As brilliant a coach as Tom Thibodeau is, his mastery of defense would do little good without players capable of carrying out his directives. Such is 6'11" Joakim Noah, the on-court element that, above all others, makes Chicago's defense work. No bit of coverage is outside his comfort zone. Where other centers can be exploited in space, Noah scurries into position and challenges opponents to get past him. While some similarly sized bigs can be overpowered in the post, Noah denies his opponents position and scraps to make their every move difficult. He never stops working and never stops thinking, the combination of which makes him an ideal defensive anchor.
That type of player would be important to any team, but Noah is of particular value given the Bulls' aspirations. Chicago is a bona fide contender, though any path to the title would require locking down several of the best offensive teams. The Heat loom large, with two of the league's most dynamic dribble penetrators and a host of shooters. The upgraded Nets could provide in-conference obstruction as well, as would the more balanced Pacers. Making it out of the East alone will require a smothering defense, to which Noah is unquestionably the key. It's Derrick Rose's return that vaults the Bulls back into the NBA's top tier, but only through Noah can Chicago truly capitalize on that standing.
COACH TOM THIBODEAU (4TH SEASON WITH BULLS)
2012--13 RECORD 45--37 (2ND IN CENTRAL)
WHAT'S NEW Shooter Mike Dunleavy was signed after Nate Robinson left for Denver. Oh, and the 2011 MVP is back.
PROJECTED LINEUP (2012--13 STATS)
PG DERRICK ROSE*
21.8 PPG; 7.9 APG; 43.5 FG%;31.2 3FG%
SG JIMMY BUTLER
8.6 PPG; 4.0 RPG; 46.7 FG%;38.1 3FG%
SF LUOL DENG
16.5 PPG; 6.3 RPG; 3.0 APG; 42.6 FG%
PF CARLOS BOOZER
16.2 PPG; 9.8 RPG; 2.3 APG; 47.7 FG%
C JOAKIM NOAH
11.9 PPG; 11.1 RPG; 2.1 BPG; 48.1 FG%
PG KIRK HINRICH
7.7 PPG; 5.2 APG; 37.7 FG%; 39.0 3FG%
POINTS PER 100 possessions scored by the Bulls last year—23rd in the league. The previous season, with a healthy Derrick Rose at the point, Chicago ranked fifth, averaging 107.4.
A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP THE BULLS
Tom Thibodeau is an excellent defensive coach, and he's pretty smart offensively. 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.... In some ways Luol Deng is the most important player on their team. For years he's been the glue. He might be the guy that LeBron James least likes to play against.... Carlos Boozer is the great enigma. When you look at his numbers, he's as productive as any big man, but you always feel like there's something more that he could be giving you.... In the playoffs they need a guy to stretch the floor, but Mike Dunleavy was a reach. He scores better in transition than as a pure spot-up, kick-out shooter or coming off a screen. 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.... It all comes down to Derrick Rose. I'm guessing that he's 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.... Rose is a better off-the-ball than on-the-ball defender, because I don't think he wants to get in foul trouble. He is not a me-first point guard; he does trust his teammates and is willing to pass. But he has such a gift of getting into the lane and finishing that even though there are many times he scores that way, I don't think it's ever a selfish play with him.
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES (NOAH)
THE FRENETIC NOAH
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DENG)