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State of the Bulls

The Bulls for the first time since 1997 begin an NBA season considered a true championship contender, writes Sam Smith, who takes a look at each player on the roster.

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.

Sam Smith Mailbag

It’s nearly the start of the 2013-14 NBA season, and it can safety, if cautiously, be stated that the State of the Bulls is strong.

The Bulls for the first time since 1997 begin an NBA season considered a true championship contender, if not the favorite.

The Bulls come into the season with perhaps their strongest, or maybe most balanced, lineup since their last championship season. The Bulls were favorites then and they had Michael Jordan, which makes up for some uncertainty elsewhere and counts probably two. But on opening day in 1997, the starting lineup was Jordan, Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc, Jason Caffey and Luc Longley. Scottie Pippen would eventually join the team in January after having offseason surgery.

The Bulls open this season with the return of Derrick Rose, who in averaging more than 20 points in just over 27 minutes per game in the preseason makes the case he’s back to his league MVP form. Jimmy Butler takes over at shooting guard. Though his shot doesn’t yet measure up to the position, his athletic ability and defense is the best the Bulls have had at shooting guard since Jordan.

Luol Deng has been an All-Star the last two seasons and Joakim Noah was an All-Star last season. Noah was also an all-defensive team selection. Carlos Boozer is coming off his best season as a Bull and in excellent shape had a strong preseason.

#KiaTipOff13

There is perhaps no team in the league with the combination of players under 30 who have been honored to the extent of these Bulls players over the last few years. Of course, none of that means much if you don’t have success in the playoffs. Which is where the Bulls have fallen short, notably with Rose’s serious injury in the first game of the 2012 playoffs.

But this, nevertheless, appears to be a confident if obviously not cocky group of players who sees the possibilities as well.

“It’s no lie,” said Deng. “You can’t hide how we feel or lie about it. When you go into a season with arguably the best point guard in the league and have a good record (45-37 last season without Rose) and do well in playoffs (even with other players out), the whole summer you can’t wait for him to come back. Definitely, there is excitement with everyone in this locker room. Having him back and how much he changes the game.”

Though Deng nor anyone else is hardly suggesting the Bulls are favorites or should be. The Heat is, and that’s one reason the opener Tuesday is such a cherished game. It’s one of 82, as the saying goes, sort of like the buildup for a baseball opening day, and then there’ll be three weather seasons change before there is a champion.

The NBA doesn’t take quite as long, though it seems like it, and everyone knows it all goes through Miami as it did with Chicago in the 1990’s. No matter how good you looked or felt. And no matter how vulnerable they might seem you had to beat them first. And few have.

“They won it twice,” acknowledged Deng. “Not just us. Everybody’s coming at them. That’s the team everyone wants to go after. You want what they have. The only way to get it is playing them tough and going through them. They’re going to be good again. We’re comfortable with what we have. It’s going to be an interesting year.”

There’s another element to the confidence the Bulls are taking into this season. It’s less seen externally, though all teams claim it: We’re a family!

Not too many are. Few, actually. But this Bulls group, of which the core of Rose, Deng, Noah, Boozer and Taj Gibson have been together since 2010 along with Butler the last two years and Kirk Hinrich returning. All teams talk of the importance of chemistry and trust, and you can develop that on the court as NBA players are the highest level of professionals and talents.

You pick your friends; not your teammates. But these teammates do mostly get along as friends. It makes a difference given the long periods spent together and the order of teams with points and shots and salary and dirty work. But jealousies seem to rarely arise among this Bulls group with a common desire to not only succeed but also not to let one another down.

“The locker room is the best thing,” said Deng. “Like (newcomer Mike) Dunleavy said the other day. He comes to the gym and everybody is in there working on their game. Hopefully, that will continues through the year. It’s the first time in 10 years here I’ve seen that many people in here working on their games. You see the next guy working hard, you don’t want to be the one letting everyone down. So you go in and stay ready.

“The optimism comes from Derrick being back,” said Deng. “But the new guys in the locker room have been great. Jo made his first All Star team, Carlos had a great year and then you bring Derrick into the equation and you have no choice but to believe the team will be better than the year before.”

They tend not to talk about it much, but Deng joked about it Monday at practice before the team departed for Miami and Tuesday’s opener.

“I’ll answer that to you as a gm,” Deng said to laughter when asked about this being this Bulls’ group’s last dance. “We’d like to see everyone back here next year and get another run no matter what happens this year.”

But seriously, Lu.

“I believe we still have a lot left,” said Deng. “I think we have a great chance this year. You don’t want to put your mind in a situation you can’t answer. Right now we just have to worry about who’s here and what we‘ve got to do and when that time comes figure it out.”

It’s natural to consider this could be the group’s version of the champions Bulls’ last dance with Deng and Hinrich free agents, speculation about an amnesty for Boozer and talk about bringing over Nikola Mirotic and perhaps considering free agents.

That 1997-98 season was different, of course, since coach Phil Jackson was leaving and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen insisted that would, as well. And they did.

There is no plan for this group, and should they have a successful season it’s certainly possible and likely they would return for another run.

“I wouldn’t say we have the feeling of last shot,” said Deng. “But I’d say we believe in each other more. We’ve been through a lot. I always believe every team that wins has to go through some things. I think we’re more mature. Guys want to win more than anything. Earlier in my career, a lot of guys wanted individual numbers and to do well individually. This team we don’t really have that. It’s more a group. At the end of the day everyone knows you have to be healthy come April. We understand that even more now. But we like what we have.”

