Enemy Lines: A rival scout sizes up the Bulls
2012-13 Record: 45-37; lost to Heat in Eastern Conference semifinals
Coach: Tom Thibodeau (fourth season with Bulls)
Chicago is one of four NBA Finals contenders in the Eastern Conference, along with Miami, Indiana and Brooklyn. Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have to be healthy for the Bulls to be a Finals-type team.
I'm guessing that Rose is going to be an All-Star again, a 20-point, eight-assist guy, and that he's going to play with abandon and explosion. I think that's why he sat out last year, so he could do that. You can tell he enjoys competing by watching his expressions and his style of play. You see that competitiveness at critical times when they need a bucket. It might not be the end of the game; it might be after two or three possessions when they haven't scored, and he wills himself into the paint and either scores or gets to the free-throw line. He doesn't back down from a challenge at either end of the floor.
He is not a me-first point guard; he does trust his teammates and is willing to pass. He has such a gift of getting into the lane and finishing, so even though there are many times he scores that way, I don't think it's ever a selfish play with him.
Rose is a better off-the-ball than on-the-ball defender, because I don't think he wants to get in foul trouble. But he pressures the ball and is physical on the ball.
Tom Thibodeau is an excellent defensive coach, and he's pretty smart offensively. He's taken parts of different teams' offenses. When the Bulls had Kyle Korver, for instance, Thibodeau ran plays for him like Utah used to do for Korver. He doesn't have a gigantic playbook, but it's a playbook that makes sense for his players. He's more along the Vince Lombardi line of, This is what we're going to do, and we're going to do it well enough that you're not going to be able to stop it.
Defense is his priority, and you see it when he coaches. When the other team scores, he can get so upset that he'll be too distraught to call a play. In those cases, he's relying on the point guard to make the play call.
Thibodeau puts his players in position to be successful. Look at how much Jimmy Butler has improved -- he's a tough player who does everything -- or Marco Belinelli's good season last year. They've done a pretty good job of making their players better every year.
His defensive system is pretty much the same as he had when he was an assistant coach under Doc Rivers in Boston. It's most successful, obviously, with a very good big man as the anchor. In Boston, that was Kevin Garnett; here, it's Noah, These are guys who can get out to the perimeter and affect the pick-and-roll. They are willing to talk as the captain of the back line of the defense, which is important because the big guy is the one guy who can see everything in front of him. Thibodeau also has a consistent system that covers everything to a T. The players know defense is the most important part of winning, and he doesn't give them a night off.
Since Garnett has gotten older, I think Noah has replaced him as the top big-man defender. He blocks shots, helps teammates, takes charges, disrupts the pick-and-roll and rebounds. He's smart and instinctive and plays with a lot of energy. Offensively, Noah is a good passer. His shot is ugly, but it has become better. With his energy, he can get some baskets by running hard to the rim.
In some ways, Deng is their most important player. For years, he's been the glue. I have no idea why they wouldn't reward Deng [who is set to be a free agent after the season] with a contract extension; I don't understand many of their front-office moves. He might be the guy LeBron James least likes to play against. He's pretty strong, he has really good feet and his length bothers LeBron. He defends LeBron as well as anybody.
Deng doesn't have an ego at either end of the floor. He doesn't need shots, but he can score. He's a good mid-range player, a great transition scorer and a slasher type. He's a great complementary guy to have on a winning team.
Carlos Boozer is the great enigma. He's productive, but you always feel like there's something more that he could be giving you. He's become more of a jump shooter than a back-to-the-basket scorer. You see him shooting a fadeaway or a pull-up at the elbow, and when he's not hitting it, you're thinking he should be taking it inside and getting on the block. Maybe that's why he's disappointing. And then in the bigger games, when there's more pressure and Noah is thriving and becoming a bigger presence, you tend to notice Boozer less and less. Boozer is not the best one-on-one defender, but team-wise he's OK.
Now that Rose is back and they're looking to contend for the championship again, it's a big deal that they no longer have Omer Asik or some of the other guys they've let go in the last year or two. If Noah was in foul trouble or got hurt, Asik could step in and take that spot. He could also play with Noah, who can guard some power forwards. Having Asik as a backup center was an unbelievable advantage.
Taj Gibson is really important -- especially without Asik -- because he can guard a 4 and a 5. He's a good team defender and incredibly active. Gibson comes in and just ramps everything up with his energy level, and the defensive end picks up and everybody benefits from it. His lack of height can be an issue in certain matchups, but he can deal with face-up power forwards because he can guard out on the perimeter.
Mike Dunleavy has to give them some of the spot-up shooting that Korver used to provide. He's not a defender at all, so they'll need Taj Gibson or Joakim Noah in the back to make up for his deficiency.
Kirk Hinrich plays so hard. He's an important piece because he's still one of the better defenders in the league against either guard position. With his injuries as he gets older, it seems like he's become a little unreliable. But with Rose healthy, Hinrich should play fewer minutes, and that might help him stay healthier. He can play with Rose or behind Rose.
Marquise Teague was up and down so much as a rookie. I would think Hinrich would be the first point guard off the bench initially, until they can see if Teague has improved. He still has a lot to prove.
It made sense for Rose's well-being to not come back last year. But if he'd been able to come back at full health, the Bulls might have been able to beat Miami. If they wind up playing Miami this season, it's going to be a grind-it-up series that will go six or seven games.