Chicago Bulls: Nick Friedell

Mirotic emerging at the right time for Bulls

March, 5, 2015
Mar 5
11:57
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
video

CHICAGO -- Chicago Bulls big man Joakim Noah walked out of the shower late Thursday night after an exhilarating 108-105 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, headed back toward his locker, and saw rookie forward Nikola Mirotic to his left.

"Vamos!" he happily exclaimed. "Good s---, young boy!"

Like many of his teammates, Noah couldn't contain his excitement, especially in regard to Mirotic's performance. For the third straight game, Mirotic carried the Bulls at times offensively. He scored 26 points -- including 14 in the fourth quarter -- and has become the weapon Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and the front office always hoped he could be, and at just the right time.

[+] EnlargeNikola Mirotic
AP Photo/David BanksA more confident Nikola Mirotic is averaging 26 points over the past three games.
The key for Mirotic is that the confidence that appeared to wane after a solid December stretch has been revitalized since the All-Star break, and just as the Bulls have lost Derrick Rose (knee), Jimmy Butler (elbow) and Taj Gibson (ankle) to injuries.

Mirotic is averaging 26 points over his past three games and says his mindset is strong right now.

"I'm playing with more confidence," Mirotic said. "I'm feeling good on the court. I'm running, sometimes when I get the ball, I push the ball. That's my basketball [style]. I'm trying to show this game how I can play -- my confidence is at a high level. I don't want to stop."

The short-handed Bulls can't afford for Mirotic to stop. He has emerged as a clutch scorer in the fourth quarter over the past three games, putting up a combined 38 points in the final frame.

"He's definitely growing," Bulls big man Pau Gasol said. "He's getting more used to the competition, more comfortable, more confident. Now he's getting more minutes because of Taj's injury. He's doing really well. I think he's done great every time we've been short-handed on the frontcourt, and he's played at a high level."

The difference between Mirotic and most rookies is he doesn't show much fear on the court. At age 24, he has played big games in Europe, and he knows what it takes to succeed in pressure situations. One of the biggest differences in Thursday's game was he made a point to get to the free throw line, knocking down 14 of 16 from the stripe.

When asked why he was able to thrive in pressure spots, Mirotic had a simple answer.

"I don't know, maybe because I was taking a lot of shots in Europe, important shots," he said. "Of course it's a huge difference, you're a new guy, but my teammates -- they expect me [to take those shots]. They got confidence in me, the coach, too, so if they run plays for me I just need to think to score the shots."

His teammates have seen the subtle differences in his game recently as well.

"His assertiveness is there," veteran Mike Dunleavy said. "Whether it's being more comfortable or confident or whatever, but you can just tell he's got that feel where he's got it going, believes in himself, knows what he's doing out there. He's playing great basketball."

Mirotic seems to be just scratching the surface of his potential. He knows there is another level he can hit. It's that potential that made Noah contend early in training camp that the rookie could become the Bulls' "secret weapon" this season.

"I'm proud of him," Noah said after Thursday night's game. "He's a very hard worker and he's an unbelievable talent. And the sky's the limit for him."

Bulls in familiar position down the stretch

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
3:05
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
video

CHICAGO -- With 21 games left in the regular season and a showdown with Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder on the horizon Thursday night, the Chicago Bulls find themselves in a familiar position. Their backs are against the wall and they are playing without key players because of injury. Derrick Rose (knee) and Jimmy Butler (elbow) are out at least several more weeks, and Taj Gibson (ankle) is out for a little while longer, although Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau did note after Wednesday's light practice that Gibson is out of his walking boot.

The broader issue for Thibodeau and his players is how similar this season is unfolding compared to the last two years without Rose. No team likes having its star players injured down the stretch, but the Bulls are probably better equipped to handle this situation than almost any other team in the league given what they've dealt with over the last few years. They know the schedule is about to turn tough -- with four of their next seven games against teams with winning records -- and they understand that while help may be on the way before the regular season ends, they're going to have to withstand the schedule without Rose and Butler for the foreseeable.

"I think you have to have great will, great determination, and you have to be together," Thibodeau said of maintaining the intensity without key players. "I think when you have a group like that that's committed to playing for each other, good things can happen. When you look around the league you see the teams that are tied together and play hard each and every night, play smart, you give yourself a chance to win. You don't get here by accident; if you're here, you have great talent. Then it's how strong can you play as a team? Everyone has to understand what their job is. It's five-man offense, five-man defense and working together. That's what it's all about."

The intriguing part of this stretch is that the Bulls will be leaning on several players who are new to this situation. Veterans Pau Gasol and Aaron Brooks are in their first year with the Bulls, while rookies Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott are still in their NBA infancy. The hope is that the new group will be able to dig down deep to find the fire that it takes to play short-handed night after night. Over the past few years without Rose, Butler and Gibson were the ones who helped light that flame game after game. Now it must come from a different place.

"We'll see," Gasol said when asked how the Bulls will be able to sustain the energy that comes with playing the way they did in a hard-fought win over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night. "Obviously with our minds and our hearts into it a lot of things can happen, so we just bring our will every single night. Try to give ourselves a chance to win against whoever we're facing."

To that point, Gasol and his newer teammates will be able to lean on veterans Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich for guidance in how to deal with the annual setbacks that seem to come with wearing a Bulls uniform, but after being in the league for 14 seasons, it's not as if he hasn't had to play through injuries to teammates before.

The good news for the Bulls is that Joakim Noah seems to be playing his best basketball of the season. After struggling with the aftereffects of offseason knee surgery, Noah finally appears to be playing -- and feeling -- more like himself. Without Rose on the floor, and now without Butler and Gibson as well, the games become even more personal to the emotional big man. Like many of his teammates, he is at his best when he feels slighted, and his teammates thrive off the energy he provides.

Noah never wants to single himself out, but Brooks mentioned after Tuesday's game that Noah set the tone for the entire night with his energized play.

"Everybody's working hard," Noah said. "We've been working hard since the beginning of the year. A lot of ups and downs. We've just got to find a way to stick together through the good and the bad and know that we have a shot at this, and we can't take that for granted."

But this is where the real hurdles build up -- both mentally and physically -- for a short-handed team. The Bulls have to find a way to maintain poise as they wait for some of their top players to heal. How they fare in this regard will help determine how the rest of their seasons shakes out.

"That's the challenge," Dunleavy said. "That first game out after all the chaos has occurred, that first game is kind of the easiest because you know you're going to have emotion, you know you're going to have energy. But now we're going to have to settle in and play this role every night and hold down the fort for a few weeks. So that's the biggest challenge of it all, and we'll see what we can do."

Joakim Noah returns to 'point center' role

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
11:12
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- Joakim Noah was back in his comfort zone Friday night.

