The Chicago Bulls entered tonight’s game against the Houston Rockets in the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls sit 12 games behind the Central Division leading Indiana Pacers and seem destined for a first-round match up with the Brooklyn Nets. They’re six games above .500, 25-14 against the rest of the East (third best in the conference and fifth best in the league), and are the team neither Indiana nor the Miami Heat want to play come June. How are the Bulls doing this?
Before the season started, the Bulls lost Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson. They lost former Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose to another knee injury. The Bulls then traded small forward Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a potential top-13 lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft. The Deng trade saved the Bulls from paying the luxury tax. Vice President of Basketball Operations Jim Paxson assured fans that the savings the Bulls are getting this year will be put back into the team, possibly as early as next year. The Bulls inserted Mike Dunleavy into the starting lineup after the Deng trade, and Head Coach Tom Thibodeau’s team is playing at a high level.
Power Forward Carlos Boozer, in what may be his final season in Chicago, is averaging 14.1 points per game and 8.4 rebounds. D.J. Augustin is averaging 14.1 points per game and shooting 41 percent from the 3-point line. Jimmy Butler is averaging 13.1 points and five rebounds per game. Taj Gibson is averaging 13.2 points and 6.7 rebounds. In recent seasons, Thibodeau has shied away from playing Boozer and Gibson together, but the tande’s flourished.
However, the main reason why the Bulls are even in the conversation for a playoff spot in the East is because of MVP candidate Joakim Noah. Noah is averaging 12.2 points per game, 11.3 rebounds per game, and 4.9 assists per game. You look at those numbers and think “LeBron James gets those numbers in a half” or “Kevin Durant could do that if he didn’t have to deal with Russell Westbrook.” While there are varying levels of truth to each of those statements, the reality is that removing James from the Heat or Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder would leave each team with pieces that they could potentially win games with. Removing Noah from the Bulls as they are currently assembled would send them directly to the lottery. Let’s be frank, the Bulls are a bad team on paper. The good thing for them is that the games aren’t played on paper.
Noah has had 11 double-doubles in the last 20 games, and at least eight rebounds in 16 of the last 20 games as well. In 13 of last 20 games, Noah has finished with at least five assists. In 16 times, Noah has had at least one block, and 10 times he’s had multiple- block games. Noah has also saved his best games for the biggest opponents, as evidenced by his 20-point, 12-rebound, seven- assist, five-block performance against the defending champions, the Heat. Noah has done it all for the Bulls. He did it all tonight matched up against former Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. Noah was one assist shy of delivering another triple double as the Bulls won their 36th game of the year. The Bulls now have more wins than alot of teams with, at the very least on paper, more talent than the Bulls have. Yet here the Bulls sit above them in the one statistic that matters the most: wins.
The Bulls may be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The Bulls shouldn’t be this good, but they compete with teams that are that much better than them. Each player will tell you that they can beat anybody in the league. It starts with Noah, possibly the MVP.