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10 questions for the Bulls heading into 2015-16

Sam Smith breaks down 10 questions for the Bulls as the players report back for 2015-16

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By Sam Smith | 9.28.2015 | 9:50 a.m.

It’s the official start of the 2015-16 NBA season for the Bulls with media interviews Monday and practices beginning Tuesday, and there’s one very big question not hovering over the team’s aspirations for the first time in three years: The health of Derrick Rose.

Of course, there always will be concerns and uncertainty regarding Rose’s health after the 2012 ACL surgery and subsequent meniscus surgeries. Rose isn’t really vulnerable to injury now more than most others. But society doesn’t view history that way. If you fell down three times, you are believed to be more susceptible to falling down. Even if you have worked more diligently than anyone else not to fall down any longer.

Rose recognizes that public reality and acknowledged as much in recent seasons as he agreed every time he falls for the rest of his career people will fear the worst. Rose for the first time since his catastrophic 2012 injury spent this past summer training without any limitations and generally without any media anticipation of what he can or will be and when. Certainly, given Rose’s injuries and his importance to the team, his fate will always be a concern. Yet, for the first time since 2012, it’s not the primary question facing the team.

Here’s a look at 10 that perhaps are:

1. Can the Bulls do the Freddie?

The biggest addition from last season—and it is a huge one—is the coaching change from Tom Thibodeau to Fred Hoiberg. The general cliché with coaching changes is if you’ve got a tough guy you go to a player friendly guy. Have a good guy and then you go to a demanding guy. So this change fits the pattern from a simplistic view. But it’s more involved with Hoiberg’s expected increased pace of play and use of depth and varied rotations. Thibodeau was the right coach at the right time for the Bulls, a demanding, defense oriented, well prepared basketball junkie. The Thibodeau tenure also created a base for defense that will aid Hoiberg. But the NBA continues to evolve with the spread court and inverted offenses that have prospered enough so that even the Spurs moved from a slow down post game to a spread passing and shooting game to remain relevant. Hoiberg is in the model of successful young coaches like Brad Stevens and Steve Kerr in being able to relate well with a light and supportive touch. That should produce a much more energetic and appealing game to watch and which fits with the emerging styles. Though it won’t be easy to surpass Thibodeau success record, at least in the regular season.

2. Can Noah hold off the floods of injury and age?

Actually, the return and status of Joakim Noah is of greater concern than with Rose. Noah’s knee surgery from last summer was obviously more serious and debilitating than expected. It proved a punishing setback for him that even bled into his gregarious basket soul. Noah seemed to lose confidence in his offensive abilities, and his effusive leadership suffered. That’s vital for a Bulls team without any true vocal leaders. Noah was said to have had an encouraging summer of recovery, though no one will truly know until he stops turning down those 15 footers. This is Noah’s last contract year with the Bulls, so it’s a big season for him in many ways.

3. So who starts at center?

No one in the NBA has this problem, if it can be called that: Having last year’s starting All-Star center and the previous season’s Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star center. Thibodeau’s experiment playing Noah at power forward, while laudably deferential to Noah’s status, even further crowded a poorly spaced Bulls court. It really won’t be much an issue other than in the media. Gasol coming off a rigorous summer playing for Spain clearly will play less. He figures to start, but the minutes should be about the same between he and Noah. Hoiberg will be less structured and more flexible than Thibodeau in his rotation, so either likely will finish depending on needs at the time. And often perhaps neither with the surfeit of small lineups. Niko the center?

4. Can Nikola Mirotic make a three?

The 6-10 forward came advertised as a three-point specialist and even adopted the “threekola” nickname for his Twitter account. But he did most everything well but shoot. He showed an ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the basket, though needing to finish better, and a knack for defensive rebounding. But he seemed to fall in love with pump faking and driving. Now with Rose and Jimmy Butler likely doing more ball handling, and thus drive-and-kick possibilities, Mirotic needs to hold his space and make the defense come out to him. That requires making those shots. He was a pleasant surprise last season and amazing clutch player for a rookie. Spain used him often as a center backing up Gasol. His versatility has positives and negatives.

5. Can Doug McDermott make a three?

With some similarities to Mirotic, McDermott showed abilities far beyond the mortal shooter. He posted up —at least in summer league when he got to play — drove hard, defended reasonably well, handled the ball. Did about everything but make threes, which he was really known for in college. Sometimes he looks like he’s almost wishing them to go in the way he tries so hard. He’s been like the golfer who doesn’t miss a shot on the range and then hits out of bounds on the first hole. He just needs to relax.

