The 2012-13 Chicago Bulls season begins Wednesday night, and for the first time since 2007, Derrick Rose will not be participating in opening day. Every Chicago fan is rooting for Rose to get back to his elite level of play, but it is pointless to speculate on a return date for the former MVP. Whether he returns this season or next, the Bulls will be playing a lot of basketball without him.
The Bulls return starters Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton, as well as super-sub Taj Gibson and second-year G/F Jimmy Butler. Kirk Hinrich returns to Chicago to fill in for the man that took his job years ago. Those seven guys are going to be playing major minutes this season. Coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t have the deep roster that he has had the last two seasons, and is already known for playing certain guys a little too much. Lets take a look at the talent Coach Thibs is working with this season.
The “Core” Guys
Luol Deng: He was the teams MVP last season, and was a first-time All-Star. Deng played through pain and put off surgery last season (and this summer) to ensure he could represent Great Britain in his adopted hometown of London in the 2012 Summer Olympics. He still hasn’t had the surgery and insists it will not interfere with his game. Deng is the most important player on the Bulls active roster. His game is among the most complete in the league. His offensive skill set will be relied on heavily when the Bulls are having trouble making baskets. Defensively, he will be guarding some of the best scorers in the league, and typically slows them down.
Richard Hamilton: Rip missed the most time last season, and never developed a rhythm. He showed flashes of his scoring capability, but always suffered a setback just as he was heating up. A healthy Hamilton is the among the NBA’s best at moving without the ball. It will be up to his teammates to find him, but Rip will find a way to get open and has a deadly mid-range jump shot. I would not be surprised if Rip Hamilton averages 18 PPG this season.
Carlos Boozer: This guy has been taking heat since he signed his contract. He is exactly what they signed up for, he does a lot of things well. Defense is not one of them. Playing for a guy like Thibs when you don’t play good defense…that’s not going to help his situation. What he can do is score. Boozer changed trainers this summer and was noticeably more athletic in the preseason. Hopefully that helps him average more than 15 PPG/8.5 RPG this year, because he needs to have a hell of a season for the Bulls to hold on to him.
Joakim Noah: If Joakim Noah hadn’t gone down in Game 3 last season, there is a good chance the Bulls would have made it out of the first round. He is among the best true centers in the Eastern Conference. Tyson Chandler, Brooke Lopez, Andrew Bynum and Roy Hibbert join him, and none of them are as athletic as Noah. A double-double machine already, if his offseason workouts with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pay off, Noah will be a true nightmare for opposing teams.
This is a big year for all four of these players.
The “Counted On” Guys
Kirk Hinrich: Kirk was the man before Derrick, now he’s the man filling in for him. Kirk played very well as a starter earlier in his career, but got demoted by the #1 overall draft pick, switched to shooting guard, benched, traded, traded again then dealt with injuries while playing for the Atlanta Hawks last season. Hinrich has already had two injuries in the preseason (finger, groin), but as long as he can walk, Thibodeau will be playing him. Point guard options are severely limited beyond Hinrich.
Taj Gibson: This is a huge year for Gibson. The excitement over Taj’s potential, coupled with the distrust of Boozer’s skills is not exclusive to fans only. The front office has a good handle on the situation, and if a deal isn’t struck by 11 p.m. today, they will have to wait until the offseason to resume talks. If the Bulls sign Taj to an extension, it will be an expensive commitment, and probably lead to Boozer being amnestied, which will also be expensive. Are the Bulls willing to spend $30 million on him, while eating another $30-40 million on Boozer? Gibson causes the average Bulls fan to scream “HOLY SHIT” with an amazing play at least twice a season. He has the talent to be better. Now is the time for Taj to go to the next level.
Jimmy Butler: Jimmy will get significant minutes this season. His preseason averages were 5 PPG/4.3 RPG/20 MPG. Butler needs to provide more than 5 points in 20 minutes, but he looked promising, having adjusted well to the speed of the NBA game. Once his legs get used to logging meaningful minutes, his shots should start falling.
The “Role Player” Guys
Nate Robinson: Nate is the back up point guard, like it or not. He provides instant energy, and is a spark plug on the offense. Despite his 5-9 frame, he is competent and works hard on defense. However, “KryptoNate,” 3-time Slam Dunk Competition winner, tends to participate in plays that will give his coach a migraine for days. Sometimes, it works. Robinson is much more talented all-around than John Lucas, who logged major minutes and had a few starts last season, and helped the Bulls win games.
Marco Bellinelli: He is coming off of a career best 11.8 PPG, and could be a huge asset to the Bulls. His preseason performance was poor, and commented a few weeks ago that he had never been on a good team, and the transition was a struggle. Hopefully he returns to his career shooting averages of 42% from the field and 39% from 3, because his 1-9 from beyond the arch preseason performance is unacceptable.
Nazr Mohammed: Nazr had a great preseason, and will be a solid back up for Noah. The 14-year veteran has made a career of being a back up, and that’s not such a bad thing. Mohammed always steps in and plays well when his time comes, and he showed that in the preseason, offensively and defensively. The Bulls were smart to avoid paying too much for Omer Asik, as Mohammed will be more productive than Asik’s career averages of 2.9 PPG/4.4RPG, without the $25 million deal.
The “Unavoidable Playing Time” Guys
Marquis Teague: Sure, he’s got potential, but he looked severely out of place this preseason on both ends of the floor. The former Kentucky speedster has yet to catch up to the speed of an NBA game, and it doesn’t appear that he is close. The Bulls will likely take his development slowly, but as we saw last season, sometimes third string point guards become starting point guards. It won’t come to that, the Bulls would pick up a free agent before they gave Teague big minutes.
Vlad Radmonovic: Vlad is an 11-year veteran, and is known for his ability to spread the floor. He is 6-10 and can occasionally knock down 3’s, but don’t expect him to get any playing time to confirm that skill. Depending on the needs of the team throughout the season, he may not be on the roster come April.
The season is hours away, and these are the a few key things to watch for early in the season:
– Is the signature defense still up to par? This team needs it more than ever.
– Will the core veterans step up? Deng, Hamilton, Boozer and Noah must make up for losing a man with MVP stats. All four need to increase their offensive output. They are all capable, and if they can play at the top of their ability, they will find success.
– Who will be the last man standing in the Boozer/Gibson “playoff?” Both? It’s possible they sign Taj to and extension and keep Boozer around. It’s even probable, at least for another year, if there isn’t a solid free agent PF willing to come to Chicago this summer (I don’t believe there is). It could be better to pay them both, even if Taj eventually starts over Boozer. Maybe the Bulls don’t sign Taj and amnesty Boozer to free up cap space for the inevitable disgruntled superstar. There has been a lot of movement in the NBA over the past 3 seasons, and not everybody is happy. In the mean time, we can watch Boozer and Gibson battle it out, helping the Bulls along the way.
– Will the Bulls have a healthier season? Lots of injuries last season, not just to Derrick Rose. Chicago managed to get the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference last season while dealing with the following injuries: Richard Hamilton missed 58% of the regular season, Derrick Rose missed 40% of the regular season, CJ Watson missed 25% of the regular season, and Luol Deng missed 19% of the regular season, and should have missed much more.
If this Bulls team can avoid the number of injuries sustained last season, they will not fall to the bottom of the standings. Don’t be surprised if these Bulls finish in the middle (4-6 seed) of the Eastern Conference playoff race. We will find out a lot tonight, first game of the season tips at 7 pm versus Sacramento at the United Center.
Follow on Twitter @Midwayrusty