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Test begins as Bulls eye a Finals exam
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So how good, really, is this season’s Bulls team?
The test begins Wednesday at Madison Square Garden with the opening game against the New York Knicks. Whether it will sustain to a Finals exam in June remains uncertain, of course. Though this team has its most, at least outside, support for ultimate excellence since the 1990s.
Among the five writers making NBA predictions Tuesday for the New York Times, for example, two picked the Bulls as champions and two picked the Cavs. It was hardly a stampede as the ESPN writers generally went with the Spurs and Cavs. But two of the five for Sports Illustrated had the Bulls in the Finals, though losing. Three of the four predictors in the New York Post had the Bulls in the Finals and one for a win. TNT’s Kenny Smith had the Bulls in the Finals. One of five picking for Yahoo had the Bulls winning the title. It’s not like the 90s, but the Bulls do seriously get in the postseason prediction conversation for the first time since 1997. Expectations haven’t been quite like this for almost 20 years.
“It comes down to, I think, your talent, your hunger, your drive, your work ethic, your discipline,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said on the eve of the opener Tuesday after the team’s last full practice in Chicago. “It’s all of the above and throughout the course of the season. You can’t pick and choose when you’re going to work hard. You can’t pick and choose only working hard on the days that you feel good. We’ll see. We’ll see. The games will tell us exactly where we are and whether our approach is the right one or changes need to be made.”
For the coach, it’s always caution. For the players, it’s more excitement and optimism.
“We have a lot of talent and we’ve had a lot of talent in the past,” said Joakim Noah. “A lot of things have to go our way. I love the mentality on this team. We’ve just got to keep grinding. It’s exciting. It starts tomorrow, embarking on a long journey. I couldn’t ask for anything more. We have a lot of new faces and a lot of new players, guys coming back from injuries. Chemistry is probably the most important thing. Chemistry doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve just got to keep working at it, keep understanding where guys want the ball. Play to each other’s strengths and cover our weaknesses, and keep growing as a group, through the good and the bad. That’s exciting.”
One of the early season concerns is the potential absence of Jimmy Butler with a sprained thumb. Thibodeau said Butler didn’t practice Tuesday, so it seems unlikely he’d play Wednesday. But no one has eliminated the possibility.
“I don’t know,” said Butler about the opener. “I feel better. I’ll put some ice on it and see how it feels in the morning. Obviously, everybody knows that I want to play but I don’t want to rush back too early. It’s a little setback. But I’ll be healthy in no time and ready to roll. We just want to prove that we can beat any team, that we’re an elite team in this league. This is the first step. I think we’re up there. You never know what could happen throughout the course of a season, but right now if we’re healthy, why can’t we be the best team in this league?”
It’s all in the doing in contrast to the talking. Here’s a look at the 2014-15 Bulls and perhaps what to expect this season.
Derrick Rose: He really looks back this time. Everyone sure hopes so, and as much around the NBA. It’s been both heartbreaking and ennobling to witness Rose enduring the injuries and disappointments with such grace and aplomb. And now to see him still with so much athletic brilliance is a hope for, obviously, the Bulls, but the NBA, which doesn’t have as many true star players as it would like to believe or the salaries suggest. Rose finished the preseason impressively, scoring 57 points in his last 56 minutes played over two games with dominating speed and leaping ability. Because of the two knee surgeries, fears will remain among fans, perhaps throughout his career. He is the fulcrum. His play supports and enhances everything and everyone. Without Rose, there is no chance for spring. Despite the addition of former All-Star Pau Gasol and young shooters, it was clear in preseason Rose’s scoring remains vital. He needs to be the 20-point per game scorer again for the Bulls offense to function well. He’s not going to be able to do that much less as hoped. The team must use his speed to play faster and not walk the ball up in half court sets so often. His three-point shooting, much reviled with USA Basketball, was excellent in preseason as his game looks even better. Anyone with wood for knocking?
