Tag Archives: basketball

Northwestern Basketball Gears Up for Spain Trip

Northwestern basketball embarks on a trip to Spain this weekend, where they will tour the country and play five exhibition games against professional European teams. Schools are only NU Media Day Photo 8:19eligible for the trip once every four years, the last one made by Northwestern was in 2010.

Collins is clearly setting the pace and the mindset for the players as they prepare for the trip, where they will face Estudiantes, Eurocolegio Casvi, UCAM Murcia II, Andorra and US Toulouges.

“I think more than anything [we’re looking forward to] the team bonding, the camaraderie, the chemistry”, said coach Chris Collins when he spoke to reporters at their practice on Wednesday. “Obviously you want to win the games, you wanna play well, you wanna try to see things about your team, but those things are secondary to what I think a trip like this can do for a team in terms of how they bond and the chemistry they have going forward”.

The biggest adjustments being made in practice as preparation for this trip involve playing with European rules, including a small ball, deeper three point line, wider lanes and a 24 second shot clock.

“Its been great to see guys up against the clock”, said Collins. “So you learn you have to push it up quicker, you have to get into your sets quicker, and then when it does get to five or six seconds on the shot clock, you can’t panic. You have to use those last few seconds to really get a good shot and I think those are gonna be huge things as we head into the college basketball season”.

Coming off a positive end to last season, the Wildcats are looking at this trip as an opportunity to build off of that success both on and off the court. The team has been spending more time together in the offseason, building their chemistry but also focusing on their games and their conditioning. There were some noticeable changes in some of the guys when they came out for practice Wednesday. Senior center Alex Olah is leaner, as are fowards Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey and point guard Bryant McIntosh. They are hoping to gain more versatility in their lineups where Law can not only be stronger in the post, but can also bring it up at times, taking some of the pressure off of McIntosh and allowing him to play off the ball at times.

Even with all of that, the success of the Wildcats this season will on their leading scorer, senior Tre Demps. Demps is coming off his best season at Northwestern and is looking to continue to improve as a player a leader, which starts with keeping the high expectations in check.

“I’m really not thinking about March”, said Demps. “If you’re thinking about March then you’re not really thinking about what it takes to get there, and what it takes to get there is buying in every single day, doing things right every single day, practicing hard, and not letting a day go by where you didn’t get better.”

Collins is very high on Demps, who he has only had for two years. He has worked hard this offseason on being more efficient in the lane, being able to finish more consistently at the hoop and improving his defense as well, a shortcoming in his game he is not afraid to address. He has matured nicely, as evidenced by his feelings about not looking too far ahead, and his eager to take on a leadership role this season along with fellow captains Alex Olah and Sanjay Lumpkin.

“He’s gotten better each year”, said Collins”. “No one works harder on their game. There’s an added maturity to him….and its nice to have that on the team. He’s obviously gonna be a big scorer for us and thats gonna be a great role, but, he’s also gonna have some ball handling duties as well, which he was anxious to add to his game and give him a chance to have the ball in his hands and bring it up a little bit, so I think you’ll see him in that role a little bit as well”.

This trip will be a great opportunity for this team to get a head start on the season, playing against international competition. It will not only benefit the players, but it’ll also benefit Collins, who is entering his third season and is really starting the settle in with this group. He knows that there will be a sense of urgency for his seniors this season, but he is quick to temper the excitement surrounding the team.

“We wanna be a team that’s talked about in March, but to do that, you can’t skip steps along the way. It’s August right now and we don’t talk about March, we talk about what we’re doing for this Spain trip. I think teams can really hurt themselves if they get too far ahead. I tell our guys all the time, to me words like “upside” and potential”, the only thing that means is you haven’t done anything. And even though its exciting to hear positive things, we have a long way to go and we have a lot to prove and I want these guys to come to the gym everyday trying to get better, not only individually but as a team.”

The team takes off on August 22nd and returns on September 1st.

