2014-15 Chicago Bulls: So far, so good

In his contract year, 4th-year SG Jimmy Butler (with ball) has been the Bulls' best offensive player to date. Pay the man, GarPax.  Tom Szczerbowski -- USA Today Sports

In his contract year, 4th-year SG Jimmy Butler (with ball) has been the Bulls’ best offensive player to date. Pay the man, GarPax. Tom Szczerbowski — USA Today Sports

At 17-9, the Chicago Bulls currently sit in first place in the NBA’s Central Division, three-and-a-half games behind the Toronto Raptors (yes, the freaking Toronto Raptors) for the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference. With an expected win-loss record of 16-10, it appears the Bulls are about where they should be in terms of play. One-and-a-half games behind the Bulls in the Central are the reloaded Cleveland Cavaliers (15-10), and once again, the East looks fairly weak, especially when compared to the West.

Backcourt.

Obviously, the most compelling story behind the 14-15 Bulls has been, and will be, the return of PG Derrick Rose. Even those who resided under a rock this past summer were most likely made aware of Rose’s each move on the basketball court, whether it was for Team USA during the FIBA Basketball World Cup or Bulls, during the preseason and regular season. Before missing the last two games due to illness, Rose had started and finished ten straight games. In 16 games, playing just over 27 minutes a night, Rose has posted this line:

16.8 PPG, 3.3 TRB, 5.1 AST, .421 FG%, .281 3P%, .776 FT%, 3.3 TOV, .522 TS%, 17.1 PER

While 17/3/5 in just 27 minutes a night would be wonderful for just about anyone, Rose isn’t just

Derrick Rose, doing Derrick Rose stuff.

Derrick Rose, doing Derrick Rose stuff.

about anyone. A career 46% shooter from the field and 31% from long distance, Rose has never been a sharpshooter, although he’s improved as a shooter since entering the league in 2008. Factoring into Rose’s paltry shooting numbers this season is his shot selection. So far, Rose has attempted a career-low 38.6% of his shots from ten feet and closer. What makes this number so frustrating is that he’s shooting just over 59% in that space on the floor, a career-high mark. From deep, Rose has put up more shots (nearly 6 a game) than any other time since his second year in the league and this season. Not only is this problematic because Rose is shooting terribly from three-point territory, but also because the Bulls are currently second in the league in free throws per field goal attempt. When Rose chucks from deep, he misses nearly 75% of the time, creating easier opportunities for the opponent to get into their transition offense and score quick, efficient baskets. Rose is still knocking the rust off of his game, but he’s been well above-average thus far and should find production at a higher level easier as the season goes on.

Twenty-five year-old shooting guard Jimmy Butler entered the 14-15 season needing to improve on a disappointing 13-14 campaign that saw his value plummet and questions arise whether or not Butler could be the Bulls’ off guard of the future. Through 24 games (all starts), Butler has been pretty damn good, and the dreaded “m” word may get thrown around when/if contract negotiations come up this offseason. Averaging a shade under 22 points per night while shooting a very respectable 49% from the field and 33% from deep, Butler has also maintained his status as one of the league’s better defenders. With a VORP that has already reached 5.1, Butler seems on track for an All-NBA caliber season.

I never expected Kirk Hinrich to do much when he was re-signed this offseason. And, you know what, he certainly hasn’t on the offensive end. On the defensive end, however, he’s been surprisingly average and dare I say, on most nights, above-average. This still doesn’t negate the fact that he’s shooting 36% from the field (actually down from last year’s 39% and 12-13’s 38%) and has posted a PER of 8.2 and VORP of -0.1, making him damn near valueless in the 28 minutes a night he’s playing. The man who should be most angered by the Bulls’ loyalty to Hinrich besides myself is fellow backup point man, Aaron Brooks. The 6’1″ Oregon product can be added to the list of smaller, backup point guards (Nate Robinson, DJ Augustin) who found a home, and success, with the Bulls. While playing nearly 20 minutes a night, Brooks has averaged almost 11 points a night and just over 3 assists. With a shooting line of (FG%/3P%/FT%) .470/.446/.857 to boot, Brooks has proved to be a wise investment, although he does average 4 turnovers per 36 minutes.

Tony Snell probably doesn’t have much of a future with the Bulls, and his performance in limited time this season has not changed that opinion. After a strong summer performance, Snell has apparently fallen out of the rotation and has posted a PER of a measly 5. Backup point guard E’Twaun Moore was signed to essentially fill out the roster and has done just that, picking up some minutes occasionally.

Frontcourt.

Reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year and 1st-Team All-NBA center Joakim Noah has been slowed by injuries thus far, but has still managed to post (PPG/RPG/APG) 8.7/9.9/4.3 a night and produce at a high level on the defensive end. His field goal percentage and True Shooting percentage have both dropped for the fifth consecutive season, however. Fellow starting big Pau Gasol has been nothing short of spectacular in his first season with the Bulls, averaging 18.2/11.7/2.3 a night. Gasol is also averaging 2 blocks per game and has been much more of an interior defensive presence than I was willing to give him credit for when he signed as a free agent in July. Playing nearly 36 minutes a night, though, could spell doom for the 34 year-old big when April rolls around.