Joakim Noah: The soul of the team with his leadership, hustle and heartfelt connection to the community may be the biggest question mark of the season. Noah had knee surgery after last season and was slow to recover. Thibodeau references monitoring playing time often and the assumption lately has been he’s referring more to Noah than Rose. But beyond health is the vacillating role for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and all-NBA first team center. He’s not even a center for the Bulls now. At least not starting. That’s newly acquired Pau Gasol, and it could be an uncertain process for Noah to adjust not only to playing off Gasol, but playing without the ball going through him. Thus far, Thibodeau has tried to establish Gasol in the deep post leaving Noah to the weak side and less ball responsibility. Perhaps at some point they go to more double high post and play off one another. Noah’s game is energy, but last season he was adding some offensive game. It’s questionable when there’s a space for that now the way the offense has functioned. It will be an all season debate about who should start, finish and play together regarding Noah, Gasol and Taj Gibson. Noah is likely more comfortable at center with Gibson since they’ve played together so long. But Gasol comes in as the piece who can perhaps help elevate the Bulls beyond their previous levels. So where does that leave Noah? He will search for that space during the season.
Pau Gasol: Will he be the X-factor or a question about why they needed him? Gasol was the prize of the summer in free agency, spurning more money and more successful teams because he saw great opportunity with the Bulls. In theory with Noah and Gibson, he gives the Bulls as talented a front court as there is in the NBA. Thibodeau spent the preseason games going into Gasol to start games. But Gasol doesn’t have the classic postup big man’s game. He’s highly skilled with a good jump shot and the athletic ability to defend and rebound with his long arms and smooth touch. But he’s not a center who rams his way to position and scores and can be ridden out of the post because of a lack of lower body strength. It’s one reason why the Lakers began to use Andrew Bynum more in the post at one time. So Gasol’s fit will be a work in progress along with his playing time. It’s like when you recruit a big time talent for college. Sure you can make all the promises in the world and once you have him, play him anywhere or bench him. But then what happens the next time you are recruiting? It’s likely the Bulls and Thibodeau made Gasol some sort of assurance about starting or finishing games and a significant role that would serve them badly if they were to renege. It’s likely why Thibodeau has so often spoken of “sacrifice” this preseason without being specific. His hope is probably those three will figure it out without the coach having to make it look like a demotion for someone. Those sorts of issues occur with every team every season. Depth and talent are good problems to have. As long as it works for everyone.
Jimmy Butler: He was having a terrific preseason, if not as a long distance shooter, until the unfortunate minor injury to his thumb. He led the team in shooting at 59 percent, though was one of five on threes, which isn’t classic for the shooting guard position. But his only make won a game at the buzzer. Which is the conundrum as Butler isn’t really a shooting guard. Or perhaps not exactly a small forward, though he can play the positions. But why he is so valuable and irreplaceable to the Bulls is that he’s perhaps the only player on the team who truly can defend both positions and the top scorers at those positions, like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Butler should be back in the next week and perhaps with a new contract extension as he has until Friday to work out a deal with the Bulls or become a restricted free agent. He’s said repeatedly he wants to stay with the Bulls. Butler has become an all-league defender and with his athletic ability in getting to the basket is good enough to start at shooting guard as he works to improve his shot. He’s not a classic drive and kick shooter with Rose, but he’s a valuable starter and essential to defend the top wing players.
Mike Dunleavy: Likely to be the fifth starter, though he’d always been targeted as a reserve. But there was the trade of Luol Deng last season and then Carmelo Anthony electing to remain in New York. Dunleavy is the quintessential team player who’ll move the ball, rebound or shoot as needed. He was the team’s best outside shooter in preseason at 44 percent on threes. There’s been some debate about whether he’d be better coming off the bench, less because he hurts the starters but more because he can help a reserve group that has been inconsistent and enable rookie Doug McDermott to be in a more comfortable situation with the starters. That, too, will likely be an ongoing debate. Meanwhile, the Bulls curiously have become this three-point launching team. Last season they were 28th in three point attempts. But in this preseason they’re an analytics dream team averaging almost 24 threes per game, about a 50 percent increase from last season. And that’s with the shooting guard barely attempting any. Not sure where that is headed.
Taj Gibson: The power forward sixth man became the odd starter out with the acquisition of Gasol. Gibson was to be moving to a starting position with the departure of Carlos Boozer, but he’s had to put that on hold. Gibson remains the consummate team guy, so he’s remained positive about his role. And given Noah’s physical questions and Gasol’s age, there’s a good chance Gibson averages more minutes than either. Gibson was the third leading scorer in preseason after Rose and Butler and has developed the team’s most practiced postup game with his physical play. It’s the element of post play Gasol lacks, though Gibson is much shorter. But Gibson has been in a second unit without many playmakers and thus a more stilted and stagnant game in the preseason. Last season, Thibodeau relied on him in the fourth quarters and, remarkably, Gibson was the team’s best fourth quarter scorer. His role, however, likely will evolve as the pieces fit together and Rose, of course, is there to make the big plays this season.
