"In the best season of his pro career, Noah became the emotional leader of the Bulls," writes Smith. "He won the league’s top defensive award and was voted by media the best center. Perhaps no one’s role on the Bulls could change as much this season."
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There's no time like the present for the Bulls

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By Sam Smith | 09.28.2014 | 7:25 a.m. CT | asksam@bulls.com | @SamSmithHoops

Is it time? Has the time come today? Is it time to stop putting it off for another day? Is it time to not care what others say? Has the time come for the Bulls to return to the championship trophy celebration?

No one is supposed to discuss such things almost nine months before it’s possible. But this 2014-15 Bulls season is pregnant with wonderful and lively championship possibilities.

This Bulls team appears to be the strongest since the title years of the 1990’s.

One of the informal NBA formulas for ultimate success is to have two players in the top five at their positions and another in the top 10 and at least one who is a top defender at his position.

There are obvious reservations given the injuries the past two years to Derrick Rose. But if Rose is healthy, he certainly is a top five point guard.

Joakim Noah in being named last season Defensive Player of the Year and All-NBA first team obviously can make the case for being top five at his position. And though Pau Gasol didn’t have a great season, his 2013-14 averages of 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds would rank him among the top big men in the game. And he just comes out of the FIBA Basketball World Cup being perhaps the most impressive player in the tournament.

Plus, the Bulls put Noah and Jimmy Butler on the all-defensive teams last season with Taj Gibson also a strong contender as Gibson was runner up in the voting for Sixth Man of the Year.

The Bulls have a former league MVP and thus three current or former all-NBA players in the starting lineup assuming Gasol starts, as expected. They bring off the bench the league’s top big man reserve and added this offseason Nikola Mirotic, who was a two-time European winner of the Rising Star award for best young player and Spanish League MVP, Doug McDermott, the consensus national collegiate player of the year and one of the top three-point shooters in NCAA history, and point guard Aaron Brooks, who averaged 19.6 points per game the last time he was a regular starter.

The additions give the Bulls their deepest veteran team in almost two decades.

Plus, the Bulls can claim the top coach in the Eastern Conference in Tom Thibodeau, the only current Eastern Conference coach to be named NBA Coach of the Year.

The Bulls have size and arguably the best frontcourt in the NBA with Noah, Gasol and Gibson. The Bulls have athleticism in Rose and Butler. They have shooting with McDermott and Mike Dunleavy Jr., the latter shooting 40 percent on threes the last four seasons. They have defense with Kirk Hinrich also having been an all-league defender to add to Noah and Butler and Thibodeau regarded as the top defensive coach in the NBA. So why not think of a call to action, that it could be time again?

Here’s a look at the roster for the 2013-14 season. Media day for interviews is Monday. Training camp drills begin Tuesday. The first preseason game is Oct. 6 at the United Center against Washington. The opening game is Oct. 29 against the Knicks in New York.

-- Derrick Rose: Rose’s health, obviously, will be the question hanging over him all season. It was every day with the summer USA Basketball team even as he played five games in six days and looked as fast and athletic as anyone playing. The story line will be ripe with second guessing that either Rose is playing too much or too little, that he could get injured because he’s fatigued or could get injured because he’s not in condition. The first injury was after not playing too much; the second was in a back to back. Rose, to his credit, has gone past all of that even if the media and public has not and likely will not. I was at all the summer games and thought he looked great. The poor shooting was more a function of taking two or three shots per game and basically coming into games to be a facilitator because the other three “point” guards all shot every time they had the ball. You can improve shooting; not speed and athleticism. With the roster depth and addition of an inside player who can score in Gasol, Rose will be asked to do much less offensively. Remember, when he came to the Bulls, he averaged 16.8 points and the notion he could be a league MVP seemed ludicrous because everyone agreed he was not a scorer after averaging 14.9 in college. Rose became a scorer for the Bulls playing with starters like Keith Bogans. And when Noah and Gibson had much less sophisticated games. Rose just being back and being a threat will change how defenses react to the Bulls and, in theory, create shooting opportunities for other players. Yes, Rose remains the fulcrum around which the team thrives and potentially enables the Bulls to turn into title contenders. But we also know no one will be watched as carefully and with as much joy and dread.

-- Joakim Noah: In the best season of his pro career, Noah became the emotional leader of the Bulls. He won the league’s top defensive award and was voted by media the best center. Perhaps no one’s role on the Bulls could change as much this season. In some respects, Taj Gibson might fit better with Pau Gasol. Gasol likely will start at power forward with Noah at center. But Gasol is by far the better offensive player and post player. Much of Noah’s offensive impact last season was as something of a point center with the offense running through him. That changes with the return of Rose and the addition of Gasol. Plus, Noah quietly has been piling up injuries with thumb surgery in 2010, ankle and foot problems and then knee surgery after last season, which prevented him from playing in the summer. He’ll likely come into the season slowly and perhaps more than Rose is a candidate for reduced minutes as he turns 30 this season. Noah seems likely to be more of a defensive specialist this season being able to cover the better offensive player when playing with Gasol and adept in the switching defenses with Gibson that have been so effective under Thibodeau.

