With Derrick Rose out for the season with a torn meniscus and Luol Deng having been traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Chicago Bulls are still winning games, against all odds. It’s worth questioning: How are they doing this?
Since the beginning of 2014, the Windy City Bovines have been bulling through opponents the way they were supposed to at the beginning of the season, posting the NBA’s fifth best record for the month of January at 11-4.
There are a number of reasons why the Bulls are winning games against all odds, but they can be broadly grouped into three categories:
- Roster Stability
- Tom “Tankproof” Thibodeau
While it would be great to say that the Bulls' charge up the standings was all because of brilliant play, it’s just not realistic. Just as the Bulls' rough start had a lot to do with scheduling, their recent winning does too.
Of the 15 games they played in January, only seven came against teams with winning records. The Bulls came away victorious in just three of them. One of those wins was over the Atlanta Hawks, which would turn out to be Luol Deng’s final game. One of them was at the San Antonio Spurs, who were playing without Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green.
The last was against the Phoenix Suns, a surprise team that is playing well but is also a bit up and down.
So the Bulls' one quality road win was tainted by their ironically being healthier than their opponents were.
Their other eight victories came against teams with an average winning percentage of just .326. Of those games, three could have just as easily gone the other way: the game at the Orlando Magic on January 15, which went to triple overtime; the one at home versus the Lakers on January 20, which went to overtime; and the one in Charlotte, where the Bulls eked out a two-point win over the Bobcats.
So, while it would be great to say that it’s all just better play by the Bulls, the reality is that a part of the reason for their sudden success is convenient scheduling. That being said, they opened up the season with a difficult schedule, so this is things evening out.
In other words, they aren’t as bad as they looked in November, and they’re not as good as they looked in January.
The Bulls were also helped in January by having a modicum of roster stability. That sounds almost funny when you consider that they just traded away their longest tenured player, but by Bulls’ standards, they had a relatively tame month.
Since Deng was traded, Carlos Boozer missed two games, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler each missed one, and Kirk Hinrich missed four. That’s only eight missed games by rotation players out of 13 (not including those missed by Rose).
That might sound bad, but it’s compared to 40 missed games by rotation players in the 22 games from November 21 to the Deng trade, and that’s also not counting those missed by Rose. Couple that with the fact that the Bulls were going through the longest, toughest road trip of the season and enduring the heartbreak of losing Derrick Rose at the same time, and it’s little wonder that they struggled.
Now they’ve gotten not just a healthier roster, but a slightly better one, in large part because of the stunning emergence of waiver-wire pickup D.J. Augustin.
Since assuming the starter’s role, Augustin is averaging 19.8 points and 5.7 assists with an effective field goal percentage of 55.0 percent. That’s comparable with Damian Lillard’s averages of 20.6 points and 5.6 assists and 51.1 effective field goal percentage.
Regardless of whether Taj Gibson or Carlos Boozer is playing the power forward (at this point they’re basically co-starters), the Bulls are a plus-17.9 net rating while Augustin is running with the starters.
Joakim Noah is also playing outstanding basketball right now. Since the calendar flipped, Noah is averaging 13.7 points, 14.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.9 blocks. That’s what we call stuffing the stat sheet.
Over his last six games, Taj Gibson is averaging 16.5 points and shooting 54.1 percent from the field.
Since the Deng trade, when those three have been on the court together, the Bulls are 15.3 points better than their opponents.
When the roster is not in a constant state of fluctuation, synergy has a chance to work. Players can get comfortable with one another, and that helps each player shine individually. As Augustin is growing familiar with the rotation, the team gets more and more productive.
Hence, it’s not just about the roster being healthy, it’s about the roster being stable. It’s not just about missing players, it’s familiarity, and that’s one reason why even though the Bulls have lost their two leading scorers, they’re still churning out wins.
Tom “Tankproof” Thibodeau
Why is Tom Thibodeau the most outstanding coach in the league?
Because he’s always out standing on the sideline! Baddump. It’s funny because it’s true.
In a recent broadcast, Jeff Van Gundy gave the Bulls’ coach a new nickname: “Tom ‘Tankproof’ Thibodeau.” That was perfectly put. There’s a genuine question as to whether you could assemble a roster so bad that Thibodeau couldn’t win with it in the weak Eastern Conference.
There are two reasons for that. First, his defense will always be spectacular. It has been more than a decade since his defense didn’t finish in the top 20 percent in league defensive rating. He is the best defensive mind in basketball. In spite of all their woes, the Bulls have the NBA's second-most efficient defense.
And, while his defense is a huge part of things, it's not the only facet that Thibodeau brings to the table. While he sometimes draws criticism for treating every game like it’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals, his need to win is a contagious thing, and it’s a big part of why the Bulls succeed through adversity.
Thibodeau works insanely hard. How hard? When his father died on Christmas, he still coached the game against the Brooklyn Nets. Then he flew home the following Sunday, attended the visitation and returned after the funeral on Monday. He only missed one shootaround.
That’s the culture on the Bulls. In the New Orleans Pelicans telecast of the Bulls’ game on February 1, one of the announcers described Taj Gibson as a player who “tries to outwork Joakim Noah,” an apt description.
This team, more than anything, is one defined by the work it puts in, and if you put the work in, the wins will come out of the work. That’s a culture both exemplified and instilled by Thibodeau.
It helps that there are players like Noah, Gibson and Jimmy Butler on the team, who need encouragement to work like I need encouragement to eat pizza, but it also helps that the man running the team doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk, even during the games—literally.
When you put all that together, you’re going to get what you’re seeing. When the Bulls are healthy and working hard, they’re going to beat the bad and average teams most of the time. They might not have a playmaker, but they have a great defense and players who can do everything else.
They’re not going to be the Showtime Lakers, but they’re going to be working. They won’t look pretty, but they’ll bludgeon their way to wins more often than not.
That’s how they’ve been winning, and if they stay healthy, it’s how they’ll continue to win, particularly over the teams they should beat.