Chicago Bulls 2011-12 season preview and NBA predictions

Chicago Bulls 2011-12 season preview and NBA predictions

The Chicago Bulls worked hard during the extended offseason and have repeatedly said they are hungrier than ever after losing to the Miami Heat in last season's Eastern Conference finals.

With a full season alongside coach Tom Thibodeau under the Bulls' belt, they are a confident, cohesive bunch. Reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose and his teammates, all of whom formed a tight-knit locker room a season ago, know the task at hand and understand that expectations in Chicago will be the highest they have ever been since the Michael Jordan era.

"We have one thing on our mind, and that's to win a championship," Rose said recently.

As fans wait for the five-game slate on Christmas Day, here's a preview of the 2011-12 Bulls.

2010-11 regular-season record: 62-20

Key addition: Rip Hamilton
Key losses: Keith Bogans, Kurt Thomas

Roster (and player previews):
– Derrick Rose, PG: Bulls fans can pencil Rose in as the starting point guard for the Eastern Conference in the 2012 All-Star game in Orlando. At the age of 23, he should keep improving on both ends of the court. [Read more...]
– Carlos Boozer, PF: Boozer seems to be in much improved basketball shape heading into the new season, having dropped at least 20 pounds in the prolonged offseason, according to Bulls general manager Gar Forman. The 6-foot-8 Boozer struggled in the team's preseason opener, but posted 24 points and seven rebounds while shooting 11-for-17 from the field. [Read more...]
– Joakim Noah, C: Bulls fans are banking on Noah to have a more healthy, productive season from start to finish. By all accounts, he worked hard during the prolonged offseason. [Read more...]
– Luol Deng, SF: During last year's preseason, Deng was regarded as an X-factor for the Bulls. Now, he's one of the certainties that teammates, coaches and fans can depend on to play a major role on a championship contender. [Read more...]
– Rip Hamilton, SG: On Tuesday, Hamilton dropped 13 points and six assists and impressed teammates and coaches in his Bulls debut. It's reasonable to expect Hamilton to score 13-15 points per game this season. [Read more...]
– Taj Gibson, PF: It is clear that Gibson used the prolonged offseason to work on his post-up game, making a few left-handed hook shots and doing most of his damage in the paint. Either way, he's set for another solid season in Chicago. [Read more...]
– Ronnie Brewer, SG: By all accounts, he has been very impressive during practices, garnering praise from his teammates. Coaches, teammates and fans can count on Brewer, who has said over the past month that he is 100 percent healthy and ready to have a big season. [Read more...]
– Kyle Korver, SG/F: He's an outside presence that can space the floor for teammates. There's no question that it's important to have a player like that on a championship contender, especially one whose star is Rose. [Read more...]
– C.J. Watson, PG: With a full season in Chicago under his belt, Watson should be more comfortable in his backup role during the upcoming campaign. Watson didn't shoot as well as he had wanted to a season ago, but worked hard on his game during the summer and hopes to get more opportunities to play his game, rather than the conservative style called for by the coaching staff in his first season as a Bull. [Read more...]
– Omer Asik, C: After averaging nine points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks for the Turkish national team this summer, Asik should have plenty of confidence heading into the new season. Asik will most likely see increased minutes and slightly improve on last season's averages of 2.8 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. [Read more...]
– Jimmy Butler, SF: Many Bulls fans are expecting Butler to play only a few minutes per game, which is a good bet, given that it's unreasonable to look for a first-year player to have a major role on an established team. But he should get opportunities to spell Luol Deng and Kyle Korver throughout the compressed 66-game schedule that contains 17 back-to-back sets, and one back-to-back-to-back, for the Bulls. [Read more...]
– John Lucas III, PG: The Bulls will hold on to Lucas heading into the regular season. He will be happy to play any role that's asked of him and should provide point guard depth in practices and games. [Read more...]
– Brian Scalabrine, PF/C: Barring injury, count on Scalabrine to remain in Chicago the entire season. Because of Kurt Thomas' departure, the Bulls will need Scalabrine for depth in practices. [Read more...]

