Essay: How The Bulls Are Blooming Without Rose
Even as a Bulls fan, I often forget that Derrick Rose was ever named MVP. It just feels like we’ve been living in this era where LeBron dominates everything, and anything he doesn’t, Kevin Durant does. R0se won the award based on his numbers and his talent, as all MVPs do, but it took a lot to get those numbers and to reach that talent. He was only 22, and in his first season with coach Tom Thibodeau.
A lot of the improvement from Thibs’ coaching would come the next season, in his defense and outside game. That MVP season and that run in the playoffs was based on will. Desire. Passion. That’s also what’s keeping this Rose-less team not just afloat, but succeeding beyond wildest expectations. Chicago is in third place in the Eastern Conference, and with Rose returning to contact practices, it seems a matter of time before they retake first place. So how does the fight in these Bulls translate to actual wins?
Let’s break it down, player-by-player. First, there’s Joakim Noah, arguably the team leader at this point, a role he may very well keep when Rose returns. JoNo has always been an emotional player, but in his early years it translated to petulance and streaky play. Thibs has finely channeled Noah’s passion into a full-court monster, executing in almost every facet. He almost has to, considering he’s averaging a jaw-dropping 38 minutes per game, unheard of for a big man, especially one coming off a season with multiple ankle injuries.
His field goal percentage is at a career low 45%, but he’s averaging a career high 10 attempts and 12 points per game. He’s also improved his finesse game, getting less than three fouls per game (pretty good for a big man) and getting a career high four assists per game, executing a sweet drive-and-dish move frequently. Add on his usual 11 rebounds and career-high two blocks, and Noah becomes the Bulls captain on both ends of the court.
The other Bulls All-Star, Luol Deng, led the league in minutes per game last year with 39.4. This year? 39.6. Except this time, he’s brought back his lethal scoring, averaging more points and better field goal percentage than last season, with career-high free throw accuracy. Add in his usual all-around game (six-plus rebounds, three assists), and it’s no wonder why he’s regarded as the prototypical small forward. He’s a better defender than Danny Granger or Rudy Gay, but a better shooter than Metta World Peace and Gerald Wallace. He’s not a superstar like LeBron or KD, but he’s very, very good. Hence the second straight trip to All-Star Weekend.
The player with the All-Star contract, Carlos Boozer, has blossomed this season. He was much maligned the past two seasons for failing to live up to his contract and staying on the court in crucial situations—such as game six against Philly last season, when he sat out the entire second half in favor of defensive wünderkind Taj Gibson. I called for his head, for his contract to be burned at the stake.
This season he’s returned to form, averaging almost 16 points and nearly 10 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. His counterpart, the aformentioned Mr. Gibson, has continued to bring his consistent rage and smashiness to the game, maintaining his averages from the past two seasons. It’s concerning that he hasn’t grown more, but considering Thibs is keeping his minutes at 20 for the past two seasons, it’s hard to see how he could. Time will tell what his ultimate contribution will be.
Marco Belinelli has taken the Kyle Korver role, and reveling in it. It doesn’t hurt that he had a few clutch moments in a row. If you do a side-by-side comparison, there’s not much difference in their overall contribution, until you take into account that Belinelli is also younger, leaving room for improvement. He’s also quicker, making him a more consistent threat on the fast break. He offers a fresh break from the ancient Rip Hamilton. That’s not meant to be a diss on Rip. He’s still putting up 11 points and a couple of assists per game. He may be the only outright failure as a deal for the Bulls, but that’s not saying much, as he still contributes…to a degree.
Then there’s the yin and yang of Hinrich and Robinson, and I don’t mean it in a black/white way. Hinrich is a big distributor, already averaging over three more assists than last season in just three more minutes, and he’s scoring more. Injuries aside, he’s earned his title of “Captain” Kirk. Nate Robinson, on the other hand, has earned his title of “crazy.” The ultimate microwave scorer, Nate has only started five games, but has played in all 44. He’s had multiple games where he’s been the top scorer, and the Bulls have won some of those too. Despite being in the mix as someone who could get released in early January, Robinson made himself important to the team’s success, as an irrational-confidence guy coming off the bench. He’s been doing it his whole career, and for a team that has won 40 straight games when scoring 100 or more points, you need performances like this.
Topping it all off is the steal of last year’s draft, Jimmy Butler, or has he’s been suddenly dubbed, Jimmy Buckets. Butler was a drafted to be a defensive stopgap for Luol Deng when Deng was on the bench, which would allow for bench players to score more. Not many points to distribute between Boozer, Deng and Rose, ya dig? Within the past month, though particularly the past week or so, he’s become a new scoring threat, scoring 16 against the Warriors and Hawks, 18 against the Pistons and Grizzlies, and a career high 19 against the Bobcats.
Butler is the epitome of the Bulls this season, doing everything you’d expect him to, plus one or two things you didn’t. You expected the Bulls to stay strong on defense, having an awesome 97.8 defensive efficiency, and holding opponents to just 91.5 points per game, both good for third in the league. But they haven’t dropped off in offense, either. Last year they were 18th in points per game. This year? 20th. Last year they were 12th in field goal percentage. This year? Eighth.
Granted, it’s an ugly eighth, and it’s actually two percentage points worse than last year, but it shows they’re still playing the game they want. They’re winning with Bulls basketball. The question is, can Derrick Rose still play Bulls basketball?