As the dog days of the NBA offseason approach, there's little more to do than break down the league's upcoming release of its regular-season schedule.
Then again, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau is assuredly plotting and scheming already, devising ways to use all of the tools at his disposal, in anticipation of a campaign viewed internally by the organization as potentially ending with a championship.
At this point, with presumed free-agent targets Marcus Camby and DeJuan Blair either off the board or close to it (Camby signed with Houston, where he has a home nearby, while Blair is reportedly "close" to reaching a deal with Dallas, according to ESPN.com), the Bulls' roster is virtually set in stone, with any potentially impactful big-man additions a more fleeting possibility.
A training-camp audition for a role behind both All-Star center Joakim Noah and re-signed veteran Nazr Mohammed — the narrative about the latter moving into more of an "emergency," fifth post player spot is now inaccurate until a proven, younger signee with a somewhat reliable and more productive recent track record enters the mix — seems likely, which wouldn't rule out the return of Malcolm Thomas, who was waived last week.
But no matter who becomes the 13th player under contract for the Bulls heading into their Oct. 29th season opener in Miami, first reported by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the team's current personnel lends itself to both the physical style and utilization of size that's defined Thibodeau's tenure in Chicago and the ability to throw in a few wrinkles that have been previously tinkered with and alluded to, but never fully capitalized upon, for various reasons. The Bulls can stay big or go small with equal aplomb, to paraphrase the coach himself, and barring injury, if they don't take advantage of those options whether due to inflexibility or other factors, it could be the missing ingredient come next spring.
Of course the Bulls shouldn't just follow trends for the sake of following the crowd in what's always been a copycat league. But this isn't 2010, when an essentially brand-new squad had to feel itself out before racing to the NBA's best regular-season mark. Nor is it the lockout-shortened 2011 campaign, with an abbreviated training camp, a roster of mostly holdovers and legitimate championship hopes before that fateful April afternoon. And it's certainly not the almost comically injury-plagued, overachieving for the non-believing run of last season.
Derrick Rose's return alone makes the basketball world take the Bulls seriously again, but simply assuming that the former league MVP will eventually regain his previous form and the team will be a redux of previous editions is a bit facile, unless the general idea outsiders have of Thibodeau is to be taken literally. The man has his principles and can be stubborn, but never should it be assumed that he isn't constantly on the lookout for new trends in the game and as with any top-tier coach worth his salt, willing to incorporate (a euphemism for "steal," a rampant and accepted practice at all levels of basketball) concepts from others. Given his inaugural participation on the coaching staff of USA Basketball this month, complete with access to some of the league's emerging talents, it's only natural that whether through peer discussion or silent observation, he's gleaned some insight into how to diversify things upon return to his Berto Center lair.
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That isn't to say the Bulls will go away from their basic tenets — Thibodeau's mantra of rebounding, defense, low turnovers, sharing the ball and inside-out offense will always reign supreme — but if anything, the adversity the team faced last season could force the coach to tap into his more creative side.
Rose will have the ball in his hands plenty, but perhaps conscious of throwing too much at him all at once, backup Kirk Hinrich will be used to move him off the ball at times, giving one of the most dynamic scorers in the NBA less responsibility to distribute. And if the positives of Marquis Teague's mostly-successful summer-league stint (if there was a concern about the 20-year-old's performance, it was his turnovers) can carry over to the fall, winter and most importantly spring, an explosive, dual point-guard backcourt of the two speed merchants on occasion could give opposing defenses fits.
But the way free-agent acquisition Mike Dunleavy Jr. is deployed is even more significant. An underrated ballhandler and passer, the veteran brings some of what reserve predecessors Kyle Korver and Marco Belinelli each offered — Korver's marksmanship, Belinelli's ball skills — just with more size.
