By Max Zavidow
Everyone knew it, but you would have been hard pressed to find anyone in the Windy City who would readily admit that Derrick Rose would struggle mightily to return to his former level of MVP play after failing to stay on the court for the better part of the previous three seasons. Ask them now? Bulls fans may have an easier time admitting that Derrick Rose is not currently, and may never be, the electrifying player he once was. But trust me, the fans ease in admittance has very little to do with Derrick Rose. The Bulls are ready to take the next step to become NBA champions, even if the fallen star is roughly 75% of his former self.
True, the Bulls have been playing a little rough around the edges recently, but they have been trudging onward without the heart and soul of the defense: reigning defensive player of the year, Joakim Noah. Having Noah sidelined with an injury (or temporarily trying to play through it), Chicago has gone 2-6 in their last 8 games. Aside from his stout level of defense, the Bulls have not found anyone to replace his Ray Lewis-esque level of intensity. Once he gets back, so do the Bulls, and they should have no problem regaining the 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The addition of Pau Gasol from the L.A. Lakers has proved to possibly be the best free agent signing of the off season. Gasol came onto the team and had an immediate impact. Aside from being second on the team in scoring with 19 points per game, he has been a huge factor on the glass — pulling in over 11 boards per game. As much as he has done for Chicago, the Bulls have been indescribably essential in reviving his career. His PPG is the highest its been since the ‘10-’11 NBA season and his RPG? His 11.4 RPG is the highest of his career. Pau Gasol is back, and the Bulls couldn’t be happier about it.
When talking about the Bulls restructuring to become title contenders, the biggest part of it can’t be ignored. Jimmy Butler, the runaway favorite for the league’s Most Improved Player, has made a complete 180 in his style of play. His 21 PPG is up over 8 points from last year. He is averaging nearly an entire assist more per game without averaging more turnovers. Butler is putting up, on average, 6 rebounds a night — 1.1 more than he was last year. Minutes per game, blocks, field goal/ three point/ free throw percentage? All up from last year. The only area Jimmy Butler has not improved is his steals per game, which has dipped as slightly as possible, going from 1.9 to 1.8.
Jimmy Butler is efficient. Jimmy Butler is aggressive. Jimmy Butler is, as it stands, the most important asset to the Bulls organization.
The supporting cast on this team has never been better. Aside from Butler, Gasol, and Rose, the Bulls have three other players averaging in double figures. With a massive array of other players to pick up the slack, Rose has been able to play at a lesser, albeit safer and more durable level. If this team can get all its players healthy (a huge “if”, I know), it has the talent, chemistry, and heart to go all the way. The team has been slumping, but teams slump. Almost all teams slump. Even championship teams.