Can the Bulls finish atop the Eastern Conference without their stars?
The tried-and-true formula for winning an NBA title contains a superstar (or three), a calculating coach and a wide array of skilled role players. Perhaps just as important, it also takes a lot of luck to win a ring.
During the 1990s, the Bulls enjoyed a legendary, decade-long run of success behind Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, two superstars who were not only extremely talented, but incredibly durable. Jordan and Pippen only missed 74 combined regular season games during their 10-year partnership in Chicago (not taking into account Jordan’s first retirement) that reaped six championships in a span of eight years.
Two decades later, the modern Bulls squad built around Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler has not had nearly the same degree of health-related fortune. Quite the opposite, in fact. Over the past three seasons, that trio has missed a combined 178 games (with Rose accounting for 129), and that number is set to surpass 200 with the recent news that Rose (torn meniscus) and Butler (sprained elbow) will both be out until at least late March.
Injuries are nothing new for Chicago. But any team that will be without two of its All-Star caliber players will surely take a step back, right?
Once Butler was injured in the third quarter during Sunday’s game against the Clippers, the initial returns on Chicago’s makeshift rotation were not encouraging. Their perimeter defense suffered late without Butler, and Nikola Mirotic was the only Bull to hit a shot from the floor in the fourth quarter as the Clippers outscored Chicago 27-17 in the final period.
While Mirotic stepped up with a career-high 29 points on 11-of-23 shooting, his teammates connected on just 16-of-64 field goal attempts for an overall conversion rate of 31.0%, the team’s lowest mark this season. This, against a Clippers team that is relatively below average on the defensive side.
But by epitomizing coach Tom Thibodeau’s “next man up” refrain, the Bulls showed admirable toughness to bounce back on Tuesday night against a desperate Wizards team in Chicago’s first full game without Rose, Butler and Taj Gibson (sprained ankle), who have combined to score a whopping 40% of Chicago’s points this season.
Washington limped into the Windy City having lost seven straight road games and five of six contests overall, but in one of the sport’s budding rivalries (Nene said he “hates” the Bulls earlier this week), it seemed like a prime opportunity for the Wizards to take advantage of an ailing team and clinch the season series between the two clubs.
[daily_cut.NBA]After all, Chicago’s 20th different starting lineup (Aaron Brooks-Tony Snell-Mike Dunleavy-Pau Gasol-Noah) this season had previously played just seven minutes together, according to ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell. Thibodeau was also forced to give significant minutes to E’Twaun Moore and Doug McDermott, both of whom had been gathering cobwebs at the end of the bench for the last few months.
Nevertheless, the Bulls emerged victorious and gave us a glimpse as to what their offense will look like while their starting backcourt duo recovers.
Brooks will seemingly start at point guard and take on the brunt of the ball-handling responsibilities. The 30-year-old’s speed can occasionally veer into recklessness, and Thibodeau almost certainly wants Brooks shooting less than he did against Washington (8-of-23 overall, 2-of-8 from three-point range).
But Brooks also sank a couple big buckets in crunch time and showcased fantastic court vision on a crucial possession in the final quarter, driving to the rim and delivering a pinpoint pass to Snell for a mini-dagger three that gave Chicago a 10-point lead with four minutes left. Brooks ended up with 22 points, eight assists and just two turnovers in 35 minutes, showing why the Bulls have scored nearly six more points per 100 possessions with Brooks on the court.
Noah saw a lot more time in the high post and at times was a de facto point guard, a role he has occasionally reprised over the past couple years when Rose is injured. He had his third consecutive double-double (14 points, 12 rebounds), marking the first time this season he’s scored double figures in three straight games.
Mirotic had 20 points in his first 22 minutes, ending with 23 points and eight boards in 32 minutes to notch back-to-back 20-point games for the first time in his NBA career. The 24-year-old has basically been everything McDermott was supposed to be.
That trio, combined with an All-Star starter in Gasol, the sharp-shooting Dunleavy and Kawhi Leonard-lite (Snell) actually gives Thibodeau a more cohesive offense than most realize. The franchise’s future could also greatly benefit from McDermott getting a second chance to crack Thibodeau’s rotation for good, if the former Creighton star can shake off his rookie jitters.
And while common sense would say Chicago’s defense will miss Butler’s perimeter presence and Gibson’s high-effort tactics down low, Thibodeau’s scheme has shown it can chug along without them. Gibson’s +2.2 defensive rating is somewhat mitigated by his negative effect on offense, and the Bulls have actually been better on defense by nearly every major sabermetric without Butler on the floor.
Right now, Bulls fans probably feel like their beloved franchise is being unfairly punished by some supreme basketball deity.
But in reality, several teams have had to adjust to life without their star players for long periods of time this season. Recently, the Clippers (Blake Griffin), Rockets (Dwight Howard) and Thunder (Kevin Durant) have responded to the call and still look like dangerous opponents for any playoff team entering the first round.
If the Bulls can just halt their constant stream of medical maladies long enough to establish a rhythm with the healthy pieces they still have, they could similarly stay afloat and clinch one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference.
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