BDL’s 2015-16 NBA Season Previews: Chicago Bulls

Ball Don't Lie
BDL’s 2015-16 NBA Season Previews: Chicago Bulls
BDL’s 2015-16 NBA Season Previews: Chicago Bulls

In the end, everyone just wanted the end to hurry up and get here.

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The Chicago Bulls sulked through a purgatorial season in 2014-15, never quite catching fire or establishing themselves as a true contender. The hoped-for roadblock in the way of LeBron James’ narrative chasing in Cleveland never materialized, as Chicago plugged its way toward 50 wins but achieved little in the way of consistency or rhythm.

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This mostly had to do with the inability of its mainstays — stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, alongside former coach Tom Thibodeau — to find solid footing.

Thibodeau, in his mind, was cursed with needless minutes restrictions for both his former All-Stars, put in place by the team’s front office (to its discredit, two years too late), and he chirped about the handicap all season. Noah did not recover from the “minor” surgical procedure Chicago’s medical staff credited him for undergoing the previous May, and was an absolute liability offensively for most of the season.

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Rose, meanwhile, missed 31 games due to two sprained ankles and yet another surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee. The 2011 NBA MVP had his moments, but too often he seemed passive offensively, relying on his terrible 3-point shot to keep the attempts from the field up. Why Thibodeau, who barked at the most obvious of calls and innocuous of missteps, never confronted his point guard over his shot selection is anyone’s guess.

This was the bed that the Chicago front office made, however, in backing off of Thibodeau for so long. By the time he was fired following a desultory second-round loss to LeBron’s Cavaliers, a parting seemed like the best move for two sides that were clearly sick of each other.

The season wasn’t without its surprises, however.

In spite of (and not “as a result of,” mind you) Thibodeau’s rather basic and obvious offensive sets, newly acquired center Pau Gasol enjoyed a renaissance season. The 7-footer made the All-Star team and carried the Bulls to several wins. Meanwhile, swingman Jimmy Butler worked tirelessly to prove that his early-season scoring outburst was no fluke, sustaining fantastic play on both ends on his way toward an All-Star berth of his own and max contract.

[ThePostGame: Watch Jimmy Butler's insane box jump]

The Bulls were never bigger than the sum of their parts, however, and this is where the coaching makeover comes in.

Former Bull Fred Hoiberg was plucked from Iowa State to give this team a bit of a spark as head coach. He’ll be charged with propping up a lifeless offense that, while improved due to Gasol and Butler’s ascensions last season, was easy for opponents to map out. With a roster full of heady players who can’t help but give all on the other end, it is assumed that the defense will take care of itself, as Hoiberg (who is not far removed from working in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ front office) seems like the rare NCAA-to-pros coach who should make a seamless transition.

Quite a bit has to go right, however.

Chicago still hasn’t settled on a starting lineup. Noah hopes to get one more shot to work alongside Gasol in a starting unit that seems straight out of every coach’s wildest dream, but that wild dream was an absolute nightmare for Thibodeau last season; in spite of their versatile gifts, Noah and Gasol just did not play well together.

Rose, meanwhile, has already missed a few weeks of practice after fracturing his orbital bone, and Mike Dunleavy could be out for the better part of the season following back surgery. Potential starter Taj Gibson is weeks, if not months, away from being fully healthy following ankle surgery, and Noah hasn’t exactly performed like the 2013-14 model during the exhibition season.

Then there is the matter of Rose, and how well a guy who can’t hit 3-pointers and isn’t a comfortable passer (not to say he’s selfish, just that it never came naturally to him) can thrive in an offense that seems more triangle than top-heavy. In a lot of ways, playing off the ball and darting along the baseline should seem right up Rose’s alley, but he’s always had the rock in his hands and the green light to do as he pleases. This isn’t to presume that Rose will pout as the play develops elsewhere, it’s just to assume that he’ll just … disappear.

Chicago can’t have that. With Noah and Gasol potential free agents in 2016, and with the clock ticking, they need all hands on deck in 2015-16. Whether Rose and his teammates want to believe it or not is up to their own level of martyrdom, but this is a championship-worthy roster.

Perhaps all the team needs is a coach who cares as much about April and May as he does December and January.

2014-15 in 140 characters or less:

yeah flight leaves at 2 getting out as soon my locker’s clean

wait sry supposed to be a dm

Did the summer help at all?

It couldn’t help but, um, help. This team was so sick of itself by the time the second-round series with Cleveland hit that the respite seemed almost court-ordered.

The team did little-to-no tinkering with its roster, only adding the typical Ebullient Chicago Draft Pick From a Good Program in Bobby Portis. The Arkansas forward, selected 22nd overall by the Bulls in the draft, was born one month before Michael Jordan returned to play for Chicago partway through the 1994-95 season.

Beyond that, Chicago just bet on its incumbents. An offseason of rest had to help Noah and Rose, righto? Gibson submitted to surgery on an ankle that he clearly should not have been playing on, while Dunleavy and the Bulls appeared to exhaust every option before giving in on that back surgery. Over the cap and not far from the luxury tax, the Bulls just worked around the fringes in potentially adding scorer Jordan Crawford while signing Butler to a well-earned five-year, $94 million contract.

The Bulls had little choice but to move forward with what it already had in house, and in spite of all the caveats it’s hard not to blame the front office.

Go-to offseason acquisition:

Partially by choice but mostly because of its salary structure, the Bulls stayed quiet on the transaction front during the offseason, which makes the addition of Hoiberg not only the most significant addition of the offseason, but one of the league’s most compelling personnel moves.

