What’s Up in the Windy City?

I wanted to write an article even before this week happened, as the Chicago Bulls have been one of the stranger teams of 2014-2015. After the shakeup with Lebron spurning Miami for a joyous return to Cleveland and the Bulls eventually fleshing out with their frontcourt with Pau Gasol instead of Carmelo Anthony (HEY! Melo’s an All-Star too!!), a lot of the saner basketball minds out there, (you know, the ones who didn’t immediately anoint the Cavs as title favorites and the next friggin’ dynasty for King James) picked the Bulls to do something they have not done since the days of His Airness.. win the East and play for the Larry O’ Brien trophy.

It hasn’t exactly panned out like that. After last night (which I’ll get to jeeeeez) the Bulls are 30-19, good for the 4th seed in the East, although only a game and a half ahead of the surging Cavaliers. While making the playoffs is a mortal lock at this point, there is a more pressing question of whether or not they can retain homecourt advantage. If the Cavs can continue to give James little one night breaks and STILL win games, I’d be very worried about the Bulls’ chances of keeping the Central Division crown. Looking up in the standings might be a more realistic option, in trying to catch up to the Wiz or the free-falling Toronto Raptors and their Swiss cheese defense.

Of course, the Bulls may not even need homecourt come April and May. At 17-8, they’ve been a dominant road team, which can either be viewed encouragingly or as another one of the weird aspects of their season. While I’m sure they don’t want to see Lebron and KY-RIDICULOUS in the first round, I can easily see them pulling off a road upset of those same Raps or Wiz if the positioning plays out that way. The playoffs have a way of exposing weaknesses and showing us what teams are truly made of. But the real question today is, what kind of team are the Bulls??

Chicago has been wildly inconsistent all season, demolishing teams like the Clippers and the Spurs, while suffering embarrassing blowouts at the hands of the Jazz and Kings. They had an impressive 7 game win streak where they toppled the Grizzlies, Raptors, and Pelicans. They’ve lost to the Magic, Heat, and were positively MANHANDLED in two contests with the Wizards, losing by an average of 11 points. And, just this week a thrilling OT victory over the NBA’s best followed up by a Double OT loss to the lowly, lowly Lakers (without Bryant AND Swaggy P). Weird. Just weird.

So who are these Bulls really?

Derrick Rose

Let’s go back to that jumper again. Smooth. Beautiful. Devastating. A completely asinine shot to take.

I mean seriously, I love the effort but if that’s the play you drew up to win a game on the road, then I’ve got Daryl Morey and an army of nerds to sit you down and explain how modern basketball is supposed to work. That shot, and Rose’s 28 other points on the game, are also largely window dressing when you consider that he had 1 assist all game (!!) AND 11 TURNOVERS (!!!) 11??? That mark matches Charlotte’s league best 11 TEAM turnovers per game. It falls sadly short of the 2012-2013 Knicks’ 8 TEAM turnovers per game. A TEAM is supposed to turn it over 11 times a game. A single player doing that?? You’ve got a real problem there.

I know its just one game, but Rose’s season statistics don’t look that much better. He’s averaging nearly 3.5 TOs per game against fewer than 5 assists. For everyone out there this is hardly scientific, but after reading about Norris Cole’s effort in trying to become the man in Miami alongside Lebron, I was struck by his association of 2 assists to each turnover as a professional goal to strive for. Chris Paul, of course, leads the league in this with a 4.5 A/TO ratio. Rose? Not even on the league’s list of top 40 players.

Which is not to say that’s all bad. Westbrook isn’t on the list either, as both guards are really more about their incredible speed and athleticism than playing a more traditional “floor general” role. Also, watching the Bulls take on Phoenix last night, I was wowed by Rose’s open court passing. He had a couple of exceptional plays as the Bulls were running the break and he threw pinpoint half court passes to a streaking Jimmy Butler. It’s only in the halfcourt that Rose gets kind of bogged down. I couldn’t count how many possessions “Pooh” just brought the ball up the floor, handed it off to Noah or Gasol and then just kind of sat around watching. Or maybe ran back to get the ball to shoot a gross 3 pointer. And let’s not even get into the 3 point shooting. 29% on almost 6 attempts per game? You could look at those numbers and think Josh Smith had crept into the locker room. Everyone knows Rose needs to be driving to the cup not shooting outside his range. I’m not gonna dwell on that one for too long.

