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Previewing the Competition, Part III: The Chicago Bulls

The Eastern Conference features five teams that are considered legitimate Championship contenders. Today, we''re gonna preview the Chicago Bulls.

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Jonathan Daniel

Around this time last year, the Chicago Bulls were awaiting #TheReturn of Derrick Rose. Unfortunately, Rose did not play last season, but the Bulls were able to surprise some folks and win 49 games along the way. The surprises continued (unfortunately for us) as they beat the Nets in seven games, but ran out of gas against the eventual Champion Miami Heat. Now that Rose is back in game action, the Bulls can resume their chase for the NBA Championship.

New faces: Mike Dunleavy, Jr.

Going (Other) Places: Nate Robinson, Richard Hamilton, Marco Belinelli, Vladimir Radmanovic

1. What were the big offseason moves?

Well, nothing big. Plenty of words have been devoted to the Bulls' disinterest in spending big in free agency, and when you add in Reggie Rose's grousing about the Bulls lack of spending/new acquisitions, there's clearly something to this. Despite the cheapness, the Bulls did spend some money this offseason, and I think the guy they acquired can be a key contributor.

The Bulls weren't able to retain Kyle Korver in the 2012 offseason, as he signed with the Hawks. They ended up signing Marco Belinelli, and I thought it was a decent move. However, Marco didn't provide the Bulls much value until Game 7 of the Nets series when he scored 24 points in 40 crucial minutes. Fortunately for the Bulls, Nate provided a ton of value to the team, even though he tended to drive Tom Thibodeau insane.

Mike Dunleavy Jr. signed a two year deal this past offseason, and I think he has a good chance of replicating Korver's success with the Bulls. He shot a career high 42.8 percent from three last year (eighth in the league) and has been an above average shooter from deep throughout his eleven year career. What he lacks in three point shooting compared to KK (Korver is a career 41 percent shooter from three point range compared to Dunleavy's 37 percent), Dunleavy makes up by being more able to create his own shot on offense. Dunleavy has been assisted on at least 80 percent of his field goals for the past five seasons while Korver has been helped on 90 percent of his makes for the past six seasons. Dunleavy has also gotten to the line more often and taken more shots at the rim than KK while playing a similar amount of minutes. This dimension Dunleavy provides should help him equal the production Korver brought to Chicago.

2. What is the team's biggest strength?

They are still one of the elite defensive teams in the league. They were fifth in defensive efficiency, holding teams to 100 points per 100 possessions. They were able to do this by forcing teams into shooting midrange jumpers. Generally speaking, you want to avoid allowing shots in the restricted area and from three point range. They forced teams into taking the third most shots from the midrange and coaxed them into shooting 38 percent from that distance. The perimeter defense maintained their excellence from downtown, holding teams to only 34.6 percent from three point range. The work of Butler and Deng on the perimeter along with Noah on the inside & the machinations of Tom Thibodeau combined to hold foes to an effective field goal percentage of 47.7 percent, good for fourth best in the league.

3. What is the team's biggest weakness?

Even though Derrick Rose is one of the best players in the league, it's gonna take him some time for him to reestablish his excellent play. (He didn't play Saturday because of a sore knee.) I would give him at least a month, maybe two, for him to get back into the swing of things. One thing I'm curious to see is where he takes his shots on offense. He's been one of the most aggressive players in the league at attacking the basket, averaging close to six field goal attempts a game inside the restricted area. In his last couple of seasons, Rose has taken fewer midrange jumpers per game, going from more than eight midrange jumpers a game in 2009-2010, to 5.5 per game in his MVP 2010-2011 campaign, and 4.4 per game during the shortened 2011-2012 season. We also can't forget that Rose began to incorporate the three pointer into his arsenal during this time after being nonexistent from deep during his first two seasons. I wonder if Rose will adjust his game and become more of a jump shooter this year (or at least during the early part of the season)?

While Rose works his way back to MVP level play, the offense will more than likely run through Carlos Boozer. Yeah he averaged about a double double last year (16.2 points per game and 9.8 per game rebounds per game), but he had the worst year of his career shooting the ball. He shot a career low 47.7 percent from the field, and I think you can pin that directly on all those jumpers he took. He took 500 midrange jumpers (fifth in the league!) last year, but shot only 38.6 percent. Also consider that the Bulls were three points better offensively when he wasn't in the game and you start to wonder if the Bulls should look elsewhere on offense.

I wonder how Jimmy Butler is gonna do in his first full season as a starter. He's already a fan favorite and a player on the rise. He saw a gradual increase in his minutes throughout the year, then gave the Bulls 40+ minutes a night in April and the playoffs. He added the three pointer to his arsenal, and he's pretty good at it. He shot 38.1 percent from three for the year, and 47.5 percent after the All Star Break. He's already a good finisher (go ask Chris Bosh) and above average rebounder for the shooting guard position, and figures to improve on those areas this season. Blog a Bull has a great piece on Butler that you can read here.

