After two seasons of renaissance as an NBA darling, the Chicago Bulls were something of an afterthought entering 2012-13. Thanks to "The Return" marketing campaign featuring injured Bulls star Derrick Rose, what little exposure the Bulls have gotten has been aimed at a player who hasn't logged a minute this season and may not until the spring, if at all.
Meanwhile, Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau trudges along, making no excuses and urging on his available players possession after possession, game after game. In his serious fashion, Thibodeau may be giving us his best performance yet, which is saying something considering he coached the Bulls to No. 1 seeds in each of the last two regular seasons. The man who is belligerently dull in front of the camera is holding down the fort as the interim face of his franchise.
In addition to Rose's knee injury, Chicago is also playing with by far its thinnest roster since Thibodeau was hired to replace Vinny Del Negro, who will be at the United Center Tuesday when his L.A. Clippers take on the Bulls. Chicago lost key reserves C.J. Watson, Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, John Lucas III and Kyle Korver in a cost-savings sweep early in the summer. The aforementioned bench mob had teamed with holdover Taj Gibson to form the NBA's best reserve unit the last two seasons.
Chicago's bench currently features Jimmy Butler, Marco Belinelli, Nazr Mohammed and Nate Robinson. Individually, they've all had some good moments. But as a group, this season's bench has had nowhere near the impact of its predecessors. Worse, Chicago has battled injuries to starting guards Kirk Hinrich and Rip Hamilton. And since the Bulls are nudged up against a hard cap of $74.3 million in payroll, Thibodeau has had to make do with the 13-man group that broke camp with the team. A group that includes the rehabbing Rose.
After some bumps on Chicago's annual fall West Coast swing, Thibodeau has the Bulls right back in the thick of things in the East. Chicago has won five of six, putting it in the race for another top-four playoff seed that no opposing Eastern Conference coach wants the Bulls to get. We wrote before the season that the Bulls' hope for big-time success this season hinged on Thibodeau exhorting overachievement from his stripped-down roster, which would then hopefully get an enormous boost from the return of a mostly healthy Rose sometime after the All-Star break. That scenario might be unfolding.
Chicago stands 11-8 after its recent surge, and in terms of per-possession point differential, the Bulls are solidly a top-four team in the East along with the Knicks, Heat and Hawks. Right now, Chicago's scoring margin translates to a team that would be expected to go 50-32 over a full season.
Let's take a look at what Thibodeau and the Bullls have done to stay near the top of the standings.