Revisiting the Chicago Bulls' 10 Biggest Storylines from Season's 1st Half
Eighty-two games makes for a long season which some folks think needs shortening. Whatever the outcome, the calendar as it currently exists allows for a team to go through several mini-dramas in one year.
Take the Chicago Bulls for example.
The series premiere, Derrick Rose's comeback, lasted all of 11 games. Once he went down the Bulls spent the next six weeks searching for an identity while losing 13 of 21. Then management traded Luol Deng to Cleveland, and instead of a further downward spiral Chicago actually responded by getting back to .500 within three weeks.
When I first ranked the 10 biggest developments of the Bulls' season, things were trending upward. They were 18-19 and winners of six of seven. But it would take Chicago until just before All-Star weekend to get above .500 and stay there. After the break the team went through a brief offensive explosion, breaking 100 points in, and winning, six of eight games.
Now, as the schedule tightens up in a tough six-game homestand, Chicago is back to roller-coaster basketball: a disappointing 85-77 loss to Memphis followed by an emotional overtime win over Miami capped by a letdown blowout at the hands of the Spurs.
Let's revisit those 10 storylines from the season's first half and see how they've changed in the 27 games since. The deck has been shuffled, the ranking reordered to reflect how important each entry is now compared to midseason.
Luol Deng Is Wearing Another Team’s Jersey (Previous rank: 3)
Previously, in a nutshell: Trading Luol Deng for cap space and draft picks in January meant Chicago lost its two top scorers in the same season, which should have deflated the team further.
And now: The Bulls don't miss Deng nearly as much as we all thought they would. Chicago is 22-11 since the trade. Mike Dunleavy has taken on Deng's minutes as the starter, but the entire rotation has absorbed his 19.0 points, nearly 7.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists.
Chicago's defense hasn't suffered without its lockdown wing defender, either. Per NBA.com, the team surrendered 92.0 points per game with Deng and is giving up 92.3 without him.
Tony Snell Has Shown Flashes of Being a Deep Threat (Honorable Mention)
Previously, in a nutshell: Tony Snell was ninth in minutes among rookies through the first 37 games of the season and shooting a respectable .347 from three when you wiped out a bizarre 2-for-11 night.
And now: Snell's minutes continue to wax and wane on a nightly basis. Since the All-Star break, he's played single-digit minutes four times and topped 30 minutes in three consecutive games.
His three-point shooting has stayed fairly consistent. He's hit at 33.3 percent since the first ranking, but is prone to going several games without hitting from deep. Granted, three-point shooters generally need a season to adjust from college to NBA distance, but Snell has yet to make a significant impact in close games.
Marquis Teague’s days in Chicago are numbered (Honorable Mention)
Previously, in a nutshell: Marquis Teague couldn't cut it on the Bulls' roster and got outplayed in the D-League, but was brought back up by Chicago with Kirk Hinrich in trade rumors.
And now: Teague was traded to Brooklyn for Tornike Shengelia within days of the first ranking. He's played spot garbage time in 11 games since going to the Nets. Sigh.
10. Jimmy Butler Is Feeling the Effects of Last Season’s Minutes (9)
Previously, in a nutshell: Butler led the NBA in minutes in the last month of the 2012-13 season and played 41 minutes a game in the playoffs, which led to him missing 12 of the Bulls' first 36 games this year and posting lower numbers.
And now: Butler is still adjusting to life as a key member of the team but has stayed healthy. He's missed just two games in the last two months, due to a shot to the ribs.
His play is slow to get back to where it was at the end of last season, though. He's shooting 40.2 percent from the field and a woeful 24.1 percent from three since the first ranking, according to NBA.com, but his minutes have shot back up to 40.7.
He is prone to more big games, however, recording four double-doubles in his last 25 games compared to one in his first 25.
Butler is establishing himself as one of the best wing defenders in the game.
Talked to Iguodala for a story today. Named Jimmy Butler as young wing defender he's been most impressed by this year.— Chris Ballard (@SI_ChrisBallard) March 10, 2014
If he can play defense against the game's best players like he did on LeBron James last weekend, then Bulls fans will absolve him of his shooting woes.
Good stat from @ESPNStatsInfo: LeBron was just 2-for-11 from the field when Jimmy Butler was guarding him.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) March 9, 2014
9. Carlos Boozer Is Playing His Way to the Amnesty Clause (7)
Previously, in a nutshell: Two months ago, Carlos Boozer was in the midst of the worst season of his career since he was a rookie. Grumblings about GM Gar Forman using the amnesty clause on Boozer in the upcoming offseason were already old and Taj Gibson was only getting better.
