When the Chicago Bulls started the season, little was expected of them. They were considered, at best, to be a team that could contend for a sixth seed. Again, at best, they would hover around .500 while waiting for Derrick Rose to come and rescue them and carry them to the postseason.
Instead, the Bulls have steadily improved throughout the season, and as they have, they've put together a 22-15 record. They are not only in contention for the Central Division title, trailing the Indiana Pacers by a mere half-game, and with a one-game edge in the loss column, but they are also only three games behind the Miami Heat for the top seed in the East.
They have beaten the New York Knicks thrice. They handily beat the Miami Heat, in Miami. They have the best record (18-6) of any Eastern Conference team against Eastern Conference opponents. They have the best road record (11-5) in the Eastern Conference.
Virtually no one expected the Bulls to be positioned where they are now. But they are. And with that positioning, expectations are rising. And with expectations comes potential for disappointment. And with potential for disappointment comes potential for blame.
So who will be the "fall guy" for the Bulls if they go into a tailspin now that hopes are rising? Here are the top candidates.
All stats in this article are current of January 17, 2013
Kirk Hinrich's great evil is that he is nothing like Derrick Rose on the offensive end. While Rose cuts through defenses like a hot knife through butter, Hinrich penetrates like hot butter through a knife.
Rose averaged 3.3 field goals at the rim and 6.1 free throw attempts per game compared to Hinrich's .5 field goals at the rim and 1.8 free-throw attempts. That's a big difference in points directly off of penetration.
Hinrich's defense is aggressive and effective. The Bulls don't lose much on that end of the court with him, but his effectiveness at leading the offense lacks. He's just not anything remotely close to Rose when it comes to creating shots.
He's not just "not on the same planet," he's at least seven or eight parallel universes away from Rose. Rose's player efficiency rating last year was 23.0. Hinrich's is 9.7.
When the Bulls struggle, it's usually on offense. Even when they're struggling on defense, it usually has to do with transition defense stemming from failed offense.
Hinrich is often blamed for the offensive failings because he's not Derrick Rose, nor can he be. Many fans weren't happy with the acquisition in the first place, or that the Bulls used their mid-level exception on him, rather than take him back from Atlanta in a trade for Kyle Korver as they could have done.
Should the Bulls start to fail, Hinrich will make an easy target for criticism. Some of it might be justified but probably not to the level it will be directed.
Nate Robinson once met a shot he didn't like. Then he awoke in a cold, trembling sweat. It was the worst nightmare he'd ever had in his life.
Robinson loves to shoot, but he is a streaky shooter. In fact, he might very well be the streakiest shooter in the NBA. He has only two games this season where he shot in the .400-.499 range. Every other game he's been over .500 or below .400. He's all or nothing, hit or miss.
It got me to thinking about how you would measure "streakiness." I started looking at several NBA players who have a reputation for being streaky, comparing their standard deviation in field-goal percentage from game to game. Robinson's data set looks more like a bell dip than a bell curve.
For those that don't have experience with statistics, a standard deviation is a measure of how far off the various data points are from the mean. Without getting into a lot of details, the larger the standard deviation, the more variance there is.
For example, you have to players that shoot 500, going 50-of-100 in 10 games. One player has five games where he makes all 10 shots, and five where he makes none. Another player hits five of 10 shots in all 10 games. One player will have a standard deviation of .522, the other zero.
Simply put, the bigger the standard deviation, the more inconsistent the shooter. I determined Kevin Durant's a very consistent shooter as a baseline.
Robinson's standard deviation is 19.2 percent. Compare that with Kevin Durant (9.6 percent), Kobe Bryant (10.7 percent), Joe Johnson (11.6 percent), J.R. Smith (13.1 percent), Jamal Crawford (13.6 percent), Russell Westbrook (11.2 percent) or Jrue Holliday (10.4 percent). Rose's during his MVP season was 10.6 percent.
No one else is anywhere near where Robinson in terms of inconsistency.
There will be games where Robinson gets hot, and the Bulls could win a game or two because of that. But they'll also lose some games because he's chucking when he's ice cold. That is assuredly going to perturb more than a few Bulls fans.
As long as they are winning, Robinson's chucking can be viewed as a necessary evil. But if they start losing, the little man could the recipient of some boos.
