The Chicago Bulls have had an up and down season. Early on, they looked like they might be the favorite to win the whole thing. Then they went through a terrible stretch and looked like a team that might get bounced in the first round. They're closer to that last team than the first presently.
That said, the recent games with all the injuries mean Bulls fans can look past the most recent performance. Once the team is at full health, they have a chance to return to that team that we thought might have a shot at winning it all.
However, it will take more than a return to health to get it done.
Derrick Rose needs elite athleticism
It's one thing for Derrick to return from injury. It's quite another for him to play with the speed and athleticism of a superstar. We've actually seen that level of athleticism in just a handful of games this season and have seen injuries shortly after each of those games.
Derrick doesn't need to play like the MVP he was prior to the ACL injury all of the time. He doesn't need to dominate the ball like he used to. However, he does need to do it enough that he draws double teams and makes things easier on his teammates out there.
He does need to get the Bulls critical baskets at times as well.
Derrick needs to have his mental game back
It might even be more fair to say he needs to find out how he fits into this team in the first place, as we haven't ever really seen a good meshing of all of the pieces.
This is even more true when Derrick isn't able to attack with his full athleticism. Tom Thibodeau's offense has gotten more and more complex as there is more continuity with more options available for teammates. It puts the PG in a key position to make plays or pass out.
However, the offense also relies on the PG making decisions to attack or move the ball quickly. The offense relies on swinging the ball side to side to get the defense off balance when they try to overload the strong side of the court.
Derrick hasn't yet shown that he consistently makes good decisions in the offense. He often plays hero ball while attempting bad three point attempts because he's used to being the star or holds on to the ball too long.
The other problem is he will go into ultra deferral mode and remove himself as a threat from the offense. He brings the ball up the court and doesn't put any pressure on the defense by simply making a slow lazy pass to the other wing.
Beyond those negatives, we've also seen Derrick make great decisions in stretches where the majority of his shots are at the rim and he plays with a good mix of passing and shooting.
Much like the athleticism, the problem is these stretches haven't been the norm. Even in his bad stretches, Rose is vastly superior to his replacements and helps the Bulls win, but to win the championship he'll need to be play like his fewer great stretches rather than just be superior to Hinrich/Brooks.
The team needs to find continuity
While the injuries to Rose, Butler, and Gibson have allowed Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic consistent minutes to step up, they have also removed any opportunity for the Bulls to head into the post season with a sense of continuity.
The starters still haven't played that many games with all five of them on the court and haven't ever really established the offensive pecking order with each other. They haven't performed consistently as a group and play well beneath the sum of their parts.
The bench has been an even bigger hodge podge as players have been in and out of the lineup due to injuries in the starting lineup, injuries on the bench, and Thibodeau trying to find a back up two/three until Snell stepped up.
The Bulls have seen Nikola Mirotic become a dominant force, but they now need to figure out where/when to play him with a fully healthy front court. In my opinion, Thibodeau likely won't be aggressive enough with this decision and will either play him out of position at SF or not play him enough minutes.
In short, it won't be easy
It's hard to believe, but the Bulls are down to their final eight games of the season. They have one meaningful game against Cleveland and close with an Atlanta team that will likely rest everyone in the finale given they've already locked up the #1 seed.
Unfortunately, Rose isn't back yet, so they can't even begin the work on all of this. The latest reports have him to likely be cleared for full contact practice in the next week or so. He'll likely come back at the very end of the initial timeline laid out for his recovery [no surprise there], and there's still some chance he won't come back at all [which ends everything real quick].
I'll stick to the April 11th prediction from long ago which was the first game after the full six weeks elapses. That means the Bulls have three warm up games to try and solve the questions above and maybe four to six warm up games in the playoffs if they hang on to the three seed [or climb to the two seed] to draw a weak first round opponent.
If they fall to four to play Washington, then they'll need to bring their A game right at the start.
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