When the Bulls traded Luol Deng to Cleveland for Andrew Bynum and draft picks, the talk shows intimated the Bulls were tanking and trying to get into the lottery of the NBA Draft. Even the Bulls own management acknowledged the Bulls window of opportunity had closed for a 2014 championship run. While the Bulls are still unlikely to win their first title in 15 years, they have stepped up their play without Deng. After a 5-9 December, the Bulls are now 6-1 in January. All but two of those victories have been since the Deng trade.
Tom Thibodeau has settled on what has basically become a fairly tight eight man rotation since Deng was traded to Cleveland. Joakim Noah, D.J. Augustin, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Carlos Boozer, Kirk Hinrich, Tony Snell and Taj Gibson have all stepped up their games.
Snell is probably the biggest surprise. Thibs generally doesn't like playing rookies, but the guard from New Mexico has shown continued improvement as the season has progressed. Snell has had an up and down January, but he has shown marked improvement in the last two games. In a loss to Washington and a triple overtime victory over Orlando, Snell has put up 13.5 PPG, made 11 of his 21 field goal attempts, five of his nine three points attempts and had four steals and nine rebounds.
Six of the eight men in the rotation have averaged in double figures since the trade. Joakim Noah was cleared affected the most by the trade. He refused to speak to the media for the first five days after the trade. He finally broke his silence after the Bulls victory January 11th over Charlotte. Noah said to USA Today's Sean Highkin " I'm not mad at anybody. I'm not mad at the organization or anything like that. It's just that my brother isn't here, so I just need time to digest that."
Noah has been a beast since Deng's departure and is making a strong push for a second straight all-star game. He has put up 15.0 PPG, 15.0 RPG (4.4 ORPG), 5.2 APG, 1.4 SPG and 1.8 BPG in the five games without Deng. Those are all big improvements over his season averages. Noah has clearly become one of the NBA's best Centers.
The other six players in the rotation have all put up better numbers with Deng gone. Augustin was a good signing and seems like a better fit in Thibs style of play at the point than Nate Robinson was last year.
The Bulls currently sit at 18-19 and sixth in the Eastern Conference standings tied with Washington. As crazy as it might seem, the Bulls are only one game out of the fourth seed and a game a half out of the third seed. In an extremely down year in the East, winning a round in the playoffs is not far fetched.
More moves might be ahead. Dunleavy and Hinrich are the two players most likely to be moved, unless someone would be willing to take on Boozer's contract.
The remaining 45 games should be interesting.
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