Sixth-year power forward Taj Gibson appeared set to be the Bulls’ starting power forward once Carlos Boozer was amnestied, but Gasol signed and Gibson was once again relegated to the bench when Gasol and Noah are healthy. Despite another season of limited opportunities and lack of appreciation, Gibson has been great this season, averaging 12.6 & 7.2 in just over 30 minutes a contest. Still an excellent defender down low and on the perimeter, Gibson has in addition become more aggressive on the offensive end, attempting well over half of his shots at the rim and making 67% of them. Small forward Mike Dunleavy has appeared and started in all 26 games and while he never really gives me cause for excitement, he also never really disappoints me, either. You could probably put Dunleavy on any NBA roster and he’d manage to average 10 points and 5 rebounds a night while shooting close to 40% from three-point territory. Eerie.

Nikola Mirotic will inevitably become my favorite NBA player. Of this, I’m sure. Yes, I am fully aware that Mirotic is not yet Dirk Nowitzki, or even Toni Kukoc. However, dare I say that Mirotic will wind up being better than the two? Saving that opinion for later… Mirotic’s line so far:

8.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.2 AST, .441 FG%, .400 3P%, .809 FT%, .603 TS%, 17.7 PER

That’s not a line we usually see from Rookie of the Year winners, but generally, rookies who contend for the award aren’t playing for teams that are legitimate title contenders. Head coach Tom Thibodeau seems to have an aversion to rookies, but most of his rookies weren’t “Niko.” Already a competent defender and very good rebounder, all Niko needs to do is become more aggressive on the offensive side (almost half of his field goal attempts have come from three-point territory), giving the Bulls another weapon on that end.

I’m still holding out hope that rookie small forward Doug McDermott will eventually become a productive NBA player. The problem is that I’m not quite sure he will ever be a productive player for the Bulls. Marquis Teague, “McD” is not, even on his worst day. Yet, it’s not a stretch to predict that as a Bull, McD may not give the team much more than Teague did. Out for another 5 to 7 weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, McDermott had limited opportunities before he was felled by injury, but even in those chances (11.6 minutes per), he was pretty awful:

3.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG, .423 FG%, .231 3P%, .500 FT%, .488 TS%, 4.1 PER

Now, I don’t believe McD is as bad as that line shows. However, when he returns later this season, he’s going to have to contribute on the offensive end, because I simply don’t see him providing much in the way of meaningful value on defense.

Nazr Mohammed, a CPS and Kenwood Academy product, can do no wrong in my eyes, so long

Cameron Bairstow, NBA player. No, seriously.

Cameron Bairstow, NBA player. No, seriously.

as he doesn’t have to play more than a few minutes per game. As for rookie big man Cameron Bairstow, I don’t know much else about him except that he makes rookie-year Carmelo Anthony look absolutely svelte, and that he needs to ditch that headbandthing and tube socks.

A semi-outlook.

Presently, the Bulls are 15th in scoring (102.2 per game), 11th in scoring defense (98.4), 10th in Offensive Rating (108.4) and 9th in Defensive Rating (104.3). There are still some kinks that need to be ironed out, but most of those kinks have been related to injuries, which in my opinion is a better obstacle to have to clear than inept play. With 56 games left to play, there is still plenty of time for the Bulls to find out just what they are, which I hope is a legitimate contender for an NBA title.

The 2014-15 Chicago Bulls

From left: Forward Pau Gasol, guard Derrick Rose and center Joakim Noah will be counted on to lead the 2014-15 Chicago Bulls to the promised land.  Charles Rex Arbogast -- AP Photo

From left: Forward Pau Gasol, guard Derrick Rose and center Joakim Noah will be counted on to lead the 2014-15 Chicago Bulls to the promised land.  Charles Rex Arbogast — AP Photo

Tomorrow night, the Chicago Bulls will begin their 2014-15 campaign against the New York Knicks. All eyes will initially be on every move of point guard Derrick Rose, who is looking to play his first full, healthy season since his 2010-11 MVP year. When he crashes to the floor, makes a cut, takes a bump, or simply glances at one of his knees, there will be looks of worry on the faces of many fans of both the Bulls and NBA. After the feelings of unease subside, we will be able to see a Bulls team that arguably did more to improve its roster than any other NBA team this offseason except the Cleveland Cavaliers, who signed all-everything LeBron James in free agency and traded away players and picks to the Minnesota Timberwolves for forward Kevin Love.

After the Bulls were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by an upstart Washington Wizards squad while playing without Rose and Luol Deng (traded to the Cavs), it was clearer than ever that the Bulls were going to need to add players with offensive firepower. Defensively, the Bulls were and are are the league’s best, but when it was time for a bucket and Rose was unavailable, the Bulls were practically lost as all hell. During this past offseason, it was assumed that forward Carmelo Anthony would sign with the Bulls as a free agent, giving them the scoring punch they desperately needed. “Melo” decided to re-sign with the Knicks (thank God), and the Bulls turned their attention elsewhere.