Projected rotation:
PG: Rose, Watson, Lucas
SG: Hamilton, Brewer, Korver
SF: Deng, Korver, Butler
PF: Boozer, Gibson, Scalabrine
C: Noah, Asik

Five burning questions facing the team:

1. Do the Bulls have what it takes to get past the Heat?

The Bulls have Rose, the reigning NBA MVP; a healthy tandem of Boozer and Noah, at least for now; a shooting guard upgrade in Hamilton; lots of depth; and Thibodeau, last season's Coach of the Year and a veteran of 20 years along the NBA sideline. It remains to be seen if all of that will be enough to to defeat the Heat in a seven-game series. Yes, the Heat have the star power, the Big Three -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- but their frontcourt is thin. If the Bulls are going to get past them, Rose will most likely have to be the best player on the court over the course of the series. Rose has a chip on his shoulder and Bulls fans have learned not to doubt him.

2. How will Rose top his MVP campaign?

For Rose, the answer is simple: win the NBA championship and Finals MVP. Since being drafted by the Bulls in 2008, Rose has always displayed a team-first attitude. Last season, he would have obviously preferred to win it all, although he's certainly proud of becoming the youngest MVP in league history. Rose has taken full responsibility for the Bulls' defeat against the Heat last spring and it's a safe bet he will play better this time around. Over the past few weeks, Rose has repeatedly stated his only goal in his fourth season is to become a champion. "Hopefully, with me being from Chicago and this going on, I can give [my fans] something back in return, and that's a championship," Rose told Wednesday after the organization announced the 6-foot-3 point guard's lucrative contract extension. "Everytime you see me step on the court, I'm playing hard and to win a game. And nothing more."

3. Can Boozer and Noah have healthy, productive seasons?

Boozer and Noah missed large chunks of last season and were not able to contribute the way they wanted to in the playoffs. Both players will face plenty of pressure from Bulls fans. Boozer is the Bulls' X-factor. He is expected to lead a supporting cast that must ease more of the offensive burden placed on Rose and produce along the lines of the numbers he posted in a Bulls uniform last December and January -- 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Meanwhile, Noah -- who is entering the first season of five-year deal -- showed during the first month of last season that he can be a consistent double-double threat, averaging about 16 points and 13 rebounds. He must continue to be the Bulls' defensive anchor and regain the touch on his mid-range jump shot. In addition, the two players need to find a way to better compliment each other's game. By all accounts, Boozer and Noah are in much improved basketball shape and know they play a large role when it comes to whether or not the Bulls can topple the Heat. "If you look at major free agents who have changed teams, historically they've shown improvement from year one to year two," Forman told the assembled media during the team's media day festivities. "There's familiarity with the system, the city, the organization. And he changed conferences. I think he'll be more comfortable. I would expect Carlos to have a very good year."

4. Does the shortened season help or hurt?

You would think that the Bulls are one of the squads around the league that will benefit from the condensed season. The Bulls are familiar with coach Thibodeau's system and have a tight-knit locker room and just two newcomers, Hamilton and Butler -- not to mention the fact that the team will again go 10 players deep. Watson, Brewer, Korver, Gibson and Asik figure to receive the bulk of the backup minutes. The Bulls' "Bench Mob" is one of, if not the best reserve corps in the league. "Last year we played 10 [players]; we're going to do the same thing this year," Thibodeau told reporters on Tuesday. "That's a plus. How many minutes you can play each night, that remains to be seen. You have to see where you are conditioning-wise. ... We have to be ready to respond. Every time we gave the bench extended minutes, they responded well."

5. Will the Bulls sign a big man?

The Bulls will certainly miss Thomas, who signed with the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 11. The veteran center provided leadership, toughness and consistency on both ends of the court. Forman recently said the Bulls will patiently search for a reserve big man. The Bulls are confident in the duo of Noah and Asik, but will most likely add a cheap center at some point this season. Joel Pryzbilla, Erick Dampier and Etan Thomas are among the centers available on the free-agent market.