-- Pau Gasol: The jewel of the offseason for the Bulls. He’s been overlooked amidst the decline of the Lakers the last two seasons. But he showed in the World Cup games an offensive fluidity and defensive prowess with shot blocking. He was considered the league’s most skilled big man two years ago and could return to that level. He could be the most versatile big man in the Eastern Conference this season. He’s a good passer like Noah, so also could have offense come through him as Noah did last season.  There probably hasn’t been a big man in franchise history with the offensive and defensive versatility.

-- Jimmy Butler: The news question that will follow Butler around throughout October will be whether he signs a long-term extension. If he doesn’t, he’ll become a restricted free agent and the Bulls could match any offer next summer.  If there is a deal, it likely wouldn’t come until the last moments like with Taj Gibson two years ago. It’s a big season for Butler to show whether he can play the shooting guard position. It’s more important now with Rose and Gasol given their passing and presence should open space for shooters. After shooting 38 percent on threes in 2012-13, Butler’s percentage fell to 28 percent last season. But he averaged about 39 minutes per game in a heavy workload, especially after Luol Deng was traded.  So perhaps there were tired legs. He should have more time off this season. Butler was voted a second team all-defensive player and will draw the best opposition offensive player, a vital role previously reserved for Deng.

-- Mike Dunleavy Jr. Pressed into starting duties much more than expected with injuries and then the trade of Deng, Dunleavy probably will start again at small forward. It’s not an ideal role as last season he started his most games in six years. But Dunleavy was sturdy in not missing a game for the first time in six years, averaging more than 30 minutes per game and second to D.J. Augustin in three-point shooting. He’s a good rebounder and passer, though not the ideal defender when Butler has to guard the small forward. Tony Snell could help defensively and it’s possible rookie Doug McDermott at some point moves into a starting role if his shooting remains strong.

-- Taj Gibson: There was speculation in the summer Gibson would be upset not starting with the departure of Carlos Boozer and having his coming out season as Sixth Man runner up. He set or tied career highs in virtually every offensive category. Gibson said there are no personal lineup issues.  Plus, he should even without starting get plenty of playing time with the possibility of Noah easing into the season and a desire not to overwork Gasol at 34. It’s possible even not starting Gibson averages more minutes than either. Gibson finally developed a reliable baseline jump shot last season and should be able to move it farther outside. He’s an excellent interior defender and shot blocker, though not someone to move to small forward even with his defensive versatility.  He should be the top Sixth Man contender this season.

-- Kirk Hinrich: Like Dunleavy, Hinrich became a surprise starter last season. The team did curtail his minutes, but he started more than 60 games despite the expectation of being third guard. His defense remains strong even as he turns 34 this season. After a slow start, Hinrich shot the ball well the second half of the season and gives the team options as Rose will play off the ball with Hinrich at point guard at times as Hinrich can defend the shooting guards.

-- Doug McDermott: The most intriguing of the young players given his shooting prowess. McDermott is a mature rookie who’ll be 23 early in the season. He was one of the best three point shooters in NCAA history and won basically every collegiate honor as a senior. He’ll come off the bench to start as veteran coaches with teams considered contenders generally don’t start rookies. Given Dunleavy is not the ideal starting small forward, that could change later in the season. Even if it doesn’t--coaches like Thibodeau don’t like what appears to be demotions with veterans--McDermott could get more minutes if his shooting remains strong. He should get opportunities playing with Rose, Noah and Gasol and appears to be a competent defender with good size.

-- Nikola Mirotic: With Gasol, Noah and Gibson, there doesn’t appear much playing time for a rookie up front while also adjusting to a new country and language. Mirotic is a power forward, stretch forward big man shooter. He has to play the big men role, so will be behind those three. He has impressive three-point range. So he should at least get some spot minutes as a designated shooter, though this should be more a transition season learning the league and the team.

-- Tony Snell: As a rookie last season, he got some spot starts with the injuries. He was too often tentative, which isn’t unusual for a rookie. He has been determined with an aggressive summer league to be more assertive. He’s got potential as a defender with size and long arms and showed flashes of three-point shooting range, though too often being deferential. Whether he is more aggressive likely will determine whether he has more of a role than he did last season as he can back up both wing positions.

--  Aaron Brooks: Formerly a high scoring point guard for the Rockets, he has become a journeyman and also left the NBA for a year to play in China. He was named the league’s Most Improved Player in 2010 and has averaged almost 20 points in a season. Brooks is smallish at perhaps six feet, but an aggressive offensive player and insurance for Rose, a veteran player who can give Rose time off if there are health concerns or an inclination to rest for the playoffs.

-- Nazr Mohammed: The native Chicago big man returns for a third season with the Bulls. He takes on the quiet, veteran locker room role of providing the correct model and being available in case of injuries. He’s kept himself in good condition and is comfortable with the team’s system.

-- E’twaun Moore: The East Chicago native was an occasional starter because of injuries after being traded to Orlando. He’s played both guard positions at about 6-4 and is further insurance as he shoots the three reasonably well.

-- Cameron Bairstow: The second round pick big man isn’t likely to play much. But he appears to have the ability to develop into a backup big man role.

We’ll all have some better ideas where this can lead 90 games from now.