2014-15 Chicago Bulls: So far, so good

In his contract year, 4th-year SG Jimmy Butler (with ball) has been the Bulls' best offensive player to date. Pay the man, GarPax.  Tom Szczerbowski -- USA Today Sports

In his contract year, 4th-year SG Jimmy Butler (with ball) has been the Bulls’ best offensive player to date. Pay the man, GarPax. Tom Szczerbowski — USA Today Sports

At 17-9, the Chicago Bulls currently sit in first place in the NBA’s Central Division, three-and-a-half games behind the Toronto Raptors (yes, the freaking Toronto Raptors) for the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference. With an expected win-loss record of 16-10, it appears the Bulls are about where they should be in terms of play. One-and-a-half games behind the Bulls in the Central are the reloaded Cleveland Cavaliers (15-10), and once again, the East looks fairly weak, especially when compared to the West.

Backcourt.

Obviously, the most compelling story behind the 14-15 Bulls has been, and will be, the return of PG Derrick Rose. Even those who resided under a rock this past summer were most likely made aware of Rose’s each move on the basketball court, whether it was for Team USA during the FIBA Basketball World Cup or Bulls, during the preseason and regular season. Before missing the last two games due to illness, Rose had started and finished ten straight games. In 16 games, playing just over 27 minutes a night, Rose has posted this line:

16.8 PPG, 3.3 TRB, 5.1 AST, .421 FG%, .281 3P%, .776 FT%, 3.3 TOV, .522 TS%, 17.1 PER

While 17/3/5 in just 27 minutes a night would be wonderful for just about anyone, Rose isn’t just

Derrick Rose, doing Derrick Rose stuff.

Derrick Rose, doing Derrick Rose stuff.

about anyone. A career 46% shooter from the field and 31% from long distance, Rose has never been a sharpshooter, although he’s improved as a shooter since entering the league in 2008. Factoring into Rose’s paltry shooting numbers this season is his shot selection. So far, Rose has attempted a career-low 38.6% of his shots from ten feet and closer. What makes this number so frustrating is that he’s shooting just over 59% in that space on the floor, a career-high mark. From deep, Rose has put up more shots (nearly 6 a game) than any other time since his second year in the league and this season. Not only is this problematic because Rose is shooting terribly from three-point territory, but also because the Bulls are currently second in the league in free throws per field goal attempt. When Rose chucks from deep, he misses nearly 75% of the time, creating easier opportunities for the opponent to get into their transition offense and score quick, efficient baskets. Rose is still knocking the rust off of his game, but he’s been well above-average thus far and should find production at a higher level easier as the season goes on.

Twenty-five year-old shooting guard Jimmy Butler entered the 14-15 season needing to improve on a disappointing 13-14 campaign that saw his value plummet and questions arise whether or not Butler could be the Bulls’ off guard of the future. Through 24 games (all starts), Butler has been pretty damn good, and the dreaded “m” word may get thrown around when/if contract negotiations come up this offseason. Averaging a shade under 22 points per night while shooting a very respectable 49% from the field and 33% from deep, Butler has also maintained his status as one of the league’s better defenders. With a VORP that has already reached 5.1, Butler seems on track for an All-NBA caliber season.

I never expected Kirk Hinrich to do much when he was re-signed this offseason. And, you know what, he certainly hasn’t on the offensive end. On the defensive end, however, he’s been surprisingly average and dare I say, on most nights, above-average. This still doesn’t negate the fact that he’s shooting 36% from the field (actually down from last year’s 39% and 12-13’s 38%) and has posted a PER of 8.2 and VORP of -0.1, making him damn near valueless in the 28 minutes a night he’s playing. The man who should be most angered by the Bulls’ loyalty to Hinrich besides myself is fellow backup point man, Aaron Brooks. The 6’1″ Oregon product can be added to the list of smaller, backup point guards (Nate Robinson, DJ Augustin) who found a home, and success, with the Bulls. While playing nearly 20 minutes a night, Brooks has averaged almost 11 points a night and just over 3 assists. With a shooting line of (FG%/3P%/FT%) .470/.446/.857 to boot, Brooks has proved to be a wise investment, although he does average 4 turnovers per 36 minutes.

