The Undeniable Chicago Bulls: Thibs, Noah and Company and a Q&A with Bulls Aficionado Steve Graham

After a rough beginning to the season, Derrick Rose was beginning to shake the rust off, and then, in a brutal turn of events, Derrick Rose went down on November 22 against Portland. With that loss, the Bulls were one game over the .500 mark, at 6-5. The emotional let-down was inevitable after the long-term recovery and the will-he-or-won’t-he-play melodrama of the last year’s playoff run. Initially diagnosed as a potential season-ending injury, Chicago’s play-by-play man Neil Funk recently hypothesized that Rose might be back at some point this year. Another will-he-or-won’t-he saga waits on the horizon. But for now, let’s talk about what has happened while Rose went back to rehabbing.

At first, Chicago lost 4 of its next 5 games, including two overtime losses. On December 5, with all hope seemingly lost again, the Bulls rekindled their season, playing with an us-against-the-world edge at home against the defending champion Heat, winning a tip-to-buzzer blowout, 107-87. Without Rose, and with an 8-9 record, it seemed last year’s trademark resilience would return, even without the sharpshooting Marco Belinelli and the fiery Nate Robinson. Instead, the Bulls momentarily fell apart, losing 7 of their next 8 games.

After 25 games, the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets were both 9-16, among the dregs of the then-pitiful Eastern Conference. Level-headed fans figured that things would improve at some point for both Chicago and Brooklyn, but the Eastern Conference became a two-team race only one-third of the way into the season.

On December 13th, Chicago signed little lefty point guard D.J. Augustin, who’d been cast aside by Toronto in the preseason after a trade from Indiana during a disappointing 2012-13 seson.

Just as Chicago was putting the pieces back together, rattling off home wins against some unimpressive foes (Cleveland, Boston, and the Horford-less Hawks, the front office seemed to pull the plug on the season, trading Luol Deng to Cleveland in a cap-saving move. Though the move made financial sense, by bringing the team back under the luxury-tax threshold (important for roster construction under the new CBA as the repeater tax cuts into options), the trade left Chicago without one of its backbones, both a gutsy defender and all-around helper.

The ever-resilient Bulls beat Phoenix in their first game without Deng. By the end of January the Bulls pulled themselves back over .500, with another impressive win, this time in San Antonio, though the Spurs were shorthanded at the time. Another seeming high point, but then the ups-and-downs continued. After a blowout loss in Oakland on February 6, the Bulls seemed to jell once again. They ripped off 9 wins in 10 games, and catapulted themselves up the Eastern Conference playoff standings, allowing only one of those ten opponents over the 100-point mark with their trademark furious defense.

Sunday’s overtime win against the Heat was yet another notch in the belt of the undeni-uh-Bulls. With only 19 games left in the season, Chicago looks once again like a force to be reckoned with. Yet another statement has been made by this Chicago crew, still led by the league’s workaholic coach Tom Thibodeau, and his tireless passing-center Joakim Noah. Nobody wants to face the Bulls in the playoffs. And yet, they’ll still have to get out of the first round to make waves.  There seems to be one obvious lesson here, one that some fans learned last year, in Rose’s absence: a top defensive team will find ways to win no matter who happens to be scoring at the other end.


Now for a back-and-forth with surviving Bulls fan Steve Graham…

Q. Steve, did you honestly feel like this season had any hope left after the Deng trade on January 6? Have you been watching the Bulls throughout the entire season? I have to think some Bulls fans needed to save themselves and hopped off the bus when Deng was traded. 

A. I did not expect them to be playing at this level.  I was excited to set Jimmy Butler loose.  And DJ Augustin was a nice pickup.  And Joakim Noah is playing at the highest level of his career, and may earn some 3rd-place MVP votes.  I knew they always had heart, and with Tom Thibodeau at the helm, there would be no letting up.  But I did not expect them to actually climb in the standings and be this high.

Q. Tell me about D.J. Augustin. Augustin had a brilliant January, averaging 16.1 points and 6 assists on 44.3% shooting from distance. Though he cooled considerably in February, he seems to be finding the groove again in the last week. Augustin’s splits are telling of Chicago’s need for his scoring. In 31 wins, he’s scored 13.1 points on 44% from deep. In 21 losses, he’s managed only 9 points on 30.3% from behind the arc. How has he managed to become such a useful point guard in Chicago after various stops in Charlotte, Indiana and briefly in Toronto? 

