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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: Chicago Bulls

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Derrick Rose looks both comfortable and uncomfortable in the paint (Getty Images)

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

If Derrick Rose thought the expectations placed on a possible midseason return during 2012-13 were dizzyingly high, wait until he gets a load of what’s in store for him in 2013-14. It’s true that the glare and the noise of the NBA’s opening weeks will help drown out the personal glare and noise that will surround his first NBA game in a year and a half, even if his Chicago Bulls are taking on the Miami Heat in the NBA’s first nationally televised game of the season. That promotion would be nothing like the sort of clicky-click response that would be set off if Rose decided to return during the NBA’s news and football-less dog days in March. He’s getting a bit of a free pass, if only to start things.

After that, though, it’ll be hell. Because while the media and fans would have only concerned themselves with Rose’s first few statlines had he returned from his ACL tear midway through 2012-13, those same factions will now be focusing in on Chicago’s win totals, Rose’s season-long scoring averages and efficiency metrics, and his team’s eventual playoff run. Bigger, more important things that could stretch out for eight months, not some two-month novelty with Nate Robinson chirping alongside.

Derrick Rose returned when he was ready, and to something that he thinks will really count. The downside of that particular choice in the matter is the knowledge that this return truly will be all about the game, and Rose will have MVP-level expectations on him. Such is life, when you remove the “he’s coming back midseason to a team he barely knows, with no training camp”-excuse from things.

Rose appears to want it that way, and while his teammates probably didn’t enjoy his personal recovery timeframe last spring, last year’s injury-plagued, wild two-round run in the playoffs feels like it took place a century ago. There’s no doubt those teammates would have enjoyed Derrick’s presence on the court down the stretch of 2012-13, but you tend to forget such ancient things when lined with both the task and promise of what could be a championship run in 2013-14.

Unlike the 2010 and 2012 offseasons, Chicago didn’t dive in for a massive roster overhaul. Rest, rehabilitation and internal development was the focus as Chicago swallowed another luxury tax year (presuming the team isn’t able to knock nearly $8 million in salary off its books between now and the end of the season), while hoping that the recovered wheels of Rose, Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich pair with a rested and healthy Luol Deng to work together with Gibson and Jimmy Butler to construct a winner. Gibson and center Nazr Mohammed came to camp out of shape last fall but both look to be set for bounce-back years, something that will take a load off of Joakim Noah’s minutes (one would hope) while Butler hopes to team with the franchise’s lone veteran acquisition in Mike Dunleavy to form a potent wing triptych with Deng.

Even if rookies Tony Snell (another long wing Chicago hopes to mold in its image) and Erik Murphy (a possible stretch power forward) barely take to the court in 2013-14, this is still a formidable rotation on paper. It’s true that second year guard Marquis Teague has disappointed, and that possible replacement Mike James probably won’t be much fun to look at, but Kirk Hinrich more than held his own at the point guard slot last year, and considering his spot-up shooting woes he’s probably better suited to work with the ball than off it. Especially with Dunleavy on board.

Gibson has impressed in the exhibition season, and though Noah hasn’t seen much action due to a groin injury, Carlos Boozer looks to be in excellent shape, while Luol Deng still looks like Luol Deng. There could be some rumblings from Deng if the Bulls are unable to commit to either signing an extension with the All-Star (not likely), but Deng is a pro. He’s dealt with the Bulls leaving him out to dry in the past and risen above, and he’s not going to knock down his potential 2014 free agent cash-in by sleepwalking through a season.

That is to say, because of various individual issues, each of these Chicago Bulls could have several reasons to not be happy with the team’s front office and ownership throughout the year, and that goes for the coaching staff (now minus much-respected assistant Ron Adams) as well. But because that front office has cobbled together so many professionals, and so many players that feel as if they have much to prove, it may not matter.

Or, the pressure of the Rose Return could get to everyone, as Miami bowls over the Eastern Conference, and Indiana once again supplants Chicago as the Central Division champions.

It remains to be seen. Unlike in 2012-13, though, we get to see Derrick Rose and company play again. For now, that’s enough. At least until the snow melts.

Projected record: 56-26

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Jimmy Butler scores his first goal of the season (Getty Images)


Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Bulls for … the brutal brilliance of a nearly unsolvable equation.

We begin with breaking news: The Bulls play defense. Grinding, punishing, nearly perfect defense. Efficient, effective, elite strong-side defense that bisects your offense, smashes everything to the end line, rewards those who follow rules and turns mobile knot-topped giants into the bleating picture of dominance.

