Keeping An Eye On Contenders: Mediocrity Clouds Chicago Bulls’ Playoff Hopes

It wasn’t too long ago that the Chicago Bulls were pegged as the hopeful antagonist to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ reign over the Eastern Conference. These days, the Bulls are just hoping to make it into the playoffs. The extreme turnaround for the organization has been a painful one to watch, and that is said in the most literal sense possible. Mostly because of all the injuries the Bulls are dealing with. The playoffs are just within the grasp of this reeling squad, but the future is bleaker than ever.

At 33-32, the Bulls are sitting just on the brink of playoff contention in the eighth spot of the Eastern Conference. They find themselves sandwiched between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers. How did they end up here? Let’s start with injuries.

Derrick Rose has been riddled with physical setbacks this season. His latest battle has been with hamstring tendinitis, which has caused Rose to be a question mark more often than not. Even more recently, he missed last night’s meeting with the Toronto Raptors because of an abductor strain. While he hasn’t had a terrible year, averaging 16.7 points, 4.9 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game, his inconsistency in the lineup has had lingering effects on the team and psyche of the organization.

On top of the recurring injury narrative of Rose, Jimmy Butler missed about a month with a left knee strain. In his absence, the Bulls went 3-8 and reached one of their lowest points of the season with five straight losses. Butler has easily been Chicago’s best player at 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. He’s had seven games of 30 or more points, two games of 40 or more points and one game over 50 points. Any further time out for Butler is sure to seal the deal for any playoff hopes the Bulls have.

Other Bulls’ players like Nikola Mitotic, Mike Dunleavy, and most notably Joakim Noah have been on the short-end of the injury stick. Noah’s season ending shoulder injury could very well be looked at as a critical point for Chicago’s season. It’s pretty obvious that the team has missed Noah’s interior defense, intensity, and overall leadership. The Bulls are ranked 11th in defensive rating and 17th in opponents points per game. Let’s compare that to just two years ago, when Chicago was second in defensive rating (100.5) and first in opponents points per game (91.8).

The defensive capabilities and identity of the team has definitely shifted after the departure of Tom Thibodeau. The Fred Hoiberg era has not produced anything near as fierce on the defensive end and his offensive views have not made a smooth transition from the collegiate ranks. It is still too early to tell if it’s actually Holberg’s coaching that may be the issue versus the overall mess that has become the Bulls’ situation. One thing is clear, Hoiberg doesn’t appear to have a tight grip on the team and that’s fed into the lackluster results this season.

If Chicago can get past the injuries, defensive gaps, and coaching woes, there is still some light at the end of the tunnel. They are playing in the East, which means that moving up in seeding isn’t too difficult. While they do have a pretty solid schedule ahead of them (9 out of the last 17 games are on the road), the return of Butler will be beneficial. He’ll be on a minutes restriction, but some Butler is better than no Butler at this point.

Another bright spot has been Pau Gasol. Gasol’s defensive deficiencies have been overshadowed by his offensive production of 17 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. When the Bulls are healthy, they can play big with bodies like Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott coming off the bench.

If they can handle the upcoming Wizards matchup, they’ll own the tiebreaker between the two and continue to put pressure on the crowded 3-7 spots in the East. Only five games separate eight from three in the standings.

Right now, it looks like a stretch for any of this to end well for the Bulls. Even if they make the playoffs, they don’t really have too much in the tank to give teams like the Cavs or Raptors a credible threat. Whether Chicago makes the playoffs or not, mediocrity will be the end result.