Their best player employs perhaps the most awkward jump shot in basketball. Their leading scorer—plucked off waivers a little over a month into the season—averages 14.9 points per game. Their offense is ranked lower in overall efficiency than the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz. Their coach could, in a certain light, be confused for a Dick Tracy villain or vacuum cleaner salesman.
So what is it about the Chicago Bulls that makes them one of the most dangerous teams entering the 2013-14 playoffs?
Two words: The Vandals.
We'll get to that.
First, the facts: Riding the NBA's longest current winning streak (seven games), the No. 4-seeded Bulls will likely square off against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. Chicago is 2-1 against the Nets this year, including a 95-78 dismantling back on Christmas.
By now, the reputation of the Bulls' legendary defense practically precedes itself: They've been ranked in the top five all season and currently sit just one efficiency point behind the Indiana Pacers.
In principle and punch, it's the same scheme that helped Chicago dispatch the favored Nets in seven brutal games in last year's opening round before succumbing to eventual champs the Miami Heat in the conference semifinals.
The same, yes, but better. How much better, you ask?
Over the final month of last season, Chicago tallied an offensive rating (ORtg) of 102.7 and a defensive rating (DRtg) of 103.1. Contrastingly, from March 13 through Sunday, this year's Bulls are registering an ORtg of 103.9—comparable, in other words, to last year's stretch—and a league-leading DRtg of 96.2.
In other words, Tom Thibodeau has his troops peaking defensively at the ideal time.
Regularly questioned as an overly dictatorial drill sergeant, Thibodeau's coaching chops have begun to draw the attention of as eminent a system-less gunner as the New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony:
Carmelo on the Bulls success despite injuries: "Thibs is a great coach, his system kind of reminds me of a Gregg Popovich's system." (Cont)— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) April 12, 2014
More Melo: on the Bulls: "You put anybody in that system and it’s going to work. That’s what they’ve been doing."— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) April 12, 2014
Melo's future maneuvers aside, this is all bad news for the rest of the playoff field, beginning with the Nets. But for as formidable an out as Deron Williams and company no doubt pose, it's in the next round that the Bulls could potentially do some real damage.
The way things look now, the Pacers, who have one more regular-season game against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, will enter the postseason as the conference's No. 1 seed—and this after a legendary spring swoon that very nearly saw them fracture and crater altogether.
That means Chicago would find itself facing its division rival in the second round, with a very real chance of pulling off the upset and advancing to the conference finals.
Not surprisingly, the two squads split their season series 2-2, with home court holding sway in each of the four showdowns. The Pacers will hold home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, but given their offensive struggles as of late, facing a defensive titan like Chicago is the last thing the doctor ordered.
If Chicago can advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, it will face off against a familiar foe: LeBron James and the Heat, the team responsible for ending the Bulls’ season two of the last three years.
Like Indy, Miami enters the playoffs facing a slew of questions relating to the team's health, performance and—as often happens to teams on the brink of a dynasty—overall resolve.
In other words: The Heat are a wounded animal whose blood the Bulls can smell half a continent away.
Miami would most certainly be favored, of course. But the Bulls' biggest threat lies not so much in what the team itself is capable of accomplishing as much as the toll they're capable of exacting—physical, emotional and psychological—from anyone standing in their way.
And that, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes pointed out recently, has everything to do with confidence:
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.
It's hard to say how the Bulls feel about the Nets. We do, however, have a pretty good idea how they see the Pacers and the Heat: enemies, to be sure, but enemies whose hatred is rooted in history.
Which brings us back to the Vandals. After years—centuries, even—of brutal subjugation, this group of Eastern Germanic tribes commenced the downfall of the Roman Empire as we know it when they sacked the capitol city in A.D. 455.
The Vandals didn't have their enemies' highfalutin technology or fancy weaponry. Their tactics of war, in stark contrast to Rome's legendary arms and principles of organization, were comparatively primitive.
But the Vandals had something Rome—an analogy for a dynasty if ever there was one—didn't: a combination of destructive disregard and sheer holy rage to spark the downfall, time though it took, of the reigning regime.
No one expects the Bulls to contend for an NBA title. Their methods, while stubbornly effective, simply aren't refined enough to warrant them consideration as true lords of the NBA realm.
The Pacers and the Heat, in all likelihood, believe this, and they may well be right. But if one bit of caution can be drawn from the fate of their metaphorical counterparts, it's that, if the enemy's made it to the city gates—has taken the series all the way to seven games—chances are it's already too late.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com.