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5 Reasons Chicago Bulls Are NBA's Most Underrated Team

Kelly ScalettaFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 4, 2017

5 Reasons Chicago Bulls Are NBA's Most Underrated Team

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    The annual preseason ritual is to severely underrate the Bulls. As training camp goes on, the preseason games start revving up, and the prognostications come out, people tank on the Bulls. It's all a little bit of history repeating right now. The Bulls are, once again, the most underrated team in the NBA

    You can argue that there will be some teams more "technically" underrated—teams whose difference between actual win totals and predicted win totals will be greater—but those teams won't have the same history of annually outperforming expectations. Yes, maybe Golden State finally won't suck, but they've underperformed long enough they deserve to be underrated. 

    Chicago's different.

    Two years ago, in 2010-11, this team was predicted to be, at best, a fourth or fifth seed in the East. Instead they finished with the best record in the NBA, in spite of missing Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah for substantial chunks of the season. 

    Then last year, they were predicted to be the fourth or fifth best team in the NBA as they wouldn't be "catching people by surprise." Instead, even without Derrick Rose for over a third of the season, they finished once again with the best record in the NBA. 

    Now this year, because of Derrick Rose's injury, they are predicted to be maybe a seventh or eighth seed. Many even have them as being a lottery team. 

    This team is once again being severely underrated. Even without Rose, they are a 50-win team who will claim a top-four seed, and here is why. 

The New Bench Mob

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    Last year the Chicago Bulls were able to succeed, even without Derrick Rose, because of their tremendous depth; much of that depth is lost. 

    Kyle Korver, their sharpshooter, was traded to Atlanta. C.J. Watson is in Brooklyn, backing up Deron Williams. John Lucas III, whose heroics felled the Miami Heat, is off in Toronto. Ronnie Brewer, the defensive specialist, is now in New York

    The biggest loss, both metaphorically and literally, Omer Asik, is playing in Houston because of a "poison-pill" contract which, if the Bulls had matched it, would have cost them as much as $75 million in the third season alone because of the taxes they would have incurred. 

    The thing to remember is that individually, none of these players is supremely special. The magic they created came from the system they played in and in having the individual roles they carried out being carefully pieced together. 

    So the question isn't really whether the "players" were lost, but whether the "roles" were lost.

    Kirk Hinrich will assume backup and temporary starting point guard duties.

    Jimmy Butler will ably step into the defensive wing role vacated by Brewer. 

    Nazr Moahammed will fill the backup center role, although with more offense and less defense than Omer Asik. 

    Nate Robinson will execute the "instant offense" role that Lucas so ably did. 

    Marco Belinelli will bring the "hot sauce" that Kyle Korver used to spice the lineup with.

    The question isn't so much about "who" was lost as much as "what" was lost, and when defined by roles, the answer is a bit of interior defense (but more on the that later) and not much else. 

    There was also something gained though. Hinrich is a better defender than Watson was. Belinelli has better ball handling skills than Korver. Mohammed's offensive post game is in a different stratosphere than Asik's. Robinson is far more explosive that Lucas. 

    The Bulls bench only finished 23rd in the NBA in scoring last year according to hoopstats.com. This bench is more potent offensively this year. They might give up a few more buckets, but they'll score a few more too.  

    There will be some rough spots as they get to know one another and Tom Thibodeau's system, but by mid-season they could be outperforming last year's bench. 

Taj Gibson

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    No player in the NBA with at least 100 possessions had better net production than Taj Gibson, according to basketball-refernece.com

    What is most impressive about this is that Gibson was not benefiting from playing with great defensive players. They were benefiting from playing with him. 

    The following chart portrays last year and how Gibson's individual teammates plus/minus changed when Gibson was on the court compared to when he was on the bench. Notice how with the exception of Brewer, virtually every teammate's performance improved when they shared the court with Gibson. 

