In a 2012-13 season that began with a quiet hope in Chicago, the Bulls are showing exactly who they are under the coaching of Tom Thibodeau. They are a strong defensive team that is willing to fight until the last minute for wins.
By being 30-20 and fourth in the east, just a half game out of third in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls have given Chicago fans something to be very proud of.
And this is all without the much anticipated return of MVP point guard Derrick Rose.
There have been plenty of bright spots in a season where the Bulls are slowly becoming a dark horse favorite in the hunt for a championship.
Both Joakim Noah and Luol Deng are having career years.
With Noah averaging 12 and 11, and Deng with 17 and 7, the teammates earned a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
Noah’s most evident improvement this year has been in his offensive game. Although his points per game stat isn’t as drastic of a change from the 10.2 last year, his willingness to take shots is the real difference this season.
Noah put in numerous hours in the offseason working on his jump-shot, and it has shown in his comfort level on the court. In an interview with ESPN Chicago, head coach Tom Thibodeau spoke on Noah’s work ethic to improve his jumper.
Quite honestly, he hasn't [surprised me] because I saw him shoot all summer and consistently he was knocking that shot down. My thing is, as long as you're working that hard and it's going in, then I don't have a problem with you shooting it if you're open. It looks a little different, but it goes in. That's the bottom line.
And Noah himself likes to think of his jump-shot a little differently than others, again in the same interview with ESPN Chicago.
A lot of people say it's ugly, I like to think it's artistic. I feel pretty confident. I don't want players to play off me like that. I feel like I worked on it pretty hard with Thibodeau in the off-season, and to me there's nothing better than making a 15-footer because a lot of people told me my whole life that I wouldn't be able to shoot it. So it feels great knocking it down.
By leading the team in rebounds, blocks and steals, Noah has established himself as a top center in the NBA and earned his first spot on the All-Star team. With the defense he has been playing, he is also a top candidate to win Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Luol Deng has picked up right where he left off last season. In Rose's absence, Deng has also shown that he can lead a team in scoring if need be, with 17 points per game this year. Being able to produce slightly better numbers than his first All-Star season, he has become the focal point of the Bulls offense.
Even though he might not get credit in certain plays for "hockey assists," he plays at times if he were a point forward. Deng's penetration and passing has been key to Chicago's offense at the moment without Rose. And he still poses the threat of taking it to the rim or shooting the open three.
All while being considered one of the best perimeter defensive players, the small forward for the Bulls has been in the top five the past three seasons for most minutes played, and leads the league this season with 39.7 according to ESPN (http://espn.go.com/nba/seasonleaders/_/league/nba/sort/avgMinutes). By just the sheer amount of minutes the Bulls player has seen over the past couple of years, he is considered as one of the iron-men of the league, and shows how valuable he is in Thibodeau's system.
The second-year small forward has been a very pleasant surprise for the Bulls this season.
Seeing his minutes jump up to 22 from the 8.5 he averaged last season, Jimmy Butler is showing that he is a very valuable asset to Chicago's roster.
Butler saw his minutes jump up after injuries to both Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton where he had to play in the starting rotation. Ever since playing 48 minutes in an overtime game in Memphis January 19th, Butler has averaged 37 minutes in the following 12 games. In that stretch he has averaged 13 points and has provided great defense to go with it.
In Butler's second start, he had the pleasure of defending Kobe Bryant. Bryant went 7-22 from the floor for 16 points and the Bull's won 95-83. Tom Thibodeau will take that any day of the week as will Bulls' fans.
Going forward, Butler provides an additional spark off the bench. He is another defender who has won the trust of Thibodeau, and will be very useful in tight games. With his offensive game coming along nicely, it might only be a matter of time before he cracks into the starting line up as a regular.
Like him or not, Nate Robinson is doing exactly what he was brought in to do for the Bulls. Which is yell, play in your face defense, pump up the crowd and score points in bunches.
The 5'9" point guard has rejuvenated his career after dismal seasons with the Celtics and Thunder where he averaged 7.1 points and a pedestrian 3.3 points respectively. Last year he played in 51 games for the Warriors, and averaged 11.2 points a game along with 4.5 assists filling in for the injured Steph Curry. But was released when Curry became 100 percent again.
By showing signs of promise again in Golden State, Chicago signed the eight-year veteran on July 25.
He has been the spark to the Chicago Bulls bench mob. Averaging 11.8 points a game and 4 assists so far this season.
But it is not just the playmaking ability of Robinson that has been helping Chicago win games, his movement has become almost necessary in the offense. Without him, the Bulls seem almost stagnant and lethargic when certain combinations are on the hardwood. By bringing the same intensity to defense as he does on offense, it looks as if he is finally enjoying playing defense under the coaching of Thibodeau.
Since stepping into the starting rotation the first of February for the injured Kirk Hinrich, Robinson has seen his numbers spike up to 16.6 points and 8.6 assists a game according to ESPN. His performance throughout that span earned him the Eastern Conference player of the week honors for games against the Bobcats, Bucks, Hawks and Nets. The Bulls went 3-1 in that time period.
It will be interesting to see which point guard Thibodeau leans toward when Rose returns to the lineup to help lead the bench mob, whether that be the game manager in Hinrich, or the explosive Nate Robinson who can get hot off a single shot.
In the four-game stint where he stepped into the starting rotation for the injured Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson averaged 14.8 and 12.
Now, four games is just four games, but the way the power forward was able to grab boards and play defense is exactly what Thibodeau is looking from the fourth year pro.
Gibson has proven his worth to the team, that signed him to a four-year $38 million contract earlier in the season.
Some might say that Gibson brings more grit to both sides of the ball than Boozer. And it seems that Thibodeau trusts Gibson's defense more in late game situations.
He has also shown to be more offensive this season. Whether it be through two-hand power dunks, or stepping out and taking the 15 foot jumper, he seems more at ease with the ball in his hands. Instead of looking at other options, he now is confident enough to see himself as one, and he is more than willing to help score points. He is slowly becoming another weapon for opposing teams to worry about.
No matter what the Bulls decide to do with Boozer's large contract situation, it is good to have a young power forward waiting who is more than willing to take the role of starting regularly.
If you were to tell most Bulls' fans that around the All-Star break they would be fourth in the East being only a half game out of third, they would have been ecstatic.
That is exactly what Bulls' fans are facing along with the inevitable return of former MVP Derrick Rose.
Rose played only 39 games last year due to multiple injuries, but even then averaged over 20 points and almost 8 assists a game. Most analysts believe that Rose will come back even better than when he left.
It will be interesting to see how cautious he will be when it comes to his usual way of attacking the rim. As seen from a lot of footage of Rose's rehab and recovery and now in pre-game warmups with the team, it seems as if the fifth-year pro has been working exceptionally hard on his outside jumper.
Rose's three-point percentage has gotten better every year except for last season. And much of the blame can be put on having to take too many last second shots as the Bulls struggled in that area of play and of course being injured for a good part of the season. Being able to incorporate a consistent threat from deep will be huge for Chicago.
It has been said multiple times that teams now need three All-Stars to win a championship. The Bulls now do, to go along with numerous role-players who are on the rise. It seems as if the stock of the Bulls only keeps on rising, who knows where it will be at by June.