Are The Bulls Still Title Contenders?
The Chicago Bulls have been the best team in the NBA during the regular season over the last two years and entered the 2012 NBA playoffs as the team with the best chance to knock off the Miami HEAT in the Eastern Conference. In 2011 the Bulls lost to the HEAT in five games in the Conference Finals and last season the Bulls lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round thanks in large part to injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
Noah is expected to be ready for training camp, but Rose, who tore his ACL, isn’t expected back until sometime in 2013. With the team’s best player out at least half the season, this offseason would seemingly determine whether or not the Bulls would still be title contenders or if they would let their free agents and players on non-guaranteed contracts leave for other teams and look to rebuild.
The Bulls had, by most accounts, a bad offseason. They let backup center Omer Asik leave via free agency, traded Kyle Korver for a trade exception and bought out the non-guaranteed contracts of C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer. Other than Taj Gibson, who is under team control for one more year, that’s the entire bench that was considered the best bench in the league last year.
The Bulls did add players this offseason, but many in the media believe they downgraded their bench. Marco Belinelli was added to be the team’s sharpshooter; he’s a career 39.3% shooter from behind the three-point line, not quite on the same level as Korver who is a career 41.3% shooter.
Veteran Nazr Mohammed was added to be the team’s fourth big man, and provide insurance at the center position in case Noah comes back slower than expected from injury or gets re-injured during the season. The team drafted Marquis Teague to be the team’s backup point guard until Rose returns to the lineup and added Vladimir Radmanovic and Nate Robinson to fill out the end of the bench.
None of these players are considered upgrades over what the Bulls had during the last two seasons. However, the team did upgrade at one major position. They added former Bulls point guard Kirk Hinrich to run the team while Rose rehabs from injury. Once Rose returns, the Bulls are expected to move Hinrich to the bench where he will back up both Richard Hamilton and Rose.
When healthy, a serious concern over the last two seasons as he has missed a total of 28 games, Hinrich has proven he can lead a team to the playoffs. Hinrich is also one of the top perimeter defenders in the NBA who can guard multiple positions, something that will be helpful, as the NBA seems to be transitioning to a more perimeter style game.
So to recap, the Bulls lost some veterans, added some veterans, drafted a backup point guard, lost a league MVP for most likely half the season and now face a season where some are questioning whether the Bulls will even make the playoffs.
This season the Bulls starting lineup is likely to look something like this:
With Teague backing up Hinrich at the point, Jimmy Butler filling in the defensive stopper role behind Hamilton and Deng, Belinelli filling in the sharpshooter role, and Gibson backing up both Boozer and Noah. When Rose returns, the lineup will obviously change for the better.
That is a playoff team in the East, even if Rose misses the entire season. The starters should enter the season healthy and are all veterans who have proven they will defend night in and night out. Last year, Hamilton injured his shoulder in only the fourth game of the season, an injury that plagued him all year long. A healthy Hamilton will help offset the loss of Korver’s shooting and give the Bulls another consistent offensive option. Last year during the regular season the Bulls were 21-7 when Hamilton played.
Losing Rose is obviously a huge blow, but Rose missed significant time last year and the Bulls still ended up with the league’s best record. With Rose out of the lineup the Bulls compiled a record of 18-9 during the regular season, a .667 winning percentage. That would have been good enough to finish second in the Eastern Conference standings behind only the Miami HEAT.
Critics will point to the loss of the Bulls ‘Bench Mob’ as a significant downgrade in talent, but what have they really lost? Gibson’s minutes should increase this year, which will offset the loss of Asik. Butler is drawing rave reviews from his summer league performance and has the potential to be as good, if not a better all around player than Brewer was for the Bulls last year. Hinrich is a proven leader who has led Bulls teams to the playoffs in the past.
Even with several teams in the East improving, like the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards, it still seems highly unlikely that a team with as much starting talent as the Bulls and as much depth off the bench would miss the playoffs.
It’s unlikely they will be competing for the top spot during the regular season in the Eastern Conference, much less the entire NBA, but to talk about them missing the playoffs is way off base. This team may not threaten to win 60 games this year, but 45-50 is possible and highly likely, which would put them comfortably inside the playoff picture.
As for once they enter the playoffs, the big question will be whether or not Rose can return to his MVP caliber form right away. By most accounts, a torn ACL takes two years for a player to return to top form. It takes a year for the injury to heal and then a year for the player to become completely comfortable on the court and stop worrying about re-injury.
If that is the case for Rose, while he should be close to physically 100% once the playoffs roll around, he still won’t be back to the MVP level that he was last season. It’s unlikely the Bulls could knock off the HEAT without a 100% physically and mentally strong Rose, but they could still make noise during the playoffs.
The Bulls have owned the Celtics recently, going 3-1 last year, winning two of those games with Rose on the bench. The Nets are essentially a new team, and the playoffs have proven that it usually takes a year or two of playing together before a team is able to make a deep playoff run. The Knicks seem to have loads of talent on paper, but Carmelo Anthony has only led his team out of the first round of the playoffs once in his career.
Every team in the East, except for the HEAT, will enter this season with questions and the Bulls are no different. Anyone writing off the Bulls however, is likely to be in for a big surprise. A veteran team, which is led by a defensive guru like head coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t likely to take the season off just because their best player is starting the year injured.
While the HEAT will definitely be the favorites next season, the Bulls will have as good a shot as any in the East at knocking them off, especially if Rose can return to form during the playoffs.