[thanks to EasyEis for today's preview -yfbb]
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…" -Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
And thus, we have come to the middle of the NBA season, a crossroads of sorts for teams that don’t play home games in the Wells Fargo Center or Madison Square Garden. Tonight, the Bulls will take on the defending NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs in the United Center, and I can’t say I’m particularly excited at this point. In what has been an incredibly varying roller coaster ride of a season with numerous highs and lows, right now the Bulls find themselves in their lowest low playing-wise in some time. Funny how at this critical point in the season, where the fate of a contender rests on overcoming sloppy habits and playing well down the stretch, the Bulls find themselves squared off against a Spurs team that many fans wish their own franchises would mimic with respect to building a roster and aiming for consistent success. The blueprint for winning and what the Bulls desire to be will literally be staring the team in the face, it just falls solely on the players to wake up and realize what they really want. But before we dive into everything wrong with the Bulls, lets first take a look at the season the Spurs have put together thus far.
Fresh off of the thorough toppling of the Miami Heat last June in the NBA Finals, many speculated that the Spurs were going to be running the league this season behind the two-way brilliance of Kawhi Leonard, the ever-lasting veteran core of Duncan/Parker/ Ginobili, and the coaching mastermind that is Greg Popovich. And who could blame them? I worked in the procurement department of a five star hotel in Hong Kong this past summer, which prevented me from watching any of the playoffs on live TV and instead relegated me to listening to the Finals on radio during work. What I expected to be a tense and exciting radio call quickly turned into a Kevin Calabro & Hubie Brown multi-day circlejerk about how beautiful and marvelous the Spurs offense and eventually defense was. After Crampgate and a Game 2 loss fueled by LeBron briefly channeling the spirit of Larry Bird, the Spurs absolutely blew the doors off of what was considered a great team at the time. Teams that play that well or are capable of playing that well (i.e. shoot over 75% in a half of a Finals game) typically don’t lose ball games unless they don’t try at all, something Bulls fans have come to understand very well as of late.
And yet, the Spurs are only the seventh seed in the West as I am typing this. Why? Well, there’s a few reasons. It goes without saying that the West is better than the East (again) this season, as the Spurs and Bulls have identical 27-16 records yet are separated by a whole three seeds. This coupled with the maturation of numerous Western Conference teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, and our new basketball overlords the Golden State Warriors (I’ll showcase their excellence in my next game preview) creates an extremely competitive regular season environment that the Spurs often choose not to participate in. The NBA regular season is a marathon, and the playoffs are more of a calculated sprint to the Larry O’Brien Finish Line. This is something Popovich figured out a very long time ago which is why his players frequently receive so much rest during the regular season, particularly his older players. Nobody on the team plays greater than 32 minutes per game, and only three Spurs play north of 30 minutes per game to begin with. This is a deep team that is well rested on any given night and capable of beating anybody with or without their best players resting, something reflected in the fact that the Spurs have only lost by greater than ten points once this season. By comparison, the Bulls have lost by that amount or more seven times, three of which have come in the last eight games. Yikes.
Metrics make the Spurs look even better. Though surprisingly only 12th in the league in offensive efficiency (104.6), they make up for it by posting the sixth best defensive efficiency rating in the league (99.8). This combined with a top ten rebounding rate (50.7), true shooting percentage (54.9), and a top five assist ratio (18.7) make the Spurs an extremely well-rounded team and one that proves tricky for anyone to beat, including a slumping Bulls team that right now seems like it would struggle to score on a Fisher-Price basket.
If only we could go back to three weeks ago when everything was such a simpler time. Remember the good ol’ days of late 2014? Remember when it looked like Derrick Rose was finally putting it all together again? Remember when Nikola Mirotic catapulted himself to the front of the Rookie of the Year race with performances LIKE THIS? Remember when the Bulls were topping Power Rankings charts with ease? Remember when Kirk Hinrich made intelligent basketball plays (nope) or when the Bulls actually played better with him injured? These last three weeks just show you how quickly fortunes can change in sports (sometimes in a matter of seconds). One minute you’re on top and the next minute you’re a bottom-feeding team with no defense slowly being suffocated by the weight of an extremely unpopular and obnoxiously large contract as you await a hopefully top ten draft choice. Was that in reference to the Los Angeles Lakers or the Chicago Bears? You decide.
What can be fixed? Well, as is often the somehow overlooked issue with this team, getting healthy would be a nice start. How quickly people forget that two of the starters and best defensive players on the team in Joakim Noah and Mike Dunleavy have been out with injuries for the majority of this rough patch, so that might explain why the Bulls have posted such ghastly defensive numbers during the month of January. Noah is unfortunately out for this game and Dunleavy is a game-time decision, both with ankle injuries (Doug McDermott is probable). It might also be time for the Bulls to consider moving one of their assets at the four spot to upgrade their wing depth. Though many are opposed to this, I think it’s time to seriously consider moving Taj Gibson. As great as he has been in his career here, he has often hit rough spots this year attempting to play alongside his other frontcourt mates, and Mirotic is actually posting a slightly higher PER rating than him despite playing ten less minutes per game. His defensive contributions can’t be ignored, and even though he has added to his offensive game, much of his scoring comes from actually running the offense through him. This was something that became very apparent in the early part of the season when the Bulls were scoring with incredible ease and quickness (how times have changed), yet the offense would always slow down when Gibson became involved because of his desire to go to the post-game he’s been working on. Another wing player would also greatly reduce the workloads of Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy and likely eat into Hinrich’s minutes, which I personally would welcome with open arms. I’d propose something along the lines of this, but maybe I just want Tony Snell off the team really badly and for our long-lost love to make his way back home.
However, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so what should we expect tonight? Hopefully, after Thibodeau’s festivus-esque airing of grievances earlier this week**, we should see a Bulls team that comes out with a renewed effort against an extremely competitive Spurs squad. Much of it I think will come down to matchups. Will Pau be able to score on Tim Duncan? Can Derrick Rose keep up with Tony Parker on defense? Who will win the battle between two of the most elite two-way players in the league in Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard? Will Greg Popovich construct an inbounds play that incinerates the Bulls defense so badly that Thibs ruptures a brain aneurysm on live television? Anything can happen in this league, but unfortunately I see this being a constructive Bulls loss that goes the distance. They’ll get knocked down, they’ll fight and grit their way back, maybe even lead for stretches, but there’s just too many unknowns and unprovens for the Bulls right now to convince me they’re capable of handling the defending NBA Champions. Trust me, I hope I’m wrong.
But given where we are in the season, fans shouldn’t view this stretch as the beginning of the end, but rather the shot in the arm the Bulls need to jump back into the race for the top spot in the East as the second half of the NBA regular season begins. It was the best of times, it’s now the worst of times, but hopefully our winter of despair as Bulls fans will soon be rewarded with a spring of hope and possibly a summer of celebration.
**Side note for Seinfeld fans: I sincerely hope that’s actually how it went down, with something along the lines of Pau standing in as the festivus pole while Aaron Brooks helplessly tries to pin Jerry Reinsdorf during the feats of strength afterwards. Just imagine Thibs in the role of Frank Costanza: "You. Snell. My film analysis tells me your game stinks! You couldn’t shoot your way out of a paper bag even if McDermott was playing defense… I lost my train of thought."