AdditionsPau Gasol, Aaron Brooks, Doug McDermott, Cameron Baristow, Nikola Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore (statistics are from 13-14 season)

C/PF Pau Gasol (17.4 PPG, 9.7 TRB, 3.4 APG, 1.5 BLK, .480 FG%,.286 3P%, .736 FT%, 102 ORtg, 108 DRtg, .522 TS%, .482 eFG%). The 34 year-old Spaniard signed with the Bulls this offseason after six and a half mostly successful seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. A key part of two Lakers’ title teams, Gasol’s addition to the Bulls gives them a legitimate 7-footer who can score inside and out, as well as pass the ball proficiently from the low or high post. Gasol represents a significant upgrade over the departed Carlos Boozer, so expect fans to cheer for him just because of that fact.

PG Aaron Brooks (9 PPG, 1.9 TRB, 3.2 APG, .7 STL, .401 FG%, .387 3P%, .874 FT%, 105 ORtg, 110 DRtg, .518 TS%, .484 eFG%). Brooks, a former first-round pick of the Houston Rockets, spent 13-14 as a member of both the Rockets and Denver Nuggets, the latter of which he was traded to for forward Jordan Hamilton. The 6′, 160-lb point guard has played most of his career as a backup and will fill that very role for the Bulls. Brooks will have problems on the defensive end, but if he can offensively provide close to what he did for the Nuggets (11.9 PPG, 5.2 APG in 29 minutes per game), the signing will have been a very good one.

G/F Doug McDermott (For Creighton: 26.7 PPG, 7 TRB, 1.6 APG, .2 STL, .526 FG%, .449 3P%, .864 FT%, 127.4 ORtg, 106 DRtg, .644 TS%, .603 eFG%) Even though those numbers are from McDermott’s senior season at Creighton, they’re still wildly impressive. He won’t come close to matching them in the NBA, but with an added emphasis on the three-point shot over the years, players like McDermott will almost always have a spot on a roster. If he can use his “sneaky athleticism” to score easy buckets, he could become a viable offensive weapon for the Bulls.

Cameron Bairstow (For New Mexico: 20.4 PPG, 7.4 TRB, 1.6 APG, 1.5 BLK, .556 FG%, .333 FG%, .735 FT%, 122.9 ORtg, 99.6 DRtg, .611 TS%, .558 eFG%) It took three years for Bairstow to become a force at the University of New Mexico, and his senior season put him on the college basketball map. Although he is a bit undersized at 6’9″, 240, Bairstow is a very tough scrapper who will likely need to show defensive prowess to crack Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation.

Nikola Mirotic (For Real Madrid: 12.4 PPG, 4.6 TRB, 1.2 APG, 1.1 STL, .508 FG%, .461 3P%, .811 FT%) Mirotic has created a buzz since his draft rights were traded from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Bulls on the draft night of 2011. Widely regarded as one of the best players outside of the NBA before signing with the Bulls, Mirotic has developed into a legitimate “stretch four,” more than capable of putting the ball on the floor and driving to the basket. Mirotic showed some positive flashes this preseason (posted team’s second-highest DRtg at 94.3), but will need to add bulk and become a more competent defender in order to reach “Toni Kukoc status.”

G E’Twaun Moore (6.3 PPG, 1.7 TRB, 1.4 APG, .8 STL, .428 FG%, .354 3P%, .765 FT%, 102 ORtg, 109 DRtg, .513 TS%, .490 eFG%) The Purdue product was signed to give the team guard depth, but hopefully, he won’t be counted on, as that would mean that Rose, Hinrich, and Brooks are out of the mix.

Returning: Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell, Nazr Mohammed

Derrick Rose (15.9 PPG, 3.2 TRB, 4.3 APG, .5 STL, .354 FG%, .340 3P%, .844 FT%, 88 ORtg, 105 DRtg, .446 TS%, .402 eFG%) DERRICK ROSE IS BACK!!! Seriously, he is. After tearing the meniscus in his right knee last season, Rose sat out the team’s final 71 games, electing to let the injury heal as close to completely as possible. He returned this summer to play for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup, where he backed up Kyrie Irving. The US won gold, but Rose did not shoot the ball even remotely well. However, he did seem to play very much under control, showed the burst that made him the league’s most explosive point guard at one time, and most importantly (to me), was an absolute hound on defense. In addition, he dealt with an incredibly grueling schedule without showing signs of wear and tear. With more offensive weaponry to play with, Rose won’t have to offensively bail the Bulls out nearly as much as he did in 10-11, and he should be a much better player for it.

C/PF Joakim Noah (12.6 PPG, 11.3 TRB, 5.4 APG, 1.5 BPG, 1.2 STL, .475 FG%, .737 FT%, 111 ORtg, 96 DRtg, .531 TS%, .475 eFG%) Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year (and first-time 1st-team All-NBA member) will have a new starting frontcourt mate in Gasol, which should make his life a hell of a lot easier. Noah put up very good numbers (10.4 PPG, 12.8 TRB, 4.6 APG, .536 TS%) against the Wizards in last year’s playoffs, but on the other end, C Nene Hilario had his way with him. With Noah guarding him most, Hilario went for (points/rebounds/assists) 17.8/6.5/3.25 while shooting 55% from the field as the Wizards won the series in five games. Noah likely won’t match his numbers from last year, but expect him to be a better player on both ends of the floor.

