Summer breakdown of Bulls, other East contenders

Summer breakdown of Bulls, other East contenders
July 20, 2013, 10:45 am
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The fact that Derrick Rose proclaimed that he’s “100 percent” and will “definitely” begin the season in the Bulls’ lineup shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. After all, he did miss an entire season to rehabilitate his ACL injury.

What is surprising, however, is the notion in some circles that the Bulls haven’t done enough to improve their personnel thus far this summer. Besides the fact that the organization is unable, due to the NBA’s collective-bargaining agreement, as well as viable trade scenarios to make the type of big splashes that some of their rivals have made, apparently there’s a belief that the team won’t be a true championship contender.

While the vehement backlash against Rose has subsided to a degree, the well-rounded group of a dozen players currently under contract -- with one roster spot to fill to get to the league minimum of 13 players, another center to back up All-Star Joakim Noah, in addition to the re-signed Nazr Mohammed, is the biggest hole -- has seemingly underwhelmed fans who equate a flurry of activity to meaningful progress.

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When examining the top teams in the Eastern Conference, the hierarchy has remained largely the same and with a healthy Rose, members of the supporting cast like Noah and Luol Deng taking on more responsibility in his absence, role players such as Jimmy Butler emerging and veteran newcomer Mike Dunleavy Jr. helping to address the team’s outside-shooting deficiencies, the Bulls are ready to return to the league’s elite after a one-year, albeit inspirational, hiatus as a plucky, overachieving bunch.

It’s still extremely early and there could still be a handful of moves teams make to improve as the summer winds down, but the Bulls should be prepared to battle four specific opponents -- much-improved Brooklyn, division rival Indiana, still-dangerous New York and of course, two-time defending champion Miami -- for supremacy in the East.

Let’s take a closer look at how the top-five teams in the conference stack up:

Brooklyn Nets: A totally revamped roster will be guided by recently-retired future Hall of Fame point guard and first-year coach Jason Kidd. Kidd’s debut campaign on the sidelines will be aided by the Nets’ acquisition of his former peers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, following a blockbuster draft-night trade with Boston. Whether or not the aging veterans will hold up physically throughout the season remains to be seen, but they certainly add some much-needed toughness to a Brooklyn team not previously regarded as possessing large quantities of that trait, made evident in their postseason defeat at the hands of an injury-riddled Bulls squad.

Garnett’s interior defense should change the perception of vulnerability inside and paired with All-Star center Brook Lopez, the Nets now have one of the league’s better interior duos, with capable reserves in rugged rebounder Reggie Evans, re-signed offensively-talented big man Andray Blatche and athletic draft pick Mason Plumlee. Pierce gives them another primary scorer on the wing to go with scorer Joe Johnson, with Jason Terry, also acquired in the Celtics trade, adding scoring punch off the bench, and versatile free-agent signee Andrei Kirilenko also helping defensively, regardless of insinuations about how the Russian ended up playing for countryman Mikhail Prokhorov’s franchise.

At point guard, Deron Williams remains one of the NBA’s best at his position and should thrive even more as a playmaker with so many options, while journeyman Shaun Livingston is, at minimum, a serviceable backup. The biggest concerns pertain to how much the older veterans have left in the tank, how quickly the inexperienced Kidd will evolve as a coach and how a team with so many high-profile players will jell, especially on offense, where many of them are used to getting a certain number of opportunities. While this isn’t a group put together for long-term success, having the guts and deep coffers to take a run at the title in one fell swoop has to be lauded.

Chicago Bulls: Since this team is obviously covered ad nauseum in this space, let’s get right to it: Rose, Noah, Butler, Deng and Carlos Boozer, even with all of the fanfare aforementioned Brooklyn has received, is arguably the best starting five in the game. Considering how Rose’s return again gives the Bulls a go-to guy and Butler’s emergence no longer makes shooting guard a weakness, coupled with one of the most complete frontcourts trio in basketball, there are no visible holes in the unit.

One could say outside shooting, but if Rose’s extensive work on his jumper while he recovered last season manifests itself and Butler continues to make strides as a long-range marksman, there’s no reason to believe defenders won’t have to play them honestly, as well as contend with the duo’s shared athleticism, especially in transition. Deng remains the team’s glue, but should be a more efficient scorer with less defensive attention trained on him, while Boozer will certainly benefit from opponents being forced to guard him one-on-one at all times and Noah’s value on offense remains his uncanny playmaking ability and relentless work on the offensive glass.

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The versatility of Dunleavy off the bench clearly helps the team’s shooting, but he’s also an underrated passer and has the ability to play multiple positions. There’s also optimism that Taj Gibson has a bounce-back campaign after struggling with inconsistency last season, but his presence as a rebounder and defender ensures that he fortifies the Bulls’ big-man depth, along with Mohammed, who’s an experienced physical banger. As a reserve capable of playing both guard positions, veteran Kirk Hinrich has even more value, since he shouldn’t be as worn down toward the end of the season -- something that will be even more evident if Marquis Teague’s offseason development translates into a bigger role backing up Rose and providing the Bulls with another dimension with his up-tempo tendencies.

Rookies Tony Snell and Erik Murphy shouldn’t be expected to see significant action, but both youngsters can be projected to find their niche in future roles as a versatile swingman and stretch power forward, respectively, with auditions coming in whatever spot minutes they receive. As always, the Bulls’ foundation will be defense and although they’re unlikely to be a high-scoring outfit, their potentially improved offense rightfully has resulted in high internal expectations.

