How close are the Bulls to a title?

How close are the Bulls to a title?

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.

Everyone else?

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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  • Yes, Bulls can win it all. Players need to stay healthy and play. Yes, no sprained ankles for Noah, as he is rounding into shape.

    Rose needs to work on finishing and get used to heavier minutes for the playoffs. Maybe you rest him a game here or there, but get him close to 40 min more regularly.

    Effort needs to increase and be consistent. 28 games left. Bulls will be heavy favorites in most. By my count there are 8 games against tough competition - Spurs, Hawks, Wiz, Cavs, Raptors, Clips, Griz. You can increase to maybe 10-12 if you include Detroit and a few other away games.

    Bottom line: If healthy, Bulls can go 22-6 the rest of the way if they just win most of the "easy" games. Bulls often show up against the NBA elite teams.

  • In reply to Granby:

    I mostly agree with you - but not on Rose at 40 minutes! In the playoffs, maybe. But right now, as Doug wrote, he does better with more rest. I would prefer to see Rose, Butler, and Gasol all at about 32 mpg until the playoffs.

    As you wrote, "effort needs to increase and be consistent"! Focus. Stay in the game mentally. Yes!

  • In reply to rustyw:

    Well, not 40, but close to it is what I said. He does need to be ready to go 40-42 min for game one of the playoffs and he can't just make the jump from 32 mpg, that's for sure.

    I think Thibs needs to pick his spots for rest and big minutes here and there. Maybe no more back to backs for Rose and sometimes even for other players.

  • The Bulls for too much of the season have looked anything but championship worthy. Two of their core players in Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah were shooting with poor over all efficiency. As a team they are shooting 44% which again is hardly championship caliber. That said, there have been times where Rose has looked good and the team looked impressive offensively. Though the defense has been sub par and beyond at times especially on the pick and roll. Their once vaunted D rating has dropped to 13th in the league. That's going to have to change soon if this team has any plans on winning a title.

    Usually you'll see teams who are going somewhere in the playoffs heat up post all-star break and especially down the home stretch in March and April. If the Bulls are going to be a contender then they will simply have to prove it by winning consistently and impressively.

    My biggest concerns are players being utilized in a way most beneficial for the team going forward. If Thibs reduces Tony Snell's minutes the first game back and/or after a poor shooting night etc. then it's likely his confidence and continued development could be hampered. Likewise Mirotic(and Aaron Brooks) were difference makers in winning games early on, but immediately following these displays they were basically benched with paltry minutes. This really hinders player development not to mention it's really not fair. Though I'm sure Kirk Hinrich enjoys the privileges of his American Express "Vet" Gold card with Thibs.

    Sure Jo will have to trade in his lead shoes for a pair where he can actually finish at the rim. And Derrick will have to continue to improve his efficiency while keeping an impactful scoring volume. Not to mention cutting down on the turnovers and providing consistent defense night in and night out. But to me the real keys are Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic. If these guys don't emerge as significant contributors then this team IMO has no chance of sniffing an NBA Finals. Thibs needs to cut back Gasol and Butler's minutes regardless and hand them over to Nik and Tony.

    If we go back to playing Dunleavy 30 minutes a game and Kirk 25 because Tony Snell and Mirotic have a couple of bad shooting games then the shortsightedness of Tom Thibodeau will truly get the best of this team. And if that does happen then he without doubt is an A to B guy aka will be gone after the season.

  • Side note: trade deadline looks just that for the Bulls as in dead as in nothing's happening. And probably that's for the best. Still, teams languishing partly due to poor coaching situations like Utah, Denver, and Orlando have valuable pieces begging for someone to snatch them up.

    Realizing money and core pieces would likely have to move so anything dramatic happening is almost nil. But a guy like a Mo Harkless who yes his numbers this year are terrible, but if ever a guy fit the profile of an NBA late bloomer with his exceptional athletic tools and signature college production of NBA legit guy, Harkless is it. He could be had for little as in could end up being a steal for somebody. Also Dragic, Kanter, and Ty Lawson are intriguing players yet all have obstacles that all but preclude obtaining them. It's too bad.

  • In reply to RoadWarrior:

    And you still have Gerald Green and Isaiah Thomas rumored as well. And of course Afflalo. I admit I have a bit of a trade jones, but admittedly the grass is always greener.

  • In reply to RoadWarrior:

    The biggest problem with bringing in new players, is that Thibs will not play anyone that is unfamiliar/unproven playing within his "system". The only good trade at this point in the season, is one that ships out Hinrich.

  • In reply to BullsMan:

    Just in case anyone thought that Thibs might change his mind on the POSdog, this just in from KC Johnson.

