Dec 8, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; New York Knicks shooting guard J.R. Smith (8) is defended by Chicago Bulls small forward Jimmy Butler (21) during the second half at the United Center. The Bulls won 93-85. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Assessing The Chicago Bulls' Playoff Potential

First and foremost, let’s all get excited about the return of Kirk Hinrich. By the way, if you stop reading here, I can’t say I can blame you. In all seriousness though, the Nate Robinson Dribbling Exhibition was getting old. A stable offense fosters a stable mind, as stagnant as it is. More importantly, though, the Bulls are a nominally better team with Hinrich on the floor.

Now that the second half of the season is underway, it’s time to start thinking about the playoffs. Chicago is considered to be in the back burner of the playoff race, a part of the “maybe if they get hot at the right time” crew. However, they’ve been gifted with a few surprises this season, the most prominent being Jimmy Butler, and their chances of making a post-season run may be a little bit better than most think.

First off, the Bulls’ best lineup that’s played more than 50 minutes together features Hinrich, Butler, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah. Their offensive rating of 110 points scored

Feb 13, 2013; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Chicago Bulls forward/center Joakim Noah (13) helps Boston Celtics forward/center Brandon Bass (30) off the floor during the fourth quarter at TD Banknorth Garden. The Boston Celtics won 71-69. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

per 100 possessions as compared to their defensive rating of 74.7 points allowed per 100 possessions is staggering in itself. Put together, it gives this line up a Net rating of 35.3. To put this into perspective, the Miami Heat boast the most efficient offense this year at 110 points per 100 possessions. The Pacers have the best defense at a 95.9 rating. A defensive efficiency of 74.7 would be historical and of course, is completely unsustainable in the future. Still, it provides a glimpse into the defensive potential of this group.

This lineup has played limited minutes together (just 54), primarily because Butler’s emergence coincided with the time Hinrich spent injured. By the way, the same lineup with Nate Robinson instead of Hinrich gives up a defensive rating of 106.6 and has a Net rating of -11. So, you know, that’s not good.  While the prolonged success of this group is still in question, but on paper, and in limited minutes, the outlook seems positive.

When you consider how this group might perform in the playoffs, there’s a necessity to swap Hinrich out for Derrick Rose. Let’s not mince words here: The Bulls have been good this season, better than I expected. However, their postseason hopes are seriously hindered to nonexistent if Rose isn’t ready to go. So for the sake of speculation, let’s say he’s back.

Now, envision this lineup in the game: Rose, Butler, Deng, Gibson and Noah. The most important thing this lineup provides against say, the Miami Heat, is that it matches up with their quickness without giving up  size and rebounding. Having Butler and Deng taking on the hefty assignments of covering Dwyane Wade and LeBron James is just about the best it’s going to get, defensively, especially when you’ve got Noah and Gibson at the rim for protection. Not to mention, Tom Thibodeau will have locked down every facet of their schemes, all tailored to prevent the big three from doing what they do best.

In terms of rebounding, this group is the Bulls fourth-best. Not bad for a team that’s top five in rebounding in the league as it is. Factor in Rose’s penetration, and you’ve got even more loose balls falling into the hands of Gibson and Noah. Rebounding, of course, is always important. But it becomes even more crucial when teams like New York and Miami, likely playoff opponents, have trouble securing misses.

Through closer examination, those jaw-dropping numbers shouldn’t be considered all that surprising. After all, the Bulls’ best three-man rotation this season has featured Butler, Gibson and Noah. Not to mention, the duo of Noah and Gibson hinder Chicago’s +/- number’s more

than any other members of the team when they’re on the bench. Gibson leads the team in +/-, so inserting him in place of Carlos Boozer, who leads the team in negative +/- can only spell good fortune.

What do we have to thank for this added dimension to the team? Look no further than Butler. Offensively, he’s featured in eight of the Bulls’ best ten three-man rotations. Just for fun, you can find Carlos Boozer is just two of these trios. The Bulls offense is at its weakest when Butler is off the court. Butler is also featured in the Bulls best defensive three-man line up, which leads us into the next point of discussion.

Assuming Rose is ready to go come playoff time, Hinrich would move over to the bench. Chicago’s best defensive trio to play over 100 minutes is Kirk, Butler and Taj, who boast a defensive efficiency of 87.3 when together. What does this trio spell? B-E-N-C-H M-O-B. Well, not exactly, but you get the gist.

With some continuity, this group might be able to almost reproduce one of Chicago’s deadliest weapons from the two previous seasons, the late 2010-2012 Bench Mob. Of course, with their former anchor, Omer Asik, gone, this group will be hard-pressed to be as demonizing to opponents as the earlier bunch. Noah is great, but he can’t realistically stay effective while playing 39 minutes a night, and he’ll never be the rim protector that Asik is. In fact, the Bulls’ best three-man line up last year consistently held their opponents to 79.6 defensive efficiency and featured Asik, John Lucas III, and Deng. Letting Asik go is something that I thought at the time would haunt the Bulls in the playoffs, and it probably will.

A lineup that might provide some semblance of the second unit’s former glory is the four-man rotation of Hinrich, Butler, Gibson and Noah. They boast a defensive efficiency of 76.3 with a more than respectable offensive rating of 107.6. The best part? It actually gives Deng some potential time to rest, considering how the Bulls next-best four man defensive rotation features Marco Belinelli instead of him.

As all things Bulls’ related will go in the playoffs though, this is all reliant on one factor. That factor is Derrick Rose. If he can return and play at even a fraction of his former ability, Chicago could give a team like the Heat fits in the playoffs. However, even then, a Finals berth is a long shot for the Bulls, providing one more reason into the already full tip-jar of arguments for Rose to just wait it out until the summer.

All statisical figures per

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