For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the very emo Chicago Bulls.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
So … that was shot to hell pretty quickly.
At their core, the Chicago Bulls are a team full of All-Star level 20-somethings who play hard every night and seem to have the wherewithal on both ends of the ball needed to string one or more championships together. Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson are years away from hitting their primes, and the team is led by a coach in Tom Thibodeau that some consider to be the best in the game even with just 148 regular season games under his belt. The Bulls earned the best record in 2011, tied for the best in 2011, and would seem to have the world on a string.
If only the team's best player wasn't on crutches, and likely a year away from consistently showing the sort of all-out, MVP-styled play we became used to from Derrick Rose before he tore his ACL last April. And though the thought of all those returning 20-somethings is warming, those budding vets have been told via action and inaction that 2012-13 (and, in a way, 2013-14) absolutely will not count. That this is a champion in waiting; waiting a really, really long time.
And that even when the waiting seems about over, that the team's ownership will not make the financial commitments necessary to grow and sustain a winner on the same level that the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, and (potentially, should they extend James Harden's contract) Oklahoma City Thunder do. Despite a rabid fanbase that has poured endless amounts of cash into Jerry Reinsdorf's pockets over the last quarter century.
All while, as we've belabored intensely at Ball Don't Lie for years, the Bulls leave themselves enough outs to make all the cost cutting reasonable:
"Ben Gordon wasn't worth the money. We once threw the max at Ben Wallace, so we're not afraid to spend. Cutting Carlos Boozer with Taj Gibson's extension kicking in is reasonable on several levels. The team wasn't going to win anything in 2012-13 anyway with Derrick Rose only playing 15 to 20 games of B-level Derrick Rose basketball. And we're set to pay the luxury tax this year."
(In a season without majorly punitive tax penalties, and with four months left still to trade Rip Hamilton and dive below the tax ceiling).
All this takes place because the Bulls are smart. With other teams, the moves come so obviously: Miami clears all its cap room to get a star or three, New York chooses personal politics over a point guard with potential, the Lakers go cheap for one year so they can spend huge gobs of money for three more. Chicago's moves don't come in black and white, or even easily-defined tones of red and black (however you want to take that).
What's left is a team that has downgraded in several categories, and looking to dive in the standings even with a clean bill of health following a year that saw one of the most injury-plagued teams in the NBA actually improve upon its league-leading winning percentage from 2010-11. Do you know how proud you should have been about your 2011-12 Bulls, Chicago?
Worse, the team will have to work through the haze of exhibition, knowing that none of this counts. Admire the hearts on this squad to no end, we certainly do, but these men aren't superhuman. Possibly worst amongst all this is the fact that they will be pushed by a coach in Thibodeau that demands the superhuman. That just played Jimmy Butler 48 minutes in an exhibition "contest."
This is why all the advanced statistical metrics go out the window with these Bulls. By all typical standards of measuring production, stepping backwards from Rose to Kirk Hinrich, or C.J. Watson to Nate Robinson (even if I think this is an upgrade in some ways), or Ronnie Brewer to Marco Bellineli would set the stage for doom and gloom. But with Thibodeau around, there is always the chance (if not the expectation, because he's so damn good) that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts.
And because the note that began can also destroy, there is the chance that the overuse and the insistence on attaining perfection could force an already-stressed team into imploding, before Derrick Rose is even cleared to return from practice.
We're not predicting either, because an experiment like Chicago's is unable to be predicted by all the standard measures. Which is probably how the team's ownership likes it, as they dangle that carrot.
Projected record: 44-38
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: A persistent will to destroy. It is probably not a very controversial opinion that I don't think the Chicago Bulls will win their third straight Central Division title this year. I think that because I watched one season's title hopes die, then saw the Bulls' front office was convinced a second season's were dead, too, and then found myself agreeing with Jeff Van Gundy's assessment that a .500 finish would constitute "a heck of a year."
But I still think they're going to be a very difficult team to beat on most nights, because I just can't envision a team coached by Tom Thibodeau and led by Joakim Noah and Luol Deng doing anything other than continuing to charge opponents until one side or the other has no life left. The relentlessness and lack of defensive mercy cultivated throughout Thibodeau's first two years at the United Center is not absent merely because Derrick Rose is, and I think that's still going to be enough to win enough games to stay in the running for a bottom-of-the-bracket playoff berth.
After Rose went down in the closing seconds of the first game of Chicago's playoff series with the Philadelphia 76ers, many writers pointed out that the top-seeded Bulls weren't exactly slouches without Rose on the court during the 2011-12 regular season: Chicago went 18-9 in the 27 games the 2010-11 NBA MVP missed due to injury. Even when he was healthy, the rest of the Bulls performed pretty damn well when he sat, scoring an average of 102.1 points per 100 possessions while allowing just 93.9-per-100, according to NBA.com's stat tool -- an even better defensive efficiency mark than the league-leading 95.3-per-100 the team averaged on the season. For last year's Bulls, there was life without Rose ... there just wasn't much two days after losing him for the season in a series against the No. 3 defense in the league, after the emotional sucker punch of watching him carried off after he'd finally gotten healthy and looked great in Game 1, and definitely not after losing Noah to an ankle injury, too.
In a new year with a healthy Noah and Thibodeau in prime position to hammer home the "nobody believes in us" point, there will be life without Rose again. How much life hinges largely on how well Thibodeau can handle his remade roster after losing so many other pieces during the offseason.
