Did We Expect Too Much from The Chicago Bulls?

[Ed. note: I pitched this piece a little while back and it didn’t get picked up where I pitched it, so I’m posting it here. Chicago has picked it up some of late, so it’s not exactly timely, but I wrote it and wanted it to have a place on the internet.]

The Chicago Bulls have been one of the NBA’s weirdest teams this year. They’ve been labeled a contender since they signed Pau Gasol in the offseason. While Pau’s put up big numbers, and Derrick Rose has played 41 out of 52 games, the Bulls don’t look anything like a contender on a night to night basis.

Chicago’s defense, typically the backbone of the team, has fallen off significantly from its usual spot amongst the top 3 to 5 teams in the league to something much more average. The Bulls’ offense, on the other hand, a putrid eyesore last season, is back to respectability. In total, the 2014–15 Bulls have been a pretty good, not great team. It’s worth wondering why anything more was expected.

In some ways, it’s easy to see the logic behind the anointing of the Bulls as sure bets to make the Eastern Conference Finals. No one expected the Atlanta Hawks to become what they are and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ defense was a huge question mark. Chicago won 48 games last season and upgraded from Carlos Boozer to Pau Gasol and from D.J. Augustin to Derrick Rose. Predicting a significant boost in the win totals from those two seeming upgrades didn’t seem like much of a leap.

The truth of this season, though, has been that Rose has hardly been an upgrade over the performance Augustin provided and, in some ways, has actually been a downgrade. Part of that is how exceptionally well Augustin played last season in Chicago and part of it is the reality of Rose returning from nearly two entire years having played almost zero basketball.

Returning from one major knee injury is a difficult enough task, mentally and physically. Rose is returning from two. As a result, Rose is finishing at the basket worse than ever. Rose still helps the Bulls immensely when he charges into the paint over launching a long jumper, but his forays into the paint are just coming with less frequency than they once did. This shouldn’t be that shocking, really. To have expected Rose to return after being away from the hardwood for so long and be anywhere close to his former self was always absurdly optimistic. That’s not to say he can’t get ever back to that level, it’s just that it’s going to take time for him to get there and may require a change in how he plays. We might not see the best of Derrick Rose this season, and really, that makes total sense.

Gasol has absolutely been an upgrade over Carlos Boozer, that much can not be disputed. But Gasol does present many of the same problems that Boozer did. He is incredibly slow-footed on defense and his effort on that end is often demoralizingly poor. The Bulls defensive drop-off is not all Pau’s fault, but he is a big part of the problem. The other part, which Pau’s presence has exacerbated, is that Joakim Noah has not been himself this season. This, too, could have been predicted, were it not for the Rose-colored glasses with which everyone seemingly viewed this year’s Bulls.

Noah, after being an MVP candidate last season, was absolutely demolished in the playoffs by the Washington Wizards’ frontcourt. It was clear something was wrong with him, and as it turned out, he had to have offseason knee surgery. As a result, Noah, up until very recently, has seen his lateral movement significantly limited and his usual frenetic energy sapped. With Gasol manning the back-line center spot in the Bulls’ defense instead of Noah, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year has been forced to chase around power forwards on a bum wheel. Not exactly an ideal fit or situation.

Finally, a hugely under-discussed portion of the Bulls’ relatively disappointing season has been their lack of wing depth. Even with the problems that Rose’s rustiness and Noah’s balky knee have caused, the Bulls looked pretty close to the contender everyone expected up until January 1st.

What happened on January 1st? Mike Dunleavy Jr. jammed his ankle in a tilt against the Denver Nuggets. He’s been out ever since, as the injury has been the nagging sort. Without Dunleavy’s shooting in the starting lineup to space the floor around the driving games of Rose and Jimmy Butler and the post-ups of Pau Gasol, the Bulls have seen their offense stagnate. It’s been even worse on the other end of the floor. Dunleavy is a classic glue guy on defense, as his 6’9″ length and smart use of angles makes him tough to score over for most other wings in the league. The Bulls have missed him immensely.

Behind Dunleavy on the depth chart is Kirk Hinrich, a formerly solid two-way player who has seen his once stout defense slip markedly this season and who has been an offensive non-entity for a few seasons now. Second year player Tony Snell provides a decent approximation of the length and shooting of Dunleavy, but without the veteran savvy or, more problematically, the trust of Coach Tom Thibodeau. The Bulls have also tried rookie Nikola Mirotic on the wing, but he is really a stretch power forward more than anything, and doesn’t have the foot speed to defend most wings in the league. Doug McDermott, last year’s college Player of the Year, is also around as an option, but he was out until very recently with a knee injury of his own and appears to be firmly entrenched in Thibodeau’s dog-house, a not unusual phenomenon for rookies under the Bulls’ demanding and, at times, unforgiving head coach.

The Bulls’ lack of wing depth was a problem that was there to see for those that, knowing Thibodeau, could guess how reluctant he might be to use the young players who make up the majority of the Bulls’ wing rotation. If Dunleavy didn’t get hurt, this weakness of the Bulls’ roster might never have been exposed, but that’s life in the 82-game grind of an NBA season. Injuries invariably happen.

So are the Bulls a disappointment or did we simply expect too much? It’s a little of both. The Bulls had real weaknesses coming into this season that were glossed over due to the simple math of Rose plus Pau Gasol plus 48 wins last year equals contender. It’s also a long season, so even if the Bulls don’t take the East’s number one seed in the regular season, Rose and Noah could get right, with Dunleavy’s return on the horizon, and the Bulls could still come out of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It’s just been a more frustrating and difficult road so far than they or anyone else really expected.

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