Starting wings Jimmy Butler (the best healthy shooting guard of the Thibodeau era) and All Star Luol Deng have great versatility already, so putting Dunleavy, who can function as an effective secondary ballhandler, on the floor with them gives the Bulls a litany of options. This should divert some defensive attention away from Rose and afford both post-up and spot-up shooting opportunities, as well as creating mismatches — for instance, Butler defended by a small guard or Deng defended by a slow power forward — and while none is a scoring sidekick in the mold of a Dwyane Wade or Russell Westbrook, it will make the Bulls far less predictable than in the past, despite some pundits' insistence that history will be repeated.
Now, it doesn't mean that the Bulls will go away from one of their strengths: size on the interior.
Noah will still be counted upon to be a defensive anchor, dominant rebounder, offensive facilitator and all-around energy guy, and hopefully an offseason of rest and duplicating the plantar fasciitis treatment that rejuvenated him prior to the playoffs will ensure he has better odds of staying healthy, with less of a scoring burden to boot. And though he still remains a polarizing figure, Carlos Boozer, the team's best post-up threat, most consistent mid-range shooter and an underappreciated passer, is vital to the Bulls' success. After a season of uneven play, Taj Gibson is likely motivated to have a bounce-back campaign, justifying his contract extension (praised as very reasonable upon signing but now criticized by some, probably in light of Omer Asik's double-double average debut year for the Rockets, who could look to deal him for a player more compatible with Dwight Howard with the aforementioned Camby in the fold) and resuming his status as an upper-echelon backup big man. Mohammed, even at this advanced stage of his career, showed that he's still capable of providing 10-15 quality minutes a night in relief of Noah, meaning that for a new addition to beat him out, that player had better be immediately adaptable to the system and productive in limited playing time.
With apologies to rookie Erik Murphy (and Tony Snell; it would be mildly shocking to see either draft pick crack the rotation on a regular basis unless the roster is decimated by injuries for the second straight season) and whomever is eventually added, that will be the Bulls' big-man platoon.
When pitted against the likes of Indiana and Brooklyn, the Bulls will remain traditionally big, which makes sense and jibes with Thibodeau's demand for owning the boards. But the option to befuddle those conventional lineups by spacing the floor — the dominant theme of the summer in, again, a copycat league — is available and matching up with small-ball teams like Miami and New York now goes beyond just trotting out the agile Noah and Gibson (their quickness is a huge factor on defense but doesn't always translate on the other end, where opponents can pack the paint) as a remedy.
For all the scuttlebutt about a management-coaching staff beef, it's understood that Thibodeau can figure out how to maximize the abilities of a given roster, and while the Bulls' front office didn't have a prolific offseason in terms of volume, not only was there not much room to make high-profile moves but the minor tweaks that did occur (it wasn't an actual transaction, but Rose's return should be included) over the summer were largely effective. Dunleavy wasn't billed as a savior and shouldn't be expected to be one, but his presence adds some lineup flexibility — as previously mentioned, the swingman's versatility can lessen some of Rose's workload, trickle over into the big men's usage and obviously give the Bulls a designated outside shooter, all without sacrificing size — and because he's a proven veteran, it gives Thibodeau the necessary impetus to utilize him.
Unless the Bulls are once again snakebitten, they should be able to keep up with the Joneses, while at least attempting to try something different to not only reduce wear and tear over the course of the regular season but also make the team more dangerous for the playoffs.
An old-school coach equipped with new-school knowledge, Thibodeau is universally regarded as one of the elite minds in the game, especially after his stewardship of last season's overachieving, injury-riddled bunch. Now he'll get the opportunity to fully flex his expertise, and while it won't be easy in a top-heavy Eastern Conference, the onus is on Thibodeau to make it work.
While never crediting himself for the team's success yet taking public blame for its failures, Thibodeau is undoubtedly aware of that fact. And Rose's comeback aside, without any obvious impediments, if the Bulls don't reach their ultimate goal, his coaching will be one of the first targets for scrutiny. As premature as this analysis might be, that's, as Thibodeau is fond of saying, "part of it" when it comes to a championship contender guided by an elite coach.
Even in July.