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Enemy: Chicago Bulls
3SOB Forecast*: 54-28


Credit: Adidas

What’s new in the Windy City?

What a season 2012-13 was for the Chicago Bulls.

If it was not already a given that he had previously done so, coach Tom Thibodeau really earned his stripes last year, as he took a battered and weathered Bulls team to about as commendable a second-round exit as one could possibly imagine — a five game meat grinder against the world champion Miami Heat.

The end result hardly does justice to the onerous road that the Bulls had traveled leading up to their demise. Heck, they hung on by a string just getting out of the first-round, with all of the depth issues that their injury problems created. Aside from Derrick Rose, who missed the whole season, major pieces of the puzzle, Luol Deng, and Kirk Hinrich were both lost during the playoff run, while Joakim Noah was playing through a case of the debilitating plantar fasciitis. These issues forced emerging swingman Jimmy Butler to shoulder a lion’s share of the load, as he played all 48 minutes in five of the team’s last seven games, and 46 minutes in another.

The most resonant departure for the Bulls is that of journeyman Nate Robinson, who will truck his way out to Denver. An unforgettable act of heroism by Nate pulled them out of a 14 point hole late in the fourth quarter of Game 3 against the Brooklyn Nets, provoking what was arguably the most compelling game outside of Game 6 of the NBA Finals. The performance propelled them to a 3-1 series lead; leverage that they clutched to for dear life as they squeaked by the Nets in the deciding seventh game.

The Bulls have pretty much stood pat this off-season, to follow up. In terms of serious contributors, only free agent signee Mike Dunleavy and their pair of draft picks (Tony Snell and Erik Murphy) are singing “Maybe things will be better in Chicago,” along to the track by legendary songwriter, Tom Waits, heading into this season.

If you can stomach the unique grinding croon of Waits’s vocal delivery, I’d highly recommend allowing the piece of music to serve as your soundtrack to the rest of this preview… I can tell you it was mine to writing it.

I was going to kick off this preview with a chronicle of #TheReturn — the Rose story, but I realized that this would be a great disservice to the rest of the team, which for lack of a better term grinded its ass off to get to where it did last season.

This is not to say that Rose has not been hard at work in his own right. My intentions are by no means guided to demean the rigors that the recovery process entails. Candidly speaking, I fully understand and support Rose’s decision to take his time with the rehabilitation. He’s a 24 year old high flying point guard, with the world in front of him and 100% of it riding on those knees. We have seen athletic-freak scoring guard after athletic-freak scoring guard lose steam in their career due to recurring knee issues and I’m certain that Rose has been taking as many notes as any of us over the years.

Who are they cooking with?

PG: Derrick Rose
SG: Jimmy Butler
SF: Luol Deng
PF: Carlos Boozer
C : Joakim Noah
6 : Taj Gibson

In all three of the main additions this year, the Bulls were working to address their greatest weakness: 3 point shooting. The only team that edged out Chicago in the regard of less three point attempts (15.4) and makes per game (5.4) was, you guessed it, our Grizzlies. Dunleavy, Snell, and Murphy are all known threats to strike the long ball.

Murphy fits the mold of the alluring stretch four, which is rapidly becoming a requisite for every team to posess, while Snell and Dunleavy work the wings. Dunleavy has long been one of the better catch-and-shoot guys in the league, and has quietly improved his defensive game over the past few years, allowing a PER of just 10.3 to opposing small forwards. Snell has the length (a near 7′ wingspan), athleticism, and skillset to become a coveted 3-and-D system player on the NBA level. Adding these two to the roster further fortifies a dangerously lengthy and stable wing rotation, already consisting of Butler and Deng.

With regards to the post play, you know what you’re going to get with the Bulls, as Noah, Carlos Boozer, and Taj Gibson have comprised a solid and well-versed unit for a few years now. The only wild card for Chicago will be the guard play. Adding Rose can essentially equalize to the impact of introducing a top tier free agent into the equation. If he can return at even 75% of his MVP-caliber self, this team will continue to be a threat to take the East. If Hinrich can remain on the court, or Marquis Teague can build upon a strong summer and develop into a reliable backup, that’s gravy.

How do the good guys stack up?

Credit: Mike Brown / EFE

Josh Coleman:

Since Tom Thibodeau took over in the Windy City a few years back, I always like to think of these Bulls-Grizzlies matchups as “HPTMatt’s favorite games of the year”. You know what you’re going to get from both of these squads: tough, gritty defense; rugged interior play; coaches who are *thisclose* to being willing to flagrant foul their own grandmother to get an edge; and, in all likelihood, a low-scoring game that closely resembles a war of attrition. In one word: UGLY.

However, the basketball purist in me loves these contests, too. Fundamental basketball highlighted by the best defensive schemes this side of San Antonio is a delight for the not-so-casual fan to partake of. Much like the Pacers (who we’ll discuss later this week), the Bulls are one of those doppelgänger teams for the Grizzlies; a near-mirror image in so many ways. The lightning-quick point guards, the cerebral and tough centers, the do-everything small forwards, the “hate him when he plays for someone else” power forwards — they match up with one another so well across the board, it always appears to be a stalemate at face value.

