Is it just the beginning? Or is it the beginning of the end?
The Bulls open the 2015-16 NBA season Tuesday in the United Center against the defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers. The general consensus regarding the Bulls is this is a pivotal season, a potential closing of the title window, as it were, with Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol possible free agents and Derrick Rose with a history of major injuries. It’s either now or never.
Or is it?
This also is a Bulls team with nine of the 15 players on the roster 27 years of age or under, in the prime of their careers or well before it. Which would suggest several years remaining to be competitive and chase excellence.
“We will have to see,” Rose said when asked whether this is the best Bulls team—top to bottom—he has played on. “I'm very, very confident with this team that we have. But in the past we've had some great teams. You can't compare them. Our No. 1 goal is to win a championship this year. Everything that's happened in the past is in the past. This year I feel confident with the teammates that I have, and we're building something. We have young guys; we have Jimmy (Butler, an All-Star), we've got Dougie (McDermott); he's playing great, Tony (Snell) is coming into his own. So we've got a bunch of young guys that are trying to figure out the NBA and figure out the system. We've just got to bring them along. Who knows how good we can be?”
That, obviously, will be determined during the next six months of the regular season. And a very different season.
There is a new coach, a first time NBA coach in former Bulls player Fred Hoiberg. There’s perhaps more quality depth than any Bulls team in years. There’s a former Defensive Player of the Year and two-time All-Star in Joakim Noah coming off the bench, making it four Bulls players from the last four years to be All-Stars.
“It is a good problem to have when you have as many guys as we do to play,” said Hoiberg. “There’s got to be sacrifice. It’s hopefully going to keep us fresh as the season goes on, to have as many bodies as we do. It’ll be good for our guys. Instead of playing 35, 36 (minutes), if you’re playing 25, 26 and keep some legs fresh, I think that’s definitely possible.”
And then there’s Rose, in many respects the fulcrum to balance out this roster of depth and talent. The Bulls have been to the conference finals once since 1998. That was when Rose had his best season in 2011. They’ll need him to have a great season to return. And even with the preseason orbital injury and three weeks out, this was the first summer since 2011 that Rose wasn’t recovering from knee surgery.
“It’s great for him and the team to have him out there,” said Hoiberg. “I don’t think people understand the work he put in (during) the offseason to get himself prepared for this year and then to have that unfortunate incident about a half hour into our first practice; all the guys felt really bad about that. Everybody understands the importance of Derrick to this team and where we want to go.
“It’s a long year; that’s where in regards to Derrick you have to be a little careful,” Hoiberg added. “It’s a marathon. You have to prepare your guys the best you can and try to keep them healthy. It’s great to get him back. It’s great for our guys, just the dynamic explosiveness he brings to the floor. If those guys aren’t running, Derrick is going to pass them by. I know it’s fun for our guys to play that way.”
So it will also be a new style, faster and more wide open, a new coach, a new starting--and perhaps finishing--lineup.
“We’ll go with whoever is playing well (to close games),” said Hoiberg. “We’ve really got 11, 12 guys you’d feel comfortable throwing out there in the game. That’s how it’s going to be, at least initiall, in the season: Who’s out there performing? Who’s playing well? Who’s hot? You’ve got to ride that. That’s how we’ll go and that’s how we’ll determine who is going to close out games for us at least early on.”
But it’s still the same nemesis in LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Something old in Gasol; something new in Hoiberg; something borrowed like the guys from around the world like Nikola Mirotic, Cameron Bairstow and Cristiano Felicio, the latter making the team as 15th man; and something blue to symbolize the loyalty of someone like Kirk Hinrich.
Is this a team you can love? We’ll soon discover.
- Derrick Rose: The now eighth-year point guard and former league MVP is moving into the top 10 in franchise history in seasons played, if he hasn’t exactly played them all. But Rose seems as healthy as he’s been since his 2012 ACL injury. He’s been excited about the possibilities with Hoiberg’s offensive philosophy of fast break basketball. He also draws the most defensive attention from opponents with his penetration. He played in only the final preseason game after orbital surgery and looked fast and explosive with three driving basket scores in 10 minutes. He has said in this offense he should average at least seven assists per game. Left unsaid was he also should score at least 20 points. If he does so, he and Jimmy Butler could become the elite backcourt of the conference.
