For a minute, let’s take a step back from the eastern conference favorites that represent Cleveland. And possibly, Toronto, the 2nd seed by a sizable margin in the standings.
If you follow the east, then you have witnessed the same dead end developments that Chicago runs into. But what if they didn’t have to grind so hard? Did the franchise really make a deal with the devil for those six titles in the ‘90s? Every good team that they’ve had since drafting Derrick Rose has been driven off road due to injuries, every single time.
This season is no different without Joakim Noah. Rose has finally been a constant starter, getting time to rest here and there. I think that is the right approach with a player that has gone through so much physically, to not only keep his legs in tact, but to reinforce a positive mindset that he can play at a high level again. That the franchise is going to take care of him to put him in a position to succeed.
The Bulls are fighting for their playoff lives with the likes of the Pacers and Pistons, both of which have the tiebreaker advantage at this point in time. The Wizards are a few games back and they also have the advantage over Chicago, if it were to come down to tiebreakers.
Jimmy Butler is on the map as an elite two-way player. Pau Gasol led the league in doule-doubles last season and is still an all-star. Niko Mirotic finished 2nd in voting behind Andrew Wiggins for Rookie of the Year. This trio has missed games before and after the all-star break. Mike Dunleavy may be known for his perimeter shooting, but he is a plus team defender that moves without the ball, and makes the right passes to keep an offense flowing. He missed the first half of the season.
Taj Gibson has battled through some things to remain on the floor, only missing minimal action. Right now, with the exception of Noah, everybody is in the rotation. E’Twaun Moore has proven to be another good rotational guard that the Bulls do a great job of evaluating and signing in the offseason. He’s missed a few games but shouldn’t be out for too much longer.
The injury to Butler allowed Rose to take charge offensively. It opened up an opportunity for Doug McDermott, a former first round pick, to assert himself and look to score in more ways than one. His confidence is at an all-time high. It also gave Dunleavy the playing time and extra shots to regain form and conditioning.
Mirotic’s injury, although he got very sick and lost a lot of weight, it was a blessing in disguise for him to get his legs under him and evaluate his shot selection. He’s not putting up every single shot with a foot of space anymore, and when he does spot up, you can see when his legs are under him that the ball goes in. Previously, he kept shooting off of one leg and shot himself into a slump.
Fred Hoiberg is actually getting this team to excel offensively, slowly but surely. They reached double-digit games in a row with 100+ points, and that was through the bulk of the injuries suffered this season. The other end of the floor has slipped in comparison to the Tom Thibodeau teams, but that is to be expected when the focus shifts to offense and the tempo increases. This time around if Chicago doesn’t make a deep run, it won’t be for a lack of firepower. The key work for this team and unusually so, is chemistry.
Gasol, Dunleavy, and Gibson all know their roles and play it well. The same can be said any season for the Bulls’ bench unit. Rose and Butler just can’t seem to be “on” at the same time. They may alternate control of the basketball, but how can Hoiberg get them to coexist on the court to achieve bigger and better things? The talent is there, Rose doesn’t have to play at the MVP-level anymore, so what is the answer in the Windy City?
For one, that’s when it helps to have everybody that’s able to play this season on the court from this point on. They’re in the thick of things with 3 other teams just to make the postseason so the urgency has to be there. This is a franchise that is used to making the playoffs and there are no excuses, especially with how they’ve found ways in the past to at least make an appearance.
Beyond urgency, is the precious playing time that they have together, and that really applies to both ends of the floor. From the pick & roll defense to the rotations, to quick outlets and pushing the tempo for easier looks in transition. Even being an east coast team, Rose, Butler, Dunleavy, and McDermott should be running out on the break and getting open looks. Gasol and Gibson crash the boards as well as any frontcourt, and they’re swift big men that will hustle and trail down the lane. It can’t be all on Butler to stop the best player on the other team.
I almost don’t want the Bulls to run pick & rolls. When they do get into that slow-pace mindset, they milk the clock too far down and put up poor shots, contrary to how great they might have played in 3.5 quarters. They have capable players: Rose, Butler, Moore, and Aaron Brooks. The point is, everyone else stops moving and that become infectious, just watching a stagnant two-man game or hoping Butler can hit a tough fade away in isolation.
Since Butler is leading the team in scoring, it’s Rose that has to recognize when to attack. He’s finished a lot of acrobatic plays at the rim this season. He’s made the pull-ups that he used to drill. When he’s running through the motions on offense and gets the ball at the wing, he has to just go. Rose can find his way into the paint and that’s when good things happen. He carried the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals without Gasol, Dunleavy, or this developed version of Butler. On paper they’re loaded.
Now, not everything has to be option 1 or option 2. Gasol is a great scorer, but he’s also unselfish and a great distributor. Gasol will find the open man or recognize the mismatch on the floor. He finds Butler and Gibson cutting all the time. He’ll hit the shooters after surveying the floor in the high post. He can score out of a pick, whether he’s popping or slashing. That might be where the Bulls need to steer clear of the pick & roll late in games, because they have guys tat can put the ball in from anywhere. I think it would be better for them to do pick & rolls throughout the game, for moments at a time, but it gets them out of rhythm ate in games. I’d rather see them use Gasol’s skills in the high post as a point-forward. Rose, Butler, and the shooters can set off-ball screens for each other to get into mismatches, all while Gasol is consuming the best big defender on the other team and keeping him away from the basket.
See, there’s never just one answer to any question when it comes to basketball. There’s a few minor tweaks that the Bulls can do, or any team for that matter, that can have major results. There always seems to be something going against the Bulls. Everyone wants to make the postseason but the odds don’t look too great as an 8th seed going to Cleveland. This is why they have to buckle down, or the Pacers and Pistons have to get in gear, to grab a hold of the 7th seed. Wouldn’t you rather face Toronto? I know the Bulls would since they swept them in all 3 games this season. You may recall 2 of those being won by only a basket. Just keep in mind that in those wins the Bulls were undermanned and still found a way to beat the Raptors.
I see the Bulls finishing 9-4 with a record of 45-37. I do believe that would place them 7th to face Toronto in the first round. Glancing ahead, the winner of that series would play the winner between the 3 vs. 6 matchup. I also think Miami and Charlotte will stand pat at their current positions. We could be watch a collision course unfold to see a rekindled rivalry between Miami and Chicago, with the winner facing a familiar foe in LeBron James in the ECF.
CHI Schedule Prediction East Standings Games Behind
vs Knicks W 3. MIA 41-29 9
at Knicks W 4. ATL 41-30 9.5
at Magic W 5. BOS 41-30 9.5
vs Hawks L 6. CHA 41-30 9.5
at Pacers L 7. IND 37-33 13
at Rockets W 8. CHI 36-33 13.5
vs Pistons W 9. DET 37-34 13.5
at Bucks W 10. WAS 35-35 15
at Grizzlies W
at Heat L
vs Cavaliers L
at Pelicans W
vs 76ers W