The Chicago Bulls are definitely one of the stranger NBA experiments running right now.
The team was built around the premise that their one-time MVP point guard could break down at any moment, but subsequently also in sync with the idea that that point guard could return to lofty statistical heights at some point in the season.
The team was also built around the idea that the squad’s gifted and brilliant and possibly insane head coach would be the mixmaster to cure all ails, even if his wearying brand of ball possibly created some of the ails that currently ail this ailing group.
The team is often carried by a 34-year old big man playing the most minutes he’s played in years, dominating games offensively in fall and winter on a pair of legs that have betrayed him in the past.
This team handily downs Houston, and everyone takes notice, before losing three out of four games by a combined 43 points. That one win? They had to rely on that 34-year old to score a career high in points against the team that had the worst record in basketball last season, while working at home, as that former MVP and their reigning Defensive Player of the Year had to sit with injuries.
This is a weird team. This is beginning to be a worrying team.
The team’s loss to Orlando on Monday evening was particularly galling. The Magic entered the night as the third-worst offensive outfit in the NBA, but it racked up 63 first-half points and 121 in total against a Bulls team that has routinely ranked in the top five in defense since coach Tom Thibodeau came to Chicago in 2010. Nikolva Vucevic, you’ll recall, even did this to Pau Gasol:
Chicago did manage to pile up 114 points of its own, but some of the most frustrating features of Chicago’s offense came to head in the loss.
Derrick Rose, in particular, takes far too many three-pointers for somebody that only makes a quarter of his attempts. He missed the rim entirely on several of them in the loss to the Magic, missing four of five overall, and yet he’s three three-point attempts away from passing the injured Mike Dunleavy Jr. for the most long-range attempts on the Bulls.
At the top of the key, Joakim Noah is clearly not the player he was last season, when he was seen whipping the ball around Chicago’s eager if lacking offense. Noah managed four assists and his assist percentage on the season is still tops amongst NBA centers (even though Noah is truly Chicago’s power forward right now), but he’s not the same player on both ends of the court.
Noah’s step back has to be traced to the rather anonymous “minor knee operation” he underwent last spring, a procedure needed after Noah revealed that he’d been playing on a hurting (and apparently untested or diagnosed) knee for a good chunk of the end of the 2013-14 season. That “minor” operation was given an eight-to-12 week time frame for recovery, a length of time just about unheard of in NBA circles when describing “minor” arthroscopic procedures. Recently, Gasol even let it slip when discussing Noah’s frustrations that meniscus tears are tough to return from, and at no point have the Bulls acknowledged that Joakim (still balky some 29 weeks after surgery) underwent anything more than a minor arthroscopic procedure.
For a franchise that has often played fast and loose with both the facts and the careers of the well-meaning players that want to play for the Bulls, this seems more than a little dodgy.
As a result of Gasol’s rather slow-footed approach and Noah’s frustration at chasing around stretch fours on one leg (the Bulls dodged a bullet on Monday when Orlando’s Channing Frye missed six of seven looks from long range), the team’s defense has taken some shots to the bow.
“You can make an excuse every night in this league if that’s what you choose to do, whether it’s new players, the schedule, the start, who’s out, who’s in,’’ an angry Thibodeau said after the game. “There’s an excuse every night. You can’t do that. We have to make good. Either you’re in the circle or you’re out of the circle. You want to be in? Let’s go. You don’t want to be in? That’s fine too. Let’s go.’’
Following that rant and what was reported to be a defense-heavy practice on Tuesday, Noah was asked about that circle:
Asked Joakim Noah what Thibs meant by "You're either in the circle, or out of the circle"...He looked bewildered "I don't know..ask him"
— Megan Mawicke (@MeganMawicke) January 13, 2015
If Noah is hurting, he should sit. The problem with the Bulls is that all mindful athletes want to compete and play, Joakim has had some very good and Joakim-like games so far this season, and he thinks that working at C-level (because Noah is working at C-level, currently) will help the team. There’s no way in hell that Thibodeau would demand that Noah miss more time (he’s already missed seven contests), so doing what’s right probably isn’t in the offing.
He is not exactly helping the team, though. Chicago made a point to go after the league’s best frontcourt depth during the last few offseasons with the understanding that Noah’s frame and game make him susceptible to injury, and that Gasol is in his mid-30s. The Bulls could stand to improve, quite a bit, but they’re also working with a 26-13 record in the East and they could tolerate a few weeks of uneven ball if it meant players were getting the rest they needed.
That’d be the right thing to do, though. This team doesn’t always see it that way.
Luckily for Bulls fans, Derrick Rose appears to be healthy. He sat out Saturday night’s contest with left knee soreness, but in the days and practices since he's reported no crippling pain. His problem, currently, is the miserable decisions he’s making with his three-point shots, and an uncommunicative brand of defense that often puts the Bulls behind the eight ball early in a possession.
Again, Chicago is 26-13 and until this recent swoon it was one of the elite teams that ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Due to various injuries it's had to play single-digit Player Efficiency Rating-types like Kirk Hinrich and Tony Snell far too much recently, and one gets the feeling the NBA hasn’t seen the best of Rose, Noah, or even Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic so far this season. As it is with the reeling Cleveland Cavaliers, there is plenty of time to figure things out.
Something’s going to have to click with their two franchise cornerstones, though.
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