“I thought our guys showed a lot of toughness. Our guys have the will to continue to fight.”
That statement sums up the Bulls 2014 season. Former MVP and team leader Derrick Rose went down with another knee injury ten games into the current season. The next elite player, Luol Deng, was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers last January. Yet despite starting the season at 9-16, the Bulls have been 26-12 since. They hold the best record in the East since January 1st, and that’s even without Rose and Deng. They are currently sitting in the 4th playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and are looking to seal home court advantage for at least one round of the postseason.
But how does the team do it? Where do they get their strength from? The answer is simple: Joakim Noah.
The former Florida Gator center has steadily increased his averages in each of his seven seasons in the NBA. His current averages of 12.2 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game are above average numbers, but are not really superstar level, except perhaps for the rebounds. But what sets Noah apart from the other superstars in the league is his intensity and desire. Rarely do we see players with the same fire that glows in Noah’s eyes. He’s a guy who leaves it all on the floor every single night, and his resiliency has rubbed off on the entire team.
But since we cannot quantify his energy and the team’s resiliency, let’s examine the numbers:
The Bulls are dead-last in scoring among the 30 teams in league. They average a measly 93.1 points per game, but they make up for this by holding their opponents to 92.2 points per game, which is tied with the Indiana Pacers for first in the league for opponent points allowed per game. If we subtract the two figures, the Bulls are only +0.9 over their foes, but this doesn’t mean that they’re lucky with their wins or that they’ve been clutch in close games. They are only 6-5 in games decided by three points or less. They are 18-15 in games won by 10 points or more. So what does this say? They compete every single game and give themselves the chance to win by being tough and playing tough defense.
The Bulls are 2nd in the league in opponent’s field goals made, allowing only 35.3 field goals per game. So that accounts for the low opponent points. They are also tops in the league in points per shot at 1.11. So they also make their opponents bleed for points.
The Chicago Bulls attempt 1.3 less shots and make 0.7 less field goals than their opponents every game. They also make 0.6 less three pointers per game. If we look at the other major stats this season, Chicago has more turnovers, less steals and less blocks than their opponents on a per game basis.
So how do they win games?
From the statistics point of view, it’s free throws. The Bulls shoot 3.5 more foul shots per game and earn three more points per game from the free throw line. Now that’s more than the total point differential of +0.9, which we discussed earlier, but offense isn’t just all free throws.
Six players currently average in double digits. Carlos Boozer leads them at 14.2 points per game, while DJ Augustine is next at 14.1 points per game. The other double digit scorers are Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Mike Dunleavy Jr.
If we compare their scoring averages from the previous season, only Butler has improved by 4.2 points per game and Gibson by 5.4 points per game. The others had almost the same numbers. So the Bulls have been very consistent with their scoring, and the loss of Rose and Deng were almost offset by the scoring of Augustin and Dunleavy.
But where does this put them in the NBA this season?
The Bulls have a winning record at 35-28, but if we transfer them to the competitive Western Conference, they would only be in the 10th spot and would currently be out of the playoff picture.
Chicago is only 16-17 on the road so far, and only 13-17 against teams with at least .500 winning mark. They are, however, 22-11 against below .500 teams. This shows and proves that they are not really an elite team this season, they have just been one of most consistent thus far. They are good, and that’s why they’ve beaten the lowly teams, but they do not have a winning record against the playoff bound teams.
When the season started, great things were expected of Chicago with Rose, Deng and Noah, but with the season coming to a close, only Noah is left standing among the three stars. The Chicago Bulls have a deep line-up, which has played consistently all season long. DJ Augustin must be commended for stepping up in the absence of D. Rose. Both Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler are both having fantastic seasons as well, but the biggest difference has not been in the statistics. It’s been Joakim Noah!
Noah’s been always known to play with all heart and all intensity. Obviously, this has rubbed off to his teammates, and the Bulls have created a mentally tough squad. The team doesn’t thrive on stars, it wins on consistency and lets all players contribute. And again, they’ve done this all without their MVP. That is one heck of an achievement, but this doesn’t mean they will win the title this year.
Joakim Noah acknowledges this himself:
“I know we have another level when that boy comes back. We’re hungry, man. We’re a hungry group. And that’s what I want. I want everyone in this locker room, everyone who wears a Bulls jersey, to work. We’re going for one thing. That’s the championship. One day, I want to party in Chicago. I want to see what that feels like one day.”
Noah has sustained that hunger this season. Perhaps he’s even increased it. When Rose comes back, it will be a totally different team, and with Noah around, all it takes is hunger, hard work and time.
As for the title? It won’t come this year, and isn’t a sure thing, but definitely no playoff opponent can’t afford an off night against this tough and consistent squad. Or else, the Chicago Bulls are going to beat you with their intangibles, and that’s for real.