PF Taj Gibson (13 PPG, 6.8 TRB, 1.1 APG, 1.4 BPG, .479 FG%, .751 FT%, 102 ORtg, 100 DRtg, .524 TS%, .479 eFG%) Before Gasol signed with the Bulls, it seemed as if Taj would begin the 14-15 season as the team’s starting power forward. Things have changed with the Gasol signing, but Gibson will still be a huge piece to the puzzle. Easily one of the league’s better defenders since he entered the league in 2009, Gibson has also worked to improve his low post and mid-range game. Many of his buckets will come from putbacks and alley-oops, but he is slowly becoming a solid threat from 10-16 feet and his ability to run the floor as a big is unmatched by most.

G/F Mike Dunleavy (11.3 PPG, 4.2 TRB, 2.3 APG, .8 STL, .430 FG%, .380 3P%, .854 FT%, 108 ORtg, 102 DRtg, .549 TS%, .510 eFG%) There are certainly Bulls fans who feel McDermott should be starting over Dunleavy at the 3, and for all we know, Thibs may actually start McD over Mike. I’m guessing it won’t happen though, mainly because Dunleavy, while not a good defender, is much more familiar with what Thibs wants on that end of the floor. And what Thibs wants on defense, he gets, or you ride the pine. Although he isn’t a good defender, Dunleavy is a serviceable one, and he is offensively skilled enough to keep even a good defense honest.

G Kirk Hinrich (9.1 PPG, 2.6 TRB, 3.9 APG, 1.1 STL, .393 FG%, .351 3P%, .768 FT%, 100 ORtg, 102 DRtg, .494 TS%, .461 eFG%) Hinrich isn’t a bad guy. I don’t dislike him. I’m pretty sure he’s well-respected among his family, friends, and peers. But, damn, there wasn’t another backup guard available? Does Hinrich have incriminating photos of Gar Forman or John Paxson? Both? There was a time when Hinrich was an above-average player, but those days are long gone. Let’s just hope that Hinrich gets in the way of opposing ball-handlers and shoots at least 40% from the floor.

G/F Jimmy Butler (13.1 PPG, 4.9 TRB, 2.6 APG, 1.9 STL, .397 FG%, .280 3P%, .769 FT%, 108 ORtg, 100 DRtg, .522 TS%, .446 eFG%) Make no mistake about it: Butler couldn’t hit a shot to save his life during the 13-14 season. With Rose out due to injury, more of the onus to score fell on Butler’s shoulders than should have, and the result was a paltry 39.7% from the floor and sub-30% from deep. Despite his shooting woes, Butler still made the NBA’s All-Defense Second Team and for the second straight postseason, averaged more than 17 points per game. If Butler becomes even a league-average shooter from the floor and three, the Bulls’ offense will be even more potent.

G Tony Snell (4.5 PPG, 1.6 TRB, .9 APG, .384 FG%, .320 3P%, .756 FT%, 97 ORtg, 104 DRtg, .489 TS%, .469 eFG%) Snell had a great summer and must be looking to carry that play over into the regular season, because he shot the ball terribly this preseason. At 16 minutes per game, Snell played more as a rookie than I predicted, and if given the same playing time, could prove to be a very effective scorer. He and McDermott will make the reserves a good offensive unit if they’re knocking down shots and slashing to the basket. Also, Snell has the length and athleticism to be a good defender in the Bulls’ system, provided he realizes that when on the defensive end, one’s focus should be on defense.

C/F Nazr Mohammed (1.6 PPG, 2.2 TRB, .3 APG. .4 BPG, .429 FG%, .533 FT%, 90 ORtg, 97 DRtg, .445 TS%, .429 eFG%) Chicago Public Schools (Kenwood Academy) product Nazr Mohammed returns for his 17th NBA season. At the age of 36, he will be counted on to give Jo, Pau and Taj breathers whenever necessary. Nazr can’t be counted on to do too much, but he is long and an adequate rim defender.

Outlook: Despite the fact that many “pundits” and “experts” are picking the new-look Cavaliers to win the Central Division and Eastern Conference, I firmly believe the Bulls will come away with those titles. While the Cavs look impressive on paper, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love still seem allergic to defense and outside of LeBron, Shawn Marion, and Anderson Varejao, there doesn’t seem to be a player on the roster who is even an okay defender. The Bulls team that reached the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals was one that had only one real offensive threat, and that was Derrick Rose. This Bulls team has Rose, Gasol, McDermott, Mirotic, Brooks, and don’t forget Noah, a big capable of dishing out five assists a night. All of those players are at least fairly capable of creating for themselves, and all of them except McDermott are more than equipped to create for others. Combine the newfound offense with a staunch defensive mentality and I believe we have a Bulls team that could prove itself better than the Cavs when all is said and done. Obviously, the games must be played, but it shouldn’t take long to figure out that when healthy, this Bulls team should be considered one of the favorites to win it all.

2013-14 Chicago #Bulls: Derrick Rose is back, Boozer will yell, Thibs is a machine. #NBA

Easy.

Easy.

If you or anyone else you know was excited when Derrick Rose was set to play his first NBA preseason game since before the 2011-12 season, then I’ll just go out on a limb and assume that you and those people are probably currently breathing into a brown paper bag. It’s okay; I’ve gone through six already. In the last hour.

Today marks the beginning of the 2013-14 NBA season, which means at least 82 games of Chicago Bulls basketball. Last year’s team played the entire regular season and postseason without Rose. They won 45 games during the regular season and even managed to eliminate the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs, in seven games. After stealing Game 1 from the Miami Heat in the second round, the Heat regrouped and swept the rest of the series.