 

 

Advertisements

What, Bulls Worry?

This is a public service announcement to Bulls fans everywhere. In the words of Aaron Rogers:

“R-E-L-A-X”

Okay, maybe quoting the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback to address the Bulls’ current struggles seems a bit unconventional. Sinful, perhaps. But it worked for them so why not us, right? For one tom-thibodeau-frown-facesimple reason – this Bulls team is very good, and it is normal for good teams to struggle in the regular season. To help support my point, lets look back on the last couple seasons, and stretches during the season where the fan base prematurely panicked.

Last season’s NBA champs, the San Antonio Spurs. The team we should have learned to never count out and yet we continue to when they don’t just roll through the regular season. But last year, on their way to an NBA championship and an amazing 62-20 record, the Spurs went through a stretch in January that was quite unkind. They lost to two other Western Conference contenders, the Trail Blazers and the Thunder and went on a three game losing streak (their longest of the season). In February they lost to bad/middle-of-the-road teams Detroit, Brooklyn and Phoenix during a streak where they lost five of seven games. How did they respond? With a 19-game winning streak in March on their way to the title.

In the year before, the Miami Heat started January by losing four of six games, with losses to contenders like the Bulls and Pacers, but also losses to the Jazz, Bucks and Pistons at the end of December and beginning of January. How did they respond? With a 27-game win streak in February-March, which was very memorably broken by the Bulls.

Great teams know that championships are not won during the regular season. And the veteran teams and players know that in order to be ready to peak in May and June, you need to pace yourself in January and February. They know that losing to a bad team every now and then or losing a series to a conference rival means nothing when the playoffs begin. Look at the Miami Heat. During their championship seasons, the Bulls had their regular season number. And with every regular season win, Bulls fans went nuts, excited that we were better than Miami. But what happened with the playoffs came around? The better team won.

So should we worry about losing to teams like the Jazz, Celtics and Magic? Should we worry about losing two straight to a conference rival like the Wizards? Maybe, but not right now. The ONLY thing we need to worry about is staying healthy. The Bulls need their complete team ready and healthy when the playoffs begin. The loss of just one of any of the Bulls’ core players could be enough to remove them from contention. This is a team built to win as a team. They do not have any one player 141212144725-derrick-rose-and-jimmy-butler-iso-white-uni-121214.home-t6who can carry them on their backs. The success of each player depends on the success of the others, and the biggest issue so far to me has been that they have just not gelled as a complete unit yet. Jimmy will play a great game, but Rose will be out. Pau will play well, but Noah will struggle. There is no LeBron, no Durant, no Melo on this team. They need to succeed as a group. So far, they have struggled to do that consistently.

Yes, I’m tired of watching the Bulls lose at home, I’m tired of them losing to teams they should beat and I’m tired of the musical chairs they have had to play with their starting lineup. I’m worried some about their struggles on defense so far. But – the Bulls have the best defensive coach and two of the best defensive players in the NBA. This is no longer the young, up-and-coming try-hard bunch we’ve seen over the last few years. The adjustments they need to make to turn some of these losses into wins are minor. This is a legit NBA championship contender. So, as long as they can all stay healthy, I still believe the Bulls could be the best team in the NBA.

Bulls Spreading the Love

Try this on for size:

Player A:
21.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.53 SPG, .498 FG%

Player B:
19.4 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 2.07 BPG, .493 FG%

Player C:
17.3 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 0.27 BPG, 1.7 3PM (per game), .439 FG%

Now if you could only choose two out of these three players for your team, which two would you choose? I believe the majority would select Players A & B.

Time for the big reveal:

Player A is the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler.
Player B is the Bulls’ Pau Gasol.
Player C is the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love.

The reason for comparison is because this past summer, the Bulls made a trade offer to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love, which included Butler and the rights to Euro star Nikola Mirotic, who has also shined off the bench in lieu of an injured Taj Gibson. So did the Bulls dodge a huge bullet when Minnesota (not-surprisingly) rejected their offer in favor of the one they did accept from Cleveland: the #1 picks in the 2013 and 2014 drafts, respectively, in Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins?