4. What are the goals for this team?

When we last saw Rose in a meaningful game, the Bulls were considered Championship contenders. Now that Rose is back and the players on the roster have taken steps forward (Butler & Noah), making it back to the Conference Finals is on the agenda for the Bulls.

Of course, in order to live up to this goal, their key players have to make it to the playoffs in one piece. Over the past two years, their three best players, Rose, Noah & Deng have dealt with serious injuries (even before he had the big knee injury against the Sixers, Rose missed 27 games in the lockout shortened season with various injuries). The best way the Bulls can get their guys to reach 100 percent for the playoffs is to cut down on the minutes of his Top 3. I think Thibs would be wise to limit Rose, Noah, and Deng to around 35 minutes a night. Yes, Nazr Mohammed, Kirk Hinrich and Dunleavy are steps down from the starters, but they're quality players who can provide some value. And most importantly, you'd rather go into the playoffs with everyone healthy instead of having a high seed and a battered roster.

5. What to do with Luol Deng and Taj Gibson?

Deng has been an All Star caliber player for the past three seasons, as he has played at an above average level even as he has had to take on more offensive responsibility. Making this level even more impressive (I'd call it maddening, but that's just me) is that he has refused to undergo wrist surgery for the last two years. To top that, he dealt with a fractured thumb & had a spinal tap in the playoffs. And to add just one more layer, he's averaged close to 39 minutes a game over the past three seasons. Dude is tough.

The reason I'm asking what to do with him is because his contract is up this summer, and being as how the Bulls are cheapskates, chances are Deng will be playing somewhere else next year. There's been trade rumors floating around Deng for a couple of years now, so don't be surprised if they come up again.

But while he's here, look for him to continue his solid play. Seeing as how he still needs surgery on his wrist, I'd be stunned if his shooting returned to where it was from years past. Luckily, he provides value all over the court and will provide good passing, rebounding, and excellent defense. Something that I never noticed or even thought to consider was playing Deng at the power forward. He actually played at the 4 for 272 minutes last year (and has played there in previous seasons as well), and is almost the perfect stretch 4 when he's healthy. Blog a Bull's Ricky O'Donnell breaks down why Deng at the 4 on a consistent basis is a good idea:

Why would Deng work at the four? For one, he has ideal size for the job. At 6'9, 220 lbs. with a 7-foot wingspan, Deng is just as big or bigger than the other small forwards who have been asked to handle the four, like Golden State's Harrison Barnes and Orlando's Tobias Harris. It would stretch out defenses who have to respect Deng's three-point shot, while still putting Deng im a position to often get closer to the basket where he does fine work (58 percent at the rim last year).

The hope is that Deng and Noah can both avoid being grounded into a fine powder before the playoffs start, but it also seems to foolish to anticipate Thibodeau going away from using Deng some on the second unit like he has the last three years. If that continues to be the philosophy, the Bulls might as well give teams a different look while playing to their own strengths. Moving Deng to power forward for stretches is one way to do it.

A lineup of Rose-Dunleavy-Butler-Deng-Noah/Gibson would be awesome and create major problems for teams across the league. You've got great interior defense with Noah/Gibson, excellent perimeter defense with Butler and Deng, one of the better three point shooters with Dunleavy, and a player who commands the full attention of the opposing defense with Rose. This attention will create good looks, and while Rose doesn't pass as much as Rajon Rondo (eff Rondo for all the Bulls fans out there), he's good enough and will find his teammates when they're open. I'd love to see that lineup matchup against the Heat and Knicks when both teams are at 100 percent.

As for Gibson, the Bulls would do well if they gave him more minutes. Even though he dealt with a knee injury this year & missed 17 games, the Bulls haven't given him that many minutes over the past three seasons. Gibson has been an excellent finisher near the basket (64 percent inside the restricted area in 12-13), but is a pretty poor jump shooter (he has shot under 40 percent from the midrange area in each of his four seasons). Surprisingly, the Bulls were actually better on offense with GIbson on the court. I would attribute this to Taj sharing the majority of his minutes with Butler, Noah, and Robinson, all three of whom had above average years shooting the ball. It also helps that the Bulls, already one of league's better offensive rebounding teams, did even better on the glass with Gibson in the game. Second chance opportunities never hurt, especially when you don't have a player that fits the bill of "shot creator."

However, Gibson earned that 4 year, $38 million contract extension based on his superlative defense. Chicago held opponents to 97.6 points per 100 possessions with Gibson in the game, a four point improvement compared to when Taj was on the bench. With Gibson on the court, Chicago was able to block more shots and generate more turnovers compared to when he's out. He's young, very athletic, very physical, and very heady on defense. I think the Bulls would be doing themselves a favor if they started Gibson and had Boozer coming off the bench. Although you'd be crazy to run your offense through Gibson, he's better on the offensive glass, which makes up for that deficit. And when you add on the defensive contributions, it becomes clear that Gibson should see at least 30 minutes a night. He's a young, productive player on the rise and as an organization, you might as well get as much value as humanly possible out of him.

Bonus Reading: Blog a Bull

Part I: The New York Knicks

Part II: The Indiana Pacers