Tom Thibodeau needs to blend his two Bulleamogether - NBA
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Doolittle: Blending the two Bulls teams

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Even without Derrick Rose in the lineup, the Bulls are a legitimate contender.

Sports reporter, Kansas City Star, 2002-09

Writer, Baseball, Baseball Prospectus

Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus

Member, Baseball Writers Association of America

Member, Professional Basketball Writers Association

Lets consider Team A. Its 17-8 on the season, a winning percentage that translates to about 56 wins over the course of a full season. Thats a good team, one well within the range of a championship contender, at least insofar as regular-season win-loss record carries over to the postseason.

Team A is solid on offense, with an efficiency of 108.8 which would rank seventh in the league. It plays at a slow pace and isnt a great shooting unit, but it takes excellent care of the ball and pounds the offensive glass. Its not quite the prototypical offense for a title contender, but its close.

Team A is definitely a championship-level unit on the defensive end. Its 100.5 defensive efficiency is just a hair behind thePhiladelphia 76ersatop the rankings. It plays smothering perimeter defense without fouling, seals the defensive glass and disrupts passing lanes. Team As defense would be quite an obstacle for any team that faces it in the playoffs. It has beaten some good teams lately too, like theNew York KnicksandBoston Celtics.

Team B is even better. Its 30-7, which is a 66-win squad in a typical NBA regular season. Its not quite as good as Team A on the defensive end, with an efficiency of 101.5, but its still plenty good -- third in the league, in fact. On offense, its a juggernaut, averaging 111.4 points per 100 possessions, a mark that only Oklahoma City and San Antonio have surpassed. Overall, Team B has outscored opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions; Team A is at 8.3.

These are two awfully good teams, but whereas Team A might be a borderline title contender, Team B is a title contender. Time to lift our painfully extended attempt at clever subterfuge: Team A is theChicago BullssansDerrick Rose; Team B is the Bulls with the reigning MVP, if not quite at full strength.

Full strength is something the Bulls have not enjoyed much this season. Chicagos preferred starting five of Rose,Rip Hamilton,Luol Deng,Carlos BoozerandJoakim Noahhas taken the floor together just 13 times this season, and just six times since the beginning of March. The Bulls are 11-2 with all players available, but their efficiency margin of nine points per 100 possessions doesnt stand out from the Rose/non-Rose splits.

In other words, all the injury-related fits and starts to the season have led to a Bulls team that is not at its best with their top players all available at the same time. With the playoffs almost here and Rose and Deng ailing, time has run out for the Bulls to develop the optimum level of cohesiveness that you want for a playoff run. Tom Thibodeau -- who has done another masterful coaching job with his oft-repeated mantra of We still have enough to win with -- faces an enormous challenge for a dangerous playoff draw that could consist of the Knicks, Celtics andMiami Heat. Thats what a No. 1 seed gets you nowadays.

The scary thing is that the Bulls appear to have fully adapted to playing without the defending MVP. Over their last five games without Rose, theyve outscored opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions with a defensive efficiency of 97.9. There was a bad loss to the Wizards mixed in there, but they also handled the Knicks and Celtics at home. The recent high-profile road loss to the Knicks came in Roses return, during which you will recall that Chicago was much better without him on the floor.

That game was a microcosm of recent trends. Over Roses last seven games, the Bulls are 5-2, but theyve only outscored opponents by five points per 100 possessions, with a startlingly bad defensive rating of 110.4 points. While the focus has been on Rose regaining a semblance of offensive efficiency, the real problem has been the disintegrating defensive cohesion.

This is why the bottom of the playoff seedings have taken on added relevance for Chicago. The Knicks have been playing much better of late, withCarmelo Anthonyputting up his best numbers since he came to New York. His performance has given focus to a disparate Knicks roster, even while key rotation playersAmare StoudemireandJeremy Linsit on the sidelines. New York may not be championship material, but it has the potential to be a tough out in the early rounds of the postseason. Its not a team that you want to be playing with a starting lineup that is in advanced training camp mode.

On the other hand, the Sixers have been in a steady nosedive over the last half of the season. The defense still leads the league, but its margin moves closer to the pack every week. The offense is a mess, however, which affords the Bulls a chance to spend at least one series whipping their defense back into shape. The Knicks finish with three road games in four outings, though two of those are against the tankingCleveland CavaliersandCharlotte Bobcats. They also face theLos Angeles Clippersat home. Bulls fans should keep their fingers crossed that New York finishes with the 7-seed and ends up in a first-round matchup with Miami.

Right now, the Bulls are better defensively, and overall, without their best player in the lineup. Nevertheless, only a fool would suggest that they would be better off if Rose cant get healthy for the playoffs. To navigate the murderers row they may face, the Bulls will need all hands on deck. And when that happens, Thibodeau is going to have to merge his two teams together, and hes going to have to do it on the fly.

Bradford Doolittle is an author for Basketball Prospectus.

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