Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls
The Bulls at the halfway mark
Sam Smith looks at the first half of the NBA season and where the Bulls lie in the power rankings
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For the Bulls as they prepare for a back to back in Boston Friday and Saturday in Cleveland to kick off the NBA’s new Saturday Night Live, it would be nice to get a laugher. Or at least not a crying shame like Wednesday’s devastating home loss to the Golden State Warriors. It’s not with the 24-17 Bulls whether the glass is half filled or half empty. It’s that they’re at the halfway point of the season, the first 41 games.
“We’ve obviously had some inconsistencies with our team,” acknowledged Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg after practice Thursday. “We’ve had some really good signature wins, ones that you try to build on as the season goes on. Beating OKC (Oklahoma City) twice, a big win over San Antonio, knocking off Cleveland our first game. And we’ve had some very disappointing losses, games we should’ve won and games we could’ve closed out that we didn’t. Last night was probably our most difficult game as far as our guys coming in here and being mentally drained for how that game finished. It’s a game you have to put behind you.”
And while sports and life are always about moving forward, the lessons you learn are from history.
“The big thing (is) we've had some stretches of really good basketball this year,” said Hoiberg. “We had that six-game winning streak where I thought the ball was really moving, the pace was where we wanted it. I think we had nine or 10 in a row where we scored over 100 points. Then we took a step back. Some of that was just lack of shot making. Dallas, I think we were one of 19 from three. Last night, we go one for 20. It's tough to win when the ball's not going in.
“You're never comfortable,” said Hoiberg. “Now we're going to have lot of games after this West Coast swing to be pretty much in the East. It's a tough conference, deeper league this year. We're going to have to play well to finish out the season.”
But can they and how will they?
Based just on the first half record, the Bulls are on pace to win 48 games, which is a respectable season if not a title harbinger. This was in many respects to be both a season of change with a new coach in Hoiberg and a last run with now injured Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol both potentially unrestricted free agents.
Hoiberg emphasized a faster style of play, and the Bulls have increased their scoring by a little more than a point per game for the season while maintaining a top 10 defensive efficiency. The Bulls have rebounded well, among the league leaders in total rebounds, but poor on the offensive boards. Their pace has increased as they take five to six shots more per game, but still too often end up in isolation play through Butler, Derrick Rose or Gasol. They’re shooting about the same number of threes as last season, though many more than in previous seasons. And at a slightly higher percentage than last season even with leading shooter Mike Dunleavy not playing yet. Their assists are up slightly from last season, but down from three and four years ago. The blocks are up with Taj Gibson starting, but the steals are down.
Putting together this Bulls team with Butler’s enhanced status, Rose’s steady determination to improve his health, Noah moving to a reserve role, starting lineup changes with Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell in and out and Gibson in and trying to find time for rookie Bobby Portis and shots for Doug McDermott has been like trying to assemble one jigsaw puzzle from a box with four mixed together.
So where is this Bulls team?
When executives and coaches examine the standings for relative strength of teams, two measures they use are margin of victory and road wins/home losses. It’s a way of balancing out the schedules to give a more in depth look at how teams ultimately project:
Road wins/Home losses:
1. Warriors +20
2. Spurs +12
3. Cavs +12
4. Raptors +8
5. Thunder +6
6. Clippers +5
7. Mavericks +5
8. Pacers +4
9. Hawks +3
10. Knicks +1
11. Celtics +1
12. Pistons +1
13. Grizzlies +1
14. Bulls 0
15. Bucks 0
16. Trailblazers 0
17. Rockets -1
18. Heat -1
19. Magic -2
20. Wizards -3
21. Jazz -3
22. Kings -3
23. Hornets -4
24. Pelicans -4
25. Nuggets -5
26. Suns -8
27. Lakers -9
28. Timberwolves -10
29. Nets -11
30. 76ers -13
Margin of victory:
1. Spurs 14.3
2. Warriors 12.2
3. Thunder 8.7
4. Cavaliers 5.5
5. Raptors 3.8
6. Clippers 3.8
7. Pacers 3.0
8. Celtics 2.9
9. Hawks 2.5
10. Pistons 2.1
11. Bulls 0.7
12. Hornets 0.5
13. Heat 0.1
14. Mavericks 0.0
15. Jazz -0.3
16. Magic -0.4
17. Knicks -0.7
18. Rockets -1.2
19. Trailblazers -1.4
20. Kings -1.5
21. Wizards -1.6
22. Grizzlies -2.4
23. Pelicans -3.5
24. Timberwolves -4.0
26. Bucks -4.7
27. Suns -4.8
28. Nets -7.7
29. Lakers -9.8
30. 76ers -10.5
It was an optimistic opening of training camp, but an immediate setback when Rose suffered a broken orbital bone in his face and basically had to miss training camp. He returned wearing a face mask and came into the season slowly. But since discarding the mask, he’s shooting about 46 percent and has his scoring up to about 16 per game, effectively tied for second with Gasol.