And now: Nothing has changed. Boozer's points, rebounds, field-goal percentage and minutes are all still the second-lowest of his 12-year career. His 13 games with fewer than 10 points are already the second most of his career and there are still 17 games to play.
It gets worse. Thibodeau never liked the idea of using Boozer in the fourth quarter because of his defensive deficiencies. In his first three seasons with Chicago, Boozer never averaged more than 7.5 minutes in the final period, according to NBA.com.
Now, with Gibson making significant strides to become a contributor on the offense, Boozer is down to just 4.6 minutes per game in the fourth. And Thibs has only played him in the fourth in 28 games! Who leads the NBA in fourth-quarter minutes? Gibson.
With all the Carmelo Anthony chatter going around, Boozer appears to have one foot out the door while the Bulls push the other one behind it.
Chicago Bulls Carlos Boozer feels like he's "being pushed out" after this season - (Source: Joe Cowley) - http://t.co/rOCc3mz2fa— Chicago Bulls Rumors (@chicagobullsbot) March 13, 2014
8. Chicago Is Not (not) Tanking/As Rose Goes so Go the Bulls (1)
Previously, in a nutshell: Once Rose went down, rumors spread that Forman and VP John Paxson secretly hoped the Bulls would be bad enough for them to start positioning for the much-ballyhooed 2014 NBA draft. With the Deng trade, it became a lot more plain. But Thibs and the rest of the team scoffed at the thought of tanking.
And now: Let's be honest, the Bulls were never going to tank even if they could. As Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, it wouldn't have been easy:
It’s fair to ask what the Bulls’ recent surge means in light of the weakness of the competition in the East. This: It would have taken a spectacular tanking, a tanking probably beyond the Bulls’ capacity, for them to have a good chance in the lottery.
By rising to the fourth seed in the East as one of the hottest teams in 2014, the Bulls pretty much scrapped any tank talk.
With a second-round playoff exit likely in the cards, the Rose situation still remains relevant even if the tank talk is over.
But the franchise identity has morphed, with Noah and Thibodeau emerging as the heart and soul of what used to be Rose's team.
7. The Bulls Are Open for Business (2)
Previously, in a nutshell: Just about every player on the roster found his way into one trade rumor or another leading up to the February trade deadline. In the wake of the Deng trade anything seemed possible as far as the front office was concerned.
And now: Entering the trade deadline at 28-25 on a four-game winning streak, Chicago stayed quiet through the trade deadline.
Chicago opted to stay put and go the buyout route. They added sharpshooter Jimmer Fredette, who never gained favor in Sacramento, for the rest of the season.
Thibodeau has yet to really work Fredette into the rotation. He's only seen a handful of minutes in five games, but there's still hope.
I swear to God. Jimmer will shoot your lights out country western style. He will matter to this Bulls team. Mark my words.— Adam Jun (@ajbulls) March 12, 2014
6. Chicago Can’t and Won’t Shoot from Behind the Arc (8)
Previously, in a nutshell: Through the first 37 games of the season, Chicago was one of the worst and most reluctant three-point shooting teams in the NBA.
And now: The Bulls continue to struggle from behind the arc.
Thanks in large part to D.J. Augustin, the team's percentage has jumped a few points from .334 in mid-January to .347. Chicago still sits near the bottom in both attempts and percentage.
Augustin is up to 40.3 percent on the season, making him the only Bull in the top 50 three-point shooters. Mike Dunleavy is the only other player on the roster among the top 100 and his percentage has fallen from .412 to .377.
If he can ever crack the rotation, late-season addition Fredette will surely boost Chicago's perimeter shooting. Despite minimal playing time, Fredette hit 36 of 73 three-pointers (49.3 percent) in Sacramento, giving him the best percentage in the NBA before switching conferences.
5. Taj Is Ready for the Starting Lineup (6)
Previously, in a nutshell: At half the price of Boozer, Gibson was putting up relatively equal offensive numbers while also being a force on defense.
And now: Gibson and Boozer continue to go in opposite directions. As already discussed, Boozer is putting up some of the worst numbers of his career and remains a liability on defense.
Gibson, front-runner for Sixth Man of the Year, leads the NBA in fourth-quarter minutes and has the third-highest PER (16.9) in the Bulls' rotation after Noah and Augustin. Discounting Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, he's the Bulls' third-leading scorer over the course of the season with 13.2.
For all Gibson's offensive improvements and fourth-quarter minutes, Thibodeau may want to keep him as a sixth man for the foreseeable future. With a new round of rumors linking Bosh to the Bulls, that outcome becomes even more likely.
4. Thibs Is a Defensive Wizard
Previously, in a nutshell: Thibodeau had Chicago playing stellar defense despite losing Deng, who usually guarded the opponent's best scorer.
