The Chicago Bulls have started off the season strong, but they haven't put together a string of good games since the start of this month.
Obviously, injuries to certain key players have contributed to their struggles, but they haven't been in the conversation as one of the elite teams in the NBA ever since Derrick Rose got injured in last year's playoffs.
They certainly don't deserve the recognition that they did in the previous few seasons, considering that they've only compiled a 37-31 record and are holding on to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. This Bulls team is much different from the one last season and the season before, but coach Tom Thibodeau has successfully implemented his system to the minds of the new players.
With that being said, they still have an outside shot of winning a championship. The Miami Heat are unquestionably the best team in basketball, and there's a good chance that the Bulls will have to face them in a playoff series in order to get to the finals.
This slideshow will evaluate the ways in which the Bulls could give themselves a chance to overthrow the defending champions.
This is the one big edge that the Bulls have over the Heat.
The Bulls have the seventh-highest rebounding rate in the league (per Hollinger's Team Stats) and possess one of the better frontcourts. Although Joakim Noah may not be the typical center, he is still a very prominent rebounder and hustle player who gives 100 percent on both ends of the floor every night.
Carlos Boozer, who will never meet the expectations placed on him when he signed with the team three seasons ago, is still a great rebounder despite his shortcomings in every other area of the game. Both Noah and Boozer record more than 10 rebounds per-36 minutes (per Basketball Reference).
In contrast, the Heat have the 22nd-best rebounding rate in the league, and they've been one of the worst rebounding teams for most of the season. If the Bulls want to have a chance at defeating the Heat in a playoff series, they must utilize their advantages to the full extent and crush them on the boards in every game.
Although the Heat have two of the best frontcourt players in the league, and one of them is the best player in basketball, they don't match up to the physical toughness of the Bulls frontcourt, which is anchored by Noah.
The bristly center has improved in all aspects of his game this season, but he has kept the same level of toughness and physicality that he has possessed throughout his career.
Furthermore, Boozer is also a big physical presence in the paint, and he could outmuscle anyone down there when he has his game going. Even Luol Deng, who has been at the top of the leaderboard in minutes per game for the past few seasons, will be physically and mentally ready to defend anybody in the league, including LeBron James. Taj Gibson is another player who won't physically back down from any defensive assignment.
Even if their frontcourt players aren't having a spectacular game, they will still cause nightmares for opposing players because of their pounding, physical play on the floor.
Thibodeau doesn't believe in player fatigue (according Bryan Crawford of NBC Chicago), and that may be their downfall when the playoffs arrive.
Deng is averaging nearly 39 minutes per game, while Noah is registering nearly 38. Deng is currently leading the league in minutes per game, just like he did last year.
Last season, it was hard to tell if a Rose-less Bulls team is really inferior to an eighth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers team. They lost the series, but could it have been just that the Bulls' main group of players was just too tired coming into the playoffs? Especially since most of the 76ers were younger and more athletic than the rugged Bulls.
The playoffs are less than 15 games away, and Thibodeau should really consider reducing the minutes of his key contributors, or else they just won't have the legs to compete later on.
Two years ago, we saw the youngest MVP in history take his team to the Eastern Conference Finals, just to fall short at the hands of the Heat.
However, this Bulls team is much different from the one two years ago. With Boozer disappearing, the Heat focused primarily on suffocating Rose on every offensive possession, because nobody else on the team could score or create their own shot.
This season, though, the Bulls wield an improved Noah and some offensively-oriented role players who could come up big in the playoffs if they're given the opportunity. Guys like Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson and Rip Hamilton are certainly upgrades over Keith Bogans, who was the starting shooting guard on that 2010-11 Bulls team.
Obviously, Rose's health is the biggest concern, but we could assume that he has been working as hard as ever to improve his game, even when he's on the sidelines. If Rose could come back and play at an MVP level—or better—the Bulls have a chance to beat any team in the league.