The Chicago Bulls Season Is Fucked
The Chicago Bulls 2014-2015 season is over. I know we all had high expectations. The Pau Gasol signing looked like a serious steal, Jimmy Butler has grown into a legitimate star, and DERRICK ROSE IS HEALTHY! We took the league’s best defensive team and added the best low post scorer available, plus a couple of stud rookies who can really shoot. I was totally shocked when the Bulls weren’t the preseason favorite in the East (at least according to Vegas). Still, after last night’s disheartening blowout in Cleveland I’m convinced that this year’s version of the Bulls is at best, marginally better than last year’s version, and very well might be worse. In fact, I don’t think the 14-15 Bulls could win a playoff series against the 13-14 Bulls. Last year, Thibs and Jo proved that you don’t need to be the most talented team to be successful. This year they are proving the opposite. Let’s burn through some of the reasons why.
Before I start my rant, I’d like to describe myself to any readers who don’t actually know me already (hopefully there are a few). I’m a level headed fan. I care deeply for my favorite teams, and I have tremendous sports hate for all rivals. Still, I can usually be objective and even find myself able to discuss basketball (or any sport really) with fans of other teams. As a Chicago transplant living in Arizona, I don’t have any choice but to get along with fans of other teams.
In fact, if I’m ever not being very objective, it’s generally in the direction of showing too much support for my guys. I don’t like to trade away my top fantasy players (for a profit or a loss). I defended Jay Cutler for most of his tenure in Chicago and even still think he should be the Bears QB next year.
I’m not telling this because I want to talk about myself, but rather to make the point that I am not typically one to overreact, jump ship, or demand immediate action. If you’re a regular listener to the podcast, I think you’d agree. If you’re not a regular listener, well then what’s wrong with you? The Free Cheese & Hot Sauce podcast is gold! Subscribe today.
Finally, this post DOES NOT reflect the opinion of my fellow podcasters and bloggers.
Kirk Hinrich is no longer an average NBA player. His claim has always been as a streaky shooter who can make life miserable for even the league’s best point guards. However, that Kirk Hinrich is gone, probably for good. He’s the worst offensive player (who plays) on the team. He’s sloppy, he stops the ball, and every time he lines up a three I scream. Stats and the eye test say his days as a defensive stopper are over. He’s -0.9 in defensive box plus/minus, -0.1 value over replacement, and a whopping 7.8 PER (for reference, the much maligned Tony Snell is at -0.4, 0.0, and 8.9).
Everything will be OK once Dunleavy and McDermott get healthy, right? Wrong. McDermott has been lost for the season. Not literally, but this injury will mean he got almost no meaningful minutes at an NBA level this year, and with the All Star break approaching, he won’t have time to work his way back into the rotation. The second half is when teams start reducing the rotation. Thibs has already started talking about getting it down to 8 or 9 guys. Even if Kirk doesn’t make the cut (he will though), I still don’t see room for Dougie Buckets.
Dunleavy on the other hand, will jump right back into the starting lineup. The Bulls miss him right now. He’s the only starter who really spreads the floor. Rose and Butler are each happy to take threes, but opponents are even happier to let them. He’s a competent defender, who at least works hard to be in the right spots, not something we can say about Gasol or Rose. Getting him back will certainly help, but not nearly as much as fans want to believe. He’s our least valuable starter and, at best, the 6th or 7th most valuable Bull in general. Anyone hoping his return from injury will spark a Bulls turnaround is kidding themselves. If we were losing close games, sure, he’d probably make the difference. We’re getting blown out.
Like many Bulls fans, I spent November and December applauding the Gasol signing. The reality is that he’s really just a better version of Carlos Boozer. Boozer became a popular scapegoat because of his lack of effort/ability on defense. Pau doesn’t get the same bad press, primarily because he’s still a good shot blocker. That’s nice, but everyone knows blocked shots is a glory stat. Last year, the Bulls defensive rating was 97.8, but when Boozer was on the court, it jumped to 99.2. This year the Bulls defensive rating has jumped to 102.7. When Pau plays, it’s even worse at 103.8. That’s a pretty similar jump.
I’m not trying to jump on Pau. I never expected that he’d be a defensive lynch pin. I did think he’d be a little better simply by being bigger, and that really has been the case. The problem with Pau, has been the effect he’s had on Joakim Noah. Jo has been banged up. He has not fully recovered from the “minor” knee surgery he needed at the end of last season, but it’s much worse than that. The Bulls took the reigning defensive player of the year and first team All-NBA center and asked him to move to power forward. Sure, Noah is good enough to do it, but when playing power forward he’s far from his best. On defense, he struggles with a lot of fours. Last year, Nene got hot with his jumper and rendered Noah totally ineffective. It’s worse than that though, opponents are actively using lineups that will draw Noah away from the paint. When Noah is defending a shooter he can’t help when drivers/cutters get into the paint, he can’t pull down as many defensive rebounds, and he can’t shut down a pick and roll. He’s one of the best in the world at those things and he can’t do them if he’s busy defending Paul Millsap’s 20’ jumper. Opponents don’t care if the jumpers from Jo’s man go in, just that they’ve pulled him away from the basket.
