It's been an up and down season for the Chicago Bulls. It seems like days after I wrote an article proclaiming them favorites to win the whole thing, they went through a 5-10 stretch that makes us wonder if they'll even make it out of the first round.
They won four straight heading into the all-star break, including a blow out win against the rival Cavaliers to steady the ship. So taking stock of the Bulls right now, how good are their odds, and what needs to happen to win the title?
Derrick Rose needs to continue to improve
Perhaps I haven't been patient enough with Derrick Rose. He started the season two and a half years from the ACL tear and 11 months from the meniscus tear.
I figured that physically he was about as good as he was going to get and that having a full off-season and world championship practice would be enough that he'd hit the season without that much rust to shake off and probably close to as good physically as he was going to get.
In the first game of the season, it looked like that might be the case, but an injury in game two against the Cavs seemed to slow down his progress considerably.
Derrick Rose hasn't roared back onto the scene like Russell Westbrook did when he got hurt, but instead, he's slowly worked his way back. Though there have been ups and downs, his play has steadily improved.
Against the Cavaliers, in the final game before the all-star break, he showed us the MVP Derrick Rose gear is still back there waiting to be unleashed. For the rest of the season, Derrick will need to work on unleashing that gear more frequently and prove he can do that every game in the playoffs.
Rose has looked considerably better with rest days, particularly multiple rest days. The good news for Chicago is that there's a minimum of one day off between every playoff game, so Rose shouldn't have any of these super fatigued days. I'd imagine that his body will continue to adapt to the load by the playoffs as well.
Beyond what Rose does for himself, he needs to improve his chemistry with Jimmy Butler. Subjectively, it feels to me like Butler and Rose have not found much chemistry where they take advantage of their play together. It still feels a bit like Wade/LeBron early in their first season together where one guy dominates or they take turns, but don't have much two man action.
Much like Wade/LeBron, the fact that neither guy is a reliable three point shooter limits their action together. The Bulls need to find a way to maximize their value in order to maximize their odds.
What have we got in Jimmy Butler?
Jimmy started off the season like an MVP candidate. He left the Bulls for bereavement and went into a multiple week funk. It seems like those two things may have been related.
He's emerged from that shooting funk recently, but the book is still clearly out on him as a great player. Teams are now attacking him differently and sending more attention his way. This is a great thing for Rose/Gasol/Dunleavy, but the scenario reminds me of Paul George getting off to an ultra hot start then finishing on pedestrian shooting percentages once the league adjusted.
I think Butler may be similar in that after the league adjusts, he's just not going to be one of those guys who can fight through the double teams and extra attention to score. Instead, he'll let his numbers dip a bit and focus on taking quality shots and moving the ball.
That's fine, and while I think this Butler season was more all-star deserving than anything Luol Deng ever put up, I'm not sure Butler's really fits the true secondary scorer mold in terms of creating his own shot that you'd expect from an all-star caliber player.
How do the Bulls maximize Gasol?
Gasol still reminds me of 1st year Boozer. He's a guy who absolutely feasts on match up advantages, scores in volume, helps you on the glass, and kills you on defense.
Gasol's worked his efficiency up a few ticks from earlier in the season when he was scoring a bunch simply by shooting a lot and is now quite respectable in the TS% area.
The Bulls really go as Gasol goes more so than any other player. If you look at his win/loss splits they're ridiculous. His TS% in wins is 59.1% and in losses is 48.1%. His offensive rating is a 118/102 and defensive rating is a 98/110. Effectively, we're saying in wins Gasol's contributing 16 points better per 100 possessions on offense and 12 on defense giving a total of a 28 point swing between wins and losses in his effectiveness per 100 possessions.
That's an eye popping difference. I'd really like to see Chicago get Gasol's minutes down closer to the 30 mark for the rest of the season in preparation for the long playoff run. We need him healthy rather than worn down, but let's be honest that simply won't happen.
Beyond that, Gasol simply needs to continue playing how he's played recently, for all my complaints about his defense when he's playing poorly, his offense fits in awfully well with everyone. He's an excellent passer, quality jump shooter on the pick and pop, and has done well in the post.