Without Derrick Rose (knee) or Pau Gasol (illness), and with Taj Gibson going down with an ankle injury after just nine minutes, the remaining Bulls had to pull together and do a little more. For Noah, that meant he was back in a familiar role as a "point center," a role he played extremely well without Rose on the floor over the past two years. With Noah back at the high post, he looked more confident on the floor, as he racked up 11 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in a 96-89 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"That's what Jo wants to do -- handle the ball," Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said. "He makes great decisions when he's passing it, and he's aggressive when he gets it. Whenever you have a big man like that, it's hard to guard all five people on the floor."

Noah had much more space on the floor offensively, without Gasol down on the blocks. The pair know they need one another to reach their ultimate goal, but they have not played well together throughout much of this season. Noah thrives in a situation in which he can pass the ball in various sets from the high post.

"That part I think is innate," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Noah's passing ability. "He had great vision and decision-making ability. He's got a very unorthodox game in many ways. But he's got great vision, and if a guy's open just a little bit on a cut, he can get it there. So it's a big plus when you have a big guy that can pass like that."

For his part, Noah wasn't biting on how much fun he was having in his old role. He discussed how the Bulls run a read-and-react offense and try to find the open man.

"I enjoy winning," Noah said. "It was fun to win today. We just got to keep improving."

Noah's offensive game has taken a back seat to Gasol's throughout the season. Now that Noah is back to feeling like himself as he continues to shake off the lingering effects of offseason knee surgery, it's going to be interesting to see how his game responds once Gasol and Rose are back on the floor. In the meantime, Noah, like the rest of his teammates, is just hopeful Rose will be back sooner than later.

"It's tough when your best player is out," Noah said. "But I think today was positive news. Derrick's a warrior. He's going to fight as hard as he can to try his best to come back this year. We just got to keep building and keep getting better until he gets back."video

Timeline: Derrick Rose's injury troubles

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
12:54
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose underwent knee surgery, it was announced Friday. It's the next chapter in Rose's long odyssey with knee injuries, which stretches back to the 2012 NBA playoffs. There might be some cause for hope, however, as Bulls GM Gar Forman said he expects Rose to return later this season.

While Bulls fans prepare to see their homegrown superstar endure another cycle of rehab, here's a brief timeline of how we got here.

May 20, 2008: Bulls win draft lottery

The Bulls had just a 1.7 percent chance to land the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NBA draft lottery, but they came away with it and drafted Rose. The Simeon High School product was thrilled to be selected by his hometown team.

April 22, 2009: Rose earns rookie of the year award

Rose couldn't hide his excitement after winning the award.

"When I first came into the season, my biggest thing was to get this award," Rose said. "I was telling you all that I didn't care, but I did. You really do want this award. There was a lot of talent out there that I had to go against."

Feb. 14, 2010: Rose makes first All-Star Game

Rose scored eight points at Cowboys Stadium and was excited for his premiere on one of the league's biggest stages. As he walked out for warmups, LeBron James and several others watched on the enormous screens as replays of Rose's dunk over the Phoenix Suns' Goran Dragic played. Like the rest of the basketball world, they were in awe.

Sept. 27, 2010: Rose calls his MVP shot

After a summer that included winning gold for Team USA at the world championship in Turkey, Rose entered training camp feeling more confident than ever.

"It's high," Rose said of his self-confidence. "The way I look at it within myself, why not? Why can't I be the MVP of the league? Why can't I be the best player in the league? I don't see why [not]. Why can't I do that?"

May 4, 2011: Rose becomes youngest MVP in league history

Rose knew he could reach another level in his career -- and he did. He gave an emotional acceptance speech in which he tearfully thanked his mother, Brenda Rose, among others. Teammates and coaches filled the back of a conference room in a suburban hotel to celebrate with the 22 year-old star.

May 26, 2011: The Heat best Rose in Eastern Conference finals

The Bulls destroyed the Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference, but they dropped the next four as James and his teammates overpowered the young Bulls. James has been the Bulls' postseason kryptonite -- no matter which team he has been on.

Derrick Rose
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRose's knee troubles began with an ACL tear in the 2013 NBA playoffs.
April 30, 2012: Rose tears his ACL

Rose dominated at times during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Philadelphia 76ers, but the entire tenor of his career changed late in the fourth quarter, when he went to the ground after a jump stop down the lane. Rose tore the ACL in his left knee, and his career hasn't been the same since.

Oct. 29, 2013: Rose plays first regular-season game in more than a year and a half

Rose took plenty of criticism throughout Chicago -- and the basketball world -- for not coming back during the 2012-2013 season despite being cleared to play in March 2013. Fast-forward seven months, and Rose plays poorly in a loss to the Miami Heat.

Nov. 22, 2013: Rose tears the medial meniscus in his right knee

In just the 10th game of his return, Rose injures his right knee in the second half against the Portland Trail Blazers. Yet another non-contact injury ends Rose's season. The Bulls go into an emotional funk immediately after Rose's injury but are able to bounce back before getting knocked out in the Eastern Conference semifinals against James and the Heat.

Feb. 24, 2015: Rose tears the medial meniscus in his right knee -- again

Although it remains unclear exactly when the latest injury occurred, Rose finds himself in the middle of another injury nightmare. Through 46 games in his second comeback season, Rose shows flashes of brilliance, but his consistency is not the same, as he continually settles for too many 3-pointers. Rose is currently shooting 28.6 percent from beyond the arc.

Bulls need more from Rose down stretch

February, 23, 2015
Feb 23
10:51
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive

CHICAGO -- Derrick Rose's past four games offer a case study in the highs and lows he's experienced over his first 46 games of the season. The former MVP had one of his best games of the year on Feb. 12 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, going off for 30 points (12-for-24 from the field), seven assists, four rebounds and just two turnovers in 41 minutes. He drove to the rim and dominated the game at various points in the night. Rose headed into the All-Star break looking a lot like the superstar player who set the basketball world on fire early in his career.

A week later, he looks like the same player who has struggled to find his way as he tries to make his way back from two serious knee injuries. Rose played one of his worst games of the season in a loss to the Detroit Pistons on Friday, scoring eight points (2-for-9 from the field), dishing out two assists, grabbing two rebounds and turning the ball over six times. After being so aggressive against the Cavaliers, Rose looked passive on the floor against the Pistons.

Compounding the poor performance was the fact that Rose missed Wednesday's first practice after the break because he didn't get back in time from a beach vacation. One night later, he scored 16 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished out five assists in a foul-plagued 25 minutes in a win over the Phoenix Suns. Rose looked to get everyone else involved early, but made several nice drives to the rim late in the game.

[+] EnlargeRose
Caylor Arnold/USA TODAY SportsWill Derrick Rose return to his former dominating ways with consistency?
In Monday's 87-71 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, Rose took another step back. He struggled all night trying to find his shot, going just 1-for-13 from the floor. He added eight assists, five rebounds and three turnovers in 33 minutes, but he couldn't find his shot, the same shot that has eluded him at various points throughout the year. Monday marked the first time in his career that he did not make a 2-point field goal, according to ESPN Stats and Info. His 1-for-13 performance also tied the worst shooting effort of his career. He went 1-for-13 in an April 12, 2012, win over the Miami Heat in which he got benched at the end of the game.

