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Bulls Season Preview 2012-13

LAST SEASON

Anyone who roots for the Bulls knows that last season was the most depressing of the post-Jordan era. It was the rare case in sports of existential ennui, the empty feeling of watching a team that was clearly missing something, and that no matter how much effort Joakim Noah expended or how many games Jimmy Butler played 48 minutes in, that hole wasn’t going to be filled.

Derrick Rose wasn’t playing, and the Bulls weren’t winning anything without him. And because of that, nothing the Bulls did really mattered.

The only bright spots last year were the aforementioned players, Noah and Butler, coming into their own last season. Noah made a run at the Defensive Player of the Year (finishing 4th in voting), was named to the All-Defensive First Team, made his first All-Star team, led all centers in assists last season while the offense ran through him, and proved that he is a legitimate second banana to Rose for the long haul. He had some borderline ridiculous performances in Rose’s absence, going for 23 points, 21 rebounds, and 11 blocks against the 76ers in late February, and 24 points, 14 rebounds, and six blocks in game 7 against the Nets while battling plantar fasciitis.

Butler hadn’t seen much of the court during his rookie season and had only played sparingly for the first few months of the season. But injuries to Deng in January and again at the end of the season and into the playoffs forced Butler into very, very heavy playing time, recording 8 wire-to-wire games and responding well to the role he was thrust into. In 20 starts last season Butler put up splits of 14.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.8 steals per game, while making life hell for whomever he was guarding. He has hardly seemed phased by any of this, and looks to have finally plugged the 2-guard hole the Bulls have been searching for a while.

NEW PLAYERS

Dr. GarPaxDorf have apparently learned to stop worrying and love the 3 pt. bomb, as all of the Bulls’ additions have been long range shooters, with the signing of veteran Mike Dunleavy and the drafting of Tony Snell and Erik Murphy.

Dunleavy will be taking over the 3-pt. shooting wing off the bench spot previously held down by Marco Belinelli and Kyle Korver. Last year Dunleavy had one of his best shooting seasons, making a career-best 42.8% from 3 pt. range playing for the Bucks. 93.8% of those were assisted baskets coming mostly off the broped, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, slashing to the hoop, a similar step-up to drive-heavy games of Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah. He should find himself open when sharing the floor with Rose, and as long as he makes his shots he’ll work fine for the Bulls.

He does not possess the ballhandling of Belinelli nor the shooting ability of Korver, but he is a better defender than both of them, a skill the Bulls value the most. Dunleavy is not a lockdown cover by any means, but he uses his long 6’9” frame well against opposing 2s and 3s. His height advantage over most shooting guards allows him to drop further off to contain drives and still be able to contest on shots, a facet Thibodau may be able to exploit. Putting Dunleavy on the 6’4” Dwyane Wade, for example, might allow the Bulls to put more shooting on the floor against the Heat without making a big sacrifice on the defensive end.

Snell averaged 38.0% on 3-pt shooting over his three year career at New Mexico and 39.0% last year, his junior year. He helped lead the Lobos to a #10 final AP poll ranking and a #3 seed in the West regional of the NCAA tournament before being bounced in the first round by Harvard. He was the third-best player on that team behind junior guard Kendall Williams and sophomore center Alex Kirk, a potential source of consternation. However, his place on the Bulls will be as a role player, so being out of the spotlight in the Lobo offense might make shifting into the Bulls’ expectations for him easier than it may seem.

More concerning was his performance in big games, especially against ranked opponents. Facing 4 teams in the Top 25 last year, Snell shot a pathetic 29.5% from the field and 22.2% from 3-pt range, numbers that do not include a 5 point stinker on 1-4 shooting against St. Louis, who snuck into the Top 25 by season’s end (to be fair, nor does it include a 23 pt. performance on 8-19 shooting and 3-5 from 3-pt against Colorado State, who also make the Top 25 later in the season). In the tournament against Harvard he put up 9 pts. on 4-12 shooting and 1-6 from 3 pt., an underwhelming showing in his final collegiate game. Paradoxically, he played some of his best ball of the season in the MWC championship, shooting an insane 60.0% on 3-pointers and 51.5% overall over the three games, averaging 17.6 points, 2.6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1.3 stocks (steals and blocks) per game on his way to tournament MVP.

Regardless of whether his shows up in big games, the 21 year old will most likely not see that kind of late-game action. Though a capable defender (often times he was tasked with checking the best perimeter player on one of the top defenses in the country), Snell will have to learn the intricacies of Tom Thibodeau’s defense before he sees time on the floor. At 6′ 7″ and 200 lb., he’ll also have to put on some weight or be at the mercy of most small forwards in this league. Even if these weren’t issues, Thibodeau is not the kind of coach to play his rookies very often, and Snell has a lot of talented players ahead of him that will limit his time on the court.

