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Today’s Fastbreak Roundtable: How Good are the Bulls?

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The Chicago Bulls have gotten off to a strong start under new head coach Fred Hoiberg, and Hoiberg’s Bulls will try to spoil the Golden State Warriors’ perfect season on Friday night. Today’s Fastbreak got a panel of writers together to discuss Chicago.

Jason Patt: The Bulls are, somewhat surprisingly, off to an 8-3 start despite not really looking all that good. How have they pulled it off?

Michael Wonsover: Jimmy G. Buckets.

Jimmy Butler has been absurd down the stretch in some of these games. He’s defending the other team’s best player every night, whether that’s 6-foot-9 Paul George or a point guard like Eric Bledsoe.

Butler is exceedingly the team’s best player right now. He’s the only guy delivering night in and night out. Without his late-game heroics, Chicago might be 5-6. He’s been that good.

Ryan Davis: It’s a complicated answer, because there are a mix of things such as relative health and luck involved, but the main thing that has stood out to me is better shot selection and outside shooting. While the Bulls are averaging almost exactly the same number of three-pointers per game as they did last season, they’ve upped their shooting percentage as a team from 35.3 percent to 38.1 percent. A huge part of this is Rose taking less threes, but it also has to do with Hinrich sitting more frequently and the team finding good outside shots for shooters such as Tony Snell and Doug McDermott. Those two have combined to sink 37 of the Bulls’ 96 made three-pointers, and they’re shooting a combined 50 percent on the dot.

Nov. 16, 2015 - Chicago, IL, USA - Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) blocks the last shot of the game by Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13), which would have been the winning basket, on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, at the United Center in Chicago (Photo by Nuccio Dinuzzo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Nuccio Dinuzzo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Jake Weiner: The Bulls have gotten off to an encouraging start, but their point differential belies the quality they’ve truly been playing it. They’ve only outscored opponents by 2.5 points per 100 possessions, rating out closer to an average team than the near conference-leading juggernaut their record may suggest. Even though they’ve lost two overtime games, the Bulls have generally done very well to close games out in regulation. Seven of their eight wins have come by single-digit margins, with one blowout victory against Philadelphia and one blowout loss to Charlotte.

Simply put, the Bulls have played a ton of close games and won most of them. Jimmy Butler has been a huge factor, picking up right where he left off as the NBA’s Most Improved Player. He’s averaging more shots and points as he successfully takes on a bigger chunk of the team’s offense. Fred Hoiberg certainly seems more willing to experiment — he’s voluntarily changed the starting lineup far more than Thibs would — but these Bulls look eerily similar to those of years past.

Jason: I wrote for SB Nation a few days ago about how the Bulls’ 7-3 record was a bit of a fluke thanks to some scheduling breaks and that mediocre net rating Jake mentioned. Of course, after I wrote that and after I complained about the Bulls’ backup point-guard situation, Kirk and Brooks combined for great stats to help win a game on the road in Phoenix that I thought they’d definitely lose. Because this team is weird and just doesn’t make any sense, which is kind of how I’ve felt about them for several years.

Kelly Scaletta: I don’t think point differential is a good indicator for a couple of reasons. The Charlotte game was clearly one of those weird anomalous games that people overreact to but mean nothing in the long run. The Bulls lost that one by 25. You discount that game and the Bulls’ MOV is 5.0.

Then you have the Wolves game, which they lost by nine, but went into overtime. That’s one of the things I don’t like about MOV. It can make overtime games look like they aren’t close, which…hey…they went into overtime.

Discount those two games and their point differential is 7.4. Of course, you can’t just discount those games, but in the small sample size, they obfuscate things. Most of the Bulls wins haven’t been nail-biters. A couple have, and Michael’s right, Jimmy was HUGE down the stretch in those. But I don’t buy that the Bulls aren’t as good as their record. I’d argue they’re better than their MOV suggests.

I’d also argue that Jim Boylen deserves some credit. Everyone was panicking about the defense, which has been stellar and seems to be improving as the season progresses and I think that has a lot to do with him. The offense isn’t getting the traction yet, but you can see the tires trying to grab the road.

Michael: Jason, it’s because that’s been the Bulls for years now. The Bulls have a ton of talent, but they can be a mess at times. Getting them to put it all together in a road game against the Hornets might be asking for too much. In a nationally televised game when they know everyone’s watching? This team can beat anyone on that stage (excluding the postseason).

Jimmy Butler has said many times the past couple years after losses that the Bulls didn’t come out with energy and yada yada. Most of the time those quotes are excuses, but Butler has a point. The Bulls noticeably had energy in that surprising win over Phoenix, which they led wire to wire. The Bulls are a deep and really talented team, but they don’t give it their all every single night like elite teams do.