- Jimmy Butler: The reigning Most Improved Player and first time All-Star comes off signing a maximum contract. He had an erratic preseason after a brilliant opening game. Hoiberg said not to be concerned about the preseason and that come opening night Butler would be back to his All-Star form. Butler prospered in former coach Tom Thibodeau’s half court offense and led the team in scoring last season at 20 per game. He won’t get as many set plays drawn for him like last season, but by running the court he should profit from Rose’s speed. Butler is the team’s best perimeter defender and will guard the opponent’s best offensive perimeter player. He’s been the iron man of the team the last two years. If he can improve his shooting a bit to play off Rose they could both be All-Stars. “I’m not sure I’ve seen a guy who works as hard as Jimmy Butler,” said Hoiberg.
- Tony Snell: With Mike Dunleavy’s back surgery, Snell opens at small forward. The Bulls are hoping he can earn his way to stay there even when Dunleavy returns. That’s because Hoiberg wants to start Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, two average defenders. So he needs a second strong wing defender to go with Butler. Snell came on in the last two preseason games, finally going aggressively to the basket. The Bulls need him not to be hesitant. He tends to disappear from games, give up the ball too quickly and not finishing strong at the basket. If he becomes more aggressive he should stay a starter.
- Nikola Mirotic: The second year player who had a big month last March and then faded with less play in the playoffs looks like the starting power forward in Hoiberg’s lineup to provide more spacing as a three-point shooter. The Bulls have been trying to break Mirotic of the habit of pump faking so much and instead shoot those threes when they are open. He’s proven to be a good, all around offensive player and he got his three-point shooting to around 38 percent in preseason. Hoiberg has toyed with the idea of playing him at times at small forward to accommodate rookie Bobby Portis, but Mirotic loses his quickness advantage at small forward. His shooting will be vital.
- Pau Gasol: The veteran center comes off a career best season, though he missed much of the second round series with the Cavaliers after hamstring problems. He led the team in total minutes played last season despite being the oldest regular. He’ll play less, likely in the Tim Duncan mold, to build toward the playoffs. His pick and pop shooting game hurt the Cavaliers in the Bulls Game 1 victory, though Gasol was lost soon after. He had a brilliant summer carrying Spain to the European Olympic qualifying and has been eased through the preseason. His numbers won’t be as big as last season, but the playoffs are a more important target. He’ll be relied upon quite a bit, however, as the primary Bulls post up option to get the defense to sink in and further open the perimeter for slashing. Rose said the offensive sets have shown more than usual driving lanes. “With Pau back in the lineup we’re playing through him a lot,” said Hoiberg.”Not quite as many ball screens. When Pau is in the game that’s created more paint points for us.
That’s what this offense is designed to do, draw defenders in and help on ball screen actions to open up the three point line. But if they are going to hug the three point shooters, then we should be able to get a lot of shots at the rim, too.”
- Joakim Noah: The team leader in sacrifice is showing the way again, embracing a reserve role a little over a season removed from being top five in the league MVP voting. Noah had a difficult 2014-15 recovering from knee surgery, but has pronounced himself fit. He seems to be regaining confidence in his shooting again and asked Hoiberg to be paired more often with Taj Gibson in an energetic defensive unit. Though not starting, Noah figures to finish games often. He’ll return more to the running court style he played four and five years ago even at 30 years old. He is the team’s emotional leader and his enthusiasm, missing often last season as he battled pain, is vital in inspiring the team.
- Taj Gibson: Gibson is coming off ankle surgery, but he has looked fit and fast in preseason after sitting out half the games. He’s been the warrior mentality for team and it probably hurt him playing through so many injuries. He’s developed a nice little baseline jumper the last few years and goes to the basket with more force than anyone on the team. He and Noah will be relied on to change momentum in games and control the boards as the Bulls reserves could often out perform the starters.
