Let us establish an important qualifier right off the bat – this current Chicago Bulls squad would have been better off with Carmelo Anthony. Regardless of how many Bulls sympathizers argue in favour of the games of Melo backup plans Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, and notwithstanding all of what will be explored below, the presence of Anthony would have dramatically improved Chicago’s offense, perhaps to a point where it would rank as above average.
Just being above average is not that big of an accomplishment. Half of the league does it. But these Bulls breathe rare air. They won 48 games last season while having the third worst offense in the NBA, a sufficiently good season to believe that, with an improved scoring attack to go along with the continued defesive production, they could be right on the path of the championship. Above average might be enough.
Despite their best efforts, of course, the Bulls did not get Anthony. Ultimately, they ended up with the aforementioned Gasol and Mirotic, alongside draftee Doug McDermott and free agent Aaron Brooks. As far as back-up plans goes, this was as good of a haul as was attainable. Even at 34, Gasol is still a tremendous threat around the rim, converting on 67.1% of his 222 attempts in 60 appearances last year for the Lakers. And this number was reached mostly against Western Conference teams, a conference with considerably more size and talent at the big positions.
Gasol’s intimate knowledge of the triangle offense also means he feels comfortable playing the elbows and the high-post, from where he can both shoot and pass. When put alongside the ever-improving and ever-aggressive Taj Gibson, defenses will have to make a choice of sticking with Pau and not doubling Gibson, or over-committing to either, which means an easy jumper for the Spaniard or a high-quality post shot from Gibson. Throw Joakim Noah in there, and Gasol’s role changes to that of being the post-presence, with Noah and his 5.4 assists from last year making the entry-pass.
To fully understand the upgrade Chicago got in Gasol, we need to remember the man he replaces; Carlos Boozer. During Boozer’s four-year tenure with the Bulls, he became more and more of a spot-up shooter than post presence, relying increasingly on long two-pointers from beyond 16-feet while having to be assisted on 71% of his total field goals. In other words, Boozer had to be set up, so he could take a lot of bad shots. Far from an optimal situation.
Boozer’s other replacement is Mirotic, the 23-year power forward who might have a tough time breaking into the line-up unless Chicago’s front-line suffers injuries. But any such lack of playing time will not be due to a lack of skills. He is an untraditional rookie given the amount of experience he had with Real Madrid, having played 225 games with him in the past four years, and was nearing 5,000 career minutes with the club. And in that time, he developed significantly; over the past two seasons, Mirotic was arguably the best big man in all of Europe.
Mirotic is a 6’10 stretch-four with an exceptional shooting touch. He can spot-up in the corners, he can shoot off the pick-and-pop, and as he showed during the Bulls preseason opener against Washington, he can even shoot off the dribble.
When he is dialed in – as was the case in Chicago during his debut – Mirotic’s range seemingly becomes unlimited. On these days, he is extremely confident in his shot. Some nights, however, the opposite can be true, and he alternately become extremely picky about what justifies a good shot. Last night against Detroit, Mirotic passed up at least four open three-pointers, preferring instead to fake and drive, which ultimately turned into nothing. His mindset of always getting the best shot is admirable, but he has to consistently recognize that an open three for him, is the best shot.
In time, Mirotic could develop into an elite long-range big man who carries similarities to Ryan Anderson and Al Harrington. His confidence and consistent range will further develop in time, just as it did for those two. However, Mirotic is more than just a shooter. He has the mindset and skill set of an all-around scorer, and is not afraid to put the ball on the deck, or to try a shot from the post. He is fairly thin and initially might get pushed off the block rather easily, but the unafraid Mirotic will come back and face up the next time down, and drive right by his defender off his unusually quick first step.
While Mirotic and Gasol represented a significant upgrade to the front-line, Doug McDermott is the candidate to eventually start at small forward.
McDermott is a coach’s son, and has a stroke that is not just quick, but also tremendously effective. The 11th pick in the draft is not just one of the most deadly shooters in college basketball history, but the fifth leading scorer of all-time. He, like Mirotic, is more than just a jumpshot. McDermott even has an established mid-range game, which will take some time to transition over properly to the pros as he finds his feet in NBA offenses but which he has long demonstrated at the collegiate level. He is able to separate himself from defenders via proper footwork, he will go into the box and make plays, and of course, he can step outside and play the role of decoy, a category he may often be called upon to utilize this season with Derrick Rose back.
McDermott this season will come off the bench in favor of Mike Dunleavy, at least initially, but that is perhaps more so a personal tendency of head coach Tom Thibodeau to prefer veterans in the starting line-up than it is a knock on Doug’s abilities as a player. McDermott will likely end up leading the second unit in scoring this season, assuming he gets similar minutes as Taj Gibson. One could make the argument that both McDermott and Gibson are both NBA starter material, which is a huge lift for Chicago to have off the bench. Particularly so for their offense.
Chicago have had offensive help from the bench the past couple of seasons, but mostly from the point guard position. And perhaps the Bulls have once again found themselves another incarnation of the Nate Robinson’s and D.J. Augustin’s of the past. New signing Aaron Brooks will help the second unit alongside Kirk Hinrich in the back-court, playing the offensive role to Hinrich’s defensive one, and his shooting will certainly come in handy, as he can consistently create shots for himself off the bounce.
Back in 2009/2010, Brooks averaged 19.6 points a game, and drained 209 three-pointers. He is still just 29, and showed his dynamic playing style last year for the Nuggets as he dropped games of 27 points and 17 assists, and 24 points and 15 assists. Brooks remains a dangerous offensive player when given the opportunity, who will function as a back-up point guard who can more so mimic a lot of what Derrick Rose does, especially when compared to Hinrich, whose offensive game has been regressing for years now.
Therein lies the crux of this potential offensive rejuvenation. Not Brooks, but the man he figures to back up. Derrick Rose carries the largest responsibility to get Chicago’s offense back to a point where it is not a laughing stock. He has done it before, helping the Bulls to the 11th and 5th best offenses respectively in 2011 and 2012, and this time he has the other new tools to help him do it. Rose remains a large question mark, of course, and Chicago’s success depends entirely on how he plays and his health. Yet should Rose stay healthy, Chicago’s additions will be worth that much more down the road, given that each newcomer will be able to ease himself into the rotation alongside this offensive dynamo.
Assuming for a minute Rose does stay healthy and produces at a similar rate as before, one extreme offensive option is running him off as a two-guard, with Brooks running point for stretches. That back-court would be able to outrun entire teams, and if flanked with Doug McDermott on the wing and Gibson and Gasol up front, Chicago would have a strong chance at producing consistent good looks. Similarly, the Bulls can go ultra defensive with Rose at the point, Kirk Hinrich at the two, Jimmy Butler at the three, and with Gibson and Noah up-front, a line-up not too dissimilar to their starting unit.
Just a year ago, these options were only available in the dreams of Bulls fans. Now, they are one step closer to being a reality. That step is Rose’s health. With it, this is potentially a fine offensive team.
Photo credit: Keith Allison