Though Rose and Butler, the latter playing at an All-Star level and leading the team in scoring again, have not meshed seamlessly. They more often alternate on offense as Butler prefers to play slowly and in isolation while driving and drawing fouls while Rose has been urged to attack the basket more to try to score.
Noah seemed to lose confidence in his shot before being injured and probably out for the season. Gasol has been consistent offensively, though erratic on defense. The loss of Dunleavy has left Snell, McDermott and Mirotic to fight over the small forward position with no leader. Snell has struggled on offense while McDermott and Mirotic with the guards, including reserve Aaron Brooks scorers, not getting many catch-and-shoot opportunities.
It’s been a bit of a setback for Mirotic with a pair of scoreless games in the last five after averaging 20 points last March.
“I’m struggling a little bit now,” Mirotic said after Wednesday practice. “I’m not shooting the ball well. I’m not feeling the same confidence like I was feeling before, but it could happen. So I need to be strong, I need to work hard, and I need to trust in myself because I know that I could play better. If I can do it last year in March, I can do it this year, too. I think it will come soon.’’
The Bulls with all the changes have always known this season would be more a process to build toward the playoffs while using more players and at fewer minutes to try to be at a high level by April and May. Though the Bulls hope it all will develop and build and come soon for the team as well.
Team power rankings at the halfway mark:
1. Golden State Warriors: The swim suit model and GQ of basketball teams. So wonderful to just stare at.
2. San Antonio Spurs: The more guys they stop playing the more games they seem to win. Pop’s a magician.
3 ½: Oklahoma City Thunder: You think it’s easy taking all the shots! But someone has to do it.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers: How can a guy named Love engender all that dislike? To paraphrase the Jefferson Airplane, “Don’t you want somebody to take Kevin Love?”
5. Los Angeles Clippers: With Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith how did they miss J.R. Smith and Rajon Rondo?
6. Toronto Raptors: Turns out Lowry and DeRozan were told they wouldn’t have to pass until they could spell “Valanciunas.”
7. Atlanta Hawks: Thabo Sefolosha personally has made NYPD blue. They just need one shooter like Kyle Korver.
8. Chicago Bulls: I’m in charge! No, I’m in charge. No me; no me. Anyone seen a leader?
9. Detroit Pistons: C’mon, take a chance and shoot them underhanded. Wilt tried it. If you’re big you can stop them from laughing.
10. Memphis Grizzlies: What’s wrong with rotary phones and record players? You mean no one wants to play like that?
11. Houston Rockets: C’mon Jimmy, play nice with the other kids. Share your ball. It looks like Dwight is crying.
12. Washington Wizards: When you keep hearing Washington doesn’t work and is dysfunctional they don’t mean you. Well, not always.
13. Dallas Mavericks: No, Mr. Cruz, Dirk had nothing to do with that Volkswagen stuff. Can he please stay in the country?
14. Miami Heat: Did Iran include Luol Deng in that hostage release? Really?
15. Indiana Pacers: In the Letterman reunion show, Frank Vogel is being asked in Stupid Human Tricks to show how he explains a good shot to Monta Ellis.
16. Charlotte Hornets: Nicholas Batum is attributing his slump to the surprising lack of French food at the Waffle Houses that everyone had bragged about so much.
17.New York Knicks: Have a chance to move up, though Porzingis still having difficulty translating Fuggettaboutit into Latvian.
18. Boston Celtics: Danny Ainge has now been empowered to offer his draft pick plus Faneuil Hall and the Old North Church to get a star.
19. Orlando Magic: Seem to have gotten distracted since Elfrid Payton’s hair became a theme park attraction.
20. Milwaukee Bucks: With Jason Kidd’s imminent return, the NBA is having all the water and soda cups nailed down.
21. Utah Jazz: Rudy is back at center and they could move up as he finally gave up on playing Notre Dame football.
22. Sacramento Kings:
DeMarcus Cousins still asking if making the playoffs once qualifies you for the Hall of Fame.
23. Portland Trailblazers: Damien Lillard is now going to hold his breath until he makes the All-Star team.
24. New Orleans Pelicans: It didn’t seem that long ago when Anthony Davis was an All-Star. Eric Gordon says I’ll call your knee and raise you a broken finger.
25.Denver Nuggets: Told you Ty Lawson would have trouble at sea level. Is Wilson Chandler up for another extension?
26. Minnesota Timberwolves: They should be much better once they get an indoor arena.
27. Phoenix Suns: NBA scouts declaring an emergency meeting for ideas to improve them with suddenly no reason to go there in winter.
28. Philadelphia 76ers: Jerry Colangelo for Executive of the Year and Mike D’Antoni for Coach of the Year.
29. Los Angeles Lakers: You mean we weren’t supposed to draft for our new marketing slogan, “Slowtime?”
30. Brooklyn Nets: Dem Bums. Wait ‘til next year.