The Chicago Bulls enter the season with high hopes as they welcome back 2011-12 NBA MVP Derrick Rose. According to multiple reports, Rose has spent the extra time off getting stronger, more explosive and smoothing out his jump shot. A healthy Rose with five additional inches on his vertical, 15 more pounds of muscle, according to ESPN’s Nick Friedell, and a better jumper, per his workout buddy and superstar rival Kevin Durant, is one the league need truly fear. But how will his return impact the Bulls’ season?
After an appearance in the Eastern Conference Semifinals without Rose, nor numerous other key players during the season and playoff run, you can pencil the Bulls in again as an NBA title contender. Chicago led the league in wins the first two years of the Tom Thibodeau-Rose era, and will be a threat to do so again this year.
In fact, this may be the best Bulls’ team since the Michael Jordan years, and is definitely the best GM Gar Forman has built to challenge the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference. Rose will be back, and potentially better than ever. The ripple effect sends Kirk Hinrich back to the bench, where he can do what he does best: Be a defensive and three-point specialist, the best of each the Bulls have had in the backcourt since, well, Hinrich himself in his first stint with the team.
Luol Deng can again a complementary scorer and swiss-army knife to be utilized at Thibs’ discretion, rather than be the primary offensive option he was forced into last season. The Bulls brought in three players who can play shooting guard or small forward, which should help spell Deng and save his body for the playoffs, where he will be relied on to bang with LeBron James, Paul Pierce and/or Carmelo Anthony.
Carolos Boozer and Taj Gibson will continue to serve as one of the league’s best offense-defense power forward platoons. Joakim Noah will again be a whirling dervish who gets under the other team’s skin better than anyone in the NBA, especially James’ and the Heat. The addition of three-point specialist Mike Dunleavy, as well as rookie Erik Murphy, who the team is higher on at the moment than first-round counterpart Tony Snell, gives Thibedeau his best shooting rotation yet, and could create some interesting matchup problems for the opposition with Dunleavy at the stretch four.
The most exciting aspect of the team’s season, next to the return of Rose, of course, will be the continued development of third-year-man Jimmy Butler. As the 30th overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, Butler has already exceeded all expectations, and now the question is how much further will his development take him?
We got a glimpse into his potential during the playoffs, when he broke out with 13 points, five rebounds and healthy shooting percentages, though, those stats were without Rose and largely without Deng, so his offensive share was more voluminous than can be expected with the two healthy All Stars. Butler is established as a lock-down defender, and we can expect even more improvement out of his shooting after another offseason of hard work.
Scoring in the teens, as well as the possible flirtation with the heralded 50/40/90 club (shooting percentages from the field, three and free throw, respectively) are not outrageous hopes to go with that D and efficient rebounding. Like Deng, this is a multi-faceted and incredibly fit (see: three-straight 48-minute games in last year’s playoffs) player who Thibs will unleash on a nightly basis.
This is all well and good for Chicago, but how will it all pan out? As the majority of this team learned how to play without Rose for the first time in their Chicago careers, expect more efficiency on offense, as well as higher shooting numbers and assists from the star point guard. Expect the same breakneck pace on defense, and expect the team to again have the NBA’s best regular-season record.
Then, it will come down to the same question that faces the league’s 28 other teams: Can they beat the Heat? For now, I won’t go there. Hey, only one prediction at a time.
Final Record: 66-16.