Indiana Pacers: After their run to the conference finals where they took Miami to the limit, the Pacers’ biggest offseason priority in order to preserve the team’s blue-collar culture was retaining veteran power forward David West, which was immediately accomplished at the outset of free agency. West and behemoth center Roy Hibbert comprise a formidable one-two post combination, as West’s physical game and mid-range shooting touch blend well with Hibbert’s traditional low-post game, imposing defensive presence and continued development.

But as valuable as the pair is to Indiana, the squad’s star is Paul George, who emerged as one of the league’s top small forwards by virtue of his athleticism, defensive ability and versatile scoring tools. His development was sped up by the nearly season-long absence of former leading scorer Danny Granger, whose role will certainly change upon his return. Granger could return to the starting lineup, push George back to shooting guard and have a reduced scoring workload or he could instantly become one of the league’s top sixth men. If that occurs, it’s due to the breakout season of Lance Stephenson, who still has to gain consistency, especially as an outside shooter, but earned a reputation as a tough-minded defender and an athletic, fearless slasher.

George Hill is a solid floor general, but more of an offensive caretaker and spot-up shooter, so the addition of free agent C.J. Watson helps, as the former Bull’s instant-offense ability is an upgrade to the Pacers’ bench, a major weakness last season. Chris Copeland, an older rookie in New York a year ago, adds to a deep wing corps, but additional depth in the post beyond the athletic Ian Mahinmi could be an issue. Indiana’s title aspirations aren’t unrealistic, but considering the depth of some of their competition, it will be a dogfight for Frank Vogel’s team to even get back to the conference finals, let alone hang on to their one-year reign in the Central Division.

Miami Heat: “If it’s not broken, then don’t fix it” appears to be Miami’s motto this offseason and after winning back-to-back championships, it’s hard to quibble with the approach. While veteran sharpshooter Mike Miller was amnestied, it’s almost a lock that the Heat sign a free-agent big man, possibly former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden, there hasn’t been and likely won’t be much tinkering with the roster. Future Hall of Famer Ray Allen was re-signed and backup big man Chris “Birdman” Andersen stands a good chance of returning, while the rest of the personnel remains intact.

Reigning league MVP LeBron James is still the game’s best player and with his shooting display in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, any discussion of areas he needs to improve should cease. But clearly it isn’t a one-man gang, as witnessed in the Heat’s playoff run, though Miami’s other two All-Stars, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, experienced their ups and downs in the postseason. In Wade’s case, it’s more health-related, and even with another offseason of rest and a medical procedure on his ailing knees, whether or not he’s perceived to lose a step and no longer be regarded as truly an elite player will be closely monitored. With Bosh functioning as a center in Miami’s small-ball scheme, it’s more of a matter of consistency and being able to produce as a rebounder, though his ability to step out and knock down shots pose a problem for his big-man counterparts.

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Mario Chalmers is often viewed as the Heat’s weakest link and while he’s certainly not one of the best players at his position, his championship experience, ability to rise to the occasion and timely shooting will always be a factor, regardless of recognition. Miami’s other role players are probably more valuable as a collective than individually, but Udonis Haslem’s toughness, Shane Battier’s defense and outside shooting, Norris Cole’s quickness and of course, Allen’s ability to stretch defenses have all played a part in the team’s success. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will likely never get the respect he deserves, but barring injuries, his team has to be considered the favorite going into the season.

New York Knicks: Another small-ball team, the Knicks’ flaws were exposed in the team’s playoff-series loss to Indiana. While Carmelo Anthony remains one of the league’s top individual scorers, New York’s lack of varied offensive options came back to haunt them, as Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith’s erratic postseason play, All-Star center Tyson Chandler's interior struggles and point guard Raymond Felton’s inconsistency all came to the forefront. Still, the Knicks are bringing back the majority of their core with a few roster tweaks.

Felton is a solid playmaker and scorer, while Iman Shumpert, after a mid-season return following an ACL injury, should fully regain his explosiveness, as well as continuing to be one of the top on-ball defenders in the NBA. Smith inked a contract extension to stay in New York and despite being a reserve, is the team’s secondary scoring option, although he’s slated to have offseason knee surgery. Savvy floor general Pablo Prigioni, a rookie last season, parlayed years of experience as an overseas professional, into an important role as a stabilizing force and could start in the dual point-guard backcourt Knicks head coach Mike Woodson favored toward the end of the season.

Anthony excelled at power forward for New York, taking advantage of his quickness against big men unaccustomed to defending a players with his skills and assuming he remains in the same role, the onus will be on Chandler to not only be his usual forceful presence on the glass and on defense, but stay healthy. Native New Yorker Metta World Peace, recently amnestied by the Lakers, could end up in the starting lineup, complementing Anthony with his defense and also adding the ability to knock down open long-range jumpers, even if he has diminished athleticism. First-round draft pick Tim Hardaway Jr. could emerge as another energy player in limited doses, but there are higher expectations for the team’s biggest addition this summer, former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Barganani. Acquired via trade from Toronto, the jump-shooting big man adds another dimension to New York’s roster and though he’s expected to be a bench player, the Italian should make an impact. While his health continues to be a concern, former All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire can’t be overlooked, as he could provide a huge boost if he can stay on the floor for extended stretches and perform at even a fraction of his previous level. Woodson has his work cut out for him if the Knicks are expected to keep up with their conference rivals.