"Rose had a strong summer with health playing for USA Basketball with nine games in just over two weeks and nary an issue," notes Smith.
David Dow/NBAE/Getty Images

Plenty of storylines as NBA season begins

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

By Sam Smith | 09.29.2014 | 9:20 a.m. CT | asksam@bulls.com | @SamSmithHoops

That’s right: Just 170 days until the 2015 NBA Playoffs begin.

That’s an exclusive, by the way, reported here first.

But until that time there will be plenty of questions to answer for the Bulls as they open their 2014-15 training camp with media day Monday in the new Advocate Center and around the NBA. Like:

-- Can anyone beat the Cavs? It’s going to be difficult, which is not often what you say about a team coming off a 33-49 season. But the Cavs had a pretty good summer. Yes, it’s the LeBron guy. Sure, the Cavs made the big trade for Kevin Love and they signed up the board of directors of the Retired Players Association in Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Brendan Haywood and James Jones. With almost half the roster eligible for Medicare, the Cavs are expected to have substantial extra salary cap room with the government program picking up much of the medical expenses. But the big thing is the Big One, the return of LeBron James. There are many formulas for what it takes to win. Having the best player in the league gives you a big head start. It’s not an infallible measure since LeBron’s Heat got two of four. But they didn’t get to the Finals every time. They’ll be favored in the Eastern Conference, but they can be defeated. Kyrie Irving is accustomed to dominating the ball, which James pretty much owns. Love has been among the league’s most disinterested defenders who joins a weak defensive front court. Unlike in Miami, James has done all he can to lower expectations, calling winning in Cleveland a long process, hoping for one title and seeking advice from Earnest Byner and Jose Mesa. We know he thinks otherwise. They’re the favorites, but not by a lot.

-- Is there anyone else in the Eastern Conference with a chance other than the Cavs and Bulls? Yes, but like last season when the consensus was a Heat/Pacers conference finals, it could have gone otherwise but didn’t in the end. The Cavs and Bulls rank above the rest, but the Bulls know about being one injury away from mediocrity. The Heat losing James and the Pacers losing Paul George to injury and Lance Stephenson to free agency fall back. Phil Jackson says the Knicks should be a playoff team, and I agree, though such promises aren’t Zen-like. But the Knicks underachieved so badly last season you’d think Mike Brown coached them. They don’t have to do much to be in the playoffs. With the Nets, it’s sort of a Bulls thing of as long as Brook Lopez is healthy. The Wizards, Hornets (nee Bobcats), Hawks and Raptors all have claim to a top four spot and the 76ers remain open to trading for more guys who cannot play this season. It should be Cavs/Bulls, but it’s worth watching just in case.

-- Will Derrick Rose be healthy? It’s one of the questions you’ll read and hear about in every NBA season preview. No one knows. And there’s no reason he’ll have problems. Rose had a strong summer with health playing for USA Basketball with nine games in just over two weeks and nary an issue. Other than someone giving him 12-inch across balls that wouldn’t fit in the rims.  He’s worked harder than ever on training and conditioning and is seen with ice so often you’d think he’s training for the winter Olympics. Rose will be asked about his knees regularly. The coaching staff and management will constantly be second guessed about whether Rose is playing too much: No back to backs? No four in five nights? Maybe take three weeks off like Tony Parker last season? Why is he playing in the fourth quarter when leading by eight? Shouldn’t Thibs be carrying him to the court? Rose’s knees are strong. He’s more than two years out from the ACL without problems and even if he were to have a meniscus issue again they could always do the quick snip that Dwyane Wade had in college and be back in a few weeks with a long career still ahead. Anyone, obviously, can be injured. But Rose will be asked more than anyone.

-- Who will the Bulls play in the Finals? OK, OK, that Eastern Conference race isn’t going to be easy. But whoever gets to the Finals from the Eastern Conference will find… some team that’s pretty worn out. It should have been the Spurs last season, but they had that redemption thing going. We know they don’t repeat, so who then? The Western Conference is going to be fun to watch if not so much to try to win. You can make a pretty good case for two Eastern teams. You probably can make a title case for nine Western Conference teams. Which means one team that believes it has a chance to win a title will miss the playoffs. I have the nine as the Spurs, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pelicans,  Mavericks, Thunder, Trail Blazers, Clippers and Warriors. The Suns will have a say as well. Maybe the Rockets fall back having over pursued big names for a change and come up empty this time, though experts at the MIT Sloan analytics conference determined statistically that by missing the playoffs the Rockets could conceivably win the title. Maybe the Pelicans can’t come that far, though they have the talent. Hey, and I forgot Kobe. And Boozer upsetting the silence in the Staples Center.  Just Kobe trying to shoot them into the playoffs should be entertaining. Even the bad teams should be fun with Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota, DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento and Kenneth Faried and the mini gunners in Denver. Imagine playing in a conference in which even the bad teams are trying to win. The 76ers are appalled.