As for whom Minnesota did accept in return, Bennett was a bust in his rookie debut for ct-spt-1007-bulls-wizardsCleveland last season and has shown little improvement in his sophomore campaign wih the T-Wolves, while Wiggins, once touted as a future superstar, has underwhelmed in the first month of his NBA career. Without question, the Timberwolves turned down a better offer from the Bulls, at least in the short-term. Wiggins may still pan out as a franchise player someday, but there’s no denying the insane numbers Butler is putting up this year.

And then there’s Gasol, the former Lakers star whom the Bulls signed with the money they cleared once they applied the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer. After whiffing on both trading for Love and signing marquee free-agent Carmelo Anthony, the Bulls “settled” on consolation prize, Gasol. Had the Bulls succeeded in obtaining Love or Anthony, Gasol would have signed elsewhere (meanwhile, Anthony is leading his Knicks into the NBA cellar with a 4-14 record as of publication time).

So the Bulls appear better off and deeper with the combo of Butler, Gasol, and Mirotic vs. Kevin Love. Perhaps the one area the rejected trade might have benefited Chicago is that it would have prevented Cleveland from adding another potential future Hall-of-Famer to its already-dangerous core of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Arguably Cleveland would have fared better off withpau-gasol Wiggins in the long-haul, but Love will help the Cavs contend for a title immediately.

Like the Miami Heat had in each of the previous four seasons, the Cavaliers now serve as the Bulls’ greatest obstacle in reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 1998. It’s quite possible, if not likely, that these two teams will cross paths in the postseason come spring. It isn’t out of the question that Love, much as Chris Bosh had with Miami, will become the dismayed new villain to those fans west of Toledo.

However, even though the Bulls lost out on the Kevin Love sweepstakes, these fans have more to hope for than simply Derrick Rose staying healthy. Jimmy Butler looks like the real deal. It’s still early, but at least two Bulls appear All-Star Weekend bound, and neither is named Derrick Rose or Joakim Noah. That’s right; Butler and Gasol, the two players we fans almost missed out on seeing play in red and black this year, are both outperforming Kevin Love. How’s that for a consolation prize?

Is Derrick Rose the next Penny Hardaway?

pennyrose

This feels all too familiar. Coming off of his second major knee surgery in as many seasons, Derrick  Rose is having trouble staying on the court yet again. Two ankle sprains and now a hamstring have kept Rose out of half of the Bulls’ first 10 games this season. The build up of minor injuries such as these is exactly what led up to Rose eventually tearing his ACL during the 2012 playoffs.

When he has been on the court he has been good, showing flashes of his former MVP self. He’s put up averages of 18 points and five-and-a-half assists per game, and displayed the same speed we always remembered. While the Bulls are taking a much more conservative, cautionary approach to his injuries this year, I cannot help but wonder if we are watching the beginning of the end for what was once a very promising NBA career.

An all-star caliber player with a unique skill set, an NBA lottery pick out of Memphis with potential to be one of the greatest point guards ever. Sound familiar? That’s because we’ve seen this before in the career of Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. Hardaway was selected third out of Memphis in 1993 by the Golden State Warriors and later traded to Orlando for the top pick, Chris Webber.

During the 1994–95 NBA season, the Magic won a franchise record 57 games while Hardaway averaged 20.9 points, 7.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game. He started in his first All-Star game and was named All-NBA First Team. The next season, Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal led the Magic to the Eastern Conference Finals, only to lose to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. O’Neal left Orlando for the Lakers the next season, Hardaway was finally the lone star and leader of the team but failed to lead the Magic to another playoff win.