Outgoing Bulls: PF Louis Amundson, SG Marco Belinelli, SG Daequan Cook, SG Richard Hamilton, PF Vladimir Radmanovic, PG Nate Robinson, PF Malcom Thomas

Amundson, Cook, Radmanovic and Thomas simply filled the roster last year, but the losses of Belinelli, Robinson and even Hamilton will hurt the Bulls a little bit. Belinelli improved as the year went on, especially on the defensive end, and the Bulls will miss having an offensively competent, 6’5″ 2-guard who can handle the ball effectively. Nate Robinson was seemingly every Bulls fan’s most and least favorite Bull, but I think he ultimately won a lot of folks over with his postseason heroics. While Hamilton played in only 50 games, he was still a serviceable player, but one who could never seem to avoid injury.

Incoming Bulls: SG Mike Dunleavy, PG Mike James, PF Erik Murphy (Rookie, Florida), Tony Snell (Rookie, New Mexico)

For whatever reason, there are still some Bulls fans who continue to lament the loss of sharpshooter 2-guard Kyle Korver, but I’ve been over it since the day he was officially no longer a Bull. Belinelli was looked at as a replacement for Korver by many, and wrongfully so. I don’t think Dunleavy is as high caliber of a player as those two, but his shot is close to Korver’s, and he can make a play every once in a while, a la Marco. Good enough for me. James will be an emergency/garbage time player, and being 38 years young, that’s suitable for him. Snell, the Bulls’ 2013 first-round pick, probably won’t play much at all in 2013-14, but he’ll turn just 22 in less than 2 weeks and comes from a solid basketball program. Murphy will play even less than Snell, but with the NBA essentially wiping out prototypical power forwards and replacing them with “stretch 4s” who can shoot the long ball, Murphy will certainly have a role on this team going forward.

Good times...

Good times…

The Backcourt: DERRICK ROSE IS BACK! Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s time to look at what’s in the Bulls’ guard stable. Obviously, things start with Rose. He looked great throughout the preseason and appears to be the most confident he’s ever been during his pro career. I truly hope that along with working out and shooting during his idle time, that Rose was watching the game and attempting to learn as much as he possibly could. Rose is the Bulls’ clear-cut floor general, and if he can become more of a point guard who’s a scorer rather than a scorer who’s a point guard, things could get very ugly, very quickly for the rest of the NBA. Kirk Hinrich is back for another dance and really, the Bulls just need him to be average. Hinrich is still a capable ballhandler, distributor and defender (let’s not foray into his shooting woes), so as long as too much isn’t heaped on his plate, he should do just fine. Jimmy Butler will be the starting shooting guard this season, and everyone and their grandmother is predicting that Butler will be one of the NBA’s breakout stars this season. I doubt he’ll come remotely close to All-Star recognition, but he will easily be the best 2-guard the Bulls have had in several years. I’m still not a fan of the Marquis Teague pick in 2012, but I suppose that if he can push Hinrich for playing time this season, the pick was at least somewhat worth it. The world would be a better place if Teague were 2 inches shorter, but then again, the world would be a better place if Krause and Co. hadn’t screwed the Bulls’ dynasty out of potentially another title or two.

The Frontcourt: Yeah, so Omer Asik is a Houston Rocket, and has been since the beginning of the 2012-13 season. The Houston Rockets made him an offer the Bulls probably never intended to match, and the most promising (in my opinion) big the Bulls had was as good as gone. Center Nazr Mohammed is back and should get quality minutes as a a valuable frontcourt reserve the Bulls so desperately need. Power forward Taj Gibson will be playing under his new contract for the first time this year, a 4-year, $33 million extension he signed last Halloween, and the pressure is on Taj to not only produce, but produce at a level high enough that would make the Bulls’ brass feel comfortable in amnestying Carlos

Scream on, 'Los.

Scream on, ‘Los.

 Boozer over the summer of 2014. Gibson’s production dropped in 12-13 slightly, but I believe that he’ll be relied on more in 13-14 than any other time since his rookie year, and that reliance will utlimately pay off. Boozer, on the other hand, will probably end up averaging close to 16, 17 points and 8, 9 rebounds per game and most fans will still do everything in their power to obliterate him. I get it; he’s become the Bulls’ convenient whipping boy. He frustrates the hell out of me plenty (How about instead of screaming for Jo to give a little help D, you provide the help yourself, Carlos?!), but I’m objective enough to admit that with a healthy Boozer, the Bulls are a better team than they are without Boozer at all. There was a time when I couldn’t stand the sight of Joakim Noah. It was bad enough that I felt he was an unbridled idiot at the University of Florida. Hearing NBA commissioner announce that the Bulls were selecting him with the ninth pick of the 2007 NBA Draft about damn near sent me over the edge, figuratively. The feelings didn’t get any better during his tumultous beginning with the Bulls, either. But now, he’s my favorite Bull, with all due apologies to fellow Chicagoan, Derrick Rose. Simple and plain, Noah is the Bulls’ engine. He was the best all-around center in the NBA last year, and those who weren’t already aware got to see the greatness that is Noah’s passing ability on a nightly basis. Granted, Noah did miss 16 games and was plagued by that damn plantar fascitis in the playoffs, but I’d still take him over any other center in the NBA, no bias involved. I don’t hate Luol Deng. I just don’t think he’s an elite NBA player, or has ever been one. I’ll readily admit that he is one of the better small forwards in the NBA, but one of the best? That, would be a stretch. Deng is in the last year of his ridiculous contract, and if he wants a new deal that also includes a hefty amount of dollars, he’ll perform like the good all-around hooper that he is in 13-14. I believe that Deng is capable of so much more than he produces, and has all too often faded into the background when there’s a play to be made. With Rose back and on a mission, Deng won’t hit that 20/8/4 line that I’ve been waiting for, for years. But if he can stay healthy, and not tail off on the defensive end where he is most highly valued, he’ll help the Bulls rack up Ws and himself rack up dollars in free agency.

