Chicago Bulls Mid-Season Recap, Second-Half Outlook

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

The NBA season is now in its unofficial halfway point, and the Chicago Bulls stand at 27-25, seventh in the Eastern Conference. It’s been a transition year, going from the hard-nosed Tom Thibodeau era to the pace-and-space style of Fred Hoiberg.

At first, the Bulls found success despite not being fully immersed in the new system. The Bulls got off to a 24-12 start behind the leadership of Jimmy Butler, the team’s leading scorer.

Pau Gasol has been huge in the pick-and-roll this year (ninth in points, per NBA.com), and he’s headed to his second consecutive All-Star game after being chosen to replace the injured Butler. Former league MVP Derrick Rose has improved every month, and it seems his old form is starting to return as his aggression and ability to get in the paint are becoming more and more consistent.

With wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Bulls showed they were right up there with the league’s elite teams. However, there were quite a few games in which the Bulls completely dropped the ball, losing to teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Brooklyn Nets early on.

Since their strong start, the Bulls have found themselves in an all-too similar situation. Injuries have once again plagued them, with Joakim Noah lost for the year, Nikola Mirotic without a return timetable, and most recently, Butler sidelined for possibly a month with a left knee strain.

Chicago’s season is now being dominated by their recent performance. Since Jan. 9, Chicago is 5-13. Injuries have depleted them, but many of the team’s veterans have cited discipline and defensive communication as the reason for their recent tailspin. Gasol, though, believes a certain degree of selfishness is hurting the team, per the Chicago Sun-Times:

I mean habits are hard to break. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you can build on them, you can build out of them. I think that’s a conscience effort that needs to happen… Once you put yourself to the side and you start putting the team first, and doing what’s best for the team. Understanding what do I have to do personally and individually for the better of the team, that’s when things start to work out and things happen the better way for you.

It does fall on the players to share the ball more. Rose and Butler tend to play isolation a little too much, but a lot of times, it’s the best scoring option the Bulls have. It’s not a great representation of Hoiberg’s system, but the Bulls just don’t have the players to run the system.

That’s the biggest issue the team has, and it’s a very bad problem to have. It’s been highlighted during Chicago’s recent struggles. Over the last 18 games, the Bulls have shot 18.8 three-pointers per game, converting 34.5 percent of them. Both of those figures are below their season averages (20.2 attempts, 35.9 percent). It might not seem like a big difference, but the Bulls are scoring fewer than 100 over that stretch.

The new system hasn’t worked due to the Bulls’ roster makeup, and the team is unlikely to change until the 2017 summer when Rose, Mirotic and Taj Gibson are free agents. With a rising salary cap, the Bulls will be able to re-sign their key players while bringing in another star to put next to Butler and—more than likely—Rose.

So what awaits the Bulls in the second half of the season?

A little more hardship. Butler won’t return until around mid-March, and replacing his 22 points per game won’t be easy. It’ll have to be a collective effort between players like Mike Dunleavy, E’Twaun Moore and Kirk Hinrich. Gibson will likely see more touches per game, and he’s shown he can score when called upon. None of them can score the same way, not do they command the same attention from opposing defenses.

Chicago will almost have to revert back to the past when Rose was the leading—and only—scorer. Gasol can shoulder a lot of the scoring too, but outside of those two, there just aren’t enough scorers or great outside shooters on the roster. Mike Dunleavy’s return could be impactful, though. He’s another 40-percent shooter in the rotation, and he’ll help with spacing and overall team chemistry.

Rose will be a player to watch this second half. His month-to-month progress has been extremely encouraging:

The more troubling part is the defense. Rose provides what no one else on the roster can offensively, but with him on the court, the Bulls allow close to 104 points per 100 possessions. With their star point guard sitting down, they allow just 98.8, per NBA.com.

Rose also allows the Bulls to play with more pace. Chicago averages about two more possessions per 48 minutes when its three-time All-Star is on the court. Rose not only pushes the ball, but he can finish in transition as well. He’s also a great playmaker and is a willing passer in transition if there’s an open three-point shot.

What the Bulls need to do in their remaining games is buckle down defensively. Over the last 18 contests, the Bulls have allowed 106 points per game, which would rank them 26th in the league. Most pressing is their pick-and-roll defense where they allow the ninth-most points, per NBA.com.

There’s still time for Chicago to right the ship, though. Only 3.5 games separate it from the third-place Boston Celtics. A tough remaining schedule could wake up the Bulls and raise their level of play. After all, Chicago tends to show up for the big games.

Or, it could mean the Bulls will continue to fall in the standings.

There’s a legitimate chance they will miss the playoffs this year if they continue to play the way they have over the last month. Detroit (ninth place) is just a game behind, so Chicago has to perform at a high level the next two months. It has two remaining games against Cleveland (2-0, so far), two against Atlanta (0-2), three against Miami (0-1) and one against San Antonio (1-0) among others.

Ultimately, the Bulls will likely end up as a sixth or fifth seed. The Butler injury will hurt them in the coming weeks, which will cause a fall in the standings. Once he returns, though, there’s a chance for a final playoff push in the last three or four weeks of the regular season.

There’s still a lot of basketball left to play, but the Bulls have underperformed this year. Chances are they’ll be a first-round exit unless everybody turns it on at the tail-end of the season. Even then, Cleveland would be waiting in the second (or third) round, and this team just doesn’t look ready for a seven-game series against LeBron James and co.

The Bulls have some good pieces, but there needs to be some serious retooling so that the team can actually fit into Hoiberg’s system. Until then, the Bulls will stay in basketball purgatory—the worst place to be.