterans that will need some time off here and there. If he can improve his offensive game to add to his good defense, it'll just make the Bulls that much better.

Taj Gibson, PF, 6'9, 225 lbs:

Taj is the man. We all know it. His dunks vs. the Heat in the playoffs last year were epic, especially the dunk on D Wade:

Taj was huge for the Bulls last year. Like Asik, he's a guy that you see averaged only 7 and 5. But that doesn't even come close to his impact on the court. He filled in perfectly when both Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah went down for extended periods of time with injury. He's yet another player on the Bulls who plays outstanding defense. While he'll never have the offensive skill set of someone like Carlos Boozer, he leaves it all out on the court and his offensive game is getting better every year. He would start on many different teams and could conceivably be a 15 and 10 guy as a starter. For now, the Bulls need to hope that they can keep him stashed as a front court starter who happens to come off their bench. He's a huge asset that can make a play when need be, whether it be up by the basket (just ask D Wade), a soft 15 footer, or a stellar play of defense. We can only hope that we have the money to resign him when the time comes. For this year, however, he'll be invaluable both off the bench and as a starter whenever the invitable Boozer and/or Noah injury comes. With him and Asik, the Bulls quite possibly have the best post player options of any bench in the NBA.

Luol Deng, F, 6'9, 220 lbs:

Deng rocking a new cut for a new season
If there was an award for Second Most Valuable Player on the Bulls, it would be for Deng last year. The guy was incredible. Unlike any year in his career, he played in all 82 games and averaged nearly 40 minutes per game. That is astounding for a guy with an injury history like he has. Furthermore, those were productive minutes. He averaged 17 ppg and nearly 6 rpg, perfect numbers alongside Rose. His long range shooting game improved immensely, and continuing a Bulls trend here, his defense was spectacular. During the regular season and playoffs, he played LeBron James well, but seemed to start tiring near the end of the season as his minutes caught up to him. The concern with Deng is not maintaining production, because he's shown that when healthy he's a very productive player. It's ensuring that Deng stays healthy. Who knows if we're going to get 82 games out of Deng again this year, or even 40 mpg. But even if we don't, the Bulls have enough depth to be successful. Thus, it might be prudent for Thibodeau to limit Deng to something closer to 34-35 minutes per game, and even less if it's a rough stretch of games. Most important for the Bulls is keeping Deng healthy and rested for the playoffs. Think about it. If he's his usual self last year vs. the Heat, the Bulls have a much better chance of beating Miami because the Heat defense wouldn't be able to focus solely on shutting down Rose. Thus, again, Deng can fill the role of Second Most Valuable Player, but he should be able to do it while being on the court less often than he was last year.

Joakim Noah, C, 6'11, 235 lbs:

Noah is the vocal heart and soul of the Bulls. I questioned his selection in the draft when he was picked, but he quickly proved me wrong. He bulked up, became an elite rebounder and defender, and more importantly, lived and died for the Bulls every game. The guy would thump his chest, scream, and say hilarious stuff in the media about other players. He just looked like he cared more than everyone out there. But it wasn't until his epic dunk in the 2009 playoffs that Bulls fans were fully on board:

Noah is a beast. He can improve on his offensive game but that is never going to be his thing. He protects the rim, plays good defense, and can rebound as well as anyone in the league. But his heart and support are his best attributes. That kind of attitude permeates through the rest of the team, and when a teammate sees Noah reacting to a play like that, or jumping to support his teammates, it just ties right back into the mentality that these Bulls have. They're a team in every sense of the word. All Jo has to do is stay healthy this year and find a way to mesh with Boozer on the court. In a way, Noah and Boozer are like opposites, both are very good at either offense or defense. That's part of the reason it's been difficult to get them playing well together, but that's also the reason why they have such an opportunity to be dangerous together. Two skilled big men, operating at different ends of the court? Talk about exhausting a defense or offense. If he stays healthy, I figure that he will mesh with Boozer quickly and return to the form we're used to seeing, not the Noah we saw down the stretch last year.

