The start of the Bulls 47th NBA season was filled with doubt. Derrick Rose, our hero & MVP, was out until at least mid-way through the year. There were questions surrounding the ability of Rip Hamilton, Joakim Noah, and Luol Deng to stay healthy. Carlos Boozer was as frustrating as always with his inconsistent energy and play. We lost four popular contributors of the famed “Bench Mob” – Kyle Krover, Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, & CJ Watson. We only drafted one player, Marquis Teague, who wasn’t expected to contribute much to this year’s team – the role Jimmy Butler played last year – and our free agent acquisitions seemed to be largely players who were aging journeymen, injury risks, or both: Vladimir Radmanovic, Kirk Hinrich, Marco Belinelli, Nazr Mohammed, Nate Robinson, & Daequan Cook. Oh yeah, and we still had Taj Gibson, who never rose up and challenged Boozer for minutes the way we all hoped he would.
It seemed the popular explanation was that GM Gar Forman, with limited salary cap room and knowing Rose’s return was anything but guaranteed, had chalked up this season to be a lost one. Well, maybe, just maybe, Gar knew a little bit more about talent evaluation and putting together an NBA roster than the rest of us.
When the season started it seemed as though our best case scenario was that if the Bulls could just hang around, be in contention – even if that meant a 7th or 8th seed – then Rose returning after the All-Star break would give us a chance, and we might just have a shot at a postseason run. As time passed, and Rose’s return was delayed more times than the release of Duke Nukem Forever, hope could have easily drained from the fans, from coach Tom Thibodeau, from the players. Instead, the Bulls have been a resurgent force, and though at times they tend to play down to their competition, they also step up when the pressure is on. Today I write this believing the Bulls could do well in the playoffs, and not just do well, but certainly be a team no one can look past or walk over.
With all but the 8th team decided in the Western Conference, let’s take a look at how the Bulls have played this year against the 2013 Playoff teams:
Miami Heat: 2-1*
New York Knicks: 4-0*
Indiana Pacers: 1-3
Brooklyn Nets: 3-1
Atlanta Hawks: 2-1
Boston Celtics: 2-2
Milwaukee Bucks: 2-2
*Bulls ended these teams double-digit winning streaks
The only Eastern Conference team the Bulls have a losing record against are the Pacers, which tells us why the Bulls are going to finish 2nd in the Central division. Season sweep against the Knicks, the #2 seed, and winning records against the Heat, Nets, Hawks, and a splits against the Celtics and Bucks (again, we tend to play to the level of the competition). Overall a 16-10 record against the playoff competition in the East. If the Bulls hang onto the #5 seed, we’ll likely play the Nets in the first round (but then have the Heat in the 2nd), but if they drop to the #6 seed, it’ll likely be the Pacers in the first round (but then have a shot at our whipping boys the Knicks in the 2nd).
Oklahoma City: 0-2
San Antonio Spurs: 0-2
Denver Nuggets: 0-2*
L.A. Clippers: 0-2
Memphis Grizzlies: 0-2
Golden State Warriors: 2-0
8th seed undecided: LA Lakers (1-1) or Utah Jazz (2-0)
*Bulls should have beat the Nuggets but got hosed by the Refs on the infamous goal-tending debacle.
Ouch. Well, what is there to say except the Western conference has almost completely owned the Bulls this season, save for Golden State and whoever gets the 8th seed, the Lakers or the Jazz. Unlikely if the Bulls do miraculously pull through and make the Finals, which would be like Christmas (and probably means that Rose comes back and plays in MVP form in the playoffs), that we’ll meet Golden State, the Lakers, or the Jazz there, so let’s just worry about the East first and focus on the improbable later.
I suppose as Bulls fans we got a little greedy the last couple of seasons with the #1 seed in the East and the best record in the NBA. We wanted it all, we wanted the trophy, and we wanted it now, and we got so focused on Derrick Rose and his ability that we kind of forgot that Forman and Thibodeau have assembled and coached up a pretty well rounded and competitive team, and they’ve done it with the one thing Thibodeau preaches day in and day out: defense.
Currently the Bulls rank 3rd in the entire league in Opponents Points Per Game, while ranking 28th in Points Per Game. In essence, the Bulls limit other teams to a points total that they can compete with. Let’s be honest, the Bulls do not score much, and a lot of that has to do with the constant turnover at SG and the lack of true shot maker with Rose’s absence, but the Bulls have not simply rolled over. They make opponents work for every single basket and they wear other teams down. They’re also 7th in the league in Rebounds, and 7th in the league in Assists. What the Bulls lack in pure scoring they make for it in hustle and grit, in team work and knowing their roles and doing their jobs. There may not be another team in the NBA who is accomplishing so much with so little “star power.”
Can the Bulls win it all? Realistically, probably not – but I have hope, and I have faith that even if the Bulls falter and exit sooner than later in the playoffs, they’ll be fun as hell to watch and they will leave it all out on the floor each game. That’s all you can truly ask for as a fan.