The Bulls can use him in a huge number of ways to hurt teams and that gives them the opportunity to mix up lots of different looks for their opponents to keep them on their toes.
Joakim Noah needs to continue round into form
Noah's defense has really started to pick it up lately. His energy looks much better, and he's starting to look much healthier on the court. Chicago needs to hope they don't have a set back with Noah, because when healthy he still drives their defense.
Beyond that, Noah needs to prove he can score in some way. Right now, the book on Noah is you take whomever on your team that can't guard a rock and stick him on Joakim.
Team's can guard Noah with anyone. Right now, I'd think you could stick a SG on him on defense and not get hurt. This leaves opponents with a tremendous advantage in terms of matching up against Chicago because they can go big or small with Noah on the court without fear.
Joakim started off the season nailing that mid range jumper, but it has completely abandoned him recently. He's had an awful year finishing at the rim, and he's really struggled to get much of anything done on offense at all.
The good news is that the trend is improving. The further good news is the Bulls don't rely on Jo for much offense. If Noah can simply take advantage of the times he is left alone to hurt opponents and do enough that teams have to honor his presence (or simply dominate the offensive glass even if he doesn't score much) then Chicago becomes much tougher to defend.
Snell or Hinrich
The rest of the bench is pretty straight forward (see below), but the intriguing scenario is what do you do with Tony Snell and Kirk Hinrich going forward.
Hinrich's turf toe came at the wrong time for Chicago, at least if you wanted to see what Snell has. The Bulls got a glimpse of Snell playing big minutes, and it was pretty awesome.
I assume Hinrich will be back on Friday, and the Bulls will have to choose between playing Snell or Hinrich as the back up SG. I don't really like either player all that much at this point, but you have to go with Snell.
I love to use this example, knowing what to do in your head and having the ability to execute it are two different things. I believe Kirk still knows all the right things to do in his head, but his body can no longer execute.
If you don't believe these things are virtually 100% separated go play a sport which only ever requires one hand with your off hand (pool, bowling, tennis, etc..). You can still know what you're doing, but if you are good at one of those sports and play with your off-hand, you'll likely be a complete train wreck.
That's where Kirk is at right now, the physical tools just aren't good enough anymore. Tony Snell's physical tools are right where they need to be, and he's progressed enough mentally that he should always have the advantage over Kirk.
Shooting wise, Snell's been on a tear, but I'm skeptical he keeps it up. However, defensively, Snell's making good choices and has the length and athleticism to make those good choices have a big impact. I do trust him to continue to play well on that end of the court. That's one more end than Hinrich has.
Will Thibodeau see this? I fear not. I think this is one of those cases where his perception of Kirk will get in the way of the reality of Kirk. People are slow to change their perception to match reality when things change slowly around them.
The Bulls will still likely need Hinrich at points this season due to injury or providing more rest, but he shouldn't be part of the primary rotation anymore.
Mike Dunleavy simply needs to remain a threat. Aaron Brooks we simply pray continues to do what he's been doing. I'd love to see Taj Gibson pass the ball out of the post occasionally, but he's been solid.
Nikola Mirotic needs to remove the Europump fake from his game and simply shoot the ball, but I don't suspect the Bulls will rely on him much. They need to keep him at the big man spots if using him in the playoffs whenever possible.
I've given up any hope Doug McDermott will contribute which isn't so terrible given that he's a rookie, but I bet he'd have something positive to add if given a chance.
Can the Bulls win it all?
Even after that awful stretch I think they still have enough talent to be in the contender range. They've proven they can beat tons of good teams at home and on the road.
According to the Sagarin rankings, the Bulls are the third best in the league against both the top 10 an the top 16.
Chicago hasn't had a lot of continuity. They've had to mix in a lot of new players all at once with Gasol coming to the team, Rose returning after two years, Butler stepping up, and Joakim slowly recovering from injury.
This whole season looks like it will be about building up that chemistry for the stretch run, but if they can stay healthy and everyone hits their stride the bulls are still one of the most dangerous teams in the league.
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