As if we planned it this way, the Bulls kick off their season just as the Bears enter their bye week amidst their most disappointing season in recent memory.
I’m as excited as I’ve been for a Bulls season. I think this is the best, deepest roster they’ve had in the Tom Thibodeau era. But I’ve also lived through the last few years, and know that all of our high hopes and expectations could come to a screeching halt with one fatal injury. Every expert has said it, and I echo those thoughts – the Bulls are built to win it all this year.
Best case scenario – Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah stay healthy all year. Pau Gasol provides that secondary scorer the Bulls have coveted the last five off-seasons and haven’t found. Thibs uses the depth he’s been provided with, tempering his stars’ minutes and keeping them fresh for a post-season push – something we’ve yet to see him do. Doug McDermott comes in as the NBA-ready scorer everyone thinks he’ll be. Jimmy Butler doesn’t have to play 47 minutes a game and improves his offensive game.
Worst case scenario – Rose and Noah battle injuries all year. Rose never returns to form and Noah gets overplayed to the point where he can no longer contribute significantly. Gasol’s age starts to show us that his best days are in fact behind him. Jimmy Butler never develops an offensive game, and Thibs doesn’t trust his young players off the bench enough and runs his starters into the ground. The Bulls still find a way into a top seed in a weak Eastern Conference, and are tossed from the playoffs by Charlotte with Nazr Mohammed and Kirk Hinrich scotch taped together and starting games.
I’ve been let down too many times in the recent past – this year I needed to balance my excitement with sobering reality.
Let’s take quick look at some keys to the Bulls season:
This starts and ends with Derrick Rose. Whatever we think the Bulls are capable of right now, does not happen unless Rose is healthy and back in the ballpark of the player he used to be. But he’s not the only one to worry about. Joakim Noah is coming off of off-season knee surgery that is taking longer than expected to rehab so he is playing through his recovery some – definitely something to watch. Pau Gasol is 34 years old and hasn’t played a full 82 game season since ’10-’11, and Kirk Hinrich is 33 and has never played a full 82 game season. Minutes need to be monitored much more closely this year, which leads me to my next key.
Like I said before, this is the deepest, most talented team the Bulls have had since ’98. At bare minimum, they should go 10 deep. They can avoid so many of the issues with injury and fatigue they’ve faced in the past if they just take advantage of their depth, which means trusting meaningful minutes to youngsters McDermott and Mirotic. The one player I’m watching in this category is Aaron Brooks. Made in the mold of DJ Augustin and Nate Robinson, Brooks can flat out score and spark the Bulls off the bench in stretches when Rose is resting or they want to move Hinrich to the 2. McDermott and Mirotic stretch the floor and Taj Gibson could be a starter on most teams. Gibson is basically a 6th starter and will be used in a 3 player big-man rotation with Noah and Gasol, which should help both get needed rest. This Bulls’ second unit is the best they’ve had since the “Bench Mob”, and can beat any second unit in the league. But none of this matters without the last key.
All of this falls on Tom Thibodeau. In his Bulls tenure, he has had a bad habit of overworking his players and not trusting his bench. He coaches every game like its Game 7 of the NBA Finals, which does make them competitive every night and helps win them games they otherwise might not, but it also leaves them either hurt or exhausted once the games actually matter in May and June. This is the year for Thibodeau to take a step forward himself and show he has learned from his first few years of coaching.
I think there is a very realistic shot the Bulls represent the East in the Finals this year. They have all of the pieces – all-stars, veteran leaders, depth, top-tier coach – and if they don’t at least make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, I would bet we could come back to this post and find the reasons why.
But for now, I’m going to allow myself to enjoy this unadulterated excitement I’ve felt all my life. Bulls season is here, Chicago.