The Chicago Bulls’ reward for surviving a grueling 82-game regular season schedule — assuming they do so with full health — is a small window of opportunity.
A window of hope.
A window to achieve basketball supremacy.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Bulls are one Derrick Rose injury away from scrapping the whole thing.
He’s healthy now and looking like his old self as preseason ended.
Like advanced stats? I do, too.
Let’s bee friends, then, check out some preseason numbers.
- 28.92 player efficiency rating, which would’ve ranked third behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James last year
- 30.91 usage rate would’ve ranked third behind Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but in front of DeMarcus Cousins and Carmelo Anthony.
- 30.93 assist rate, which would’ve ranked seventh among players who logged at least 30 minutes.
- .605 true shooting percentage, which would’ve ranked ninth among players who played at least 30 minutes per game.
- .553 effective field goal percentage, which if matched in the regular season would represent a career high, a full seven percentage points higher than his career average.
In short, if that guy shows up for the postseason after emerging (relatively) unscathed after the regular season, the Bulls will have a legit shot at a title.
The Bulls are no stranger to regular season success under Tom Thibodeau, going 205-107 (.657 winning percentage) in his first four years as a head coach. It’s a remarkable stretch for the Bulls, their best since the dynasty years and a far cry from the two years stuck in the mud with Vinny Del Negro at the helm.
But regular season success gets you nothing in this era of basketball. The Bulls have won one playoff series in the last three years, including last year’s ouster at the hands of the upstart Washington Wizards.
About 10 days ago, LeBron James told assembled media he believed the Bulls were a better team than his Cavaliers.
“[The Bulls] are a team that’s much better than us right now just off chemistry. … They’ve been together for a while; we’ve got a long way to go.”
You’re too kind, ‘Bron.
Truth is, the Bulls and Cavs are on a level playing field, in regard to chemistry. The Bulls have added four rotation players (Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Aaron Brooks) this offseason, while dismissing Carlos Boozer and D.J. Augustin. And let’s not forget Derrick Rose hasn’t played in a playoff game since April 28, 2012, missing 22 of the last 23 Bulls postseason contests during his injury-plagued layoff.
These Bulls won’t be mistaken for the Bad Boy toppling team of 1991.
Collectively, the Bulls have 400 playoff games played under their belt, with Gasol’s 105 leading the way. Last year, the Bulls had a sizable advantage over the Wizards when it came to postseason experience — and it netted one lousy playoff win. So, pump the breaks if you think that’s going to be a deciding factor moving forward.
One of the biggest angles that will be analyzed to death this coming season is who starts games and who closes them out. To me, one is more important than the other, but both sets of lineups provide obstacles Thibodeau must coach through in order to get the most out of the roster given to him.
Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler are the backcourt duo most likely to get the most playing time, this despite Butler’s thumb injury that will keep him out a few weeks to start the season. Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol provide balance to the front court.
That leaves us with the fifth-man debate between Mike Dunleavy and Doug McDermott.
Thibodeau doesn’t seem to be fond of rookies. You can see Tony Snell, Marquis Teague and Jimmy Butler for references. Still, McDermott isn’t any of those guys. He is a lottery talent with the ability to score whom the Bulls traded up in the draft to acquire.
If he doesn’t get steady playing time, it means either the Bulls front office did a bad scouting job or the coach is too stubborn to adapt. It’s not as if McDermott isn’t without flaws. He doesn’t have freakish athletic ability, nor will he ever be confused for a lockdown defender, but he should be capable enough defensively to not be a detriment to this team’s title hopes.
If the Bulls are completely healthy, starting McDermott with the first unit along side a strong wing defender in Butler and an excellent rim-protector in Noah would do wonders toward masking McDermott’s defensive deficiencies, while also taking full advantage of his offensive skill set. Meanwhile, Dunleavy’s grit and veteran know-how might be better suited for the second unit that could use some veteran leadership along.
As for who closes? It depends on your preferences. Luckily, the Bulls have options.
A Rose, Hinrich, Butler, Gibson, Noah quintet is likely the Bulls’ best defensive-oriented line-up.
Another quality defensive option in the regular season would feature Gasol and Gibson up front, giving Noah some time to breathe.
Need offense and willing to sacrifice defense? Rose, Dunleavy, McDermott, Mirotic and Gasol would likely be the most potent (and entertaining) threat.
In search of balance? Rose and Butler in the backcourt teamed with two of Gibson/Noah/Gasol with Dunleavy on the wing could make sense.
I could go on mixing and matching lineups, but it’s up to Thibodeau to prove his value this season as he attempts to maximize what he gets from the roster as currently constructed.
Even then, the Bulls have a lot of questions to overcome between now and April.
Can Rose and Noah stay healthy?
How can Gasol combat the inevitable decline that comes with age and a potential heavy minutes load?
Can Butler have a career year in a contract year?
Will potential defensive liabilities such as McDermott and Mirotic do enough on offense to merit considerable playing time from their defensive-minded head coach?
Does said coach have enough sense to realize when it’s time to ease off the gas pedal?
Even if the Bulls answer all those questions in a satisfactory manner, one looms large.
How do you beat LeBron James in a seven-game series?