It’s a brand-new day in Chicago, one that features a Bulls team with a plethora of outside shooting, all kinds of lineup versatility, tremendous size and most importantly, depth.
The newest round of Kevin Love trade rumors notwithstanding—seemingly improbable after adding veteran big man Pau Gasol, the Bulls are reportedly back in the hunt for the disgruntled All-Star power forward, though word Cleveland being willing to give up No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins is increasingly circulating—the Bulls’ current roster, after the signings of holdover guard Kirk Hinrich, instant-offense scorer Aaron Brooks and the rookie duo Doug McDermott and Cameron Bairstow, if not as impressive to the faction still pining for the services of Carmelo Anthony, inarguably is very intriguing, at the least.
Former league MVP Derrick Rose’s return to the court, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah’s ascendance to superstardom, Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Taj Gibson’s offensive emergence and swingman Jimmy Butler’s defensive prowess, marked by his second team All-Defensive Team selection, on their own, are enough for the Bulls to be optimistic. But add in Gasol’s polished skill set and championship experience, the as-advertised perimeter marksmanship recently displayed by McDermott in Las Vegas, second-year wing Tony Snell’s new-found aggressiveness that earned him first team all-summer league honors with his rookie teammate and the diminutive Brooks’ offensive firepower, and it’s clear why many observers believe the Bulls to be the early front-runner in the Eastern Conference this upcoming campaign.
Assuming Gibson and Butler—who, along with McDermott, will participate in USA Basketball’s mini-camp next week as members of the Select Team—aren’t wearing Minnesota uniforms this fall, the squad’s trademark defensive identity remains, especially with the aforementioned Noah and Hinrich also making their respective presences felt on that end of the floor. In a departure from the last two seasons of gutsy, if not aesthetically-pleasing basketball, the Bulls could be almost as formidable on offense, with proven scorers (veteran Mike Dunleavy Jr., who isn’t exactly chopped liver offensively, and talented rookie forward Nikola Mirotic, haven’t even been mentioned at this point), facilitators, slashers and a variety of specialists giving the club endless possibilities as to style of play, personnel and in general, being a much less predictable matchup for opponents.
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has found a way to turn lemons into lemonade with Rose only playing in 10 regular-season games in two seasons, various injuries taking multiple players out of the lineup and a roster further limited by circumstances such as midseason trades and simply not having high-level backups at every position, but has somehow managed to keep the team competitive. Now, for the first time since his first two years at the helm in Chicago, the Bulls are deep, experienced and perhaps even more talented that any other point in his tenure.
“We’re excited about that. Getting Derrick back, adding a couple of good young players, the addition of Pau, Nikola, I think that’s important. You have to have depth and so, we had it my first two years here, then we didn’t have it the last two and hopefully we’ll regain it,” the coach explained recently.
“My first two years, we were very deep and when Derrick went down the second year, that was a big hit for us. But it wasn’t only Derrick. We lost Joakim in that playoff series, as well. So we’ll see. But not this past season, the year prior, I thought that team, at probably the end of the season, they were playing great basketball, as well. So it’s how you grow throughout the season. We’ll take our shot at the end,” Thibodeau went on to say. “The challenge is how quickly we can all get on to the same page. Anytime you add as many new players as we have, that’s the challenge that you face. But the fact that we do have a good core coming back that has been around for a while, they’ll help move the new guys along. Then, hopefully we can get them up to speed very quickly.”
Thibodeau, as is his nature, was only cautiously optimistic, but the NBA lifer understands the weapons he has at his disposal, which is why he isn’t bemoaning the fact that the aforementioned Anthony opted to remain in New York.
“To me, when you study free agency, it’s not uncommon when players go back to their own team. So that’s all part of it. You make your presentation and then in the end, the player has to do what he feels is right and what’s best for him, and it’s geared to the player to stay with the team he was with. So when you go in, you understand that and you try to make your case. So we’re pleased with how everything turned out. We love our team and we’re going to take our best shot with the players we do have,” he said. “I always think we have a good chance at everybody because I think we have a great situation here. So that’s how I look at it, but if we don’t get somebody, that’s just the way it is. I’m not disappointed. I just move on. I love the guys that we do have. You have a guy like Derrick Rose, you’re fortunate. You have a guy like Noah, you’re very fortunate. So how they all work together and how they play for the team, it’s probably a little unusual in this league.”