If (the biggest IF of the season for many people outside of Los Angeles) Derrick Rose is at least 85% of what he was prior to his injury, then the Bulls are a legit contender this year. The additions they made (on a budget, no less) mean they’ll be in Miami’s rear-view mirror once again….and objects in said mirror are usually closer than they appear. The Grizzlies are contenders in their own right, so both games between these two squads should be absolute slobberknockers. The Bulls have an advantage in the backcourt with a healthy Rose, a continually growing Jimmy Butler, and the newly arrived Mike Dunleavy, Jr., while the Grizzlies still have a slight edge in the frontcourt. As always, this will likely come down to which team is hitting open shots and protecting the rim. Rose is the X-factor with his ability to dominate, but the Grizzlies have more weapons this year than in the past, too. Both teams should be happy to come away with home wins and a split of the series here.

John Wilmes (of Red94):

The biggest move of the Bulls’ off-season is of course a non-move: Derrick Rose is coming back. His singular speed and athleticism, along with an improved shooting touch and a more advanced sense of ball movement, and of all the different things he can do for his team (last seen in Rose’s final 2012 game, in which he racked up a startlingly efficient 23, 9, and 9 before tragically tearing his ACL to end a title run; no, we’re still not over this one in Chicago) will do more than a world’s worth for what plagued the team’s last campaign—scoring issues, constantly exacerbated by a lack of dynamic play-makers to create space, and a lack of consistent outside shooting.

The addition of Mike Dunleavy, Jr., and the further improvement of Jimmy Butler’s scoring abilities should further bolster the team’s offense, whose anemia was almost always the difference between winning and losing games that their defense regularly kept them competitive in. Their defense, famously driven by Tom Thibodeau, has never been a problem, and should only improve this season as the added depth of the roster means more rest for the perpetually weary—Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, and Joakim Noah won’t have to run themselves into the ground again, with any luck.

Like the Grizzlies, this is a team with every reason to believe that it just upgraded its already rational hopes for an NBA title. It’s a shame that the two similarly defensive-minded squads meet only twice in the regular season, and since there’s not much precedence for their match-up, it’s hard to say what kind of NBA Finals they’d create. The match-up is, surely, an outside shot, but it’s not ludicrous to suggest; I’m of the opinion that Memphis’ coaching change will not impede them almost at all, especially after addressing many of their needs so elegantly, with the signing of Mike Miller.

And their showdown would be a decadent treat for basketball purists: a handful of games so loaded with players who make their livings through out-hustling and out-smarting, through bruising and countless strategic subtleties. Rose’s ability to take over games, of course, is the kind of dynamite often needed to turn a warrior into a victor of victors; into a champion. He’s the potential difference between a sixty-win season and a more indelible form of greatness; a difference that Memphis still lacks.

Kevin Ferrigan (of NBA Couchside):

The Bulls and Grizzlies make for an interesting matchup. Both teams win with defense, struggle to shoot and thus rely heavily on offensive rebounding to eke out enough scoring to win. Each team added a pair of sharpshooting wings named Mike off the bench to improve their three point shooting. The Bulls, though, lost a fair bit of shooting in the offseason. Nate Robinson’s 40+% on threes on high volume from this year will be gone, as will Marco Belinelli’s distance shooting.

Filling the void for the Bulls will be a (hopefully) improved jumpshot from Derrick Rose, more minutes and shots for Jimmy Butler, and newly drafted sharpshooter Tony Snell. Marc Gasol presents an interesting set of problems for Joakim Noah to attempt to solve, with his weight advantage and all around game. Gasol should be able to score in the post against Noah, as Joakim can sometimes struggle in one-on-one post defense with bigger centers and Marc certainly has the skills to prey on that particular weakness. Z-Bo is basically the player Bulls fans wish Carlos Boozer was. So the Grizzlies have a clear advantage there.

The most interesting matchup, for me, is definitely Derrick Rose going up against Mike Conley. Rose will be seeking to re-establish himself as the world-beating superstar he was, while Conley will look to prove that he’s the top five or six point guard he appeared to be last year. The difference maker for the Bulls, as he so often is, may be Luol Deng. The Grizzlies simply don’t appear to have anyone on the wing who can match the two way contributions that Deng provides.

I’d expect these two squads to combine for more low-scoring, ugly defensive battles like the two the Grizzlies won last year. In spite of the potential offensive ugliness, I can’t wait to see how it plays out. Good luck (but not really) Grizzlies fans!

When and Where do they square off?

December 30th: 7:00PM at the FedEx Forum
March 7th: 6:00PM at the United Center

For more Bulls content, check out our TrueHoop comrades at By the Horns.

*3SOB forecast projections are derived from an average of the contributing staff’s predicted win totals.

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