The very next year, Hardaway suffered a devastating knee injury and was never the same. His unique size and ability helped him still achieve some success, but his numbers dropped drastically. Hardaway couldn’t stay healthy for a full year after that, battling foot and ankle injuries causing him to miss time until two micro fracture surgeries put him out for the season. He battled back and returned again, but he was a shell of the player he used to be in stints with the Suns, Knicks and Heat. Yeah, it’s starting to sound like the Derrick Rose story. But could Rose’s story have a different ending, perhaps a more positive one involving the NBA title Hardaway never received?

A year-by-year stat comparison of the two players in their first four years. The fourth year for both players were strike-shortened seasons and both players missed most of the following year with a career-changing knee injury. The similarities are mind-blowing.

Year 1 Games Played PPG AST Season Result
Rose 81 16.8 6.3 Round 1 Loss
Hardaway 82 16.0 6.6 Round 1 Loss
Year 2
Rose 78 20.8 6.0 Round 1 Loss
Hardaway 77 20.9 7.2 NBA Finals Loss
Year 3
Rose 81 25.8 7.7 East Finals Loss
Hardaway 82 21.7 7.1 East Finals Loss
Year 4
Rose 39 21.8 7.9 Round 1 Loss
Hardaway 59 20.5 5.6 Round 1 Loss

Are we seeing another story of a potential NBA star’s career cut short? The similarities are eery and hard to ignore. For Bulls fans, you just have to hope this is not the case. The Bulls this season could be special and make a real run at an NBA title – but I don’t believe that’ll happen unless Rose is on the court, something we’re starting to see as more of a challenge than I think he or anyone expected.

It’s hard to imagine Rose ever returning to MVP form, and while Hardaway did develop into a quality role player, his career arc was riddled with injury. Maybe these little early season nicks are nothing, dealing with the rust of sitting out two years in a row. But it’s hard to ignore that Rose’s style of play is not built for a career of longevity. Players who move like he does and hit the lane with that amount of power and quickness don’t play very long without making significant adjustments to their games.

Then there is the mental aspect, which is clearly starting to take a toll on Rose. A constant hot topic in the media, and understandably so, Rose is becoming more defensive all the time. On top of the fact that he has to continue playing knowing that any wrong turn on the court, any awkward landing, could spell the end for him.

 

Chicago Bulls Season Preview

derrick-rose-kyrie-irving-nba-preseason-chicago-bulls-cleveland-cavaliers4-590x900

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:

HEALTH

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.

DEPTH

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.

COACHING

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.

NBA: Preseason-Atlanta Hawks at Chicago Bulls

Chicago Bulls 2013-2014 Season Preview

hi-res-185887793-derrick-rose-of-the-chicago-bulls-drives-to-the-basket_crop_north

Its my favorite time of year – the start of the NBA season. And it could not come at a better time. With the Bears stumbling into their bye week, Chicago is receiving the ultimate gift in the return of Derrick Rose, coming back from the torn ACL which kept him out all of last season. I had no interest in joining the debates about whether or not Rose should have returned last season, and I just enjoyed the ride watching the undermanned Bulls surprise everyone and make an incredibly gutsy run into the playoffs. But now Rose is back and I was eager to watch every minute of every pre-season game to see what kind of shape he would be in. Bulls fans, get ready for more player-by-player previews and predictions about the Bulls than you can handle.

First – some observations on the pre-season. Derrick Rose was bringing 110% percent in games that are normally reserved for players to just get their legs under them. But Rose came in with a HUGE chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove – and he more than did that. He looked incredible – and as much as people were saying he was playing all out in these meaningless games, I disagree. I still think we have yet to see the full extent of the improvement in Rose’s game. Injuries on the rest of the roster have me troubled a bit going into the season, specifically regarding Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich. Both played major roles in the Bulls’ success last season and are both keys to their success this year. Noah was shut down after only playing one pre-season game with a sore groin and Hinrich has been dealing with the aftermath of a concussion which has become shoulder pain. The Bulls’ depth has taken a bit of a hit this year in my opinion, and without those two players, chances of getting past Miami and Indiana decrease significantly.  Carlos Boozer looks worse than ever – and I’m not even a Boozer hater – but he hasn’t looked like an NBA starter so far this pre-season. And if they can stay healthy, I think the Bulls have the most dangerous defensive 2-3 in Deng and Butler, in the league – they are going to take the bulk of the responsibility for the opposing team’s best players. There are a lot of new faces on the bench and a superstar returning to form – lets go player by player and see what we hope to see from each going into the season.

