When this happened (video below) in the inaugural game of the 2012 NBA playoffs, everyone knew Chicago was done. The Bulls were up 99-87 with barely a minute to go in their Game 1 win over the Philadelphia 76ers, but the Eastern Conference’s top seed was all but eliminated. Derrick Rose tore his ACL and MCL in the waning moments of that game, taking him out of the remainder of the playoffs and for the foreseeable future. Boston and Miami collectively exhaled.
Chicago lost that series to the 76ers, and LeBron James & Co. won the first of what some experts consider to be many rings. In the ensuing offseason, Chicago dealt Kyle Korver to Atlanta, C.J. Watson left for Brooklyn, Ronnie Brewer for New York and Omer Asik for Houston. The Bulls needed to slice payroll with millions owed to Rose, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah and a core restricted free agent in Taj Gibson, whom the Bulls recently re-upped for four years, $38 million, looming.
Six games into the season, Chicago’s 4-2 and atop the East’s Central, and weakest, division. And, folks, even though the timetable is unclear on Rose’s return, if he does return at all this year (the Bulls have $94.8 million reasons to not rush their star back), they’re still a threat.
Defense wins championships
The age-old saying is a fixture in basketball circles, and few teams play better team defense than Chicago. It’s hard to imagine a better start to a head-coaching career than the Bulls’ Tom Thibodeau, who won Coach of the Year in a 62-win campaign in 2010-11, his first as the head boss. Then, he followed that up by becoming the fastest coach in league history to 100 wins in the 2011-12 lockout-shortened campaign, coming in second in Coach of the Year honors to the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich.
No one preaches team defense better than TT, and even with a guy like Nate Robinson, not exactly known for his defensive prowess, as such an important part of his rotation, the Bulls are getting it done. Chicago’s currently fourth in the NBA in overall defense, allowing a mere 88.7 points per game — of course, the schedule hasn’t been too difficult, with 5 of 6 at home and only two playoff teams from last year, OKC and Orlando (OK, they don’t really count here, right?), on the docket.
So the Bulls may not have Rose until March or April, but if they can continue to hold opponents under 90 points a game night in and night out, they’ve got as good a chance as anyone.
But can they score?
[The Bulls had a mini firesale this summer, likely to make room for some horrible contracts that won’t start to come off the books until after next season. Luol Deng, the team’s leading scorer presently at 17.7 a night, is owed $27 million over the next two years, which isn’t a horrible deal given Deng’s now the No. 1 option. But Carlos Boozer, whom the Bulls very well could amnesty this summer, is on the books for an absurd $47 million over the next three years, and Joakim Noah at $11, $12, $13 & $14 million-plus through 2015-16. So between Gibson and Noah’s deals, the Bulls have essentially tied up $88 million over the next four years in energy players. Nice. (I do like Gibson’s deal for Bulls, though.)]
Back to the point: The Bulls have little flexibility to make a move this summer, or little in expiring deals to make a splash for some backcourt scoring at the deadline.
But this is where one of my favorite offseason acquisitions comes in … Nate Robinson. Yes, Nate Robinson. He has an ego much larger than his 5’9″ frame, he’s a headcase, he shoots too much, and he’s not usually one for defense. But Nate Robinson can score. And through six games, he’s scoring 11.5 points a night in only 22.7 minutes, he’s got the highest PER (18.5) of any Bull, and he’s second only in assists (4.2 a game) to starting PG Kirk Hinrich. And he’s shooting 49% from the field! Get out!
Chicago needs a scorer off the bench, and Robinson’s giving him that … even moreso than Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer or C.J. Watson did last year. Robinson, until Boozer gets his shit together, may very well be the most important member of this team. He’s an explosive, streaky scorer, averaging as much as 17.2 points per game in his 2008-09 campaign with the Knicks.
If Hinrich can stay healthy (as he goes out with a hip injury…) this year, Chicago can keep Robinson coming off the bench, a role he’s most comfortable in. And if Carlos Boozer can up his nightly scoring to around 15, Chicago’s got enough to compete with anyone … outside Miami, Boston, LA, SA & OKC, of course. (Noah’s giving the team a solid 15 a night and Rip Hamilton another 13.5.) Once Rose returns, who knows?
One thing’s for sure — we’ll learn a hell of a lot more about this team in the next few weeks, with a home game against Boston on Monday, followed by a West Coast trip that won’t have the Bulls back at the United Center until four days after Thanksgiving.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.