Maybe in Chicago there’s still some lingering disappointment from the failed pursuit of Carmelo Anthony, but when talking to people around the NBA, the feeling in some circles is that the Bulls not only made out well in free agency, but could be the team to beat in both the Central Division and in the Eastern Conference.
Yes, LeBron James’ return to Cleveland makes the Cavaliers an instant contender, based on him being the best player in the game and the young team’s high ceiling. But unless the Cavs pull off a trade for All-Star power forward Kevin Love, the Bulls’ additions of veteran big man Pau Gasol, 2011 first-round draft pick Nikola Mirotic, and rookie forward Doug McDermott give the Bulls a deep, talented squad that has addressed their biggest issue, perimeter shooting and offense as a whole.
No, the Bulls didn’t acquire the second scorer many observers believed they needed to complement Derrick Rose, as Gasol is no longer at his peak, and Mirotic and McDermott can’t be considered ready to step into that role. But Gasol and Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Taj Gibson are legitimate post-up options, the quartet of McDermott, Mirotic, veteran sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy Jr. and second-year swingman Tony Snell give them a plethora of deep threats, All-Star center Joakim Noah is an established, if unconventional playmaker, and the defensive-minded duo of Hinrich and returning starter Jimmy Butler are capable scorers who won’t be counted on to shoulder as much of a burden, particularly with Rose back to set the table for them with his unique abilities.
Exactly how Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau distributes the minutes, most notably the big-man and wing rotations, is still a question and an alternate style of play to Rose being relied upon to create out of high pick-and-roll scenarios will be key — Noah must still be allowed to create for others, but pick-and-pop options featuring the aforementioned outside threats should also be a staple of the offense — but as the old adage goes, that’s a good problem to have. For the first time since the 10-deep “Bench Mob” days, the Bulls’ depth is truly a strength and in the wake of the narrative of the Spurs’ team-first aesthetic defeating the Heat’s more individual-based game, there’s a reason for optimism in Chicago.
But for all of the logic of the Bulls making a deep run next season, it isn’t as if other teams in the East haven’t improved, too. Besides Cleveland and fellow Central foe Indiana, other upper-echelon teams in the conference include Washington and yes, Miami.
The Wizards, who fairly easily vanquished the Bulls in the first round of last spring’s playoffs, brought back rugged free-agent center Marcin Gortat, a major part of their success, and although they lost defensive stopper Trevor Ariza, the addition of future of Hall of Famer Paul Pierce, giving them a veteran scorer to fill in at small forward, is an intriguing move, especially as second-year pro Otto Porter seemingly makes strides during summer-league play in Las Vegas. The Heat certainly won’t be the juggernaut they were over the past four years, but ex-Bull Luol Deng is as good as they could have hoped for as a replacement, the All-Star tandem of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade is back and new arrivals like the underrated Josh McRoberts and rookie Shabazz Napier should also help.
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Other up-and-coming East teams, such as Charlotte and its promising young nucleus, Toronto, which re-signed point guard Kyle Lowry to go with its talented core group, Atlanta, which brings back star big man Al Horford after a season-ending injury, added defensive-minded guards Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore in free agency and drafted a likely contributor in rookie Adreian Payne, can’t be discounted either. Additionally, Anthony’s Knicks shouldn’t endure a second consecutive disastrous campaign with team president Phil Jackson at the helm, first-year head coach Derek Fisher on the sidelines and veteran floor general Jose Calderon running the show, though they can’t be viewed as a serious threat.
But the strength of the conference is in the Central, with both Cleveland and Indiana alongside the Bulls as some of the early favorites to challenge for a Finals berth. Aside from the Western Conference’s loaded Southwest Division—besides defending-champion San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Memphis are all returning playoff teams that could be improved, while New Orleans, featuring Chicago native Anthony Davis as the franchise player, should also be much better—the Central could be the most talented division in the league.
The Cavs are stocked with plenty of young talent — No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins, sixth-man scorer Dion Waiters, blue-collar power forward Tristan Thompson, 2013 top pick Anthony Bennett, unsung backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova and All-Star floor general Kyrie Irving, equipped with a long-term contract extension — to complement James and veteran big man Anderson Varejao, with likely a veteran shooter or two to sign with Cleveland in the coming days. As disappointing as Indiana’s season ended, the Pacers have still been to back-to-back conference Finals and should have a chip on their collective shoulder, so if polarizing young shooting guard Lance Stephenson can be retained to go along with All-Star small forward Paul George, veteran power forward David West and center Roy Hibbert, with free-agent acquisition C.J. Miles in the mix to provide much-needed shooting, they can’t be counted out just yet.
Even the bottom two teams in the division, Detroit and Milwaukee, have something to look forward to, as Stan Van Gundy could be a transformative presence as the Pistons’ head coach and team president, and the Bucks have a fresh start with Chicagoan Jabari Parker the new face of the franchise, second-year forward Giannis Antetokounmpo continuing to blossom and new head coach Jason Kidd — regardless of how he got the job — offering a new perspective. Meanwhile, the Pistons still have to figure out restricted free agent big man Greg Monroe’s contract situation, find a way to either jettison Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings or make them more effective, but with free agents Jodie Meeks and former Bulls fan favorite D.J. Augustin helping to stretch the floor, center Andre Drummond one of the league’s most highly-regarded young players at his position and second-year shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope taking a step forward in the Orlando summer league, things in Detroit could be better sooner than later.
But although competition could obviously stiff for the Bulls, unlike all of the aforementioned teams, there are less question marks and more answers, so while the organization might not have made the highly-anticipated splash a lot of fans were yearning for, when taking stock of what the offseason has yielded thus far, it’s hard to argue that they won’t have a chance to be a factor when it counts next season.