No team handles worst-case scenarios better than Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls.
They should be struggling to pick up the pieces. They're playoff-posing instead.
This doesn't happen outside of the Windy City. If other teams lose their superstar leaders, then other teams shift their focus to the future.
So why don't these Bulls play by the same rules? Why is a team that should be calculating draft lottery odds instead planning to host an opening-round series?
Well, there are a couple different keys to this magic in the Midwest.
They Still Have an MVP Candidate
"They won’t choose him for MVP, but I think it’s great that he is in the conversation,’’ San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, via NBA.com's Kent McDill. “It’s got to go in the basket for you guys (the media) to pay attention to somebody, but he’s pretty valuable, in my opinion."
The stat sheets would agree. Wholeheartedly.
The Bulls have played .676 basketball since Jan. 2 (23-11), and no player has had a bigger impact on that turnaround than Noah:
|Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Net Rtg|
There is no objective definition for the value aspect of that award, yet the numbers seem to spell one out on their own.
If these are MVP credentials, though, Noah isn't buying them. He's not even a fan of hearing "M-V-P!" chants from the home fans.
"I don't like it," he told Bulls.com's Chuck Swirsky. "Because our MVP is not playing. We have one MVP and that’s Derrick Rose."
That ruffling sound you're hearing is Noah's name being scribbled on even more MVP ballots. He's balanced this team squarely across his shoulders—and he's deflecting the praise to someone who hasn't suited up since November.
Defensively, Noah is special.
He's one of only four players averaging at least one steal and 1.5 blocks this season. He's the sixth-best rebounder in the game (11.3) and sixth-toughest defender at the rim (44.8 field-goal percentage against).
Yet, he's far from being considered a defensive specialist.
"The thing about Jo is he can beat you a lot of different ways," Thibodeau said, via Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. "Sometimes it’s the defense and rebounding. Sometimes it’s the passing. Sometimes it’s his scoring."
Sometimes, it's all of the above.
No matter which talents he's using, there always seems to be some historical relevance attached:
Russell, Wilt, Walton & Kareem are only centers in NBA history w/ 12 PPG, 11 RPG and 5 APG in a season. Joakim Noah: 12.2/11.3/4.8 this year— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 10, 2014
Joakim Noah leads the Bulls in total assists this season (294). Last time a center led his team in total assists was David Robinson ('93-94)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 10, 2014
Simply scanning through the numbers—as mind-boggling as they may be—doesn't tell the full story of his importance, though.
"On top of the great plays is his ability to exhort his teammates in ways that no longer seem akin to antics," Michael Wilbon of ESPN Chicago wrote.
Noah is a fiery leader, the perfect player to make this undermanned team believe its coach is right. That it does, in fact, have enough.
"He is a highly emotional guy, but he brings it every night," Popovich said, via NBA.com's Steve Aschburner. It’s something that infuses the whole team. He sets a standard on the court for the team."
As for the off-court standard, Thibodeau has that covered.
They Have a Near-Nightly Advantage on the Sideline
The Bulls might be without their MVP point guard and may have shed an All-Star wing, but they still have one of the finest coaching minds in the business.
Thibodeau's value is hard to quantify. It's one of those know-it-when-you-see-it situations:
I will never, ever get tired of watching a Tom Thibodeau-coached team play basketball. I have no idea what he says or does, but it works.— Moke Hamilton (@MokeHamilton) March 9, 2014
How Tom Thibodeau gets his players to buy in & play every minute of every game is nothing short of amazing. Phenomenal coach. #Bulls— Ethan Norof (@Mr_Norof) March 9, 2014
The Bulls just look more mentally prepared than their opponents—not necessarily from a schematic standpoint, but from having the understanding of what type of effort is needed on a nightly basis.
That starts—and maybe even stops—with the coach.
"They could have mailed in the rest of the season and slid into the lottery, but Thibodeau wouldn't let it happen," ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell wrote. "He got players to buy into playing hard every night despite the fact that the odds were stacked against them. He got them to believe in themselves and the team again. Most of all, he got them to continue to trust in him and the schemes he puts together."
Then again, maybe it wasn't the toughest sell. He has the track record to validate everything he tells his players.
"Given solid defensive talent, his scheme essentially guarantees an elite defense," wrote ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton (subscription required). "In the defensive rating category, his teams have seven consecutive top-five finishes and counting, dating back to his time as an assistant to Jeff Van Gundy with the Houston Rockets."
Thibodeau's team doesn't yield easy baskets.
Through a combination of brains, brawn and sweat equity, the Bulls form a collective wall around the paint. Not only do they have the fourth-lowest field-goal percentage against inside of five feet (55.9), but they also face the fourth-fewest amount of those attempts (26.5).
They defend without fouling (19.6 free-throw attempts against per game, fewest in the league), force teams to take bad shots and close out possessions on the glass. The total result is a defensive puzzle that's as hard to solve as any in the NBA.
|Field-Goal Percentage Against||43.3||T-2nd|
Offensively, it's a nightly struggle with this roster, but the coach is finding ways to make it work.
Whether that means cringing through the defensive possessions of Carlos Boozer and D.J. Augustin to get their nightly 28.4-point contribution or instituting Noah as the rare point-center, Thibodeau is doing whatever needs to be done to keep the win column moving.
So just how much movement might be left?
How Long Will It Last?
The Bulls are a joy to watch. Between Noah's unique skills, Thibodeau's coaching mind and the energy this team willingly expends, they're easy to appreciate.
They're not as easy to buy as a lengthy postseason performer.
As it stands now, the fourth-seeded Bulls would host the fifth-seeded Brooklyn Nets in a rematch of their 2013 first-round series. The Bulls survived that battle with a six-point win in Game 7 and have since taken two-of-three in this regular-season series.
Which individual award do you think is most likely headed to Chicago?
A conference semifinals appearance seems well within the cards, but that's the likely stopping point of their playoff run. They would almost certainly face either the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat, teams that have won a combined 72.2 percent of their games this season.
If Chicago somehow escaped that series, it would probably face the other beast from the East in the conference finals.
At some point, reality will hit the Bulls. Their offensive shortcomings will prove too great to overcome.
But it will be an incredible ride to that point and a hard-fought journey to the end.
"People know when you talk about the Chicago Bulls, there’s nobody going out there and giving more than us," Noah said, via Bulls.com's Sam Smith.
It's amazing what a difference effort can make.