So, is this the year the Bulls finally get past LeBron James and the Heat?
Hard to make any firm conclusions based on eight preseason games, but it sure looks like Tom Thibodeau has his best team since taking over as head coach before the 2010-11 season. Let’s start with the return of a stronger and more experienced Derrick Rose. Not only did Rose make an impression with his trademark speed and explosiveness during the exhibition schedule, but he also showed a better understanding of his responsibilities as the Bulls’ point guard. Carlos Boozer repeatedly raved about Rose’s improved passing skills, setting up the Bulls’ frontcourt players for easy baskets.
In the past, Rose would often try to challenge double and triple teams with off-balance runners and floaters. Now, he’s making a smarter decision by either initiating contact to get to the free throw line, or dumping the ball off for a lay-up or dunk. Rose shot double-figure free throws in four straight preseason games, something he’s never done before in his NBA career. Championship teams make it a habit to outscore their opponents from the charity stripe, and with Rose forcing the officials into making a call, the Bulls should be on the winning end of that statistic on most nights.
The last time a healthy Bulls’ team met Miami in the playoffs, Keith Bogans was the starting shooting guard. Now, the Bulls have a dynamic young talent opposite Rose in third-year swingman Jimmy Butler. The former Marquette power forward was a breakout star in last season’s playoffs, showing a versatile skill-set on both ends while filling in for Luol Deng as the Bulls’ ironman. Butler put in another long summer of work, improving his outside shooting touch and ball handling skills. No one’s ever questioned Butler’s ability to defend the league’s best wing scorers, but now he can challenge them on the offensive end with his ability to drain corner threes, as well as drive to the basket. Butler’s athleticism and tenacity should give the Bulls a much better chance of matching up against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade if these two teams meet up again in the postseason.
Of course, good health is the key to any team’s championship aspirations, and the Bulls haven’t had much luck on the injury front in recent years. Joakim Noah’s recurring foot problems are a cause for concern and the All-Star center missed just about all of the pre-season after suffering a groin strain early in training camp. Noah is one of the league’s most versatile big men, and the Bulls desperately need him to be healthy for the postseason. Look for Taj Gibson to get more minutes at center to alleviate some of the stress on Noah. Gibson played center at U.S.C., and he’s coming off a terrific preseason, showcasing a much-improved offensive game.
[RELATED: NBA predictions: Post-preseason breakdown]
With Gibson playing center on the second unit, the Bulls should be able to continue to push the ball with Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy and possibly rookie Tony Snell running the break. Depth is a bit of a concern, especially the lack of a third center behind Noah and Nazr Mohammed, but Thibodeau should be able to mix and match his reserves, while keeping Deng and Rose on the court at times to provide some continuity and a go-to scorer. Managing minutes will be Thibodeau’s biggest challenge this season to make sure he has a healthy team come late April, but veteran back-ups like Hinrich, Dunleavy and Gibson should be able to provide 20-25 minutes a night, reducing the load on the starters.
Speaking of Thibs, you know he’ll stress the importance of trying to finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference. That strategy may not have paid off in the 2011 or 2012 playoffs, but you can understand the thinking behind chasing the number one seed. The East is more top-heavy than ever with the Bulls, Heat, Pacers and Nets all looking like potential 55 win teams. Brooklyn is much-improved with the addition of playoff-tested veterans Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko, but you’d much rather face the Nets in round two, and let Miami and Indiana slug it out in the semi-finals.
The law of averages has to catch up with the Heat one of these years. They were fortunate to outlast the Pacers in a seven-game Conference Finals Series last season, and they were downright lucky to escape a home-court loss in Game 6 of the Finals which would have given the championship to San Antonio.
Bottom line, if the Bulls can stay healthy, they have an excellent shot at winning their first title since the Jordan era. Like my colleague, Aggrey Sam, I’m calling it Bulls over Doc Rivers’ L.A. Clippers in the Finals.