What defines success for an NBA basketball team? Is a team’s success based solely on their record, or is success more about players maturing and improving? Is there some sort of middle ground that factors in the record while also looking into the growth of the players? The Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors have both had extremely successful seasons but for very different reasons. The Timberwolves’ young core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine is unrivaled throughout the league, while the Warriors are on pace to have the best regular season record in history. So which team should be considered more successful? And where do the Chicago Bulls fit in with their mediocre record and collection of young talent?
Let’s start with their record; the Bulls are 27-25 and would be the 7th seed in the Eastern conference if the season ended today. That may seem disappointing compared to previous seasons, but they are only 3.5 games behind the 3rd seed Boston Celtics. If they can string together a solid week or two of games suddenly they regain home court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs.
Watching the Bulls lately has admittedly been a pain. They are often stagnant on offense and lethargic on defense. However, it’s incredibly difficult for a coach to roll out a successful squad when players are constantly injured. The Bulls have played 52 games this season and the only Bull to play in every game so far is Taj Gibson, who just went down with a foot injury. When Gibson watches in street clothes as Chicago takes on Cleveland on February 18th, the Bulls will be one of only five teams (Warriors, Kings, Lakers, and Mavericks) to not have a single player take part in every game.
Even with the myriad of injuries, the Bulls defense has still been very consistent. Chicago is 2nd in the league in opponent’s field goal percentage, holding opposing teams to only 43.1% shooting. Another product of their defensive intensity is blocked shots. They come in at 5th in the league with 5.9 blocks per game. Chicago’s big men don’t just deny shots, they also collect missed shots better than any other team, grabbing a league-leading 47.9 rebounds each night. Pau Gasol, averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds, is leading the Bulls frontcourt. Nikola Mirotic (11 and 6), Taj Gibson (8 and 7), and rookie Bobby Portis (7 and 5) round out an impressive rotation of big men.
Speaking of Bobby Portis, the 22nd pick in last year’s draft has already exceeded expectations. He has continued to improved and his play from January compared to February attests to that. In the 17 games he played in January he averaged 5.2 points and 4.4 rebounds on 39.8% shooting from the field. In the six February games he is averaging 9.5 points and 5.7 rebounds on 46.3% shooting. Granted, it’s a small sample size, but those numbers represent a solid improvement in production as well as efficiency. Portis’ blend of athleticism, scoring touch, and constant intensity has allowed him to get acclimated to the NBA quickly and should allow him to continue to grow as a Bull.
As for the Bulls’ backcourt, Jimmy Butler is emerging as one of the premier two-way players in the league while Derrick Rose is slowly but surely returning to his former self. Back in 2011 the Bulls nabbed Butler with the 30th pick in the 1st round of the draft. Normally, players drafted outside the lottery don’t amount to much more than decent rotation players. Normally, seniors that struggled offensively for their entire collegiate career who get drafted don’t suddenly gain the ability to carry a team offensively. Jimmy Butler, however, is no normal player. In his 5th NBA season he is averaging career highs in points (22.4 per game), assists (4.3 per game), usage rate (24.9%), and PER (21.9). It looks like Butler has made the leap from good starter to NBA star.
As for Derrick Rose, he is finally settling in and getting comfortable. In October, Rose only averaged 13.7 points, 4.7 assists, and 1.7 rebounds. In the five games he played so far in February, he’s averaging 19.4 points, 6.8 assists, and 5.6 rebounds. Again, a very small sample size but encouraging nonetheless. Also, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, Rose had a back-to-back line of 20+ points, 8+ assists, and 6+ rebounds in each game for the first time since 2010. Rose may never return to MVP form, but he is proving that he can be a solid starter on a playoff squad.
It may be too early to call this season successful, but to call it a failure is definitely wrong. The Bulls are only 3.5 games out of 3rd place in the East. They also have Portis, Mirotic, and Doug McDermott who all have bright futures. Rose is gaining momentum. Butler has taken the next step into NBA superstardom. Injuries have definitely affected this season, but we shouldn’t consider the season a failure based on something completely out of the control of players and coaches.
All statistics from NBA.com unless otherwise noted.