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Doubting the Bulls: Chicago’s mirage of a hot start

Former-MVP Derrick Rose hasn't been able to recapture his previous form.
Expert
2nd December, 2015
7

“My name is my name,” The Wire’s Marlo Stanfield once famously said. A name counts for plenty, and in the NBA, a name, and the respect it carries, is one of the league’s richest currencies.

It’s a currency that has long been the lifeblood of the Chicago Bulls, a team comprised valuable names (including one Most Valuable name) that hint at greatness.

But in 2015, the value of these names is illusory, their stocks have plummeted, and only a pyramid scheme remains in the Windy City. The best advice is to sell now.

You know the names. Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. Between them, these guys have 11 All-Star appearances, MVP, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year awards and six All-NBA selections.

Add in Taj Gibson, a perpetual Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and Nikola Mirotic, a Spanish League MVP, and the pedigree of the Bulls is impressive. The reality, though, in 2015, is not.

Chicago’s 10-5 record is a mirage. They have a net rating of just 0.65, 15th in the league and ninth in the East, behind the likes of Charlotte and Orlando.

Their offence has been a toilet-clogged shambles, ranking 26th in the league. The stats reinforce the eye test. For all the pre-season hype of Fred Hoiberg implementing a more free flowing offence, the Bulls’ offence has significantly regressed, aspiring to the stagnation of Tom Thibodeau’s previous prehistoric offences.

The Bulls have long made an art-form out of destroying beauty. They are masters of the eked out victory, dragging teams into the mud to fight and claw with them – a facsimile of the Ewing Knicks with a bit more panache and a little less violence.

Chicago has always seemed to be more comfortable bringing elite opponents down to their level than elevating themselves over weaker prey, and this week’s victory over San Antonio was prime Chicago basketball. The Bulls did just enough to hang around, and in an ugly fourth quarter they ground the Spurs down with solid defence and managed to get to the free throw line through drawing loose ball fouls and contact at the bucket, just enough to put up a winning score.

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Toughness, persistence and just enough offensive talent are sufficient to win games in the regular season, but come the playoffs, as Chicago discovered last season, teams will figure you out. Teams like Chicago and Memphis that deify the grind, preaching hardnosed defence and suffering from an aversion to three-pointers, have a defined ceiling in the modern era.

Hoiberg was supposed to change that. He was supposed to free the Bulls from their Thibodeau shackles and finally allow the team’s dynamic offensive talents to prosper. While it’s early, the fact that they’ve failed so miserably so far is an indictment of Hoiberg. For the first time, though, the talent level of the Bulls is as questionable as the system that cages them.

How many ‘very good’ NBA players do the Chicago Bulls actually have on their roster?

Butler is the obvious one, the team’s best player – a two-way star who has taken as large an offensive leap in the past two seasons as anyone in recent history.

Gasol is the next candidate, and while his counting stats remain impressive – a double-double with two blocks per game – the underlying numbers suggest that he’s doing more harm than good.

At 35 and with the quickness of a tortoise trapped in sand, Gasol is a defensive liability, and he no longer has the offensive efficiency to make up for it. He’s shooting a career-low 41.9 per cent from the field, an atrocious mark for a centre, and the Bulls are significantly worse on both sides of the court with Gasol on the floor.

When Pau is on the court the Bulls are 10.8 points worse per 100 possessions than when he’s off it – that’s effectively the difference between the Clippers and the Lakers.

We’ve waited three years for Derrick Rose to be Derrick Rose again but at 27, two years removed from his last serious injury, it might be time to accept that he is who he is at this stage – a dreadfully inefficient scoring guard who only shows fleeting flashes of brilliance.

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The former MVP is shooting a ghastly 35.4 per cent from the floor and 20 per cent from deep. For all the talk of Kobe Bryant’s debacle of a season, Rose’s percentages have been comparably bad. Only the 76ers have a worse offence than Chicago’s with Rose on the floor.

Deron Williams has been the poster boy for lambasted once-elite point guards who have fallen from grace, but present day Rose looks up at present day D-Will. At this stage, is there that much difference between Rose and Michael Carter-Williams?

Noah’s decline has been the most self-evident of all the Bulls’ stars – it’s hard to be more obvious than a centre shooting 36.5 per cent from the floor. He is a minus zero on offence, a sad scarecrow with straw for hands and a crippling fear of the hoop. After being a dynamic offensive threat two seasons ago, facilitating the ball as the team’s de facto point guard and taking it to the bucket when required, Noah now retreats from the bucket like a frightened child.

After 10 shot attempts and 12.6 points per game in 2013-14, where he finished top five in MVP voting, Noah is down to 3.7 shot attempts and a comical 3.1 points this season. His defence has rebounded though after a sub-par 2014-15 season, with the Bulls having the second best defence in the league when the pony-tailed Frenchman is manning the middle.

On paper, Mirotic is the perfect fit for a modern NBA offence – a power forward who has true three-point range and enough size and strength to hold his own on defence. In reality, though, Mirotic is a 40 per cent shooter from the field and a floor-spacer only in theory, held back by his career 32.3 per cent three-point mark.

Gibson is fine, still arguably the best big man off the bench in the league. Doug McDermott and Tony Snell are interesting, but neither move the needle significantly. Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich are terrible, and at 35 Mike Dunleavy can’t be counted on with his health.

The Bulls are hardly in crisis. They’re 10-5 and third in the East with an elite, fifth-ranked defence. While their roster is not star-laden, it is rich in competent NBA players, and in Butler the Bulls have a bona fide two-way stud.

Chicago is a virtual lock for the playoffs, and they’ll be a gruelling match-up for anyone. There is still upside for the Bulls too. Rose and Noah can’t really be worse, and Dunleavy will return. Hoiberg has made a mess of his line-ups with Rose, Mirotic and Noah virtually never having been on the floor with each other all season.

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As the season progresses, the line-ups should iron themselves out. But still, there is no panacea for the underlying problem which afflicts the Bulls, which is that their ‘very good’ players don’t seem to be very good anymore.

In the pre-season, Chicago had real designs on dethroning the Cavaliers. While it is still early, and Bulls fans live in the perpetual hope that Derrick Rose will wake-up one day and remember the truths about basketball that he once knew, the early indications are that the Bulls are still stuck in the Eastern conference rabble below Cleveland, left to scratch and claw with the likes of Miami, Indiana, Boston, Washington, Toronto and Atlanta for the right to be demolished by the Cavs.

In the past, it was easy to point at injuries or stale offences for Chicago slipping into the East’s second tier. In 2015, reality has begun to eat away at the excuses in the Windy City, with a cold truth beginning to take shape – names have a habit of being reduced to paper tigers, which is all these Bulls have proven to be.