6. Can Mike Dunleavy be replaced, even for a month?

The conventional wisdom now is McDermott will start at small forward with Dunleavy coming off back surgery and not due to play until around Thanksgiving. But this is one of the advantages of having someone like Hoiberg as coach. He’s not going to be locked into a starting and reserve unit, other than the certainty of the Rose/Butler backcourt. McDermott could start at small forward, but so could Butler with Tony Snell at shooting guard. Or Snell at small forward. Mirotic mostly showed last season he’s best against bigger matchups. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Dunleavy in his return join the second unit as he was supposed to be a reserve when he first signed with the Bulls.

7. Is Tony Snell the X-factor or the Why-factor?

Like in why doesn’t he do more. Snell’s playing time was in inconsistent spurts again last season, though he showed flashes of great defensive ability with his long arms and movement and shooting. This is a big season for him to make a case for a contract extension. He showed the ability to defend great scorers and make big shots. And then he’d disappear for entire games or weeks. His versatility could be vital in plugging holes all over the floor. There are more physical limitations on players like McDermott and Mirotic than Snell. But can Snell break through, which seems now more in attitude and desire?

8. Does Jahlil Okafor have to worry about Bobby Portis for Rookie of the Year?

Obviously not given the depth of the Bulls roster, which can probably match anyone’s. Under Thibodeau, Portis would likely have had little chance to play given the Bulls having one of the strongest front courts in the league. Yet, that would be understandable. It is about having that home court advantage as well. But you get the sense, especially having seen him in college, Hoiberg is intrigued by Portis’ all out play and shooting ability for a big man. It’s still difficult to see a regular role for him, but Taj Gibson’s ankle surgery likely will have him coming into the season slowly. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gibson playing much less early as Hoiberg seems inclined, with top assistant Jim Boylen from the Spurs staff, to follow the Spurs model of using the bench more often in the regular season to have players building toward the playoffs. Though the balancing act is not sacrificing too many regular season wins since teams don’t often climb from beyond the top two or three spots to the Finals.

9. Can Rose and Butler get along?

This was the urban myth of last season. There really wasn’t anything to this supposed feud. But since everyone mentioned it there much have been something. It really was a dynamic not unusual with most teams and exacerbated some by Thibodeau. Given the playing time limitations placed on Rose, Thibodeau, obviously openly upset about it along with the restrictions on Noah, instead plotted much more offense for Gasol and Butler instead of Rose and Noah. It seemingly had a bit to do with Noah’s regression, but also put Rose and Butler at odds at times on the court with who should initiate the offense. Both are private off the court and spend time mostly with immediate family. But both have long shown in their actions a desire for team success first. Butler openly talked at USA Basketball in July of handling the ball more, which should help Rose as well since he likes to work on that three pointer off the ball. Of course, not everyone is thrilled seeing him take it. But Rose has shot it well at times and not having so much ball handling responsibility should help his legs and shooting. And though it’s supposedly anti-analytic, Rose’s mid range game is so good he should find space for that. Rose has worked more this summer on his floater and finishing, at which he surprisingly had some difficulties last season.

10. Can anyone beat LeBron and the Cavs?

If anyone can, it’s the Bulls. It’s tough to see anyone else in the Eastern Conference with a chance to knock off Cleveland. The Cavs had a great offseason adding Mo Williams, bringing back J.R. Smith and having Anderson Varejao return from injury. They are loaded. It’s hard to see Miami with its age and recovering players, Indiana with its makeover, Atlanta once again, the Wizards, Raptors or young Milwaukee make a run. The East will be better with teams like Orlando and new coach Scott Skiles, the Pistons with a second full season under Stan Van Gundy, and the Knicks with Carmelo Anthony back. But it’s not a done deal. The Bulls obviously had a great chance last spring with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love hurt. But there are lingering issues with the Cavs. How will Love and Tristan Thompson fit? And Varajao? Smith with Iman Shumpert and Williams? Irving starting the season late after surgery and having been injured every season in his career including in high school? With Rose, the Bulls can match Irving. All-league defender Butler can play against LeBron. There’s Noah’s spirit and defiance, which you need against the Cavs. The Cavs were flummoxed against Gasol before Gasol was hurt. Gibson, Mirotic and Portis can match up with the Cavs’ power forwards. Kirk Hinrich with fewer minutes can play hard in those short spurts and Aaron Brooks with space can make shots. The Cavs are and deserve to be the favorites. If you have LeBron you should be, anyway. But let’s see Rose in his first chance to play like an MVP candidate since 2012 along with All-Stars Butler, Noah and Gasol. It’s time.