Call me crazy, but doesn’t it look like the Chicago Bulls are in the midst of an identity crisis?
Throughout Tom Thibodeau’s tenure in Chicago, his teams have been known for three things — defense, tenacity, and a slightly above average offense. How has all of this suddenly changed?
Most of the time it didn’t even matter what personnel was in place. Bring ’em in, coach ’em up, and stick to the script. The zone defense was the immovable object that couldn’t be broken no matter who came or went. Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Nate Robinson, and D.J. Augustin are just a few of the many who have come and gone. Yet, none of it mattered. During the two year absence of Rose, getting to the playoffs was a victory in itself. No one expected it.
Don’t think so? Ask the media members who had Tom Thibodeau third in the 2013-14 Coach of the Year vote after winning a ho-hum 48 games. Almost fifty wins with a ragtag squad of misfits is mighty impressive.
Whats possibly even more impressive is that these Bulls are averaging 101.7 points per game. The highest of the Thibodeau era.
What’s not, is that they seem to be playing lazy because of it.
Or is it injuries?
This 2014-15 team has had significant players sit with injuries, but can that really be used as an excuse? The Bulls have suffered through injury plagued seasons in the past and still not looked this bad on defense. Joakim Noah hasn’t been one hundred percent this year, and he has limped through injuries missing time in the past. However, the Bulls sure as hell didn’t give up over one hundred points per game in those instances.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year missing time and playing like a shade of himself when he does definitely hurts, but this year it seems to have taken a bigger toll. Perhaps it’s exacerbated by the fact Mike Dunleavy, a scrappy long defender, has also missed an extended number of games. Doug McDermott’s injury is inconsequential for the most part because well, he’s a rookie.
Although, something can be said about getting used to sharing space with another seven footer in Gasol, and another borderline seven footer in Mirotic playing extended minutes while learning the NBA game.
Offensive Fire Power Causing Defensive Laziness
About midway through the season the Bulls are ranked tenth in offensive rating. A welcome revelation in Chicago as many viewed Thibodeau’s Bulls would never get over the proverbial “hump” without the ability to score consistently. Last year, the Bulls finished dead last in points per game average with 93.7, but finished first in points per game against, holding opponents to 91.8.
Like it or not, relying on winning an 85-80 slug fest night in and night out always catches up to a team.
So after once again whiffing on big fish Carmelo Anthony– Gar/Pax brought in a reborn Pau Gasol, European stud Nikola Mirotic, and another journeyman guard turned Chicago spitfire in Aaron Brooks. Add a shockingly improved Jimmy Butler and a (somewhat) healthy Rose and now all of a sudden the Bulls can score with anyone.
But at what cost?
Speaking of defensive laziness, Carlos Boozer isn’t on the squad anymore, which makes the team’s defensive decline all the more surprising. Especially because the Bulls essentially swapped Boozer for Gasol in a quasi-amnesty-sign and trade sort of way. It’s shocking because although the big Spaniard has never been known for his defense, he is still twice the rim protector and rebounder the “Booz Cruise” was, and is.
In Taj Gibson’s own words, here’s what he thinks is going on with the Bulls:
“At times I think we forget, when we’re scoring the ball so easily, you get relaxed, ” said Gibson. “I look at how teams are looking to push the ball against us, and we just get too high on ourselves instead of staying humble and low-key. We’ve got to have that [underdog] mentality again.”
This is in no way an indictment of the Bulls being bad. It’s apparent they’re not only one of the best teams in the East, but arguably one of the best in the league. Despite that, their issues on defense cannot be ignored, and these Bulls know it. If they don’t, they must be deaf because you know Thibodeau has been screaming for days now.
Since he became their coach in 2010 the Bulls have never finished lower than fifth in total defense. As of today they are ranked tenth. While that’s not bad, it is a shadow of what Chicago fans have become accustomed to. Need proof?
The Bulls gave up 121 points to the Orlando Magic on Monday. Orlando’s per game scoring average this season is 94.2 points per game, fourth worst in the league.
Before that they lost to the Utah Jazz, who aren’t much better, averaging 96.2 points per game.
Something can be said about the Bulls winning 13 of 15 games, a streak that ended last week and pretty much masked their troubles–winning does that. However, it should also be noted that they need to step their game up real quick and realize that all this success will quickly become nothing more than a memory.
With a grueling upcoming stretch on the horizon, the rest of their games in January start with another shot at the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks this week. Followed by matchups with Cleveland, San Antonio, Dallas, Miami, Golden State, and Phoenix.
Gibson hit the nail on the head when he said the Bulls need to find that “underdog” spirit again. In reality, before this season they never had to work for it. They were in fact, the underdogs. Even during the 2010-11 season, with Rose’s MVP and a number one seed they were still the underdogs. No one expected any of that, and the world was too focused on the “Heatles” trying to make a run at “not 6, not 7, not 8.”
This is without a doubt the most talented roster Thibodeau has ever had. Now all he has to do is prove once again he is one of the top three or four coaches in the NBA and feed his players some of that humble pie. Get them back on track, get them playing not just “defense, ” but BULLS defense again and everything will be fine. The Larry O’Brien Trophy is still very much possible. But right now, the Bulls’ defense is playing like garbage.
In closing, Thibs summed it up best right here:
“If we’re going to come in and just try to outscore people, we’re not going anywhere, ” said Thibodeau. “I know that’s not gonna work.”