    Teammate   With Gibson      No Gibson Difference
    C.J. Watson 1.4 1.1 0.3
    Carlos Boozer 11.4 4.5 6.9
    Derrick Rose 10.7 6.5 4.2
    Jimmy Butler 12.5 -1.6 14.1
    Joakim Noah 6.9 5.1 1.8
    John Lucas III 12.7 6.3 6.4
    Kyle Korver 10.1 5.4 4.7
    Luol Deng 7.9 5.5 2.4
    Omer Asik 6.1 -0.5 6.6
    Richard Hamilton 12.1 5 7.1
    Ronnie Brewer 3.7 4.6 -0.9

    Taj Gibson is arguably a top-five defensive player in the league. The Bulls defensive rating while Gibson was on the court last season was a meager 88.6 according to NBA.com. NBA TV reported on their Chicago Bulls preview that no player in the league had a better rating than that. 

    Omer Asik's number, 89.7, was slightly higher. However the numbers above reflect that the catalyst was Gibson, not Asik.

    Furthermore, based on numbers compiled by basketball-value.com, when GIbson was on the court without Asik, the Bulls yielded a defensive rating of just 93.2, but when Asik was on the court without Gibson, the Bulls gave up a defensive rating of 101.3. 

    Keep in mind that 101.3 is still good, but it's not as freakishly good. Gibson was the more impactful player on defense. He'll still be there and he'll still be helping the Bulls to be one of the elite defensive teams in the league. 

Their Starting Five—Without Derrick Rose

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    There are two teams in the NBA which have all five of their starting five having either been named as an NBA All-Star or named to an All-Defense team. 

    Those two teams are the Los Angeles Lakers, who are considered title favorites, and the Chicago Bulls. 

    For the Bulls, Kirk Hinrich, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have all been All-Defense. Richard Hamilton, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng have all been named to All-Star games. 

    And oh yeah, they have a former MVP waiting to come back from injury. 

    But Richard Hamilton and Carlos Boozer are getting older, right? So are Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant

    Granted, the Laker starting five has many more All-Defense and All-Star games than do the Bulls quintet (Kobe Bryant has them beat all by himself). But the argument here isn't that the Bulls are the Lakers, it's that they are a top-four team in the East. 

    The tendency has been to undervalue what the other Bulls starters bring to the table. Critics have focused on the top (Rose) and the bottom (the Bench Mob) and ignored the part in the middle. 

    With a minimum of 250 minutes played, according to basketball-reference, the Chicago Bulls starting five of Rose, Ronnie Brewer, Deng, Boozer and Noah were the best five many unit in basketball.

    So either Rose is even better than people give him credit for, and is single-handedly capable of making an average lineup the best in the game, or the rest of the lineup is better than advertised. 

    When Deng, Noah, Boozer and Hamilton played together they outscored their opponents by 6.06 points per 48 minutes whether Rose was in the lineup or not, and that's with Deng playing half the season with a torn ligament in his wrist. 

    The starting five, even without Rose, is still a force. Certainly they would be even better with Rose, but that's no reason to discount the rest. 

Tom Thibodeau, Tom Thibodeau, Tom Thibodeau and Tom Thibodeau.

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    So why the redundancy you ask? Because there are are four reasons that are specifically related to Tom Thibodeau, but I chose to list them on a single slide I answer. 

    Player Development 

    First, there is Tom Thibodeau's player development. The list of players who have cited Thibodeau as a part of their development is long and prestigious. He's helped the games of the likes of Marcus Camby, Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo and yes, Derrick Rose. 

    It's a tremendously overlooked part of what he brings. He commands the respect of players because he works harder than any of them. A large part of the reason the Bulls have "overachieved" the last two seasons is that Thibodeau made every one his players, (well, everyone but Boozer anyway) better. 

    Preparation

    Second is his preparation. He is the Chuck Norris of basketball study. When he walks into a room, film cries because it knows it's in for some seriously hard work. There are rumors he doesn't actually have a home. He just has a cot in the Berto Center. If Thibodeau breaks wind, you can learn something about basketball. 