Jake: They always seem to get up for games they shouldn’t have a chance in and lie down against teams with no business competing against them. I went to Bulls-Thunder a few weeks ago, and it was a classic game that the Bulls dominated despite having very few matchup advantages. It was easily Rose’s best game of the year. Thibs or not, these guys seem to get up for their competition. Let’s not forget they were one of two teams (the Spurs!) to beat the Warriors in Oakland last year.

Jason: I’ve already said this multiple times that I kind of expect the Bulls to beat the Warriors at Oracle. It’ll be the second of a B2B for the Dubs after an emotional win over the Clippers. They’re due for a letdown. I can already see #NationalTVKirk somehow “locking” down Steph to the tune of 5/19 shooting a la Delly. On the other hand, I could also see the Warriors running them out of the gym. Nothing would surprise me.

Ryan: I can see that as well, as the Bulls for several years have had a reputation as a streak buster and for stepping up in games no one expects them to win. The only thing we don’t know for sure is how much of that can be attributed to Tom Thibodeau’s style of coaching. Will Hoiberg have the game plan for beating the Warriors? Possibly, but without Rose playing, I’m not sure the Bulls have what it takes to give the Warriors their first loss, even if it’s on a back-to-back.

Jake: I think I’m with you, Ryan. I’ve been joking on Twitter like Jason about the Bulls beating Golden State, but when you start to think about the reality of it, it’s hard to picture. The Warriors are on one right now and the Bulls have no way of slowing down Steph Curry. Especially without both Aaron Brooks and Derrick Rose, limiting guard depth. On the other end, how is the 24th-ranked offense going to score on Draymond, Bogut and Ezeli? This could be a 20-point loss. Which means the Bulls will probably defy my expectations and doing something goofy.

Ryan: Agreed, I’m expecting very little from them tonight on the road against one of the best teams of recent memory.

Kelly: I’d be stunned if they beat the Warriors, but to be fair, I’d be stunned if anyone beat the Warriors.

Still, the Nets took them to OT.

In other words, the only way the Bulls beat the Warriors is if they get a little help from the Warriors. There’s a bit of a possibility for a trap game here coming off the big emotional comeback win over the Clippers and being on the back-end of a B2B.

Jason: That’s how the Bulls won last year’s game, basically. How often will the Warriors miss all of their threes after halftime? Basically never. Was a fluky, weird, Bulls-y thing.

Ryan: That would be the only way to see them winning. That, plus a ridiculous game from someone unexpected like Mirotic dropping 30 or Hinrich not being a corpse.

Michael: Am I the only one surprised by the not-so-difficult Circus Road Trip this year? Golden State is a death trap of course, but Phoenix was a winnable game, Portland is 4-9 and the Bulls already beat the Pacers. The Circus Road Trip is usually where the Bulls’ record goes to die, but this year they can make it out of the trip as one of the top teams in the East.

Not to mention, the next three games will take place over a week. Three games in a week is huge for a banged-up team like the Bulls.

Kelly: Bulls haven’t exactly been playing a lot the last 10 days either. Plenty of sleep.

Jake: Allow me to change the subject a little bit. Who do you all think should be starting for the Bulls most nights? Given the unlikelihood of Gasol going to the bench, I’m all for Rose-Butler-Snell-Gibson-Gasol if Mirotic can’t find his way.

JAN 17 Hawks at Bulls

Armando L. Sanchez/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Jason: Niko has been wretched after that hot start, which is extremely disappointing. Taj has been playing better of late, so I’d be fine with that, even though Gasol/Gibson haven’t been great together this year. That allows the Noah/Niko second-unit pairing and maybe Niko can get going as a primary offensive player with that second unit.

Kelly: Yeah. I can deal with that. Niko has just been awful lately.

Ryan: Without looking at the stats on Gasol and Gibson together, I’d put McDermott with that pair so they can help protect the rim behind him. Putting Dougie with Noah and Niko, guys will be burning to the basket non-stop, even with Noah looking better lately.

Kelly: I was just looking the other day at lineups. Rose/Jimmy/Small Forward/ Niko/Noah has still not happened. I’m ready to personally call Gar Forman and tell him that this is unacceptable.

Michael: If Gasol coming off the bench is feasibly impossible, which I think is pretty ridiculous, a starting lineup of Gibson/Gasol is the best option. The frontcourt of Mirotic/Noah has long been my favorite pairing, but with Niko’s struggles and Noah’s inability to score that pairing can’t start.

I agree with Jason that the Niko/Noah frontcourt would be ideal coming off the bench. Gibson could make up for some of Gasol’s shortcomings on defense. The spacing might be pretty awful in a Gibson/Gasol frontcourt, but at least the Bulls won’t get crushed on the boards as they have been so far with a Mirotic/Gasol frontcourt. Ideally, the Bulls make a trade down the road. If only Gar Forman and John Paxson knew trading is legal in the NBA.

