At 34-15 the Chicago Bulls have the 3rd best record in the Eastern Conference and the 4th highest winning percentage across the league. They are undefeated (11-0) against their Central Division opponents leading to the largest division lead (12.5 games) in the NBA. It has been a tough road back to the top of the Eastern Conference though. Since the team won a championship in 1999, it has gone from bad (15-67) to mediocre (41-41) to good (this season’s 34-15 record). Key differences from past seasons have driven the success of the current Chicago Bulls.
Coach Tom Thibodeau has brought a lot to the team as the new head coach. As a Boston assistant coach he was known as a defensive guru. This defensive emphasis now has the Bulls ranked #1 in Opponent Field Goal Percentage. Offensively, the team only ranks 17th in Points Per Game so this defensive dominance allows them to secure victories even when scoring is low. In his short time in Chicago Thibodeau has found a way to re-energize players like Luol Deng. Deng struggled as a stationary, mid range shooter in Del Negro’s system but has thrived as a slasher and decent 3 point shooter under Thibodeau. He has won the respect of his players as well. Although his demanding style may eventually wear on his team, he isn’t overly critical of them in front of the media the way Scott Skiles was. There were no negative quotes (or tweets) from James Johnson, a former first round pick, when he was sent to the developmental league a few weeks ago. C.J. Watson isn’t thrilled about averaging just 13 minutes per game but the coach has him seeing the big picture. “I didn’t think it would be like this, but … I just have to make the best of it… I don’t have any regrets. I’d rather win than lose any day. I want to experience the playoffs and hopefully go deep. Basketball is all about winning.” Thibodeau has found a way to make his team buy in to a team-first, defensive-focused strategy that has them headed for its best season in a over a decade.
After his first 2 seasons there was no doubt Derrick Rose was headed for stardom. But in his 3rd season his hard work and determination to improve has vaulted him into the MVP discussion. He is currently 7th in the league in scoring and 10th in assists. There have been numerous occasions this season where Rose has taken over games while the rest of the team struggled. The Bulls can finally say they have a closer and long term All Star with Rose leading the team.
With 19.8 and 10.2 (points/rebounds) per game averages, it’s obvious to say Carlos Boozer has had a positive impact on the team. What is significant is that the Bulls have a true low post presence that they’ve lacked since Elton Brand was traded to the Clippers. Boozer can score in the low post and will put points on the scoreboard when shooters like Korver, Deng, Brewer and Bogans are having a bad night. For the past several years the Bulls have run a drive-and-kick offense based on good mid range shooting. With Boozer joining Rose in Chicago, it allows the Bulls to run a more consistent pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop offense. Carlos is a threat in the post and as a mid range shooter so teams can’t just double team Rose off every Boozer pick. As long as he stays healthy his offensive prowess will allow the team to go deep into the playoffs this year.
Championship contending teams are built in different ways. Most have 2 or 3 star players. Some are solid defensively and some play to outscore their opponents but all of them have one thing in common, a veteran bench. In past years the Bulls have put together decent benches to support average starting lineups. Along with a great starting lineup this year, Forman and Paxson have built a dependable bench including Kurt Thomas, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson. These players along with Taj Gibson allow the team to have deep 10 man rotation if starters are in foul trouble or have an off-night.
With a talented roster and a good head coach, the Bulls have every opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference finals this year. The Celtics and Heat will make for tough competition in the playoffs but the Bulls are built to win now as well as have long term success. After a series of difficult but important changes, the United Center on Madison Street will host NBA Finals games again in the very near future.