Going into the regular season, optimism was at a low point for the Chicago Bulls fan base.
But after a 29-18 start that has them in 1st place in the Central division and 3rd place in the Eastern Conference (just a couple games behind the Knicks and Heat), the outlook on the Bulls’ 2012-2013 season has quickly changed.
With former MVP Derrick Rose expected to return sometime soon, the Bulls’ faithful is confident that they can lock up a solid playoff seed yet again. The hope is that Chicago can have even more success in the post season than they have had in the previous two seasons.
And if Derrick Rose can return to form, there are actually some reasons to believe that Chicago’s chances are better this year than in years past.
Simply put, it comes down to one type of player that the Bulls suddenly seemed stocked with: scorers.
1. Carlos Boozer
Carlos Boozer has made it known that he’s finally feeling comfortable within the Chicago Bulls’ offense. There is no reason for it to have taken two and a half seasons for that to happen, but it certainly is better late than never.
Boozer is averaging just under 16 points and 10 rebounds per game so far this season, numbers much closer to what the Bulls expected when acquiring him a few off seasons ago after several solid seasons with the Cavaliers and Jazz. And those numbers have been most impressive over the last month and a half.
A confident Boozer will be a great option for DRose to defer to when needed. Carlos is hitting the mid-range J and bruising down low much better than he has in quite a while. Not to mention, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, whose constantly-improving games continue to make it tougher for opposing defenses to game plan against Boozer. L
ast year’s Boozer definitely wouldn’t cut it … but this year’s just may.
2. Rip Hamilton
Richard “Rip” Hamilton is, in my opinion, the most overlooked asset the Bulls have.
Though he’s battled injuries for most of his one-and-a-half year career with Chicago, Hamilton is still a seasoned vet who knows how to get buckets. Standing 6’7 and able to hit jump shots from anywhere inside or out, a healthy Hamilton could very well end up being the most reliable scoring option outside of Derrick Rose and All-Star Luol Deng.
In fact, Rip was averaging almost 15 points per game before his early December injury, and he didn’t even average 25 minutes per contest to that point.
Though his minutes have been even more scarce as coach Tom Thibodeau has been easing him back into the mix, he continues to hit his jump shot at a rate similar to that of the rest of his career while playing solid defense, which is all the Bulls will ever ask from him.
3. Marco Belinelli
This past off-season the Bulls signed Belinelli, who was coming off of a career-high 11.8 PPG season for the New Orleans Hornets, but he didn’t have much pressure on him other than to be able to hit a couple shots per ball game. Although he only averages 9.3 PPG off the Bulls’ bench, his impact on the team has been very substantial.
Belinelli has hit multiple game-winning shots and has filled in phenomenally when the team has needed to call upon him to play extended minutes, including a superb month of December when Rip was sidelined.
Although the statistics may never fully shine light on Marco’s big impact, the fact that Coach Thibs knows he can count on him in case of an injury, or late in a close game, definitely carries a lot of weight. And as we’ve seen, Marco does have the potential to do it all on the offensive end.
4. Nate Robinson
“Love/Hate Nate,” as Bulls fans have started calling 5’8 point guard Nate Robinson, has had no problem scoring when given the opportunity this year. In fact, Robinson was just named as Eastern Conference Player of the Week, as he stepped in and provided great offense with Kirk Hinrich hampered by an injury.
Obviously Nate’s defense will always be an issue, but just as consistently as that, he’ll find away to put up points.
Robinson is instant offense that the Bulls can count on when Rose needs a spell and Hinrich is struggling to help the offense … and that’s not really something the team has had in recent seasons.
To put it simply, when you have someone like Robinson in your rotation, you always have someone that can come in and spark the team.
X-Factor: Jimmy Butler
First let’s be clear: when I say “X-Factor,” I don’t necessarily mean the make-or-break player … just one whose performance could be a surprise push for the team in one of those two directions. The 2nd-year man out of Marquette, who’s played very sparingly until lately could be that guy for the Bulls.
What we know about Butler is that he’s strong, and he knows how to use that strength to defend at an elite level. When paired with Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, the Bulls have three top-notch defenders on the floor at the same time. This is similar to when the Thunder trot out Kevin Durant, Thabo Sefolosha, and Serge Ibaka from a strictly defensive perspective.
We also know that he’s a work in progress offensively. Though he can execute fundamentally in some ways on offense with consistency, the Bulls need his jump shot to develop … and develop fast. Luckily for Thibodeau and company, he’s already showing signs of improvement.
As Butler has gotten extensive minutes during Luol Deng’s battle with an injury, Butler’s been good for anywhere from 10-20 points per game, 5-10 rebounds, all while maintaining a field goal percentage up near 50% (49.8% on the season, 50.5% in January).
He only makes about 25% of his 3 pointers, though, so that’s not a part of his game the Bulls should expect much from in the near future. But given the fact that the Bulls have guys like Hinrich, Belinelli, and Robinson who can light it up from deep off the bench, they’re not going to pressure Butler into forcing up deep shots.
As long as he can continue to scrap out some points and boards while playing elite defense, his playing time will continue to increase.
And if the Bulls end up having to face the Miami Heat in the playoffs once again, Thibs could put Butler and Deng on Dwyane Wade and LeBron James more confidently than any other coach can D-up the dynamic duo in the Eastern Conference.
Though it’s nice to think about the upside that each of the guys I’ve discussed has individually, the point of the post is to remind you that the Bulls now have one thing they didn’t use to have: options.
Between Carlos, Rip, Nate, Marco, and Jimmy, there’s a bad chance that one or two of them could play well every night in a tough playoff series against an elite team like the Knicks or Heat. It’d be one thing if a team needed any of those guys to step up and take over, but after Derrick Rose’s return, the Bulls will simply need them to help out he and Deng, who’ll look to carry the load into the playoffs.