Tuesday September 30th, 2014

“Hi, Paul.”

Midwesterners are still learning his name, but nevertheless, Pau Gasol received a warm welcome from reporters at the Bulls' media day on Monday. Chicago's newest star has arrived in the Windy City, and there was no need for a press conference for him to explain why -- he's here to win. Now.

The Spanish star passed on a host of opportunities this summer, including a chance to join the defending champion Spurs, the reincarnated Heat and the vaunted Thunder. Instead the former Laker chose, as Joakim Noah would note, the brutal Chicago weather – but also the promise of a deep and talented roster.

“I thought that the Bulls had a great opportunity and great potential to achieve something special,” Gasol said, who replaces the departed Carlos Boozer and adds consistency, passing and rim protection to the frontcourt – not to mention two championships on his résumé. “The longevity here was also a factor, having a nice mix of young players that are really hungry and haven’t gotten to that level yet, but are close. I just wanted to be a part of that, and my gut also told me, ‘this is the place you want to be, and see what happens.’”

There’s a fresh vibe surrounding this Bulls team after a somewhat stagnant feeling in recent years. Gasol is just one of several new faces on the roster, with rookies Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic bolstering the frontcourt and guards Aaron Brooks and E’Twaun Moore adding depth in the back. How optimistic are people in Chicago? Tom Thibodeau’s even smiling in public.

The enthusiasm is rightfully there. The fact that we can wait until the fifth paragraph to make any mention of Derrick Rose says something in itself. But with training camp tipping off, all things considered, a greater question might be worth asking: might this season be the Bulls’ best chance to win a title since pairing Rose, Noah and Thibodeau together?

Rose has been working out the kinks – highlighted by a so-so stint at the FIBA World Cup -- and looks to be rounding into form, albeit slowly. Noah is coming off the best season of his career. And Gasol is 34, but clearly has plenty left in the tank, as evidenced by his summer run with Spain. McDermott and Mirotic should serve as perimeter threats and could develop into even more as the season progresses. Add in defensive ace Jimmy Butler and it’s tough not to like the Bulls’ chances in 2014-15.

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Given the climate of a much-improved yet largely in flux Eastern Conference, the throne is there for the taking – and the opportunity is wide open for the Bulls’ first post-Jordan title. Cleveland appears to hold the strongest bid the Larry O’Brien (at least on paper), but even with LeBron James and Kevin Love the Cavs reshuffled the deck in a manner that rarely breeds instant results. Remember that it took Miami a year to click on a championship level, and that was without Dion Waiters brooding in the corner. It wouldn’t be surprising if Cleveland pulled it together quickly, but it’s still asking a lot for a team to develop strong chemistry in that short of a time.

Miami should remain tough with a motivated veteran team, but will need some luck to muster another Finals run. Indiana, the other once-serious contender, will arrive at the starting line down Paul George and Lance Stephenson and with a tough uphill climb ahead. Toronto is coming off a strong campaign, but its core is still young and largely untested in the depths of the playoffs, and the same can be said for Washington, though both make for intriguing dark horses. Brooklyn, Charlotte and Atlanta could also be in the mix, but none of the three have the talent or experience of Cleveland and Chicago.

As a whole the East is undoubtedly stronger, but the Bulls clearly improved along with it. The heavyweight matchup will remain Bulls-Cavaliers until further notice, or at least until Cleveland has time to gel. When that happens, trying to steal a title in a decade dominated by LeBron becomes much more difficult, regardless of how much Chicago improves. The confluence of events at the top of the conference leads to what should be an underlying sense of urgency about this season for the Bulls, even if nobody has admitted it yet.

“We know we have an opportunity ahead of us,” Rose said. “It may not be this year, it may not be the next, but I know I’m gonna win a championship soon. I’m not worried about that.”

That’s the type of mindset necessary for a former MVP making his latest comeback. The reality is that his self-belief still looks far from a sure thing. And to think this year might pose the Bulls’ best shot at a title is a scary thought, given that both Rose and Noah are coming off knee injuries and have plenty of weight to carry.

Rose will turn 26 on Saturday, still in his prime but with an injury history that he knows will never leave him (“I’m gonna have to answer that question the rest of my career,” he admitted). In his gold-medal stint with USA Basketball he looked mobile but rusty, to put it kindly, with occasional flashes of brilliance sprinkled in. If he remains healthy it’s logical to think that with time he’ll get back to his old self. Rose shouldn’t have to score as much and will have more room to operate – but the Bulls need him to stay on the court and return to his old form come playoff time.

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Noah is 29 with a history of foot injuries, and now the left knee that required arthroscopic surgery after the playoffs. He acknowledged he’ll have to be a bit more cautious going forward, though what that will mean for his frenetic style of play is yet to be seen.

“[Joakim] told me he was, as was the rest of the team, extremely hungry,” Gasol said. “I wanted to perceive, I wanted to hear it. That’s what I want to be a part of, that attracts me a lot. He wasn't trying to sell anything, or to say the right things, even though he was without thinking about it – he was being honest.”

Thibodeau will have to effectively manage the minutes of his three stars, and with age and injuries  considered, it’ll bear watching to see if he strays from his oft-criticized heavy usage patterns for his starters. There’s enviable depth on the roster, but he’ll still have to use it to Chicago’s advantage.

In his presser, Noah frequently dropped the old “sky’s the limit” adage, and as cliché as it might be, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from. When asked if this was the most talented Bulls roster in his eight-year career, the All-NBA First Team center may have summed the conundrum up best. 

“Potentially definitely, but we all know that potential doesn't mean anything,” Noah said. “Now we’re trying to do something that’s better than potential, and to do that there’s really not much to talk about.”

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