Our other rookie gunner Erik Murphy is also likely to be buried on the bench, but by season’s end there’s a possibility he will have seen plenty of the floor. He sits at fifth on the big man depth chart, but all of the players above him are potential injury risks: Carlos Boozer has been relatively healthy since he arrived in Chicago but is always liable to miss games (188 over his 11 year career), Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah have closed out recent seasons battling Plantar Fasciitis, and Nazr Mohammed just turned 36.

Disconcerting as that may be, the rookie may actually up to the challenge. Murphy finished an impressive campaign at Florida last season, helping the Gators reach their third straight Elite Eight appearance. The senior made First Team All-SEC while shooting a ridiculous 45.3% from 3, good for 5th in the nation, and averaging 43.5% for his career from that distance. Even better than that, he appears to be the type of player that steps up in bigger situations; Murphy’s splits of 12.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 51.6% from the field, and 45.3% from 3-pt. during the year jumped to 16.6/6.2/63.3% and an absurd 65.2% from 3-pt. when facing 5 Top 25 opponents last season. Unfortunately he also played four of his worst games in big moments, having subpar showings in the semis and finals of the SEC tournament (15 pt. on 5-18 shooting in the two games), in the Sweet Sixteen (4 pt. on 2-7 shooting against Florida Gulf Coast) and Elite Eight (0 pt. on 0-11 shooting against Michigan).

At 6′ 10″ and 240 lb. he seems Matt Bonner’s doppelgänger, right down to the school (Florida for both) and propensity for long-range shooting. But I think the antecedent for his playing style is closer to Tyler Hansbrough with a 3-pt. shot. Murphy isn’t afraid to go to work in the lane and has a fairly soft touch around the basket, but like Hansbrough likely doesn’t have the athleticism or height to make posting up or driving to the hoop a centerpiece of his offensive game. For Hansbrough this has been a major drag on his career and has limited his effectiveness on the pro level, but for Murphy his skill around the hoop will work off his ability to make open 25-foot shots. Defenders will have to respect every Murphy shot fake beyond the 3-pt. line, which will leave him with plenty of options once his defender is up in the air.

Thibodeau’s offenses also have a reputation for making smart cuts along the baseline from the weak side corner, a skill that Murphy could well develop when he finds his man ball-watching while checking him on the 3-pt. shot. Jimmy Butler and Ronny Brewer have made a meal out of these backdoor cuts in recent years, and neither are on Murphy’s level as a shooter. As long as Murphy gets some of the defensive competency pixie dust Thibodeau has used on Carlos Boozer the last few years, Murphy should be a useful piece to the Bulls’ puzzle.

OFFENSE

The Bulls offense is a hard one to project due to the very conspicuous absence of Derrick Rose for the past 17 months. After spending last season leaning heavily on Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli, the Bulls hope their offense can do more than merely hold their heads above water. The influx of aforementioned 3-pt. threats should give them some more teeth on that side of the ball, open up lanes for elite drivers Rose and Jimmy Butler (63.2% at the rim last year, good for seventh in the league), and give the high-post games of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer a little more room to breathe. Still, the effectiveness of this unit will hinge on what Rose can bring to the table, and having been off the court for nearly a year and a half, it’s a mere guess as to what he’s going to be once he returns.

This sentiment should not be taken strictly negatively. For most NBA players, the prime of their careers is somewhere between the ages of 26 through 29. Before and after that, one can usually plot a gentle incline in their youth and decline in old age. Rose was 23 when he tore his ACL and will be 25 when he takes the court on opening day. Projecting where he is going to be after being off the radar for so long is a fool’s errand. Point is, we really don’t know what type of player will come out of that tunnel on October 29 against the Heat.

As a baseline assumption, Rose has likely had the best treatment that money can buy. A full recovery of his speed and agility can be anticipated in time (his preseason performance and the alleged 5 inches he’s added to his vertical since the injury suggest that he’s already there), with his feel for the game coming with more live game action. The extra rest Rose enjoyed by sitting out last season likely rule out the possibly of the injury and subsequent surgery being a chronic issue for him. Barring unforeseen setbacks, he’ll probably be back to his 2011-12 form pre-injury by the end of the year, with the offense making a similar comeback to the top half of the league.

Being optimistic, though, one can make some exciting but not unrealistic predictions for Rose and the Bulls’ offense. Chris Herring recently wrote for the Wall Street Journal online about the positive effects a major knee injury can have on a player’s performance post-recovery. With the amount of time one can’t run or cut after such an injury, there is little more these players do than work on their jump shots. 20 players 26 years or younger have torn their ACL since 2003, and upon return they’ve improved from 38% to 42% on shots from 16 to 23 feet, a not insignificant jump in performance.

Rose was one of the best drivers in the league before the injury and will likely return to that, and as a passer he was above average. What he most needed to improve was his mid-to-long range shooting, and this information suggests that such an improvement might be on the way. His last two years have seen his percentages from 16-23 feet drop off to a middling 38% and 37% from his first two years of 43% and 44%–though that also came with a drop off in attempts, smart considering a shot taken a step back yields an extra point. The falling attempts from midrange have been replaced by more 3-pt. attempts, a good thing in a cost-benefit sense but not in terms of his effectiveness: 33.2% on 4.8 attempts and 31.2% on 4.4 attempts in 2011 and 2012, respectively, Monta Ellis-esque numbers for a player who makes smart decisions otherwise.

