By Argie Grigorakos
With the All-Star weekend festivities behind us, the NBA season is starting its second half very soon and all 30 teams are gearing up for the stretch run. Some teams who find themselves at the bottom of the standings may look to further develop their young talent through increased playing time, and prepare for this summer’s Draft Lottery. Other teams may be trying to improve upon their overall records in order to squeeze into the playoff picture later this spring. True contenders seek to solidify home court advantage and the best possible match up for themselves once the playoff brackets are set, thus the next few weeks are critical for any team with true championship aspirations. Currently the Chicago Bulls sit 3rd in the Eastern Conference, only 2 1/2 games back of the second place Toronto Raptors. Even though they trail the Atlanta Hawks for 1st in the Conference by 9 games, they are mathematically not out of the race for top seed in the East, therefore there is still plenty to play for with 28 games remaining. The Bulls should seek to get at least the 2nd seed in the East in the playoffs as it can guarantee them home court advantage for at least the first 2 rounds, however it could prove to be a difficult task as upstart Toronto Raptors seem to be playing much better basketball nowadays with a totally healthy roster. A sense of urgency surrounds the Chicago Bulls presently as both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Washington Wizards are on their trails and any missteps can have the team from the Windy City fall as far back as the 5th seed in the Conference, and regrettably starting a first round series on the road in the playoffs. Ultimately, the following 5 important developments need to occur in order for not only the Chicago Bulls to solidify a quality playoff seeding, but to truly have the team build great momentum as they establish themselves as true championship threats. The time to peek should truly happen the next few weeks for the Chicago Bulls as they enter the 2015 NBA playoffs, and any issues the team faced in the 1st half of the season should be addressed and resolved by the time the games really matter come Spring.
- Derrick Rose Must Play at a Consistent Level
The most important factor in the Chicago Bulls championships hope is the play of their best player Derrick Rose. After missing basically 2 seasons of basketball, Derrick Rose has had many ups and downs this season which has caused a great level of inconsistent play and unpredictable attendance, especially early on. His choice of shot selection has been suspect to say the least, especially from 3 where he is shooting a horrible 29.4%. His average attempts of 5.5 3’s per game is very concerning, as Rose’s greatest quality in his pre-injury years was attacking the basket which seem to be missing especially as he was getting re-acclimated in the early parts of the schedule . However lately Derrick seems to be turning the corner with his level of play, as his approach when scoring the basketball has changed, and his numbers reflect the outcome as they are steadily climbing month by month. Derrick seems to not be settling for the 3 ball as much and playing with the aggression we are all accustomed to seeing from number 1. The last 15 games Derrick Rose seems to be resembling the player who took home the 2010-2011 MVP award as he has averaged 21.8 ppg, 3.1rpg, 5.3apg and only 2.4 three point attempts per game. He has attacked the rim with a confident aggression, creating shots for himself and his teammates in a consistent manner which is very encouraging. In the last 6 games Derrick has only averages 2.17 turnovers per game which is outstanding for a player with a very high usage rating, and it is clear the rust he displayed early on seems to be almost all gone. Pooh’s minute restrictions were also lifted last month which shows that the organization, Derrick Rose and his camp have extreme confidence that he is now 100% healthy and fully back from a physical standpoint. Derrick has only missed 1 game since mid-December which shows that he has come a long way from November where he faced a lot of scrutiny for taking games off due to minor injuries that occurred. Derrick Rose’s trajectory seems to be facing upwards which is fabulous news for the Chicago Bulls and bad news for all oppositions. The more confidence Derrick Rose develops over the next few months, along with the rise in his level of play, can very well determine whether the Bulls are true contenders of mere pretenders.
- Joakim Noah’s Health
Arguably the second most important player to the potential of the Bull’s success is Center Joakim Noah. Noah has faced a season full of adversity as major offseason knee surgery has plagued the almost 7 foot Center for most of the season thus far, and that leaves all Chicago Bulls fans with major concerns. It has been said that the surgery Joakim Noah had this past off-season has left his knee basically bone on bone, which can be troublesome for any athlete, especially one that is constantly reliant on his legs to be truly effective. He is shooting an alarming 43.9% from the field, which is very low for a Center who would usually thrive on lay ups and put backs. He was consistent hitting the 10 footer last season, which seems to have simply disappeared. His rebounds, points and assists are all down from last season, as minute restrictions have limited his opportunity to build any long-term momentum. Even though Joakim Noah has shown a unique passion and energy level in recent marquee matchups against elite competition, such as the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, the sample size remains very small. Joakim Noah will have to display strong play down the stretch, as his performance will be very critical for the Bulls ultimate success. Continuing to manage Joakim’s minutes the next few months will be very crucial in sustaining his long-term health moving forward. The Chicago Bulls cannot risk Noah’s availability if they truly want to compete for an NBA championship. It will be interesting to see if the energy level Joakim has shown in years pass can resurface when it matters the most, during the playoffs. The Chicago Bulls desperately need the Joakim Noah we are all accustomed to seeing, not a shell of himself.
