BY KYLE GRIFFIN
While the early days of July are labeled the NBA’s “moratorium” period every year, it’s actually a time that sees the most action by all 30 teams at any single time.
It’s the month of August, a time when many NBA executives take their vacations that should be labeled with the “moratorium” tag. Of course, thanks to DeAndre Jordan, even most casual fans are now aware of the moratorium period’s purpose.
However, now being entrenched in the middle of the slowest NBA period, it’s a perfect time to take a closer look at the Chicago Bulls’ fairly predictable yet eventful offseason.
Once the 2015 playoffs came to an end, the focus turned quickly to the well-publicized rift between coach Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls’ front office. While Thibodeau had an outstanding winning percentage (255-139, 64.7 percent) the seasons were followed by short playoff runs. The early exits were more due to untimely injuries to key players — and most agree those teams actually overachieved.
The Bulls’ roster today is nearly identical as it was the last time we saw them at the United Center. So the change in the 2015-16 Bulls will be a philosophical one not due to personnel.
Many times in sports a new voice can do wonders and the Bulls are counting on just that. While new coach Fred Hoiberg is considered an offensive specialist with a system predicated on space and movement, what’s more important is Hoiberg is considered a “players coach” — and a former player himself, a major difference from the gruff, my-way-or-the-highway style of his predecessor.
Hoiberg built a successful program at Iowa State and has been the league’s “it” coach for vacancies the past few years.
Bulls fans are hopeful Hoiberg can produce a better result than the last Iowa State coach to take the reins. Granted, the roster that Tim Floyd, whom Hoiberg played for, inherited in 1998 didn’t have an ounce of the talent that today’s Bulls boast.
The Bulls’ focus on July 1 was, and rightfully so, on their own free agents. Due to their cap restrictions, big-name free agents were never in play.
After a five-year, $90-plus million deal was signed by All-Star and reigning Most Improved Player Jimmy Butler, the heavy lifting was done. Retaining sharp shooting wing Mike Dunleavy and the instant offense provided by jitterbug Aaron Brooks to cap-friendly deals was a testament to the confidence this team has in one another.
The only other addition was through the draft. Bobby Portis was selected 22nd overall after the 6-11 forward-center averaged 17.5 points and 8.9 rebounds at Arkansas. Portis was the SEC player of the year last year and possesses unique versatility for his size. Having the ability to consistently make shots out to 15 feet and being an above-average rebounder and shotblocker just adds to the depth of the Bulls’ already loaded front court.
Pau Gasol will be building on what looked to be a rejuvenated first year after a change of scenery, while frontcourt-mate Joakim Noah wants to put 2014-15 firmly behind him.
But after a fully healthy offseason, there’s no reason to believe Noah won’t return to his facilitating, paint-protecting style. Noah turns 31 late next season but his game was never predicated on supreme athleticism.
Instead his career has been built off of smarts, attitude and shear desire. In my estimation, those categories will be even better after last season.
Taj Gibson has improved his offensive repertoire since entering the league — but defense, energy and rebounding are still his bread and butter. Gibson has excelled in these three areas to the point that he has many times been in the Sixt5h Man of the Year running.
Nikola Mirotic had an up and down rookie season, which isn’t shocking considering he played double the amount of games than he’s been used to in the Spanish league. At times, Mirotic showed the offensive versatility that fueled his rise to one of the best talents outside of the NBA and a Spanish league MVP in 2013.
Unfortunately there were also times he struggled to make a positive impact through limited minutes. Thus is the life for an NBA rookie. With a full season and two playoff series under his belt, Mirotic will be much better prepared night in and night out for season No. 2.
The guard position is what’s going to make or break the ’15-16 season in Chicago.
It’s easy to forget the talent of Derrick Rose the last few seasons. I had a conversation with some guys last summer who thought the Bulls should trade Rose in favor of keeping D.J. Augustin. I’ll say that again — trade Rose to re-sign Augustin! Nothing against Augustin, but Rose has an addendum in the CBA named after him.
Rose struggled to return to form most of the season but always seemed to show up for big games. That was especially true during the postseason, when he averaged 20.3 points per game.
Rose has been working out with Rob McClanaghan and opted to sit out of USA basketball camp. McClanaghan, who also trains Russell Westbrook, noted the extreme competitiveness of the two-athletic marvels.
“He look’s like the old Derrick to me” McClanaghan said in Las Vegas for Team USA camp. “Like Russell said, everything is back to where it used to be. Derrick’s timing is back and mentally he’s in a very good place.”
If that turns out to be true, the NBA is officially on notice.
Butler is a member of the league’s newest max club. Butler re-signing should have been a foregone conclusion, but leading up to the opening of free agency there was doubt the notoriously tight Jerry Reinsdorf would fork over the big bucks.
Well, it took less than 14 hours and the new deal was agreed upon. This showed again Reinsdorf isn’t cheap as he’s been labeled in the past, just more of a frugal opportunist.
There have been whispers in the past of a disconnect between Rose and Butler. Butler did his best to squash these rumors recently by saying, “From what I can tell, the guy’s always been in my corner.”
Along with Rose and Butler, Mike Dunleavy will likely be returning to the starting lineup. Dunleavy’s veteran leadership and experience brings a certain calming presence to the starting group.
Dunleavy doesn’t command the ball, but always finds himself in the right place and knocks down his shots more than not, a great complement to the ball-dominate guards with whom he plays.
Rounding out the bench for the backcourt/wing spots is the combination of Kirk Hinrich, Doug McDermott, Tony Snell and Brooks.
Brooks is the backup PG and is known for his instant offense off the bench. This is a role Brooks has flourished in throughout his career.
Hinrich operates in a similar role for the second unit as Dunleavy does for the starters. Consistent, savvy and hard-nosed are a few things that come to mind when thinking about Hinrich.
Snell has shown glimpses of becoming the 3-and-D guy he was projected as coming out of New Mexico. He is entering his third year, which is the time when most young players make their biggest leap. But if he wants a big payday at the end of his rookie deal, he needs to start making better use of his minutes.
Snell’s 3-point percentage dipped slightly last year ( 38.4 percent to 37.1) but with a true offensive system to play in this year, the quality of shots should be much improved.
McDermott (whose father was the coach at ISU just before Hoiberg) was considered a lights-out shooter coming out of Creighton but didn’t get much of a chance to show it last year. Amid injuries and Thibodeau’s old school style of not playing rookies much, he understandably struggled to get going.
As a shooter, McDermott relies on rhythm and with Hoiberg at the helm, the offense should provide ample opportunities for shooters to find their rhythm.
The Bulls are returning a team that won 50 games last season despite a variety of injuries to key players. The hope is that many of the successful defensive principles instilled by Thibodeau and his staff will remain and Hoiberg can build on the offensive end.
The most likely result is the defense will regress slightly but the offense will get a bit of a boost. We all know that saying about having cake and getting to eat it — but even if that’s the case in an improved Eastern Conference, there’s reason to believe, as constructed, this team will be hosting a playoff series come April.