Jason: Trades, what are those?! Let’s say the Bulls DID explore a trade. Who would you want them to move?

Jake: I think Pau Gasol could still be considered an asset on his contract. Joakim and Derrick are untradable currently, and I think Taj helps the team more than Gasol in his role. So I would look to trade Pau.

Ryan: I think the one that makes the most sense is Gasol or Noah. One or both will be gone next year, and expiring contracts are still valuable, especially for teams looking to shed more talented players than Noah who are signed beyond this season. No idea who that might end up being, but there’s probably some team that thinks they could land Kevin Durant but need to clear a salary off the roster first.

Kelly: I think trading Pau hurts the team the least and gives you the greatest return. The problem is for whom? There’s just not a great trade market out there right now.

Michael: Pau Gasol, and it’s not even close.

Gasol has put up tremendous counting stats the past two seasons, but he’s severely overrated. His net rating of -2.5 is among the worst on the team. He was near the bottom last season as well. The Bulls don’t play well with Pau on the floor because he’s limited to mid-rangers and inefficient post shots offensively and he’s Boozer-esque defensively if not for his shot-blocking. The 2.1 blocks per game sound nice, but Gasol is so poor at boxing out and defending pick-and-roll schemes that he ultimately kills the Bulls defensively.

Noah might not be able to score, but he’s a versatile defender and terrific passer. I’d rather the Bulls take a chance on Noah getting back to his old self than relying on a 35-year old who has a player option after this season.

APR 27 First Round - Game 5 - Bucks at Bulls

Brian Cassella/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Jason: Man, no love for Pau around here. And I can’t say I necessarily disagree. As poorly as Niko is playing, you’re not trading him. I’m not sure what kind of value you can get for Noah at this point. Probably not much. Taj has always been a popular name to deal, and he might be able to fetch something decent thanks to his nice contract, but having that nice contract around for a few more years wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Pau has been better than I could’ve hoped for with the Bulls. I was disappointed when they signed him, but he’s blown away my low expectations. That being said, I would have no issues trading him at least for a decent return.

Kelly: I think the bigger question is for whom.

Ryan: On that question, I’ll stick with the “trade for longer contract from a team trying to land Durant.” Not saying Pau or Noah brings Bradley Beal, but if the Wizards are reluctant to sign him to a max extension because of their plan to chase Durant, that could be an example of a target.

Jason: Bradley Beal ain’t going anywhere, ha. He’s getting that max extension no matter what from them.

Jake: They’re reluctant to sign him because his cap hold is a lot lower than his new contract figure will be. I get what you’re saying, but I do feel that with the cap boost coming, there really may not be teams willing to take on salary like Joakim’s for that reason.

Kelly: Yeah, Beal is staying in Washington. They’re just playing Kawhi contract with him.

And really, I think is where the specifics are REALLY important. Because it’s so much easier to say, “Trade Pau” than “Trade Pau for X.” I’m just not sure there’s a player on the market you could get for Pau that actually improves the Bulls right now. I mean, how do you make a trade that doesn’t exist?

Ryan: I figure he probably will; just trying to make an example of the kind of moves some teams might want to make. I recognize that Beal himself is extremely unlikely.

Michael: As is the case with many past Bulls seasons, this is probably the team we’re going to get the whole year. I don’t envision the Bulls making any trades that help the team. Dunleavy coming back will also give the front office another reason to not shop for a wing. If Derrick Rose can avoid any major injury, the Bulls will probably be fine keeping the backcourt as it is. The biggest chance the Bulls have to improve this team is from within and getting more suited in Hoiberg’s system. There are also several tweaks of the rotation that can make this team a lot better. But I wouldn’t expect the Bulls to make any impactful trade anytime this season.

Jason: I side with you there, Michael. I’m not expecting any type of splashy trade at all, and Kelly’s point about who they could get his valid. I haven’t really looked into it that hard, but I’m not sure what good options are out there. Of course, situations are fluid and things can change.

Kelly: I think that’s important because otherwise we end up criticizing the front office for not doing what couldn’t be done.

Michael: We can have a whole other roundtable about the Bulls’ front office, haha.

And it was at this point where there WAS basically a whole other roundtable debate on the Bulls’ front office, so that conversation will be included in a separate roundtable. 

Jason: Getting away from the front office debate, let’s talk about Jimmy Butler some more. Him or Klay Thompson?

Kelly: Jimmy. I’ll take his defense over Klay’s any day of the week.

We know he can guard LeBron in a playoff series (because he did). We know Klay can’t (because he didn’t’).

And offensively, Klay’s the better shooter, but Jimmy’s overall game is better.

Jake: I’m with Kelly. Klay is fantastic but I think what makes his game so special is how nicely it meshes with Steph Curry’s. Jimmy can lead a team on both ends of the floor, the true marker of a star player in the NBA.