Here’s a look at what the Bulls have for this season:

Derrick Rose: The kid from Chicago seems so much back we are starting to forget he was gone. Rose’s explosion to the basket seems the same and his shooting touch looks good as he shot 44 percent on threes in preseason. Rose also seems more confident and mature with who he is and his role in the game.

Joakim Noah: The Bulls center is something of the team’s X-factor even as an All-Star and top defender. That’s because his health from foot to lately groin and leg problems has come up every season. The Bulls potential weakness is at center as only veteran Nazr Mohammed backs up Noah. Noah’s game hasn’t changed as far as offense. No one’s throwing him the ball in the post and he likes being a playmaker. He’s made himself a 75 percent free throw shooter the last two seasons and is capable of some of the most remarkably athletic plays, like his ball save for Marco Bellinelli’s winning basket against Detroit last season. Or his own 30-point and 23-rebound game or his team leading Game 7 over Brooklyn in the playoffs. He has a unique ability to rise to the occasion, but his health will remain more a concern than that of Rose.

Luol Deng: The reigning two-time All-Star becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season. He wanted to have some talks, but the Bulls preferred to wait until after the season. Deng seems to have accepted and has been in a good mood in camp and coming on strong the last week. He’s a coach favorite with his knack for producing even when he is shooting poorly with rebounding or defense. There’s been an ambivalence about his season leading playing time, occasionally tiring but pleased the coach depends on him so much. He’s not the type to carry a team and goes astray at times when he tries to isolate. But he’s becoming an all time complementary player that great teams need.

Carlos Boozer: His first name is not, much maligned. But Boozer has taken his unusual share of community second guessing with grace and aplomb. Perhaps oversold as a free agent or scrutinized too carefully as there always is one player like that, Boozer has often been viewed as wanting, especially with defense. But he’s never complained or been a distraction and produces. Few players of his stature with All-Star and Olympic team credentials would be so quiet when regularly taken out late in games or ignored in the offense. But Boozer always talks team first. As a bit older player, he’s not one to hang out a lot. But he’s been the healthiest of the core after questions about his motivation in Utah. He’s not going to get 20 and 10, but he’ll produce.

Jimmy Butler: The newest member of the starting lineup is a surprise who came on exceptionally strong late last season and in the playoffs with iron man play. He’s an aggressive defender who gives the Bulls a strong wing defense with Deng. He’s also an excellent rebounder for a guard. But he’s still hesitant with his shot and prefers to drive the ball. Teams will begin playing off him and he’ll have to make that three-point shot his position suggests. But he’s gotten better each season.

Taj Gibson: The super sub for Boozer is looking the best he has. Gibson came out of nowhere to surprise his rookie season as a frequent starter. But his game seemed to regress with personal family and friend tragedies the next year and then contract uncertainties. His development stalled as he never got his jump shot going. But Gibson has come into this season stronger than ever with a better offensive game and more powerful and aggressive post moves. That’s even more vital as he’ll be called on to play more center if Noah has physical issues and without a true backup center.

Kirk Hinrich: The point guard from the baby Bulls of the mid 2000’s is finishing off his two-year deal now moving to reserve with Rose back. He’s a walking series of unusual injuries, in part because of how hard he attacks the game. He’ll play with Rose at times and other times run the offense, which he did so well last season. The hope is the lesser playing time will keep him in more games, but his injuries are unpredictable. He still remains one of the league’s best defensive guards because of his tenacious play.

Mike Dunleavy: The principal offseason addition is an excellent three-point shooter who is to fill a role more like Kyle Korver than Marco Belinelli. Dunleavy is a good passer and smart player with a nice feel for the game. He’s not fast, but he is rugged and already has upset Pacers players, who were angry at him last season when he was with the Bucks for tough hits on his former teammates in Indiana. His size also gives him an unusual ability to come up with unexpected tipins.

Nazr Mohammed: The veteran big man from Kenwood Academy has proven a pleasant surprise. Thought to be washed up last season when he started slowly for the Bulls and played little, Mohammed came on late in the season when Noah was hurt and made key plays in big playoff moments. He looks like he can handle a solid 15 to 18 minutes per game behind Noah, not necessarily scoring but providing the size as a rim protector. He actually was among the league leaders in blocks in preseason.

Marquis Teague: The 20-year-old second year point guard shows an aggressive offensive game going to the rim. He has a tendency to dribble a bit too much setting up his play, but he’s much more relaxed and confident than he was last season. He’s not great running a team, but he can provide offense in short spurts.

Tony Snell: The rookie first round pick is long armed and active on defense and is a worker. His shot with a high arc is uneven, and there’s only a chance he’ll get rotation minutes. He could play in defensive units in the first half.

Erik Murphy: The second round pick is a stretch four type forward, more the shooter. He’s got a nice stroke, but his lack of speed causes him foul problems with the faster NBA players. He likely won’t play much regularly, but can hold down a few minutes at times as he’s not hesitant about physical play.

Mike James: The one free agent who was retained is a savvy veteran who can be called upon any time and can produce or run the team. He even became a starter at times last season with Dallas. Though the team’s need is more with a big man, James is ready to play, which is vital for a contending team. He can fill in for Hinrich or play off Teague as he’ll make shots and always keeps himself in good condition.

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