The Bulls' season balances between success and drama
If the Bulls came in for a job interview, would you hire them? They look great on paper, but there are concerns. Will the real Bulls stand up?
The Chicago Bulls are the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, with signature victories against most of the best teams in the league. They have a résumé that would suggest they are in the best position to challenge the Cavaliers in the East.
The Chicago Bulls have been a soap opera of dysfunction and drama the entire season, with considerable chemistry concerns that could threaten to derail their entire season.
The Chicago Bulls' statistical profile suggests they are not at all as good as their record would indicate, and very much toward the bottom of the Eastern contender rankings.
All of these things are somehow, miraculously, true.
The Chicago Bulls come into your office and sit down. They present you with a 21-12 record, good for second in the East. They've beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers , the San Antonio Spurs , the Oklahoma City Thunder (twice), the Indiana Pacers (2-1 on the year), the Los Angeles Clippers , and the Toronto Raptors . They played the Golden State Warriors tough, in Oracle Arena, which is very difficult to do.
Every player in rotation has playoff experience except Doug McDermott and Bobby Portis . They have a former MVP in Derrick Rose , a future Hall of Fame forward in Pau Gasol , a former Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah , and super-rising-star Jimmy Butler .
Everything on paper tells you this is a contender. This is a team that can challenge. They can spread the floor with Nikola Mirotic and (when healthy) Mike Dunleavy , they have go-to scorers in Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol, and they defend at a high level. What's not to like?
Unfortunately, the more you interview them, the more you find some curious stories.
Like when Derrick Rose randomly brought up his contract situation, despite all of his health issues, and with the team in flux this year, all the way back in preseason.
Or when Pau Gasol questioned his role in the offense under new coach Fred Hoiberg.
Or when Jimmy Butler outright called out his coach for not being hard enough on him and his teammates.
Or when Butler said the team wasn't "bringing the fight" earlier this year.
Or when Bobby Portis couldn't get minutes and was predictably, understandably frustrated.
Or the 1,900 different lineups Fred Hoiberg kept trying, shuffling Nikola Mirotic and Joakim Noah in and out of the lineup.
Or when Rose's brother has reportedly been yelling out instructions to the team from behind the bench.
This is all outside of the supposed rift between Rose and Butler, which both have denied, but neither strenuously. There may be no "there" there, but it's unclear.
To be clear, none of these situations individually is any cause for concern. And together, they don't paint the picture of a team that's in disarray. They're not the Sacramento Kings or the Phoenix Suns . However, it's odd that for a team that has been so successful, they've had so many different flareups along the way.
There is, from an outside perspective, a kind of miasma that has permeated the team this year, despite their success. Whether it's meaningful is kind of the question.
The advanced metrics are concerning as well. Chicago is 11th in net points per 100 possessions, which is often considered to be a better indicator of strength than record. In an NBA season with an unbalanced schedule across 82 games factoring back-to-backs and injuries, not all wins and losses are the same.
Basketball-Reference's SRS, which factors point differential vs. strength of schedule, has the Bulls at only the 10th best team, behind the Miami Heat , Raptors, Boston Celtics and Pacers in addition to Cleveland in the East, and just ahead of the Charlotte Hornets .
Chicago is 22nd in offense per possession, the area that Fred Hoiberg was specifically brought in to improve. They're 23rd in effective field-goal percentage and 24th in True Shooting percentage. Rose has struggled mightily, turning a corner recently before missing several games with knee soreness before his return Tuesday night vs. Milwaukee.
Butler has been the bright spot, to the degree that there are many nights where it appears Butler is in fact carrying this team, despite their wealth of experience and talent. Against the Raptors, they had little life and were struggling ... until Butler went for 40 second-half points after suffering a cut mouth and going "Kill Bill" mode.
Outside of Butler and Gasol, the Bulls' offensive contributors are either stymied by minutes/role or -- in the case of Mirotic and Rose -- largely inefficient.
On the most basic, superficial level, the Bulls are a great team that has made its bones on beating the top teams in the league. They have only two losing streaks this season, both three-game stretches. The results speak for themselves.
The second level suggests there's a process problem behind those results. Their numbers don't reveal a real threat to Cleveland, and their chemistry problems seem to bubble beneath that glossy veneer of the record.
Here's the problem: You can't dismiss the results. Even if the stats say they're not a great team, their signature wins suggest that they can go toe to toe with any team. Even if they have all these instances of drama within the team, it hasn't kept them from compiling the second-best record in the East. Those process problems have to reveal themselves in some meaningful way to be considered cause for real alarm.
That's not to say everything's fine. They're not. Mirotic is a floor-spreading threat you don't actually have to be concerned with -- he's a streak shooter. Gasol is becoming more and more of a defensive liability as he gets older, while Noah continues to seem like Tom Thibodeau might have gotten the best years out of him while robbing him of longevity. Rose's good nights come within a sea of bad ones, and the Bulls being 26th in offense is simply bad -- there's no way around it.
Much of this would be alleviated were it not for their disappointing history of playoff performances. They've been trounced by LeBron James in Miami and Cleveland, losing in 2011, 2013, and 2015, with two disappointing first-round upsets thrown in the middle. The theory had been that Tom Thibodeau's style of bringing so much every game meant that the Bulls had no extra gear to find in the postseason. But those Thibodeau teams were dominant in the regular season, year after year.
Does the fact that the Bulls aren't as impressive, despite that resume, speak well to the idea that they can find a better version of themselves? Or are all these problems waiting to catch up with them in the postseason. It's hard to buy the Bulls as legit challengers to Cleveland, just as it's hard to consider any Eastern Conference team as such.
The Bulls are proving they belong in the dance, though. For a team that looks so good on paper, there are reasons to worry about what they look like at season's end. Still, if forced to choose between being drama free with great numbers and a mediocre record, and what the Bulls have found, they would choose the wins.
The Cavaliers are indisputably the best team in the East. Where the Bulls fit in after that is what becomes so complicated so quickly.
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