After going 12-18 to start the 2013-14 season, the Chicago Bulls looked like they were dead in the water. A 5-10 record in December cleared the way for a trade of Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and with Derrick Rose sidelined for the season, the Bulls appeared to be trending towards irrelevancy in a battered Eastern Conference.
Then a funny thing happened.
Over their last 27 games, the Bulls have come to life, posting a record of 19-8 over those appearances, while winning 11 of 15 games in January. The Bulls are assured a winning record this month, too, regardless of how Friday's matchup against the Dallas Mavericks goes. To date, Chicago is 8-4 in February, has won eight of its last 10 games, occupies the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed and sits just a half-game behind the Toronto Raptors for the third spot.
So how's this all possible? We're here to break down just how the Bulls have resuscitated a season that was on life support two months ago.
If you've watched the Bulls with Tom Thibodeau at the helm, then you're well aware that defense has been this team's calling card for the last four seasons.
That notion's been particularly true this year, when the Bulls have allowed the league's second-fewest points per game (92.3) while recording a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 100.4, which also ranks No. 2 overall.
Over the last two months, the Bulls are allowing a meager 91.7 points per game and most recently terrorized the Golden State Warriors' offensive juggernaut, limiting them to 83 points on 35.7 percent shooting from the field and 23.8 percent shooting from three.
Chicago's defense was so dominant in that rout that it actually made a bit of history:
Barring a substitution, all five Warriors starters will be held to single digits for the first time since Feb. 12, 1999 (97-81 loss to Utah)— GSWStats (@gswstats) February 27, 2014
And boy is it a good thing that the Bulls have been able to lean on that stingy defense, because their offense has been downright putrid, scoring the league's fewest points per game (92.9) while ranking 28th in offensive rating, generating a shade over 101 points per 100 possessions.
However, as Grantland's Zach Lowe notes, it may not be pretty, but the chemistry the Bulls have established is truly remarkable:
May be as simple as the right core players with the right coach, but the Bulls, in their boring and grinding way, are special. Special.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) February 27, 2014
Limiting opponents to 43.2 percent shooting (No. 2 overall) on the season, the Bulls have emerged as the rough and tumble squad that no one wants to see come playoff time.
The Steadying Force
At the center of everything prosperous for the Bulls is All-Star center Joakim Noah, who's carried the load for a shorthanded squad all year long.
On the surface, averages of 12.1 rebounds and 11.5 rebounds don't look particularly significant, but they represent career highs for Noah, who also happens to lead the Bulls in total assists (251) while dishing out a career-high 4.8 dimes a night.
But that's not all. Noah is one of two players averaging better than 12 points, 11 rebounds and four assists per game this season. The other is Kevin Love.
And if you want to get really technical, Noah is the only player averaging those same numbers while also blocking one shot per game, according to Basketball Reference.
Noah's been dominant on both ends of the floor, evidenced by team-best (minimum 500 minutes) offensive and defensive ratings of 111 and 96, respectively.
According to Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal, the Bulls have also been wildly efficient when they roll out the five-man unit consisting of Noah, Carlos Boozer, Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy:
This is a team that refuses to tank, and this lineup's success is a great testament to that never-say-die mentality. With a defensive liability, limited shooter, developing young player and declining veteran joining Joakim Noah, there's no way the Bulls should be outscoring the opposition by nearly a dozen points per 100 possessions.
As ugly as things often look, just know that Noah and his fearless approach to the game have kept the Bulls afloat.
A Down Year for the East and Success at Home
If the Eastern Conference were a tad stronger, perhaps we wouldn't be having this conversation.
However, the fact remains that the Bulls have made the most of their opportunities and capitalized on a down year for the East. As a result, Chicago's gone 22-13 within the conference while posting a record of just 9-13 against the West.
The other key component here is that the Bulls have thrived at home, rattling off a winning percentage of .630 (17-10) at United Center. Conversely, Chicago's two games below .500 (14-16) on the road this season.
At home, the Bulls are allowing opponents to score 89.4 points per game (nearly three points fewer than their season average), but what may be more remarkable is that on the road they're surrendering 94.6 points per game, a mark that would rank third among all teams, per NBA.com.
What's This Team's Ceiling?
This season, the ceiling's capped.
That said, the Bulls will undoubtedly be able to make some noise and push either the Heat or Pacers given their lockdown mentality on defense, but at a certain point their offensive ineptitude will catch up to them.
Sixth Man of the Year candidate Taj Gibson, Noah, Butler and Boozer give the Bulls a solid core, but they simply don't have enough offensive firepower (they rank 28th and 27th in field-goal percentage and three-point field-goal percentage, respectively) to make a Cinderella run.
For the time being, though, sit back, relax and enjoy watching one of the league's most unique brands of basketball. No matter how boring it may seem on the surface.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference unless noted otherwise.