Too much swank, Tom, Too much damn swank.

Too much swank, Tom, Too much damn swank.

The Coach: Tom Thibodeau enters the 2013-14 season with a regular season winning percentage of .683, which obviously includes a mere .549 percentage from the 12-13 season. In their first two seasons under “Thibs,” the Bulls finished with the NBA’s best regular season record before being eliminated in the playoffs. It’s true that injuries played a part in those premature exits, but Thibs didn’t help matters as much as he could, especially on the offensive end. Since 2010-11, the Bulls have been a top-five team, defensively, but just mediocre when it comes to the other side of the game. When you’re a stout defensive team, there isn’t the impetus to score 115 points a game. This is clear. However, the Bulls aren’t without some talented, versatile weapons. Fortunately, Rose will lead a new Bulls’ offense that will hopefully be able to score more points, more efficiently. Some will be quick to opine that a new offense will be the difference between another early playoff exit and a NBA title, but I would disagree on the grounds that regardless of scheme, missing players or being forced to suit up ailing ones takes an expert offensive scheme and marginalizes it. Besides X’s and O’s, Thibs could probably not seemingly drive Deng into the ground in terms of minutes played, which would benefit both parties. Other than that, I really don’t see any glaring flaws in Thibodeau’s coaching abilities. The Bulls will come out and play 48 minutes just about every night, and that goes double for the defensive side of things. Hopefully, the controversy surrounding the departure of one of his top former assistants is nothing to acknowledge, and Thibs does his (semi) madman thing and guides this team to even greater things.

In Summation: DERRICK ROSE IS BACK! Yes, you were made aware of this earlier, and I felt I should remind you again. No NBA team had a better offseason than the Bulls, because Rose’s return could basically be viewed as an offseason acquisition. The Houston Rockets acquired a new, top-5 player in center Dwight Howard, but I’d still argue that the Bulls had a better offseason because I feel the Bulls are closer to a title than the Rockets, even with Howard and shooting guard James Harden. Supposedly, Deng feels disrespected because he hasn’t been re-signed, or even offered an extension. Touch cookies. I’m sure we’ll get the customary “walk year” play from him, which means we could see an elevated Deng or deflated one. Hinrich will likely be okay and won’t make me pull my hair out, but I’m sensing some epically frustrating play from Boozer this year. It’s okay, ‘Los. Nikola will relieve you, starting with the 2014-15 NBA season. Noah is over the plantar fascitis, and sore groin that plagued him this preseason, and I believe he’ll come close to matching his per36 numbers from last year. The first person to tweet “The Butler Did It” will be blocked, without prejudice. Dunleavy won’t draw my ire as much as fellow Dookies, Deng and Boozer, but that’s because he wasn’t an overhyped media creation in college that benefitted from playing for a diminutive bully. Hit a freakin’ jump shot, Mr. Teague. For the love of everything that is good, hit a freakin’ jump shot. I think Snell will ditch the  cornrows in favor of a Gumby fade, and show Thibs late in the season that 14-15 will be his coming-out party. Murphy will connect on at least 35% from 3 and be confused for Kyle Korver about 1,273 times even though the two don’t really favor each other all that much. Nazr Mohammed will cement his status as the greatest Kenwood Academy alum to ever play in the NBA. We’re just going to ignore the fact that Mohammed is the only Kenwood Academy alum to ever play in the NBA, okay? Thibodeau will become the spokesman for Ricola, and, during testy negotiations with the company, leave them for Hall before realizing that both just wanted to objectify his damaged vocal chords. It will finally be recognized that no fanbase in all of professional sports is greater than the Bulls’ fanbase. Now… SEE. RED.

Going forward with the Bulls “core…”

Probably the last time these four were all 100% at the same time...

Probably the last time these four were all 100% healthy at the same time…

Recently, Bulls general manager Gar Forman threw out a stat that I was completely unaware of. While I wasn’t foreign to the fact that a healthy foursome of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer gave the Bulls its best chance of winning ballgames, I had no clue that the team wins almost 9 out of every 10 games when those four are on the floor and healthy. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the 2010-11 NBA season, that hasn’t always been the case. All four players have missed a substantial amount of time due to injuries, and 2012-13 was no different. Obviously, there was Rose’s mangled ACL, but both Deng and Noah dealt with various injuries this past season as well. Only Booz went through the regular and postseason relatively unscathed.

The Centerpiece.

