The Chicago Bulls are going about their 2015 preseason with a rejuvenated attitude. While the roster is virtually identical to last year, the enthusiasm is fresh, and there is optimism — even in the presence of what can be only described as a raging river of surreal weirdness that has encompassed it.
After a steady cascade of bizarre quotes revolving around Derrick Rose — either by him or about him — the Bulls’ former MVP got elbowed in the face in the first practice of the season and, after surgery, will be back in a week or so.
And there are reasons for the fresh optimism, in spite of all the wackiness and in spite of Chicago returning the same basic Bulls who’ve been bullied by LeBron James with steadfast consistency over the last seven years.
What Happened Last Year
The Bulls started similarly optimistic last season, after inking future Hall of Fame big man Pau Gasol, amnestying the ever-screaming Carlos Boozer and returning Rose from a second knee injury. This was going to be the year, Bulls fans and players thought alike.
But James went back to Cleveland, shored up a new “Big Three,” assembled a deeper cast and eventually ousted the Bulls from the postseason for the fourth time in his career.
It was a season of disappointment for the Bulls. They lost too many games to inferior opponents, including massive beat downs from the likes of lottery-bound teams such as the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons, just seeming to give up in the fourth quarter. And in the closeout game against the Cavs at the United Center, they put up similar “resistance” as they were blown out at home.
It was another year of coach Tom Thibodeau battling with the front office over minute restrictions, and another year of youngsters playing on short leashes. As it turned out, it’d be the last year that Thibodeau coached in Chicago, and his oustering left the fan base somewhat divided.
On the bright side, Jimmy Butler emerged as a star. Rose showed flashes of his former MVP self, but also had spurts of what can only be described as embarrassing incompetence. Joakim Noah gave it the old college try, but his knee was not his old college knee, and he wasn’t able to play on the surgically repaired stem the way he once did; that “Tigger” bounce still in his soul, but no longer in his prowess.
What Happened This Summer
The Bulls, due to an array of circumstances, were somewhat limited in what they could realistically accomplish this summer. Their best players were coming off injuries, so they weren’t that tradeable. They didn’t have any money to spend in free agency. And they didn’t have any lottery picks to jumpstart the team.
They were able to draft Bobby Portis, who many projected to be a lottery pick and who played exceptionally well during Summer League, even outdueling No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns in the Bulls’ first game. Still, with the Bulls’ stacked frontcourt, it’s unlikely that he logs too much playing time.
But Chicago did make one move that could make a big impact on this year, and that was to change its coach. Gone is Thibodeau and his old-school thinking, for better or for worse. In comes Fred Hoiberg with his new-fangled, analytics-oriented offense, for worse or for better.
From the outset, the players appear to like to it. As Nick Friedell of ESPN points out:
The buzzword that consistently pops up among players or coaches when the topic of Hoiberg’s system comes up is “freedom.” The belief being that Hoiberg will allow his players the offensive freedom that Thibodeau never did. Almost every time down the floor during Thibodeau’s five-year tenure, players would look over to their coach so that he could bark out an offensive play. The predictability of those sets is one of the things that irked Bulls executives most about Thibodeau’s game plan over the years.
Another word that you could use that would never be associated with a Thibodeau-coached team is rested:
Hoiberg indicates Friday will be Bulls' last of two-a-day practices. They had been scheduled to go twice Sat/Sun too.
— Cody Westerlund (@CodyWesterlund) October 1, 2015
There’s a lightness to this camp which hasn’t been there in the past, and one which the Bulls under the ever-intense Thibodeau needed. It may seem silly and perhaps insane to use this word to describe the Bulls, but “happy” comes to mind.
It’s not just a coaching change, it’s all the changes that come with a new coach. There is fresh optimism and a new philosophy.
Key Player to Watch: Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler gambled on himself last year and won. At least we can stop saying that now that he’s got that max contract. But the 2014-15 Most Improved Player could very much be in the conversation the 2015-16 Most Valuable Player, depending on how much success the Bulls have as a team.
The talents and attributes Butler has fit perfectly into the Hoiberg scheme, and he could take his game to yet another level after vaulting to All-Star status last season.
Doug McDermott, the second-year small forward out of Creighton was effusive in describing Butler’s preseason play:
McDermott said Butler has been "hands down" best player on floor first two days of practice.
— Sam Smith (@SamSmithHoops) October 1, 2015
Assuming the Bulls play with a pace similar to the Golden State Warriors last year, and that Butler’s usage goes up to around 27 percent (Klay Thompson level), he’d notch about 27 points per game next season if he maintains the same efficiency — a distinct possibility in Hoiberg’s wide-open offense.
Furthermore, with the ball in his hands much more, look for Butler’s assist numbers to spike. A 25/5/5 slash line from him with a true shooting percentage over 60 wouldn’t be a shock, and it’d be enough to include him in MVP discussions.
If you want to find a lot of clouds in front of the silvery lining, it’s not that hard. The Bulls have been a M.A.S.H. unit for the last five years, and this year is already off to the same sort of start.
Taj Gibson is almost all the way back from his surgery, but his status is uncertain. Mike Dunleavy is out for at least eight weeks after back surgery. Rose has the aforementioned broken face but will at least be back soon. The most impactful of these is the Dunleavy injury, as he’ll be the only one who seems likely to miss regular-season games.
But it’s the pattern of it all. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And if the Bulls continue to be the china shop they’ve been for the last half-decade, then they’re going to have the same results.
But if the lighter minutes, less grueling practices and even the less physical style of play mean the Bulls stay healthy, they have the talent to get to the Eastern Conference Finals. They even have a Lloyd Christmas chance of getting past James’s Cavaliers, though their hated rival would still be heavily favored.
Look for the Bulls to be the second-best team in the East and a lot more fun to watch this year.