If Rose’s shooting percentages improve precipitously (preseason numbers can’t be taken as concrete proof of anything, but 44.4% from 3 on 5.2 attempts per 36 min. is certainly encouraging), the Bulls can potentially be a terror on offense. Previously starved of consistent 3 pt. shooting (outside of Kyle Korver’s stint here) and effectiveness, the Bulls sport a versatile unit that can throw a multitude of looks at any opponent. Now possessing seven legitimate long distance shooters and positional flexibility amongst them, lineups featuring four of these players and Joakim Noah—who last year led centers in assists per game with 4.0—could be truly devastating. And if Carlos Boozer’s drop in midrange effectiveness over the last two seasons was due to Rose’s absence (43.3% and 45.0% with Rose to 37.3% and 38.0% without Rose from 10-15 feet and 16-23 feet, respectively) and Taj Gibson’s improved jump shooting holds out (still just the preseason, but 59.7% from the field is very exciting), this team could win plenty of games (and playoff series) due in large part to their offense.

DEFENSE

That said, everyone knows defense is their bread and butter. Since Thibodeau has come to town the Bulls have never been anything worse than 6th in the league in Defensive Rating (the number of points a team gives up per 100 possessions), and with Rose in the lineup they haven’t been worse than 2nd. At the beginning of the last season Bulls management locked up Gibson long term, a move that has mostly to do with his defense. The Bulls Defensive Rating last season was 103.2; in the 620 minutes Gibson and Noah shared the floor last year, their D Rating dropped to 91.2, or 8.6 points better than league leader Indiana. Throw starting 2-guard Jimmy Butler in and the numbers get even more ridiculous. In 384 minutes Butler, Gibson, and Noah shared the floor last year, their D Rating dropped even further, to 90.4.

The source of this defensive mastery is a smart system designed to deny open 3-pt. shots and clean looks at the basket, and an almost maniacal attention to detail. Zach Lowe wrote about both at length for Grantland, breaking down step-by-step how the Bulls D goes about ruining opposing players’ nights. Their key for pick-and-rolls, the most common set the NBA runs plays out of, requires forcing ballhandlers away from screens, dropping the screener’s man into the paint to take away the drive, and staying home on perimeter shooters not involved in the pick-and-roll. The desired result is a midrange jumper off the dribble, statistically one of the worst shots on the court and one the Bulls force out of teams at an unprecedented rate.

Adhering to this system has made mediocre defenders out of former sieves Boozer, Belinelli, and Korver, and has turned its best defenders into nightmares for the opposition. Central to this is Noah, whose combination of size and quickness leaves him one of the few players in the league able to check positions 1 through 5 on the court. His speed allows him to help off of his man for a split second and then recover once crisis has been averted, giving his teammates the freedom to further suffocate their man knowing Noah has their back.

So, fantastic D like this from Noah (via SBNation)…

…allows wing defenders like Butler to body up this heavily on some of the games best offensive players and force long 2-pt. shots, the most optimal result for the defense. (In fact, Noah’s effect on the opposition’s decision-making can be seen in these clips as well.)

(Starts at 6:54)

PREDICTION

As much as possible, I try not to be a homer. Putting this together I had it in mind that I would probably project Miami and Indiana ahead of the Bulls, due to deference to the champs and a better bench for what was statistically the best starting five in the league, respectively. Rose has to play himself into shape and back into the lineup, which left me thinking that would slow down the Bulls at the beginning of the season and let one of the aforementioned teams run off with the first seed.

Then I saw Rose in the preseason. The preseason isn’t great for projecting things like effectiveness and per-game numbers, but strength and speed don’t lie, and Rose appears to be back to his insanely athletic self. A gimpy, sore Rose would hold back the Bulls’ progress a bit; what he put on the court in the preseason could not in any way be described as “gimpy” or “sore”. So forget that concern.

I looked at the Bulls roster again, and it became clear that the “back into the lineup” concern wasn’t an issue, either. Though the starting five of Rose-Butler-Deng-Boozer-Noah has literally never shared a second on the court, all of these guys have plenty of experience playing alongside Rose, 18-month rehab or not. In fact, everyone besides the rookies, Nazr Mohammed, and Dunleavy have played alongside Rose before, including Kirk Hinrich and Mike James, who were with the Bulls before Rose’s injury. Mohammed and Dunleavy aren’t really the type of players to make egregious mistakes or ruin team chemistry, so that concern was unfounded as well.

So here’s my projection: flip a (three-sided?) coin to pick who comes out of the East, because all three of Miami, Indiana, and the Bulls have a claim as the conference’s best and the favorites for the title.