What We Learned from the 1st Quarter of the Chicago Bulls' Season

Ernest ShepardAnalyst IIIDecember 12, 2012

What We Learned from the 1st Quarter of the Chicago Bulls' Season

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    How many of you had the Chicago Bulls with an 11-9 record after the first quarter of the NBA season?

    The NBA Central’s current first-place team has been one of the league's surprises in the season's early stages.

    Not only have the Bulls been competitive, they are playing a familiar brand of basketball anchored by effort and defense. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls ready to play every game. The formula has worked well to this point, leaving open the possibility that the Bulls can be contenders if Derrick Rose is fully recovered from his ACL tear.

    The Bulls have plenty of room to grow.

    Joakim Noah is a better player than he was last season. Luol Deng is a better all-around player as well. The Bulls’ defense is still among the NBA’s elite, and if their offense continues to grow, look out—they may have something good brewing. Here is what we learned about the Bulls in the first quarter of the NBA season.  

     

    All statistics were taken from NBA.com and are accurate as of 12-12-12.  

Joakim Noah is One of the Best Centers in the NBA

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    If Joakim Noah’s 30-point, 23-rebound performance against the Detroit Pistons was not enough to convince you he is one of the NBA’s best centers, what will it take?

    He may never duplicate those statistics again this season, but nobody believed he could put up those numbers in the first place. Noah continues to prove his detractors wrong.

    When the rumors spread about Noah working with NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar, it gave Bulls fans hope. The hope was that he could develop the patented Jabbar sky-hook. He has not shown the sky-hook but his footwork is improved and his jumper has stretched out to the 15-17 foot range.

    Noah was already one of the NBA's best rebounders, but by adding an offensive game to his repertoire, he is shaping into a well-rounded basketball player.

Luol Deng’s All-Star Appearance Last Season Was No Fluke

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    By leading the Bulls in scoring with an average of 17.8 PPG, Luol Deng is proving that he is an NBA All-Star. In many games this season, Deng has put the team on his back, leading them to victory.

    Whether it is by defending the opposing team’s best perimeter player or by collecting an offensive rebound, Deng makes an impact. Until Derrick Rose comes back, this is Deng’s team and he has played as if he knows it.

    If there is a knock on him, it is that he is prone to have cold shooting nights. As a result, his scoring can be inconsistent at times.

    Here are examples from the Bulls’ last two games.

    Against the New York Knicks, Deng played 47 minutes and scored 22 points. He went 9-of-20 from the field. He attempted one three-pointer in the game and made all four of his free throws.

    The other night versus the Los Angeles Clippers, however, Deng scored only eight points and shot a woeful 3-of-14 from the field. Two of his three shots made were three-point field goals, and he failed to shoot a free throw.

    Deng is a legit NBA All-Star. If he can become a more consistent shooter, the Bulls will be better for it.

The Offense Moves Better When Marco Belinelli is in the Lineup

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    Richard Hamilton was playing well before he tore his plantar fascia on December 1 (from SportingNews.com). When he is healthy, he has fit in well with what the Bulls are trying to do.  He has added both offense and defense when on the floor.

    Marco Belinelli replaced the injured Hamilton in the starting lineup, and so far he appears to be a better fit.

    Unlike Hamilton, Belinelli can create his shot off the dribble.

    One of the Bulls' biggest flaws is their inability to create shots. They have to rely on effective ball movement and turnovers for points.

    When Belinelli is in the game, though, opposing defenses have to pay attention to him with and without the ball in his hands.

    The Bulls also get better ball movement when he is with the starting unit. Seldom does the ball stop moving when Belinelli is on the court. The team seems to have taken a page out of the San Antonio Spurs playbook with how the basketball rotates from side-to-side in search for a better shot.

    Belinelli has also made a difference as a threat from the three-point line, while his catch-and-shoot ability is outstanding. The offensive fluidity is night and day compared to when he is on the bench.

    If Belinelli remains the starting shooting guard when Hamilton returns, he may become the Bulls’ leading scorer from this point on. He is tied with Luol Deng, averaging 17.0 PPG over the last five games.

The Bulls Are Still an Elite Team Defensively

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    With the departures of Ronnie Brewer and Omer Asik, the Bulls were expected to struggle defensively.

    They have not.

    And this is in spite of having only one great individual defender, Luol Deng. The team communicates more to make up for their defensive shortcomings.

    They are also adept at challenging shots and eliminating their opponents' second-chance scoring opportunities.   

    The Bulls are second in the NBA in points allowed (91.3). They are also sixth in rebounding, hauling in 44.2 RPG as a team.

    The Bulls' weaknesses on the defensive end are defending against the pick-and-roll and point guard penetration. Teams that run the pick-and-roll feast on Chicago's slow reactions. The majority of their losses have come against teams that run the play.

    Point guard penetration has long been an issue for the Bulls. The point guards on the current roster have limitations. Kirk Hinrich is too slow to keep up with speedy guards, while Nate Robinson is too short at 5’8” to defend bigger guards.

    The Bulls must look into acquiring a defensive-minded guard with size.     

The Bulls Have Better Games Ahead of Them

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    Make no mistake about it, the Bulls have had some struggles this season. With Rose out, though, this is to be expected.

    Their recent three-game win streak suggests that they can play winning basketball. All in all, they have the makings of a solid team.

    The Bulls must continue to play above-.500 basketball until Rose returns. The Bulls will be a better team when he does play again, regardless of whether or not his minutes are limited.

    If Rose can only play 15-20 minutes a game, the Bulls will have an additional go-to scoring option, along with Luol Deng in the fourth quarter. I cannot see a scenario that has Rose starting if his playing time is limited.

    What makes sense is Rose as a sixth man, playing similar minutes to what Ronnie Brewer played last season. As you will recall, Brewer played primarily in the last five minutes of the first quarter, the first five minutes of the second quarter, then finished out the fourth quarter.

    This is a reasonable situation for Rose. If he gets the green light from Chicago's medical staff to play 25-30 minutes a game, it is not out of the question to label the team a dark horse to win the NBA Championship.

    There is a reason why such places like betvega.com have the Bulls with 20-1 odds to win it all. Those are higher odds than the Boston Celtics (25-1) and Brooklyn Nets (33-1). In fact, the Bulls have the third best odds of any team in the Eastern Conference.

    The Bulls are getting better as a team, with several players coming into their own. Joakim Noah and Deng are making a name for themselves. When Rose returns, even if he is playing at 80 percent capacity, the Bulls will have a coveted “Big-Three” that consists of homegrown players.

    If you add Marco Belinelli’s hot shooting, Nate Robinson’s energy, Kirk Hinrich’s veteran leadership and Carlos Boozer’s inside presence, this team will be a tough out come playoff time.