And now: Believe it or not, the Bulls have been even stingier since the first ranking.
In 27 games, Chicago has allowed a league-best 91.7 points per game, down from 92.8. It's limiting teams to the fewest free-throw attempts per game (19.1) and fourth-lowest field-goal percentage (.437), per NBA.com.
Proving that heart, hustle and muscle have value in today's NBA, the Bulls are second in opponents' second-chance points (11.7) and eighth in opponents' fast-break points (12.6), per NBA.com.
Recently, they've held Houston, Miami, Golden State and Denver (all top 10 offenses) under 90 points. And Thibs has his guys playing consistently from night to night:
Bulls are now 12-1 following their last 13 losses.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) March 14, 2014
Look at the schedule and you'll see that Chicago has only had one losing streak since before Christmas and it lasted two games.
3. D.J. Augustin Can Lead the Second Unit
Previously, in a nutshell: Augustin was a revelation for Chicago, playing capable basketball in backup point guard minutes and providing valuable outside shooting.
And now: The Toronto Raptors castoff has only driven his value higher in the last two months.
He's the Bulls' leading scorer with 16.5 points, their best three-point shooter (.455) and second to Joakim Noah in assists with 4.4 per game.
Coming off the bench, Augustin led the Bulls in scoring in wins over Miami, Detroit, New York and Denver. Over the course of the season he's the second most accurate free-throw shooter at 91.6 percent, next to Dirk Nowitzki.
The Bulls are not strangers to small bench guys going off:
DJ Augustin is going where John Lucas III & CJ Watson have gone before. He's got 19 on 7-of-10 shooting.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) March 9, 2014
But Augustin is more Nate Robinson than John Lucas III. In fact, his numbers this season are a shade better than Robinson's last year.
Unfortunately, this likely means Chicago will be facing a similar price to keep Augustin as Robinson got from Denver last summer.
2. Nikola Mirotic Looks More Attractive Every Day (Honorable Mention)
Previously, in a nutshell: With so many cards shuffling around the Bulls roster, rumors of Nikola Mirotic finally coming to Chicago this offseason peaked back in January.
And now: Though talk on Mirotic cooled somewhat, his name became important again once the idea of Carmelo Anthony joining Chicago began to swirl.
Chicago Bulls would be surprised if they don't sign Nikola Mirotic this summer - (Podcast: Mike McGraw/Bulls Zone) - http://t.co/2xZr5iBArj— Chicago Bulls Rumors (@chicagobullsbot) February 26, 2014
League sources have said that Nikola Mirotic would be looking for a deal around $3m-$4m per season. (Source:Ken Berger)/via @chicagobullsbot— ChicagoBullsManila (@BullsNationPH) March 8, 2014
If the Bulls sign Melo w/ cap space, most they could offer Mirotic would be Room Exception. Probably not getting it done.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) March 6, 2014
Unless the Bulls' brass gets creative, it looks like they will either try to sign a big free agent a la Anthony or Bosh, or bring Mirotic over and use the rest of their cap space on less pricey free-agent targets.
Either way, this has been the talk of the town despite Chicago's unheralded play this year, as most expect the Bulls to bow out in the second round of the playoffs.
1. Joakim Noah Might Just Be the Most Passionate Player in the NBA (10)
Previously, in a nutshell: Upset by seeing Deng go, Noah both shunned the outside world and played even better basketball after the trade.
And now: Noah has taken his game to newer heights, entering his name into the "who is MVP after LeBron and Durant" conversation.
In becoming the focal point for Chicago's offense, Noah has become a triple-double threat, recording three in a month. He fell one assist shy of another against Dwight Howard, and people are starting to question which of the two is the best center in the league:
Is Joakim Noah the best center in the NBA? Dwight Howard is more talented, but who would you rather have on your team?— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) March 9, 2014
Forget Dwight Howard, the Gasol brothers, Lopez, give me Joakim Noah every time. Best center in the league— Thunder Logic (@ThunderLogic) March 9, 2014
The development of his passing game has given Chicago's offense a new dimension, which is critical for a team that struggles to manufacture points on a consistent basis:
Over the last month, Joakim Noah has more assists than Kyrie Irving & Kyle Lowry, more rebs than DeAndre Jordan, & more blocks than D Howard— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) March 6, 2014
A different player seems to step up every game, but Noah has been the constant force as to why:
The Bulls have the second-best record in the East since Jan. 1. The biggest reason? Joakim Noah has been UNSTOPPABLE pic.twitter.com/be9ilW5Vu6— ESPN The Magazine (@ESPNMag) March 10, 2014