The Chicago Bulls are going to be in the national spotlight this week, with all three of their games on national television. It starts with a big test at Golden State tonight (10:30 PM ET, NBA-TV), and then moves on to the Thursday night TNT stage at the Los Angeles Lakers (10:30 PM ET) and concludes with another 10:30 PM ET tip on Friday, this one against the Phoenix Suns on ESPN.
So it’s time to take stock of this Chicago Bulls team, to see if they can meet preseason expectations and at least reach the conference finals and perhaps finally make the NBA Finals for the first time since the Michael Jordan era ended.
Chicago is 29-17 and in fourth in the Eastern Conference. They are part of a group of three teams jousting between the 2-4 spots, including the Toronto Raptors and Washington, so the Bulls are closer to moving up two spots then they are to moving down one. But the team in the rearview mirror is the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James’ team has gotten a roll recently, so there’s not a lot of room for error for Chicago.
The success for the Bulls starts with Jimmy Butler, the two-guard that’s averaging 20 ppg and become the big-time scorer that this team has so often lacked in recent seasons in the playoffs, especially with Derrick Rose injured. And speaking of Rose, he’s quietly played 35 games and is averaging 18 points/5 rebounds and 3 assists per game.
We only hear of Rose when he comes out of a game early or sits down, so it’s worth pointing out that he’s playing and producing. Whether he can stay healthy enough for that continue will be a subject of reasonable doubt until he makes it through a full regular season and postseason again, but for now everything is fine with the man who has to ultimately eclipse Butler as the biggest star on the team if Chicago is going to reach the NBA Finals.
Thursday night will be when Pau Gasol returns to his old stomping grounds in Los Angeles, where he helped the Lakers win championships in 2009 and 2010. The Lakers felt Gasol was done at age 34. The Bulls thought otherwise. The Bulls were right—18 points/12 rebounds/2 blocks per game and another offensive threat that Chicago is not used to having.
The Bulls rank eighth in the NBA in offensive efficiency, thanks to the emergence of Butler, the availability of Rose and the acquisition of Gasol. What’s surprising is that it’s the defense that’s under some scrutiny.
Chicago is still a good defensive team, ranking 12th in the league in efficiency. But we’re used to seeing the Bulls of head coach Tom Thibodeau rank among the NBA elite on defense. For all the offensive improvements, they’re going to need to be a great defensive team to get by the other contenders in the East.
It’s been speculated that perhaps this veteran team—Gasol, Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy are all 34-years-old, and Rose has to pace himself as well—will turn up the intensity as the season gets closer to April. That’s well possible and certainly not without precedent in the NBA. I’m giving Chicago the benefit of the doubt until March or so. That’s when I want to see Joakim Noah in the post and the rest of this team play the kind of smothering defense that we’ve become used to seeing.
Chicago is a 10-1 shot to win the NBA title, ranking behind only four other teams, including Cleveland. On its face, the odds sound reasonable, although I don’t know that the Bulls are that much better than Washington, who is a 35-1 shot. What it boils down to is that oddsmakers still believe in the Bulls and with the national stage this week, Chicago can demonstrate that the confidence is not misplaced.