2012-2013 W-L: 45-37
New Places: Marco Belinelli (San Antonio), Richard Hamilton (waived), Nate Robinson (Denver), Malcolm Thomas (waived)
New Faces: Mike Dunleavy
Draft: Tony Snell (20), Erik Murphy (49)
The Bulls spent last season in a holding pattern. No team in the league could completely withstand the extended absence of a recent MVP winner, and that fact was understood concerning Chicago’s prospects going into 2012-2013.
What no one knew is that Derrick Rose would miss the entire season, effectively ending any hopes of the Bulls finally making progress on their 2011 appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. But those confident ambitions were unrealistic from the outset even if a rehabilitating Rose was in the lineup; his burden’s been so heavy for Chicago that the necessary grace period accompanying a return from an ACL tear would’ve kept the Bulls from beating Miami or Indiana anyway. And while a similar adjustment is still due for Rose this season, not only will he have ample time to make it, but an improved supporting cast to alleviate the pressures that come with it, too.
Dunleavy, Chicago’s lone free agent acquisition, is only part of the newly inflated equation. His addition is a boon for the Bulls any way you slice it; few elite shooters are Dunleavy’s size, fewer can make plays for their teammates, and fewer still are solid defenders. That unique skill-set in tandem with such a ridiculously modest contract – two years and six million dollars! – makes this signing a home run for the always cost-conscious Bulls. Dunleavy will play a similar offensive role to those vacated by Belinelli and Kyle Korver, and could certainly improve upon them in doing so. He’s a perfect fit in Chicago, on the court and the salary cap. Again: home run.
But the Bulls would have had the best wing rotation of the Thibodeau era this season even if they had to settle for re-signing Belinelli. That’s hardly impressive given Chicago’s lack of viable options beside Luol Deng in the past, but matters not with respect to the present. Deng, Dunleavy, Jimmy Butler and rookie Tony Snell give the Bulls size, depth and two-way versatility this organization’s lacked at the 2 and 3 since fabled days of the 1990s. And just as important going forward, this collection of wings – with Butler’s emergence most influential – gives the front office flexibility its lacked since awarding Deng a mammoth contract extension in 2008. Which, by the way, happens to expire at the end of this season.
That the possibility of Chicago parting with Deng can be broached these days speaks to several developments, including Taj Gibson’s lack of offensive development and the extra value it affords Carlos Boozer. But chief among them is the rapid development of Butler into one of basketball’s brightest young wings. The awesome defensive potential was always obvious, but his suddenly reliable stroke from three-point range and underrated off-dribble game last season came almost from nowhere. Butler barely showed those aspects in flashes his rookie year, leading to a logical conclusion that such a vast improvement had at least something to do with his hand being forced. The Bulls needed extra offensive punch with Rose sidelined, and Butler delivered more of it than anyone anticipated. There’s even reason to believe he’s not done growing, too. Butler might not be on Deng’s level yet, but it’s fair to suggest he will be soon.
So Chicago already has Deng’s replacement on the roster, plus two players in Dunleavy and Snell that provide valuable depth. Coupled with cap ramifications related to the luxury tax, the Bulls finally have a realistic opportunity to shed a salary albatross. Whether that means letting Deng’s contract expire or dealing him at the trade deadline for assets is a discussion for another time, but regardless, Chicago has options for the first time in quite a while.
The presence of Dunleavy, Butler and Snell are the primary means behind them, just as it is – in addition to the ease of Rose’s transition, obviously – extremely influential to the Bulls’ prospects for 2013-2014. Dunleavy is an upgrade on Belinelli, Butler will be even better another season older, and Snell gives Thibodeau a long, athletic option off the bench.
Chicago didn’t have the most eventful summer, but this team is nonetheless more talented than its been in over a decade because of it. Rose’s play will determine this season’s trajectory more than anything else, but the Bulls’ staple of wings – new and old – will be what put them over the top should they complete the climb. And even if they can’t this season, Butler and company give Chicago the option to re-shuffle the roster so the Bulls can try again in the future.