Tom Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls return after the year-plus absence of their former MVP, Derrick Rose. As one of the longest-tenured coaches in the league (only 5 coaches have been with their current team longer), Thibodeau leads a defensive minded squad with the high expectations of reaching the NBA Finals, elusive since their 1998 championship. But the stellar play by Rose in the preseason has given credence to the hype surrounding the Bulls in this upcoming season.
The Bulls are chasing the #1 overall seed once again, and home-court advantage is even more important than in decades past, with the owners unanimously deciding to switch to 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format this past week. Their roster's a bit different, as a majority of the reserves have been let go, and rookies and journeymen have taken their place. Just how deep is this year's team, and will Coach Thibodeau run them into the ground?
Prediction: Chicago secures a top-2 seed in the East (and likely the entire league) before once again falling just shy of the NBA Finals.
After looking for a shooting guard all of last year, the Bulls stumbled upon second-year player Jimmy Butler, only after running out of other players able to play the 2 position. Injuries and old age decimated the Bulls on their playoff run in 2012-13, with their first- and second-string point guards out, forcing them to play Nate Robinson heavy minutes. Robinson took full advantage and secured a decent contract with the Denver Nuggets. Jimmy Butler took the starting role from Rip Hamilton and Marco Belinelli, who were not quick or adept enough to keep up with Thibodeau's defensive schemes.
Vladimir Radmanovic is gone as well, although he didn't see much playing time as a Bull. Kirk Hinrich returns as the backup point guard, with Mike James as a fail-safe in case their injury-prone guards go down. The forward position has been solidified with New Mexico rookie (and Kawhi Leonard double) Tony Snell and Florida rookie Erik Murphy providing backups for Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson.
Bill Simmons has been releasing his 2013-2014 predictions on the NBA season in video form this past month, and has gone against the tide and ranked the Bulls at #1. I fully disagree (you're welcome Stampler). As defending champs, the Miami Heat deserve that spot, and should be deemed the best team in the league seeing as they haven't lost a single key player from their run last year, and have only added solid low-risk/high-reward signings in Greg Oden and Michael Beasley.
The Bulls have a stellar starting cast, and if preseason has shown us anything, it is that Derrick Rose is back to full speed and seems just as athletic as before. Training ever since his injury in May 2012, Rose states that he has gained 5 inches on his vertical, upping it to 42 inches, and has worked on his jumpers and basketball awareness. If Rose makes another leap from his amazing 2011 MVP season, the Bulls will be great once again, seeing their defensive stalwarts in Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and the rising Jimmy Butler. These players are perfect for shutting down the Heat, as Noah is mobile enough to guard Bosh while still protecting the rim, and Deng and Butler can take turns guarding Dwyane Wade and LeBron.
Nevertheless, modeling your team to beat a single team is never a good idea, no matter how many times the Heat have won the Eastern Conference the past three years. (All three? Oh, well maybe the Bulls have a point...) The Bulls will be a tough matchup for the Heat since Rose finally has a backcourt mate that can take off some pressure against opposing defenses and the previously mentioned defensive matchups with the Heat's Big Three.
But when I look at the Bulls' bench, I begin to worry. The Bulls have Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy as their only capable veterans that can contribute legitimate minutes during the regular season, and if they have to rely on Mike James, Tony Snell and Nazr Mohammed due to Coach Thibodeau straining Luol Deng and Joakim Noah too long every night, the Bulls will be in trouble.
The Indiana Pacers, the Bulls' division rival, will also pose a threat in the East, having shown the league that they're capable of challenging the Heat and possibly making it past the ECF. The Pacers are similarly built to the Bulls: they have a ball-handling guard that is amongst the best in the league (George/Rose); a tough rim-protector and defender (Hibbert/Noah); an offensive power forward that can get you 15/10 a night (West/Boozer); and guards/forwards that are great glue guys on any contender (Hill and Stephenson/Deng and Butler). The Pacers are younger and have more of a bench than the Bulls, which leads me to believe that the Bulls will need to not only get by the Heat, but get past their own division rival in the Pacers.
The Bulls won't be as successful as many prognosticate this upcoming season, and will need a rookie or two to step up and contribute heavy minutes in order to spell Chicago's starting five. If Deng, Butler or Noah are injured for more than 20 games and/or during the playoffs, Chicago's chances of making it to the Finals are near zero. Otherwise, they'll make it past the semifinals and likely fall to the eventual Eastern Conference Champions.
Other Bulls predictions:
- Carlos Boozer finally shaves his head, and begins to don a Joakim Noah wig.
- Jimmy Butler will average over 34 minutes a game and will finish in the top 5 for Most Improved Player.
- Derrick Rose will win Comeback Player of the Year (aww, this doesn't exist anymore...well, I'll give it to him anyways).
- Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich will miss at least 40 games combined due to injury.
More from Pounding The Rock:
- Stampler's NBA Predictions Part 7: The Heat
- 30 preseason predictions: Milwaukee Bucks
- 30 preseason predictions: Minnesota Timberwolves
- All the Spurs season previews in one place
- 30 preseason predictions: Utah Jazz