With the season just short of its halfway point, the Bulls, with a record of 25-16, are developing into the team no one wants to face in the postseason.
They are not even near their peak—not with Derrick Rose still rehabbing from knee surgery. Rose has not played this season, and Luol Deng has missed the last three games after aggravating his hamstring versus the Boston Celtics just a week ago. Richard Hamilton also missed time with a torn plantar fascia.
Both Deng and Hamilton have stepped up when they were healthy, and they are not alone.
Surprisingly, several players have risen to the challenge of Rose's absence. From the beleaguered Carlos Boozer to first-time NBA All-Star Joakim Noah, the Bulls' hero changes after every final horn.
Former Bulls great Scottie Pippen took to Twitter to congratulate Noah for his All-Star selection.
It is a difficult task to name the Bulls’ MVP because every player has taken a turn in helping the club win games.
How deep of a playoff run the Bulls can make depends on a few variables. Health, the development of Jimmy Butler and the overall team chemistry once Rose makes his return factor into the discussion.
The Bulls have accomplished what many teams cannot: remain competitive without their star player.
Rose's ACL injury in the 2012 NBA playoffs was a crippling blow. As a result, the Bulls lost a first-round matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers and could have packed it in this year.
However, instead of feeling sorry for themselves, they have risen above Rose's injury. In the process, they are in position to compete for the NBA Central crown and make a run at the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Rose may not return until late February or early March. If the Bulls can continue to play at a high level without him, Rose will only improve them when he does come back.
The aforementioned injuries to Deng and Hamilton have allowed other players to contribute. One of the beneficiaries has been shooting guard Marco Belinelli.
Starting Belinelli was a brilliant move. Most of his starts came in December while Hamilton was nursing his injury. Belinelli averaged 14.1 PPG in 15 games including 12 starts in December. That was an improvement over the 5.2 PPG he averaged in November and the 8.9 PPG that he is putting up in January thus far.
Another contributor is Jimmy Butler, whose development has been on display lately with Deng's absence. If Butler continues to blossom, the Bulls will be better come playoff time.
The Development of Jimmy Butler
Butler is slowly stealing the hearts of Bulls fans. From his defense to the recent fourth-quarter heroics, Butler is reminding people of a poor man’s Scottie Pippen.
The second-year swingman from Marquette had a brilliant performance guarding the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant. In the span of a few possessions in the fourth quarter, Butler had a key rebound, a blocked shot and a breakaway steal that resulted in a dunk. Before you knew it, he turned a close game into a blowout in a matter of minutes.
Starting in place of Deng for the last three games, Butler is putting up 15.3 points and 8.3 rebounds. The Bulls are 2-1 during this span.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau must give Butler consistent minutes when Deng returns to the lineup. Thibodeau's biggest dilemma will be determining an ideal minute count for Butler once Deng is healthy and playing.
On the chart below, you will see that Butler’s impact on the team’s win/loss record varies. This makes it tough to gauge how much he should play. When he plays more than 25 minutes, the Bulls are 6-4, including a 3-1 record in the last four games.
When Butler logs 18-25 minutes, the Bulls are 6-3, but he has played mostly in the 10-17 minute range. In those 17 games, the Bulls only have a 9-8 record.
If you follow the pattern, Thibodeau must give Butler at least 18 minutes. The Bulls are 12-7 when he plays that much.
One solution is to play Deng for fewer minutes when he returns and to settle Butler into the sixth-man spot. He could substitute for Deng as well as Hamilton while still playing 20-25 minutes.
The Bulls eventually will be at full strength with Deng rested and Rose returning. How that affects the overall chemistry of the team will dictate how far they can go into the NBA playoffs.
Rose’s return will complete the roster, causing a domino effect that will see certain players slotted into more suitable roles.
Egos will be battered and bruised, but if everyone can get over individual glory and focus on team-oriented goals, this team can challenge the Miami Heat.
Total team chemistry hinges solely on the confidence of Boozer and Nate Robinson.
What must continue is how the Bulls have implemented Boozer into the offense. When Boozer gets going early, he has confidence in his abilities. The first half has been—and must remain—the "Booz Cruise" even when Rose returns.
Another factor will be Robinson. He is the Bulls’ offensive spark plug off the bench, and it would be a disservice to change that.
Limiting Kirk Hinrich’s minutes while giving Robinson enough minutes to provide bench scoring only helps the team. Hinrich can rest up for the playoffs, and Robinson can maintain his confidence.
How deep of a postseason run the Bulls make depends on their health, Jimmy Butler's development and the team chemistry once Rose is cleared to play. If everything works in their favor for once, they will be good enough to return to the Eastern Conference Finals for a second time in three seasons.
There is one thing to keep an eye on: Do the Bulls have a trade up their sleeve?
While the front office has been mum, Daequan Cook must have been signed for a reason. Could his signing be a precursor for things to come?
The Eastern Conference is a free-for-all after the Heat. The Heat are vulnerable themselves, making the next few weeks very interesting to watch.