Indeed, the Bulls’ chemistry is another asset that, while not easily quantifiable by statistics, is readily apparent on the court, particularly between the likes of Rose, Noah, Gibson, Butler and Hinrich, who are now all very familiar with each other’s games. Furthermore, Dunleavy and Snell have each had a year to get accustomed to the system, while Gasol’s unselfishness, Brooks jumping into a tailor-made role and the high basketball I.Q. shared by McDermott and Mirotic—the former a highly-accomplished four-year college player, the latter an experienced professional who’s excelled at the highest levels in Europe—should make for relatively seamless adjustments.
Thibodeau, on the other hand, has some work to do. McDermott, for instance, already seems to be a fan favorite and while Thibodeau was privately very supportive of Bulls drafting the Creighton product, getting his defense up to an acceptable standard on the NBA level will take time and the coach’s loyalty to his veterans—in this case, Dunleavy, who was an underrated team defender during his debut campaign in Chicago—means the rookie won’t just be handed immediate playing time, despite what appears to be elite shooting ability.
“He scores a lot of different ways. It’s summer league, so I don’t want to overstate it. But it’s the next step for him and the game he had 31 points in, he did it on 12 shots and he’s showing that he can play off other people, which is very, very important. It’s how you work with the unit and I think because of the way that he shoots, it’s similar to [Kyle] Korver,” Thibodeau said, referencing the ex-Bull, now with Atlanta and arguably the league’s best pure shooter. “Whenever he comes off the pin-down, it’s two people jumping out and you can get offense off of that. It’ll automatically create space for Derrick. He never stops moving. I think when you add players like that, it adds a lot of value to our team. What probably has gotten overlooked is his playmaking ability. When the second defender jumps out, he knows how to make a play.”
There are also high expectations for Mirotic, regarded by some as the top young European prospects and one of the best players on the continent in general while playing for Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid, but minutes could be even scarcer for the 23-year-old, stuck behind Noah, Gibson and Gasol in a potential juggernaut of a big-man rotation. What Mirotic does having work for him is, despite being an NBA newcomer, needing to add strength and improve defensively, is he has the ability to spread the defense from deep, finally giving the Bulls a coveted stretch power forward.
“It’ll sort itself out once we get to camp and we get a look at the different combinations in the preseason, and we get set on a rotation and then we’ll go from there. Then, there’s always injuries as you go along, so I expect Nikola to be a lot better at the end of the season than at the beginning of the season, as I do with all young players. But just go step by step, put everything you have into each and every day. You get better, little by little. But then you look back and it’ll be a quantum leap,” the coach explained. “Well, what I do like about him is he can shoot. The shooting is something that we wanted to address. So I think we’ve added shooting and of course, getting Derrick back is a huge piece and how it all fits together, we won’t know until we get out there.”
Additionally, simply making sure the much-improved Gibson comes to terms with potentially not starting after biding his time behind the amnestied Carlos Boozer and deciding upon who finishes games—let alone finding an inside-outside offensive balance with Rose back, so Noah still gets to play to his playmaking strengths and both Gibson and Gasol, one of the most highly-skilled post players in the league, get low-post touches—won’t be an easy feat.
“I’ve spoken with all three. They’re all going to have significant roles. How it plays out, we’ll figure that out. We won’t know that until they’re on the floor and we look at how they work together, and what’s best for our team. We’re always going to do what’s best for our team. But they’re all going to have a significant role,” Thibodeau said of his big-man rotation, adding that he isn’t ruling out Gibson starting at power forward over Gasol. “I want to see how it works together, what’s best for our second unit, what gives us our best chance, how are we going to finish, how are we going to start, how are all the minutes going to work out. But they’re all good problems to have.”
The last part is a true statement, even without delving into how much the Bulls rely upon Rose’s high pick-and-roll game, ways to incorporate the developing Snell and figuring out the right method to implement the reserve backcourt tandem of Hinrich and Brooks most effectively. As much as Thibodeau has earned a well-deserved reputation for being one of basketball’s top defensive minds, there are elements of his offensive strategy that have been underrated over the years and though the Bulls have had an air of predictability to their approach on that side of the ball, some of it can be attributed to the coach being handcuffed by injuries.
But now he has plenty of shiny new toys to play with, including the shooting the Bulls have lacked for some time, and while Thibodeau will have challenges when it comes to managing playing time and roles, barring injury, he’ll have the chance to demonstrate the breadth of his coaching acumen.