Tom Thibodeau's Chicago Bulls have a specialty, and it isn't the strong-side overload defense. Since Thibodeau arrived in Chicago during the transformative summer of 2010, the Bulls so often seem to be defined by an underlying tension running throughout the organization. At this point, you're used to it.
It's always something. The long-term health of the players vs. the self-serving advice of the medical staff. Championship aspirations vs. the luxury tax. Thibodeau vs. the front office. Reggie Rose vs. an open mic. Each Bulls season has a way of arriving at a place of deep anxiety, and this one is no different.
With less than two months before the start of the playoffs, there remains a fear permeating through the city that maybe this team isn't that good. If it feels like a heightened sense of trepidation, it's only because the built in excuses of the recent past are gone. Derrick Rose is on the floor, and the Bulls just might reach the playoffs healthy-ish for the first time since making the conference finals in 2011. If they don't get it done now, it's likely they simply aren't good enough.
At this point, we should be weary of being too reactionary. When the Bulls were rolling in December, they had enough impressive victories to look like the favorites in the East. When injuries hit in January, it seemed like only a matter of time before Thibodeau was fired and the Bulls re-started. These are symptoms of an 82-game regular season when there's always a way to justify a blow out win or an off-night. Eventually, there comes a point when you can't hide behind the facade of the schedule. The Bulls will be exposed in the playoffs, good or bad.
Through the first 57 games of the season, the Bulls have given us a lot to worry about. Rose has become a brutally inefficient scorer. The defense has fallen outside of the top 10 in the NBA. Thibodeau has done a poor job of managing a loaded front court. Kirk Hinrich has a PER below 8.0 and is playing nearly 30 minutes per game. If you want to be pessimistic right now, there's certainly good reason for it. What's more difficult is finding reasons for optimism.
With that in mind, the following is a list of reason why we shouldn't write off the Bulls quite yet, whether you believe it or not.
1. The Bulls have the best defense in the NBA in February
The 76ers now have a better defense than the Bulls. I'll just leave that there.— Tyler Link (@tylerlink) February 5, 2015
Well, good news: that's not the case anymore. After locking down the Bucks on Monday, the Bulls are up to No. 12 in defensive efficiency.
Is that good enough? Not even close. If the Bulls have any chance at cashing in on their championship aspirations this season, the defense needs to be operating among the best units in the league. January killed their overall rating, as the team finished No. 21 in defensive efficiency for the month. Thankfully, it's getting better.
Through eight games in February, the Bulls are back to having the best defense in the NBA by allowing only 96.8 points per 100 possessions. Joakim Noah seems to be feeling better, Taj Gibson said the torn ligaments in his hand are starting to heal and Jimmy Butler has gotten back to being a shutdown wing defender after spending a few weeks learning how to reconcile with his newfound offensive responsibility.
Is the defense officially back? It's tough to say, but the returns this month are promising.
2. Tony Snell has arrived
If nothing else, Tony Snell always had the baseline characteristics of an NBA wing. By that I mean: he's the right size (6'7, 200 pounds), he's long (7-foot wingspan), he has a history of making threes in college (39 percent his last two years at New Mexico) and he passes the eye test in terms of athleticism.
Did Snell struggle early in his career? Very much so. The jump from the Mountain West to the NBA is pretty steep. Thibodeau's style of management didn't help, either:
Tony Snell admitted he used to rush shots out of nervousness earlier this season because he knew he had short leash.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) February 24, 2015
The thing with Thibodeau is that young players eventually will get a shot. They might have to wait a year and a half for it and they might not get many chances if they don't produce, but Thibodeau will inevitably let the player sink or swim. Jimmy Butler was able to swim. Marquis Teague sank. If he's done anything this month, Snell has proven he belongs in the league. That wasn't always evident.
In February, Snell is averaging 14.3 points per game on 64.4 percent shooting from the floor and 57.1 percent shooting from three-point range. He's playing exactly 30 minutes per game. The Bulls badly needed wing depth, and Snell has established himself to give them just that.
It shouldn't need to be said, but we'll say it anyway: at this point, he's clearly a better option than Kirk Hinrich. Hinrich is fine for 10 or 15 minutes per night, but the Bulls might as well ride or die with Snell. Hinrich is too small, too slow and too old. Snell isn't any of those things. He's always had the look of an NBA player, now he's finally playing like one.
3. Derrick Rose looks .... athletic
Has D. Rose played well this season? Uh, no. I'm an eternal Rose apologist and even I will admit that. His shot selection has been atrocious. His assists have fallen off. He's been careless with the ball. His defense has been objectively poor in many games. Too often, it seems like he's been coasting. While that last point is a bummer, it isn't exactly inexcusable.
When the season began, I think most Bulls fans would have been satisfied with Rose taking the first half of the season to ease himself back into shape. It only takes a few games where Rose shoots 1-for-7 from three-point range to forget that. Unfortunately, the tough guy talk consistently suffocating the discussion around Rose leaves no place for empathy. It's easy to forget that coming back from a torn ACL and a surgically repaired meniscus and missing two full seasons is extremely difficult. Certainly media members in this city just won't give him the benefit of the doubt on that because they don't like him. Sometimes, it's that simple.
When it comes to Rose, it's important to remember that just because you're playing doesn't mean you're healthy. If Thibodeau's Bulls haven't taught us that, then they've taught us nothing. I'm sure Rose doesn't feel great on many nights, and you can see it in the way he plays. There's one thing that's undeniable, though, and that's when Derrick turns on the jets, he still looks as fast as any player in the league.
The stats back it up, to a certain extent. Rose is still incredibly effective driving to the basket, currently sitting as the 11th best scorer in the NBA on drives this season. The problem is that he hasn't been driving enough. As March and April approach, perhaps Rose's attacking mentality will, too. He's talked so much about maintaining his body, and he's smart enough to know he can't go all-out for 82 games anymore.
That's fine. If he's aggressive in the postseason, these winter nights when he doesn't seem engaged won't look like that big of a deal.
Alright, let's get to some other stuff:
Shout-out to Chris Bosh
Joakim Noah ended his postgame media session thusly: "Shout out to Chris Bosh."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) February 22, 2015
Bulls fans are in a unique position to hate on Bosh, but over the last few years he's really become one of my favorite players in the NBA. The league simply isn't the same without him. During an age when so many players seem to be constantly drowning in their own personal brand, Bosh is endearingly goofy and light-hearted. He's also a hell of a player.
Get well, CB. The NBA needs you.
Aaron Brooks is forgetting something
Taj and A.B. or 2012 Odd Future? You decide.
The Booze News
There have been so many great Carlos Boozer moments this season, but excuse me if I'm already saying this is No. 1:
Lakers post game gold pic.twitter.com/wnOcyZQ5HP— oakley & allen (@oakleyandallen) February 23, 2015
Boozer's instagram picture makes it even better:
So does Kobe's reaction. Boozer forever. His time in LA might be the highlight of this Bulls season.