    K.C. Johnson@KCJHoop
    "Thibodeau said Bulls are 11-5 in games Hinrich plays over 30 minutes".

    Clearly, our only hope of never again seeing this mope is to trade him, well, other than death of course.

  • For all the Bulls flaws, I don't see any truly dominant teams out there. It's as wide open this year as any. The NBA Championship will be won by a flawed team.

    The keys are simply Rose and Noah. If they can play like their old selves, Bulls should be in the ECF with a chance to win it all. If they don't, they'll be bounced in the first or second round. Chemistry and bench development will be the difference between reaching the ECF and winning it all.

  • In reply to Roman F:

    I like that - the title will be won by a flawed team!

    The wild card this year, IMO, is Snell. The SG has been the missing piece. Snell plays good D, so if he can continue shooting, he should start at SG and Butler at SF. If all are reasonably healthy, that is a starting 5 title team.

    So, as Warrior wrote above, Snell needs to continue to see a lot of court minutes. And so do Mirotic and Brooks. Kirk no more than 10 minutes a game.

  • In reply to rustyw:

    I agree with you about Snell and Butler starting, but I don't think it matters in that case who starts where. I'm starting to believe that Butler is better in the guard position. If he is going against smaller defenders, he has a better chance of posting them up and over powering them. But I think that if they play together they will just go with the best matchups. That said, I'm sure Denleavey will start.

  • In reply to rustyw:

    I'd like to see Snell continue to contribute and take away Hinrich's minutes, but there's no way he's a starter in this year's playoffs, unless there's an injury. A contributing rotation player is a long way from where he was even a month ago.

  • The key will be tightening up that defense and rebounding. They don't have the firepower to win in a shootout so the physical defense identity has to come back. Good ole smash mouth basketball, chicago style. With 4 quality bigs, a superstar pg and one of the best two way shooting guards in Butler, this team should be contender material but the chemistry has been off and on. The second half run should tell us what kind of playoff team this will be.

  • The bulls have all the pieces in place for a serious playoff push. Even if they were having a magical season like the Warriors or Hawks it's impossible to predict that same team will win the championship as regular season success doesn't always equal playoff success. After several seasons of finishing atop the East and getting bounced in the 1st round my expectations have dropped considerably. My only hopes at the start of the season was that the team could make it to the playoffs fully healthy, Rose included. While it's been yet another injury riddled year, thankfully none of the injuries have been serious and Rose is still playing so that's a plus.

    Having said that I never anticipated Butler and Gasol to be having the kind of year they're having. I knew Butler would show improvement on his contract year as players always do, and with Gasol I was only expecting a serviceable backup big; But these guys are having all star seasons far exceeding everyone's expectations so that's another plus.

    I know I've gone on record saying the bulls aren't contenders so my apologies for sounding like a hypocrite, but in my defense I was basing my statements on how they were playing at that particular time but not as a whole. Anyone can see the potential is there, that's why they're still considered favorites by many. I have no doubt that Rose and Noah will turn it up in the playoffs, my only real concerns are team defense and developing our younger players. Mirotic, Mcdermott and Snell need to play more, our starters need to play a little less, and Hinrich shouldn't be playing at all. It also wouldn't hurt to lower Dunleavy's minutes more to give McDermott an opportunity.

    As far as competition goes I'm not really seeing any teams that pose that great of a threat. Even though the cavs got stronger with Masgov they are still weak downlow and that could be easily exploited in the playoffs. Furthermore Irving is no match for Rose. The Wizards are weak in the backcourt now that Beal is out, and Rose always dominates Wall. The Wizards are not this unstoppable force for the Bulls like some people make it out to be. Their only real threat is Nene and it's gonna take more than that in a seven game series. The key is Noah's health. The Raptors won't be as easily defeated as people think but still I give the bulls the upper-hand in that one as well. The only team that worries me is the Hawks because from what I've seen they look like the real deal. if nothing else it would make for a thrilling conference finals match to watch.

  • In reply to ajaychitown:

    As far as the Bulls are concerned, Washington is an unstoppable least until the Bulls actually go out and stop them; an accomplishment they have yet to achieve with any meaningful consistency.

    I agree that health will be a major factor in the Bull's post-season success, as will the permanent benching of Hinrich.

    You can also forget about McD getting any minutes this season, outside of garbage time.

  • In reply to ajaychitown:

    Something you wrote stuck with me... even if Rose can't beat opposing players like he used to, if he can still consistently beat players like Kyrie Irving and John Wall, I'll take that. I don't think he's there yet but I think that's the most you can ask for, that and cutting down on the turnovers and silly 3s, like he has lately.

  • "According to the Sagarin rankings, the Bulls are the third best in the league against both the top 10 an the top 16."

