It’s been quite the summer for the Chicago Bulls as they head into the 2015-2016 season. It began with another disappointing postseason exit when they were dispatched by their nemesis LeBron James and the eventual Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers in May.
From there, a whirlwind offseason began. After falling to James in the playoffs for the third time under Tom Thibodeau and failing to make it past the seccond round for the fourth consecutive year – compounded with other issues – GM Gar Forman and vice president John Paxson decided to fire Thibodeau and bring in a coach that was more to their liking.
That was former Bulls guard Fred Hoiberg, who played 10 NBA seasons before working in the front office of the Minnesota Timberwolves and eventually taking over as the coach at Iowa State. At ISU, Hoiberg guided the Cyclones to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances, four consecutive 20-win seasons, two Big 12 championships, and turned the Cyclones to one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country.
Now the Bulls are hoping that he can translate that success to the Bulls. In a rare move, Hoiberg actually coached Chicago’s Las Vegas Summer League entry, guiding the youngsters to the quarterfinals. Tucked between those were the NBA draft, where the Bulls selected Arkansas big man Bobby Portis with the 22nd pick, and the marathon contract talks involving all-purpose All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler.
Forward Taj Gibson required surgery on his ailing left ankle, the same one that had been bothering him over the previous two seasons. Last season, the pain limited Gibson to 62 games. He is expected to miss the beginning of this upcoming season, which makes the addition of Portis much more intriguing.
While making many of his public appearances during this offseason, center Joakim Noah declared he has fully recovered from last offseason’s knee surgery and is ready to go. Second-year forward Doug McDermott, who had a knee issue of his own last season, is aching to prove that he belongs in The Association, with some believing he is primed for a breakout season. Third-year guard Tony Snell isn’t too far behind him.
Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic suited up for Spain and led Las Rojas to the gold medal in Eurobasket 2015. While this was nothing new for Gasol, Mirotic played on the main roster for the first time after previously playing for Spain’s Under-20 squad. He could definitely use the minutes. Let’s just hope he doesn’t desecrate any more flags along the way.
And of course, there was more bad news involving former All-Star point guard Derrick Rose. Already under an unforgiving microscope as he works his way back from yet another knee injury, Rose is the subject of a lawsuit as an ex-girlfriend is accusing him of sexual assault.
Rose denies the allegations, but as Chicago is already dealing with similar issues involving another one of its star athletes, this is not how Rose or the Bulls want to start the season. And the start to Rose’s season will be delayed after he suffered a fractured orbital bone early in training camp that required surgery.
Here are the five things to watch for with the Bulls.
1. New coach Fred Hoiberg’s reacclimation to the NBA
Hoiberg has the most questions to answer of anyone in the organization. For the most part, the Bulls players respected Tom Thibodeau. Some may have questioned his methods, but overall the team rallied around its former coach.
Can Hoiberg win the respect of these players? Can he manage a team of egotistical millionaires as opposed to college athletes on one-year rollover scholarships? Can he turn the Bulls into an offensive powerhouse without sacrificing the defensive identity they created under Thibodeau? The Bulls will only go as far as Hoiberg can take them and that will be his biggest challenge.
2. Will Derrick Rose ever be a game-changer again?
Among the players, Rose has the most questions to answer. The most important question is whether his pending legal issues become a distraction. Then he has to answer the following questions about his health: Are his injury issues finally behind him? Can he play a full season? Rose has not played 80 games since his 2010-2011 MVP campaign when he suited up for 81.
Since tearing his ACL during the 2012 playoffs, Rose has only participated in 100 regular-season games. He also needs to pick up his production. He averaged 17.7 points and 4.9 assists last season. His numbers did increase slightly during the 2015 playoffs (20.3 ppg), but his overall body of work needs improvement. That won’t happen if Rose is spending all of his time in court or on the trainer’s table.
3. Jimmy Butler has to live up to his contract
We all know how good Butler was last season – 20.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, an All-Star berth, his customary strong defense and a Most Improved Player award. But now he must answer a new set of questions after signing his five-year, $95 million contract.
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Can Butler live up to the contract? Will the money go to his head? Can he continue to grow as one of the NBA’s rising stars? It will also be interesting to see how Butler adjusts to Hoiberg’s new system. Under Thibodeau, Butler transformed himself from benchwarmer to the team’s best defender and guarded four different positions.
Hoiberg could help Butler round out his offensive skill set, but the Bulls will continue to lean on him for his defensive abilities.
4. The evolution of young reserves Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic
It has been said Snell, McDermott and Mirotic – with four years experience among them – will be the biggest beneficiaries of Hoiberg’s up-tempo, high-scoring offense. We saw flashes last season of how good Snell can be when given the opportunity. Mirotic carried the Bulls through March as he scored in double figures in 14 of 15 games, including eight in which he scored 20 points or more. The team went 8-7 during that stretch.
The biggest question mark among the three is McDermott, who may have a huge opportunity at the outset of the season due to Mike Dunleavy being sidelined by back surgery. The Bulls traded for McDermott on draft day 2014 because he was one of the most prolific scorers in college basketball history (3,150 career points) and a coach’s son. But a knee injury in December caused him to miss a month and set back his development as he played only 19 games the rest of the way. Can McDermott progress with a new coaching staff? We’re about to find out.
5. Health of the big men
A new setting clearly reinvigorated Gasol, who proved he is still one of the league’s best last season, returning to the All-Star Game and averaging 18.5 points and 11.5 rebounds at 34 years old. But he is the healthiest of Chicago’s big men and also the oldest while coming off yet another summer of international ball.
Noah says he is healthy, which means there will be expectations for him to return to the form that made him an All-Star in 2013 and 2014 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2014.
Gibson may not be ready for the start of the season, which will put more pressure on Mirotic to produce on a consistent basis. It may also elevate the rookie Portis or second-year forward Cameron Bairstow to a rotation role, and there is no way to know whether either player is ready for that.
There is uncertainty surrounding the Bulls this season, but they still have the talent to win.
Gabe Salgado has over a decade of experience in media and has written for numerous outlets such as The Sports Journal, Bleacher Report and The Hoop Doctors. You can also hear him on Chicago radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82