Going into the season, no one was totally sure what to expect from the Chicago Bulls.
They had lost their best player, Derrick Rose, and they had lost several key players on last year’s “bench mob,” which made them one of the deepest teams in the league. The presence of Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, and Joakim Noah, as well as the excellent coaching of Tom Thibodeau, was why many gave the benefit of the doubt, picking them to make the playoffs in a relatively weak Eastern Conference despite lacking their MVP point guard.
Still, no one was totally sure what to expect and if the Bulls had fallen apart with Rose, it wouldn’t have been totally shocking.
Instead, however, they’ve thrived and while they aren’t the juggernaut they are with Rose in the lineup, they are looking more and more like one of the top teams in the East. On Monday, they vanquished the Los Angeles Lakers 95-83, pulling away in the final minutes of what had been a close game. LA’s squad of all-stars didn’t have enough to hang on to the end, but Chicago’s toughness–along with some great shooting by Jimmy Butler and Marco Belinelli–was enough to carry them through.
The team is thriving because everyone has picked up slack. Even with Rose, Deng was looked at as an emotional leader, but this year he’s taken that to a higher level, playing more minutes than anyone in the league and making it all-too-clear that he’s the heart and soul of the team.
He hasn’t been alone, though. The frontcourt is as strong as it’s ever been, with Noah taking his game to a new level and Boozer playing the basketball he’s hasn’t played since his years with the Utah Jazz. All three players are playing better than they did last year and collectively they’ve made up for a lot of what they lost when Rose went down.
Things haven’t been too shabby in the backcourt, either. Kirk Hinrich‘s numbers aren’t terribly impressive, but he’s been quietly effective running the Bulls offense and Monday night he exploded for a 22-point performance, reminding us that he’s not washed up just yet. Nate Robinson has played well off the bench, giving the Bulls the same shot of energy he provided for the Golden State Warriors last season.
It will be interesting to see what Thibodeau does with Hinrich and Robinson’s minutes when Rose returns, but for now, Chicago’s point guard tandem is working out better than most would have expected.
The latest Bull to establish himself as a legitimate contributor is Jimmy Butler, who has been excellent in each of the last two games filling in for the injured Deng. After a great night against the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday, in which he scored 18 points, Butler had his breakout game on the national stage against the Lakers, making several key plays, including a huge jumper on a catch-and-shoot that was the impetus for the Bulls’ eventual victory run.
Butler has a lot of talent and even as he returns to the bench, he figures to be an important part of the Bulls rotation from this point on.
That the Bulls are playing this well without their superstar player is a better accomplishment than most people realize. If the Miami Heat lost LeBron James before the season started, would they be 24-16? How about the Oklahoma City Thunder if Kevin Durant never steps on the court?
Both are possible, but you couldn’t be certain of either one. The Bulls lost their best player and are still one of the top teams in their conference. That says a lot for their depth, as well as the excellent coaching of Thibodeau, who definitely needs to be in the Coach Of The Year discussion.
If the Bulls are this good without Rose, we have to consider how good they’ll be with Rose. My guess is this team is a surefire title contender once No. 1 is back at the point. He’s been recovering quickly and may return to full contact in practice this week. The consensus is that he’ll be back on the court in late February or early March, just in time to join the Bulls on their march to the playoffs.
Now, he might not be his old self just yet and in that case, the Bulls will have to wait a year before they have a serious shot to take down a team like the heat. But if Rose comes back with his usual swagger and unmatched ability to drive to the hoop, the Bulls will quickly become extremely scary team.
Really though, even if takes Rose a little bit to get back into the swing of things, this team should be extremely optimistic. They are going to be getting a top-five player back, and everything that’s transpired this season has made it clear that he has a great supporting cast around him.
The Chicago Bulls should be a force to contend with for the foreseeable future.
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