Despite losing two of their top players this season (Derrick Rose to a knee injury and Luol Deng to a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers), the Bulls are nine games above .500 and are currently slated to have homecourt advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Coach Tom Thibodeau—and his defensive system—has justifiably gotten much of the credit for their unlikely success. But without players helping to fill the voids left by Rose and Deng, the Bulls wouldn't be having nearly this kind of success.
Note: All statistics compiled from NBA.com and updated as of March 22.
D.J. Augustin wasn't with the Bulls last season, or even when this season began. But his play has improved drastically from a year ago, and he has continued to get better during his time in Chicago.
With the Indiana Pacers in 2012-13, Augustin had his worst NBA season, averaging just 4.7 points per game on 35 percent shooting. In 10 games with the Toronto Raptors this season, he was shooting under 30 percent from the field. But in 51 games with the Bulls, Augustin is averaging 14.1 points and five assists while shooting 41.4 percent from the field. He's also been the best three-point shooter of their regulars, making 41.6 percent on five attempts per game.
Augustin has been a major spark off the bench for the Bulls as one of their only players capable of getting his own shot. And he has improved steadily in his role as Derrick Rose-lite. In March, he has averaged 16.7 points on 45.9 percent shooting—both are season highs for a month.
Augustin was cast aside by the Raptors at the beginning of the season, but he's been a big reason why the Bulls are among the top teams in the East.
Last season, Bulls center Joakim Noah made his first All-Star team and was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team. This season, he has proven that not only was that not a fluke, but that he was capable of playing even better.
He is currently on pace for career highs in points (12.4), rebounds (11.2), assists (5.1) and PER (20.28). And he's done all that while playing two fewer minutes per game than he did a season ago.
The most impressive part of Noah's season is how he's played since Rose and Deng have been gone. Just look at his stats month by month:
His play over the past three months has been the reason why Noah is starting to be acknowledged by people around the league for his play. Earlier this month, Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale said Noah should win Defensive Player of the Year. Fans at the United Center have chanted "M-V-P" when he's shot free throws. And many analysts have said that he belongs in the top five on an MVP ballot.
With LeBron James and Kevin Durant playing out of their minds, Noah obviously won't be this season's MVP. But he has proven once again that he is the heart and soul of the Bulls, and that there is more than one star on the roster.
While Bulls starting power forward Carlos Boozer has had arguably his worst NBA season (career lows in PER, field-goal percentage, and his lowest point and rebound totals since he was a rookie), nobody on the team has improved more than his soon-to-be replacement, Taj Gibson.
For four seasons, Gibson has been a key member of the team's second unit, using his length and athleticism to defend the basket, guard multiple positions and finish around the rim. He provided a good change of pace for the offensive-minded Boozer, and Gibson would even stay on the court at the end some games, depending on matchups and who was playing better.
But this season he has proven that he is talented enough to be an above-average starting NBA power forward when he finally gets the chance—likely next season. While he was once a strictly defensive player, Gibson has become a much more consistent scoring threat, averaging a career-high 13.4 points per game. Some of that comes from increased playing time, but he is averaging 3.9 points more per 36 minutes than he did a season ago, per basketball-reference.com.
That increased scoring output is the result of two improvements in his game. First, he's been a more aggressive offensive player. His usage rate is up to 23.2 percent (his previous high for a season is 18.6 percent), per basketball-reference.com, and he's drawing fouls at a higher rate—averaging 3.5 free throw attempts per game.
The second thing he's done is become more consistent shooting a long two-point jumper. From 15 to 19 feet this season he is making 41.8 percent of his shots, per NBA.com. That's up from 31.7 percent a season ago. For this Bulls team that ranks No. 25 in three-point shooting, Gibson's improved ability to score away from the rim helps space the court for other players. It also makes him a more versatile pick-and-roll partner—which will help when a certain point guard returns next season.
It hasn't been just Gibson's offense that has improved, either. In 2012-13, he held opposing power forwards to a PER of 15.6, per 82games.com. This season, in increased minutes against starters, that number is down to 13.4 against power forwards.
Who has been the Bulls' most improved player this season?
With the way he's been playing defensively this season, Gibson appears to be in contention for a spot on one of the All-Defensive teams.
‘‘In my eyes he is [deserving],’’ Thibodeau said to the Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘There’s not one aspect of his defense [that is flawed], if you look at low-post, pick-and-roll, the ability to switch, the blocked shots, the anticipation, multiple effort. He’s got great, feet. So I don’t see why not.’’
Gibson's overall performance this season will also put him in the running for the Sixth Man of the Year award, and possibly even the Most Improved Player. His play should make it an easy decision for the Bulls to keep him in their long-term plans.
Having Taj Gibson signed through 2017 at no season higher than $9 million will go down as one of management's best moves.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) March 25, 2014
That sure isn't something that would have been said before the season.
Jakub Rudnik covers the Detroit Pistons and the Central Division for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.