Sure, it’s only two preseason games, but there are all kinds of encouraging signs about how strong this Bulls’ team might be.
We start with No. 1. Derrick Rose looks fast and fearless, showing the kind of end-to-end speed that made him one of the Top 5 players in the league. Sure, D-Rose is a little rusty, making a few careless turnovers and struggling at the free throw line, but the other worldly athleticism is still on display. Probably most encouraging is the fact Derrick isn’t favoring his surgically-repaired left knee. Just like in the past, Rose is attacking much bigger defenders in the paint, seeking out contact to get to the free throw line. And, he’s pushing the ball in transition, zig-zagging between defenders and exploding to the rim. Rose made his first 3-pointer of the preseason Monday against Memphis, and by all accounts, his long range shooting should be a real threat this season. The former league MVP also made improving his defense a training camp priority, and with his speed and jumping ability, that should set up even more transition opportunities for the Bulls.
Taj Gibson looks to be back after a lost season. 2012-’13 turned out to be a bust for the former USC star. Whether it was the stress of trying to live up to a big money contract extension, or the never ending string of injuries, Gibson just couldn’t find his shooting touch and that carried over to a lack of impact on the defensive end. Gibson aggravated an ankle injury during the summer, costing him a spot on the U.S. Developmental team for future international competition, but he looks fully healthy now, blocking shots, grabbing rebounds, and hitting that 15- to 18-foot baseline jumper that is so important to the second unit’s success.
Jimmy Butler is a keeper. Sure, Butler played great down the stretch last season, hitting over 45 percent of his 3-point attempts in a starting role, then turning into an ironman in the playoff series against Brooklyn and Miami. But Bulls fans couldn’t be blamed for wondering if he would be the right fit as the starting shooting guard opposite Rose. So far, Jimmy Buckets has picked up right where he left off, playing aggressively on the defensive end, turning steals into fastbreak dunks. We haven’t seen his improved long range shooting yet, but it looks like the backcourt tandem of Rose and Butler will cause major problems for opposing teams this season, especially in transition.
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The second unit should be just fine. With Kirk Hinrich now coming off the bench to back-up at both guard spots, the Bulls offense should flow smoothly when Rose isn’t on the floor. Hinrich is a big upgrade over C.J. Watson and Nate Robinson when it comes to directing the half-court sets. Now, the key is keeping the 10-year veteran healthy. Mike Dunleavy Jr. should help with his 3-point shooting and underrated passing skills, and we’ve already talked about Gibson’s resurgence. Those three players should take most of the bench minutes, especially in the playoffs, with Nazr Mohammed and Marquis Teague contributing in limited roles.
Bottom line, the East is loaded this season with Miami adding Greg Oden and Michael Beasley, Indiana picking up Luis Scola and Watson, while getting Danny Granger back from injury, and Brooklyn acquiring future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, giving them a starting lineup of five All-Stars. But from what we’ve seen from the Bulls early in the preseason, they should be among a handful of teams with realistic hopes of winning a championship.