While higher seeding can contribute to success in the playoffs, effectively exploiting advantages are just as important for winning.
The Chicago Bulls definitely have a few things working in their favor as they gear up for the second season.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau has guided this team to a winning record and playoff berth for the fourth consecutive year, the last two without superstar Derrick Rose.
They have beaten some conference heavies along the way and are poised to be the perfect spoiler/dark horse.
It will definitely be an uphill climb for the team. The Bulls started the season second to the Miami Heat as favorites to win a championship but have since dropped to 11th overall in a recent poll published on VegasInsider.com.
That’s not to say that a deep run is impossible; if the Bulls can consistently play to their strengths, they could hang around a lot longer than some may think.
Let’s take a look at what gives this team an edge over the rest of the Eastern Conference pack.
Disrupting the opponent’s rhythm has been the foundation of Chicago’s success during the Thibodeau era.
In fact, this club has been a top-three defensive team since the former Boston Celtics assistant jumped into the head-coaching ranks.
The Bulls play great as a unit, and it doesn’t hurt to have Joakim Noah protecting the paint and Jimmy Butler guarding the perimeter.
There are four other Eastern Conference teams who rank in the top 10 for points allowed, but the Bulls are one of only two teams who permit fewer than 92 points per contest.
With a playoff tree that is stacked with gifted scorers like LeBron James, John Wall and DeMar DeRozan, upsetting the offensive flow will give the Bulls the edge they need to carve out victories.
While their offense has been spotty all season long, their defense has been the anchor that’s held the team steady.
There are a number of skilled big men in the NBA, but there are very few frontcourt units that collectively play as well as Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson.
The closest conference grouping would be the Indiana Pacers' three-headed hydra of Roy Hibbert, David West and Luis Scola, but when comparing each player at their respective positions and rotational slot, it’s evident that the Bulls’ players perform better overall:
|Joakim Noah/Roy Hibbert||34.9/30.1||12.5/11.2||11.1/6.9||1.5/2.3||5.2/1.2|
|Carlos Boozer/David West||28.5/30.8||13.8/13.8||8.3/6.8||0.3/0.9||1.5/2.8|
|Taj Gibson/Luis Scola||28.8/16.9||13.2/7.3||6.9/4.8||1.4/0.2||1.1/0.9|
Boozer is posting his lowest scoring and rebounding averages since joining the team in 2010, but he is also playing his fewest minutes per game over that same timespan.
That kind of productivity when considering he’s getting less playing time is a testament to how skilled of a player the 11-year veteran is.
Gibson has broken out this year, and Thibodeau has rewarded the reserve forward’s improvement with a more trusted role in the player rotation.
As recent as last season, the closing minutes of a closely contested Bulls game would see an alternation between the starting and reserve power forward as the team switched between the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
Now that the former USC Trojan has added a mid-range jumper to his game, he is seeing a lot more floor time in the fourth quarter.
While the aforementioned players are good enough to hold their own against any of their NBA cohorts, it is Noah who has established himself as a bona fide star.
Saying that the starting center has stepped up for a team that has lost its two best players is an understatement.
Noah affects every phase of the game.
His most notable contributions have been on the offensive end, especially with facilitating. The two-time All-Star has 38 games with five or more assists.
By running the high-post offense, Thibodeau is able to create better passing and cutting lanes since the opposing team’s biggest defender is out of the paint guarding Noah.
With the big man’s ability to both see the floor and make the accurate throw, the Bulls are able to create a lot of easy attempts on goal.
Chicago’s frontcourt possesses a deep skill set that allows it to present a tandem that can respond to almost any in-game situation. When they perform well, it makes everyone else’s job easier.
Noah, Boozer and Gibson’s collective abilities are a cut above any other conference team’s combination, and that’s a pretty significant edge to have.
Effective coaching is the great equalizer in the NBA playoffs.
Having a strategist who can adequately adjust within the flow of the game and in between contests can be the difference between a deep run and an early exit.
If the current qualifying postseason teams don’t change, Dwane Casey, Steve Clifford, Jason Kidd and Randy Wittman would be making their playoff coaching debuts; Thibodeau, Erik Spoelstra and Frank Vogel have conference finals experience.
Thibodeau is still in the early stages of his head-coaching career, but he has quickly forged and honed a reputation as one of the game’s sharpest minds.
But Thibs and his core are battle-tested.
This team’s 2014 regular-season run is evidence of their coach’s ability to quickly rebound from adversity and get back on the winning track.
Now, it can be argued that the Nets have also played some pretty impressive ball as well, but it remains to be seen if Kidd has what it takes to make the rapid assessments necessary for thriving in the playoffs.
Thibodeau’s know-how combined with his players’ belief in his system will be the difference-maker in their postseason.
Just like last year, the Bulls are in a position where they can advance past the first round.
The Nets were in it last year but lost at the hands of a depleted Bulls team. They look more polished now, but the biggest X-factor hinges on how well their rookie coach adjusts.
All things considered, experience both on the court and the sideline should play to Chicago’s advantage setting up what would surely be a spirited second-round showdown with either the Pacers or Heat.
Some of the faces may have changed, but the game remains the same.
Look for the Bulls to continue their overachieving ways throughout the postseason.
Note: All statistics current as of Thursday, April 3.