3.Defence Needs to Improve
One of the most surprising storylines this season has been the drop in defensive play from the Chicago Bulls from seasons past. They currently rank 12th in opponent’s ppg at 99.1 and 8th in opponent’s field goal percentage at 44.1%. That is a significant drop off from the 2013-2014 campaign where they sat 1st in opponent’s ppg at 91.8 and 2nd in opponent’s fg% at 43%. Even though the Bulls still rank in the top half of defensive efficiency at 101.9, good for 13th, that is still a troublesome decline from the previous season where they ranked 2nd at 97.8. The Bulls offense has improved immensely due to the return of their star Derrick Rose, and the acquisitions of a plethora of offensive talent in Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Arron Brooks, but what truly separates the good teams from the great ones is a strong defensive identity. The turnover in personal and injury woes, especially to their defensive anchor Joakim Noah, may have caused their major drop off on the defensive end. Teams have attacked the slow-footed Pau Gasol in many pick and roll situations which has been an Achilles heel for the Chicago Bulls. Also Joakim Noah has been guarding most stretch 4’s in certain matchups which has taken him away from the basket, where he flourished as a helper in years pass when perimeter defenders were beaten by their match ups. It will be very important for Coach Thibodeau to establish better adjustments when teams find major holes in Chicago’s defensive schemes. Coach Thibs may have to sacrifice Pau’s very good offense for Taj Gibson’s very capable defense down the stretch more often in order to remedy the Bulls faulty defense. The way Coach Thibs uses his players in critical moments down the stretch when trying to stop the opposition may be the most delicate process in this year’s playoffs for this Chicago team.
- Tom Thibodeau Needs a Solid Rotation
One major criticism Coach Thibs has faced this season has been the inconsistency he has shown in establishing a rotation and sticking to it. Recently we have seen Tony Snell perform very well averaging 15 ppg in his last 5 games, and hitting 15 threes in his last 25 attempts. Before this hot streak Tony registered several DNP’s in several games due to Coach’s decision. Earlier in the season Nikola Mirotic saw similar success as he caused major mismatches at the 4, displaying a knack of putting the ball on the floor and shooting from deep. Like Snell, Nikola has registered several DNPs and low minute games this season which can cause inconsistent play. Players cannot feel comfortable when they actually get playing time as they naturally are looking over their shoulders thinking they are going to be benched if they don’t play well. Yes Tony Snell is getting major minutes now, but once he has one bad game will Coach Thibs go back to players like diminishing Kirk Hinrich, a player he feels most comfortable with, or stick with the New Mexico alum. It remains to be seen. It is evident that Thibs doesn’t trust the defense of certain players on the roster, and it clearly shows when he is allocating playing time. The season is more than half way done, therefore it is critical that Tom Thibodeau sets a rotation that becomes comfortable and cohesive collectively down the stretch. The days that Kirk Hinrich plays 30 minutes most nights should be over as he is shooting a poor 36.4% from the field and he seems several steps slower than years past. Coach Thibs must trust players like Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic as they provide above average shooting that is required in a slow pace playoff contest. Their shooting will be needed in order to space the floor for the team’s primary scorers, Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol. The rotation needs to be set immediately, as every player on the Bulls team needs to feel comfortable with their designated roles.
- Re-Establishing Home Court Dominance
The greatest advantage any basketball team can have in the playoffs is home court, as a 7 game series can ultimately be decided by the emotion of a home crowd, and the intimidation factor it can present to opposition. For years the Chicago Bulls had establish themselves as a dominant home team, as the city is universally viewed as a great sports town that passionately supports their team through great enthusiasm. For whatever reason the Bulls seem to be struggling this season on their hardwood floor going 15-11 thus far, and losing to sub par teams like the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, and the Indiana Pacers. No more are opponents looking at their schedule fearing to play at the United Center, and that needs to change right away. 7 of the Bulls next 8 games will be at the UC, and all fans are about to see if their team can right the wrongs at the Madhouse on Madison. The Chicago Bulls are coming off an impressive home win right before the All-Star break beating the red-hot Cleveland Cavaliers who were winners of 14 of their last 15 going into the contest. It will be interesting to see if the Chicago Bulls can build great momentum at home as they are still fighting for a high playoff position. It is not too late to re-establish a feared reputation at home for these Chicago Bulls, but it must start immediately, as several upcoming opponents such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Hornets, and Washington Wizards may be returning to the UC later this Spring for a key playoff game. The last thing the Chicago Bulls would want is any of these respected ball clubs returning to the UC in the future thinking they have the complete advantage.