Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What's Behind this Bulls Funk?

The problem with the Bulls right now, who just lost consecutive games for the first time in the regular season since February of 2011, is more than just missing Derrick Rose. It's more than just missing Rip Hamilton. No, the problems behind the Bulls' recent funk are deficiencies in the very traits that make them such a successful team - defense, energy, depth, and effort. The sources of the problem could have come from a multitude of areas, from the compressed schedule of a lockout season to the comfort of being on top of the standings all year. Regardless of the source, however, the Bulls will need to get it together to make a stretch run until the playoffs start in three weeks.

Bulls' losses are more than just Rose's absence
Of course, getting Derrick Rose back will help. The Bulls are 14-7 without D Rose, which is remarkable considering that he is the fuel that drives the entire Bulls team. To be sure, the Bulls have pulled off some epic wins, especially against Miami and a thrashing of Orlando, without Rose, but when the game slows down and the Bulls need someone to make a play, Rose isn't there to do it. He just brings another element to the team and eases the pressure off everyone else. This is understandable considering his role as reigning MVP and best player on the team, but all too often we get caught up (myself included) in the collective success of the Bulls without him and start launching hyperbole about how the Bulls can win the title without Rose. Quite simply, they cannot. The Bulls need Rose to even make it through the first couple rounds of the playoffs, let alone the title. We saw this last year when the Bulls struggled to create offense for stretches of a time with Rose in the playoffs. What concerns me is that Derrick hasn't started really even running yet. In a recent interview he said he "hoped" he would be back before the playoffs. I think, and hope, that he will, but as it creeps closer to the start of the playoffs and Derrick continues to miss games, it has to be alarming. One has to hope that Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls are just being extra cautious.

But what about the rest of the team? How can a team that played so well together in most of the 21 games that Rose has missed this year look so bad the past few games? First, you had the monstrous blowout against Oklahoma City that was alarming for various reasons. For one, the Bulls, and their fans, seem to be focused on Miami right now. Beat Miami, Beat Miami, Beat Miami. But if the Bulls beat Miami, they still might have to face an Oklahoma City team in the finals that blew the doors off the Bulls on Sunday. And it wasn't just Rose being out. The Bulls defense looked slow, lazy, flat, and unenergetic. For a team that prides itself on coaching and getting up for every game, it's amazing to me that they couldn't come out strong against arguably their biggest competition for the title this season. When you combine that with the loss last night against Houston, where the Bulls looked like their old selves in the first half but proceeded to fall flat on their face in the second half, there is some reason for concern.

I understand that in the NBA's ridiculous 66 game schedule it's going to be difficult to get up for each game. The NBA should have limited the season to 60 games and given teams more time to rest in between games. This also would have allowed teams to actually get practices in. Think some practice time would help a team like the Clippers, who have fallen hard after a great start? Granted, their fall may have more to do with Vinny Del Negro as their coach, but really, if they, and other teams had time to practice and gain some chemistry, the season would have been better off for it. In this way, it would also give the Bulls time to iron out some of the kinks they're going through now while at the same time giving them rest to get up for each game.

Thibs can't be happy right now
What concerns me about the past few games is that the defense and team play has looked so poor. One of the cornerstones of the Bulls' success comes from defense, something that Thibs is known for. Thibs preaches discipline and effort on defense, and oftentimes that wins above all else in securing solid defense from your team. In the past few games, the Bulls have offered neither. Against OKC, you saw lazy transition defense, bad rebounding, horrible close outs on defense, no help from anyone, and a general apathy that we haven't seen from this team since Thibs was hired. You can tell that Thibs let his team know how upset he was by the OKC blowout, because the Bulls came out and played inspired basketball for the first half against Houston last night. But after half time, it all fell apart again. There was no effort, no energy, no defense. Really, there was a feeling that the Bulls just gave up.

So what does this all really mean? Can we chalk it up to a mini-funk that all good teams have in the regular season? Can we blame it on the bad schedule? Or is there something more to it? Well, the Bulls have a couple days to figure it out before their next game. You have to think that Thibs is going to get on these guys. Having Rose out hasn't been used as an excuse yet and it certainly shouldn't start to be used right now. The Bulls can take the #1 seed in the East without Rose. All they have to do is play consistent defense, illustrate that collective energy and depth that has made the Bulls so special this season and last, and try to execute and make shots on offense.

The Bulls must return to their great collective effort
The return of Rip Hamilton, aka Mr. Glass, should help. I'm surprised he didn't get hurt last night. But in all seriousness, he brings an element that the Bulls have been missing all season. Of course, he didn't play well last night, but still, he could bring a spark to a Rose-less team that sorely needs it. This is because while the Bulls have succeeded so well on defense for most of the latest stretch without Rose, their weaknesses on offense are being exposed. Without Rose in the lineup, the Bulls become a primarily jump shooting team. I understand that Hamilton is himself primarily a jump shooter, but he's a good one at that and is known for his tireless efforts in moving without the basketball. The players that can drive to the hoop, like CJ Watson, Ronnie Brewer, and Luol Deng, are either struggling mightily or limited because of injury. In Deng's case, he's been relegated to shooting jumpers lately because of his wrist injury, which defenses know limits him to attacking the basket from his right and can thus force him to try and go left. Watson's struggles have led to him being supplanted for stretches at a time by John Lucas, who for some reason feels he needs to take a shot at least once every two possessions. And Brewer has been so ineffective lately that he's lost his starting role (which he only gained while Rip was out) to Kyle Korver. Brewer should stop worrying about jump shots right now and use his great athleticism and amazing ability to work the baseline to be more effective on offense.

So really, the problems are everywhere. They're definitely problems that can be figured out this season, especially when you have a coach like Tom Thibodeau, and the Bulls can skate by until Derrick gets back as long as they play good, solid defense. But once the playoffs come, this kind of funk on offense alone won't cut it. We're going to need a healthy Derrick Rose to be supported with some offense from the likes of those above. We're going to need Joakim Noah to continue to play with energy and rebound well, even if his offense isn't there (well at least whatever offense is ever there). And we need the tagteam of Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson to continue to play as well as they have lately. If we don't, and the Bulls play flat on defense or struggle on offense the way they have lately, it's going to be an undeniable challenge to not only get out of the East, but win the title altogether. I have a feeling that this Bulls team can come together like they always have. We'll see Thursday night as one of the hottest teams in the NBA, Boston, arrives in Chicago. Here's hoping that the Bulls use this opportunity for some serious slump-busting.