As the Bulls showed this past Sunday when they beat the Miami Heat, they're a team that can play with and beat anyone. However, when you look at the team's roster, it’s not immediately clear how they do it. The Bulls best player, Derrick Rose, continues to be unavailable due to another knee injury, and the Bulls second-best player, Luol Deng, was traded away mid-season. This leaves Chicago with a patchwork lineup that somehow remains extremely competitive.
Currently 35-27, the Bulls record far outperforms their actual ranking and skill level. They do have a 1.5% chance to make the NBA finals per numberFire metrics - the 10th-best chance in the NBA - but they currently rank 15th according to nERD. For reference, that ranking is sandwiched between the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats. Ouch.
We need to dig a little deeper to figure out why they remain so competitive. The first option is to naturally look at offensive efficiency to see if that’s where the answer lies. But when you look there, it turns out that Chicago ranks 29th in offensive team efficiency, which is terrible. And from the eye test, as a team, they can be rather painful to watch on the offensive end. It's no surprise that they rank so poorly.
Our second option is to look at defense, which, in truth, is the key to the Bulls as a team, as they rank second in overall defensive team efficiency. You’d think that it was in part due to overwhelming athleticism, but once you get past Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah, they’re actually a pretty average bunch both size-wise and athletically. Good examples of this are with Kirk Hinrich, Carlos Boozer and D.J. Augustin, none of whom strike fear in the heart of LeBron James by themselves.
Where does the defensive intensity come from?
It Starts With Thibodeau and Ends With Noah
Tom Thibodeau is in his fourth year as the Bulls head coach, and he has a tremendous pedigree as a defensive coach in the NBA. In Thibodeau’s four seasons, the Bulls have ranked no worse than fifth in the NBA team efficiency rankings defensively, and in three of those years they've been first or second.
Before the Bulls, Thibodeau was an associate head coach with the Boston Celtics, and he was in charge of the defense. During his three years there, the Celtics finished firstst or second in team defensive efficiency each season. Once you understand the head coach's background and abilities, then it becomes a little easier to see where the focus and emphasis on defense starts.
In addition, the Bulls have one budding superstar on their roster who is also a strong anchor for the defense: Joakim Noah.
I won't lie - Noah doesn't have a pretty game. Whether it’s the side spin set shot from the free throw line or ungainly drives to the hoop, he rarely look good. Yet, he’s extremely effective, athletic and relentless on the floor. The motor never stops, which is what most scouts are looking for on the defensive end of the court. And he’s a rather large human being, which makes him a handful on the defensive end.
When you get by my perceived knocks on his game, you see a fine cornerstone with which to build a team around. This season, Noah's averaging 12.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals per game. These are incredible numbers for any player, yet alone a center. In addition, Noah's the 14th-most efficient player in the NBA with a 9.6 nERD ranking. He's not likely to ever be an offensive juggernaut, but he does provide tremendous value in all other categories, and is one long-term piece that should remain in place for the Bulls.
Getting to the Next Level
With a cornerstone center and airtight defense, it seems like the Bulls have the basic ingredients to become a playoff team, and on that has the potential to advance deep into the postseason. This becomes an even better proposition if Derrick Rose returns to his old self after recovering from his latest knee injury. That would provide the Bulls with one true scorer and a dynamic presence in the middle. However, that's not going to be enough to get to the promised land.
The Bulls can be pleased with Jimmy Butler’s development to date, especially since he’s only 24 years old. He's a solid defender and plays a lot of minutes at a high pace. However, he’s offensively anemic. Butler is shooting 38.9% from the field and 26% from three-point range, numbers that don't support having him as a starting shooting guard. The rest of the Bulls are nice players and have some offensive skills (see Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer), but there is no dynamic threat in the bunch. That's the problem.
As we’ve seen year after year, champions always have two to three superstars on the team. The Miami Heat have had the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Mavericks had Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd. The had Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Prior to that, the Celtics had Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen.
The Bulls do not have three legitimate stars, and they only really have one true top scoring threat in Rose. This leads us to the off season sweepstakes and whether the Bulls will be able to attract someone like Carmelo Anthony through free agency. Alternatively, can they go out and draft well and hit the lottery that way?
The smart money would say that Anthony, assuming that he really wants to win more than anything, will end up in Chicago. It's probably one of the best platforms out there to build a winner from. They are dying for a true scorer, and Anthony is also not a bad defender. If the Bulls get a healthy Rose back and add someone like Anthony to go with Noah and Butler, that would be a very difficult team to eliminate from the playoffs.