"For me, I'm just trying to ease my way back," Rose said recently. "I'm not trying to go out there and play all crazy, I'm trying to play under control, take my time, be patient. I took a lot of days off [during the All-Star break], the most days I took off in two years, so I'm just trying to ease my way into it."

Rose opened himself up to plenty of deserved criticism after missing practice Wednesday and following that up with a poor performance on Friday and Monday -- but getting back into a rhythm after the break is always tough for many players -- it's not a new trend. The bigger issue for Rose is that he never used to ease his way into anything. More than midway through the season, the broader is question is:

How should Rose be judged?

Should he continue to be judged as if he's the same explosive player that he was before the two knee injuries? Like the guy who dominated the Cavs a little over a week ago? Or should he be judged as a mentally-inconsistent player who continues to struggle to find a rhythm as was the case against the Pistons and the Bucks?

The answer is that he is somewhere in the middle. Whether Rose can return to being the dominant nightly force he was before the injuries piled up remains to be seen, but what remains evident is that his teammates continue to take their cues from him on the floor. When Rose plays with poise and purpose the Bulls believe they are unbeatable. When Rose struggles, the Bulls look disjointed offensively.

"He's a catalyst," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said recently. "Your point guard unites and inspires your team. So the more energy and pace he's playing with the better it is for us. But he's not the only one, everyone has that responsibility. So how hard you run the floor, how quickly you move the ball, all those things. Your ability to help, to do more than one thing so you can be a great defensive team, that requires great effort and you have to be able to sustain that effort over a long period of time, and that's our challenge."

Rose has used the word "facilitator" more this season and discussed how he wants to find a way to get his teammates involved early -- does he see that as being one of the biggest changes in his game now compared to his pre-injury body of work?

"I think every game is going to be different," Rose said. "The reason why I said 'facilitate' these last two games is I missed them days. I didn't want to come back and shoot 20 shots and get out -- I mean, everybody got to get in rhythm, especially when you have a team full of offensive players like [we do]. Everybody got to get in a rhythm so finding my way through the game, I'm going to find my way through it, it's just that everybody's got to touch the ball ... it's all about getting everybody in rhythm and getting back to their playing pace."

But the reality after his first 46 games is that Rose's rhythm -- and his consistency -- have been erratic. He still shows flashes of being the player he used to be, but he doesn't show that fire to take over games the way he did before. Rose used to desire the role of putting the Bulls on his back every night. Now he seems much more content picking and choosing his spots. Does that mean that he's evolved as a player, or does that mean that the player the basketball world fell in love with years ago is never coming back?

The Bulls' players and coaches continue to protect Rose at almost every turn, and it's clear that they still hold out hope that Rose's superstar ability will be unleashed again when the games matter most in the playoffs.

"I just know in the big games there's nobody I'd rather have," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "I think -- that's my guy so at the end of the day, I know how it is. It's always a tough game when you come back from the [All-Star] break. You can't overreact. I know what kind of guy he is and I know he's a competitor so I'm not worried about him and I really think that we can still do something special this year."

But at this point in the season, Noah's belief seems to be based more on hope from days past than by factual evidence from what he's seen this season. The fact is that Rose hasn't been as aggressive going to the basket in his first few months back on the floor and is settling for way too many 3-point attempts (72-for-251, 28.6 percent). He doesn't seem to be playing as consistently hard and fast as he did in years past. The interesting part is that Thibodeau, a man who has defined his career on having his teams outwork their opponents, seems content to allow Rose to find his way -- on his own terms. After two and a half years away from the game, Thibodeau understands that building up Rose's inner confidence is the most important aspect of making a full return.

At some point in the near future, if the Bulls truly want to contend for a championship, the Bulls are going to need more from Rose than what they are getting so far. Superstars take over in the postseason. Rose has taken over various games throughout the regular season, but those performances have been few and far between.

For his part, Rose remains outwardly confident that his struggles are just a blip on the radar. He remains resolute in his belief that his best days are still in front of him. After Monday's performance the 26 year-old reiterated that the reason he fell out of a rhythm after the All-Star break is because he took more days off than at any other point in the last two years.

"I'm not worried about that," Rose said. "Missing shots -- I shot worse before. So, it's nothing big."

The beauty for Rose is that he has the ability to write his own ending for the year. If he comes out and dominates night after night in the playoffs, his struggles during the regular season will largely be forgotten. But as the Bulls enter the home stretch of their season with Rose leading the way, it's fair to wonder whether the new Rose will ever look like the old one again.

Penny: Rose playing slower in comeback

February, 18, 2015
Feb 18
10:03
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Derrick RoseIsaac Baldizon/Getty ImagesDerrick Rose used to play at "100 mph," says Penny Hardaway, but now "it's like he plays at 70, 75."
Penny Hardaway can see the similarities between he and Derrick Rose.

The former Orlando Magic star and fellow Memphis alumnus marveled at the freakish athleticism that Rose displayed before his first knee injury in April 2012. He empathized with Rose's circumstances after that point, having gone through his own knee problems at a similar point in his career.

Now, as Rose tries to help lead the Chicago Bulls to a championship, Hardaway is hoping to watch Rose make it back to full health -- something Hardaway wasn't able to fully accomplish after knee injuries derailed his career.

But as someone who has dealt with career-threatening knee injuries, Hardaway can tell that Rose's game has changed.

"I look at his footwork. At first he would really dig in and get his speed," Hardaway said on "The B.S. Report" with Bill Simmons. "Now it's almost like he's jogging on top of the court. He's not digging in anymore. He used to just go all out -- 100 mph. To me it's like he plays at 70, 75 now and sometimes he'll turn the jets on. It's just the pain."

"There's the hardest thing -- when you cannot be as athletic or perform at a level you really want to. Your mind is telling you, but your body is not allowing you."

Rose has repeatedly said there hasn't been much pain after games this season, but Hardaway says pain is something he had to deal with throughout the back part of his career.

[+] EnlargeAnfernee Hardaway
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesPenny Hardaway's run as a superstar was cut short by injuries, but he still managed to have a 14-year NBA career.
"I felt pain every night," Hardaway told Simmons. "After games it took me a long time to walk to my car and the driving home it took me a couple of minutes even to get out of my car and extend my legs and just walk. And I was playing in full games."

Despite his personal experiences, Hardaway managed to hang in the league for 14 seasons and became a four-time All-Star. He last played with the Miami Heat in the 2007-08 season and sees the parallels between where he was, and where Rose is now.

"It's just amazing when you see Derrick because it did remind me of myself," Hardaway told ESPNChicago.com over All-Star Weekend. "We were at the height of our games when injuries started to plague us, especially in the legs. We were both very athletic, Derrick is very athletic, and his athleticism was a big part of his game just like mine was. And to see that -- he's still so young.

"I started to have injuries when I was around 27, 28 so that was a little -- he's still young enough to recover. I just hope that he does recover fully to where he can get his speed, his quickness and athleticism back to where it was."