This is why the Bulls improved from the NBA’s 10th-best defensive unit (in terms of points allowed per possession, per NBA.com) in their final year under Vinny Del Negro to its very best in their first year under Tom Thibodeau, and why they finished No. 1 again in his second season. This is why they ranked fifth last season despite turning over virtually their entire bench, watching four key defensive pieces (All-Stars Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, top reserve big Taj Gibson and guard Kirk Hinrich) spend significant time on the training table, and relying on nearly 2,100 minutes of Nate Robinson. This, in part – his own physical skills and hard work deserve an awful lot of credit, too – is why many now consider Jimmy Butler the Bulls’ most intriguing player, one year after being blissfully ignorant of his existence.

No matter who’s on the injured list, the system and its adherents will choke you out; “more than enough to win,” forever and ever, amen. What’s made the Bulls vulnerable under Thibodeau, though, is a punchless offense – too many strung-out possessions, too little explosion and spontaneity, too many tough jumpers -- that has infrequently seemed capable of outscoring top-flight competition.

It hasn’t hampered Chicago much amid the conveyer-belt nature of the NBA calendar, as evidenced by the Bulls’ phenomenal 157-73 regular-season mark over the last three years. But predictability and paucity become fatal flaws in a playoff series against opposition with ample preparation time to poke just enough holes in your D. (Phrasing.) You can’t pitch shutouts for seven games; you need to be able to light the other guys up some, too.

Enter, of course, the 2010-11 Most Valuable Player, who -- albeit in preseason action -- is looking pretty damn good, and who led Chicago to the league’s fifth-best offense the last time he was healthy. It’s worth remembering, though, that Derrick Rose wasn’t that healthy back in 2011-12; he missed 27 of the lockout-shortened season’s 66 games with groin, toe, back and ankle injuries. The Bulls still stampeded toward the top of the league’s offensive ranks, propelled in large part by the strong second-unit work of the fabled “Bench Mob.”

Enter, then, bargain-priced addition Mike Dunleavy to upgrade Marco Belinelli’s spot and hopefully call to mind Kyle Korver’s knockdown heyday. And long-limbed rookie Tony Snell, imported to soak up two-three minutes and hopefully serve as the next round peg/round hole piece in Thibodeau’s 3-and-D wing rotation. And Hinrich, bumped by Rose’s return back to the steady backup role to which he is far better suited.

And enter Thibodeau himself. Not known for pace-pushing or offensive ingenuity, the coach has spent preseason emphasizing early offense with Rose back in the fold and introducing Pop-inspired sets predicated on whirring motion, quick reads and quicker reactions to add half-court variety to Chicago’s often-stagnant scheme.

Rose’s re-entry itself figured to vault Chicago from the NBA’s offensive dregs (24th among 30 teams in offensive efficiency last season) back toward respectability. If more weapons, more options and more creativity means an offense that makes opponents pay for picking their poison, combined with that death-and-taxes defense ... I mean, I wouldn’t want to be tasked with figuring out how to beat that team four times in seven games. I would, however, want to be someone watching the unveiling of what might be the best iteration yet of these Bulls.

Honorable mentions: Butler’s Buck Swope game; all the things that make Boozer hilarious; Nazr Mohammed’s season-long drive toward vengeance; and this, this, a thousand times this.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

Tom Thibodeau has proven an astonishing ability to develop role players from seemingly enough, and sometimes those guys even play well enough to become something close to stars. In last spring’s playoffs, wing Jimmy Butler made a national name for himself with several marathon performances in the absence of the injured Luol Deng, playing at least 45 minutes in six of the Bulls’ last seven playoff games and logging all 48 minutes in five of them. Butler was one of the team’s best players in the postseason, contributing in multiple ways for a severely limited squad that out-performed expectations.

Deng is back for 2013-14, but stalled contract extension talks present the possibility that he’ll change teams this summer. For a Bulls franchise that occasionally appears somewhat spendthrift, this is an acceptable scenario only if Butler continues to develop into an all-around talent and reasonable facsimile of Deng. That could happen, but the height of his ceiling remains vague. As the last pick of the first round in 2011, Butler has arguably already bested the optimistic projections for his career. Is it reasonable to expect him to replace Deng’s production by himself?

This season should go a long way towards answering that question. No matter the response, though, the relationship between Deng and Butler should tell us a lot about the future of the franchise. A full return to form from Derrick Rose remains the team’s biggest need, but their championship aspirations depend on a lot more.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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