A slightly disappointing 91-86 overtime loss to the Charlotte Bobcats wasn’t the way that you would think the Chicago Bulls would end their unbelievable 2013-2014 regular season, but if you think about it, everything about their season was far from predictable.
A year ago, an ailing Bulls team limped into the playoffs, with a nasty string of injuries, and without their star player. It was an arduous, death march of a season towards the middle. They had the grit and work ethic of 10 teams, but they didn’t have the talent to be a true championship threat, and everyone knew it. Nonetheless, they won 45 games and gutted out a seven-game series against the Brooklyn Nets before getting trounced by the eventual champions, the Miami Heat.
Last year, the theme was “it wasn’t supposed to be this way but, hey, all things considered, this is pretty amazing”. This year, it was more like, “it wasn’t supposed to be this way, or this way, or THIS WAY!” Superficially, it might not look like there’s much of a difference, but if you take a closer look, it’s apparent that this season was a different animal entirely.
The 2013-2014 Bulls finished their regular season with a final record of 48-33, slotting in at the 4th playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Again, this doesn’t look that much more impressive than last season’s 45-win, 5th place finish – at first glance. Unlike their predecessors, this Bulls team entered this season as one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference, if not the whole league. They had an offseason to heal, they were in a weak conference and – most importantly – they had the exhilarating Derrick Rose back on the court. At the very least, they seemed guaranteed to finish in the top three in the East, along with the defending champs and the up-and-coming Indiana Pacers. Who would have predicted that they would have finished within an eyelash of the third spot without their MVP and leading scorer (Rose), and without their All-Star and veteran leader (Luol Deng)?
But the beginning of the season didn’t go as planned. Everyone was healthy but, having not played together as a unit in over a year, they were way out of synch. Even with Rose, they struggled mightily on the offensive end. They coughed up a couple of games that they should have won in the early going. And then, just as Rose was starting to adjust the grind of the NBA, he went down again, and all the air went out of what was supposed to be a high flying season.
It didn’t help that the injuries came back again, either. Young wingman Jimmy Butler, so promising in 2012-2013, suffered from a soft knee (it wouldn’t be his last injury of the season). Captain Kirk Hinrich, as he tends to, got a little beat up and tweaked his hamstring. Luol Deng missed some time in there, too. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t pretty. Right before the Rose injury, the Bulls won five in a row. Following it, they went through a couple of gruesome stretches, losing four in a row on two separate occasions, and three in a row, once. In the month of December, the Bulls were an uninspiring 6-9, hitting their lowest point after a December 19 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder that put them seven games under .500, and seemingly, out of the playoff picture. In short, things looked pretty bleak heading into 2014.
On one hand – this was the fans and impartial observers’ perspective – the results were understandable and easy to explain. But on the other – this was the players’ and coaching staff’s perspective – the Bulls, as beat down as they were, were capable of much more. The front office, however, seemed to be on the side of the fans and the outsiders. Maybe it would be for the best for the team if they missed the playoffs this year, snagged a lottery pick and regrouped in the offseason. The surest way to do that would be to cut ties with Luol Deng, the scoring/rebounding/defending/hustle machine that the Bulls were all but guaranteed to lose in free agency after the season, anyway. Then, whether or not that’s what the front office actually intended, they did exactly that; they pulled the trigger and traded Deng on January 7 – for basically nothing (or nothing tangible, at least).
It should have been the end of the season, even more so than when they lost Rose, but it ended up being the turning point. After the Deng trade, the Bulls went an astounding 34-16 to finish the season. To say the turnaround happened because the trade got under the players’ skin and made the team think that the front office gave up on them probably isn’t an overreach. To say it was because everyone played their part is also fair. But the biggest reason was the jaw-dropping play and the unbelievable numbers of Joakim Noah.
Noah is a seven-year Chicago Bull veteran. He’s played for Tom Thibodeau for four seasons, and his wild and energetic nature made him the perfect match for Thibodeau’s high-intensity, defense-first coaching philosophy. For all of the talk of how Deng was the perfect basketball avatar for Thibodeau’s mindset – and this is nothing against Deng – Noah was the one to truly take it to another level. To say that he’s stepped up since the trade is a gross understatement. Noah, long the fulcrum of Chicago’s defense, has become the best defensive player in the league. Moreover, he’s also become the Bulls’ most important offensive player.
His basic season stats, while impressive, fail to tell the whole story. He averaged 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists per game (all career highs), and shot 47.5% from the field. He’s also started all but two games of the punishing marathon that is the 82-game NBA season. On the defensive end, though, Noah is an absolute menace. His body never stops moving, and neither do his eyes. He’s always paying attention, anticipating where his hands need to be to contest a shot or to cut off a pass; envisioning where his feet need to be to get in position to contain his man or to grab a rebound. And everything he does, he does with an unmatchable intensity, perfectly designed to intimidate, annoy, or just exhaust his opponents. It’s been fun to watch for the past several years, but he’s kicked it into a thrilling new gear as of late.
To understand just how valuable Noah has been, take a look at this powerful statistic, courtesy of Grantland’s Zach Lowe: Noah on floor: 103.4 points per 100 possessions; 95.2 points allowed. Noah on bench: 95.7 points per 100 possessions; 103.4 points allowed.
If you’re allergic to advanced metrics – and there’s no shame in that, but they’re rapidly becoming fundamental to how we evaluate sports, so you might want to pay attention – we can put this in to more simple terms. Essentially, when Noah is on the floor, the Bulls are a top defensive team, and their offense is average. When Noah is on the bench, they’re defense is closer to average, and their offense is absolutely horrendous.
The Chicago Bulls, as a whole, have been one of the best defensive teams in the league since the dawn of the Thibodeau era. Last season, even without Rose and while often playing with cobbled together second units, they still managed to finish sixth in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions. This season, they’re second in defensive rating (100.5) and first in points allowed (91.8). Their offense, however, is even worse than last year (23rd in offensive rating in the league in 2012-2013, 28th in the league this year). They’ve been a little better offensively since the Deng trade – 25th in offensive rating – which also coincided with the injection of DJ Augustin and the expanded role of Taj Gibson, but not substantially different.
It’s reasonable to surmise that a team with such poor offensive numbers can’t get too far in the playoffs, and definitely can’t make it to the Finals. Defense wins championships, they say – but history has shown, not without a little scoring, too. But no one would have thought this team would get as far as it has, either. They’re going to keep playing the only way that they know how to win: by moving quickly but playing slowly; by playing hard-nosed, lock-down defense, by outworking their opponents; by subverting all measures of reality, and by refusing to throw in the towel at any cost.
You could say they’ve lost two of their last three. They’ve been overachieving for three and a half months. Surely they can’t keep it up, right? Perhaps you’d be right. Regardless, though, no matter what Indiana or Miami says, they don’t want a piece of Noah and the Bulls in the second or third round. After everything this team went through this season, who could have predicted that?
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.