Hardaway, who was one of the first players to have microfracture surgery, told Slam Magazine in a 2012 interview that he had six knee surgeries in his career. He said he hasn't spoken to Rose since all the injuries starting piling up in the former MVP's career, but he is hopeful that Rose can make it back to an elite level.

Hardaway said the mental part is just as difficult as the physical in regards to returning from big injuries. Rose has admitted as much throughout this season.

Hardaway has been down the road Rose is on and knows that the Bulls star is going to have to deal with smaller injuries as he tries to make his way back. Rose was in and out of the lineup in November because of ankle injuries and missed a game on Jan. 10 because of knee soreness.

The good news for the Bulls is that Rose has not missed a game since that time, playing in 16 in a row.

"You're going to always have little nick-nack injuries, hamstring, groin, calf, just overcompensating because you really want to play and that comes from wanting to be on the court," Hardaway said. "Maybe playing too many minutes early on, and sometimes those things happen. So it's always going to be the little small [injuries]. As long as there's not any major injuries anymore, I think he'll be fine."

Bulls Hall of Famer and team ambassador Scottie Pippen has no doubt about Rose's game.

"Derrick Rose is back," Pippen said. "He's like any other player in this game, he's going to have ups and downs -- but he's back. I think people should stop judging him on whether he has a great game or a bad game. He's human, he's over his injuries pretty much and he just has to continue to play through this and get into the postseason where he really wants to perform."

Rose, who is averaging 18.9 points and 5.0 assists this season, below his career averages of 20.6 and 6.5, is averaging 22.6 points over the final 15 games before the All-Star break.

"He looks good," Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star Russell Westbrook said. "He's finally getting back to his rhythm, getting his legs and things back. He's definitely getting back to his old self."

Atlanta Hawks All-Star Kyle Korver, who was Rose's teammate in Chicago from 2010-2012, sounded like a protective older brother when it comes to the criticism Rose has taken the past few years.

"It's definitely not fair, but it's the reality," Korver said of the criticism that Rose is dealing with. "Derrick is such an important figure in Chicago on so many levels, so many ways. Everyone cares how he's doing. People care for different reasons. But there's so many people who have such an interest in Derrick Rose. With today's day and age and with all the technology, and all the voices that you're able to have no matter who you are, there's so much out there. He came off -- he got so high, so quick, as far as being so young, the youngest MVP, there was so much attention around him.

"All of it was positive, more or less, back then. He's had these injuries and injuries happen, they just happen, and Derrick's trying to take care of himself the best that he can. I don't fault him in any way at all. Is the scrutiny fair? It's the just the reality. Whether or not it's fair or not, it's just what it is."

Butler enjoys first All-Star experience

February, 15, 2015
Feb 15
11:53
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
NEW YORK -- Jimmy Butler was enjoying his first All-Star experience up until the point where it was time to check in right before the second quarter began. It was at that moment the proud 25 year-old from Tomball, Texas, grasped the magnitude of the situation.

"When it hit me was when I was checking into the game," Butler said. "It was great up until that point, then you check into the game and it's like, 'You're really here.' So that was the moment for me."

Butler played only nine minutes and scored six points as he continued to be limited by a right shoulder strain that kept him out of Thursday night's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Butler said he spoke to Eastern Conference head coach Mike Budenholzer before the game about limiting his minutes and acknowledged that his shoulder felt "all right" after playing for the first time in almost a week.

"I wish I was 100 percent healthy so I could do a lot more," Butler said. "But it was fun."

For a player whose career has been defined in large part by his defensive accomplishments, Butler admitted that it was tough to be in a game in which defense was looked down upon.

"A few of my guys was like, 'Yo, chill. Don't do all of that,'" Butler said. "So I couldn't be the player that I am."

The key for Butler is that having those defensive characteristics, combined with an improved offensive game, landed him on this platform in the first place. Bulls teammate Pau Gasol, a fellow All-Star, was happy to be part of Butler's first experience.

"I love Jimmy and to be able to share this moment with him was also special," Gasol said. "And I was happy to see him there and get his recognition because he's playing at a very, very high level. Well deserved. It's great, every All-Star for the first time lives it in a very unique way. It's great for him."

Aside from being with Gasol, Butler was happy to be paired alongside former teammate Kyle Korver again. The pair connected for an alley-oop in the second quarter and Butler said being with Korver brought "back memories again."

Now Butler must get ready for the second half of the season and get his shoulder back in order. He is confident he will be able to do so in advance of the Bulls next game against the Detroit Pistons on Feb. 20.

"I'll be ready to go," Butler said. "I got to go back to Chicago and get my stuff right. This break is for a reason, to rest your body and recover."

All-Stars abuzz around Gasol matchup

February, 15, 2015
Feb 15
11:29
AM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
video
NEW YORK -- The basketball world is caught up in the Gasol vs. Gasol storyline heading into Sunday night's All-Star Game.

Even the king.

"I think it's amazing," Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star LeBron James said, in regard to the fact that both Pau and Marc Gasol will be starting in Sunday's game.

"I think it's so awesome. I think it's so cool, for the first time in our history, we see two brothers face off against each other in the All-Star Game. They're great, both of them, Pau and Marc. They're unbelievable, and I'm happy to be a part of it."

That seems to be the sentiment around the league. As the Gasol brothers continue to answer questions about their accomplishments from journalists all over the world, especially a crush from Spain that has chronicled their every move, it's been interesting to listen to other All-Stars' reactions about what the Gasols have accomplished.

"It's amazing," Atlanta Hawks All-Star Kyle Korver said. "I have three younger brothers, and we all play basketball too. You know it's special any time you get in the gym together. It's just a really fun time. For them to jump center court in the All-Star Game, it's got to be a really special moment for their family, and it's just an amazing accomplishment."

The love and appreciation is not lost on older brother Pau. The Chicago Bulls big man recently noted that being voted in by the fans for the first time in his career was "remarkable and honorable." He knows that being able to play with his brother in the league's biggest showcase is going to be special.

Asked which four other guys he would pick to play with him if he could pick anybody, Pau Gasol danced around the question awhile before landing on one sure bet -- Marc.

"My brother would definitely be one that regardless would be there," Pau said. "He'd be in. He'd make the cut."

Gasol's Bulls and All-Star teammate Jimmy Butler is one of many players who can appreciate what the pair will feel Sunday night.

"That's big for those two," Butler said. "They've had great careers in this league, only going to get better. But they're just fierce competitors, so it's great to go up against your brother, knowing you grew up with him, you played against him when you were younger, and now you get to play against him on a really, really big stage."

Pippen: Butler's path 'a lot like mine'

February, 14, 2015
Feb 14
10:21
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Jimmy ButlerOmar Vega/Invision for Jordan Brand/AP ImagesJimmy Butler is averaging 20.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game this season.
NEW YORK -- As the rest of the basketball world tries to wrap its collective head around the leap Chicago Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler has taken from defensive stalwart to All-Star this season, Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen watches from afar with a great deal of pride.

