Chicago Bulls: 10 Things the Bulls Need to Do to Become NBA Title Favorite
The Chicago Bulls have recently returned to their rightful place as the NBA’s best team with a record of 32-8, to take over the league’s best record. While everyone seems to be focused on the high-powered, explosive talent that the Oklahoma City Thunder have in the West and the superior talent and star power that the title favorite Miami Heat have, the Bulls have quietly put together a magnificent season.
The Bulls not only have a one-game lead over the OKC Thunder, but they have a full two-game lead over the “invincible” Miami Heat that pundits have seemed to declare as the hands-down favorite to win it all.
While the Heat and the Thunder have stayed pretty healthy all year, the Bulls have battled injuries to almost all of their key players. Derrick Rose, last year’s MVP, has missed 10 games this year, which is 25 percent of the schedule.
Most teams would suffer tremendously from losing a player of his caliber, but the Bulls went 7-3 without him.
Luol Deng, the Bulls' other All-Star, despite his All-Star-quality performance thus far this year, has missed seven games. Richard Hamilton, whom the Bulls signed to help put them over the top in the Eastern Conference, has only played in 16 games this year, and some of those games were partials.
Despite these setbacks and the fact that the Bulls played 20 of their first 30 games on the road to start the season, they still managed to go 23-7 during that stretch.
With that said, most still do not deem the Bulls as the premier championship contender, not only because of the Heat and Thunder’s impressive play and star power, but because of the lingering memory from last May when the Heat took away Derrick Rose and the Bulls looked like a team with one hand tied behind their back.
In the offseason, the Bulls tried to address this with the signing of Rip Hamilton. Despite their phenomenal record and consistency, though, it appears that there is still more to be done before the end of the year for this team to overtake the Heat in the East and become the odds-on favorite.
Here are 10 things that the Bulls need to do to get over the hump.
10. Figure out End-of-Game Controversy
There has been a lot of talk early in the season about who should play at the end of games. The Bulls are paying an awful lot of money to starting big men Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer for them to often end up on the bench during crunch time.
Coach Thibodeau is huge on defensive execution and intensity. Outside of Derrick Rose, there are no exceptions as to who he will sit down in favor of someone who falls in line with that strategy.
It is fine that the Bulls go with Taj Gibson and Omer Asik often because of their length, shot-blocking ability, position defense and rebounding, but that puts further limits on the Bulls on the offensive end.
I put the onus on Carlos Boozer for his part in this controversy. If Boozer would even halfway commit to playing effective help defense to go along with his strong defensive rebounding, he would be on the court.
With Noah, there are times when he is not on his game. He’s not a great offensive threat, but I do feel that he should be on the floor at the end more often than not. He is a good defender usually, an outstanding rebounder and he wants to win. He’s an energy guy that can get big buckets off of drop-off passes and putbacks when needed.
Taj Gibson is a key piece to what the Bulls do, but at least one of the starters should be out there down the stretch. If forced to choose, and you must have Gibson out there, go with Noah.
9. Beat the Heat
The Bulls swept the Heat last season, 3-0. This was quite an accomplishment and gave them confidence going into the playoffs that they could beat the mighty Heat. This confidence was extended by a Game 1 emphatic win over the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
From that point forward, the Bulls have not beaten the Heat. They lost four straight in the East Finals and then lost the first meeting this year in Miami, 97-93. Although it is not mandatory that the Bulls beat the Heat in their remaining three meetings this year or maybe even two, it’s important the Bulls get a win just to remind themselves that they can beat the Heat.
What happens in the playoffs will likely be unrelated, but as long as the Bulls can win one game, preferably in Miami, they should be able to carry that confidence into the playoffs and be ready to confidently challenge the Heat.
Without a win this year, despite what the Heat did last year, there is no way that the pressure won’t mount on the Bulls and affect their confidence that they can beat the Heat in May.
A split would be ideal.
8. Play Butler More
The Bulls need to play the rookie Jimmy Butler more down the stretch. Although he does not appear to be a key piece to the rotation, if Richard Hamilton is to be hampered at all by injury, the Bulls need another long, able and athletic wing player to be ready to go.
It is important that he get some reps and opportunities in pressure-packed situations so that he can be counted on in the playoffs.
With all the talent that the Heat have on the wings, it is important that the Bulls have as many useful options as possible. Hamilton and Brewer will not be enough.
Butler is a talent that has the potential to make a difference, so he must be ready to play in May and June.