THE BENCH

Mike Dunleavy – The Bulls’ big off-season acquisition. Not exactly front page news but I think this was a solid pick up. Since losing Kyle Korver two years ago, the Bulls have not had that go-to spot up three point shooter, and now they should have that in Dunleavy. He’s 6-9, he can handle the ball and with his size he can shoot over about anyone else at his position. In the pre-season it has looked like he fits really well on this team and with Derrick back, the Bulls need to have reliable perimeter scorers for him to pass out to when he drives the lane and collapses the D. He can play a few different positions and allow the Bulls flexibility in their rotation. Rose will continue to attract attention and draw double teams and if Dunleavy can be accurate, this will be on of the Bulls’ most dangerous weapons.

Taj Gibson – The most improved player for the Bulls this pre-season. Taj took a step back last year after being one of the Bulls’ most reliable players off the bench, but he looked good in the pre-season. He put on some muscle and should provide the Bulls some nice flexibility if he can play the 5 in some rotations. He’s a great defender and shot blocker and taj-gibsonappears to have found his outside shot again. I still want to see him develop a better offensive post game, especially because the Bulls don’t have a player who can demand much attention in the paint on the offensive end, but if he can do that it will open things up for the perimeter players around him.

Kirk Hinrich – The big question facing Hinrich is can he stay on the court? Because if he can, this is a great back up who can play both guard positions. He can handle the ball and run the offense and score when called upon, but pairing him with Rose at times will allow Derrick to move off the ball, something he has not been able to do as this is the first time the Bulls have really had a true point guard to back him up. But Hinrich has not proven he can play a full season. They are going to need to find a balance between limiting his minutes, keeping him healthy and being a guy who can let Rose and Butler rest during stretches.

Mike James – Good vet to have on the bench, but if we see much of him on the court, chances are we’re in big, big trouble…

Nazr Mohammed – For all of the bench players the Bulls let go in the offseason, this was actually the player I was most excited they retained. Last year Nazr didn’t play nearly enough in the early part of the season before Joakim started dealing with his foot problems. And I think part of what led to Noah getting hurt was that he was playing too many minutes that Nazr could have been taking. Nazr is a solid veteran backup and can give the Bulls some solid minutes off the bench in order to help keep Jo fresh and healthy. He knows the team well, the system well, can play defense and is reliable on offense. If Thibs is smart, we’ll see plenty of Big Naz early this year.

Erik Murphy – The rook likely saw more minutes this pre-season than he will all year assuming Noah, Boozer, Gibson stay healthy. He is definitely green, and will likely spend most of the year on the bench outside of a possible appearance during a blow-out. He looks like an overweight Fred Hoiberg, and the Bulls are hoping he shoots like one too. But he is not someone the Bulls expect to get much from in the short term – he actually strikes me as a Troy Murphy-type. 6-10 but more of a threat from behind the three point line than he is in the paint. The Bulls see him as a guy would could spread the floor at the 4 spot, but, likely won’t have many opportunities to do so this season. Still seems soft for the NBA game.

Tony Snell – The Bulls’ other rookie may have a slightly better chance of cracking the rotation, but this is another long term project. Snell is extremely athletic and projects to be a good outside shooter, but the Bulls are stacked at the 2 and 3 positions and this appears to be a development year for him. But this pick along with Murphy shows the Bulls’ commitment to surrounding their core with great outside shooters to help support Rose’s drive and kick game – but he could also be the second coming of Eddie Robinson….yikes.

