At the start of the season, Bulls fans probably hoped the team would inch into the first tier of Eastern Conference playoff teams. By midseason, they had accomplished that. Then the team kept rising, passing Boston and Miami for the best record in the conference then passing San Antonio for the best record in the league. Even though the season ended three wins short of the Finals, it still played out like a fever dream.
But what now? When a team improves from 41 to 62 wins, it’s only natural to expect some regression, but the Bulls may resist that gravity. Reserve sharpshooter Kyle Korver is the only player near the decline phase of his career. Their best player, Derrick Rose is in fact likely to improve (though since he won the MVP last year, it’s hard to say how much room is left for dramatic improvement). The Bulls won 62 games last season despite losing two starters, forward Carlos Boozer and center Joakim Noah, for substantial periods of time. Both figure to be contribute more to the team this season. It’s Boozer’s second year working in Bulls offense; at times last season he struggled to find his groove. Although Noah is one of the NBA’s best defensive centers, the Bulls offense is much more effective when he’s in the lineup. The Bulls have added Rip Hamilton to their rotation and while he isn’t as effective as he was in his prime, he will be a substantial improvement over his predecessor, Keith Bogans.
The Bulls are a deep team; their second unit is one of the best defensive fivesomes in the NBA, even better than the Bulls starters. With the likely ragged offense that will result from this season’s 66 games in four months sprint, the Bulls figure to be in most contests.
The big negative from last season is that in the playoffs Miami illustrated how to beat the Bulls. Smother Rose and guard the obvious passing lanes. The good news for Bulls fans is that few teams will be able to execute that game plan in the regular season. But come playoffs the Bulls may fall a few wins short of a Grant Park celebration again. I think they’ll move forward, maybe 50-16 (barring key injuries of course) and after last season’s run, nothing will shock me. But a title this season would feel like a surprise.