The Chicago Bulls didn't get LeBron or Wade, but they did get a facelift this summer. Is it enough to challenge the elite of the elite in the Eastern Conference?
Over the past year and a half or so, the Chicago Bulls did something that many teams discuss, but few actually do. They decided their team that initially surrounded Derrick Rose was good, but not good enough to win a championship. So they began downsizing their roster, all in the hopes of creating enough cap space in 2010 to lure a superstar.
They let talented but enigmatic guard Ben Gordon go in free agency for nothing last summer, traded away John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas for cap space during the season and dumped Kirk Hinrich and the 17th pick for nothing on draft day. Somehow, thanks to the brilliance of Rose and the emergence of Joakim Noah, the Bulls snuck into the playoffs, where they were promptly dismissed by the Cavaliers.
What was the payoff for all that dismantling? Despite being rumored as the early favorites for LeBron James, the Bulls didn't get him. They also didn't get Dwyane Wade, despite meeting with him twice. However, they did get one big name, reeling in Jazz all-star Carlos Boozer to provide the low-post scoring threat they've needed for years. They also got some decent role players on good contracts with the rest of their money, bringing in Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and CJ Watson, and the switch from the overmatched Vinny Del Negro to the highly-regarded Tom Thibodeau at head coach is a major upgrade.
They still can't approach the top teams on paper, even if Rose takes a major leap. But as SB Nation's Bulls blog Blog a Bull writes, they should bother a lot of clubs defensively.
With all the faults of the Vinny Del Negro era (and oh, there were many), he did have the Bulls playing as a top-10 defense for most of the season (finished 11th after the midseason trades and an injury to Noah). Anchored by Joakim Noah (one of the best help defenders in the game and an improving shotblocker) and supplemented by an underrated perimeter defender in Deng, Thibodeau's defense-first mindset should fit in well with this roster. Kirk Hinrich will be missed on that end of the floor, but he was always undersized for the position compared to new acquisition Ronnie Brewer. Boozer isn't known as a great defender but he's a physical one, and Noah ought to cover a lot of his mistakes. The bigs off the bench include second-year player Taj Gibson and rookie Omer Asik, the former having proven to be an above-average defender and the latter excelling in shotblocking while playing overseas.
As the defensive guru for the Boston Celtics since 2007, Thibodeau has proven he can spur once-poor defensive players to new heights on that end. He'll have to do that again, as the Bulls' top two offensive players (Rose and Boozer) are also their two worst defenders. Rose, in particular, has been disappointing on defense in his first two years in the league. If anyone can inspire him to defend better, it's Thibodeau.
So the Bulls project to be very good defensively, and with Rose and Boozer, they have a good pick-and-roll duo and two top offensive threats. In this league, that's enough to compete. But the Bulls have one glaring weakness that'll likely hold them back this year: outside shooting. As Blog a Bull writes:
The Bulls were one of the league's worst offenses last season due to a reliance on the least-efficient shot in basketball, the long two-point jumper. And they weren't even that successful at making those. Inside scoring should be much improved with Boozer, but the Bulls still have a glaring lack of 3-point shooting. The Bulls only shot 33% from the arc last year, exacerbated by shooting the 2nd-fewest attempts in the league. They may be shooting even fewer with Hinrich leaving, and though Korver is one of the best marksmen in the league he'll be coming off the bench.
Rose spent this summer working on increasing his range, and Deng always seems just a foot away (literally) from becoming more of a threat, but this will be a major issue for the Bulls offense this season as opponents will likely pack the lane to defend the drives of Rose and crowd Boozer in the post. Thibodeau has mentioned an increased emphasis on the 3-point shot as opposed to Del Negro's offense, but they simply may not have the personnel to keep opponents honest.
Poor three-point shooting will hurt Rose and Boozer because it lessens the amount of space they'll have to go to work. Chicago clearly knew this was an issue, because they tried to acquire restricted free agent J.J. Redick this summer, but when the Magic matched the Bulls' contract offer, the team turned to Korver instead. Problem is, as Blog a Bull notes, Redick is a better all-around player, meaning Korver's likely going to be coming off the bench.
Despite that weakness, the Bulls will be good. But they probably won't end up being elite, because their offense could easily bog down in the playoffs. Blog a Bull predicts a 48-34 record, and I'll go one game more and say 49-33.