Every NBA fan believes they are GM material. They know how to make trades. They know how to identify talent. They know how to fix a team's woes. Ironically, the only ones who don't know how to do it are those who are doing it.
Gar Forman and John Paxson share the GM responsibilities for the Chicago Bulls and are frequently referenced as a single unit "GarPax."
The Bulls assembled a deep group of role players and under the tutelage of new head coach Tom Thibodeau. The group went on to win the most games in the NBA's regular season the next two seasons.
However, they didn't win a title. In the first year they lost to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. In the second year they were dropped in the first round after Derrick Rose went down with his ACL tear.
Then, during this past offseason, they jettisoned a large part of that group, either for basketball reasons or salary reasons, depending on who you believe.
To some, the most infuriating thing was that the Bulls, after promising for months that they would, failed to match the offer on backup center Omer Asik. Some felt that the Bulls could have acquired Kirk Hinrich, rather than a trade exception for Kyle Korver, and thus prevented the need for the team to place themselves under the hard cap.
Still more felt like the Bulls should have just kept the team as it was.
Being fair, that's not so easy to do. The cost isn't just what the cost is this year, it's the extension of what goes over into next year or the year after. With the repeater tax, teams have to be wary about how much and how often they get into tax.
The specifics of the Asik contract, just for him, would have cost the Bulls $42 million in its third year. Granted, the NBA gets most of that, but it's still a lot of money to give to a backup center, and it would still be highly restrictive of any other moves.
The nice thing about GMing from Pretendsville is that you never have to live with the team you build or have to answer to an owner (or fans) about your decisions. Even better, fans never question you. You don't have to worry about whether your trade is realistic or even meets NBA rules. You can always be right because it's never actually done.
The Bulls do have some issues. They don't have a quality backup center right now. That's evident. And this bench group doesn't have the same defensive tenacity as the former "Bench Mob." That doesn't mean that something else could have realistically been done, or should have been done, though.
But GarPax will still be accountable for their decisions.
If the Bulls start collapsing, many will view it as a fault of management and point the finger of blame at "GarPax"
If Tom Thibodeau were a celebrity dog, he would be Old Yeller. That's because some fans fear that at some point his yelling is going to get old.
He is viewed as a taskmaster by many fans and by many in the media. He hollers incessantly from the bench—well, technically from somewhere in the vicinity of the bench. At times he's almost on the floor playing defense himself.
Many fans worry that he is running his players into the ground.
Historically, neither is playing massive minutes. To the contrary, the reality is that the NBA is filled with players who have been playing less.
In the past five years only seven players have averaged over 40 minutes per game. The year prior to that (2006-07) there were six in that season alone. Deng's minutes don't even rank among the top 100 in the three-point era.
Frankly, he's not really playing "heavy" minutes so much as the league is playing lighter minutes as a whole. Furthermore, Thibodeau will have light practices or just walk-throughs during heavy patches. He gives the players rest, but just in other aspects than game time.
However, that reality doesn't seem to matter to some. Deng is leading the league in minutes this year and therefore it's "too many" minutes.
Is playing one or three extra minutes really going to wear a player down more than having one less practice will accommodate for?
Nevertheless if the Bulls start to slide, expect the fans who have made their minds up on this to start calling for Thibodeau's head. They will be seeing him as a Scott Skiles-type who has driven his players too hard and won't be able to sustain winning over time.
Carlos Boozer has been criticized for almost everything he's done since coming to Chicago. It's for good reason. Most of what he's done is falling short of expectations.
But he made a New Year's resolution to play better, according to Seth Gruen of the Chicago Sun-Times, and it seems to be paying dividends.
He has nine double-doubles in his past 10 games. He has 11 games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, good for third best this season. His 21 double-doubles are fifth best. Nine of those have been in his last 10 games.
In short, Boozer has been playing like Bulls fans expected him to when he signed.
But as said from the outset, once the standard is raised, so are expectations, and once expectations go up so does the potential for blame should one fail. Boozer has been playing fantastic lately. So much so that some fans aren't consoling themselves with amnesty fantasies any longer.
But if he stumbles, expect the amnesty talk and the "Boosers" to come back with a vengeance.