Joakim Noah and his blue-collar buddies are gunning for the East's top-tier contenders.
The recipe for the Bulls hasn't appreciably changed since last season. Tom Thibodeau still demands (and gets) maximum effort from every player on his roster at all times. The defense is still boa constrictor-strong, and the chips on every Bull's shoulder remain substantial.
If anything, Chicago has simply doubled down on what made it dangerous a year ago.
There have, however, been a couple of intriguing tweaks that make these Bulls a uniquely fearsome playoff threat.
The Recent Developments
What the Bulls lack in offensive firepower and raw talent, they make up for with a proprietary blend of grit, defense and passion. That's not news. We saw them compensate for the loss of Derrick Rose last season by falling back on those traits.
So when Rose went down early this year, we knew what Chicago would do.
What was surprising, though, was the way the Bulls rallied even more strongly after a January deal that dumped Luol Deng on the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Andrew Bynum and cap relief (read: cap relief).
That move was a concession made by the front office. Gar Forman was essentially admitting that this Bulls team couldn't make enough noise in 2013-14 to justify Deng's impact on the salary cap. Thibodeau was furious and he channeled his ire with stunning effectiveness.
Noah became the team's focal point on both ends, providing a massive dose of "nobody believes in us" and motivating the roster. The Bulls united under a shared banner that read "We're not dead yet."
Since trading Deng, Chicago is 25-13.
All year, the Bulls have played at an elite level defensively and rank second in the league in overall defensive rating. But they've been No. 1 since trading Deng, just a hair ahead of the rival Indiana Pacers, per NBA.com.
They're hardly perfect, though, as the Bulls check in at No. 29 in offensive rating. They play at the league's second-slowest pace and, turn the ball over entirely too often and rank 27th—right between the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers—in true-shooting percentage.
Guess what? That's fine. Spoilers aren't supposed to be perfect; they're supposed to be just good enough to mess things up for everyone else. And the Bulls fit perfectly into that category.
Remember, too, that Thibodeau has figured out a clever way to give his team a dangerous offensive edge when necessary. He's landed on a closing lineup of D.J. Augustin, Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Noah that gives opponents fits on both ends.
Per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun Times, Augustin described the threat that lineup poses: "Playing with two [point] guards, it’s kind of hard for teams to defend us. We can run a lot of pick-and-rolls, just moving their defense around. They can’t stand and get set on defense."
Augustin's right: The Bulls have posted an offensive rating of 106.9 points per 100 possessions when he and Hinrich share the floor, a figure that dwarfs the Bulls' overall rating of 99 and would rank in the league's top 10 overall, per NBA.com.
Come playoff time, Chicago's ability to support its always-great defense with just enough scoring will only make it a more dangerous threat to the top clubs in the East.
The Nature of Fear
Speaking of those top clubs, the Bulls should be inspiring plenty of fear in the Pacers and Miami Heat.
Chicago beat Indiana on March 24 by a final score 89-77, outworking the Pacers and executing down the stretch and getting inspired play from Noah and Gibson. It gave the Bulls a 2-2 split on the season series with the Pacers, something Chicago has also achieved against the Heat.
It's not enough to cite a .500 record against the East's two top teams and then jump to the conclusion that the Bulls have proved their worth against elite competition. Those are small samples, and many of the contests could have gone either way.
What matters more is how Chicago feels about its chances against the East's best.
If Gibson's ferocity in beating Indiana is any indication, it feels pretty darn good.
And Noah's postgame comments—per The Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports)—further exemplify the Bulls' confidence level: "We feel like we can go at anybody, we can beat anybody, when we're hungry. Stay humble and keep grinding. I said right after the game, 'I'm excited about having an opportunity to play these guys again.'''
Per Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago, that self-assuredness is nothing more than the result of hard work. It also doesn't hurt that the Bulls have long known how to enter battle with less than a full arsenal:
That swagger is created day after day in practice and in the preparation that coach Tom Thibodeau puts his team through before the season even begins. And it helps them overcome the adversity created by the loss of Rose and the trade of Luol Deng.
As much as they still miss Deng's presence, the reality for the Bulls is that they are better right now than they were at this point last season.
There's little doubt about Friedell's last point.
If Chicago splits wins and losses evenly over the balance of the regular season, it'll still end up with a better record than the 45-37 figure it reached last year. Toss in the sneaky offensive growth, an indomitable will and, as always, that defense and you've got a team that could easily beat Indiana or Miami in a second-round series.
Spoiler to Contender?
The Bulls aren't supposed to be where they are right now, so expect them to feel similarly comfortable in another spot nobody thinks they belong: the Eastern Conference finals.
To get there, Chicago must beat either Indiana or Miami in the conference semis, and for all the reasons we've discussed, it's not at all difficult to see that happening. Once there, who's to say the Bulls won't just keep going? What have we seen in the past couple of seasons to suggest such a run is impossible?
At some point, spoilers turn into contenders and—if the Bulls elbow their way through a couple of playoff rounds—they'll do exactly that. From there, anything could happen.
Great spoilers are defiant, imperfect teams who play with the advantage of lowered expectations and a built-in "We'll show you" mentality. The Bulls tick all those boxes.
Count them among the East's also-rans at your own risk. Just don't be surprised when Chicago's elite defense, uncompromising attitude and total fearlessness make them a massive threat to topple the conference's top two teams.