Heading into All-Star weekend, it only seems fit to take a look back on the incredibly eventful season the Bulls have had so far. Derrick Rose made his long awaited debut on opening day this year, but was only able to lead the Bulls to a meager 5-5 record. Rose, looking unexplosive and unlike himself, had just under 16 points and 4 assists per game in 31 minutes, with 3 rebounds to round out his unremarkable return to the NBA. There were still worries about Rose’s health, and the fear of another injury became a reality on November 22nd against the Portland Trailblazers. The Bulls struggled, to say the least, from that point forward. After that loss to the Blazers, Chicago wouldn’t see a record above .500 until February 11th, nearly three months later. The season has looked pretty messy so far, between Rose and Boozer injuries, and trading away Deng, who was the leading scorer for the Bulls. Although the trade was shocking and seemed outrageous, the Cavs haven’t benefitted from it due to illness, injury, and inconsistency on Cleveland’s part, but that’s a whole different story. Surprisingly, the Bulls weren’t devastated because of the trade. The Bulls were 14-18 at the time of the trade, and have pulled out 13 wins and only 7 losses since. This is partially because of how well the Chicago bigs have played in the months of January and February.
A little by-the-numbers action is in order; especially considering how well the Bulls’ sole All-Star Joakim Noah has played this past month and a half. The combination of Joakim Noah outperforming his averages and Taj Gibson giving full effort in extra minutes recently. With Boozer’s recent “minor calf injury,” Taj Gibson has played a little over 5 minutes more per game in the month of February, and these minutes have become increasingly important for the Bulls. Gibson, who averages 12.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.5 blocks on the season, has made full use of his added minutes. Over the last 7 games, Gibson has upped his points to 17.1 per game, rebounds to 7.8 per game, and 2.1 assists and 1.7 blocks to fill his stat sheet. Gibson has had 3 double-doubles since February first, with a notable . Noah, who, on the season, scores 11.9 points, has 11.5 boards, 4.4 assists and 1.4 blocks per game, has been on a tear since the beginning of the new year. Over his last 21 games, Noah has scored 13.4 points, grabbed 13.5 rebounds, dished out an outstanding 5.8 assists, and rejected 1.8 shots per game, pulling in 14 double-doubles since January 1st. Noah also had a triple-double against the Hawks with 19 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists on February 11th. Noah holds down the frontcourt for the Bulls, and Gibson has been fighting for the starting job over Boozer. Boozer, who has missed 6 of the last 22 games, is having an average new year, and Gibson has completely outperformed in his newly found role in the Chicago system. When I say Boozer has been average, it means exactly that. In the last two months, Boozer has averaged .3 more points, .1 less rebounds, the same amount of assists and .1 less blocks per game than his season averages. He hasn’t done anything spectacular recently, save his double-double against the highly injured Brooklyn Nets on February 13th. That’s not to say Boozer isn’t a quality big man, though, because he still averages 15 points and nearly 9 rebounds, which helps immensely on any team. The team just needs to find a balance between Gibson, Boozer and Noah, because a dynamic frontcourt makes for a dangerous attack in a league that lacks talented forwards and centers. This is just one of the keys to the Bulls success when they return from the All-Star Break, and the others are as follows.
1. Control the boards and play staunch, Tom Thibodeau defense. Thibodeau has always been known as a defensive coach, and that hasn’t changed this year. The Bulls are second in the league in points allowed, only letting opponents score a little over 92 points per game. Rebounding is important too, but the big men have that under control at the moment (outrebounded Atlanta 57-28 and won by 15, outrebounded Brooklyn 45-27 and won by 16). These two have aspects have helped the Bulls return to above .500 and over their current three game win streak.
2. Kirk Hinrich and DJ Augustin playing their positions. Kirk Hinrich and DJ Augustin have been average at best this year, both averaging 4.5 assists per game. That’s a pretty sad stat considering Joakim Noah is averaging .1 less assist this season, when the guards should be averaging way more than the center in the assist category. Hinrich has also shot significantly less 3-pointers this year, and a return to his former knockdown 3 game would help immensely. Hinrich and Augustin need to be facilitators for the remainder of the season, and need to see a boost in their assists to continue the winning streak.
3. Jimmy Butler needs to step up. Butler, the 30th pick in the first round of the 2011 draft, is not playing like a first round draft choice. He’s only shooting 37.9% from the field this year, and as a guard/forward combo, he needs to significantly improve his shooting to help his team out. He needs to be more productive on offense, and has shown signs that he can be. He’s been shooting 42.7% over his last 10 games, averaging 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds. He gets a high quantity of steals, adding to the defense I talked about earlier, but he needs to step in as the main guard or forward now that Rose and Deng are out of the picture. He has the potential, he just needs to perform for his team’s sake.
4. Lastly, the Bulls need to stay healthy. Joakim Noah is infamously injury prone, seemingly fighting off a new injury every year. Boozer has sat out multiple times this year because of calf injuries, and will most likely continue to miss miscellaneous games when he sees fit. Kirk Hinrich is getting up there in age and is also well known for his injuries. As long as everyone stays injury-free, the Bulls may have a fighting chance.
Although the Bulls have had a shaky season so far, the last 2 months should bring optimism to Bulls fans. With the big men playing well offensively and defensively, the frontcourt in Chicago becomes incredibly difficult to beat. Not many teams can match up well with the athleticism of Gibson, the skill and experience of Boozer, and the overall presence of Noah. All that being said, the Bulls are still probably only the 4th seed in the East, which isn’t saying much considering the East’s 5th through 8th seeds all have more losses than wins. The Bulls are obviously rebuilding, indicated by the draft picks they received for Deng, and aren’t fully serious competitors in the East, yet. Chicago is, however, skilled enough to put up a fight against most teams the match up with, as long as they find the balance with their big men and continue to play well on defense. The Bulls are one of the few teams left with quality big men that actually serve as threats, and with one superstar guard or small forward (cue Carmelo Anthony’s free agency), Chicago could see themselves competing for a championship in the near future.