Joakim is a very good offensive player. He’s got solid range for a center. He’s a tenacious offensive rebounder, and an elite passer. He is not a good scorer. When teams play a smaller, shooting forward at the 4 (to draw Jo away from the basket) there is almost no downside defensively. Noah doesn’t have much post scoring in his game, so it’s not like the Bulls can just go to him when he’s got a smaller defender on him. Last year, Jo did a ton of his damage as a passer in the high post. Since Pau is almost as good a passer and a much better shooter, he gets the ball in the high post, not Jo. Adding Pau has effectively neutered Joakim’s game on both ends.
Over the last few weeks, I have not been alone in suggesting that the Bulls move Jo to the bench in favor of Taj Gibson. After all, Taj is a power forward. He is better suited to covering players like Millsap and Love on the perimeter. He’s also got the post game to punish teams who go small against him. Plus Noah is a team player who’s on a minutes count anyways. If he bought into this move as a temporary one that is good for the team, he could be devastating off the bench and closing games out. Unfortunately, Taj has not been himself this year either. Purely speculation on my part, but I think he’s sick and tired of busting ass to come off the bench for 20 minutes per game. When Noah rolled his ankle and would be out for a few games, I thought it might help spark this change. We’d get to see the Pau/Taj starting lineup. In those 3 games, he’s averaged 10.6 points and 8 rebounds on 42.8% shooting. He did that on about 39 minutes per game. It’s a small sample, but that is a lot worse than I expected, especially since Boston and Cleveland both seem like great match-ups for Taj.
Why is Taj struggling this year? I’ve already speculated that it’s a motivation problem, but there are other possibilities. Maybe he’s a little jealous that Mirotic has come in and basically earned an equal role. It’s one thing to sacrifice a starting job that you’ve earned to a champion like Pau Gasol, but to see a rookie come in and carve out a big bench role right away has to be frustrating for a guy who started as a rookie but continues to come off the bench despite making major progress as a player. Hi play has become a little selfish. Works too hard for his shots but isn’t giving the same effort elsewhere. Just a few weeks ago I would not have considered any trade offers that involve losing Taj. Today I’m at least taking the phone call.
All of this brings me to Derrick Rose. The former MVP; the potentially washed up 26 year old. The last few years, Rose’s injuries showed everyone just how important he is to this team. Even this year, the talk is all about how far the Bulls can go IF Rose is healthy. If healthy is practically his nickname. And it’s true. This Bulls team can’t even pray to beat any Western Conference team without Rose. But having him back has not resulted in much better team play. I get it; he’s rusty and will continue to improve. Shit, he is looking much better lately. Scoring is coming back; he looks dynamic going to the hoop. The thing that has been very slow to return is his passing. He doesn’t seem to have the same feel for the game that he once did. A nearly 2.5 year absence will do that for you, but so far I’m still seeing turnovers and poor decision making. I’m OK with the three point shooting, but how many times is he going to put up an early shot clock attempt just because a player goes under a screen? After being embarrassed by the Cavs, Derrick talked about a lack of communication. I have no idea what practice is like, but during the games, that needs to be you Mister Rose. Speak up and rally your team.
I’ve always secretly feared that Derrick is just a well-intentioned, hardworking, super talent that really isn’t much of a leader. Being quiet doesn’t make you a bad leader, but I haven’t seen a lot of leadership lately. It’s hard when you aren’t on the floor, and maybe he’s been slow to take back over, but I’m not seeing it. He’s spoken up a little more to the media, he’s taken political stands, and he’s even earned a few more technical fouls. Can he inspire this group to dig in and turn things around?
What about Thibodeau? Has he lost the locker room? Does he see these issues? Does he even agree that they might exist? I don’t know. He’s a hardworking, smart coach, so I have to assume he recognizes everything that I’m seeing. He preaches that the answer is working harder. Does that mean this team isn’t working hard? The last few years I had no doubt that working hard was never the issue. This year, it frequently seems to be. Maybe the 14-15 Bulls have fallen in love with their offensive ability. If you can score 100+ every night, you don’t need to keep opponents under 90. That loss of focus has led to teams scoring about 100 per night and multiple losses to bad teams. This looks nothing like the Tom Thibodeau era. It looks nothing like a title contender. This was supposed to be the year for the Bulls. LeBron bailing on the Heat and going back to Cleveland, plus Paul George’s injury gave the Bulls the best shot to winning the conference since the Jordan era. I thought only a transcendent LeBron would keep the Bulls out of the finals. Instead, it seems the Bulls shut that window themselves.