Kirk Hinrich: He’s become the senior Bull with a run since 2003 except for two seasons wandering the East while the Bulls tried some free agency gymnastics. He’s the team’s handyman playing some point guard to have Rose off the ball and shooting guard with Butler out. There also will be many small defensive lineups when Butler returns with Butler at small forward and Hinrich at shooting guard since Thibodeau is more comfortable with a defensive core and they are his best perimeter defenders. Hinrich’s been more confident with his shot in the preseason after being hesitant last season and comes in healthy. He’s as pugnacious as they come and one of the defenders shooting guards least like to play against.
Doug McDermott: The rookie shooter didn’t get the ball to go down quite enough in preseason. He shot 29 percent on threes and 35 percent overall. But he showed impressive versatility with his rebounding and taking the ball to the basket and getting fouled, rare for rookies. One problem seemed to be an ever changing group he was playing with as Thibodeau both experimented with lineups and limited playing time for some players. It’s why there’s some suggestion McDermott start so he can play with Rose and have more space for shooting with the defense focusing on Rose and Noah. Playing with a second unit without much playmaking, McDermott didn’t get many good shooting opportunities. It’s another of those work in progress things to find how best to use him and with whom. But he showed he’s ready to be a regular NBA rotation player.
Aaron Brooks: The latest in the small guard parade, Brooks is another shoot first, high scoring, good shooting guard who’ll get plenty of time. He shot about 39 percent on threes in the preseason and is deft at creating his own shot. He’s always been a scoring oriented guard, so it’s been difficult for McDermott and Nikola Mirotic to often get in the flow of the game on a unit with him as Gibson also has been scoring oriented in the post. The ball hasn’t moved as well with the second unit, which is why there has been some debate about having Dunleavy there as he’s good at finding space and keeping the offense moving even if he’s not a primary ball handler.
Nikola Mirotic: The European product has proven hesitant thus far, which is hardly a surprise as he works to fit into not only a new team but a new society. He’s clearly highly skilled with a good shot and the ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays, both shooting and passing. But he hasn’t found his place in the game and thus far is passing on shots too often. Thibodeau always says if you pass a good one you settle for a poorer one, though it’s difficult for a young player with so many celebrated veterans on a team with such high expectations. He’ll be a fourth big man, getting some time if players are out or limited in playing time or with fouls. Other times he likely will watch, which isn’t unreasonable as he’s probably more a player as the team transitions to the future as well as trying to succeed in the present.
Tony Snell: The second year guard may get more time now with Jimmy Butler questionable than he does later. Snell with his long arms and quickness may be the best option to help defensively on players like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. But Snell had an inconsistent preseason. He shot 20 percent on threes and 29 percent overall after a strong summer league. His playing opportunities were mixed and inconsistent as he seemed at the end of the rotation at times or just out. It probably will remain that way as he’ll be an emergency replacement or defensive specialist. But he’s another future figure given it’s his second season and he didn’t play much as a rookie.
Nazr Mohammed: The veteran rarely played in the preseason in his 17th season at 37. He’ll remain in the emergency replacement role playing occasionally with injuries or sitting out for weeks at a time. But he continues to work hard and keeps himself in good shape and always has proven ready.
Cameron Bairstow: The second round pick also got just a preseason cameo with 14 minutes over two games. He perhaps could spend some time in the D-League to get some playing time as for now the Bulls are well set at the front court positions and with Mohammed in reserve after Mirotic.
E’Twaun Moore: The young guard played two minutes in the preseason and remains in position as well as an emergency fill in. He’s had experience with three NBA seasons and can play both guard positions, so he’ll be valuable as well if needed.
“They’re all the same,” Thibodeau said about the start of another season, which really is not just another. “We’re going to find out (about the team). There’s a lot of work to be done. It’s the start. We’ll see. We’ll see how it unfolds. We have to be ready for everything. We may have some surprises. (Like) anytime someone doesn’t play or is restricted, it’s an opportunity for someone else. I expect whoever is in there to do well and get the job done. We’ve found over the years it’s always worked out. I don’t want to undersell how important Taj Gibson is to our team. He’s had a great camp. He’ll be ready to go. That’s a big plus for us. Kirk has had a very good training camp. We’ve had a number of guys who can get the job done.”
And Wednesday they’ll start being judged.