If Chicago Bulls basketball became in fun in January, it's officially reverted back to a soul-sucking lifestyle burden in February. With just two (very winnable) games left this month, it doesn't feel too early to call February a disaster. The Bulls are 4-7 since the calendar flipped, losers of six of their last nine. Just as importantly, the sense of joy brought by the emergence of Jimmy Butler, All-Star recognition for Joakim Noah and Luol Deng and big wins over the Heat and Knicks has been replaced by injuries, poor shooting and an unnerving sense of dread concerning the return of Derrick Rose.
This site has done well to keep the Rose business separate from the team taking the court every night, but as losses have piled up this month and Rose's recovery keeps making weekly headlines, it's hard not to view the two storylines as the intertwined double helix strands of the Bulls' DNA. Maybe the circus surrounding Rose doesn't have a tangible impact on Chicago's play, but there's no denying that the Bulls need their superstar now more than ever. The Bulls just need something positive, something to get excited about, something to divert our attention from the team's slow trickle down the Eastern Conference standings.
In his place, there's just bad basketball. Over the last nine games -- using David West's low post destruction of Luol Deng in Indy on Feb. 4 as the starting point -- the Bulls are playing offensive basketball at sub-Bobcats levels. That's not an exaggeration: Chicago is posting a 95.01 offensive rating over its last nine, a full point worse than what the Bobcats have done this season as the NBA's worst offensive team.
What's interesting is that Chicago's numbers aren't down across the board during the last nine, not even offensively. The Bulls have been heavily reliant on ball movement to get the offense in gear all season long without Rose, and that hasn't changed. The Bulls' 64.6 percent assist rate on the season is second in the NBA; over the last nine games, they're posting an assist rate of 65.3 percent. The offensive rebounding is also still there. Chicago's 30.4 offensive rebounding percentage is tied for No. 3 in the league on the season; over the last nine, they're putting up a 32.1 offensive rebounding rate.
So why is the offense so bad right now? There are a few easy answers. They've played seven of the last nine on the road. They've also seen a steady uptick in competition, with three losses coming to the three best teams in the league (Heat, Thunder, Spurs) and two coming against viable playoff sleepers (Pacers and Nuggets).
There are also a few deeper reasons for Chicago's recent losing ways:
Luol Deng is struggling
In the 41 games before Feb. 4, the Bulls were +50 with Luol Deng on the floor. Since? They're minus-47.
The dropoff feels as substantial as the numbers show. Deng has scored more than 15 points just once over the last nine games, and is shooting 38 percent from the floor in February. His PER has dipped to 14.83, which puts him just below John Hollinger's imaginary threshold for a 'pretty good player'.
Deng is just really struggling with his shot right now. It's enough to make you wonder if another season leading the NBA in minutes combined with daily wear and tear to the torn ligaments in his left wrist is simply too much for the Bulls' small forward to overcome. Look at his percentages over the last nine games:
- 5-of-21 from three, 23.8 percent
- 3-of 17 from 15-19 feet, 17.6 percent.
- 4-for-27 from 20-24 feet, 14.8 percent
Interestingly, Deng is still getting looks at the rim and finishing them more than 50 percent of the time. But his shooting numbers speak for themselves.
There continues to be some debate on other forums (such as "life" and also "Facebook") about the Bench Mob vs. this year's bench, with defenders of this year's bench arguing the only real downgrade the Bulls made was swapping Nazr Mohammed for Omer Asik. While Asik is the most drastic of Chicago's offseason losses, exchanging Kyle Korver for Marco Belinelli is a fairly sizable kick to the stomach, as well.
There are people who think Belinelli is better than Korver, and these people are wrong. Marco defenders point to his superior handle and playmaking abilities, as well as the few clutch shots he's hit this year. It's true: the Bulls wouldn't be using Korver as a pick-and-roll ball handler in crunch-time as they've done with Belinelli at times this year, nor would Korver be able to take a stab at point guard duties when Nate is struggling and Hinrich can't get himself out of that goddamn well. But if there's one thing the Bulls need, it's shooting, and Kyle Korver is a great shooter. Belinelli is actually kind of terrible.
Belinelli hit 38.5 percent of his threes in November and 40.7 percent in December, but he's struggled since. In January, Belinelli hit just 29.7 percent from downtown. He's also shooting 29 percent from deep in February.
Meanwhile, Korver continues to kick ass. He left the Palace covered in hot sauce on Monday by hitting five threes. Korver leads in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage (46.4 percent) and he's made the fourth most threes (140) of any player in the league. Kyle Korver's Trade Exception has yet to hit a shot this season for the Bulls.
It's not just Marco and Deng who are struggling from deep, though they're certainly the two biggest culprits. As a whole, Chicago is just 40-for-139 from three-point range over the last nine games, good for a 28.8 percentage. Only the Magic are worse at shooting from deep over that range.
Boozer is back to being Boozer
Taj Gibson's injury means the Bulls need Boozer more than ever. Unfortunately, after a nice January, Boozer is back to being the same player that makes Chicago's blood curdle.
Over the last nine games, Carlos Boozer is averaging just 12.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game on 43.6 percent shooting. He's shooting 29.6 percent on 27 shots between 10-14 feet and 37.9 percent on shots between 15-19 feet.
As for the plus-minus stats: yeah, Boozer is minus-71 over the last nine.
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Bad as this month has been, I always like to end on a positive note. There have been two positive things to happen in the Bulls' world over the last couple days.
D. Rose dunked:
I'm sure there's been plenty of debate here already over this, but I actually find it pretty encouraging. For the sake of not writing another 1,200 words on this .GIF, I'll just say that my gut tells me Rose will be back sooner rather than later. I'll submit March 18 vs. Denver as my wild guess for his return.
This is like my favorite thing ever. Good job; good effort, Nate.
Ricky O'Donnell is an NBA assignment editor at SB Nation. Email at email@example.com or follow on Twitter.