72 games games into the regular season, the Chicago Bulls are still a mystery. Is Tom Thibodeau’s team a sleeping giant? A solid contender? Or run-of-the-mill playoff fodder?
Constant injuries have prevented the Bulls from establishing any type of consistency in 2014-2015. Derrick Rose has missed 26 games and counting. Taj Gibson has been sidelined for 20 contests, Jimmy Butler has been absent 16 games of his own, and Joakim Noah 13 matchups while dealing with nagging knee pain all season long. Even ancillary pieces like Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich, and Doug McDermott have missed significant chunks of the schedule, too.
But that hasn’t stopped Chicago from winning, and it won’t keep Noah from expecting the most of his team come postseason time, either. Following his team’s playoffs-clinching 98-86 win over the Charlotte Hornets last night, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year expressed utmost confidence in the Bulls’ chances when the stakes raise highest.
Via K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
“No,” Noah said, when asked if the Bulls’ defense is where it needs to be.
Expanding on why, Noah cited a need for more toughness. And then he dropped the kicker.
“I still think we’re the toughest team to beat in a seven-game series,” he said.
Belief is of chief importance in sports, and Noah obviously has it. Other than simple optimism, though, there’s just no statistical justification for his boasts.
Chicago has the league’s 11th-best net rating at +2.7. It ranks 10th in offense and 13th in defense. The Bulls are a combined 1-4 against the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers this season, and a solid but unremarkable 8-8 versus the top-eight teams in the Western Conference. And the continuity for which LeBron James lauded them in the preseason has been ravaged by players going out, in, and out of the lineup since early November.
But it’s the possibility gleaned from those absences that allows for Noah’s hopes to be considered anything other than laughable. Consider, for instance, that Rose, Butler, and Noah have only appeared together in 31 games this season. If full strength ever comes for Chicago, sheer talent certainly makes it easy to assume the Bulls will be better than their current resumé suggests.
The question, though, isn’t only whether or not that day will come before time runs out on Chicago’s season – but also if so many games playing short-handed has already doomed it. Will Noah be able to perform like himself? Can Rose be a reasonable facsimile of a star? And if so, will the Bulls be able to mesh quickly enough to give Atlanta or Cleveland anything other than a scare in a seven-game series?
Noah thinks so, but we’re dubious.
Butler returned to the lineup last night, Gibson is back on the court, Rose began doing full-contact drills earlier this week, and the playoffs begin in just under four weeks. We’ll find out just how good the Bulls can be soon enough.