Greetings! In case you missed it, be sure to check out our full-length previews of the Northwest, Pacific, Southwest, and Atlantic divisions here. Now, we continue our tour through the Eastern Conference, and arrive at the ultra-competitive Central division. Let’s get it going.
Chicago Bulls (55-27)
Welcome back, Derrick Rose.
The Bulls have what seems to be a fully healthy Rose back in their lineup for the first time since the 2011-2012 playoffs, and that is a God-send for what was a miserable team to watch, at times, last season. For reference on just how good Rose (the 2011 MVP) was before going down with an injury, he averaged 25 points and 7.7 assists per game during his MVP season, and while his points dipped a bit in 2011-2012, his passing numbers increased. I could go on and on for days on Rose, but he has put up 20+ points in 4 straight preseason games with the explosion that we all came to know from him. He’s back.
At the wing, Chicago has the incredibly unique combination of Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng. Both guys are above-average (at a minimum) defensive players, with Butler coming on in a huge way in Deng’s absence last season. Neither player is a knockdown 3-point shooter (32% for Deng, 38% for Butler, but only 1.3 attempts per game), but they more than make up for it with intelligent offensive play and suffocating defense. The PER statistic doesn’t love this duo (both guys range between 15 and 16), but that basically ignores defense, and with Thibodeau playing them obscene minutes (this is coming), their value is undeniable.
The starting frontcourt of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, on paper, is one of the best in the league. Boozer has come under fire in recent years for his (lack of) defense, but he still averaged 16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game last year in only 32.2 minutes, and he’s a box score stuffer at the very least. As for Noah, he vacillates wildly from “underrated” to “overrated”, but either way, he’s a terrific defender/rebounder who also functions as an above-average passer from a big man (4 assists per game), and he shot a manageable 48% in route to 12 points per game. I’m a big fan of Noah’s game in a vacuum, and I think most people’s negative reaction (if they have one) stems from over-the-top praise of the player rather than an objection to his actual game.
For the first time in a while, Chicago has a real, live bench this year. Taj Gibson is back to provide everything that Boozer lacks in (read: defense), and the Gibson/Noah combination is a terror on that end of the floor. He’s also a big-time finisher at the rim, and if someone can convey to him that he shouldn’t be shooting mid-range jumpers, he’d be even more useful. On the perimeter, Kirk Hinrich provides very solid production from a pure backup point guard, and he’s a good defender who can knock down 3′s (39% last year) when left alone. Mike Dunleavy was inked to what was a steal of a contract, and he’ll be insurance for when Thibodeau inevitably runs one or both of the Butler/Deng duo into the ground with an injury. He’s a very, very good (and versatile) offensive player, which is a nice asset to have with the two defensive-minded wings in front of him, and I loved that move. After those 3, the bench tumbles off a bit to Nazr Mohammed, Marquis Teague, etc., but they have a strong 8-man rotation.
Overall, I love the Bulls. Rose’s shear presence takes them from a middling playoff team to the favorite as the #2 seed (at least for me), and their 29th-ranked offense in points per game last season will surely take a step forward. I’m not sure they will challenge Miami in the playoffs, but they do have the talent to give them a serious run, and if Rose is Rose, they have the superstar to give themselves a chance.