Pippen, who still works for the Bulls as an ambassador for the team, can't help but see the similarities between Butler's path to stardom and his own. When asked if he thought Butler could reach this high of a level -- playing amongst the game's elite Sunday night at Madison Square Garden -- Pippen, unlike many people around the league, says he isn't surprised.

"Yeah, I did because I kind of see Jimmy's career a lot like mine," Pippen said. "Everybody doubted him and he's sort of been put behind the eight ball to some degree and ... everything that he's earned in this league, he's had to work for it. I think that's been great for him because he's been what the team has needed the last couple of seasons. A guy that's out there working hard and just don't really give a heck. That's totally helped his development as a player and as an individual."

Any talk about Butler's elevation to star starts with his work ethic. It's what has defined his career. Butler has discussed many times this season about the work that he and his trainer, Chris Johnson, put in over the summer. Bulls officials marvel at the amount of time that the 25-year-old has put into his game over the last few years. That's why it shouldn't come as a surprise that when Butler discusses the one characteristic that got him to this point in his career, he remembers all those hours spent in the gym.

"Just how hard I play," he said, while discussing his defining All-Star characteristic.

But as Butler gets set to play on the biggest single game stage of his career, even he acknowledges that the journey from a rookie who barely played, to an All-Star who rarely comes off the floor, has come faster than even he could have imagined.

"Have I dreamed it? Yeah," Butler said recently. "Did I think it would happen this year? No. I was confident in the work that I've put in this summer, to where I'd be productive, but to say that I'd be an All-Star, I wouldn't have been able to tell you that if you had asked me over the summer, but a few people said that I would be."

To understand why people like Pippen, and selected others, aren't surprised by Butler's ascension, let's take a look at five of the biggest reasons why Butler has been able to take such a huge leap.

[+] EnlargeScottie Pippen
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsFormer Bulls great Scottie Pippen likes what he sees from Jimmy Butler so far.
1. Consistency

Butler knows exactly what his role is. Unlike in his first year and a half in the league when he was struggling to see the floor, Butler knows what to expect every night. He knows he will be asked to guard the opponent's best perimeter player and he knows he'll be asked to drive to the rim and be an offensive difference maker. Most importantly, he knows that no matter what he does, he isn't coming off the floor. He has earned the trust of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau.

2. Playing with good players

Butler has been a beneficiary of the talent around him. He saw first hand the effort that Luol Deng poured into his game before he was dealt last season. Working alongside players like Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and to a lesser extent, Derrick Rose has helped Butler improve each year. It also helps that none of those players ever wavered in their belief of him.

"They just always installed a lot of confidence in me to just play the way I know to play, play the way I play in practice," Butler said of Noah's and Rose's leadership. "They're our leaders, and more than that they're just good dudes. They want everybody to be successful."

3. Playing in the same system

Butler's role has grown organically over four seasons because of circumstances. When Deng got hurt two seasons ago, Butler's minutes expanded. When Deng got traded last season, Butler's game expanded and his role changed. The key is that he always knew what Thibodeau and the coaching staff expected from him. Unlike a lot of young players, he didn't have to deal with the upheaval of a coaching change or two in his formative years. As has been the case in the past, his hard-nosed demeanor helped endear him to Thibodeau and the rest of the Bulls' staff.

"When we talk, we talk like we've always talked," Butler's college coach at Marquette, Buzz Williams, said. "I think people are wanting there to be another part to the story and there's not another part to the story. That's who Jimmy is. And he's comfortable with who he is. He's confident in who he is. He knows that tomorrow he needs to work harder than he did today. And he's not caught up in the hype and the surrounding minutiae of what's going on. He's very simple and direct in his approach and I think that's one of the reasons why the Bulls' organization, why coach Thibs, why all of those people think so highly of him."

4. Coaching, and belief from within front office

Thibodeau and his staff deserve a large amount of credit for continuing to work with Butler on his game. They have helped him consistently get better from when he entered the league until now. Bulls GM Gar Forman and executive VP John Paxson deserve credit for finding Butler at the end of the 2011 first round and keeping the faith that he would turn into a solid player despite the fact that Butler barely played in his rookie year. The nuturing of Butler's game, on and off the floor, has been crucial to his success.

5. Confidence

It's the word that Butler has always come back to this season. He believes in himself more than ever before. He believes in his game more than ever before. That belief is what has made the difference for him and helped turn him into the player that he has become.

"[He's] more aggressive," Oklahoma City All-Star guard Russell Westbrook said. "With Derrick being out somebody had to find a way to step up and he's done that and now Derrick's back and he's still doing the same thing, so he's definitely expanded his game."

Butler has taken his opportunity and run with it. The rest of the league may not have always believed in his success, but he always knew it was possible. That's why he is enjoying this experience even more surrounded by family and close friends -- the people that always shared his belief most.

"I think opportunity is one thing that happened for him," Pippen said. "Given the fact that Derrick was out last year, I think that propelled Jimmy's growth and his development. I think he was able to evaluate that over the summer and prepare himself from a physical standpoint -- more so than anything is where I see where Jimmy has gotten better at. He's shooting the ball incredibly well, so it's all about opportunity and I think he's just been a guy that's taken advantage of it."

Mirotic shines among young stars

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
11:40
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
NEW YORK -- Nikola Mirotic couldn't lie after Friday night's Rising Stars Challenge. When asked what he could take from Friday's game back to his Chicago Bulls for the second half of the season, Mirotic had to chuckle a little bit.

"Not too much really," he said after scoring 16 points, going 6-for-9 from the field.

[+] EnlargeNikola Mirotic
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsNikola Mirotic drained four 3-pointers en route to 16 points in the Rising Stars game.
The affable rookie had a point. Like most All-Star exhibitions, defense was optional in the World's 121-112 win over Team USA. Mirotic knew that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau wouldn't like the style of play he was participating in, but he enjoyed the experience of playing with some of the best young players in the league. As Mirotic spoke, he acknowledged that maybe Friday's performance would mean a little more to him when the Bulls play their next game on Feb. 20 against the Detroit Pistons.

"I made shots," Mirotic said. "That's the important thing. To make shots, to make fun, that's the important thing."

The 24-year-old has had an up-and-down first season with the Bulls, but he remains confident that he can turn his season back up on a high note.

"In Chicago, I know I have to improve," Mirotic said. "I have to work a lot. Right now I'm not playing on a great level. But I'm still positive and maybe after this game I'll make some shots and maybe I'm going to get more confidence."

Mirotic's ability to space the floor has been big at times for a Bulls squad that struggles to consistently knock down long- range shots. The organization remains hopeful that Mirotic can gain that confidence back in time for the postseason. Bulls GM Gar Forman was in attendance on Friday night to watch his young forward in action.

For Mirotic, his goals in the second half are simple.

"I think I have to work especially on my body, my strength," he said. "I've never worked on my -- I never lifted [before this year] ... here it's really important because they are stronger, they're faster. I'm working on that and my shot."