Marquis Teague – The standout of the Bulls’ summer league, Teague showed improvement in his overall maturity and ability to handle the ball and run an offense. He appears to have worked on his outside shot, but that is still far from a reliable weapon. But he is extremely fast and clearly a good student of coach Tom Thibodeau’s system. With Hinrich’s inability to stay healthy for an entire season, Teague could get some quality minutes as the backup point guard.

THE STARTERS

Carlos Boozer – The worst thing I saw this pre-season was the play of Carlos Boozer. More than ever before, he is so mentally absent on defense. And for him that is saying a lot. Boozer has the big contract, but he is the weak link in an otherwise defensively strong starting lineup. I think the Bulls will have trouble sending Boozer to the bench given what he is being payed, but, I think this has to be the year that Taj Gibson becomes a starter. Now that Taj is a more reliable scorer, he solidifies what could be the most formidable starting defense in the NBA. The Bulls will be really, really difficult to score on without that big hole down low. That, and the mics don’t pick up Boozer as clearly when he’s yelling “go get it, Jo” from the bench.

Jimmy Butler – Jimmy Buckets is primed for a break-out year. He has spent the offseason working on his offensive game, which already took a step forward last season. He is one of the best wing defenders in the game and he could get better. And now with Derrick Rose hi-res-183187134-jimmy-butler-of-the-chicago-bulls-dunks-the-ball_display_imagerunning alongside him, opportunities to score should be much easier to come by for Butler. He showed in the preseason that he has worked on his outside shot, and if he can continue to develop his ability to create his own shot, he could finally be the long sought after Pippen to Rose’s Jordan. And if the Bulls want to take the next step toward a championship, they will need Butler to be the answer at shooting guard they have long struggled to find.

Luol Deng – An important season for Deng for many reasons. Coming to the last year of his contract, Deng has been the glue of this Bulls team. He has played through numerous injuries, he has been the leader of the team on and off the court, and he has been the lock down defender to always take on the opposing team’s best player. He has continued to develop his skills on offense, adding a reliable three point shot to his cut and slash game. But is Deng the long term answer? And will the Bulls be willing to pay what Deng will be asking for in the off season. He will also be the subject of many trade rumors as we get closer to the deadline, and probably the most likely Bull to be shipped out given his contract situation and value as a defender. I will be sad to see Deng go, but he is their best chance to get a true low post scorer to replace Boozer.

Joakim Noah – The personification of the Bulls heart-on-their-sleeves grit. And after suffering last year from a nasty bout with plantar fasciitis, Noah came to camp in amazing shape, and went on to injure his groin and only appear in one pre-season game. Noah was shut down and is doubtful to play in the season opener. The Bulls WILL NOT win the East without a healthy Noah. And already dealing with an injury before the season starts raises a lot of warning flags for me as a Bulls fan. Maybe he’ll come back and everything will be fine, but, after last season’s ongoing injury issues the Bulls need to be a lot more cautious with Noah this year.

Derrick Rose – Finally. He’s back. And like I mentioned at the top of this post, he looks better than ever before, which is scary. He looks stronger, he still attacks the rim without abandon, and he has clearly worked on his outside shot. If Rose can add a consistent three point shot to his already dominant game, this will be another MVP season for the Chicago native. I don’t want to get into his conditioning, should they rest him or not this season, etc. etc., but the biggest test will be late in the playoffs when Rose is double teamed, has his supporting cast proven threatening enough to make the regret leaving them open to double Rose.

A number of things to watch this season – do the Bulls make a trade before the deadline or do they stand pat? Will the starting lineup stay healthy all year? Can Rose actually return to MVP status? Will Thibs learn how to take his starters out of the game with 4 minutes left and up by 20? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I think they are worth monitoring. But I will make this prediction – if Noah, Butler, Deng and Rose stay healthy, this will be the year the Bulls was beat Miami and return to the NBA Finals.