Last season: Derrick Rose appeared in just 19 games after suffering an injury that would sideline him for the season for the second straight year. Luol Deng was traded at the deadline in a cost-cutting move, after being far apart on a contract extension and in advance of him becoming an unrestricted free agent. As usual, the Bulls made the most of what they had, finishing with a record of 48-34 that was good enough for fourth place in the East, before being bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Washington Wizards.
Signature highlight from last season: Rose missed all of the 2012-13 season due to injury, so when he returned for the home opener on Halloween against the Knicks, there was obviously an electric atmosphere. Rose didn’t disappoint, and finished with 18 points while hitting the game-winning shot.
Key Player changes:
Keys to the Bulls Season:
Derrick Rose: As has been the case since the wildly skilled point guard won the league MVP in 2011, the success of the Bulls begins and ends with Rose. One of the game’s most dynamic playmakers when healthy, Rose is a cornerstone superstar who is more than capable of leading his team to the promised land. Injuries have derailed him for the past two seasons, however, and it obviously remains to be seen whether or not he can not only stay healthy for the bulk of the 82-game regular season, but be able to return to playing at an All-NBA level along the way, while still having enough in the tank to be ready for the playoffs.
The good news is that Rose got an extended training camp of sorts by playing for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup, and by all accounts, came away feeling as good as ever. He showed flashes of his former self there, but is traditionally patient in an All-Star type setting, so his numbers didn’t necessarily jump off the page. But his time spent with USA Basketball should give him some confidence heading into the season.
Pau Gasol: The big man who spent six and a half seasons with the Lakers and helped the team win back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 was marginalized by the team in recent years, which, along with L.A.’s recent slide into lottery land made his decision to sign with a contender like Chicago an easy one. Not only was Gasol’s name constantly mentioned in trade rumors, but he wasn’t utilized properly in Mike D’Antoni’s system, which led to his being less than pleased with his new role in Los Angeles.
But as we saw with Spain during FIBA World Cup Play this summer, Gasol remains one of the most skilled bigs in the league. And on a team where he’s properly motivated and allowed to do what he does, it’s easy to envision him returning to All-Star form — and no coach consistently gets more out of his players than Tom Thibodeau.
Continue to dominate defensively: The Bulls were second in the league in defensive efficiency a season ago, allowing just 97.8 points per 100 possessions. They have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah, who should continue to be an absolute menace inside. Jimmy Butler applies pressure on the wing and the perimeter, and Rose has proven to be tenacious on that end of the floor, as well. Defense wins championships, as the saying goes, and to get out of the East against a Cavaliers team that’s loaded offensively, this, along with the health of Rose, will be the biggest factor in determining just how far Chicago can go this season.
Why you should watch: Rose is one of the game’s most entertaining guards, a player whose speed and athleticism are capable of producing a dazzling highlight every time he touches the ball. Gasol’s fit will be interesting, too, and guys like Noah and Taj Gibson are so active around the basket that their intensity simply makes the game a joy to watch.
Prediction: Going out on a bit of a limb here, considering how stacked the Cavaliers are with the additions of LeBron James and Kevin Love. But I like the continuity in Chicago under Thibodeau, and the effort with which he gets his guys to play should put the Bulls over the top, and help them finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
If the pieces come together as expected, the Bulls should at minimum find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals, with a trip to the championship round a real possibility.