Chicago Bulls Are Poised to Win Quite a Few NBA Awards
As the regular season draws to a close, the Chicago Bulls are in the discussion for quite a few awards and honors.
Everyone from midseason waiver-wire acquisition D.J. Augustin to All-Star Joakim Noah is getting at least some mention for an award. While they won’t win all of them, or even most of them, these five Bulls will garner votes.
Here are the players, the awards they’re being talked up for and the chances they win. They are ranked according to probability of earning the honors.
D.J. Augustin: Most Improved Player
When D.J. Augustin was waived by the Toronto Raptors in December, his career appeared to be in its death throes.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, they were having their greatest struggles since Tom Thibodeau became their head coach. When the Bulls picked Augustin up on December 13, the moribund player and the dilapidated team managed to salvage one another.
On the 21st, Augustin had his first big game with the Bulls, scoring 18 points and dishing 10 assists against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Prior to that game, the Bulls were 9-16. Since then, they've gone 31-15.
That is what we call a turnaround. And in large part, it's because of Augustin, who is averaging 14.1 points and 5.0 assists as a Bull. His 206 assists off the bench are sixth in the NBA, and his 582 points rank 20th. That’s not bad for a player whose career was nearly over.
His player efficiency rating with the Raptors was 1.2. With the Bulls, it’s 16.2. That is another turnaround.
It’s enough progression that Augustin has had his name come up in Most Improved Player conversation. As Sekou Smith points out in his Hang Time Blog for NBA.com, Augustin’s 9.5 point-per-game boost over last season leads the NBA, but it’s not enough to land him the award.
Smith writes, "At a quick glance, Chicago guard D.J. Augustin should run away with the award. However he’s only appeared in 46 games for the Bulls and his improvement is based on the gaping hole left at point guard by the MVP Derrick Rose."
Augustin has a one percent chance at the award, which will probably end up in the hands of Anthony Davis, Lance Stephenson or Goran Dragic. They've all improved at least as much as Augustin, and they had a higher base to begin with.
Augustin should get some votes near the bottom of the ballot, though, and at least some recognition for his tremendous improvement under Tom Thibodeau.
Taj Gibson: 6th Man of the Year, Most Improved Player, All-Defensive Team
Taj Gibson has gotten mentions for Sixth Man of the Year, Most Improved Player and the All-Defensive team.
Sam Smith of Bulls.com delivers the argument for Most Improved Player, but it’s highly unlikely to happen. Gibson's just not in that discussion outside of the local media.
The most conversation has been on the sixth man award. Recently, in an interview with NBA TV's Steve Kerr, Gibson was asked about winning the award.
His answer, as transcribed by Cody Westerlund of CBS Chicago: "It would mean a lot, it would mean a lot. To go from a guy that’s just focused on defense and now my teammates are focused on me on offense, it’s just great. Just evaluating my game and the coaching staff just believing in me, it’d be a dream come true."
In “indirectly” stating his case, Gibson said:
I try to be consistent. I try to bring energy, defense, scoring. All those put together, we should have a good shot to win.
I bring scoring, rebounding and defense, and I play in the most crucial point of the game. I play every fourth quarter. It’s totally different from a big man’s aspect (as opposed to guards who specialize in scoring).
The award typically goes to the leading scorer off the bench, though. And that distinction belongs to Los Angeles Clippers reserve Jamal Crawford.
But if there’s ever been a year when voters should look beyond just the scoring numbers and into the advanced stats for the award, it’s this one. Crawford might be the better scorer, but Gibson is easily the more important player to his team’s success.
You could make a strong case that the Bulls sixth man is actually the team's second-best player this season, behind only Joakim Noah. You could make no such argument for Crawford or the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Reggie Jackson.
This is the award that will most likely see the Bulls get slighted. While Gibson deserves it, it’s improbable that the voters change the voting pattern established over the history of the award. He’ll get votes, but that’s about it.
His chances for the Sixth Man of the Year are no better than 25 percent. He has about a 40 percent chance at the All-Defensive team, though.
Tom Thibodeau: Coach of the Year
The Coach of the Year award will be very interesting, and it won’t be determined until the end of the season.
At this point, it’s a two-man race between the Bulls' Tom Thibodeau and the Phoenix Suns' Jeff Hornacek.
Kendall Baker of Bleacher Report does an excellent job of breaking down the race. He identifies just why Thibodeau has so much success with the Bulls.
Thibodeau is a coach that clearly understands what it takes to motivate professional athletes, and he has mastered the art of consistency. What I mean by that is this: Thibodeau's players trust their coach's approach to the game so much that they would never even consider questioning him.
And that’s really the whole of it. Thibodeau’s players buy completely into his system. The only comparable situation is in San Antonio, where Gregg Popovich is the unquestioned boss.
First, the Bulls lost their best player, Derrick Rose, to a season-ending injury. Then, on January 6, they traded their leading scorer, Luol Deng, for cap space and picks. At that point, it seemed like the Bulls were going into tank mode.
But that’s not the way these Bulls go under Thibodeau. Since trading Deng, the Bulls have the best record in the Eastern Conference.
That doesn’t just make a case for Coach of the Year but also stands on top of the United Center and bellows it. The Bulls are where they are because Thibodeau is having the coaching year of a lifetime, and his players absolutely believe in him.
Phoenix wasn't expected to do anything this year, and Hornacek is guiding half the team's players to having the best year of their careers. All that individual success is translating into team success. That's sort of the very definition of coaching. Hornacek deserves the award as well.
If Phoenix makes the playoffs, he should, and will, win the award. If not, it is Thibodeau’s.
Let’s put the odds at 50-50.
