The Chicago Bulls have had more ups and downs than the Willis Tower elevator. Watching them get repeatedly demolished on defense feels weirder than calling the Sears Tower the Willis, but even with all the drama in the Windy City, the Bulls are still looking like they could be in for a postseason run.
Yes, you read that right.
In all sports, there’s a goal to peak right when the squad is heading into the playoffs. Often, it’s not the best team that does well in the postseason but the one that is playing best at the time.
It’s hard to sift through the weirdness of this season to find that, but when you peel back the surface and look at some of the underlying numbers, the Bulls are primed for a run.
They’re Getting Healthy (Maybe)
Health is a problem once again. That’s been going on since the 2010-11 season and has reached a preposterous level. To give you an idea of how bad it is, look at the last six years and their starts missed since then (gleaned from the starting lineups data at Basketball-Reference.com):
|Season||Healthy||Minus One Starter||Minus Two Starters||Minus Three Starters||Total Games||Total Starts Missed|
Bear in mind that doesn’t even touch the bench players and the games they’ve missed. So it’s little wonder that Jimmy Butler wanted a second opinion.
K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reported:
"Jimmy had two really good weeks going 100 percent on that leg," [head coach Fred] Hoiberg said. "Had a really good practice the day before (the game with Houston). Got him out in a game situation, felt great during the game. We monitored him throughout that game on how he was feeling. He actually felt good the next morning, participated in (Sunday's) practice. And then it swelled up on him."
That swelling has subsided. And the Bulls said an exam by [team physician Brian] Cole during Monday's victory over the Bucks showed the knee to be structurally sound.
Fortunately, that second opinion confirmed that Butler is fine. Aaron Brooks has missed two games with patellar tendinitis in his right knee, but that doesn't seem serious.
And Joakim Noah is out for the season with a separated shoulder, the only significant injury the Bulls have at present.
Equally remarkable is the Bulls' ability to continue making the postseason in spite of injuries. They’ve postponed their fishing trips in each of the last seven seasons, a streak bettered by only the San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks.
However, Chicago has been getting into the postseason either injured or with key players still shaking off the rust from extended absences.
This year, it could actually see its starting five healthy and working in sync.
Mike Dunleavy Is Back
Mike Dunleavy missed the first 49 games of the season recovering from back surgery, and now he's already making his presence felt.
The difference is bigger than what you see in his 9.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. He stretches the court with 46.9 percent three-point shooting and is a plus defender.
According to NBA.com, in the 136 minutes he’s played with the other three starters, the Bulls have an 112.2 offensive rating and a 4.2 net rating.
When it’s Tony Snell, their offensive rating is only 93.9 and the net rating is 2.1. When it’s Doug McDermott, those numbers are 104.8 and 2.0. And when it’s Nikola Mirotic, they’re 110.0 and 0.7.
And bear in mind that the bulk of Dunleavy’s minutes have come without Butler. Snell and McDermott have played with him.
Dunleavy is categorically the best small forward on the team, and his return will factor heavily in the Bulls winning down the stretch—particularly when they get Butler back to stay.
The Defense Is Stabilizing
The Bulls defense has had its ups and downs, but it’s looking better now.
The chart below shows the Bulls' game-by-game defensive rating. The dashed, curving line is a polynomial trend line, meaning it shows how the trend changes over time:
The Bulls defense started off average but quickly improved. Then, after Joakim Noah went out with an injury on Dec. 21, it started floundering. In spite of Noah’s brief return over a four-game stretch from Jan. 11-15, Chicago was a positively hospitable team for over a month.
But then, around the beginning of February, it started to get its act together. Sure, the Bulls were still giving up 100 points a night, but that’s a lot about the pace they play with too. For the season, in spite of the struggles, they’ve had the 10th-best defense in the league.
If they bring that top-10-caliber defense into the playoffs, it bodes well for them advancing deep.
Derrick Rose Is Returning to All-Star-Caliber Play
Rose has quietly been returning to All-Star form after his horrendous start to the season.
According to RealGM.com, since the break, Rose has a player efficiency rating of 21.9 with a true shooting percentage of 60.4 percent. And he’s doing that with averages 21.4 points, 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game.
He topped 15 points while shooting better than 50 percent from the field in each of his first seven games after the break, the longest such stretch of his career and tied for the best such streak in the NBA this season.
That only ended after he scored 21 on 9-of-21 shooting on Thursday night when Kawhi Leonard, the best perimeter defender in the league, was guarding him.
And looking at his game log, this isn’t just a spurt of improvement but a gradual incline over the course of the season.
The chart below shows his scoring total (the blue line) and true shooting percentage (the orange line) in each game. The dashed lines are trend lines indicating a marked and consistent improvement:
All of these signs point to Rose not just enjoying a hot streak but actually returning to a high level of play. Perhaps he’s not back to MVP form, but he’s certainly an asset more than a liability now.
Rose and Butler Are Developing Chemistry
Over the last two seasons, one of the biggest issues has been the ongoing struggle to get Chicago's backcourt to play together and not just take turns with the ball. That’s a problem exacerbated by each of the two stars feeling a claim that this is “their team.”
Derrick Rose is a homegrown MVP, and Butler is currently the best player, so both have a legitimate flag to plant in that territory.
But it seems they’ve finally decided they’re better off—and so is the team—if they stop that tussling and just play together.
Johnson wrote about how they’ve been developing not just chemistry on the court but an appreciation for working together after the Bulls' win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 28 in which the two stars played so well together.
Thursday night offered perhaps the best example of the dynamic guards' ability to blend their talents. That seemed fitting because both revealed that they talked at the outset of this seven-game trip about their potential powerful pairing:
"We were laughing about it, saying the more games we get under our belt, the more comfortable we're going to be," Butler said. "I love playing with him. He's super aggressive. He's taking great shots. That's what we need. As long as I follow his lead on that style of play, we're going to be really good."
And Rose reflected the same sentiment:
"It's always going to improve," Rose said of their chemistry. "This is new for me as it's new for him, playing with an elite guard. We're very young. The way that he has been playing is great. Like I always say, I want him to shoot more. But I just love his shot selection. And the way he's driving to the lane, getting fouled, it helps our team all the way around."
Since then, when both have played, they’ve averaged a combined 43 points on 57.5 percent true shooting, 10.6 rebounds, 11.4 assists and 2.2 steals. That’s enough to put them with the elite backcourts in the league.
The indications are that the Bulls are putting things together at the right time. Even after a hard-fought 109-101 loss to San Antonio in the AT&T Center temporarily dropped them out of the top eight teams in the East, they should be feeling good about a deep playoff run.