After last Thursday’s discouraging loss in Oklahoma City, Joakim Noah was asked whether he still believed the Bulls, losers of four straight games at the time, were still a playoff team.
“Yeah, no question,” the All-Star center defiantly responded. “Losing’s hard, we’re going through a lot of adversity right now, but I’m proud of this team because there’s no give-up and there’s nobody giving up. We’re just going to keep improving, keep getting better. There’s a lot of basketball left. We’ve just got to keep going.”
Noah seems a lot more realistic in the aftermath of Saturday night’s home win over Cleveland, a game in which the Bulls put together one of their more complete outings of the season, shooting a season-high field-goal percentage, while playing smothering defense against an improved Cavaliers squad. But more than the Bulls playing at a high level on a nightly basis and getting the likes of starters Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler and All-Star small forward Luol Deng back, the sad state of the Eastern Conference makes Noah seem prophetic in advance.
[NOTES: Gibson receives flop warning]
It’s one thing to just say, “Oh, the East is bad,” without seriously analyzing the conference. The Bulls are currently in ninth place, one spot out of the playoff race at this early juncture of the season. But with their upcoming slate—three days off before taking on an underachieving Brooklyn team on Christmas Day, then two more days of rest before hosting a solid, but not overwhelmingly good Dallas squad—giving them a chance to get back bodies and only one game against a team presently above .500, Atlanta, in the next month’s worth of games, it’s not unfeasible that they can make up some ground.
Yes, these are the same Bulls who just came off a stretch where they lost 13 out of 16 games, but look around the East: Brooklyn just lost its best player, All-Star center Brook Lopez, for the season with a broken foot; it’s no secret that Toronto is shopping starting guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, in an effort to obtain better positioning for the much-ballyhooed 2014 NBA Draft; the triumvirate of Washington, Detroit and Cleveland are just now learning how to win games; and it wouldn’t surprise anybody if overachievers like Atlanta, Charlotte and Boston hit a rough patch.
This is not to say that recent acquisition D.J. Augustin is some kind of savior—though it wouldn’t be surprising to see him hold on to the starting point-guard job after Hinrich’s return, let alone be back in a Bulls uniform next season and beyond, given that Hinrich’s contract is up after the season and the diminutive Augustin could be an affordable option—or Deng and Butler will dramatically transform the team’s fortunes after they come back, as we saw they couldn’t single-handedly turn things around after returning from injuries last week.
But it’s a long season and assuming the team’s widespread significant injuries don’t continue—at some point, it has to end, right?—the Bulls are a lot more equipped for adversity than some of the aforementioned squads, many of which have new cores that were assembled over the summer, not to mention new coaches, who are experiencing various degrees of success.
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Go ahead and pencil in Miami and Indiana, with the Hawks also a likely postseason participant, barring an unforeseen collapse. But it says here that things will get tricky for at least one of Washington and Detroit, though this writer also believes that even with the Nets and Knicks being unmitigated disasters early on, one of them—probably New York, given Lopez’s status—gets on a hot streak and sneaks into the playoffs. The Celtics, especially when All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo comes back from his ACL recovery, reportedly maybe as soon as next month, appear to be legit under wonder boy Brad Stevens.
But it’s still hard to take Charlotte, as improved as they are and as good of a job first-year head coach Steve Clifford is doing, too seriously without a player other than big man Al Jefferson that truly strikes fear into the hearts of opponents. Cleveland seems to be in that Brooklyn category of having plenty of talent, but the pieces not fitting correctly.
This is all speculation, but getting the general tenor of teams through the first quarter or so of the campaign, it’s tough to not put the Bulls in that second-season mix. Sure, the league-wide trade deadline is still a couple of months away and while some swaps could make a few teams more potent, the Bulls aren’t expected to be in that group.
They could certainly make a move, but the inkling multiple league sources have is that it would be a more minor deal—think Mike Dunleavy Jr., as teams are in need of perimeter shooting and the veteran has a cap-friendly contract; from the perspective of Bulls’ management, it would create more playing time for rookie swingman Tony Snell—and not a blockbuster. There won’t be any on-court tanking on Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s watch and although there’s an increasingly growing faction in the trade-Deng camp, even if he didn’t re-sign with the team, let’s not pretend as if such a concept as sign-and-trade doesn’t exist, if the concern is the organization would be left empty-handed.
But back to the crux of the matter: Chicago shouldn’t be under the impression that it will be a hockey-only city when the playoffs roll around. No, there isn’t a guarantee that the Bulls’ free fall was only temporarily halted by Saturday’s win, but given their competition and the squad’s track record, the worst possible outcome isn’t necessarily the likely one.
Or, you can choose to look at it more positively, as Thibodeau does: “The hard thing was I think we were in a stretch of seven [games] in 10 days, along with the changing lineups,” the coach explained.
“So trying to get D.J. up to speed, we didn’t have good rhythm, but each day you could see it getting better and it’s hard to do when you’re not practicing, when you’re in a ballroom and stuff like that. But sometimes, those are your circumstances and that’s what you’ve got to deal with, and you’ve got to find a way to get it done,” he went on to say. “I didn’t think there was any quit in these guys.
“I’ve said all along: I have great belief in this team.”
It doesn’t hurt to get a little help from some below-average opposition.