Rare is the occasion in professional sports that a team’s season goes exactly as envisioned.
Just ask the Chicago Bulls.
Since Derrick Rose arrived six years ago, the Second City has dreamt of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy every season. They’ve come up short five times, but none has been as unpredictable as this sixth and current campaign.
After 37 games in the weakest showing by either conference in the new millennium, the Bulls sit sixth in the East with a 18-19 record. They’ve put together two five-game winning streaks and two four-game losing skids in the same half-season. Their two best players—Rose and Luol Deng—are nowhere to be seen. And the current leading scorer doesn’t crack 15 points per game.
The historically trade-averse franchise could be one of the league’s busiest sellers at the trade deadline, yet Chicago is still in the thick of the “Leastern” Conference playoff race.
So what have we learned about the Bulls so far? This list provides the team’s 10 biggest developments in this young 2013-14 season, ranked in order based on level of surprise, effect on the team’s future and effect on the current season.
All statistics courtesy of ESPN, unless otherwise noted
Tony Snell has shown flashes of being a deep threat
The 20th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft was brought in as an eventual replacement on the wing for Luol Deng. Little did Snell know, eventual meant now.
Mike Dunleavy has taken the lion’s share of Deng’s minutes in the five games since Deng was traded, but Snell is ninth among rookies in minutes played (18.9).
Though Snell’s .327 three-point shooting percentage leaves much to be desired, the numbers are slightly misleading. Out of the 21 games in which Snell has attempted a three, he’s shot over .500 in eight of them. Wipe out his 2-for-11 outing from deep against the Oklahoma City Thunder and he’s hitting at a respectable .347.
Nikola Mirotic looks more attractive every day
Drafted in the first round in 2010 and then stashed away under contract at Real Madrid, Nikola Mirotic has quickly become one of the most valuable “Bulls” players without tasting a single minute in the NBA.
Kelly Scaletta profiled his prowess in the ACB League and Euroleague this season:
What makes Mirotic positively ridiculous is the efficiency with which he scores. He’s shooting 72.2 percent at the rim, 52 percent from mid-range and an otherworldly 64 percent from three. And, oh yeah, he’s making 91.2 percent of his free throws too. His 76.5 true shooting percentage leads the league.
With Deng gone and Carlos Boozer likely out the door behind him, Chicago could be quickly staring at frontcourt depth issues. If the front office is willing to pay Mirotic’s release clause, the 6’10” Montenegrin—who has been called the best player not in the NBA by one scout—could solve the problem.
Marquis Teague’s days in Chicago are numbered
With trade rumors swirling around the surprisingly coveted Kirk Hinrich, Chicago plucked Marquis Teague out of D-League purgatory on Wednesday.
Teague’s success with the Iowa Energy is best described as mild. He played just 24 minutes per game—losing playing time to Kalin Lucas—while hobbled by a tweaked ankle:
Thibodeau said Teague tweaked his ankle during DLeague assignment but he still played for Iowa Energy last night.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) January 3, 2014
Teague managed 12 points and 4.8 assists while on assignment, but his time in the big leagues has been a struggle. A 55-percent bump in minutes from his rookie season hasn’t seen a rise in production—his PER dropped from 6.0 last season to 0.2 this year.
Suffice to say Teague hasn’t done much to pull himself out of the DNP Coach’s Decision category.
Whether he’s spouting off his feelings about the city of Cleveland, getting kicked out of opponents’ locker rooms or calling out Kevin Garnett as dirty, Joakim Noah has no problem saying what’s on his mind.
As the video suggests, he’s loud and obnoxious and he works like a dog.
But perhaps the most salient tell of what Noah represents as an NBA player came with what he didn’t say. In the wake of the Deng-to-Cleveland trade Noah went the full workweek without addressing the media, unmistakably shaken by the sudden departure of his close friend.
When he finally broke the silence, Noah made himself very clear:
A lot of people say this is a business and all that but this game is more than a business to me. I put everything I got into this. I feel like Lu was the same way so it was hard for me to digest. But that's just my perspective, that's just my side of the story.
Since the trade Noah has stepped up his efforts, averaging 15.0 points, 15 rebounds and 5.2 assists in the last four games. He was already playing some of the best basketball of his career since December with averages of 13.4 points, 12.6 rebounds and four assists.
If Tom Thibodeau possesses one flaw as a head coach, it’s doling out minutes effectively.
In all fairness the injury bug hit the Bulls pretty hard last year—Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler were the only players to play all 82 games. But take a look at Butler’s minutes-per-game progression on a monthly basis.
