As the Chicago Bulls look to move past the devastating end to their season, let’s hand out some player and team awards.
Most valuable player: Luol Deng
While Derrick Rose is far and away the Bulls’ best player, it is Deng whom coach Tom Thibodeau has repeatedly referred to as the “glue” of the team. As Rose missed 32 games in the regular season and playoffs, Deng provided consistency on both ends of the court and was the versatile ironman who played heavy minutes night in and night out, averaging 39.4. The 26-year-old forward also put up 15.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game in the regular season, being rewarded for his presence as the second-best player on the squad by receiving the first All-Star berth of his career. Although Deng had three clunkers in the Bulls’ six-game first-round series defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers, he closed strong, combining for 43 points and 25 rebounds in the last two contests. But, for Deng, statistics don’t tell the whole story. He is a man who commands respect out of the players in the locker room, on and off the floor. Unlike last season when Rose was expected to shoulder a large chunk of the offensive load, the Bulls found a plethora of ways to win without their star point guard this time around. So, in some ways, it’s hard to pick the MVP out of this bunch, because they truly featured an all-around attack over the course of the season. Still, Deng was the most instrumental of the rest, and he did so despite nursing a torn ligament in his left wrist since late January. He symbolized what the Bulls are all about: Toughness and giving two-way effort.
Most disappointing player: Rip Hamilton
There were high expectations on Hamilton to fill Chicago’s void at shooting guard when the Bulls signed him early in training camp, but the 34-year-old veteran got injured four games into the season and could never stay on the court for an extended period of time until the final month. In all, Hamilton sat out 38 games due groin, thigh and shoulder issues. His averages of 11.6 points and 24.9 minutes were the lowest since his rookie season (1999-00). Hamilton showed some flashes in regard to meshing with Rose – the backcourt running mates’ best stretch of the season came in late January – but the duo didn’t get as many repetitions playing together as they would have liked. Some observers may want to point the finger at Carlos Boozer as the most disappointing player, but the forward was the lone Bulls starter who did not miss a game and dropped three solid playoff outings, including a 19-point Game 5 to stave off elimination, before shooting 1-for-11 from the field in Game 6. As the season wore on, Thibodeau’s trust in Hamilton appeared to deteriorate – and it was evident during the playoffs, when Hamilton sat out three fourth quarters and all but 26 seconds of another.
Most improved player: Taj Gibson
Gibson spent time improving his low-post moves and bulking up during the prolonged offseason, and all the hard work paid off in a big way. He and Omer Asik were the Bulls’ best defensive big men, wreaking havoc on that end when they were on the court together. Aside from Deng, Gibson was the Bulls’ MVP in the playoffs, as he averaged 9.5 points, 6.5 blocks and 1.7 blocks, leaving observers confident that his game is headed in the right direction. Now, the question that remains out there is whether Gibson should replace Boozer in the starting lineup – a valid argument based on performance. But as long as Boozer is in Chicago, he will be the starter because the Bulls have a ton of money invested in him.
Most surprising player: John Lucas III
In talking to Lucas a couple times before the season, it was clear how hard he works and how keen he is. He repeatedly told me that he would be prepared for any situation he’s thrust into and that he was ready to prove to everyone he belonged in the NBA. Indeed, Lucas stayed engaged and when Thibodeau called his number, he produced in key moments. With both Rose and C.J. Watson out for a 78-64 win over the Washington Wizards on Jan. 11, Lucas played 46 minutes as a starter and flirted with a triple-double, dropping 25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. The Bulls were depleted for most of the year, and Lucas was a lesser known player who stepped up when needed, including a signature 24-point performance in a March 14 106-102 victory over the Miami Heat in which he knocked down a critical fadeaway jumper over LeBron James. Needless to say, no one saw that coming.
Most in-season progress: Joakim Noah
Midway through January, Noah was hovering around seven points and seven rebounds per game, but he went on a tear the rest of the way and was a stabilizing force in the Bulls’ lineup. He impacted all facets of the game – as evidenced by posting a triple-double of 13 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a 110-91 drubbing of the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 22 – closing the season with averages of 10.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and a career-high 2.5 assists. Most impressively, Noah committed just 2.5 fouls per night. The 6-foot-11 center also delivered in the playoffs, but, unfortunately for him, he suffered a gruesome sprained ankle in Game 3 against the Sixers and was not able to play again in the series. Although Noah had a relatively healthy season, he admitted he needs to strengthen his ankles in the summer. He’s a hard worker and a guy the Bulls expect to make more strides next season, when he has a good shot at making his first All-Star team.
Best individual moment: Rose hits the game-winner over the Bucks.
For Rose, it was an injury-plagued season capped off by the torn ACL he suffered in the first playoff game. But his moment to cherish came in Milwaukee on March 7 when he drained a step-back 20-foot jumper over Bucks guard Brandon Jennings as the buzzer sounded, lifting the Bulls to a 106-104 win. It marked the first game-winning buzzer beater in Rose’s four-year career. In a season that lacked the usual amount of jaw-dropping plays by Rose, on this night, the 23-year-old’s star shined the brightest.
Best team moment: Going 18-9 minus Rose.
The Bulls didn’t reach their lofty expectations, but they all took pride in the fact that they went 18-9 without Rose this season – a culmination of the team’s dedication, commitment and discipline. They believed they had a chance to win on any given night, against any given opponent, no matter who was available in the lineup.