7. Continue to Develop Bench
Along those same lines, the Bulls must continue to use and develop their bench. The “Bench Mob,” as they are affectionately known, has been effective over the course of the last two years. They really shined individually when called upon to play significantly when starters have been injured.
It is important that the Bulls get their bench ready to play and be effective going into the playoffs. They may not be able to go as deep into the bench consistently in the playoffs, but guys like Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik and C.J. Watson must be ready to come in and contribute promptly in the time they are in there.
Last year, after being so good during the regular season (in fact dominant at times as a unit), they disappeared when the pressure picked up in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and Finals.
Gibson had flashes—including his huge dunk on Dwyane Wade—Asik played well until getting injured, Brewer has decent did not provide enough scoring and Korver went cold with his scoring down the stretch.
The Bulls must be able to count on solid contributions from any and everyone one of these players down the stretch this year at key points.
6. Pace Rose
Last year, Derrick Rose went all out from start to finish without any sign of relent. It led to an incredibly exciting year and, ultimately, an MVP distinction.
However, it can be argued that his lackluster performance in the East Finals against the Heat was attributed to him being worn down and fatigued. Rose is a player that plays with high energy and goes 100 MPH with reckless abandon and physical play.
It is fun to watch and certainly was as big a reason as any that the Bulls got as far as they did last year.
However, now that Rose has established himself as a superstar in this league and has shown some signs of being human with nagging injuries, it is more important that the Bulls pace their superstar through this grueling season.
On accident, the Bulls were forced to sit him down as he battled turf toe and back spasms earlier in the season. Though he has gotten healthy enough to play, Rose needs to pick and choose when he will be on the attack and play with reckless abandon, and scale it back and play at a slower pace in other times when the Bulls do not need him in overdrive.
I have detected that on several occasions this season; he has chosen to be more of a facilitator and playmaker to preserve himself. He also has shown off his steadily improving jump shot, which has taken some of the pressure off of his body.
These are great signs for the Bulls as they will need a fresh and fully aggressive version of their star down the stretch and in the playoffs.
Regardless of how the Bulls develop their supporting cast around him, it is certain that Rose will have to be special to get the Bulls to the promised land.
If the Heat send Rose’s kryptonite LeBron James out to guard him, Rose must be fresh and ready to attack this challenge. He will certainly need help to win against the Heat, but if the Bulls are to get to the Finals, it will more than likely be a result of Derrick Rose playing at an MVP level.
5. Get a Scoring 2 or 3
This challenge might be the most important thing the Bulls do, depending on how things shake out. The bench must play well, current supporting cast members must show up to play and Rose must be rested to be special, but for the Bulls to turn the corner and be a championship contender, they may be a legitimate wing player away from reaching their potential.
The signing of Rip Hamilton looked to be the solution, but as he has battled injury after injury, it is becoming more apparent that it might be risky and imprudent for the Bulls to rely on him to be healthy and ready to score in the spring. If he is healthy, he could be the solution.
I still think Rip has the energy and the ability to find his shot and score when it matters. However, his string of injuries this year make me lose confidence in the fact that he can be relied upon.
In order to overcome this issue, the Bulls must scour the league to see if they can come up with an option on the wing to join Luol Deng in support of Rose. I’d like to say that Jimmy Butler could plug in there, but I really cannot say that he is the type of wing player that could be counted on in this matter. He is more of the Ronnie Brewer type that will give you tough minutes and get a few tough buckets here and there.
The name O.J. Mayo seems to come up a lot, but it’s hard to imagine the Grizzlies giving him up for very little. There are not a lot of other options out there to plug in.
This may end up being an issue for the Bulls when they go head-to-head with the Heat and the Western Conference champion. Hopefully the Bulls can come up with a solution or Hamilton is miraculously cured of the injury bug by May and June.
4. Get Dwight Howard
This is a hot-button issue in Chicago. The talk for the last couple months has been: How can we get Dwight Howard?
This is an interesting one. On paper, if the Bulls could get Dwight Howard to go along with Derrick Rose, which would form a formidable duo and the type of superstar combo that has become the norm among contending teams in the NBA.
However, this will certainly come at a price.
If the Bulls could possibly get him for Noah and Gibson or something like that—which would cost them a key player and a contributor but leave enough to still compete—that would be outstanding.
However, the Magic have every reason to demand a lot in exchange for their franchise player.
