Five Things To Watch: Chicago Bulls

derrick rose 300x160After Derrick Rose shredded his ACL in the first game of the 2011-12 playoffs, Chicago Bulls management decided the injury shredded the team’s chances at competing for a title and proceeded accordingly.

From the instant the front office decided to jettison useful contributors from the famed “Bench Mob” in favor of lesser, slightly cheaper approximations, the 2012-13 campaign was a bit of a throwaway season. Rose seemingly got the message and took it as an opportunity to sit out the entire season and make sure that he was really, really fully recovered before making his return.

But what a throwaway season it was! The Bulls won a playoff series and a game on the champs’ home floor, despite being undermanned on talent and further hampered by such bad luck on the injury front that it bordered on the tragically comic.

All of that’s over now. It’s time for these Bulls – along with Rose, their leader – to rise from the pack and challenge once again for an NBA title.

Here are five things to watch as the Bulls set their sights on the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

1. Will Derrick Rose be Derrick Rose? This is the most important question for the Bulls this season and beyond. Rose is the franchise player, the youngest MVP in league history and – unfortunately – the guy who will have spent nearly 18 months not playing NBA basketball come October 29 in Miami.

Will all that time off allow Rose to be the same hyperathletic, physically dominant player he once was? Will he struggle to adapt after so much time away from the game? No one can know for certain, and everything hinges on how this question is answered.

After letting Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli leave in free agency, the Bulls will be looking to Rose as the team’s only true, proven shot creator. They’ve built this season’s roster betting on Rose’s health and performance returning to form. If that turns out to be a bad bet, this season and the future go bust.

2. Can Tom Thibodeau stop running his top guys into the ground during the regular season? It’s Tom Thibadeaubecome a running joke among Bulls fans that Thibodeau would play Luol Deng 48 minutes a night if he could, but this habit from their coach has become no laughing matter for the Bulls. They have struggled with health issues to finish the regular season and perform in the playoffs the last few years. Many observers have pointed to Thibodeau’s overuse of his top players to try to win every regular season game as the cause of these injury woes.

In particular, Joakim Noah, the team’s defensive anchor and emotional leader, has struggled with plantar fasciaitis – an overuse injury – and Thibodeau would be wise to give Noah fewer minutes this season. Similarly, Deng should get more time on the bench after leading the league in minutes per game this season and finishing fourth the previous season.

Thibodeau should learn from Gregg Popovich and save his best players’ legs for the games that really matter.

jimmy-butler3. Can Jimmy Butler be even better? Butler was a revelation last season. After hoping that he could roughly approximate Ronnie Brewer’s role off the bench to start the season, Bulls fans soon realized they had something even better in Butler. He showed himself to be one of the league’s elite perimeter defenders, capably harassing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James while mimicking the baseline cutting and finishing skills for which Brewer was known.

To top it off, Butler became an absolutely lethal 3-point shooter after the All-Star break, shooting 47.5 percent on an average of two per game. If he can maintain anywhere near that lofty conversion rate while adding more volume, he would be a huge weapon. Perhaps more importantly, if Butler is able to improve his playmaking skills – especially off the dribble – he could reduce the burden on Rose’s shoulders.

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