Sizing up the Central: The Chicago Bulls

August 27th, 2013 by Patrick Redford

Yesterday, Robert looked the Pacers up-and-down and concluded they were still top dogs. Today, I’ll be peering west on I-90 and checking out how the Bulls and the Cavs match up with one another.

The Cavs augmented what was already a fun, somewhat strange team with some fun and definitely strange players. All of which theoretically play basketball with each other and then hopefully win games together. Keep in mind there is an opponent involved (this tends to slip through the cracks every offseason, as everyone tends to be overtly optimistic about team prospects), more often than not from the Central Division. Perhaps the most intriguing of this crop is the Chicago Bulls, a team whose ’13-’14 prospects are a genuine mystery.

Last Season: Chicago played a wild seven-game series with the Nets, took a Game 1 from Miami, inspired some media air-raid sirens, then emphatically got the boot. Last year’s mulligan did help the Bulls at least see their non-floral roster better, and the emergence of Jimmy Butler and the development of Joakim Noah towards defensive superstardom was impressive. However, the frugal Reinsdorf regime let most of the talented bench walk and they remained competitive despite having a fairly thin cupboard. The rationale for this was sound; tread water for a season and let that knee recover. However…

What They’ve Done This Off-Season: The Bulls didn’t do much this offseason. 1) They let Nate Robinson, Richard Hamilton and Marco Belinelli leave. None of these dudes were particularly earth-shaking at any point in their careers, but they did help the Bulls with their problematic bench depth. Marquis Teague and Kirk Hinrich are nice guys and a solid backup platoon, but neither can replicate the shot-creation weirdness of Nate Robinson. 2) They signed Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy is a perfect fit for a team long on toughness but short on long-range abilities. He will do a good job of fitting within the context of possessions and can help alleviate those long, bench-furnished scoring droughts. 2 years/$6,000,000 is solid money for the dimension they are enhancing with Dunleavy’s shooting. 3) They drafted Tony Snell. It’s easy to believe any player that Tom Thibodeau coaches will reach their potential, and Snell fits this model. He won’t play a whole heck of a lot, but Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard’s twin emergences each hint at a likelihood for success. Thibodeau uses skinny, energetic, no-nonsense players as well as anyone and there is a just one big ole confluence of factors pointing towards a good season for Snell. 4) Derrick Rose’s knee went and healed. This development is orders of magnitude more important than any bench bathymetry. If he retains all that pop he once had, the Bulls could erode the Heat and anyone else into submission. Rose was one of the most dynamic players I can remember, and all of us, even Cavs fans, should hope that he can continue to play that beautiful, pyroclastic basketball of two years ago. If not, then the Bulls will have the sad tag of “Tough Out”.

How they match up with the Cavs: Cleveland is surprisingly well-suited to slow down a scary Bulls team. Chicago thrives on musclebound basketball and Cleveland is (almost too) full of able big guys who can throw down. Noah/Boozer versus Bynum/Thompson will be a fun punchfest, which will give way to the undercard of Mohammed/Gibson versus Varejao/Bennett. Throw in Mike Brown’s desire to cover the game in molasses and you will have some mutual sub-45 halftime scores, unless Tristan Thompson and his enhanced offensive repertoire are singled out and utilized against Boozer without Noah helping rapidly. The small-forward matchup will be a huge disadvantage for the Cavs, as Earl Clark is somewhat enigmatic and the Bulls have an ex-all-star in the starting lineup. It’s a strange task to go down both depth charts and try to find areas where Cleveland can press an advantage over Chicago. There isn’t one duel that is clearly tilted in Cleveland’s favor because the Bulls are an elite team. Chicago has an MVP and one of the rare truly elite centers stocked opposite the Cavs’ strongest positions, barring injury (which can never be barred with this team). I did just squawk about the Bulls bench blemishes but the Cavs don’t have a notably stronger bench, despite an overflowing container of big guys. A word on Anthony Bennett: Taj Gibson is a strong, instinctive basketball player but the offensive gifts and bullmastiff-size of Bennett could make this an advantage to press during the second and third quarters. We don’t know what the rotation will precisely look like for a while, but a unit featuring Jarrett Jack, Bennett and Varejao could cause some problems for Chicago if harnessed correctly.  Of course, Brown will also value defensive contributions, which probably restricts any tiny, three-guard lineups. These small lineups could expose Chicago’s guard depth via Jack, Irving and Waiters each waterbugging around and moving the ball everywhere.

Match-up to watch: Kyrie Irving vs. Derrick Rose. I don’t think there have been two better layup artists in the post-Iverson NBA than these two young point guards. They will perhaps nominally guard each other, but the main ‘match-up’ aspect of this match-up comes from the potential late game pyrotechnics Rose and Irving could throw at each other. Late-game offense in today’s NBA is often of the ‘go score, premier player, we will sit here’ variety, which in this case is a beautiful thing. Individualistic displays in this vein are often decried as hero-ball, but for this particular match-up, hero-ball is best for all involved. Remember Cavs over Thunder last season? It may be more rational to draw up a play and work the clock to get a geographically sensible shot, but the romantic gutsiness of handing the rock to your young point guard is the kind of thing that makes basketball so fun.