A.  DJ has been great.  I’ve never watched him much before, but I always thought he had some skill.  He’s been given the opportunity to be a leader for the team, and he’s really stepped up into his offensive role.  I think the Bulls’ environment has helped that.  Great coaching, and players like Noah must really rub off on you – he makes people accountable.  DJ’s been given new life here and he’s really made the most of it.

Q. Taj Gibson seems to have developed a post-up game and is showing folks he can help on both ends. How surprising has his progress been?

A.  Not at all surprising.  He’s been improving offensively with each season.  He came into the league after 4 years in college, where he was a Conference DPOY.  He wasn’t a project, and his defense kept him in a lot of games.  And as a result, his offense developed very nicely.  This year he’s really taken off.  It’s been great to see, but not at all surprising.

[Note: The closer I look at Gibson’s career numbers, the biggest difference is simply usage rate. The numbers back up Steve’s insights.]

Q. I loved Jimmy Butler’s line against Miami Sunday. Despite shooting 4-of-15, Butler played 48 minutes in the overtime win, and finished with a plus/minus of +3, thanks in large part to his defensive tenacity. Butler had four steals, a block and 11 rebounds. Despite his shooting limitations, spread some Jimmy Butler love. Do you see a Kawhi Leonard comparison?

A. I’ve always loved Jimmy Butler, I wrote about him last time.  He’s been ready to step up and now with Deng gone, he can really prove himself.  Like Gibson, he was first known for his defense, but I can already see his offensive game developing as well.  He’s got a ways to go, as those numbers above show, but he’s very athletic, and for as unguardable as LeBron James is, Butler does a great job.

Q. Joakim Noah’s play has been beyond belief since January 1. In 31 games, he’s averaging 13 points, 12.4 rebounds, a staggering 6.1 assists, and 1.7 blocks. Noah’s dominance has led some to talk about a few MVP votes. What are you most impressed with when you watch Noah? 

A. I’ve honestly been answering these questions in order, without reading ahead.  I think I mostly answered this already – he’s in the best stretch of his career.  He is a highly motivated player.  After what this team has been through this season, and everyone writing them off – that just fuels him.  Like I said above, he holds everyone accountable; there are no excuses.  He never gives up, he plays hard on every play, and as a result, he gets the opportunities to put up big numbers.  He’s always been a good passer, but his assist numbers right now have been the most impressive.  Like he said, “My teammates keep giving me the ball.”  He knows what to do with it.

Q. Despite the resurgence, is it tough to get excited and truly believe the Bulls have a chance to go deep into the playoffs again?

A.  Yeah, a little bit.  At best, they’re still going to be behind Indiana and Miami.  Chicago always beats Miami in the regular season, but Miami always turns it up in the playoffs.  And I know Indiana has been slumping, but they’re still #2 for me.  But you know the Bulls will play hard, and won’t make it easy on any of the other teams.  No one will look forward to playing them.  They will make us fans proud, no matter what, and at least I’ll have something to root for in the playoffs.

Q. Any thoughts on all of the Celtics fans around you in Boston, and how it feels to see those fans dealing with the rebuilding process?

A. Not much going on here – no one really cares about the C’s, and I guess just waiting for the lottery?  None of my friends are interested in going to the games we’ve picked.  I do like Brad Stevens, and I’ve always liked Jeff Green, but his numbers are inflated by being on such a crap team.  Celtics are gonna need a lot more than a high draft pick to improve.

[note: I strongly disagree that no one really cares about the C’s, though Steve is the one who is living around Boston. It seems to me that this year separates the part-time fans from the genuine Celtics fans. Especially in a town that has seen so many championship-contending seasons in the last decade in all four sports, it seems to follow that far fewer people are talking about the Celtics now that the World Series champion Red Sox are starting back up. In terms of what the Celtics need, I would say they are two players away from being a very solid team: a defensive-minded center and a wing scorer. Hopefully, they can address one of those two needs with a top pick.]

Q. If Tom Thibodeau were an actor, would he be Paul Giamatti?


Why isn't Mr. Giamatti returning my calls?

Why isn’t Mr. Giamatti returning my calls?

A. I have no idea.  I don’t know that I’d pick a comic actor, although Thibs does have a dry sense of humor at times.  If you’re thinking about looks, then I guess Giamatti isn’t a bad comp.
[I was thinking more about the generally weary disposition, but yes, the dry humor and the looks also work. Interesting to call Giamatti a comic actor. I guess he does generally provide comic relief, but I think of him as a dramatic actor with incredible expressiveness. His face is often showing utter exasperation or rage. This reminds me of Thibs.] 
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