Ryan: Probably Jimmy, although switch him and Klay and I wonder if Klay (if he’s healthy) isn’t dropping 28 points a night on the Bulls. The defense is obviously better with Butler, but I seriously wonder if playing with Curry doesn’t hold Klay back a little bit from his true scoring potential.

Michael: Klay Thompson is a perfect fit with the Warriors, but Butler is the better player. Butler is the more disruptive defender and he’s also a more versatile scorer. Thompson is really struggling this season, but even last year I think Butler was the better overall player. Thompson is in a system that perfectly suits his skill set. He was also put on this earth to share a backcourt with Stephen Curry. But Butler has the ability of taking over a game on both ends of the floor with little to no help from his teammates at times. He can create his own shot while Thompson is pretty reliant on jump shooting.

Jason: I agree with you guys. This may be a bit homerific, but Butler is just a better overall player. They’re both great in their own right, and I’d say Klay fits with Steph better than Jimmy would, but if you’re starting a franchise, I’m taking Jimmy. You can give him the ball and get out of the way and get good offense. If Klay’s jumper isn’t falling, he can’t create enough other offense off the bounce, although he’s improved over the last few years.

Now, considering the strides Butler’s made, how do you envision him meshing with Derrick Rose moving forward? Will things work out swimmingly? Or will Rose be looking for a fresh start somewhere soon?

APR 27 First Round - Game 5 - Bucks at Bulls

Brian Cassella/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Ryan: I think they’ll fit together for the next year or two, but the Bulls will move on from Rose at the earliest chance. He has almost no trade value, so they’re probably not trading him. They could waive him and use the stretch provision to try to save some money when the cap expands, but I think the most likely scenario is Rose leaves as a free agent and the Bulls try to build around Jimmy and Niko.

Michael: I can’t envision Rose leaving the Bulls, even if he’s playing nowhere near his MVP level. Rose is from Chicago, most fans still love him and he’s still only 27 years old. If he can accept a smaller deal, which is a BIG if, I could see his pairing with Butler continuing long term. Let’s say a deal around three years, $45 million or so. But honestly, the Bulls might be better off handing the keys to Butler.

Butler would be better suited next to a good shooting and passing point guard who’s capable of playing off ball. Players are embarrassingly playing off Rose this season, almost to a fault at times. Rose’s MVP season was a cherished moment in Chicago Bulls history, but it might be best for the organization to let him walk if he’s asking for a max deal. Especially since he doesn’t fit well with Butler even if he did regain some of his prime form.

Jake: Until Derrick Rose has a 20-game stretch where he rates about above-average, I don’t really see the point in considering him part of the team’s core post 2016-17. He can’t shoot, and that skill is becoming even more crucially important from the point-guard position. The ideal fit next to Jimmy Butler is probably a low to medium usage shooting point guard who excels at setting up teammates. Rose posts good assists numbers but has demonstrated terrible court vision this season and far too often is concerned with opening up creases for his drives than operating the offense. Unless Rose shows some drastic improvements going forward, why would the Bulls even want him starting? It’s harsh, but he hasn’t consistently been an above-average starting point guard since 2011-12. At some point you have to stop betting on it.

Jason: I still have some hope left that Rose can be an effective player for the Bulls alongside Butler. I’d say anybody who thinks Rose can return to consistent MVP form is fooling themselves, but if he can finish at the rim again (questionable because his explosiveness is gone) and control the game better, he can be a positive. I doubt he ever becomes a good, or even decent, three-point shooter, but maybe he gets that deadly mid-range game back. We’ve seen some signs of it with that banker he uses that’s been basically automatic.

That being said, it wouldn’t surprise me if Rose moves on. The rumblings have already started. I doubt the Bulls trade him, but they really can’t afford to give him a fat contract in 2017 unless he magically returns to form over the next year-plus. There’s a very good chance that doesn’t happen, and if it doesn’t, I would have no issues handing the team over to Butler and going from there. I really do hope I’m wrong, because even with all the crazy drama and #DerrickRoseSaysStuff nonsense, I want to see him succeed in Chicago. At some point, though, enough is enough.

Michael: I’ve always felt the whole how does Butler fit with Rose thing is overrated because Rose isn’t good enough to warrant a debate. It would be like talking about Butler’s fit with Mirotic or McDermott. Does it matter? This is Butler’s team now and the Bulls’ FO would be wise to build around him. If they deem Rose a bad fit alongside him, that’s all it should take to let Rose walk in free agency.

Kelly: Can I just cry instead of answering this? The subject of Derrick Rose just depresses me.

You ever have that relationship with that special girl, and you KNEW she was the one and you gave your whole heart to her. And then it turned out she wasn’t the one? That’s how I feel every time Derrick Rose clanks a three or gets injured.

Jason: Well put. Now let’s see the Bulls break another streak at Oracle.

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