Starting shooting guard Ronnie Brewer, a rangy and reliable wing who tied for sixth among guards in Defensive Win Shares last year, is a Knick, reserve center Omer Asik's gone to Houston and sharpshooter Kyle Korver will spot up in Atlanta. The two players who backed Rose up last season, C.J. Watson and John Lucas III, will now caddy in Brooklyn and Toronto. In their place are names like Kirk Hinrich, Nazr Mohammed, Marco Belinelli, Vladimir Radmanovic, Marko Jaric, Nate Robinson and Kyrylo Fesenko, each of whom have their merits as players, but none of whom seem like very reliable commodities.
Noah and Deng, fresh off doing everything for his country this summer, have to assume bigger offensive roles. Carlos Boozer has to follow up a quietly-better-than-most-think season (18.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.2 steals per 36 minutes, 53.2 percent from the floor, 19.7 Player Efficiency Rating) with a louder, stronger all-around performance if he wants to answer the critics calling for him to be amnestied. (Nosing up his declining rebounding rates, especially on the offensive end, would be a good start to making up for Asik's absence.) Richard Hamilton will have to make people remember he's on the Bulls.
As NBA.com's Steve Aschburner noted, this basically has to be a breakout year for Taj Gibson, who'll get a ton of minutes backing up both Noah and Carlos Boozer with Asik gone. Promising sophomore swingman Jimmy Butler will have to assume some of Brewer's defensive responsibilities on the wing, and considering the relative shakiness of both Hinrich, whose decline was evident in Atlanta last season, and Robinson, who went from being a key part of Boston's late 2009-10 title run to an afterthought for the past two seasons, rookie Marquis Teague figures to get a long look at the point. As long as he busts his hump on defense, at least.
It won't be pretty -- while their defensive efficiency remained stellar without Rose last year, the offense dropped off precipitously, from 107.6-per-100 when he was on the court (which would've finished second in the league, between the Spurs and Thunder, over the course of a full season) to 102.1-per-100 when he was off it (which would have been 17th, between the Bucks and 76ers). Without the threat of Rose slashing, defenses could load up on Chicago's forwards; Deng should see a lot of doubles; if Belinelli or Radmanovic struggle from deep, spacing could be an issue. But good defense, good coaching and good leadership matter ... don't be surprised if, come April, the Bulls wind up mattering, too.
What Should Make You Scared: Rose coming back too soon. Yes, the commercials are cool, and yes, of course we want to be able to watch one of the league's most breathtaking young players again as soon as possible. But as reports that the point guard is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation have turned into questions about whether he might miss the whole season, I've found myself growing increasingly worried about the prospect of Rose -- his team in contention for a lower-tier playoff berth as I outlined above -- pushing just a bit too hard and coming back just a bit too soon in an effort to help push the Bulls over the top. It would be in keeping with his competitive nature and it's the kind of thing leaders do … and it scares the crap out of me. And if it scares the crap out of me, I'm sure it scares Bulls fans far, far worse.
I'm a Knicks fan who spent several years watching Nate Robinson jack shots, throw ill-advised passes, show off and do all sorts of little things that made me want to tear my hair out. He's driven better men than me to curse, and Bulls fans, you'll soon get to know the challenge of rooting for him. But if running him out there every night, even through the end of the season, even if the season ends earlier than you'd like, means ensuring that the next five years of Rose's career get a fair shot at unfolding, then all those pull-up 3-pointers in transition will have been well worth it.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
Tom Thibodeau has created the Bulls in his image: a hardnosed, defense-oriented outfit with the belief that their own toughness can overcome a team that might seem superior on paper. That identity has served them well over the past two seasons, and there's no indication that they're ready to change things up.
Naturally, that identity is not the full story of the team's success, which is where this season becomes a little less certain. For all the Bulls' defensive strengths, they're also readily dependent on Derrick Rose to make the offense work. Playing without him in 2012-13, as he recovers from his ACL tear, will be a struggle.
For large portions of 2011-12's bizarro regular season, the Bulls did perfectly fine without him, so it's not necessarily the best idea to bet against Chicago to make the postseason comfortably this year. On the other hand, the condensed schedule aided team's that out-efforted the opposition, both because of shorter breaks between games and the related dip in scouting time. The ability to disrupt — the hallmark of any great defense unit — became even more of an advantage.
Once Rose fell out of the picture, the Bulls' precarious position became all too apparent. Without him, they struggled to produce consistent offense against a solid defense. And while their own defense was still stellar, that wasn't necessarily enough.
The challenge, then, is twofold this year: find enough offense to survive without Rose and make sure the defense doesn't dip. The former is an open question; the latter should be doable. But even that task could be more trying than it seems. The loss of Omer Asik to the Houston Rockets will sting, and there's as yet no guarantee that Thibodeau will be able to train a suitable replacement. The Bulls know what they are and what they want their players to be, but that certainty doesn't necessarily mean that they'll have an endless supply of players to fill those needs.
This season could serve to be the most difficult test yet of the squad that Thibodeau has built. They are a defensive team, and they help turn solid defenders into great ones and the bad into the passable. But that process takes time, even under ideal circumstances. Identity is merely the context for improvement and success — it can't be the answer itself.