Hoiberg has never coached at this level, but the same applied prior to his time running Iowa State and that hardly seemed to stop him. A basketball lifer who, unlike his predecessor as Bulls coach, achieved some level of fame all the way back in his teens, Hoiberg brings a read and react offense to Chicago, bent on aligning itself with similar success stories in San Antonio, Golden State and Atlanta.

The new coach’s designs should fall into place rather quickly, but one has to wonder if that isn’t soon enough.

Fred Hoiberg and Derrick Rose, all smiles. (Getty Images
Fred Hoiberg and Derrick Rose, all smiles. (Getty Images

Hoiberg may have just missed the last great season of Gasol’s career. He may never coach a version of Rose that approximates his pre-injury status, and it’s fair to wonder if we’ve seen the best of a 30-year-old Noah. Even reserve Gibson, forever a formidable frontcourt bridesmaid, is in his 30s. Dunleavy would act as a perfect spacing and passing cog in even the most rudimentary of offenses, as we saw last season under Thibodeau, but at age 35, his back issues may envelop his career.

Butler, perhaps Chicago’s best player, works at the league’s least-essential position.

Hoiberg’s best seasons to join the Bulls may have been in 2012-13 or 2013-14, but nobody in the Chicago front office was thinking as much with Thibodeau dragging those teams to upset win after upset win.

Glaring weakness:

Chicago dipped significantly on the defensive end last season. The team’s interior and pick-and-roll defenses Were severely lacking in spite of Gasol’s two blocks per game and a seeming screen-and-roll monster in Noah up at the perimeter. There are issues with the team’s long-range shooting and the club could stand to work with a more natural playmaker off the bench, as reserve Kirk Hinrich will forever be holding onto the ball he should have already let go.

The glaring part of the glass half-empty look, however, deals in the team’s myriad caveats.

There are nearly too many to name. Rose may never be the same, and the team relies on his explosiveness to create bendy parts in the defense. Noah may never be the same, and opponents don’t bother guarding him on the perimeter, which makes his best offensive option (the pass to a cutting teammate) a no-show proposition. Gasol worked up yet another hefty international schedule in the offseason at age 35, and it may take half a season for Gibson to be right again. The Bulls are hoping just to be considering the option of Dunleavy at forward by then.

Teams know they can load up on second-year swingman Doug McDermott as he comes off the pine — he’s out there to run off several screens and take a jumper, and save for the odd misdirection play, there just aren’t many counters for that. Second-year forward Nikola Mirotic intrigues, but he also has a tendency to go rather cold while telegraphing his moves. Butler reacted well to the attention of opposing defenses last year, but who knows if that will carry over now that the settings have all gone back to “zero?”

Every significant rotation player has a major potential to act as a non-starter, via injury, age or ineffectiveness.

Contributor with something to prove:

Rose, frankly, was a no-show following LeBron's dramatic 3-pointer in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semis last season. He scored 30 total points in his team’s next two games, but needed 40 shots to get there. He took seven 3-pointers, for some reason, hitting none of them. Rose got to the line just three times and played terrible defense.

Chicago was just seconds away from going up 3-1 on a injury-hit Cavaliers team, and when James hit his 3, Rose basically just gave up on his team’s season. The Bulls, with Thibodeau already half out the door, followed their leader into oblivion.

That cannot be the case this season. Rose is getting paid too much money, and his potential (even after three knee surgeries) is still too damn high for him to act as a loping martyr, mean-mugging after banking in 3-pointers while failing to compete defensively or box his man out.

Rose famously will not play if he doesn’t feel 100 percent, which is understandable. What he needs to understand is that he will never feel as he did back in 2011, and that overcoming age and dodgy knees doesn’t mean hurling 25-footers like a 6-foot-3 Antoine Walker. This sort of “my game has evolved now” nonsense shouldn’t fly with this team: Derrick Rose is still just 27, and he’s played in only 100 regular season games over the last 53 months.

The Bulls, replete with talent and depth, don’t need an NBA MVP. They need a leader.

Potential breakout stud:

Whether he starts or not, Mirotic will be everyone’s go-to fantasy hopeful, the underground guy set to play big minutes and take in big shots, comfortable as an NBA vet after an inconsistent rookie season.

Those draftees wouldn’t be wrong in their assumption, as Mirotic looks like a godsend for a team with plenty of holes to fill.

Dunleavy out? McDermott shaky? Nikola can’t play small forward, but teams lunge at him at the 3-point line like he’s Reggie Miller lining up at a 22-foot stripe at Madison Square Garden.

Gibson uneasy? Noah on the decline? Nik can sop up minutes with the best of them, even if he doesn’t bring the same skill set.

An offense that allows Gasol to actually see cutters and movement off the ball? Mirotic and Pau should be able to ham-and-egg it expertly.

He may not take in big minutes, especially with Gasol and Noah potentially facing free agency, but that doesn’t mean Mirotic won’t get his chance to shine off Chicago’s bench.

Or, if some get their way, as a member of the starting unit.

Best-case scenario:

Say it with me again: Fred Hoiberg creates an atmosphere that allows Chicago to operate as something bigger than the sum of its parts.

(This is why you should never allow me to start up a chant.)

The Bulls don't just have the talent and depth to work up the second-best record in the East this year. They have the talent in place to move past a Cavalier team that may not be at full strength until January if Hoiberg goes Full Thibodeau.

We hope he doesn’t, but the Bulls yet again are in the same place they’ve been for a half-decade: working their way into the playoffs, hoping for the best as a seven-game series against LeBron and Co. undoubtedly awaits.

If everything falls apart:

We’ve seen this movie before:

Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:

51-31, fourth in the East.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2015-16 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte HornetsChicago 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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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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