Five years since the beginning of the season in which Derrick Rose won the MVP, the Chicago Bulls are no closer, or even further away, to winning their first NBA champions in the post-Michael Jordan reality. Is Fred Hoiberg the head coach to put the pieces together in a way that results in them lifting a trophy?
The Bulls started the 2011-2012 season as favorites. Despite Rose missing close to half a season, they finished with the best record in the East, and when Rose was playing, their net rating per possession was the best in the NBA. But then Rose had his first famous injury, and the trajectory of a team building itself through the draft (mostly) and a bit through free agency fell off the charts. Rose missed all of the next season, as the Bulls somehow managed to make the conference semifinals.
His return prior to the 2013-2014 season meant the hype was strong, and the Bulls were picked to win the East despite the existence of LeBron James with the Miami Heat, coming off two consecutive championships and three straight NBA finals. Rose lasted just 10 games and the Bulls muscled their way to the playoffs, but didn’t get very far.
Last season? Same story, although few thought of them as the best in the East. James teaming up with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love meant no one looked past the Cavaliers to finish first in the East. The Hawks actually had the best record while the Bulls finally got Rose for about half (and more) of the season, but they were rarely consistent offensively and landed themselves with a difficult matchup against the Cavaliers in the conference semifinals, losing in six games after taking a 2-1 lead.
And this season? The Bulls front office decided that the thing getting in the way after all these years was Tom Thibodeau, a brilliant defensive coach but someone who has struggled creating a productive identity for the team on offense. The fact that he’s had to deal with backup point guards in his lineup while waiting for Rose to make his grand return didn’t help him keep his job. Being at odds with those above him in the hierarchy didn’t help.
The Bulls kept their roster intact, including a backup point guard like Aaron Brooks instead of going out and signing someone like Jeremy Lin, who ended up signing for just $2.3 million a season for the Hornets. Rose hasn’t played a full seasons since 2010-2011. Is going with Kirk Hinrich and Brooks as the potential backups the best way of planning ahead?
But the Bulls decided that adding just rookie Bobby Portis and more than that, head coach Fred Hoiberg, is enough. And Hoiberg is certainly trying to change things while getting accustomed to life as an NBA head coach, which is very different compared to what he got used to at Ames.
One of the main changes will be giving Jimmy Butler more time with the ball, even if Rose is on the floor. It’s part of what’s causing all the rumors about Rose and Butler not getting along, although those began the moment the Bulls were knocked out of the playoffs five months ago. Sometimes it seems like the guard duo is busy at dispersing the rumors more than anything else.
Another change might be pulling Joakim Noah to the bench. Noah had an awful 2014-2015, with injuries hurting him in a disappointing follow up to his career year in 2013-2014. He is hitting his contract year, which means trade rumors, but Hoiberg is thinking about pairings. And it seems that putting Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, who also played together this summer in France for Spain, winning a gold medal together, in the same lineup works well. Noah loves playing next to Taj Gibson, so moving him to the bench doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
Rose, sadly or not, is still the key to all of this. If the once best point guard in the NBA falls apart for a big chunk of this season it’ll be another year of trying to scramble and fill in his place. All that while trying to turn the Bulls into not just a team that produces impressive offensive numbers (they had that going for them last season, at the cost of defense) on a regular basis, just like his Iowa State teams did, but as part of a thinking, moving, smart offense, and not just individual ability bursts.
The East still looks like the Cavs’ to lose. Even if they don’t finish first in the regular season, and not having Kyrie Irving for at least two months is going to hurt, they’ve shown that home court advantage isn’t a big deal. They’re that good. LeBron James means that much. The Bulls are in the picture, just not favored to win, maybe even not expected to. Coming from that position never hurt anyone. If they stay healthy and Hoiberg finds his footing quickly, it might be finally a very special season.