    I think they're actually the fourth: Atlanta (73.33%/73.07%), Golden State (66%/70.83%), Memphis (61.11%/60.71%) and then Chicago (60%/57.69%).

    But who's counting : )

  • Though Bulls wisely won't, one question in my mind is, "Will any team trade a 1st round pick for for UFA Afflalo?" Recently, teams have been getting burned trading 1sts for unrestricted free agents - i.e. lost the UFAs in the offseason with nothing to show for their 1st round pick.

    Now, at the all-star break, is indeed the first legitimate time to analyze Rose's comeback. Didn't we all know it would be a long up-and-down process?

    This is Thibs 5th season as Bulls head coach. The next 2-4 months will either prove or disprove the as yet unsubstantiated allegation that Thibs is a Top Coach.
    - Will Thibs improve the team and prepare it for the playoffs?
    - Can Thibs develop and meaningfully integrate Snell and Mirotic?
    - Will Thibs stop playing PG Hinrich at SG when he has 3 healthy wings - Butler, Dunleavy, Snell?
    - Will Thibs bring a rested Butler, Gasol, Rose to the playoffs?
    - In playoffs, will Thibs recognize matchups and quickly adjust? The great coaches not only recognize, but exploit matchups.
    - Will Thibs show us a level of awareness and sophistication we've not yet seen?

    The top coaches add something to the team in preparation for and during the playoffs. Thibs has never done this, he's been a regular season success and playoff underachiever. Will Thibs advance another step in his head coaching experiment?

  • Doug,
    Word is that Kevin Martin might get bought out. You may have your wish of adding him without having to trade for him.

  • Anyone interested in Goran Dragic, who is demanding a trade from the Suns? That would certainly eliminate any remaining excuse that Thibs has to play the corpsedog for even a single minute.

    While I doubt that Dragic has any desire to be Rose's backup, would getting him make us the favorites to win a championship?

    Huge risk, but he really is a completely different type of player than anyone on our roster. Should be able to play alongside Rose, or Butler or with both if Butler moves to SF.

    Who/what would we give up, Taj, our first, the Sacto pick. Dragic makes $7.5 million this season, with a player option that he will surely pass on for $7.5 million next season.

    So just like Afflalo if the 150% rule applies we only have to come up with $4.933 million in salaries if the Suns are willing to take draft picks. Would you give up both our pick and the Sacto pick to avoid giving up Taj.

    Not sure if the Suns would have any interest in Taj, but they are supposedly looking to move Plumlee also, so maybe we make it a bigger deal and get Plumlee to replace Taj. Taj, the corpsedog, and both picks for Dragic and Plumlee, maybe they throw in Gerald Green, I think that the money works either way.

    Would we rather have a guy like Dragic, or Afflalo, or Wilson Chandler?

  • In reply to BigWay:

    Dragic over Denver's guys. He should start and he would play his guts out for a chance at a ring plus a bigger contract in the summer!

    Well, both of those trades with the Suns are really interesting. No way I would give up the Kings pick and the Bulls 1st round pick for a rental of Dragic. Even if they were taking Kirk, Nazr, and Bairstow. However, if the team keeps the Kings pick, then yes.

    Double yes if the Bulls include Taj for Plumlee. Then include the Kings pick but keep the Bulls #1. Why? Plumlee is cheaper for a year, as I recall, plus he is younger and improving.

    Dragic will walk either way this summer. Be nice if he didn't, but that's a pipe dream.

  • In reply to rustyw:

    But we would have his Bird rights, so we could retain him if we are willing to pay him.

  • If healthy, the Bulls are all set as-is. However, should there be a great shooter available as a result of a buyout, I think the FO will be pulling the trigger. . Any other players added at this time would not make the Bulls better if assets have to be given away, other than LeBron or Kevin Durant.

  • Are we too optimistic here when we are one big man onjury

  • one big man injury away from being competitive in the playoffs and one PG playmaker away after Rose and Brooks who can give quality time on the floor. Do the Bulls have any set plays for anyone other than Gasol? Can our coach develop a bench thats playoff ready?

  • Am I being totally cynical or am looking at the team eyes opened wide? I see an aging Pau playing too many minutes, also. two healing bigs Noah and Gibson still healing from last year with no one to relieve them. Am I the able to see this.
    I see no experienced players on the bence who can play quality minutes during playoffs.

  • In reply to penwit1:

    This team went 13-2 to start the season. The team has taken down a lot of top 10 teams.

    Sure, if a key starter goes down, that 's it. Which team could endure that? Likely none.

    Rose and Noah get healthier; Butler, Mirotic, and Snell improve, and that is enough! If they get the SG/SF, so much the better.

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