Bulls' numbers game (predictions):

1. All-Stars in 2011-12: 2. Rose is a virtual lock. Among the rest of the Bulls, Noah, barring injury, probably has the best shot of joining Rose in the All-Star game. Before the 6-foot-11 center underwent surgery last September to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb, he was playing at an All-Star level and looked to be on track to back up Orlando Magic star Dwight Howard in the star-studded midseason contest. Deng and Boozer were candidates a season ago, but the forward position is stacked in the Eastern Conference.

2. Regular-season record in 2011-12: 47-19. Obviously, the Bulls will not be able to match last year's 62-win season. The guess here is that there is a bit of a drop off in their winning percentage. It's going to be important for the Bulls to stay afloat during the early portion of their schedule, considering the fact that they will play 20 of their first 30 games on the road. The schedule also calls for 17 back-to-back sets and one back-to-back-to-back.

Around the NBA:

Here are my predictions for the playoffs and individual awards in the 2011-12 season.

  • MVP: Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant. He was the favorite to win the league's most prestigious individual award heading into last season, too. The odds are against Rose to repeat, while James and Wade essentially cancel each other out in Miami. Voters love a feel-good story. If the Thunder provide one and Durant nets his third straight scoring title, there's a good chance the MVP trophy lands in Oklahoma City.
  • Rookie of the Year: Cleveland Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving. He will get every opportunity to shine in Cleveland, which recently waived guard Baron Davis. Irving averaged 16 points and three assists while shooting 14-for-16 from the free throw line in two preseason games.
  • Coach of the Year: Indiana Pacers' Frank Vogel. Last season, he led the Pacers to a 20-18 finish and their first playoff appearance since 2006. The team seemed to feed off his confident mindset and played the Bulls tough in last season's Eastern Conference quarterfinals. With David West in the fold, the Pacers should be a playoff team and could again give a top-tier squad issues.
  • Defensive Player of the Year: Bulls' Joakim Noah. Even though he missed 34 games a season ago, he was mentioned as a candidate to win the award. With all the uncertainty surrounding Dwight Howard, who has won the past three DOPY awards, and the Orlando Magic, Noah wins the award and makes Thibodeau, a defensive guru, proud.
  • Sixth Man of the Year: Memphis Grizzles' O.J. Mayo. Tony Allen is the starting two-guard, which means Mayo will come off the bench. The 24-year-old has seen his scoring average dip the past two seasons, but adjusts to his reserve role for the up-and-coming Grizzlies and impresses voters with his shooting off the pine.
  • Most Improved Player: Philadelphia 76ers' Jrue Holiday. The third-year guard averaged 14 points, 6.5 assists and four rebounds last season -- up from the eight points and four assists he put up per game in his rookie campaign. At 21, he's expected to take another step forward and become one of the leaders on the Sixers.
  • Eight playoff teams in the East: 1) Heat, 2) Bulls, 3) New York Knicks, 4) Boston Celtics, 5) Sixers, 6) Pacers, 7) Magic, 8) Atlanta Hawks.
  • Eight playoff teams in the West: 1) Thunder, 2) Los Angeles Clippers, 3) Dallas Mavericks, 4) Lakers, 5) Memphis Grizzlies, 6) Blazers, 7) San Antonio Spurs, 8) Denver Nuggets.
  • East finals: Bulls over Heat in seven. Chicago uses its depth and advantage up front to eliminate Miami. Rose finds a way to score clutch baskets when he's defended by James and Hamilton holds his own against Wade, which the former Detroit Piston has done in the past.
  • West finals: Lakers over Thunder in six. Kobe Bryant lifts his veteran club -- with help from Howard?  -- and makes his eighth Finals appearance.
  • NBA Finals: Bulls over Lakers in five. Chicago conjures up some magic from 1991.

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