NBA basketball is officially back in our lives, which is reason to rejoice no matter the current state of your favorite team. This is a good thing, because in Chicago, our Bulls have given us little to celebrate since Derrick Rose tore the ACL in his left knee just over six months ago.
Everything that has happened since to the franchise has been decidedly dreadful. The 76ers became the fifth No. 8 seed ever knock off a No. 1 when they ousted the Bulls in six games. The offseason brought little resolve. The Bulls chose saving luxury tax dollars over retaining their acclaimed bench, deciding to replace the same reserves that were so critical in leading them to the best regular season record in each of the last two seasons with a group of cheap imposters. It's a phrase that can be taken both literally and figuratively, as the front office sought to replace the same skills, just at a lower price. When Marco Bellinelli hits a cold streak, just remember he never should have been on the team in the first place. That roster spot should be Kyle Korver's. The only reason it isn't is because the Bulls decided they would rather make $55 million in profit than $48 million.
This was at the crux our Bulls coverage over the last four months. We blasted the Bulls for declining reasonably priced one-year team options on Korver and C.J. Watson. We killed them for their purported 2014 plan. We deemed it the "worst offseason ever" when they signed Nate Robinson. A tweet from the White Sox -- a franchise better known as Jerry Reinsdorf's golden child -- stating "Basketball is a game. Baseball is a religion. Baseball is American" was the final blow.
This was a gut-wrenching offseason in every way, and I took no joy ripping my favorite basketball team, the same one I admired so much over the last two seasons. Thankfully it all ends tonight when the Kings come to town to kickoff the 2012-2013 season. Now we don't need to fret over profit margins, luxury tax thresholds or a stagnant organizational philosophy. While it's true that all of these things will cloud over the season and provide the necessary context to put this campaign in perspective, but basketball trumps all. And it's true I'm rather pessimistic heading into the season, the Bulls will likely still win a lot of games. Now they're a feisty underdog, a team destined to overachieve thanks to tempered expectations.
For as critical as we've been of the Bulls this offseason, here are a few reasons to believe they could still be quite good:
1. Pick-and-roll defense
Tom Thibodeau is the NBA's best defensive coach, and it's not because he yells the most. It's because he's the smartest. Thibodeau has been at the forefront of modern NBA thinking when it comes to defending basketball's most simple yet effective offensive play, the pick-and-roll.
The pick-and-roll has been shredding defenses for years, but the Bulls coach is credited with coming up with a new way to defend it. After decades of defenses passively waiting to get carved up, Thibodeau has flipped the script: he makes the defense the aggressor by swarming the ball handler and overloading defenders on the strong side to prevent the screener from doing much of anything at all. The Bulls essentially use three players to defend two and trust their rotations will cover any hole that might appear.
Here's an example of how the Bulls like to defend the pick-and-roll:
Rose goes over the top of the screen, Taj Gibson attacks the ball handler and takes away the passing lane, Omer Asik slides from the paint to the top of the key to pick up the screener. That's how it's done, folks, and it's the reason the Bulls have had the best defense in the NBA the last two seasons.
The Bulls will have trouble scoring without Rose, that's no secret, but the defense should persist because Thibodeau is a tactical genius. Not even a torn ACL can kill that.
2. Offensive rebounding
The Bulls' biggest advantage the last two seasons came in the front-court, where few teams could match the size, depth and athleticism of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik. Gibson and Asik were an incredibly formidable reserve tandem, holding five-man units to historically low point totals when they were on the floor. Asik is gone, of course, thanks to Daryl Morey's poison pill offer sheet, but the Bulls should still have a major nightly advantage on the glass.
The Bulls' average of 13.9 offensive rebounds per game was tops in the league. Those are extra possessions and therefore extra opportunities to score. It's an incredibly important ingredient in a good offense, especially one that lacks shot creators. Without Rose, the Bulls will be in desperate need of those extra chance points.
Interestingly enough, the first game of the season comes against the Kings, who were the league's second best team at grabbing offensive boards. That should be a fun battle to watch in the first game of the season.
3. Three-point efficiency, offensively and defensively
The corner three is all the rage in NBA circles, and the Bulls are incredible at defending it. During Thibodeau's first season in Chicago, the Bulls allowed a league-low 305 corner three attempts. They were even better at defending it last season. The Bulls were the only team in the NBA last year to allow fewer than 1,000 three-pointer attempts, another huge reason their defense is the league's gold standard.
The Bulls also finished No. 4 in three-point shooting last season, paced by three guys (Korver, Watson, John Lucas III) who have since departed. It's OK. Thibodeau recognizes the value of the three-pointer and you can bet Kirk Hinrich, Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson will join Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton as happy chuckers this season. If and when those shots fall is when the Bulls will be at their best.
Yes, that was the Bulls' record in 27 games without Derrick Rose last regular season. People thought this team overachieved in Thibodeau's first season when they won the most games in the conference, so to see them win at the same pace during last year's abridged campaign with Rose missing so much time was nothing short of astounding.
These new Bulls are far from last year's team, but the principles and ethos remain the same. With Andrew Bynum already battling injuries in Philadelphia and Danny Granger doing the same in Indiana, there's plenty of reasons to believe the Bulls can still finish in the upper half of the conference.