-- How many wins will the Bulls have? It looks like a 60-win team with a healthy Rose, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and a host of others. And Tom Thibodeau knows 60. It likely will go down with Wilt’s 100 points as the only unreachable records in NBA history: Thibs in his rookie coaching season won 62 games with Keith Bogans starting all 82 games as his shooting guard. It is the basketball Mendoza line. Heck, Kurt Thomas started almost as many games as Noah. You know no team is going to be more prepared and ready, which gets used against Thibodeau, unfortunately. The notion formerly was you used the regular season to prepare for a title run. Now the consensus seems to be you are best spending the winter in Cancun and showing up in April. The Bulls won’t be doing that. Neither will LeBron or Durant. But make it 59 wins as by the end of the season Thibs begins to understand what Cameron Bairstow is saying.

-- Where is Ray Allen?  Is he going to be the father in the movie this time to Nate Robinson? That’s a must see. Allen is the only big name left and lining up as a potential final piece for a title team. The Bulls, Cavs, Clippers and Spurs all are said to have put in bids with some others not so possibly title bound. The belief seems to be Allen will hang around the first two months, which basically are about overanalyzing teams and doing Christmas promos. Allen then will take a look at who’s in good position around the All-Star break and come aboard for the last 30 games and a playoff run. You figure the way he trains he’ll have taken more shots by February than most everyone, anyway.

-- Where are the windows closing? Well, the Bulls do have Gasol, Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy in their 30’s and Noah and Taj Gibson turning 30 in 2015. It’s no longer the baby Bulls. Plus, there’s Rose’s injuries. There isn’t a long run there, so the next two seasons are crucial. But the bigger question probably is with the Thunder. There really aren’t many free agents anymore who make a difference. LeBron, Carmelo, Love, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Paul George, Stephen Curry, Dwight Howard and James Harden all are signed up. You’re not going anywhere focusing on Marc Gasol or Al Horford. And LaMarcus Aldridge probably will resign. So eight teams saving cap room will have their eyes on Kevin Durant and a bit later Russell Westbrook. The Thunder have been close, and maybe losing Harden cost them a title or two. But if they don’t get there this season, the next season will be all about Durant’s coming free agency and what team he can make into a contender and the New York Post and Daily News recording every time Durant used the word “new” in a conversation is a subliminal message of his desire to sign with the Knicks.

-- Which other teams to watch out for? My favorite is the Pelicans assuming coach Monty Williams is up to the next step. Anthony Davis is on everyone’s Most Improved now after a starring summer with USA Basketball, though he’s proven fragile. It’s the issue with the Pelicans. Teams with poor records tend to be ignored unless they add LeBron James. New Orleans won 34 games last season with basically three quarters of the regulars hurt. But they stole Omer Asik from Houston to enable Davis to stay outside and be that great weak side shot blocker. With Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson they have perhaps a half dozen players who have been All Stars, played for USA Basketball or can make claims on major NBA awards. In the East, it’s the Hawks with Horford coming back and if Jeff Teague can be the good Jeff Teague more often. The Luol Deng recruitment debacle could hurt attendance, but they were 28th, anyway, before that. The Kings would be interesting if DeMarcus Cousins played like he did for USA Basketball, which was accepting that his teammates weren’t a bunch of Western Kentucky recruits.

-- So which guys should you watch? Rose, of course. LeBron, Durant, Carmelo, Keyser Soze, the usual suspects. It’s a rookie class with some intriguing players and potential stars. Obviously, there’s been attention and interest regarding Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, and the Bucks again become vital viewing, if only to find out whom Jason Kidd is turning on this time. But it’s potentially a rich rookie class with Doug McDermott perhaps in a vital role for a contending Bulls team. It also will be intriguing to watch Dante Exum, Marcus Smart now that Rajon Rondo has balancing issues, Julius Randle learning from Carlos Boozer, Zach LaVine, Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon and Shabazz Napier, LeBron James’ formerly favorite point guard. And Luol Deng Hollywood as hell?

-- The NBA Playoffs begin Saturday, April 18. But don’t be in such a hurry. There are plenty of stories to tell.