Jimmy Butler: All-Defensive Team
Jimmy Butler is emerging as one of the best wing defenders in the NBA. Perhaps he’s even the best, if you believe the numbers. As such, he is deserving of an All-Defensive team selection.
In spite of the fact that he regularly guards the best player on the other team, he has the lowest opponent’s player efficiency rating (oPER) of any player who has spent at least 40 percent of his team’s minutes on the court, per 82games.com.
Some might argue that oPER is a flawed stat, but other numbers back it up. Butler stacks up with other well-reputed wing defenders with his Synergy numbers as well.
Here are this year's numbers comparing Butler with last year’s All-Defensive wings. He leads them all in points per play against, both in overall numbers and in isolation. The latter demonstrates he's not just benefiting from team defense.
The month of March gives a particularly compelling case of how well he’s playing right now. He’s gone up against some of the top wings in the league and has been impressive in the process.
Here is what the world's best offensive players did when Butler was the initial defender on the play, based on Synergy’s logs (account required for logs only).
The only one who was remotely successful against Butler was Kevin Durant, but even he was held below his usual average of 1.1 points per play. And he is Kevin Durant.
That should be enough to get Butler on the All-Defensive team, and it has Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau endorsing his selection when asked by CSN Chicago's Aggery Sam whether Butler was deserving.
Well, I’m biased, but in my opinion, he is. I don’t know if it gets much better than him on the perimeter. There’s no off nights. Every team you’re facing is going to have a dynamic scorer. Jimmy, I love his demeanor and his attitude. Jimmy is a fierce, fierce competitor and when you’re guarding those guys, you can guard them great and they still have the ability to make, and Jimmy’s going to keep on coming.
Thibodeau also elaborated on Butler’s flexibility.
So Jimmy’s tough and he’s guarding everyone. He guards point guards, twos, threes, fours. We have the opportunity to do some switching with him. Small on big, doesn’t matter. If he ends up on a big, he’s physical, he’s tough, he’s mentally tough. Those are all the characteristics that you need.
Right now, the other elite defensive shooting guards are having a bit of a down season. Butler is stopping the world's best players on national TV, and it’s helping the Bulls push for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. All those things together should push him into at least a second-team selection.
If life is fair, he should make the first team, but life isn't always fair. First-team honors are often awarded as much on reputation as on actual play, and reputations take time to build.
There's an 85 percent chance Butler makes the second team and a 20 percent chance he makes the first team.
Joakim Noah: MVP, DPOY, All-NBA, All-Defensive Team
Joakim Noah might not be the most improved player this year, but arguably no player has done more to redefine himself.
Once viewed as merely a great “energy” guy and defender, he’s so much more than that now. With the Bulls offense struggling, Thibodeau reinvented it and ran it through Noah.
As a result, Noah is having one of the most dominant seasons in history by someone who is not a ball-dominant player.
On NBA.com, Sekou Smith writes in his MVP Ladder, where he has Noah ranked fourth,
How many centers lead their team in rebounds, assists and blocks? Don't even bother looking it up. And there's no doubt he leads the entire league, regardless of position, in passion. The versatile Noah, who has emerged as the co-face of the franchise with Derrick Rose, is rewriting his own bio with a spectacular season that will keep him in the hearts and minds of Bulls fans worldwide.
Noah will get votes for the MVP, but let’s be real. He has no shot at winning that. It’s Kevin Durant’s already. But, he’s probably going to get Defensive Player of the Year as a consolation prize. Mike McGraw of the Daily Herald writes:
Having been a voter for these awards, some insight is available here. Media members don’t have a clear idea which player is truly the best defender. They need a hook.
Noah’s got that with his nonstop intensity and ability to keep pushing the Bulls into the playoffs without Derrick Rose or Luol Deng. Reporters figure he’s due for an award and this one is it.
Like it or lump it, the media is itching to give Noah an award, and this is it. And truthfully, it’s not entirely unreasonable for him to win this one. He’s the anchor of the defense, and the defense has been on par with any in the NBA since Deng was traded, even the Indiana Pacers.
Noah is a different type of defender than Roy Hibbert, the other potential winner. Noah is arguably more responsible for this team's success, though. Hibbert is a great rim protector, but that doesn't mean he’s the best defensive player. As Sam Smith of Bulls.com points out,
There’s been a season long notion that the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert should be Defensive Player of the Year. I don’t see it. It’s a non-thinking vote based on sort of Greek logic: The Pacers have the best opponent shooting percentage defensively, ergo, they must be the best defensive team and then Hibbert as their center must be the best defensive player. He’s a fine rim protector as a shot blocker. But he’s so immobile you can get him out of position with movement, and he doesn't come out on the court that well to help. I have him as the Pacers’ third best defender. I’d have Noah ahead of him, though that Defensive Player of the Year has somehow morphed into best defensive center. It shouldn't be.
How many players in the league can stay in the post with Dwight Howard and step to the perimeter to guard LeBron James in isolation? Hibbert can't. That's why he was on the bench with the game on the line in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season.
Noah’s defensive versatility makes the Bulls’ switch-heavy defense work.
He certainly is as deserving as Hibbert, and right now voters are itching to vote him in for something. That, combined with the way the Bulls are finishing compared to the Pacers, makes it easy to see Noah with the momentum now.
And, if that weren't enough, there will be this image seared into voters' brains. DPOYs don't flop and say, "Oy!"
Noah will probably finish fourth or fifth in MVP voting but has a zero percent chance at winning. There is, however, a 90 percent chance that Noah is the next Defensive Player of the Year. If he doesn't win that, he will certainly be first- or second-team All-NBA and on the All-Defensive team.