Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Checking in with the Bulls

Thibs gets the most out of his team
After last night's trouncing of the Atlanta Hawks, a win the likes of which I haven't seen from the Bulls since they pummeled the Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals, the Derrick Rose-less Bulls find themselves only 1 game back in the Central Division and only 3 games back in the Eastern Conference. It's crazy to think that this team, which many expected to barely keep their head above water while Derrick Rose was out injured, is only games away from the number 1 seed in the conference. When you consider how poorly they've played at home, and how truly bipolar these Bulls are, it's a testament to the leadership on the team, the coaching of Tom Thibodeau, and the ability of the Bulls (even with their new players) to work together on both ends of the court to play well enough to position themselves for a great sprint to the finish once Rose returns.

 Like everything we've seen in the past few years from Thibodeau's Bulls, these Bulls do it together. It's a veteran group that relies on effort, hustle, and defense. Gone is the old Bench Mob, replaced by one that after struggling early in the year has really come on strong as of late. I've loved watching Nate Robinson lead the new Mob, and Marco Belinelli has been absolutely terrific in his role as the sharp shooter off the bench. Jimmy Butler has been given much more confidence from Thibs than last year and has shown the aggressiveness we've needed from him and some great athleticism as well. We're going to need his ability to create off the dribble as his game progresses in the future.

The bench, in particular Belinelli, Butler, and Robinson, has been even more important as the veterans counted upon by Thibs - a coach we all know relies heavily upon his vets - have gone down time and again with injury. Kirk Hinrich and Rip Hamilton have spent a majority of the season dealing with injuries that have severely curtailed their effectiveness. We haven't seen the same Hinrich, even when healthy, that we grew accustomed to when he played in Chicago. It'll be interesting to see where the Bulls go with Kirk once Rose gets back. I thought before the season that Hinrich would be a perfect energy/defense/leadership guy off the bench once Rose was back, but now his ability to stay healthy (or lack thereof, really) has me thinking that Robinson will cut into Kirk's minutes even if he's healthy. Robinson's contract was guaranteed for the remainder of the season, and Thibs seems to love his energy, hustle, and knack for making big plays and will take it even if it means dealing with his streaky play. As for Rip, rumors have the Bulls trying to unload him on any team willing to take a flyer on the guy, who can never seem to stay healthy and even when he is hasn't played well. In his 1.5 seasons with the Bulls, we haven't seen anything from the Rip Hamilton that has succeeded for years in the NBA, and it's hard to argue against claims that he's over the hill.

The Bulls have succeed notwithstanding these weaknesses because of strong play up front. Joakim Noah is having a career year, averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds but more than that, looking more active and consistent offensively. Bulls fans already love the way he plays, with heart, passion, and energy in every game, but he's stepped it up to become a much more well-rounded player this year on both ends of the court. He's helped step up and fill the leadership void left by Rose, and I really hope he gets his first All Star nod this year. It's also helped to see Luol Deng come off a long offseason where questions regarding his health, combined with his decision to play in the Olympics, led many to wonder how successful he would be for the Bulls this season.

But the real catalyst up front has been Carlos Boozer. For the last few weeks, and really, a substantial portion of the season, Carlos has played like he was supposed to when he originally signed with the Bulls. He's been much more aggressive on the offensive end, which is what we've all hoped for from him since the beginning. He often had the ability to post up his man or try to take him to the basket but settled for his rainbow jumper too frequently. Now, he's being aggressive to the point where he can effectively mix in his jumper and still incorporate his post moves, making him a much more versatile (and thus dangerous) player. 

Bulls fans anxiously await Rose's return
He's even improved on defense. Now, I don't think Carlos will ever be what we would consider a "good" defensive player, but at this point we're not even asking that from him. We have Noah to take over the post defense. What we wanted from Carlos was the ability to complement Joakim defensively to shore up that side of the defense. He still makes his fair share of errors, but he seems to be rotating better and not letting the player he's guarding post him up too easily. Even more than that, his rebounding is up to the point where he's nearly averaging a double double. It's crazy to think about, considering where he's been for the Bulls the past couple years, but Carlos has been, quite frankly, the key to the Bulls' success this year.

The most important thing, though, is what all this means for the Bulls going forward, once Rose returns. That's the entire thought process of the organization, and what every thing should be pointed towards. We seem to be getting daily updates on Rose, whether he's now dunking, or now absorbing contact, or how he added ten pounds of muscle. All of that is just filler until he actually does return. Only then will we have an idea how this Bulls team will function with their best player. We all too often focus on how Rose will perform individually when he returns, and that's important. How he cuts, his athleticism, his speed - all of the things that made Derrick Rose who he is will be under the microscope to see if we really are going to get the same dynamic player back. But I'm just as interested in the lesser-discussed topic of how Rose will fit into this team. How will the Bulls deal with their best player returning? What impact will that have on the roles and performances from the guys on the team now in the context of how this particular season has progressed?

Obviously, Rose can only make the team better. We're still an inconsistent NBA team because of those nights where we struggle for offense. Hell, we were that team even when Rose was healthy. But even with the ups and downs of the team this year, it's encouraging to see where the team sits in the standings as they hold the line for their MVP to return. Just as we hoped, the veteran Bulls are stepping up to fill Rose's void sufficiently enough to be a good playoff team without him. We can only hope that they keep up their level of play when Derrick returns, we see at minimum flashes of the D Rose we know and love, and the Bulls are positioned to make a run deep into the Eastern Conference. For a season where many had low expectations, the Bulls are in a great position. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

BULL DOWN!!!!! From S.H.