Bulls return intact from 2014-15 but enter training camp with questions

Is a coaching change enough for the Bulls to unseat LeBron James?

As usual, the Bulls' offseason produced its share of headlines.

From the firing of Tom Thibodeau to the hiring of Fred Hoiberg to the re-signing of Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy, stories abounded. But leave it to Butler, the newly minted $95 million man, to distill the net result to one simple sentence.

"You're going to have to go through Cleveland no matter what," Butler said.

With the Bulls set to open training camp with media day Monday and the first two practices Tuesday, the franchise that used to employ a transcendent No. 23 is chasing a Cavaliers squad that now owns that distinction.

LeBron James, whether working for the Heat or Cavaliers, has eliminated the Bulls from four of the last six postseasons. And Butler knows it.

"We say it every year: We think we can win a championship," Butler said at Team USA camp in August. "Yada, yada, yada — you've heard it before. It's time to stop talking. We have to make it happen."

Window closings often are a sports cliche, but it's safe to assume the 2016 offseason won't be nearly as status quo for the Bulls as 2015 was. Switch out Thibodeau for Hoiberg — obviously a significant change — and Nazr Mohammed for first-round pick Bobby Portis, and the Bulls will again battle James and company with the same cast.

So what needs to be different this time for a team that couldn't eliminate the Cavaliers with Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving hobbled? Even 50-win teams returning basically the same roster carry more questions than answers in late September. Here are more:

How will Hoiberg fare?

He has quite the regular-season success rate to follow, as the former Bulls guard has alluded to in his classy nods to Thibodeau — par for the course for someone as polished and comfortable in his skin as Hoiberg. Players have raved about their offseason communication with him, which has included face-to-face meetings no matter the continent. (He visited Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic in Spain.)

From Butler to Joakim Noah to Taj Gibson, "offensive freedom" has been the takeaway theme. Hoiberg's offensive success at Iowa State landed on general manager Gar Forman's radar long before Thibodeau's firing. Look for less play-calling and more instinctive reads.

Who will start?

It wouldn't be a surprise to hear Hoiberg take a page out of Thibodeau's playbook Monday with a stonewalling, "We'll see." But starting Mirotic had been discussed internally even before Friday's news of Dunleavy's back surgery, and there will be plenty of "it's not who starts, it's who finishes" talk to soothe egos.

Noah said last month he has had his best offseason as he trained at the renowned P3 sports science academy in Santa Barbara, Calif. Regardless of his role, he'll need to put last season's physical issues behind him for the Bulls to regain the defensive and rebounding identity that disappeared too often last season.

Butler, Gasol, Dunleavy and Derrick Rose are the other incumbent starters. The plan is to have a deep rotation.

Can Rose make it through a full season without injury?

Averaging almost 38 minutes and 20 points in 12 playoff games and enjoying his first summer since 2011 devoted to workouts and not knee rehabilitation is a good start.

Rose declined an invitation to Team USA camp, not wanting to disrupt his workouts. Last month's civil suit accusing Rose and two friends of sexual assault has neither advanced nor affected Rose's focus.

After three seasons of the organization standing behind Rose despite only 61 regular-season appearances, this is the time he needs to approach All-Star status again. And those close to him say Rose, who long has made a habit of quietly observing from afar, has noted the slip in his ranking among the game's elite.

What can Gasol do for an encore?

After leading the NBA in double-doubles last season and authoring one of the more dominant international performances in leading Spain to this month's EuroBasket title, Gasol will continue to play a major role. But his touches could go down in Hoiberg's up-tempo attack, and at 35, keeping him ready for the playoffs is critical.

Is Doug McDermott ready?

Hoiberg isn't the only native of Ames, Iowa, trying to prove himself in a new NBA challenge. McDermott's rookie season was a washout after the Bulls gave up a lot to get the NCAA player of the year. Hoiberg's offense will try to utilize McDermott's offensive versatility and create mismatches. It's up to McDermott to do the rest, particularly with Dunleavy out eight to 10 weeks.

Gasol owns a player option after this season. Noah is due to be an unrestricted free agent. Kirk Hinrich could retire. The 2016-17 Bulls will look different than the 2015-16 Bulls.

Here's one more chance with this group to dethrone King James.

kcjohnson@tribpub.com

Twitter @kcjhoop

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