LeBron: Rose can return to MVP level

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
8:58
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
NEW YORK -- LeBron James is convinced that Derrick Rose is going to return to MVP form in the future. After watching Rose go off for 30 points and seven assists in his team's Thursday loss to the Chicago Bulls, James believes that Rose is going to make his way all the back to an elite level after missing a majority of the past 2½ seasons because of two major knee injuries.

"I think Derrick looked great last night," James said during Friday's All-Star media availability. "I haven't seen him as much this year, obviously. But the game last night, it just showed what he's capable of doing. He went back door on one play last night, dunked the ball."

Both teammates and opponents can tell that Rose is starting to find his confidence again.

"When D-Rose is feeling good, he's attacking, and that's what he did to us last night," James continued. "Transition, getting to the rim, up-and-unders, reverses. He's shooting that two-foot pullup, one-hander. That's the MVP and the All-Star that we all have grown accustomed to loving, so hopefully, he can get back to that. I think he can. I'm a big D-Rose fan anyways. I love D-Rose, love his game and it was great to see him perform like he did last night, even in competition."

James wasn't the only All-Star singing Rose's praises on Friday. After all the former MVP has been through to get back on the floor, many players expressed genuine pleasure in seeing Rose perform well again on the floor.

"He looks good. He looks really good," Oklahoma City Thunder star and reigning league MVP Kevin Durant said. "Seeing he had 30 points last night, he's getting his stride. He's been out for two years, man. I know ya'll are expecting him to be right back to MVP-caliber play. Of course, he's an MVP-type player. But he's human, too. So being out for so long -- I know firsthand, injuries, rust is real. He's been out two years, man. He's starting to get his legs up under him; he looks great."

Rose's performance on the floor has been up and down this season, but many All-Stars remarked on how impressed they've been with the composure Rose has shown off the floor. Despite the criticism from media and fans early in the season after several lingering injuries kept him off the floor, Rose remained positive about his future.

"He looks great," Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul said. "I watched the game last night. He's got a lot of explosiveness back. D-Rose is fine. Early in the season when everyone was saying, 'What's wrong? What's wrong?' He's a competitor and you're not going to make shots every night, and I understand that. And I think he's playing hard, he's helping that team win and he just keeps playing, which is what I like."

Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard isn't sure why Rose dealt with such heavy criticism early in the season, but he spoke for many All-Stars on Friday while discussing how happy he was to see Rose doing what he does best. Over the past week, Rose has shown glimpses of getting back to MVP form.

"He's a huge star for the game of basketball," Lillard said. "So everybody just expects him to be the MVP Derrick Rose right away after he's dealt with some injuries, and I think he'll be that guy. It just takes time. He's not Superman. You can't expect somebody to deal with those type of injuries and just automatically snap back into being who they were."

Noah looking more like himself at break

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12
11:14
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
CHICAGO -- Before jetting off to his Jamaican vacation, Joakim Noah knew he had to keep his mind focused on basketball for one more night. After a season full of ups and downs, the emotional leader of the Chicago Bulls wanted to make one last point before the All-Star Break.

"We've been really playing pretty s----y basketball lately," Noah acknowledged after Thursday night's 113-98 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. "So just to get a good quality win ... I think it was important for us."

[+] EnlargeTristan Thompson, Joakim Noah
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJoakim Noah is excited about how good he's feeling physically but says he has "another gear to get to."
After all the admitted ups and downs of a season that has been tainted by the aftereffects of last May's knee surgery, Noah's best stretch of the season continued Thursday as he posted one of his best games. Noah racked up 10 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists against the Cavs.

More important, he remains more active on both ends of the court and looks as if he is finally trusting that knee. Maybe that's why he was so optimistic before heading out of the United Center late Thursday night.

"I still feel like I got another gear to get to," Noah said. "It's just been up and down, man, so I just have to stay patient, but I'm excited though. I'm feeling better and better, and I just got to keep working."

From a broader prospective, this four-game winning streak is also probably the best Noah and veteran big man Pau Gasol have played together all season. Aside from the Bulls' improved defense, the best news for coach Tom Thibodeau is that his two big men are starting to play better with each other.

So why is this happening now?

"I don't know," Gasol said. "I think Jo has stepped it up, and he's playing really well right now. I think we're both willing passers ... we have length, and I always think that we can complement each other very well. Spacing, I think it's been better. But it's just a matter of things working out well and Jo playing at a higher level."

For years, the Bulls have taken their cues from Noah. He is the emotional leader of this group -- when he's down, many of his teammates are down. When he's up, the Bulls feel as if they can take on the world. That's why a win over LeBron James & Co. was so important for a group that needed a confidence booster heading into the break on a four-game win streak after dropping six of nine.

"We've been dealing with a lot of highs and lows," Noah said. "Winning against good teams, losing against bad teams. Just very inconsistent ... it feels good. This is definitely the best we've played in a while. So we can think about that for a week."

What does Noah plan to do to unwind for the next few days?

"Get a little sun," he said. "Enjoy the sun a little bit, while [Bulls rookie Nikola Mirotic] is going to, I think it's a blizzard in New York [to play in the Rising Stars game]. I'm going to go to the sun, the beach and drink a Red Stripe. So I'm really hyped about that. I'm really, really excited about that."

Pau Gasol: Time is now to shoot for a title

February, 8, 2015
Feb 8
10:39
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
video

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Pau Gasol has something that the rest of his teammates cannot grasp at this point in their careers -- championship perspective.

The 14-year veteran is the only member of the Chicago Bulls who has been a star contributor on a team that won an NBA championship. So as the Bulls creep closer to the postseason and try to find their way in the middle of an emotional up-and-down season, one that reached another high point during Sunday night's last-minute comeback 98-97 win over the Orlando Magic, Gasol offered a somber reminder for his teammates over the final 30 regular-season games.

This Bulls team was built to win now, so there should be a sense of urgency.

[+] EnlargePau Gasol
Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY SportsPau Gasol had 25 points and 15 rebounds along with the game-winning putback slam in the closing seconds to beat Orlando.
"It's hard to understand for younger guys that haven't been around as much," said the 34-year-old Gasol, who won two NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. "So yeah, the windows are small. And when you have a gap, you got to go for it with everything you've got. Otherwise somebody else will. It's just plain and simple. If it's not you, it's going to be somebody else. It just comes down to how bad do you want it?"

The Bulls continue to show glimpses that they want it bad, but do they want it badly enough? They deserve credit for winning Sunday's game despite trailing by six points in the final 36.6 seconds, but the Magic have lost 38 games for a reason. Had it not been for a litany of mistakes by a young Orlando squad, the Bulls would have lost to a terrible team yet again. Just how unlikely was a Bulls victory down six with 36.6 seconds remaining? According to ESPN Stats & Information research, teams down six with 30-40 seconds remaining were 17-1,376 over the past 15 seasons going into Sunday's games. The Bulls won No. 18.

