Leading up to Bulls media day on Sept. 28, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman will preview the upcoming NBA season with daily features on everything related to the Association. Today the pair analyze the top storylines heading into Bulls training camp.
Vincent Goodwill: For me, the No. 1 storyline for the Bulls revolves around No. 1, Derrick Rose. He finished the season on his feet and on the floor for the first time since the 2010-11 season, his MVP year.
He had an up-and-down year but bounced back in the playoffs statistically, including giving Bulls fans some heart-stopping moments in the second-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With Fred Hoiberg taking over as coach, one would assume Rose will be put in positions to attack the basket, or at least play in the midrange area as opposed to drifting to the 3-point line, a place his efficiency hasn’t improved much.
For anyone expecting him to be the player he was five years ago, consider this: No NBA player is the same in a five-year period. Take Michael Jordan. He wasn’t the same in 1988 (his first MVP year) as he was in 1993, the last before he took an 18-month sabbatical. Nor was he the same in 1993 as he was in 1998, his last as a Bull. LeBron James isn’t the player he was in 2011, neither is Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant. So that Rose from that magical year will not return.
But it doesn’t mean he can’t be efficient, pick his spots offensively and return to some relevance in the league’s hierarchy. Surely he’s at least at the back end of the top-10 point guards. But if he finds a way to mesh with Jimmy Butler while finding that ever-elusive consistency, Rose could be a top-5 point guard again. If so, it makes Hoiberg’s job a lot easier and lowers the Bulls’ slim margin for error in the Eastern Conference.
Mark Strotman: Peak at the box score on any given night, look up Rose's numbers and you'll have a good idea how the Bulls fared. For as much talent as Gar Forman has surrounded him with, Rose is still the measuring stick for how far this team can and will go. His career splits have him averaging 21.4 points on 47 percent shooting in wins, compared to 18.6 points on 42 percent shooting in losses. His offensive rating in 213 wins is 113 and just 98 in 127 career losses. Fred Hoiberg's biggest task will be making sure Rose remains the focal point of the offense, if not in volume then pure efficiency.
Knee issues aside - I realize that's an enormous factor to push to the side - Rose must remain aggressive. We saw all too well the kind of player he becomes when he settles for 3-pointers (bad), and the kind of player he becomes when he's attacking defenses (really good). Jimmy Butler can remain a dominant scorer, Pau Gasol can be money from the elbow and Mike Dunleavy/Nikola Mirotic/Aaron Brooks can connect from deep all they want, but if Rose isn't on his game the Bulls are in trouble. It's the burden he carries in a superstar-driven league.
And if Rose is the barometer offensively, the team's second biggest storyline is how Joakim Noah responds after a forgetful 2015 campaign. We can debate all we want about whether he should be starting alongside Gasol - he shouldn't - but at its very core the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year's contributions will loom large. The Bulls will need to find out quickly whether last year's ineffectiveness was just the product of a troublesome knee or a 30-year-old whose style of play the last nine seasons means quicker wear and tear.
I wouldn't go as far to say the Bulls NEED 2013-14 Joakim Noah in order to be successful, but they need to know what they've got. Tom Thibodeau had a relationship with Noah that allowed him to look past the center's shortcomings; he'll have a shorter leash with Hoiberg. If Noah can't right the ship, it may be time to ramp up Taj Gibson's minutes and move on. I'm sure it's not what Bulls fans want to hear, but it's the reality of the situation. What Noah brings in energy, leadership and intangibles doesn't mean much when Tristan Thompson is running circles around him on the offensive glass in mid-May.
VG: Ahh, to the contrary about Noah. If he’s not effective, you can’t just ramp up Taj Gibson’s minutes. He’s coming off left ankle surgery where there was ligament damage from playing on it in the playoffs, and the Bulls want to bring him along slowly. Keep in mind, he’s 30 and has been playing heavy minutes, which equates to Thibs-miles on his body.
What are Thibs’ miles? They’re certainly not highway miles on your convertible you keep in your garage until the weather breaks. And a lot of players have the hard, grinding Thibs miles on their bodies. Which brings us to how new coach Fred Hoiberg handles the player combinations, one of the more interesting parts of his job.
The five-man unit of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Mike Dunleavy, Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose played a total of zero minutes together last season, with respect to Thibodeau’s desire to have defense on the floor. Will we see more offensive-minded units on the floor, and if we do see that particular unit, will they retain some, if any, of Thibodeau’s defensive principles?
The Golden State Warriors didn’t get ahold of the Finals series until they sat defensive-minded center Andrew Bogut and went small, playing rugged but 6-foot-7 Draymond Green at center against 7-footer Timofey Mozgov. With the abundance of 3’s and 4’s on this squad, along with Noah and Gasol who can play the pivot but not necessarily together, will Hoiberg go to the Rubik’s cube to employ some exotic lineups that Bulls fans haven’t seen in years?
It’s no secret the Bulls have a lot invested in 2014 first-round pick Doug McDermott. And Tony Snell is going to be in line for more playing time as well. So if Hoiberg has to manage the minutes of Gasol, Noah and Gibson, it may put him in a position to use McDermott at the four or in an extreme case, Mirotic at center.
Gasol broke down at the end of last season with his hamstring injury, which could’ve altered the outcome of the series against Cleveland. He’s 35 and Noah didn’t look anything like himself for most of last year, having just turned 30. How Hoiberg deals with this will be critical to the Bulls’ success.
MS: Minute distribution will be crucial for a Bulls team that's no longer on the "younger" side, despite a backcourt with a pair of maxed-out 26-year-olds. Hoiberg can thank Thibodeau for that aspect of the job being put under the microscope on a nightly basis, and it just got more difficult with the announcement that Mike Dunleavy will miss 8-to-10 weeks after back surgery. Forman and the Bulls are well-prepared for this situation, having drafted Tony Snell and Doug McDermott with their last two first-round picks. Granted, they drafted both those guys to alleviate some burden and minutes off Jimmy Butler, but now it'll be about filling minutes on the wing opposite him.
The biggest beneficiary of all this may be Nikola Mirotic. Filling Dunleavy's absence means a "small forward" will start and log the 29.2 minutes per game Dunleavy averaged last season. But more important than filling the position is filling the role and numbers, which for Dunleavy meant a floor-spacer who connected on nearly 41 percent of his 3-pointers, tied for 14th in the NBA. His 107 3-pointers were second to Aaron Brooks (121), and especially in Hoiberg's up-tempo offense the Bulls will need to replicate his production the first month of the season. That could mean Mirotic, the Rookie of the Year runner-up who will have steep expectations and a lot to prove after last year's forgettable playoffs.
We simply haven't seen enough of Snell, and certainly not enough of McDermott to anoint either the role replacement for Dunleavy. Snell at least has 34 starts to his name, but he's shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc in those games and it's unclear how he'd be affected by averaging close to 30 minutes per night. That's why Hoiberg will need to get creative with his lineups, perhaps using Mirotic at small forward for spurts to open up the offense for Rose and Butler.
The good news is, as the tired cliche goes, Dunleavy's injury may be a blessing in disguise. Thibodeau never really gave Snell a consistent look, and McDermott's defense wasn't anywhere close to ready for the NBA last year. Now those two will, at least in some fashion, be forced to produce. They'll undergo a trial by fire, and that could be good for them. Championships aren't won and lost in November, meaning those additional minutes for the young wings can only be a good omen for later in the year. Minutes distribution at that small forward spot - as well as Mirotic's minutes and role - will be something to keep an eye on, and with the start of practice just days away becomes an important storyline.