Confident Bulls better than last season

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
12:16
PM CT
Friedell By Nick Friedell
ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls lack an elite superstar talent without Derrick Rose on the floor, but they aren't lacking in another important category -- confidence.

[+] EnlargeJoakim Noah and Thibodeau
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhTom Thibodeau's coaching and Joakim Noah's elevated all-around game have helped the Bulls surprise this season.
That swagger is created day after day in practice and in the preparation that coach Tom Thibodeau puts his team through before the season even begins. And it helps them overcome the adversity created by the loss of Rose and the trade of Luol Deng.

As much as they still miss Deng's presence, the reality for the Bulls is that they are better right now than they were at this point last season.

"Yeah, I think so," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said recently. "I just think mentally everybody's more aware of things. Everybody's just more on edge all the time. I think last year we didn't really know what was going to happen. We were in it, but we [didn't have] too much experience. As soon as Derrick got hurt again [this year] we kind of knew what was going to happen.

"But then guys just picked it up and stepped their games up. And then a lot of guys, you look on our bench, got a lot of confidence now. Everybody's playing with a ton of confidence. Everybody already knows where they're going to get their shots, what they need to do to get themselves going, what they need to do on defense. And everybody's just all-in, and I feel it's going to help us come playoff time."

The Bulls, who face the Indiana Pacers again Monday night at the United Center, lost Deng and Rose -- but they got better.

How did they do it?

First and foremost, Thibodeau is doing the best coaching job of his career. He didn't allow his players to fall into a complete tailspin when Rose went down in November and after Deng was traded in January. He adjusted on the fly to his new group and changed aspects of his plan to put his players in better positions to succeed.

In particular, he pushed Joakim Noah and got the All-Star center to buy into his system as the focal point of the offense. He got Noah to believe in this season as a building block, not a disaster. In return, Noah pushed his teammates and got them to believe they could still win without their leaders. Gibson has become a force on both ends of the floor and will be in the running for the Sixth Man of the Year award, an honor he said would be a "dream come true," given how much work he has put into his offensive game.

After being waived early in the season by the Toronto Raptors, D.J. Augustin has been described as a "season saver" by teammates and coaches for the way he scores and runs the offense. He runs the offense better than Nate Robinson did last season and gets his teammates better shots in the rhythm of the offense.

Kirk Hinrich has stayed relatively healthy after battling injuries the past two seasons. He also has been a steadying veteran presence on and off the floor. Jimmy Butler may not be the offensive threat that Deng was, but he is just as solid defensively. Like Deng, he enjoys the challenge of guarding the opposition's best player each night.

Mike Dunleavy struggled at the beginning of the season in his new surroundings, but has bounced back well and shown why he he has succeeded in the NBA for over a decade. While he isn't shooting as well as Marco Belinelli from beyond the arc, he is a better all-around player. He fits into what Thibodeau wants to do and the veteran coach trusts him.

Veteran Carlos Boozer has regressed this season, but Gibson has been so solid that it hasn't mattered. Nazr Mohammed hasn't played enough big minutes to have that much of an impact. Rookie Tony Snell has shown glimpses of promise but hasn't gotten into the rotation on a consistent basis.

While the group wasn't built to play without Rose and Deng, Thibodeau has found a way to make it work. That's why his team continues to succeed and it's why he should win another Coach of the Year award at the end of the season.

Nick Friedell | email

Chicago Bulls beat reporter
Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Jimmy Butler
PTS AST STL MIN
21.7 3.3 1.5 40.0
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsP. Gasol 11.4
AssistsD. Rose 4.9
StealsJ. Butler 1.5
BlocksP. Gasol 2.0