The Bulls were happy to have earned a win, but Gasol -- who had 25 points, 15 rebounds and the eventual game-winner with a rebound dunk of a Derrick Rose miss with 9.4 seconds remaining -- didn't mince words in regards to how his team should be feeling.

"I think it's too early," Gasol said of taking a step forward. "I think [Saturday in a rout of the New Orleans Pelicans] we did a really good job. That was a step forward. Today we started off like it was going to be another step forward, but it was almost a step back. Let's face it, we got away with one here.

"Again, it's a pattern. It's something that keeps happening and we need to be aware. Just because we won tonight -- now we got two home games that we need to win. We need to win. There's no way around it. We got to do better at home, we got to come out with fire, and that's what we need to do as a team, as a group, individuals and collectively."

As the Bulls return home for nine of the next 10 at the United Center, beginning with the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, swingman Jimmy Butler believes his team is playing with a little more urgency these days.

"Definitely," he said. "Before you know it, the All-Star break is going to be over and then 30-something games left. Then it's playoff time so there's no time for mistakes and letups. We need to correct everything now."

After six straight games on the road, it's hard to see any kind of major progress. The Bulls dominated the Pelicans on Saturday night only after Anthony Davis injured his shoulder. They won Sunday night's game only because the Magic disintegrated down the stretch. The only consistency over the past month for the Bulls is that they've been inconsistent. But in this year, after two wins on the road, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau will take them any way he can get them.

"The thing is if you want to be a good team, you're going to have to find different ways to win and that's what I did like about tonight," Thibodeau said. "Down six with 30 seconds, you got to find a way to win, and that's what we did. We had some good fortune, but we made it go our way. Hopefully we can get home, gather ourselves and get ready for the next one."

Bulls deliver a Thibodeau-pleasing win

February, 7, 2015
Feb 7
10:11
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive

NEW ORLEANS -- Long before the Chicago Bulls annihilated the New Orleans Pelicans 107-72 on Saturday night, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau set a defensive tone for his team before it had even hit the floor.

Thibodeau's players have repeatedly referenced a lack of defensive communication in recent days as a reason why they came into Saturday night's game against the Pelicans having lost three in a row. But when the subject was broached before the game, Thibodeau wasn't buying that the defense this group has hung its hat on in recent years was gone forever.

"Everybody's responsible, but you guys keep harping on [the defense]," Thibodeau said. "I'm checking today: points per possession defensively, we're sixth. I guess you guys see something I don't."

[+] EnlargeTom Thibodeau
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsBulls coach Tom Thibodeau saw his team show its best side in a win over the Pelicans.
Thibodeau acknowledged that he knew his team could always play better, a fact underscored by a number the veteran coach did not choose to highlight -- his team came into the game having given up more than 100 points in 25 of its first 50 games -- but instead of focusing on the negatives, Thibodeau wanted to redirect the media, and his players, on remembering the positives.

"The numbers say what you are," Thibodeau said. "You look at rebounding, [we're] second; covering the [3-point] line, [we're] first; three-pointers made, [we're] second; 3-pointers allowed, [we're] second ... to me, I look at field goal percentage, points per possession, because it's telling you something. I always think we could do better, I think we're playing low energy right now, but you got to say what reality is."

The Bulls' reality on Saturday night was better than any dream Thibodeau could have envisioned. Not only were his players engaged from the opening tip, Derrick Rose set an early tone by scoring seven of his 20 points in the first quarter and driving to the rim early to give space to his teammates.

The Bulls caught a huge break midway through the second quarter when Pelicans star big man Anthony Davis took a nasty fall on his shoulder. Davis kept playing for a just over a minute but then left and never returned, and the Bulls took control from there. Out of all the bright spots from this game, the fact that the Bulls finally stepped on an opponent's neck has to please Thibodeau most. They played tough, hard and showed intensity for long stretches in this game -- factors that have been missing in various stretches throughout the season.

After the game, the relief and happiness in the Bulls' locker room was palpable. Bulls center Joakim Noah laughed when asked why things were so different on Saturday night.

"I don't know," Noah said. "I don't know. "I think today the energy was better. We stuck with it. A great team win. There was good energy today on the bench. When things just don't go our way, we just got to stick together. We just got to stick together. We'll be all right."

Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said "it was a good first step" for his team, but veteran Pau Gasol added a larger dose of reality into the happy postgame festivities.

"We've taken a lot of first steps," Gasol said. "It's not about taking a first step forward and two steps backwards. We're going nowhere like that. It's about continuously taking steps forward and doing the right things on the floor. We got to be consistent, that's what we have to strive for, and bring this type of effort. It's not going to always go our way all the time, but we got to give ourselves a chance. I think with the communication and the effort on the defensive end tonight and the way we move the ball offensively, we have a really good chance to win consistently."

The Bulls' problem this season hasn't been racking up nice wins, although as ESPN Stats & Information pointed out, the 72 points New Orleans scored were the fewest given up by the Bulls all season. The last time they registered such an aesthetically pleasing defensive performance was over a year ago in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks. The question for the Bulls is whether or not they can maintain their high level of play.

Thibodeau certainly believes they can. He takes every game personally, but he doubled down on his team before this performance, and his faith in them paid off.

"I don't know what you guys are looking at," Thibodeau said after the game, when asked if he wanted to say I told you so in regard to his team's defense. "I don't know who's saying what to whom, but I think I have a pretty good understanding of what defense is."

11 reasons why the Bulls are struggling

February, 6, 2015
Feb 6
2:04
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
Archive
Derrick RoseChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesEven with Derrick Rose back on the court, the Bulls are failing to live up to lofty expectations.
Derrick Rose can't pinpoint why the Chicago Bulls play hard sometimes and languish at others.

He cited a lack of "effort" and "communication" on defense on Wednesday, after a loss to the Houston Rockets, as the biggest reason the Bulls have struggled recently, having lost three straight and gone just 8-10 since Jan. 1.

Rose also acknowledged that it's been a while since the Bulls have been this frustrated.

"It's been a minute," Rose said. "It's been a long time, but it shouldn't be anywhere near that knowing how talented we are, knowing that guys want to really win. It's just that we didn't get things clicking yet. We got time, we just got to make sure we give it our all in practice, shootaround, and in the games and figure a way out."

The Bulls (30-20) are still hopeful that they will turn things around as they get set for their final 32 regular-season games. What do they need to fix, beginning with Saturday's game against the New Orleans Pelicans? Let's take a look at 11 of the biggest issues facing the Bulls in a season that started with championship expectations:


1. Lack of defense


If the Bulls don't turn it around and win a championship this season, the obituary will lead with their inability to play defense like they did in the first four seasons of Tom Thibodeau's tenure. The Bulls used to punch teams in the mouth during games. Now they are giving up 102.4 points per 100 possessions, 13th-best in the league. That's 4.6 more per 100 possessions than last season, when they ranked second.