Playoffs Round 1: 38.4
Playoffs Round 2: 44.2
Butler almost never came off the court in the last two months of the season. It’s no wonder the team’s new starting shooting guard has already missed 12 of the team’s first 36 games with toe, ankle and thigh injuries.
Butler hasn’t had the smoothest of transitions into the starting five. His minutes are down from the end of last year but so is his scoring output. And his shooting percentages have dropped dramatically.
March 24 marked the first game Butler broke the 40-minute mark. From that point on he scored 14.2 points, shot 45.5 percent from the field and 46.5 percent from behind the arc. This year those numbers sit at 12.5, 38.4 percent and 31.7 percent.
Just two of the top 10 teams in three-point percentage are currently lottery-bound, whereas only five of the ten worst three-point teams are lined up for playoffs. Three of them—Houston, the LA Clippers and Oklahoma City—compensate with high field-goal percentages.
The moral of the story: you either have to shoot well from deep or shoot well from inside the arc to have success on offense.
Unfortunately for Chicago, bringing in Mike Dunleavy to replace Marco Belinelli wasn’t enough to bolster the team’s deep threat. Dunleavy hits on 41.2 percent of his threes, good for 27th among qualified players. No other Bull sits among the top 100.
Not only do the Bulls shoot poorly from deep—their .334 clip is third-worst—but only three teams shoot less threes. In his first two games since joining on a 10-day contract, Cartier Martin hit 3-of-5 threes, so maybe there’s hope.
Suggestions for the Bulls to amnesty Carlos Boozer have been around for over two years. It’s possible that the decision was secretly made a while ago as well, but it never made sense for Chicago to eat more than one year of his salary.
So this looks likely to be the summer Bulls fans say so long to the Booze Train—the only player who screams louder than Noah.
The numbers suggest it makes sense. Boozer’s contract will pay him $16.8 million in 2014-15, second only to Rose. Together with the money saved in the Deng trade, shedding that huge figure from the payroll would put Chicago’s salary at $47.7 million, way under the projected salary cap of $62.1 million.
Not only do those numbers point to an amnesty, but so do these: not only are Boozer’s points (15.1), rebounds (8.5), assists (1.5) and shooting percentage (.461) all below his career averages. They are some of the lowest they’ve been since his rookie season.
Advanced metrics tell a similar tale. Per Basketball-reference.com, Boozer is posting the lowest PER of his career at 14.8 and his offensive win shares are -0.3.
Boozer is still capable of taking over a game with his elbow jumpers and acrobatic layups; his 27 points led the Bulls past Miami back in December.
But those efforts have become fewer and farther between, which only exposes his defensive deficiencies further. Take this shake by Glen Davis for example.
His defense leaves fans just as confused as he is.
Which leads us to the next point…
At half the price of the guy he comes in for off the bench, Taj Gibson deserves the starting role he was thrust into as a rookie.
Deng’s departure means Gibson likely becomes one of Thibodeau’s two favorite players—along with Noah—for his dedication to defense. Thibodeau may favor keeping Gibson on the bench, especially if Mirotic comes over from Spain in the summer.
The differences between Gibson’s and Boozer’s numbers are minimal. Gibson shoots at a higher percentage—.486 vs. .454—and his PER of 15.3 is slightly better. He’s also led the Bulls in scoring on three occasions despite being a defensive-minded player.
Did I mention he makes half as much as Boozer?
Thibodeau’s coaching philosophy resembles that of a jealous sibling—if we can’t have points, then neither can the other team.
Chicago averages 91.3 points per game—second-worst only to Milwaukee—paired with an abysmal .423 field-goal percentage, yet the Bulls are still flirting with a .500 record.
That’s because Thibs squeezes out a maximum defensive effort day in and day out. Opponents are scoring just 92.8 points on Chicago. Only Indiana is stingier at 88.1, and the next closest team is Toronto at 96.2.
Aside from the most recent 128-125 triple-overtime victory over Orlando, the defense has actually been better (89.5) since Deng was traded. Though this trend is unlikely to continue over the course of the season. Thibs’ ability to push his guys to challenge every shot has led the Bulls to the third-lowest opponent’s field-goal percentage (.431) and second-lowest points per shot (1.13).
The upcoming draft is touted to be the richest since 2003, if not better, yet ‘tanking’ doesn’t seem to exist in Thibs’ vocabulary.
