Full disclosure, I am not a born and bred Bulls fan. However, I do watch a ton of basketball. I recited the entire Utah Jazz roster from memory last night and I’m not even a little ashamed of that. As all NBA fans know, the season has just passed the midway point, the trade deadline is coming up at the end of this month and playoff seeds will begin taking shape.
I’ve only seen the Bulls play once in person this year. Since that game, their home opener versus the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bulls have ebbed and flowed through peaks and valleys. They looked like legitimate contenders, going 12-2 from Dec. 10 to Jan. 5, at certain points capitalizing from an unanticipated jump in progression from 25-year-old shooting guard Jimmy Butler. Since then they have gone 5-9, suffering back to back losses, including a double overtime loss to the floundering Los Angeles Lakers.
This should bring up some questions for Bulls fans. Ultimately, this is the fourth iteration of the Chicago Bulls as Eastern Conference contenders. During the 2010-11 season the Bulls posted a league best 62 wins on the back of young MVP Derrick Rose. Two season-ending injuries to Rose stole Chicago’s lynchpin to a lengthy postseason run. Despite their leader’s absence the Bulls have made the playoffs the past two seasons, but ultimately lacked the go-to scorer to lead them through games.
This version of the Bulls is the most exciting the team has had in this four year run. They made a serious offseason addition to the frontcourt in Pau Gasol and have Rose back in full force. They finally lured Nikola Mirotic from his home at European club Real Madrid. Locked and loaded with offensive firepower, they have taken off in that category.
Last year the Bulls ranked 28 out of 30 teams in offensive rating, which measures the amount of points scored per 100 possessions. This year they have jumped to 10 out of 30 teams, scoring six more points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile their defense has dropped from 2 to 13 in defensive rating, which measures the amount of points allowed per 100 possessions. They are allowing five more points within the measurement.
There are several reasons for this occurrence. The first is the addition of Pau Gasol. With Gasol playing the center position, this effectively forces former center Joakim Noah into the power forward role. Noah is therefore drawn away from the paint by opposing forwards stretching the floor, leaving Gasol to protect the rim. It is safe to say that the 34-year-old Spaniard does not have the footspeed of Noah.
Inner turmoil has also plagued the franchise as of late. Head Coach Tom Thibodeau’s hard-nosed style is well documented: he plays his players for a long time, demands defensive effort and puts them through a grueling practice schedule. This is not commonplace in the NBA, where teams go long stretches without formal practices due to the amount of games they play. Rumors have it that players are frustrated with Thib’s grinding style and the front office feels as if his style endangers their assets. In an industry where the average coach lasts just 2.4 seasons, Thibodeau has nearly doubled that mark.
While Rose is the most gifted player on the Bulls, the best player this year has been Butler. He tore the league apart for the first month, shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor and scoring 22 points per game while kicking in nearly six rebounds and three assists. The Bulls, on Butler’s back, were shooting teams off the floor, which anyone who has ever played basketball will tell you is much more fun than locking down the opponent through grit and defense.
Since his white hot November, Butler has slowed down. His shooting percentage has dropped to just above 40 percent and he’s scoring four less points a game. Part of entering the national headlines as a game changer is learning how to react when other teams start to key in on you, and Butler is still adjusting to that learning curve. Meanwhile, he is leading the league in minutes per game at 39.5.
The Bulls can turn this slippage around; they have things working for them. Gasol’s experience having won two championships in LA will prove invaluable in guiding the team through this adversity. No great team escapes the season unscathed. Second will be improving on the defensive side of the ball. All of the talk coming out of the Bulls coaches and players in the last few days insists that they have not been playing the the same defensive resolve as they have in years past. The third is that they are in the Eastern Conference, guaranteeing the fact that they will not fall out of the postseason race.
Lastly, the Bulls have a complete team and do not need to make a move to add a key piece to a championship puzzle. Every Bulls fan knows this, secretly hoping that they will not have to put their hope into a fifth iteration of a Rose-centric roster.