The assist question is a little more intriguing because again the Bulls don’t need Rose to be a world class passer. With the acquisition of Pau they now have two of the best passing big men in the entire association. And with Noah finally returning to the starting lineup after missing a series of games and coming off the bench the Bulls are starting to hit their stride and put together what everyone knew they’ve had all along. The league’s deadliest frontcourt.

The Frontcourt

I’m almost sad for Taj Gibson. This is a guy that was going to, and absolutely should be, a starting player. In the wake of Carlos Boozer’s amnesty, Gibson looked like a man set to take over, coming off a season where he received serious 6th man of the year consideration. Taj is a KILLER rebounder who destroys the glass, plays excellent defense, and has a seriously underrated midrange jumper. This could’ve been his breakout year.

Nope. Pau Gasol happened. And speaking of breakout years, how about the Spaniard’s first ever All-Star starter recognition? How about 18 points and nearly 12 rebounds a game? (He had 19 boards last night by the way.) Its an unbelievable career resurgence for a player who was on the wrong end of the accusation “washed up”, despite averaging 17 and 10 on a woeful, woeful Lakers team. I looked around for a long time for a player who’s had that kind of success on a new team while their stats staying largely the same and I’d say Shaq’s 3 rings in LA should bode pretty well for Chicago. And Bron of course.

The other really fun player the Bulls acquired this year is the Spanish-Montenegrin sensation Nikola Mirotic. Really the only comparison I have for Mirotic is a big floppy puppy dog. At 6’10 he’s remarkably agile and a good floor spacer, shooting nearly 36% from deep. However, he seems to be the only player who is allowed to depart from Coach Thibodeau’s conservative drop-back defensive scheme as Mirotic barrels all over the court, reaching wildly into passing lanes and sprinting to the line to cover open jump shooters. His claim to fame came on a January 17th loss to the Atlanta Hawks when Mirotic somehow managed to foul out in 15 minutes (!!!!) That unbelievable little nugget of information caused Jalen Rose to expound on the usefulness of a having a player like that who can come in for 15 minutes a game and deliver a few hard knocks to the other team’s smaller players. Love it.

And somehow we’ve gotten this far without talking about the heart and soul of this Bull’s team. Before Brother Pau’s explosive near MVP campaign this year in Memphis, I would’ve said Noah was the most versatile center in the entire game. By far the best two way player at his position and a key part of the the Bulls top rated defense over the past few seasons. Everyone knows what this guy can do. More importantly, though, is how the Gasol acquisition will allow Thibs to rest Noah for a few games here and there instead of cruelly breaking him down over the course of the season, reducing his feet to worn little nubs.

The Offense/Defense

The return of Derrick Rose and the recently injected 20 point per game Gasol have rejuvenated what has always been a particularly painful offense to watch. I’ve written before that the Bulls struggled to put up 69 points during their game 5 playoff elimination by the Wizards last year. This year? Not so much.

By NBA statistics the Bulls are a hearty 9th in scoring. They shoot the ball pretty badly, but they are a top 10 squad in 3 point percentage (well, 10th is still top 10) and, most importantly, are the best team in the association outside of Demarcus “Boogie” Cousins at getting to the line. At 102 points a game, the Bulls aren’t going to get shot out of the building by anyone. The one problem with this Chicago team has finally been solved.

Well, kind of. Because the Bulls’ long league leading defense has taken a serious dive this season.

While Chicago is still a very respectable 9th in opponents’ FG%, they are 18th in opponents scoring. They are one of the league’s absolute worst squads in forcing turnovers (29th) and they get absolutely MURDERED in transition. A lot of that has to do with Noah being hurt. He’s a lot quicker than Gasol who I would pay money to watch attempt a full court sprint. Still, this got exposed BADLY last night. I know it was the second night of a back to back and they were playing the streaking Suns, but the first half was a nightmare sequence of steals, turnovers, and oh so many dunks in transition.