Although, the chemistry that the Bulls have is a huge intangible, if the Bulls could retain the majority of the core and get Howard in Chicago, the Bulls would be a dangerous team. They would have the defensive finisher down low to clean up anything that gets by this stingy defensive, he would make up for any rebounding lost in the trade (and then some).
He would also provide the (pretty) consistent-low post scoring that the Bulls have been yearning for for some time now.
Howard averages 20 points and 15 rebounds a game to go along with 2.2 blocks and 1.9 steals this season. His stats are unreal considering how much criticism he gets for not having a fully developed post game nor the killer instinct and serious demeanor that most stars are expected to have.
If he could be added at a reasonable cost, the Bulls should do it. Losing Noah, Gibson or Asik can be overcome with a superstar addition such as this.
3. Get Consistent Production out of Boozer
That name is almost like a four-letter word in Chicago these days. You say the name and people tense up or they spew out a passionate dissenting opinion.
Carlos Boozer has been an “OK” addition to the Bulls since signing last summer. The Bulls spent big money to support Derrick Rose.
What’s odd is that his numbers have not been terrible by any stretch of the imagination. This season, he has averaged 15.1 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per game. Last year, despite being slowed by injuries at the end of the season and some struggles adjusting to playing with fellow big man Joakim Noah, he still managed to average 17.5 PPG and 9.6 RPG.
Those are very solid numbers and I think that most Bulls fans would sign up for those types of numbers out of their power forward position prior to his arrival.
So then why is everyone so mad at Boozer? Well, there are three reasons: He got a plus-sized contract of five years/$75 million; he has been awful as a team defender and his general hustle and effort have been unsatisfactory, which stands out on team that stands for the complete opposite; and he was a no-show in the playoffs when it counted.
He appeared to be a bit “soft,” to put it lightly.
In order for the Bulls to be a factor in late May and June, in case some of the other action items noted previously do not take place, it would be great if Boozer could step up and earn his paycheck with a monster run in the playoffs this year. If he can be counted on to play strong down low against the Heat or whoever, and consistently pour in 17-plus points a night and contribute eight-plus rebounds, that would help the Bulls out tremendously.
In order for him to be on the floor late in games, he must pick up his intensity and commitment on defense. Coach Thibodeau has proven to be very stubborn when it comes to execution of his defensive principles down the stretch in games.
Regardless of your name or pay status, Thibodeau will sit you if you refuse to commit to your help responsibilities and play hard throughout the game.
Chicago is a hard-nosed, hard-working town that absolutely rallies behind hard play and effort and turns its back on the opposite. The onus is on Boozer to live up to this standard and win back the Chicago faithful.
2. Peak in May and June
The Bulls must focus all of their efforts and attention towards playing their best basketball at the right time. That right time would be late May and June.
Unfortunately, last year, the Bulls seemed to peak during the last month of the season and came down from their peak a bit when they got to the playoffs. They were good enough to beat the Pacers and Hawks, but when it came down to facing the Miami Heat, in many ways, they played some of their worst basketball of the season.
It was tough to watch for Bulls fans after watching their team dominate much of April and March.
The Bulls' play propelled them to a No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, which did not seem so realistic early in the season, but all of that was nullified when they seemed to wear down and everyone got cold at the same time.
If the Bulls can grab a top-two seed this year, preserve Rose, keep regulars fresh and recover from injuries, the Bulls should be able to focus on playing their best basketball at the right time this year.
1. Get Deng and Rip Healthy
This is very important for the Bulls. It appears that the Bulls have found a way to get Deng on the court and keep him on the court, but Rip Hamilton has not been able to stay healthy at all.
These two players, as it stands right now, represent the Bulls' best secondary options that can get take and make crucial shots for the Bulls. There has been a lot of talk of D-Rose having the proper support this year, so it does not seem like he is a one-man team in big moments.
If healthy, Deng and Hamilton together may be able to fill that role.
While Deng has stayed on the floor, he still is suffering from a torn wrist tendon. He was seen as recent as Monday dangling his wrist a little bit. It is important that, if he is going to play through this injury, he does not aggravate it or do anything that will inhibit his play down the stretch.
Deng is the Bulls' second-most reliable scorer by all accounts. It’s important that he is healthy.
Rip is out again with a shoulder injury. He has played just 16 games this year, as I mentioned earlier. This is a major concern. However, he has to get healthy and stay healthy by April and then work on meshing with the team when headed into the playoffs.
That could be the single most important thing for the Bulls this year.