On December 4th, the Chicago Bulls had dropped consecutive games to the Boston Celtics and the Orlando Magic, two of the league's elite teams, by a combined 41 points. Free-agent signee Carlos Boozer, who debuted in the Orlando loss, was averaging 8.5 points on 40-percent shooting, quite cleary rusty from the long layoff a broken hand forced him to take. Their record stood at a positively ordinary 9-8, and even accounting for Boozer's missing Chicago's first 15 contests, they had to have hoped for a stronger start.
But now, even after Wednesday night's last-second loss to the New Jersey Nets, Chicago owns the East's third-best record. Led by point guard Derrick Rose, the Bulls have won 14 of their last 17 games. How did they turn their season around so quickly?
Not to be too flip, but the schedule helped. During this 17-game tear, the Bulls have feasted on the league's weaker teams, defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves by 31, the Indiana Pacers by 19, Toronto Raptors by 17 and 20 and the Philadelphia 76ers by 45, to name a few blowout wins. And while a skeptic might contend blowout victories against inferior competition don't mean much, that skeptic would be wrong. Recent research indicates that pounding non-playoff teams is a greater indicator of future success than narrowly defeating great teams. In other words, what Chicago's done here is take care of getting the wins it's meant to get, which is a positive sign going forward. On the season, the Bulls' record against teams under .500 stands at 15-3. Among Eastern Conference teams, only the Miami Heat (17-2) and Boston Celtics (16-2) can claim superiority in this area.
The Bulls have also adopted a defensive identity, which is no surprise, given the speciality of their head coach. Tom Thibodeau, whom Chicago hired this summer, spent the last two seasons building the Celtics' formidable defense. Though Boston hasn't lost anything on that end without him, the Bulls have benefitted from his presence. They rank as the league's second-best defense in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions. With their improved defense, the Bulls can remain competitive on nights where their less impressive offense cannot carry them. Ultimately, barring a horrific breakdown, the Bulls can count on staying in games they ought not otherwise win, based solely on the strength of their defense. Joakim Noah anchors them on that end, averaging 7.7 defensive boards and 1.6 blocks. He'll miss the next month or so while he continues to recover from a broken thumb, but backups Kurt Thomas and Taj Gibson have proven more than adequate in his absence.
The defensive emphasis comes at a price, as it forces Keith Bogans, a specialist on the wing positions, into the starting lineup. He plays 18.1 minutes per game in Chicago and might be lucky to average even half that total on any other team. Ronnie Brewer, playing 22.4 minutes, sees more time off the bench, but it's clear that featuring Bogans in the rotation compromises the team's offensive punch.
But Chicago has just enough of that to get by most nights thanks largely to Rose's efforts. A potential MVP candidate, Rose stuffs the stat sheet to the tune of 23.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 8.3 assists, and 1.1 steals on an average night. Boozer -- who's up to 19.7 points per game on 53.6 percent shooting -- and Luol Deng fit nicely as complementary pieces around him, as each is skilled enough to get his own shot if absolutely needed. In a late-game situation when Thibodeau needs a crucial basket, he has myriad options: a high pick-and-roll with Rose and Boozer, an isolation with Rose, a straight post-up for Boozer, an isolation for Deng or a catch-and-shoot off a pin-down for Deng, to name but a few.
The Bulls' offense could use some more spacing and outside scoring, which is why a three-point shooter figures to rank highly on GM Gar Foreman's wishlist going forward. But it's clear that this Bulls team, as presently constructed, has the requisite defensive fortitude to take home a victory on any given night. That skill will come in handy especially in playoff time, where they'll almost certainly be an opponent no team wants to have to face.