It's almost hard to believe I am writing this Bulls playoff preview- first Derrick Rose tears his meniscus, and he's out for the season. Then Luol Deng gets traded for nothing other than draft picks on January 6, and a very vocal majority of Bulls fans were calling for the team to tank for a high pick in this summer's (allegedly) loaded draft.
The Bulls were 14-18 the day Deng was traded, and the pro-tankers seemed to have a point. Except for the fact that Thibs could take a D-League roster and go .500 in the NBA's Eastern Conference (and that's only a slight exaggeration). Joakim Noah surely wasn't going to let this team go into the tank, and he even famously said basically, pro-tankers weren't real fans.
Just to prove his point, Noah went out and became an MVP candidate (though a darkhorse with no chance to finish higher than 3rd) and basically a shoe-in for 1st Team All-NBA. And he led this team to a 34-16 record over it's last 50 games. Noah was unbelievable, giving the Bulls 13.7 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 6.6 assists after the Deng trade made this Noah's team.
He's 3rd in the NBA in rebounding over that time period, which you might expect. But he's 14th in the NBA in assists over the last 50 games, which is simply unheard of for a center in today's NBA. He's a lock for All-Defense, and many people's favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.
And most importantly, he's the reason the Bulls have a chance during these playoffs.
Point Guards: Kirk Hinrich vs John Wall
Wall has finally matured this season, making his first All-Star Game. His 19.3 points and 8.8 assists each lead the Wizards, and his elite quickness makes him very dangerous in the open floor. But it's his 3pt shooting that has transformed his game- he shot 202 total 3's in his first three seasons, making only 24.3% of them. This season, he attempted 308 shots from behind the arc and hit 35.1% of them.
Hinrich is the complete opposite of Wall, a hard-nosed defender who is at his best in a half-court, playoff setting. He's actually healthy this postseason, and he's a career 40.8% marksman on 3's in 50 playoff games. If the Bulls run their offense and Hinrich gets open shots, he'll make Wall pay. Still, he's no All-Star. Slight advantage to Wall.
Shooting Guards: Jimmy Butler vs Bradley Beal
Bradley Beal has become a dangerous offensive weapon this season- he's the Wizards' 2nd leading scorer (17.1), and he shoots 40.2% on 3's. He's not much of a defender, and Butler's ability to get to the hole and draw fouls could get Beal into foul trouble- especially since he's only 20 and playing in his first playoff series.
Butler still struggles with his 3pt shot, but his mid-range catch-and-shoot game is solid. He's an unbelievable iron man, finishing 2nd in the league in minutes per game after famously playing all 48 minutes in five of the Bulls' final seven playoff games last season. He has become one of the absolute best perimeter defenders in the league, plus he finished 4th in steals. His defense could be the difference in this series, as he can easily switch off to cover Wall when needed. Advantage Butler.
Small Forward: Mike Dunleavy vs Trevor Ariza
Ariza is an outstanding defender, and a 40.7% 3pt shooter. Dunleavy is a perfect Thibs player, not as quick as Ariza and not the defender overall, but he tied for 4th in the league by drawing 20 charges. And he shot 38% on 3's. If either of these guys get hot from behind the arc, they could be the difference in the series. Slight advantage to Ariza.
Power Forward: Carlos Boozer vs Nene
Nene is a year younger, but both of these players have seen better days. Nene was hurt and missed 29 games this season, and he's a poor rebounder and free throw shooter. Boozer has played more than 24 minutes in only 6 of his last 27 games since March 1, but he's still an outstanding defensive rebounder, which is always important in the playoffs. If he can bring some offense, he actually has the chance to be the difference maker in this series. But don't count on it. Slight advantage to Nene.
Center: Joakim Noah vs Morcin Gortat
Gortat is no joke- he averaged 13.2 points, 9.5 rebound, and 1.5 blocks, and he was 12th in the league in double-doubles. He's a very good defender in the paint, but if he's guarding Noah he'll have to give him the mid-range jumper, or else Jo will drive right past him with ease.
What more can you say about Noah? The first 10 pt/10 reb/5 ast player in 10 years. In his 24 games since March 1, he put up 13.9 pts, 10.7 reb and 7.3 ast, leading the league in double-doubles and triple-doubles. He finished 2nd in the league in triple-doubles overall, and missed by one or two points, rebounds or assists nine more times. Huge advantage to Noah.
The Wizards' bench is average at best, but Andre Miller can be dangerous with all of his playoff experience, and Martell Webster can shoot 3's with the best of them. Trevor Booker is a big body who can bang, but that's about all he can do. Drew Gooden can still score at a decent clip when called upon to do so, but his defense is even worse than Boozer's.
The Bulls' bench is basically Gibson and Augustin, not that you need much more in the playoffs. Gibson can play PF or C, and Hinrich can easily slide over to SG to play with DJ. Each has an outside chance at 6th Man of the Year- Augustin leads the Bulls in scoring, and his 41.1% on 3's is the best on either team, while Gibson plays starter minutes and averages 13.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. The Wiz have more depth, but the Bulls' depth is of a much higher quality. Advantage Bulls.
If it weren't for Popovich out in San Antonio, Thibs would be clearly be the best coach in the league. But don't sell Randy Wittman short, anyone who spent 5 years playing for Bobby Knight knows a little about coaching, especially defense. That being said, he's no Thibs. Big Advantage Bulls.
It should be a good series, as the Wizards have the best player in Wall. But the Bulls have incredible depth on offense, with 6 players averaging double figure points and Hinrich at 9.1 per game. The Bulls' balanced scoring, playoff experience and coaching should be the difference, but they did lose 2 of 3 games to the Wiz this season. Every game will probably be close, but I can't see the Wizards winning the series.
I really want to say Bulls in 5, but then I sound like too much of a homer.
Bulls in 6