by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
With former League MVP Derrick Rose rehabbing his ACL, the Bulls have kept themselves above .500 and in the thick of the Eastern Conference Playoff standings. While there have been tough stretches, including injuries to starting guards Rip Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich, the resilient group has given itself a chance to compete—even at partial strength.
Joakim Noah has been a huge factor in the team’s season. Entering the League as an “energy player,” Noah has evolved his game and expanded his role. The only players to average 10+ points, 10+ rebounds, 4+ assists and 2+ blocks for a season since 1980 have been David Robinson, Vlade Divac, Chris Webber, Kevin Garnett and Noah, who is doing it this season.
Noah tells SLAMonline that Divac was one of the players he watched growing up, as well as the dynamic Kings teams that featured an offense in which bigs had roles as facilitators.
The Bulls currently rank top 10 in assists, which is an amazing feat considering the absence of the team’s leading playmaker. Noah has the unique ability to influence the game on both ends, and this season, he has made sure the ball moves.
Defensively, Chicago has stayed consistent, which is a testament to the identity instilled into the roster by Tom Thibodeau. If the Bulls are able to maintain their defensive effort throughout the season, they will already be a step ahead of some of the other teams battling for Playoff positioning.
Before a devastating first-round loss last season during which Rose tore his ACL, the Bulls had been trying to build on a run of increased Playoff success. After two straight first round exits, Chicago reached the Conference Finals in 2011 after an NBA-best 62-win season. While the team lost to Miami’s newly formed Big 3, the core stayed intact, and after the lockout, the Bulls joined the Spurs as the only two 50-win teams last season.
In ’12-13, a few aspects will change for the Bulls. Presumably, they will no longer enter the Playoffs as the first seed. They can’t rely on the “bench mob” that largely shaped their identity and served as a safety net for starters, since key players like Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik and CJ Watson are now with other teams. They’ve had to incorporate new faces—in both the starting lineup and reserve roles—due to injuries and roster changeover.
This year, the path looks a little less paved for the Bulls. But the team has not lost sight of its destination. As Noah said, “our best basketball is gonna come at the end of the year.” While Bulls fans hope that statement turns out true, the current roster is doing what it can to keep the Bulls in contention until then.