If we go into the way back machine, back to preseason, many NBA analysts would have put the Bulls, Pacers, and Heat as the top three teams in the East. With Toronto's lost last night, that's exactly where they are.
I don't even think the order is even that surprising going back to preseason. What is surprising is the overall weakness of the East, and the fact that the Bulls have done it without Derrick Rose and after trading Luol Deng.
While Chicago certainly has no chance to advance past Miami for the two spot, since the New Year, Chicago has played as well as pretty much anyone in the NBA. They've split games against the best of the East, picked up some quality Western Conference wins (GS, Dallas, Houston), and have comported themselves quite well.
The team, surprisingly, looks much better after the Luol Deng trade. I didn't think that losing Deng would kill Chicago, but I never imagined it would make them better. I mocked John Paxson for saying "You never know" in regards to the Bulls potentially playing better without Deng similar to the Raptors playing better without Gay.
Gay was an obvious team loser. The type of player who makes your team worse because he's selfish and low percentage. Deng's been trumped up as the ultimate glue guy. The guy who's impact goes further than his stats, but he hasn't helped Cleveland and the Bulls have thrived without him.
The dynamic of why the Bulls have done better without Deng is interesting, but I think it actually reflects poorly on the rest of the Bulls in some regards. The Bulls players are tough, they keep at it, they go with whatever they have, but they are also full of players who want to defer.
When Rose is here they all defer to Rose. This worked out pretty well in the regular season, but not so much against Miami in the playoffs. With Rose out, everyone started deferring to Luol Deng. This really didn't work out at all, because Luol Deng doesn't have the offensive game that anyone should defer to him.
With Deng gone, the next best player is Noah, but the Bulls aren't simply deferring to Noah on offense because we all know he can't score. However, they are putting him in position to run a lot more offense, and the result is the Bulls are running the system better. I suspect this will become a real problem in the playoffs when a team gets to match up against Chicago for seven straight games, but it's working well enough now.
Perhaps the one point that's surprising is that the defense doesn't appear to have taken much of a hit with Deng out. While I've always thought Luol was a bit overrated as a defender, Tony Snell offers relatively little at this point, and Deng certainly outdefends Dunleavy by quite a margin.
I think what it comes down to is that against most opponents a team really only needs one elite perimeter defender. The Bulls have one in Butler and a second good one in Hinrich. There really aren't any teams that are attacking on the perimeter from three different players, so having three great defensive perimeter players has a big diminishing return.
Tom Thibodeau will simply play Butler 48 minutes a night, so we don't need to worry about rest. Yes, that was sarcastic.
Anyway, in the short term everything is working out pretty well for Chicago, and surprisingly, the Bulls are pace to increase their win total from a year ago despite decimating their bench again this off-season. The mid-season signing of D.J. Augustin fixed that problem, but you'd still figure that losing Belinelli, Robinson, and Deng while gaining Augustin, Snell, and Dunleavy would be a pretty huge net negative.
Instead with 11 games left, the Bulls have 40 wins. Given that there's only three teams left on the schedule who don't stink, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the Bulls will surpass last year's 45 win total which brings us to the real question.
How legit are the Chicago Bulls when it comes to the playoffs?
At this point, I can't say I'd be surprised to see the Bulls get bounced in round one even though they'll be the favorites. As I noted, I think their present offense doesn't suit itself at all for the playoffs where teams won't fall for Joakim's high post pass to the basket to hit the player making a backcut by the third game.
That said, after watching the Bulls play the Pacers the past two games, I have to say, I'm not all that impressed by Indiana either. I think Chicago's best off sliding back down to the four seed to line themselves up against the Pacers. Miami may stink right now, Chris Bosh noted that they've be losing to sub .500 teams for a month and have no passion, but Miami has the switch that they'll likely flip once the games mean something.
I don't think Indiana has any such switch. Vogel runs the Pacers closer to how Thibodeau runs the Bulls. He wants his players to always be grinding and working and playing their hardest. He needs that number one seed [or at least feels he does] in the playoffs.
I think a Bulls/Pacers regular season game is a reasonably fair reputation of what to expect in the playoffs while a Bulls/Heat game is perhaps not, and while the Bulls split against Indiana most recently, the Pacers weren't really all that impressive in either game.
Paul George is having a magnificent season, but he's still not a true superstar, Lance Stephenson is still 50% bonehead, 50% awesome, and Roy Hibbert only looks like a stud because people only paid any attention to him when the Pacers were playing Miami who has no center.
The numbers don't lie, the Pacers are an awfully pedestrian offensive team, worse than the 2010/11 Bulls against even easier competition. Chicago's elite defense can slow these guys down and while I'd predict the Pacers to win a series against Chicago, I don't think it'd be a shocking upset if they lost.
The Heat on the other hand? Who knows? Maybe they can't flip the switch this time. It's worth noting that their team is also simply getting old. Haslem's basically fallen out of the rotation in decline, Allen's 38 and his PER has dropped to 12.8, Battier's 35 and his has dropped to 8.8.
That said, the big outlier for them is really Dwyane Wade. He's missed a crapload of games with planned rest due to bad knees but has played well when he's played. The real question at this point is whether or not Wade can really hold up for a playoff run. If all the rest has made him healthy enough to play in 25 or so playoff games then the Heat have an excellent chance at another title.
If Wade's quality of play dips down to crap without taking every third game off then the Heat will have a tough time flipping the switch. Personally, I'd still pick Miami to win the whole thing even if I'll take the field over them. As noted above, the Pacers simply aren't that scary and while the Bulls are playing their hearts out, I don't think any of us believe they'll really challenge Miami in the playoffs.
So how legit is Chicago? They're probably legitimately the third best team in the East and might be able to challenge the Pacers if they got the chance in round two, but that's about it. It's not as amazing as we'd like, it's not what we hoped in preseason, but I'll take it.
Perhaps the best news for Chicago after the last two seasons the reputational boost they get with free agents. Hey Carmelo, notice who your team didn't make the playoffs last year? Look which team is the three seed without Derrick Rose? What if it gets you and Derrick Rose back?
That type of argument goes pretty far and might push the Bulls to some interesting places next season. I don't think the Bulls will land Anthony personally, but if they do, then it will be worth remembering they'd have had no chance at it at all if they had tanked.
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