Why Aren’t the Bulls Sucking?

Photo by Brett Davis of USA Today Sports
Photo by Brett Davis of USA Today Sports

The Chicago Bulls should be losing. With the season-ending injury to Derrick Rose, 25 percent of their payroll is sitting on the bench. They traded Luol Deng, their leading scorer and best perimeter defender. They have no star power, nor do they have any depth. Instead, their roster is a conglomeration of try-hard defensive-oriented players. They can’t score the ball — their 93.1 points per game is the worst in the NBA.

Yet somehow, they keep winning.

At first, I didn’t like it. I was one of those Bulls fans who wanted the team to tank. After Rose went down, the future looked grim. Frankly, even with Rose, the Bulls probably couldn’t compete with the likes of the Heat and Pacers in the East. They needed another superstar player, someone to shoulder some of the load for Rose. But the Bulls were $20 million over the salary cap. They simply had no room to sign another great player, or any player for that matter. Luckily, the NBA has a salary cap exemption for draft picks. A team is always allowed to sign their draft picks, regardless of their payroll situation. So in my eyes, if the Bulls were going to get that superstar running mate for Derrick Rose, their only hope was the NBA draft. After the trade of Luol Deng, I thought for sure the Bulls would be in the lottery, in position to possibly select one of this year’s collegiate greats like Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins or Marcus Smart.

Then things got complicated.

The Bulls started winning. All of a sudden, D.J. Augustin decided to resurrect his career. Taj Gibson decided to emerge as a legitimate low-post scoring threat. Jimmy Butler decided to start scoring again. Kirk Hinrich decided to not have bones made of glass.

And Joakim Noah decided to lose his damn mind.

It’s unthinkable that Noah, that uncoordinated, bow-tie donning spaz from 2007 would develop into the force that he is today. He had always been a hustle guy, an energy guy. He’d run the floor. He’d get tip-ins and dunks. He would get you 11 and 11 a night. He was a good role player. Then suddenly, over the last three months, he has exploded.

All of a sudden, Noah’s dishing out assists like a point guard. He’s dropping triple-doubles like he’s Magic Johnson. It’s like he touched the aliens’ magic basketball from “Space Jam” and assumed the powers of John Stockton.

Where did this come from? How did he suddenly become the best passing center in the league?

The answer can be found in one man — one seven-foot-tall, unathletic, tobacco-spitting country boy from Kendallville, Indiana. I’m talking of course, about Brad Miller.

Miller was always my favorite player in the league. Despite having the athleticism of a bacon cheeseburger, he had always able to use his intelligence (and that subtle pump fake) to be one of the league’s most effective centers. Miller was known for being one of the best passing centers in the league. He had a knack for racking up assists, something he passed down to Joakim Noah while he was with the Bulls from 2009-2010. Fun fact: Joakim Noah leads all centers in assists per game. Who’s second on that list? Spencer Hawes, who started his career as Miller’s backup, playing behind him from 2007-2009 in Sacramento. Brad Miller needs to be a coach somewhere.

But Miller was never this good. Throughout his 14 seasons in the NBA, Miller only hit double digits in assists one time. Noah has done it five times in the last two months. So there must be a second factor contributing to Noah’s passing explosion. That factor is Tom Thibodeau.

With his team struggling to score and on the brink of a mid-season collapse, Thibodeau made a decision that would end up turning the Bulls’ season around. Instead of relying on his point guards Kirk Hinrich, who doesn’t have the explosiveness to get into the lane at this point in his career; or D.J. Augustin, a scoring point guard who has never averaged more than four assists per game in his career; Thibodeau decided to run his offense through Joakim Noah in the high-post.

And the results have been fantastic.

Teams aren’t used to defending the Bulls’ style of offense. It’s unconventional, and less than ideal, but it gets the job done. In the grand scheme of things, Tom Thibodeau is the biggest reason for the Bulls’ rejuvenation this season. Like a great poker player, you can give him an awful hand and somehow he’ll still find a way to win the pot.

I guess I should have known that a Tom Thibodeau coached team wouldn’t go gentle into that good night. I don’t know if all this is for the better. The Bulls success this season could very well be preventing them from drafting a once in a lifetime player who could put them in position to win multiple NBA Championships. The Bulls might be making a huge mistake.

But I’ll be damned if they’re not fun to watch.

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