It hasn't been a dream season, but the Bulls are making it work.
The Chicago Bulls’ 2013-14 season certainly hasn’t been what fans expected, but there are some reasons to celebrate.
There have also been some outstanding individual performances from Noah and Gibson, which should give the Bulls plenty of hope as they keep grinding through the season.
Chicago has shown that they aren’t going to roll over for anyone because their roster doesn’t stack up to others on paper. Tom Thibodeau won’t allow it and the players won’t either, and they've shown it with a 23-22 record and a possibility for a top-four seed.
It’s been a tough and ugly season, but like Thibodeau has said before, he doesn’t care about aesthetics.
So what can Bulls fans take away from the first half of the 2013-14 season?
Note: All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless otherwise stated.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, this group couldn't win a championship together.
Whether or not you believe in fate, the fact that a core consisting of Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer never even got to an NBA Finals is a bit bizarre considering the talent. It's even kind of heartbreaking if you're a Bulls fan.
That group came as close as the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011 before losing to the Miami Heat. The following year, Rose tore his ACL in the first game of the opening round, crushing all hopes of a consecutive conference finals appearance.
Rose missed the entire 2012-13 season, and returned this year, but he tore his meniscus after 10 games and was ruled out until 2014-15.
It hasn’t just been the Rose injuries, though. Constant changes to the second unit, Noah’s plantar fasciitis—which seems to be a thing of the past for now—and a lack of a secondary scoring option also hurt the Bulls’ chances.
Chicago’s front office seems to have a plan to regain that championship caliber, however. Bringing over Nikola Mirotic—who is regarded as the best international player—seems to be the most likely move.
They’ve also stockpiled a couple of potential first-round picks that could come to fruition in the very near future, providing them with youth and depth in key positions.
Maybe with some fresh faces Chicago can get over the hump.
Maybe Jimmy Buckets should try to attack the rim more often.
It’s not a knock on Jimmy Butler by any means. There’s no denying he’s one of the building blocks for the Bulls’ future, but it won’t be with him at the 2-guard spot.
In order to play shooting guard, you have to be able to, well, shoot. The glimpses he showed in the playoffs last year haven’t been realized at all thus far as he’s shooting 37 percent from the floor and an atrocious 28 percent from downtown.
There are a few exceptions like the Memphis Grizzlies’ Tony Allen, but he’s one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders among the likes of Paul George and LeBron James. As good as Butler is defensively, he’s not quite there yet.
However, Butler still provides many of the things Deng did: hustle points, rebounding, a knack for moving without the ball and, of course, defense. He seems like a more natural fit at small forward, where he can play primarily off-ball, given his ball-handling skills aren’t that great, either.
There is still a lot of time for Butler to improve these areas of his game. After all, he’s only 24 and is barely playing his first full season as a starter. But there is a chance the Bulls sign a 2-guard this offseason, which would benefit both the team and Butler.
Taj Gibson has become a legitimate offensive weapon.
It can’t be said enough how much Taj Gibson’s offense has improved.
His post game has evolved into a serious weapon and his defense hasn’t suffered because of it. According to Synergy, he allows just .86 points per play, the same number as Noah.
Gibson has gotten some play as a starter this season, and it’s gone over remarkably. In five games as a starter, he’s averaged 17 points and nine rebounds on 52-percent shooting.
The lack of depth in the frontcourt has also benefited Gibson. He’s averaging more minutes per game than ever throughout his career, and is putting up career numbers in points, blocks and assists.
The 28-year-old has found success partly due to a much-improved jump shot. He’s become a reliable mid-range jump shooter which has aided him in other areas of his game.
Gibson’s main improvement is in his post game, where he has developed a killer faceup, baseline-spin move. His turn-around jump shot has also drastically improve. Gibson averages .83 points per post-up play, ranking him 66th in the league, per Synergy.
Seeing as how this could be Carlos Boozer’s final year in Chicago, Gibson figures to be in for his best season in 2014-15, contingent on the Bulls amnestying Boozer.
As the heart and soul of the Bulls, Noah has done whatever it takes to get the W.
Derrick Rose is usually the first player who comes to mind when talking about who not to trade, but Joakim Noah should be a close second.
He proved it with his play over the last month of action where he averaged 13.6 points, 14.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. Despite losing their two best offensive players in Rose and Deng, Noah has put the team on his back and is on pace to record career highs in points, rebounds and assists.
His defensive contributions have been incredible as well. He’s currently on pace to record 111 blocks, which would be the second-best mark of his career. In addition, his defensive rating of 96 is currently tied for the best in his career.
Noah has shouldered the load since the Deng trade. He’s a double-double machine that flirts with a triple-double on a nightly basis, and it has earned him his second consecutive All-Star appearance (via CSN Chicago).
His contributions as a leader can’t go unmentioned either, as he—along with Thibodeau—has not allowed the team to give up.
The leaders behind the Bulls' resiliency.
Just because one group couldn’t get it done, it doesn’t mean the Bulls are going to throw in the towel.
It was expected that Chicago, which was already missing its MVP, would falter after they traded Deng for a few picks, but they’ve won nine of 13 games since making the move, including an impressive win over the San Antonio Spurs on January 29.
Tom Thibodeau hasn’t allowed this team to give up and has given a team with limited depth a chance to get home-court advantage through the first round of the playoffs.
Despite numerous injuries, Chicago’s “next man up” mentality has taken center stage all year long and even D.J. Augustin, whose career was taking a big downturn, has become a key player in the Bulls’ rotation.
This recent performance is also a testament to how much each player loves to play the game and to the chemistry they have on and off the court. Most teams would fold when faced with a situation like this, but the Bulls have the one player that will never allow that: Joakim Noah (yet another reason why he’s untouchable).
Noah said it best when he spoke to the media after multiple days of silence (via ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell):
I just think that all this adversity makes me stronger. It just makes me stronger as a person and as a player. I think I've never been so hungry. We've been through a lot; Rose's injury was really hard. Lu not being here is really hard. But we're going to go out there, and like I said, there's no tank in this team. We're going to grind and make this city proud.
Chicago will surely continue to grind out victories and could even give one of the East's contenders a tough matchup.