The Chicago Bulls are somehow tied for first place
How are the Bulls 25-16? Well, defense is still the staple that makes this team what it is, and they are allowing just 91.3 points per game, which ranks third in the NBA. The Bulls rank 25th in the NBA in scoring at just 93.6 points per game. There are games where this team just can't make a shot to save their lives.
The most shocking thing about this team is they are a better road team than a home team. 12-5 on the road, with wins at NY (twice) and at Miami. However, just 13-11 at home, with awful losses against New Orleans, Charlotte (had 18-game losing streak at time) and Phoenix. This is the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde team. I honestly don't know which team will show up on a given night.
The most pleasantly surprising player has been Carlos Boozer. It seems that when the rumors started of the Bulls possibly exercising the amnesty clause, Boozer has elevated his game to a level we haven't seen in years. Boozer is averaging 21.5 PPG and 11.0 RPG, while shooting 51.7% from the floor in the month of January. Boozer was even named Eastern Conference player of the week last week. While his defense isn't where coach Thibodeau would like it to be, the effort isn't in question as much as its been in the past. I feel like someone in the organization pulled him aside and told him to start playing like a max player or he will be gone.
Now with Luol Deng sidelined by injury, second year forward Jimmy Butler has stepped into the starting lineup and has produced comparable numbers to Deng in two of the three games. Prior to the injury, Deng was having another all-star caliber season, with both scoring average and field goal percentage up from last year. Deng has been more assertive and recently hit a game-winning basket in Toronto. The funny part about the game-winning shot, was that Deng told his teammates during a timeout to get him the ball because he wanted to go home.
That is the type of attitude the Bulls need from Deng, especially when Rose returns. Rose cannot lead this team past the Heat by himself. Based on Butler's play, a case can be made that Deng could become expendable. The Bulls have shopped him multiple times, including on draft day last year. Deng can no longer vanish in 4th quarter of games.
Not only has Jimmy Butler provided a spark off the Bulls bench, but so has Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, and the Bulls bench wouldn't be what it is without Mr. reliable Taj Gibson. I would be lying as a fan if I didn't point out the love/hate relationship I have with both Belinelli and Robinson. Morseo with Robinson, due to his school-yard mentality and low basketball IQ. However, when Nate gets hot, it's rather amazing how good he can be. He helped rescue the Bulls from what would've been another bad loss at home last night against the Pistons. Belinelli is what the Bulls are on offense--hot and cold. Zero consistency.
The biggest knock on the Bulls is the inconsistency with the offense. I love Tom Thibodeau as a defensive mind, but I feel he is still learning certain aspects of the offense. It is quite frustrating how this team moves the ball and shoots a high percentage, and then other times the ball sticks and bad shots are taken with the shot clock winding down. Just because the shot clock is 24 seconds doesn't mean you need to use it all. I often see a better shot available earlier in the shot clock, but then guys have a propensity for over passing and end up with a more difficult shot. This plagues the league, it just isn't the Bulls. You have no idea how many times in a game I am screaming at Carlos Boozer to just shoot the damn ball.
The biggest key on defense has been Kirk Hinrich's defense on other point guards. Hinrich is as good an on-the-ball defender as there is in the league. I knocked the move when they signed him. I just forgot how good of a defender he is. In the few games he's missed to injury, Nate Robinson has been embarrassed by other point guards.
It's no secret how dangerous this team can be once a healthy Derrick Rose returns. I just fear the front office pulling the trigger on a bad trade before the deadline that may impact the chemistry. The obvious question is, will they be good enough to beat the Heat? I believe that's the only team that will stand in their way from a trip to the Finals. My honest answer is--I don't know. I can't wait to see them try.