Carlos Boozer, PF, 6'9, 265 lbs:

Boozer is big on offense
A true low post scoring option the likes of which we haven't seen in Chicago in a long time, Boozer had an up and down season in his first with the Bulls. Up and down, ironically, also describes Bulls fans feelings towards Boozer, who was exposed for his lack of defense in his first year in Thibodeau's system. I personally feel that Boozer, who needed some time to adjust to the unique defensive intensity that Thibodeau operates with, will have a much better defensive year this year. That isn't to say that he is always going to struggle in that area. It's not his strong suit, just like good offense isn't the strong suit of Noah. But what Boozer does bring to the table is offense. He's a true low post scorer, bringing a variety of good moves in the paint that he works effectively, as well as a pretty mid range jumper with an enormous arc. He's an extremely hard worker and wants to improve, showing up to camp this year noticeably slimmer and committed to doing whatever it took to get better. So, even if he shows a marginal improvement defensively, it will be big from him. But at the same time, I hope Bulls fans take a second to look at what he brought offensively. He averaged 17.5 ppg and 9.6 rpg, only about 1 rpg fewer than our resident rebounding machine Joakim Noah. When was the last time we had a low post player with those numbers? Horace Grant rebounded slightly better but wasn't nearly the offensive weapon with the skills of Boozer. Boozer by default is already up there in team history, telling you just how awful the Bulls post players have been in their history. It's similar to the QB problem for the Bears throughout their history. And just like the Bears, who seemed to have solved their problem with Jay Cutler, so too have the Bulls with Carlos Boozer. Fans just need to give the guy a chance and embrace him for what he is, an offensively-gifted big man. Again, like so many other Bulls players, if he stays healthy he is going to be a big-time contributor to the Bulls this year.

Richard Hamilton, SG, 6'7, 195 lbs:

Rip will be a huge pickup for the Bulls
Rip Hamilton, freshly signed by the Bulls, is the missing component the Bulls needed last year. He's been a productive scorer over the entire course of his career and more importantly, has succeeded the most when he's been on winning teams. That's why we're just going to toss the last few years of his career out because of the futility of the Detroit Pistons in that time period. What he brings the Bulls is huge. He moves without the ball as well as anyone in basketball, he's an elite mid range shooter, he's a good defender, and a winner. One only has to look at his only action with the Bulls in their second preseason game against the Indiana Pacers to have a glimpse of the Bulls' future with him. Slick backdoor cuts and passes from Rose to Hamilton for easy baskets and Rose penetrations and kickouts for easy mid range buckets are the name of the game. His impact on the SG position will elevate the scoring from that position from about 4 ppg from Bogans to around 16-17 ppg from Hamilton. He's going to help everyone around him, opening looks for Rose, Boozer, and Deng, and foreclosing any opportunity from opposing teams to focus solely on Rose. He's a durable player and certainly not the problematic NBA star that he was made out to be last year. The coach he had a problem with? John Kuester was fired, leading many to believe the entire team gave up on him. I have a feeling that nothing of the sort will happen here; he's the type of player to buy into the winning system the Bulls have in place and do nothing to disrupt that chemistry. I love his addition - it's simple roster moves like that, not the trades for Dwight Howard (please god don't do it Gar Forman!!!) that lead to championships.

Derrick Rose, PG, 6'3, 190 lbs:

Derrick Rose, MVP
What can we say about him that hasn't already been said? He's an elite player, one who had the gall to question the Miami offseason last year by wondering why it wasn't feasible that he could win the MVP. His humility, work ethic, and endless drive have revolutionized the way the Bulls operate and brought an era of good feelings to Chicago that we haven't seen since MJ. Is there an athlete out there who draws such favorable reviews? And notwithstanding his off court stuff, we have his play. He's unbelievable to watch; as dangerous as anyone in the open court, creative in half-court sets, athletic enough to finish in any way at the rim, and improving on his outside shot. His defense is a work in progress, and quicker guards get the best of him sometimes. But if there is any player in the league willing to work at something, it's Rose. When other NBA players use the summer to party - cough cough, LeBron James - Rose locks himself in the gym, working on various moves to take his game to another level. His work ethic and competitiveness infect all the other players of his team, essentially taking players like Hamilton and Boozer, who (rightly or wrongly) had reputations before coming here, and making them just as big a team supporter as every other player on the team. It's that attitude that packs the UC every night and forces everyone in the stadium to focus on him. The problem last year was that he had to do it all himself, averaging 25 ppg and 7.7 apg on his way to the MVP. Rose would gladly give the award back, his points back, anything back to win. This year, he'll probably average less points but increase his assists. He has more weapons around him and the Hamilton signing will be absolutely huge for his game. If it forces a defense to focus less on Rose, it's going to make the moments he destroys the opposing defense (see here for a quick rundown) that much sweeter. He still holds the keys to the Bulls championship parade hopes, but with his work ethic, character, and off season additions, the future is now that much brighter. D Rose is the man, and I can't wait to watch yet another year of his dominance.