At the end of the 2015 calendar year, the Chicago Bulls were in disarray. After Jimmy Butler asked Fred Hoiberg to coach harder, vice president of basketball operations John Paxson made a rare appearance on a radio show on Dec. 25 and challenged the Bulls to play tougher or moves might be made. The Bulls had the East's sixth-best record at the time, sitting at 15-11.
Since then, they have gone 7-1 and have climbed all the way to second in the East, behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. They've won the last six straight by over nine points per 100 possessions, the third-best net rating during that span. It's all because of their improved offense. So what changed?
1. The stars are all playing better
Earlier in the season, the only Bulls star who was playing at the level expected of him was Butler. Both Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose were struggling to provide the secondary scoring the team desperately needed.
That has changed dramatically during the past eight games. Butler has reached yet another level, averaging 26 points, four rebounds and six assists while breaking Michael Jordan's franchise record for most points scored in a half. Gasol, meanwhile, is scoring almost four points more than he was before Christmas. He's getting to the line more often as well, some of his three-pointers have fallen and he's even assisting more.
Yet the biggest turnaround has been Rose's. During the first 24 games of the season, Rose was averaging 13 points on 37 percent shooting. Since then, he's averaging over 19 points on 49 percent shooting. He's been sharing playmaking duties with Butler, which has allowed him to focus more on his scoring. His ability to finish at the rim has been steadily climbing since dropping the face mask he had to wear earlier in the year. He is now an asset.
With those three players leading the way, the Bulls have the star power they need.
2. The Bulls' new rotation improved both their interior and perimeter offense
Hoiberg struggled to find a rotation that worked earlier in the year. In an effort to soup up the offense by injecting some shooting, he started Nikola Mirotic at power forward next to Gasol. Unfortunately, the streaky forward wasn't connecting on enough of his attempts to offset the loss of a second inside presence. Hoiberg tried out a few other lineups, never finding the right balance until he made the adjustment to go big and play Mirotic almost exclusively at small forward next to two big men.
The move has paid off greatly. Gasol, Bobby Portis and Taj Gibson are making a killing on the offensive glass by overwhelming teams who only expect one rebounder to crash the boards. The Bulls are leading the league in second-chance points with a bullet since Christmas.
As for the perimeter offense, the streaky Mirotic is connecting more often, while everyone outside of Kirk Hinrich has improved their percentages as well. The Bulls are taking fewer threes but averaging almost 40 percent on the ones they do launch. They can now bring both Tony Snell and Doug McDermott off the bench to provide additional shooting, and they've found rotation minutes for the productive Portis. The lineup change has worked perfectly.
3. No Joakim Noah means better offense
Joakim Noah has been the heart and soul of the Bulls for years, but his decline has been noticeable, especially on the offensive end. Noah takes mostly point-blank shots, but is connecting at a ridiculously low 41 percent rate. He still does a good job getting offensive rebounds, but is shooting under 30 percent on putbacks. His passing continues to be an asset, but opponents are taking their chances with leaving him open to help elsewhere and it works more often than not.
Noah has the lowest on-court offensive rating on the Bulls. With him sidelined due to injury, Gasol, Gibson, Portis and Mirotic are getting more minutes, and all four seem to affect the offense more positively than Noah while not killing the team on defense. It's not a coincidence that the Bulls' surge has come around when Noah is out. He simply hurts the Bulls more than he helps them at this point.
Is the offensive surge sustainable?
It's hard to say because a lot of different factors have contributed to it. If Mirotic stops hitting shots and allows opponents to pack the paint, both the three-point shooting and offensive rebounding could suffer. Rose has been nothing if not inconsistent the past few years and Butler might not be able to continue to perform at a superlative level. There's also the question of what will happen to the rotation once Noah returns.
The good news is that even if the Bulls can't continue to score at this high a level, they have figured out some things that work. Portis is getting minutes, they are leveraging their height on the offensive glass and Rose is attacking the rim more. When the injured Mike Dunleavy returns, they will have another shooter available, which means Mirotic could become a sub, further boosting the bench.
There is enough talent around for the Bulls to not only be a good defensive team but a solid offensive one as well. They are finally living up to that potential, which could turn them into a serious threat for the Cavaliers.
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