The Chicago Bulls endured another season rattled by an injury to their MVP point guard, fought their way into the postseason picture, but once again fell short of their title aspirations. The Bulls have been mentioned in some of the biggest offseason rumours and should be one of the biggest movers in the offseason.
It was a familiar storyline for Bulls fans this season: a season full of promise rocked by injury, defined by grit and determination, and falling agonisingly short of the end goal.
The hype surrounding Chicago at the beginning of the season was palpable as the long-fantasised return of Derrick Rose loomed as an unfathomable reality.
The wait was over and the former MVP was back to help guide the Bulls past Pat Riley’s evil regime in South Beach.
However, the basketball gods can be cruel and Rose’s season was ended after just 10 games. Cut down once again by knee injury, Rose could only manage 15.9 points at 35.4% from the field, 3.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per night in his cameo for the year – all career-lows.
To add insult to injury, the Bulls front office traded fan favourite Luol Deng (19.0 points and 6.9 rebounds) to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Bynum and future draft picks. Bynum never pulled on a Bulls uniform.
However, Chicago’s front office did not count of several key factors that makeup their current roster.
The play of Joakim Noah was sublime, while head coach Tom Thibodeau refused to let his team slide down the standings.
Once the dust had settled, despite all of the adversity, Chicago finished the season with a 48-34 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
However, from there on in, things did not go entirely to plan. The Bulls fell to the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards in just five games and were once again left licking their wounds and dreaming of a championship that could have been if not for another cruel twist of fate.
Without Rose’s offensive punch, the Bulls have become a team of polar opposites. This season, while they led the league in restricting the opponents scoring (91.8), Chicago was dead last in points per game themselves (93.7).
Even without Deng, the pairing of Noah and Jimmy Butler (13.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals [fourth in the league] in 38.7 minutes [second] per game) suffocated opponents throughout the season. Both finished amongst the league leaders for defensive rating (Noah first and Butler 13th) and defensive win shares (Noah first and Butler eighth). Meanwhile, they were each selected to an All-Defensive Team – Noah the first and Butler the second.
Reserve forward Taj Gibson, who finished second in Sixth Man of the Year voting, helped provide valuable fourth quarter offence and defence that fellow forward Carlos Boozer (13.7 points at 45.6% and 8.3 rebounds – his worst output as a Bull) struggled to muster.
Gibson capped off a career year averaging 13.0 points (a career-high), 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks a night (16th in the league) – he also finished 11th for defensive rating and 12th in defensive win shares.
Mid-season acquisition DJ Augustin gave the Bulls valuable cover for the injured Rose. After averaging just 2.1 points and 1.0 assists (29.2% FG and 9.1% 3FG) through 10 games with Toronto, Augustin finished the year averaging 14.9 points (41.9% FG and 41.1% 3FG) and 5.0 assists over 61 games with Chicago.
Fellow backup point guard Kirk Hinrich (9.1 points and 3.9 assists) and free agency addition Mike Dunleavy Jr. (11.3 points, 38.0% 3FG and 4.2 rebounds) were also valuable contributors.
Most Valuable Player
Despite all the adversity his side faced through the early stages of the season, the aforementioned Noah refused to let his team fall out of playoff contention.
In his second All-Star season, Noah carried the Bulls to the tune of 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds (sixth in the league), 1.5 blocks (12th), 5.4 assists (first amongst centre) and 1.2 steals per game – all career-highs.
He finished top-15 in minutes played and was truly one of the season’s most remarkable warriors.
His combinations of relentless rebounding, never-say-die defending and ability to run an offence from the high post make him one of the most unique players in the league.
There are obvious flaws in Noah’s game, but to his credit he squeezed every last ounce of success out of his distinctive skill set throughout the year, finishing the season with four triple-doubles (second in the league). Four more than any other centre in the league.
To go along with his All-Star selection, Noah was also named the Defensive Player of the Year (receiving 100 of a possible 125 first-placed votes), voted to the All-Defensive First Team (receiving the most votes of any player) and selected to the All-NBA First Team (receiving the third-most votes of any player, behind only Kevin Durant and LeBron James).
The Bulls might have fallen short of the expectations thrust on them at the beginning of the season, but Noah shattered those laid out for him in emphatic fashion.
Head coach Thibodeau is a unique specimen in the NBA, possessing a will to win that borders on manic obsession.
Once Rose went down again, the writing was on the wall for the Bulls to wave the white flag, shed salary and prepare for next season with a juicy lottery pick.
That is undoubtedly what Chicago’s front office had in mind, but Thibodeau had other ideas.
When Deng (one of Thibodeau’s favourite soldiers) was traded on January 6, many thought it signalled the end of Chicago’s playoff hopes. The Bulls had lost their MVP, traded their best wing player and held a 14-18 record at the time.
What chance did they have of making the postseason?
With Thibs at the helm? Plenty.
The Bulls would go 34-16 from that point on, including three winning streaks of at least four consecutive wins – capped off by a seven-game run to close the season.
Thibodeau has never been blessed with a prolific offensive unit, but he’s never needed it.
During his time with the Bulls, Thibodeau’s teams have never finished worse than third for points against per game and never worse than sixth in defensive efficiency.
Thibs knows defence and defence wins games.
Example A: the 2013-14 Chicago Bulls.
Entering the draft, the Bulls held the rights to two first-round draft picks – their own (19th overall) and the other thanks to a deal with the Charlotte Bobcats from 2010 (16th). However, they packaged those picks to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Creighton scorer, Doug McDermott (the 11th pick) and Anthony Randolph.
McDermott gives the Bulls a scoring threat on the wings they’ve lacked since their last Creighton marksman, Kyle Korver, skipped town. The man affectionately known as “Doug McBuckets” finished his four-year career with the Bluejays averaging 21.7 points per game, including 26.7 a night in his senior year, and with a career mark of 45.8% from beyond the arc – never shooting less than 40.5% from deep. Meanwhile, he is also an underrated rebounder, pulling 7.5 boards a game over his 145-game college career.
He isn’t an elite defender, but if coach Thibodeau can hide Boozer on the defensive end, McDermott should cope just fine.
Chicago also selected Australian-born New Mexico product, Cameron Bairstow, with the 49th pick, who should be a reliable stretch four in short bursts during the year.
They are also owed two first-rounders in 2015 – one from Sacramento (top-10 protected) and one from Cleveland (lottery protected).
The Bulls have shown interest in making a move for New York’s soon-to-be free agent Carmelo Anthony and disgruntled Minnesota star Kevin Love.
However, Chicago’s salary cap situation will need some clever working to accommodate another superstar-value contract.
They can amnesty Boozer to free up roughly $16 million worth of cap space to throw at either star, but there are also other expenditures that must be factored in.
A Boozer-less roster leaves Chicago with just seven contracted players. Holes will need to be filled.
There will also potentially be three rookie salaries to consider as well.
Not to mention the $3.4 million buyout price tag on Euroleague stud Nikola Mirotic if the Bulls exercise their draft rights to his services – it has also been over three years since Mirotic was drafted, so he is no longer subjected to the rookie scaling for his first contract and could justifiably demand a higher salary.
Regardless what direction the Bulls decide to head in this offseason, expect them to be amongst the most active teams as they reshuffle their roster for another title run.
Even if they cannot net another big-name superstar, if Rose finally returns healthy, it will seem like a marquee signing after Chicago has been without him for the best part of two seasons.
Maybe next year will be their year.
God knows Bulls fans deserve it.
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