Still, all of that aside, the Bulls still only fall just outside the top 10 by Hollinger’s defensive efficiency metric and with a top 10 offense they are well equipped on both sides of the court to take on the postseason.

The Coaching

After years of qualifying for the postseason and widely being regarded as a top 5 coach (really even top 3 with Pop and Carlisle) I was absolutely shocked to hear that Thibodeau’s relationship with Bulls’ ownership is believed to be “beyond repair”. The article cites concerns like Thibs disapproving of the Luol Deng trade and the failure to have the two sides reach a compromise on the coach’s contract extension (Jerry Reinsdorf is a notoriously cheap owner). Still, it seems downright wrong that they would even think about dismissing a guy who fostered the league’s youngest MVPs and led numerous winning seasons where it looked like every single person on the court was injured.

The article also mentions that they will let Thibs ride out the season and evaluate again over the summer, meaning playoff performance will likely play a huge factor in this decision. If they do decide to part ways, I’m sure they will cite the crumbling defense as a key reason, which seems eerily reminiscent of the Chicago Bears dismissing longtime defensive stalwart Lovie Smith to take the team in an offensive direction under Marc Trestman (which has worked out SUPER WELL).

To me, the defensive problem seems more like an “embarrassment of riches”. The Bulls have always had barely enough capable players, gritting away with whoever can suit up, forcing players to buy into the system. This season, they actually have players who can score, numerous options to go to on offense, the team runs DEEP. And, with all these new, returning, and improved players, the defense has taken a little hit as the guys integrate with one another. From this (uninformed) perspective, the idea of dismissing Thibs before he can get another offseason of pairing Noah and Gasol seems almost criminal.

What’s next?

PLAYYYOOFFFFSS!!

One of the things I noticed last night is how reliant the Bulls will be on Noah to man their defense. The guy started the game sure, but looked super hobbled and limited. Gasol absolutely cannot keep up with mobile, undersized bigs like Phoenix’s Len and the Morris brothers, and if Joakim isn’t 100% guys like this are gonna torch Chicago. That may be a reason why Chicago has had such trouble with Cleveland and Atlanta this year (well, everyone’s had trouble with Atlanta this year). Guys like Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, Paul Millsap, they’re gonna be able to run circles around Gasol. Despite losing badly a couple of teams, I actually think Chicago matches up much better against the Wizards where they can go big against big and play at a slower, more familiar pace.

Clearly, Atlanta’s not going anywhere. And there’s no way Chicago is going to drop all the way to 8th. That simple logic removes the worst threat of a first round exit. Other than that, these guys are going to have their work cut out for them in trying to move up the standings to avoid Cleveland or Washington. If they can put together a nice run to close out the season and draw someone like Milwaukee they should have no problem winning that series and putting together some momentum for a more difficult opponent.

Once there, its anyone’s guess. I have to concede that after all this investigation I still don’t know what this team is really all about. I think Noah’s fire goes a long way towards keeping this team competitive (and they really did get right back in the game last night after being pummeled in the first half) but if this team is going to make a Finals push they’re going to need everyone to step up their game defensively and get a little closer to their roots.

That Other Guy

HAHAHAHAHA you thought I wasn’t going to talk about Jimmy Butler! Per the nickname above Jimmy G Buckets (The G stands for Gets) has been an unbelievable part of the Bulls success this season, evolving into a 20 point a night, do-it-all guy who leads the league in percentage of his drives that end up with him at the foul line. He locks down the other team’s best defensive player in a Kawhi Finals MVP role. He’s stoic and tough and in a Mortal Kombat style race with Klay Thompson for the League’s HOLY SHIT MOST IMPROVED PLAYER except he’s done an even more impressive job of coming out of nowhere to All Star status in a single season.

Watching Butler last night was electrifying. Running the floor, finishing in transition with huge dunks. Playing 1-1 ball and shutting down Goran Dragic during a fast break, standing up for Derrick Rose and his awful 3 point outing. This guy is the real deal and will be huge in the postseason when teams die without a defensive stopper. He’s like Odell Beckham Jr., Bulls fans should be excited for the future simply because of him.

Peace!

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