Derrick Rose is by far the best offensive threat on the team, and if it weren’t for Joakim Noah, he’d be the best all-around Bull, too. However, I was skeptical of his health before the end of Game 1 in last year’s playoffs. He missed 27 of the team’s 66 games in the lockout-shortened ’11-’12 season because of injury. His shooting proficiency dropped (he wasn’t exactly Stephen Curry before, mind you) and he wasn’t the same attacker that he was in his MVP year. Rose was a better distributor, but 8 assists per game over 66 games would have helped more than 8 per over 39. Still, the Bulls finished ’11-’12 with the best regular-season record and had a very good ’12-’13, considering Rose missing every second of it. One would assume that Rose has used this time on the sidelines to improve his game, most notably from the perimeter and on defense. And please, for the love of my sanity, I am very hopeful that Rose’s decision-making has improved greatly. He isn’t guilty of many of the unforced turnovers that OKC’s Russell Westbrook commits, but sometimes his shot selection is Jamal Crawford-bad. I think it is safe to say that Rose will get over this large rash of injuries in ’13-’14 and be the dominant player that he was. If he doesn’t approach where he was before being felled by a torn ACL, though, the Bulls are up the creek without even a semblance of a paddle.

“JOOO!!!”

Center Joakim Noah is the heart and soul of the Bulls, but he’s also a damn good basketball player, too. No other Bull contributes as much as he does on both ends of the floor, and he is a joy to watch as well. Unfortunately, like Rose, “Jo” is prone to catch the injury bug and has missed 70 regular-season games since the start of 2009-10. He was also slowed in this year’s playoffs by plantar fascitis, which slowed him a bit. The eclectic big man is what he is and his ’12-’13 line of 14 pts/11 reb/4 ast/2 Blk per game while playing all but a quarter of them is fine with me. On a defense-first team, he is the perfect player. With 3 years and a little over 36 million left on his contract, he has a very team-friendly deal, too, when you take into account his overall production. He’s not a great jump shooter and doesn’t operate from the low block as well as I’d like, but his offensive rebounding and passing more than make up for it. But, because I am a realist: Is that effing plantar fascitis ever going to go away?

The glue…

Luol Deng aka “the glue guy,” is the most overrated of the bunch, to no fault of his own. The small forward just goes about his business, whether going for 25 points and 10 rebounds in a win or 10 and 5 in a loss. I believe that fellow wingman Jimmy Butler has shown enough to be a viable replacement for Deng, regardless of popular opinion, whatever it may be. Deng has shown a knack for disappearing in key games, especially in the playoffs. I completely disregard this year’s playoffs, because he was unable to play in over half of it due to complications from a spinal tap procedure. If you watched him before this postseason, though, you may wonder how anyone would think he’s among the elite at even his position. Please, don’t think I am a “hater” of Deng or worse. I just feel he’s a good player in a system that doesn’t heap a ton of responsibility on him, on either end of the floor. Head coach Tom Thibodeau loves the hell out of Deng, which is why he’s on the floor more than any other Bull. Has the added playing time since Thibodeau’s hiring in the summer of 2010 contributed to occasional injuries? Probably. Probably not. Deng’s contract expires after ’13-’14, and it will be interesting to see happens with the two-time All Star in the near future.

Mr. Booz.

Carlos Boozer is the Bulls fanbase’s whipping boy. He was essentially a consolation prize in some eyes in the summer of 2010, and that was before he broke his hand and missed time at the beginning of 2010-11, not after. Defensively, Boozer is downright bad. I credit him for constantly communicating with his teammates, but there have been dozens of times in which he has simply looked lost or somewhat apathetic on that end. Yes, the Bulls are a great defensive team, but how often have you seen an opposing player make an easy layup or dunk because Boozer was late giving help defense? Offensively, Booz is the best and most consistent option the Bulls currently have. One issue I have with the Bulls bland offense (I’m sick of watching that crap, Thibs) is that Booz doesn’t get enough touches, especially early in the game. I’ve realized that Boozer is like a power running back. You can count on him to give you 100 yards on 25 carries, which is nothing really flashy. In all of my years watching football, however, it seems to help those kinds of backs more when their team looks to establish the run early. Booz no longer plays for Jerry Sloan and his flex offense in Utah, and no longer plays alongside a point guard, Deron Williams, who runs the pick-and-roll as well as any point man since John Stockton. Boozer’s number of possessions with the Bulls have also taken a hit because of Rose’s astronomical–for a point guard–USG% numbers. Despite the fact that I have defended Boozer more than most, I wouldn’t mind the Bulls amnestying him, just to free up cap space. No other team wants a soon-to-be 32 year-old, undersized defensive liability who has barely average athleticism, so the amnesty option is probably the best route for the Bulls to take if they want to be rid of Boozer. Of course, I’m writing about the Bulls, so that means in the spring of 2015 I’ll be screaming at Boozer from my living room to rotate on defense properly and go to the rim like a man who is 6’9″, 260, and not 5’9″, 160.

And now?