Tony Snell probably doesn’t have much of a future with the Bulls, and his performance in limited time this season has not changed that opinion. After a strong summer performance, Snell has apparently fallen out of the rotation and has posted a PER of a measly 5. Backup point guard E’Twaun Moore was signed to essentially fill out the roster and has done just that, picking up some minutes occasionally.

Frontcourt.

Reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year and 1st-Team All-NBA center Joakim Noah has been slowed by injuries thus far, but has still managed to post (PPG/RPG/APG) 8.7/9.9/4.3 a night and produce at a high level on the defensive end. His field goal percentage and True Shooting percentage have both dropped for the fifth consecutive season, however. Fellow starting big Pau Gasol has been nothing short of spectacular in his first season with the Bulls, averaging 18.2/11.7/2.3 a night. Gasol is also averaging 2 blocks per game and has been much more of an interior defensive presence than I was willing to give him credit for when he signed as a free agent in July. Playing nearly 36 minutes a night, though, could spell doom for the 34 year-old big when April rolls around.

Sixth-year power forward Taj Gibson appeared set to be the Bulls’ starting power forward once Carlos Boozer was amnestied, but Gasol signed and Gibson was once again relegated to the bench when Gasol and Noah are healthy. Despite another season of limited opportunities and lack of appreciation, Gibson has been great this season, averaging 12.6 & 7.2 in just over 30 minutes a contest. Still an excellent defender down low and on the perimeter, Gibson has in addition become more aggressive on the offensive end, attempting well over half of his shots at the rim and making 67% of them. Small forward Mike Dunleavy has appeared and started in all 26 games and while he never really gives me cause for excitement, he also never really disappoints me, either. You could probably put Dunleavy on any NBA roster and he’d manage to average 10 points and 5 rebounds a night while shooting close to 40% from three-point territory. Eerie.

Nikola Mirotic will inevitably become my favorite NBA player. Of this, I’m sure. Yes, I am fully aware that Mirotic is not yet Dirk Nowitzki, or even Toni Kukoc. However, dare I say that Mirotic will wind up being better than the two? Saving that opinion for later… Mirotic’s line so far:

8.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.2 AST, .441 FG%, .400 3P%, .809 FT%, .603 TS%, 17.7 PER

That’s not a line we usually see from Rookie of the Year winners, but generally, rookies who contend for the award aren’t playing for teams that are legitimate title contenders. Head coach Tom Thibodeau seems to have an aversion to rookies, but most of his rookies weren’t “Niko.” Already a competent defender and very good rebounder, all Niko needs to do is become more aggressive on the offensive side (almost half of his field goal attempts have come from three-point territory), giving the Bulls another weapon on that end.

I’m still holding out hope that rookie small forward Doug McDermott will eventually become a productive NBA player. The problem is that I’m not quite sure he will ever be a productive player for the Bulls. Marquis Teague, “McD” is not, even on his worst day. Yet, it’s not a stretch to predict that as a Bull, McD may not give the team much more than Teague did. Out for another 5 to 7 weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, McDermott had limited opportunities before he was felled by injury, but even in those chances (11.6 minutes per), he was pretty awful:

3.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG, .423 FG%, .231 3P%, .500 FT%, .488 TS%, 4.1 PER

Now, I don’t believe McD is as bad as that line shows. However, when he returns later this season, he’s going to have to contribute on the offensive end, because I simply don’t see him providing much in the way of meaningful value on defense.

Nazr Mohammed, a CPS and Kenwood Academy product, can do no wrong in my eyes, so long

Cameron Bairstow, NBA player. No, seriously.

Cameron Bairstow, NBA player. No, seriously.

as he doesn’t have to play more than a few minutes per game. As for rookie big man Cameron Bairstow, I don’t know much else about him except that he makes rookie-year Carmelo Anthony look absolutely svelte, and that he needs to ditch that headbandthing and tube socks.

A semi-outlook.

Presently, the Bulls are 15th in scoring (102.2 per game), 11th in scoring defense (98.4), 10th in Offensive Rating (108.4) and 9th in Defensive Rating (104.3). There are still some kinks that need to be ironed out, but most of those kinks have been related to injuries, which in my opinion is a better obstacle to have to clear than inept play. With 56 games left to play, there is still plenty of time for the Bulls to find out just what they are, which I hope is a legitimate contender for an NBA title.

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