The Bulls have also given up 100 or more points in 25 games already this season. Last season, they gave up 100 or more in 16 games.


2. Lack of effort


Maybe more damning is the fact that the Bulls look lifeless through long stretches in games.

"It's a compilation of things," Thibodeau said, when asked why the intensity continues to disappear for stretches. "Where do you get your intensity from? You get it from your concentration and maximum effort. And how do you build that habit? You build it through repetition like you do through everything else. Practice is important. Practicing together is important. All those things are. Your meetings are important. Shootarounds are important. It's all important."

Thibodeau has repeatedly referenced practice, and repetition, as a big part of his team's struggles, but playing hard is just as important as skill. And the Bulls aren't performing up to their capabilities in this area.


3. Reliance on offense


When describing their woes, many players have talked openly about relying too much on offense. After lacking it over the past few seasons, especially when Rose has been out, the Bulls now have an embarrassment of riches on the offensive end. The Bulls are averaging 105 points per 100 possessions, just shy of their best in the Thibodeau era (105.7 in 2011-12).

"As I say, you can't shortcut the process," Thibodeau said. "The process is the whole thing. We got to put the work into it. We can't pick and choose when we're going to do things. The only way you can improve and execute is through repetition. You can't get around that."


4. Where's the fun?


Ask yourself this question: When was the last time you saw this group having fun on the floor together?

There hasn't been much to enjoy lately (5-10 over their past 15 games), but it also doesn't look like this group enjoys playing together as much as they used to. Have the players tuned out Thibodeau? If that were the case, the Bulls would just roll over on the veteran coach completely. They've still been able to get wins against good teams like San Antonio, Dallas and Golden State. But the argument could be made that they aren't listenting as intently as they did in years past, and bad losses to Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers in the past week and a half point to that.

Jimmy Butler has a simple theory as to how his team can start having fun again.

"Win," he said. "That's the fun part of this game is winning, bottom line, however you want to put it. We got to figure out a way to win games because whenever you're winning that's fun, whenever you're losing, that sucks."


5. Noah and Gasol don't mix


The Bulls already already 50 games into the season, and Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah are not playing well together. They don't seem to know where to be when they are on the floor together, and the spacing -- on both ends -- is impaired because of it.

Gasol's personal numbers are up and he has admitted several times he feels rejuvenated in Chicago. But Noah's numbers are down and he doesn't look like the first-team All-NBA center and reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Yes, he has been hurt much of the season and is still trying to find his form, but his incompatibility with Gasol is becoming more apparent. In the duo's 810 minutes together, the Bulls are 0.7 points per 100 possessions worse than their overall level of performance, according to NBA.com/stats.


6. Rose isn't the same


The good news for the Bulls is that Rose is healthy after missing most of November with various injuries. The bad news is that he hasn't shown to be the same player he was before his first knee injury in April 2012.

Rose is still knocking the rust off his game and holds firm to the belief there is another level he can get to this season. But he continues to settle for way too many jumpers and doesn't drive as much to the rim as he did in years past. The 26-year-old has already taken 223 3-pointers this season, the most he's ever had in 50 games during a season in his career, and has attempted 55.4 percent of his shots from outside the paint this season, according to ESPN Stats and Info -- the most in any season of his career.

After going 2-for-9 from beyond the arc in Wednesday's loss, Rose is now shooting just 29.6 percent from 3 on the season. He continues to say those are the shots that are given to him, but that doesn't always mean he should take them.


7. Mirotic is still a rookie

Nikola Mirotic has had some very good games and some very bad ones this season. In other words, he's a rookie. But the Bulls were relying on him to be a big part of their rotation. After a strong December, Mirotic has scored just 81 points over his past 15 games, an average of 5.4 points a game. What compounds the issue is that Thibodeau still doesn't trust Mirotic defensively, hence the lack of minutes in recent weeks for the soon-to-be 24-year-old.


8. Hinrich has lost a step

Kirk Hinrich is one of the most respected players in the Bulls' locker room and is trusted implicitly by Thibodeau. But the 34-year-old guard is struggling this season. Aside from the fact that Hinrich is shooting just 36.5 percent from the field and 33.8 percent from the 3-point line, he looks a step slow defensively. The effort is there most nights, but the timing on the defensive end is not. His PER is just 7.11, the ninth-lowest rating in the league out of 345 qualifiers. He is averaging 27.3 minutes a game.


9. Snell and McDermott are not contributing


The Bulls' last two first-round picks are not giving them anything at the moment. They haven't exactly been given a chance by Thibodeau, but it's evident the head coach doesn't trust either player much on the floor right now, especially defensively.

Tony Snell has played at least 20 minutes in 10 games in the past month. In those 10 games, he is averaging 7.5 points a game. But since Jan. 1 there have also been four games in which he didn't play at all because of a coach's decision.

As for Doug McDermott, Thibodeau gave him some rotational minutes early in the season but he did not produce. He was getting open looks, but he didn't knock them down, shooting just 22.2 percent from beyond the arc in his first month. McDermott has played a grand total of two minutes since returning from a knee scope late last month. Thibodeau admitted Friday that there is a chance the Bulls may send McDermott to the D-League to get some more minutes after the All-Star break.

"We'll probably get to the break and then look at all the options from there," Thibodeau said. "I think the big thing, particularly with a rookie where he missed all that time, you still want to have your hands on him here and then if we feel like the playing time is a priority we'll go from there."


10. Injuries take a toll


Like every other team in the NBA, the Bulls have dealt with their share of injuries. Until the last week or so, Noah hadn't looked right physically after offseason knee surgery. Rose was in and out of the lineup in November because of various ailments. Gasol, Butler and Taj Gibson have missed a combined 15 games as well. Mike Dunleavy has missed 17 straight games because of a nagging right ankle injury.

All of these health-related problems are a factor, but this roster is too talented not to be able to overcome the hurdles. So often in Thibodeau's tenure, he and his players have viewed injuries more as a hurdle to clear. This season, all parties seem to be using the setbacks more as a crutch.


11. Thibodeau and the front office are at odds


The tension between Thibodeau and the Bulls' front office is at an all-time high. With all the speculation regarding Thibodeau's future in Chicago and the Bulls underperforming, Thibodeau, Bulls general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson are all feeling the heat. But the in-fighting and frustration behind the scenes isn't serving anyone well. The argument could be made that players don't care about the relationship between a coach and his front office, that it doesn't make a difference in regard to on-court performance. But it doesn't help either. To think that the players, and those in their inner-circles, aren't aware of what's going on behind the scenes would be naive at best.

As tough as it may be for them, Thibodeau, Forman and Paxson should come to a truce, at least until the end of the season. The trust may be broken forever, but it shouldn't impact the short-term future of the organization. Hard feelings should be pushed aside for the greater short-term goals of the team.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Jimmy Butler
PTS AST STL MIN
20.2 3.3 1.7 38.9
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsP. Gasol 12.1
AssistsD. Rose 5.0
StealsJ. Butler 1.7
BlocksP. Gasol 2.1