- Doug McDermott: He’ll be crucial for the team coming off the bench with his shot. He’s the best pure shooter on the team, though he’s still to completely relax in trying too hard sometimes to make those threes that come so easily in practice. He shot 36 percent on threes in the preseason. The Bulls need his shot for court spacing. He’ll play more with the defenders Noah and Gibson as he’s not a great defender for his small forward position. “Doug’s been really good for us,” said Hoiberg. “Going back to summer league where he got a lot of plays run for him, I thought he responded really well. He’s (led) our team in scoring (most of the) preseason; he’s battling on that other end as well. I think he’s made big strides in his game. I anticipate a really good season for Doug.”
- Kirk Hinrich/Aaron Brooks/E’Twaun Moore: The backup point guard and occasional shooting guard brigade. “Those three in no particular order,” Hoiberg said when asked about backup to Rose. Brooks is an unusually clever scorer and Moore has shown his most aggression offensively since coming to the team. Both Brooks and Moore are more scoring guards and, at times, McDermott has struggled playing with them. Hoiberg likes small lineups as well and will play them with Rose or together. “All three can play together,” said Hoiberg. “Kirk and E’Twaun are combo guards. Aaron is best when he’s got the ball in his hands. But I still think he can play out there with Derrick and play off the ball because of his ability to shoot it. It’s just a matter of having the right matchups defensively. We’re comfortable with all of them. Kirk’s been terrific as far as getting us into an offense. Our defense is always more organized when Kirk is on the floor. I’ve been really impressed with E’Twaun. He has been really consistent and Aaron got it going, had 22 (last week) and can heat up as much as anyone on this team.”
- Bobby Portis: The rookie No. 22 pick has been the surprise of the preseason, averaging nearly a double/double in about 22 minutes per game. His problem will be getting playing time with four big men in Gasol, Noah, Gibson and Mirotic ahead of him and Mirotic not suited as much for small forward. But Hoiberg likes Portis, especially his passion and willingness to be physical. He’s emotional and confident for a rookie. He has impressive range on a nice looking shot and plays only at full speed. He’ll work his way into the lineup at times. “I wish I could tell you a definite amount of minutes Bobby is going to play,” said Hoiberg. “Or not play on a nightly basis. He’s playing behind some very good veteran players right now with Joakim and Pau and Niko and Taj. But there’s going to be a lot of really good moments for Bobby this year. No doubt about that. What will his minutes be in the rotation to start the season Tuesday? I don’t know. Going in we may not think he is going to play a lot, but based on if we need a shot of energy I know Bobby will give that to us. It’s going to be an evolving thing with Bobby.”
- Mike Dunleavy: The veteran forward had back surgery just before training camp began and will be out until after Thanksgiving. The Bulls have the depth to absorb his absence, though they played their poorest last season when he was out for 19 games. It’s possible given Gasol and Mirotic starting that he could come off the bench when he returns if Snell is able to sustain his play at small forward. It’s another reason why Snell’s play is vital for the team. Dunleavy would only further strengthen perhaps the league’s deepest bench. Plus his shooting is important as he led the team in three-point shooting last season. It would help McDermott, it seems, if there were more three-point options on the floor. Hoiberg would prefer at least two top three-point shooters among Dunleavy, Mirotic and McDermott on the floor regularly.
- Cameron Bairstow: The second year player from Australia played early in the preseason and showed shooting ability and defensive hustle. He’s not big for a power forward, but as an emergency player has shown he can come in and play representative minutes.
- Cristiano Felicio: The big man from Brazil who impressed the Bulls in summer league was the surprise roster addition after the Bulls looked like they’d keep 14. He and Dunleavy likely will be in inactives throughout November, but the Bulls like his athletic ability at his size. Especially with future uncertainty regarding free agent big men. “I think Cris has a tremendous future,” said Hoiberg “He’s another guy who came in to our summer league and really impressed us. He has unbelievable feet for a kid that size. And for as young as he is he has a nice touch. His (made that) three pointer against Minnesota in Winnipeg a couple of games ago. He can stay in front of anybody including guards. I think Chris has a tremendous future.”