You can't really achieve peace with this Bulls season until you let the unwavering desolation fully wash over you. This was supposed to be the Bulls' last stand; a Derrick Rose vengeance tour wrapped in a proud final act for a core consistently burned by bad luck. Instead, Rose suffered a season-ending knee injury for the second straight year, Luol Deng was dumped to avoid the luxury tax and the team was left to play out the string with a constantly rotating cast of players fighting through injuries. It's hard to even keep tabs on who's in or out of the lineup, with what feels like the full roster marked as a game-time decision every night. Still, it hasn't held back coach Tom Thibodeau from milking every last bit of production out of whoever he has on the floor.
Even after a 14-point home loss to a remarkably average Washington Wizards team on Monday, it's hard to find too much dissatisfaction with what's going on. It's all relative, of course, and this season has been nothing if not a case study in adjusting expectations on the fly. The Bulls are an open book: the second best defense in the league, the second worst offense. A team tied together by D.J. Augustin and Kirk Hinrich should have no business being competitive, but here the Bulls sit at the No. 6 seed in the pitiful East, checking in at 17-19.
You can credit or blame Thibodeau for pushing this roster to its practical limits; it's no secret that a Tom Thibodeau team has a penchant to out-perform expectations. But even the most tactically brilliant coach can only get a team so far in the NBA. It's a players league. The Bulls remain fighters mostly because of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson.
Noah and Gibson have been a devastating wall of defense at the rim for years, but what they're doing this season feels particularly inspired. You couldn't blame either if they felt like it just wasn't worth it this year, exuding every fiber in their body to keep the opposing team from putting the ball in the basket when the opposite end of the floor is such a struggle for Chicago. But there is no quit in either player, and the result has been a Bulls team that can overcome awful guard play and a nightly avalanche of injuries to at least keep things interesting. There's value in that when it comes to the NBA's marathon 82-game season.
After a slow-ish start, Noah has been Noah. Which is to say: he's the light of this world and we should appreciate every day we have with him. It's no secret that Noah has something close to chronically bad feet, just about the worst lingering ailment possible for a soon-to-be 29-year-old big man who relies mostly on athleticism. But there's been no sign of decline in Noah whatsoever in recent weeks. He's been as great as ever.
The offensive post game is fetishized by a certain breed or generation of fans, but it's not for Noah. His game is particularly modern: multifaceted offensively with a skill set that resembles a guard's, while buoyed by the type of active feet and attention to detail that makes him the perfect beast to defend the modern era's go-to-play: the pick and roll.
Look at the movement here, from the Bulls' win over Milwaukee on Friday. How many NBA players are capable of this?
Roy Hibber and Marc Gasol, Noah's two most mentioned contemporaries in the art of rim protection, could not do this. Anthony Davis comes to mind. That might be it.
Noah's numbers are spectacular, too, per Synergy Sports. He's holding opponents to .77 points per possession and 33 percent shooting in pick-and-roll man coverage. He's been stout against post-ups (.89 PPP). He's smothered fools who dare to go iso (.63 PPP).
If defense is the backbone of Noah's game, offense is his pallet. His jumpshot is an aesthetic disaster, but it belies the fact that he's one of the most skilled big men on the planet. Noah tied Gasol for the lead among centers in assists per game last season, and he's dropping dimes again this year at a similar rate. In points created by assists per game, per player tracking data available at NBA.com, Noah's 8.3 mark only trails Gasol among centers, and Gasol has played just 13 games. The only other big man with a higher mark is Kevin Love, a player known for his prodigious passing skills.
And then there's Gibson. As I wrote before the season started, Taj Gibson is not a luxury. I don't think there's a team in the league that would pass him up at his current salary; he's simply a player that helps you win games. The importance of rim protector can't be overstated in today's NBA -- just look at how the Knicks play with and without Tyson Chandler. Gibson is uniquely equipped genetically to handle the task.
Taj fell in the 2009 draft because he was older than anyone else in the class, but the Bulls spotted what made him special. The man has a 7'4 wingspan, per Draft Express. At 88.5 inches, that's a bigger wingspan than any starting power forward in the NBA this side of LaMarcus Aldridge, who's got him by half an inch. Taj is a freak, and he knows how to use his gifts.
Per player tracking data, opponents are shooting 40.9 percent at the rim against Taj on 4.8 attempts per game. That's essentially the best mark in the league. Roy Hibbert, at 40.5, is the only person better at protecting the basket. For reference, Serge Ibaka is at 42.9. The only other players in the top 100, ranked by opponents field goals made at the rim, with a lower percentage are Larry Sanders (who has played 11 games) and Brook Lopez (also hurt).
Gibson's impact on the Bulls' defense has always been evident, and the stats back it up. The Bulls' defense yields 101.6 points per 100 possessions with Taj on the bench. With him on the floor, they allow just 94.9. Gibson has held opponents to .60 points per possessions in post-up situations, among the best marks in the league. He's been a killer in isolation situations (holding opponents to 36.4 percent shooting) and in pick-and-roll man coverage (yielding .97 PPP).
There aren't many silver linings to this Bulls season, but Noah and Gibson stick out. They're all we have. Appreciate them, because players this inherently awesome don't come around every day.