With the exception of Rose, everyone on the Bulls roster should be available to acquire via trade. Since no one in their right mind would give up anything of significant value for Booz, the best remaining assets are Noah and Deng. Losing Noah would cripple an already thin frontcourt, and again, he has a somewhat extensive injury history. So, if the Bulls want to make a splash in the trade market, Deng will be the one to go. In my opinion, he has peaked in terms of ability, and I worry that he won’t take the pay cut that I hope the Bulls ask him to after next season. He’s still technically in his physical prime and was an All-Star last season. I’m sure at least 3/4 of the teams in the league would love to have him. I wouldn’t advocate essentially giving up on a good 28 year-old wing, but the Bulls are in a bit of a precarious situation heading into the 2013-14 regular season. As presently constructed, the Bulls aren’t as safe a bet to win a title as the Heat or Thunder. Part of this is due to the Bulls’ inability to maintain a certain level of health, especially as it pertains to their top four players. The Bulls are in a better position than most other teams, but this offseason, we could see a shakeup to the team’s core, and they would probably be better off in the long run for it.

Halfway home: 2012-13 Chicago Bulls, 25-16 (13-11 Home, 12-5 Away)

Center Joakim Noah and small forward Luol Deng, 2013 NBA All-Stars.

Center Joakim Noah and small forward Luol Deng, 2013 NBA All-Stars.

Before the 2012-13 NBA season started, I wrote a best/worst case scenario post about the Chicago Bulls. A healthy dose of cautious optimism kept me from believing that the Bulls would be terrible, even without point guard Derrick Rose. Sensibility also didn’t really allow me to think that the Bulls would remain one of the league’s elite without him. Despite what the diminutive Jeff Van Gundy said, I didn’t view a 50-win season for the 2012-13 Bulls as far-fetched. So long as another key contributor didn’t miss substantial time due to injury, I felt that head coach Tom Thibodeau’s defensive scheme alone would enable the Bulls to easily win more games than lose. This Bulls roster has been mostly healthy, and the team hits the halfway mark with an overall record of 25-16. They are a woeful 13-11 at home, but 12-5 on the road. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder have a better in-conference record than the Bulls’ 20-6, and the Bulls are 7-3 in their last 10 ballgames. Surprisingly, the Bulls are in first place in the NBA’s Central Division, even if only by a matter of win percentage points.

Statistically, this Bulls squad mirrors the first two teams of Thibs’ tenure: Just good enough on offense and elite on defense. In the entire NBA, the Bulls rank 22nd in field goal percentage, 13th in 3-point percentage, 7th in free throw percentage and 12th in offensive rebounds, assists and turnovers committed per game. Averaging 93.6 points per game, the Bulls rank 25th in the NBA in that category. Defensively, this team has been ridiculous. They rank 4th in the league in defensive rating, 3rd in points allowed per game, 2nd and 5th in opponents’ field goal and 3-point percentage, respectively and 7th in rebounds allowed per game.

Small forward Luol Deng and center Joakim Noah were named All-Stars yesterday, and one could make the argument that power forward Carlos Boozer was worthy of more All-Star recognition than he has received. Point guard Kirk Hinrich has shot the ball terribly, but has done a great job of distributing the ball and not turning it over very often. Shooting guard Richard Hamilton has been solid as well. Bulls fans are still getting used to seeing a new “Bench Mob,” but the new reserves have not entirely disappointed this season. Sure, backup point guard Nate Robinson frustrates, but he also excites. It’s hard to watch two guard Marco Belinelli at times, but I still believe he is a better option than the departed Kyle Korver, who is now an Atlanta Hawk. No, second-year small forward Jimmy Butler is not a “Kobe stopper,” but it’s pretty difficult to watch the former Marquette University standout play and not become excited at his potential. Power forward Taj Gibson has rebounded from a bit of a slow start after receiving a contract extension before the season, and is currently enjoying his best month of the 2012-13 campaign.

Recently, we learned that DRose is being made available for more contact during practice, another positive step towards his full recovery from that gruesome ACL tear he suffered in the first round of the 2012 playoffs. Folks are already throwing out guesses about when he could possibly make his return to the lineup, and seeing DRose on the floor some time after the All-Star break is definitely plausible.

The 2012-13 Bulls have been a weird team to watch at certain points this season. There was the early home loss to the New Orleans Hornets, and New Year’s Eve home loss to the Charlotte Bobcats which ended the Bobcats’ 18-game losing streak. Following a home loss to the dysfunctional Milwaukee Bucks, the Bulls beat the Knicks for the third consecutive time, on the road…only to lose their next game, a home tilt against the awful Phoenix Suns. Of course, two days later, the Bulls obliterated the Hawks at home, 97-58.

I think it’s safe to say that with the Bulls comfortably in the playoff race, fans have started to turn their attention to the inevitable return of Derrick Rose. Winners of 9 of their last 12, this team is one that would be strongly aided by Rose’s mere suiting up to play. From what I’ve heard and read, the Bulls brass is in no rush to bring Rose back, which is just fine with me. On pace for a 50-32 record, maybe the Bulls could do without Rose for a little longer than originally thought.

Tonight, the Bulls play the surprising Golden State Warriors (25-16) at home. Warriors power forward David Lee was also named an All-Star yesterday, and point guard Stephen Curry could have easily made the squad as well. The Warriors have beaten the LA Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder in their last two games, and second-year head coach Mark Jackson seems to have his team (18-23 at the halfway point in 2011-12) in position to make some noise not only this season, but for seasons to come.

Go. Bulls.