As we sit on the precipice of the 2015-16 NBA season the Chicago Bulls and their fans find themselves wandering through uncharted waters.
Uncharted in the sense that this is the first season in a long time where the Bulls aren’t being prognosticated as legitimate NBA title contenders. Of course, some may be more optimistic than others – but there’s more uncertainty surrounding the Bulls than we’ve been used to.
That became obvious when I was mapping out this column and the first thing I wrote down on my notepad was: “What exactly are the Chicago Bulls?”
It’s a fair question. Despite being one of The Association’s most recognizable franchises, the answers are likely to vary depending what circle you are in.
I wrote down these three: Perennial contenders, chronically overhyped, LeBron’s bitch. You could find a reasonable rationale and construct a legitimate debate around any of the three.
All I could muster for a fourth response was “??” That’s it.
The 2015-2016 Chicago Bulls are a giant question mark, or maybe even two. And in contrast to the previous five seasons under Tom Thibodeau, I think that’s a good thing.
To be fair, this Bulls team has so many moving parts that I don’t even think they know what they are.
Fred Hoiberg is coaching his first NBA season. Derrick Rose is coming off an offseason that was relatively healthy, but also included an orbital fracture injury and questionable comments about free agency. Joakim Noah’s continued physical breakdown has mirrored Rose’s on a less visible scale and as a result, he’s lost his starting job. Pau Gasol is now 35 years old coming off a season where he played his most minutes since he was 29.
Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic are both expected to take leaps in their second year, but that’s never a guarantee. Same goes for rookie Bobby Portis making the leap from college to the NBA.
Perhaps the only legitimate bright spot for the Chicago Bulls this offseason was inking Jimmy Butler to the lucrative contract he deserves — though the rumors of clubhouse rifts between him and Rose never seem to go away.
However you view it, the sheer unpredictability of the Bulls has finally led mainstream media to cease hyping them to heights they frankly weren’t equipped to reach.
The uncertainty turned into an 11th ranking in Marc Stein’s annual preseason NBA Power Rankings. And that got me thinking: The Bulls are usually ranked higher than that in the preseason, which is part of the reason we’re left disappointed each spring.
So I revisited the past five years of Stein’s rankings and compared where the Bulls were pegged in his preseason poll vs. where they finished in his final rankings.
The infographic is straightforward, but it’s telling. The first thing it says to me is Tom Thibodeau was consistently really good in Chicago, but his coaching style caps the potential of teams in the interest of that consistency. He’ll never win an NBA title, and that’s fine. Neither did Jerry Sloan, George Karl or Don Nelson.
And when you look at the numbers year-by-year, it becomes transparent that Thibs was the limiting factor in Chicago.
After Thibodeau’s rookie year (62 wins, Eastern Conference Finals appearance), his most successful season was 2011. After that, the Bulls have failed to finish higher than their preseason ranking during his tenure. 2011-2012 was the lockout-shortened season wherein the Bulls finished the regular season at 50-16 and the No. 1 seed in the East before Rose’s devastating ACL injury in the first round of the playoffs.
Clearly, Rose’s health has contributed to the multiple Bulls disappointments, but that’s beside the point.
Circle back to that first question I asked about the identity of the Chicago Bulls. If you answered “chronically overhyped” then you hit the nail right on the head (though LeBron’s bitch would technically have been correct). Under Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls were always projected to be something they were not in this era of the NBA.
His league-wide rep of “getting the most from what he has” was an eternal catalyst for optimism, but their grind-it-out type of basketball could never fully run with the likes of LeBron James or the winner of the Wild Wild Western Conference in a seven-game series.
The hope, as fans, is that we’ve moved on from the days where a 92-88 final score might be good enough. And definitely from the days where an anemic offense is being propped up as the third-best team in the NBA.
Regardless of the past, the Chicago Bulls are a good basketball team entering Hoiberg’s first season. They certainly should be a top four seed in the weak (yet improved) Eastern Conference.
But for once, the mainstream media and national focus isn’t on the Chicago Bulls being a true NBA title contender.
They’ve finally taken a backseat to bearing the responsibility as “the one team who can beat LeBron James” and have the opportunity to simply go out and play basketball. An opportunity to grow and learn while their head coach does the same thing.
And as a Bulls fan, there isn’t a more refreshing feeling than that.