Record: 48-34, 4th in the Eastern Conference, 2nd in the Central Division
Head Coach: Tom Thibodeau (4th season)
Regular Season Team MVP: Joakim Noah
First Round Opponent: Washington Wizards
Regular Season Series vs Washington Wizards: Wiz won 2-1
In October, Chicago welcomed back former MVP Derrick Rose, had acquired bench players to strengthen the rotation and was expected to contend for a title. Fast-forward four months later and Rose was done for the season, the bench wasn’t that productive and long-time Bull and defensive stalwart Luol Deng was traded to Cleveland. Now, they’re the 4-seed in the Eastern Conference. A miracle? Maybe. But this is also the hardest working team in the NBA and they’ve earned every victory. Noah has made a strong case as an MVP candidate, combining tireless energy and unmatched versatility to redefine the center position. Taj Gibson is the likely Sixth Man of the Year, outplaying starter Carlos Boozer and providing solid scoring. And D.J. Augustin (waived by two teams this season) has been an unexpected boost. The Bulls might just be the team no one wants to face in the playoffs.
Strengths: If you won games based on hustle, the Bulls would go 82-0. They don’t quit, not ever, even in the face of sure doom. And it has translated to a defense that is oppressive and constant. They pressure the ball and Noah’s rotations and help-defense force opponents into rushed shots. It can lead to excessive fouling, especially depending on how tight the officiating might be, but Chicago is happy trying to keep opponents to right around 85 points per game. It might not be enough to win in the postseason but it won’t be for lack of trying.
Weaknesses: The 10-foot rim. Chicago hangs its hat – hard-hats, to be sure – on defense and, without Rose, don’t have a player that can consistently initiate offense. Noah’s sprawling limbs and surprisingly good passing keep opposing defense honest. Mike Dunleavy does a little bit of everything well, just not well enough. And Boozer has been plagued with the “un-clutch” label since his days at Duke. Team-wide effort is definitely there, making them a joy to watch and root for. Ultimately, it just doesn’t translate into much when it comes to scoring points.
Playoff Ceiling: This team is good enough to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. If – and that’s a big if – they can get past Washington in the first round, they would match up well with Indiana, the presumed winner of a Pacers-Hawks matchup. The Pacers are deeper, more talented but also troubled. Chicago could take advantage and wind up in the Conference Finals where they’ll likely face elimination – for the third time in four years – by the Miami Heat.
What Will Happen: Washington has some good pieces on their roster, and if they all get it going collectively, this will be a very short series despite the Bulls stout defense. However, I think their relative youth and inexperience make them vulnerable (in stark contrast to the team Chicago avoided in the first round, the Brooklyn Nets). Chicago’s constant hustle, commitment to defense and home-court advantage knock the Wizards down in six games, before facing Indiana and losing in seven brutal, blood-soaked games.