All season long it's been a three team race. Chicago, Miami, Oklahoma City. There may be a few other teams in the mix (Spurs, Lakers, and maybe a few more if you want to get real generous), but the cumulative odds of everyone outside of the big three are probably less than 10% in terms of winning the finals.
It's hard to look at the team with the best record in the NBA, and say things aren't going well. However....
Things aren't going well
Tom Thibodeau has been the MacGuyver of coaches this year. He's pieced together the best record in the NBA out toothpicks, duct tape, and a pineapple. The Chicago Bulls clearly have great talent, but they've been missing so much of it. They're managed to stay on top with the defending MVP of the league missing over 40% of the season.
Luol Deng has missed nearly 20% of the season as well and has played well beneath his ability level due to significant injury for half of it. Hamilton's been out for half the season. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah have remained healthy, but they've both been up in down in terms of play.
The Bulls have had nothing consistent to lean on this year, yet they've managed to piece together the best record in the NBA. Call me paranoid, but I have a San Antonio Spurs feeling about the playoffs this year. Not a "upset in the first round" feeling, but a "this team isn't as good as its record" feeling.
Last season, when the Spurs entered the playoffs, I thought they had no chance whatsoever of winning a title. They put together a great record, but I never felt they were dangerous to the good teams. Sadly, I'm starting to feel that way about Chicago now as well.
Time is simply running out
I believe Chicago has the will to win a title. I think they want it more than anyone else in the NBA. Their depth, chemistry, work ethic, and sacrifice is greater than their opponents. They have tremendous talent on top of those pieces as well. Unfortunately, they're lacking anything remotely resembling rhythm.
It starts with Derrick Rose. Since returning from a groin injury he's played three games and sat out two more with two different injuries (ankle and foot). He hasn't looked particularly great in any of the three games he played. The Bulls almost lost to Miami because he played, barely beat Detroit, and fell to the Knicks.
If Derrick Rose were at his peak, I think I'd jump onto the "Bulls are favorites to win this thing" bandwagon, but he's not at his peak. He's not close to his peak, and with very little time remaining in the season, the realization that he's likely never going to hit his peak in the playoffs is upon us.
We know for sure that Deng won't be 100%. Who could complain about the effort, minutes, and pain he's endured? No one. Deng's been a warrior, and I have nothing but appreciation for what he's sacrificed for Chicago this season. That said, he's not himself. He won't be until after surgery. His game is now limited. His shooting percentages are down, and he can't drive the ball as effectively.
Richard Hamilton has shown some spark lately, but has played big minutes just once since returning from his shoulder injury and still has a TS% under 50% on the season [really bad for those who aren't stat geeks] because he doesn't knock down threes or get to the free throw line to complement a fairly pedestrian shooting percentage from the field.
Hamilton can do a lot for Chicago at times, but he's built no chemistry with the starters he's expected to play with yet.
Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah have both been up and down. In general, both are having better seasons than last year in terms of the efficiency of their play. More assists, fewer turnovers, and slightly decreased scoring due to fewer shots. However, neither guy has been able to cement himself as a 4th quarter regular where Thibodeau is as likely to close the game the backups as the starters.
That's the Bulls starting lineup. Five guys, all with varying degrees of health or consistency problems and very limited chemistry playing together. If this team had a chance to gel at some point this year and ran into a tough stretch at the end, I'd feel better about their odds of piecing it back together when everyone is healthy. However, that hasn't been the case.
Depth is tough to build on in the playoffs
The Bulls greatest strength has been their depth. It's allowed Tom Thibodeau to weather the injury storm. The bench mob may have led them to as many victories as the starters this season. It's easy to say that the Bulls shouldn't change a thing when the playoffs start. Keep playing with the same depth and use it to their advantage.
The problem is that everyone else changes. No more are teams playing five games in seven nights. No more are the Bulls the freshest team on the court because they can run out two completely distinct quality five man rosters at their opponent. Teams can dissect each other's weaknesses now.
The bench mob won't be going up against the inferior bench of their opponents as much. They'll be playing against the starters, and while still capable of holding their own, they're unlikely to dominate those matchups the way they would against an opposing bench.
Depth loses a lot of value come playoff time.
All that said, plenty to build on
I don't want to go completely doom and gloom with the Bulls odds. Certain things need to fall into place for Chicago to win the title, but none of them are completely outrageous. Chicago is still sitting on the verge of having everything it needs to win the title.
1: Derrick Rose needs to get healthy enough to play at full speed.
2: The Bulls need to avoid further injury
3: The team needs to find a rhythm with their players prior to the ECF which is still about five weeks away.
None of those tasks are insurmountable, and while time is dwindling to find rhythm in the regular season, the Bulls can probably make it through the first two rounds while not playing their best basketball.
Championship teams are built on defense, rebounding, and timely scoring. Chicago owns the NBA in two of those three categories. If they can get timely scoring then they can beat anyone in the NBA. The Bulls have the 2nd best defensive rating in the NBA and the sixth best offensive rating. They're cruising along at an elite level in all aspects and have done it despite significant injuries.
Their bench and role players will be bolstered by carrying the team to victory, repeatedly, over elite teams this season. In a key situation, Chicago's role players should have more confidence and experience to carry the day than anyone else's.
If Chicago puts everything together, they'll be right in the mix. OKC and Miami are dealing with their own struggles down the stretch as well and have their own issues to answer as well.
Chicago has plenty going for it heading into the playoffs even if they aren't playing at their best right now.