Along with the Los Angeles Lakers’ signing of Kendall Marshall, the addition of D.J. Augustin as Kirk Hinrich’s backup might be the NBA’s most underrated mid-season transaction.
Since his arrival Augustin has given the Bulls 10.8 points, 6.4 assists and .346 three-point shooting as the third guard. He has the team’s fourth-highest PER and his assist numbers since joining Chicago are on par with Tony Parker’s.
Augustin led victories over Orlando, Charlotte and Cleveland, and has been a more effective facilitator than Hinrich.
The question is whether he will pull a Nate Robinson and price himself out the Bulls resigning him in the offseason, despite joining on waivers. Scaletta breaks down the situation in great detail here.
Augustin wouldn’t necessarily be here if it weren’t for Rose’s injury, so his presence is somewhat bittersweet. Yet his play has been a revelation for Thibodeau, who called the player’s contribution “huge”.
Chicago sports fans know heartbreak just about as well as any other city. The Bears lost a Super Bowl and Jay Culter seems to get injured every time they get close to another one. The Cubs are the Cubs. And Derrick Rose has played just 49 games in three seasons.
Absorbing the departure of decade-long Bulls cornerstone Luol Deng fits up there at the top of the list of depressing moments in recent Chicago sports history.
It was no big secret that something was going to change between Deng and the Bulls. Whether it was a new contract or letting him walk as a free agent was anybody’s guess. His name swirled heavily in trade rumors but the reports of the swap with Cleveland for Andrew Bynum’s contract and three future draft picks sent a shockwave through the city and its fans.
Gone was the hardest working and most unassuming player around. Gone was the team’s leading scorer and the guy who always defends the opponent’s best individual player.
Just as hard as it was to swallow the move itself, the reality that the trade represents is even scarier for the franchise…
Once Deng went out the door, the rumor mill picked up significant steam in Chicago. The team that has only made three mid-season trades in the last four years is suddenly expected to be one of the most active sellers.
Kirk Hinrich was recently the apple of Golden State’s eye until they snapped up Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks from Boston. Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report says Hinrich still remains among the top-three most coveted point guards and is available.
According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, at least four teams have inquired about Dunleavy’s services. Houston appears to be the hottest on his trail, reports USA Today’s Sam Amick, though he won’t come cheap.
Even Noah’s name has popped up in trade rumblings, however farfetched and unlikely to happen that scenario may be.
ESPN Insider Chad Ford believes Bulls management has made any player not named after a flower available at the right price. In response to a question about whether the Bulls are done trading, Ford responded:
Don't think so. Lots of talk about those two as well as Boozer. I've said this in several of our last Tank Ranks, management has made the decision to tank this season. Coach isn't on board, but they can keep taking cards out of his hand to play.
That’s not to say Chicago is holding a garage sale. Players with value beyond this season won’t be going anywhere unless the offer is too good to pass up.
Depending on whom within the organization you ask, the Bulls are both tanking and not tanking.
Though GM Gar Forman and VP John Paxson would never admit it openly, they are making moves that simultaneously keep the core roster intact and position Chicago to add real talent in the 2014 Draft. Between the lines that means tanking.
Talk to Thibodeau about the ‘T’ word and he’ll probably make you play 60 minutes in a triple overtime game.
Stan Van Gundy put it best to Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel, “I would be very surprised if they don't end up in the playoffs because I think Tom Thibodeau will negate the front office tanking of the Chicago Bulls.”
The same goes for Joakim Noah, who had this to say to ESPNChicago.com’s Nick Friedell about fans that might want the Bulls to slide deeper into the lottery:
I don't say nothing to those fans. It's all good. You're allowed to have your opinion. It's just ... that's not a real fan to me. You know what I'm saying? You want your team to lose? What is that? But it's all good.
With seemingly every Bulls player involved in some form of a trade rumor, the biggest question is the marriage between Thibodeau and GarPax. Rick Morrissey of the Sun-Times sees potential in GarPax’s recent moves to push Thibodeau out the door. One report—from the New York Daily News—suggests Thibs even reached an agreement to coach the Knicks next season.
But Thibodeau’s contract has three more seasons remaining and he’s unlikely to go anywhere unless something catastrophic like a Noah trade occurs.
It all comes down to Rose. Had his knee held strong, everyone would be singing an entirely different tune. Deng might still be in red and white. Thibs and GarPax might be BFFs. And Chicago would be jockeying with the Indiana Pacers for first place in the East.
The days between now and February 18 will tell a lot about the Bulls’ direction in the offseason and 2014-15 campaign.