    Because of that grasp of the game, his in-game adjustments make the Bulls the best fourth quarter team in basketball, according to teamrankings.com

    Motivation

    Third, there is ability to motivate his players. While he has a reputation for yelling and screaming to a man his players love him because he might yell, but he is genuinely concerned for them, not only as a team but individually.

    That concern has made the Bulls one of the tightest teams in the game, with many seasoned NBA veterans such as Carlos Boozer say they've never been around something like this before. That, in turn makes the Bulls motivated.

    In fact, there are even some who say that the Bulls win totals are inflated because they try too hard to win every game. If the biggest criticism of a coach is that he motivates his team to try too hard, I'll take that coach seven days a week. 

    Defense

    Fourth, and most telling, is Thibodeau's vaunted defense. In each of the last 10 years his teams have finished in the top six in defensive rating. He's had his teams finish in the top 10 in 19 of the last 22 years. 

    The Bulls have three former All-Defensive team players in Deng, Noah and Hinrich. Arguably the best defender on the team isn't even one of them in Gibson. The staple of this team is Thibodeau's defense, and that isn't going anywhere. 

Derrick Rose Is Injured, Not Dead

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    When Rose sat down with Rachel Nichols he said something that set the basketball world to discussing the possibility that he might not return this year. As reported by ESPN Chicago, Rose said, 

    "Everybody has their own opinions. When the time comes I just have to be ready and prove to the people here that I am ready to play. Who knows when that time is? If it's all year I might wait the whole year, so what? If I come back at the All-Star (break), so what?"

    Any human being with a modicum of reading comprehension does not take a look at that and derive from it, "I'm not coming back this year." He is saying that he is coming back when he is ready to play. The evidence is in the words, "When the time comes I just have to be ready and prove to the people here that I am ready to play." 

    Rose is saying the exact opposite of the way people are taking it. He is saying that his health will dictate the timeline and not be dictated by an arbitrary timeline. 

    And where is his health at? According to the same article, 

    "Rose has said he is ahead of schedule and is now running, shooting and jumping. He expects to begin cutting in another week. Bulls general manager Gar Forman told 'Waddle & Silvy' on Thursday that he is optimistic Rose will play this season."

    "Ahead of schedule" and "play this season" hardly are congruent with "sit out the season." People who are armchair doctoring really need to find something better to do with their time and let Derrick Rose, his doctors and trainers and the Chicago Bulls work out when he is 100 percent. 

    There is no controversy over whether he should wait until he is 100 percent. Rose, his doctors, the Bulls, Gar Forman, Jerry Reinsdorf, Charlie Chaplin, Donald Duck and every Bulls fan in the world is in agreement there. 

    The question is whether he should sit around twiddling his thumbs until the magic date arbitrarily set by certain fans and analysts with absolutely no medical background arrives. 

    Rose will return when he's 100 percent and not a day earlier, but there's not a single good reason for him to continue to wait after he is. The fact that his doctors have said he is ahead of schedule means that speculating a return a month behind the earliest possible return is relatively conservative.

    That would put his return shortly after the All-Star break, around the 50 game mark. The Bulls have won 85 percent of their games when Rose, Noah, Boozer and Deng have played together. Assuming just a 75 percent win mark that would put the Bulls at 24-8 after Rose returned.

    That would mean that the Bulls would only need to go 26-24 over their first 50 games. Considering they won 67 percent of their games without Rose last year, that's a conservative estimate. Even if you argue that the 24-8 is too friendly, it balances out. 

    If the Bulls won only 60 percent of their games (still lower than how they performed last year without Rose) they would only need to go 20-12 after Rose returns.

    In fact, a 50-win projection is relatively conservative. Anything short of that is just (in my best Stephan A. Smith voice) dis-re-SPECT-ful! 

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