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Bulls Limping But In Good Position At Midway Point Of Season

By Chuck Sudo in News on Jan 22, 2015 7:10PM

There was a lot of optimism with this year’s Chicago Bulls squad. Derrick Rose was returning after yet another season-ending knee injury. Joakim Noah had a breakout year. Jimmy Butler was progressing nicely. Signing free agent Pau Gasol gave them a power forward who could stretch defenses while playing underrated “D” and highly anticipated rookies Doug McDermott and Nikola Miroitc were being added to the fold.

We predicted a 55-27 record for this squad before the season began and listed some keys to the season. The Bulls crossed the midway point of the season riding a two-game losing streak, lost four of their last 10 games and sport a 27-16 record heading into tonight’s contest at San Antonio. That’s still good enough for first place in the Eastern Conference Central Divison, where they hold a four-game lead over the underachieving Cleveland Cavaliers.

Projected over an 82-game schedule, the Bulls would finish with a 51-31 record. For a spell in December and early January they played like the toast of the Eastern Conference but the surprising Atlanta Hawks, the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors are ahead of Chicago in the conference standings.

Let’s take a look at how the Bulls’ keys to the season have done so far.

Derrick Rose Stays Healthy - The former NBA MVP made early headlines more for what he said off the court than his in-game play. Rose drew scathing criticism from sports talk radio hosts, beat reporters and fans for his comments about looking toward the future and wanting to preserve his health for after he retires.

For the record: Rose isn’t wrong about being concerned. But his comments came at a time when he and the Bulls were being cautious about minor injuries that may have hampered his return from missing most of the past two seasons to knee surgeries. Rose began to put things together in December and, coincidentally, that’s when the Bulls were at their healthiest as a team and played their best ball of the season. Rose’s jump shot is still erratic but defenses still key on him when he enters the paint. But Rose also has offensive support and doesn’t have to carry the majority of the load these days.

Noah Stays Healthy - This is worrisome. Noah’s desire and energy are not in question, but the health is. Noah was already nursing a knee injury before the season started and will miss his fourth straight game tonight with an ankle injury. When Noah’s been on the court, he hasn’t meshed particularly well with Gasol and Noah’s passing—the strongest aspect of his offensive game—has been minimized with Rose’s resurgence and Gasol on the court.

Thibodeau - The Bulls recent lethargic play has led to renewed concerns that the Bulls head coach is driving his players too hard. NBA insider Chris Sheridan reported earlier this week that Thibodeau’s job is in jeopardy if he can’t right the ship. Thibs canceled practice after the Bulls Monday loss at Cleveland and held a meeting with players to clear the air. After the meeting, Thibodeau met the Bulls’ beat reporters and, like President Obama during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, essentially said he has zero fucks left to give.

The closed-door meeting is another sign Thibodeau has his eyes on the big prize; it isn’t a move he would have made with previous Bulls teams. How the undermanned Bulls respond will determine if he should give a fuck.

Let the Spaniards Play - And boy, have they! Gasol has been worth every penny of the deal the Bulls signed him to in the offseason and more. He’s been the team’s MVP in the first half, is averaging 18.7 points and 11.4 rebounds per game and is third in the NBA with 24 double doubles. He’s played power forward, small forward and center when Noah has sat out games and scored a career-high 48 points against Milwaukee two weeks ago.

Nikola Mirotic, meanwhile, has earned a spot in Thibodeau’s rotation courtesy of his offensive game and meshes amazingly well on the court at the three with Gasol at power forward and Butler at shooting guard. The Bulls’ injury woes have exposed holes in his defensive game and he’s fallen into an offensive slump, but he has enough talent and hustle to earn the trust of Thibodeau, who notoriously doesn’t play rookies.

The Bench Mob - When the Bulls were at their healthiest in December, Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich, Mirotic, Aaron Brooks and Doug McDermott helped form the deepest bench the Bulls have seen in a few years and offered Thibodeau offensive and defensive match-ups he never had previously. Those injury woes have forced Hinrich to start at shooting guard, moving Butler to small forward (where the Bulls have the least depth), while McDermott has become an afterthought.

If Gasol is the first half MVP, Jimmy Butler earns honorable mention for his quantum leap in play. Butler, who battled injuries last season, rejected a contract extension from the Bulls early in the season and proceeded to go on a tear on both sides of the court the likes fans haven’t seen since Scottie Pippen prowled the UC hardwood. Butler took a chance on himself and, despite slumping of late, may have played himself into a max contract offer with the Bulls or another team in the offseason.

The other major issue is a lack of defense. The Bulls are scoring better than at any time during the Thibodeau era (102.1 points per game), but they're allowing 99.7 points per game. That is unheard of for a Thibodeau-coached team and is the major source of the coach's headaches. You can almost guarantee defense was a subject at the closed-door meeting.