It’s only Tom Thibodeau’s third year coaching the Chicago Bulls, but my goodness has he made an impact. His first year warranted NBA Coach of the Year honors, and though his franchise cornerstone, Derrick Rose, went down with a torn ACL 9+ months ago during the first game of the 2012 playoffs, Thibodeau finished 2nd in 2011-12. And even though Rose has yet to suit up for one dribble this season, many consider Thibodeau the favorite to win the award once again.
Chicago, an unreal 29-19 headed into Thursday’s games (all things considered), has the league’s No. 3-ranked defense, surrendering only 91 points per game, and the 5th-ranked unit in total rebounding. Thibodeau is able to get so much out of his guys defensively; even on an injury-hampered lineup (only Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Nate Robinson have appeared in all of the team’s 48 games), the Bulls are No. 2 in opponent’s field goal percentage and No. 4 in opponent’s 3-point percentage. And Chicago’s grinding it out — their 93.6 points per game offensively (and turtle-like offensive style) ranks 25th in the NBA.
With Gibson, Carlos Boozer and All Star reserves Joakim Noah and Luol Deng in their frontcourt, Chicago is as strong as anyone. Deng (40) and Noah (38.6) both play more minutes than they probably should, given Chicago’s inability to replace Omer Asik, a free agent departure to Houston this offseason, as the backup center. Even with Noah and Boozer out recently due to injuries, Thibodeau has been reluctant to give Nazr Mohammed, 6.2 minutes per game in 33 appearances, huge minutes, meaning smaller lineups and vulnerabilities in the paint. Against Brooklyn on Feb. 1, minus Boozer and Noah, that meant losing the rebounding battle 40-29 and getting torched late by Andray Blatche in the paint, and against Indiana, a similar team makeup, on Feb. 4, with Noah out and Boozer only playing 23 minutes, that meant being out-rebounded 47-35 and giving up 29 to David West.
The Bulls have plenty of things to be happy about, though. Nate Robinson, playing on a steal of a 1 year, $1.15 million deal, is your reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Noah continues to develop into the defensive cornerstone everyone thought he could be, and sophomore SF Jimmy Butler, 23, is looking more and more like a piece GM Gar Forman could build around Rose. All the Bulls’ key components are locked up through at least 2013-14, when Deng’s $14.3 million comes off the books. The only downside is Chicago’s already hovering around the luxury tax level for 2013-14, with $73 million committed. And Boozer’s $15.5 million per (the team’s one really bad contract), on average, doesn’t expire until the summer of 2015, unless amnestied. So the Bulls, for better or worse, are all but locked into this core.
Back to this year. The bottom line is no team, Miami being the exception, is feared more in the East than the Bulls. That Chicago’s been able to hold down the No. 4 seed in the conference, minus their franchise player, has to be one of the stories of the year. If Rose returns at even 70% of his past MVP levels of productivity, this offense is going to get the jolt of scoring, attacking and distributing it’s missing.
Assuming full health, the Bulls currently have 9 guys averaging 7 points or more per game — Deng (17.2), Boozer (15.7), Noah (12.1), Robinson (11.8), Rip Hamilton (11.1), Marco Belinelli (9.7), Gibson (7.6), Butler (7.3) and Kirk Hinrich (7-even). And with Rose’s burst back on the floor, defenses are going to have to respect his driving ability, meaning more open jumpers for their outside shooters.
Chicago’s 8 road losses in 22 games are the fewest of any team in the Association this season, and the Bulls have already converted W’s twice in New York and once in Miami. Chicago’s 23-9 mark within the Eastern Conference is the best winning percentage (among East teams), with 3 more measuring-stick games against Miami on the schedule. The point: Chicago doesn’t fear going anywhere once the postseason starts.
Sure, there are a few hiccups in the stat sheet. Chicago’s tied for 18th in 3-point percentage, 22nd in field goal percentage and tied for 13th in free throw attempts, a stat that certainly will change with a healthy Rose. Of course there’s a number of ifs here, mainly with the 24-year-old Rose, whose status the Bulls aren’t exactly screaming from rooftops. And what’s the rush? Chicago’s not going to jeopardize its $95 million investment for one fluke playoff run.
But if all signs are indeed a go, the Bulls should be on everyone’s radar.
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