After 25 Games, Who Are the Bulls?

The Chicago Bulls have a reprieve from all the second guessing and Fred Hoiberg critiquing when they host the helpless Brooklyn Nets tonight. It should be an easy win before the Bulls prepare to take on the Oklahoma City Thunder on Christmas Day.

The Bulls defensive numbers are excellent and their offensive numbers are not. Makes sense. These are Tom Thibodeau players. But is it true that this team is worse without Thibodeau pacing the sidelines, his face scrunched up in a scowl expression?

The Bulls conference record this year, as compared to last year, explains how far Chicago has fallen off.

The Eastern Conference, as a whole, has improved but the Bulls have not. They are 7-7 in conference play, a worrisome metric because 52 games are played in-conference. A .500 average means winning 26 of those games and needing to make up the difference in the West when long flights, extended road trips and fatigue are the norm. Even if the Bulls pulled off a .800 average in the West, that would only account for 24 wins, giving the Bulls a 50 win season, good but definitely not great, and not a contender worthy 58 wins. Currently the Bulls are 8-3 against the West, 72%.

Last year, after 25 games, the Bulls had one more win than they do now, they were 16-9. But it was in conference play last season where they established themselves as a dominant Eastern Conference club. They were 12-4 after 25 games, 75%. Their average margin of victory in their conference wins was 9.9 points. Their average margin of defeat in conference losses was 6.7 points.

This year, after 25 games, the Bulls are 15-10. Their 7 conference losses have been by a 8.7 point margin. Their 7 conference wins have been by a 8.5 point margin. So, they win by 8 points, they lose by 8 points. Underestimating the teams that have improved, the Bulls have gagged against the Hornets, Pacers and Knicks, losing by double digit margins; all three teams missed the playoffs last year. Good luck trying to figure the Chicago Bulls out.

Chicago beating up on the 76ers twice skews the numbers. They beat the 76ers by 23 points and 19 points. The other five conference victories were by a cumulative 18 points. Translation: if you are a good team in the East, the Bulls are never going to beat you down. It’s going to be close and come down to the last possession.

Unlike the Cavs, Pacers and Heat, teams that are currently above them in the standings, the Bulls had no changeover in personnel besides their draft picks. Mike Dunleavey is out but that is pretty much the only variation from a year ago. Organizationally, the Bulls have shaken things up by featuring Nikola Mirotic and exiling Joakim Noah to the bench. Then they switched it around again.

It’s unclear what Derrick Rose’s role is. On paper, the Bulls seem to understand that Jimmy Butler is their best player but he doesn’t take enough shots to validate his role on the team. Chicago has an offensively principled coach who has not found a way for this team to consistently score. Why?

Tom Thibodeau had his faults last season. The Bulls had 8 separate instances of losing back-to-back games (or more) within the season. But they were 33-19 in the East, 63%, a far cry from their current 50%.

Last year, the Bulls scored more points, gave up fewer points, played slower, had a better offensive rating, had a worse defensive rating, were better rebounders, were worse sharing the ball, were a worse defense overall.

And so here they are. They have made it through 30% of the season without establishing much of an identity. Thankfully, no one has been hurt but that has more to do with luck and grace than anything that’s written, planned, executed or earned.

The Eastern Conference is not going to wait for the Bulls to get it together. The Bulls have to play well each night because it’s a dog fight to get a top four seed in the East. Chicago is not constructed to blow teams out, other than the 76ers.

The Raptors, Hawks, Hornets and Pistons are gunning for the Bulls, sensing something has been lost. The Bulls are still a good team but one with an identity crises.┬áThe Conference won’t wait for their ascension. They will just move on without the Chicago Bulls, who are going on year 18 without Michael Jordan. And year one without Tom Thibodeau.

photo via llananba