We're down to one game left in the NBA regular season.
For the Bulls, "The Return" became the "The Grueling Wait." Playing with great intensity led to a series of injuries, yet they still feel good about their playoff chances -- in the first round, anyway.
In a full season without their MVP, Derrick Rose, the Bulls have done OK. The performance could easily have been better if not for 6 home losses to lottery teams and a few egregious blown leads.
All things considered, they hung in pretty well considering they lost Taj Gibson for 17 games, Joakim Noah for 16, Kirk Hinrich for 22, Rip Hamilton for 32, Luol Deng for 7 and Rose for 82.
So who is the Bulls' MVP? There probably are few examples in league history of a playoff qualifier with so many contenders for this team honor, so here's a rundown of candidates and evidence:
Supportive evidence: Anytime a reporter asks about Deng not shooting well, or not having a particularly good scoring night, coach Tom Thibodeau usually responds with a semi-testy reply about how Deng gives the team whatever it needs and has played great all season.
He is the Bulls' leading scorer at 16.6 points, rarely leaves the floor and made the all-star team for two years in a row, so the ninth-year forward is a strong candidate for team MVP.
His defense still is underrated, and when he missed two games with a sore hip last week, the Bulls lost to two bad teams.
The case against: Deng, who turned 28 Tuesday, deserves a spot on the NBA all-glue first team. But is he a consistent enough scorer to merit anything more?
The streak-busting win over Miami was one of the best clutch-shooting displays of his career. The Bulls would like more of that.
Supportive evidence: After hardly playing as a rookie, Butler has been phenomenal for a lightly regarded No. 30 pick. His strengths are more eye-tested than stat sheet proven, though he has done well in both categories.
The Bulls just look better when he's on the floor thanks to his relentless hustle, improved scoring and strong defense.
The case against: For the majority of the season, Butler was a 20-minute role player, not a 45-minute Ironman. He's made a solid case for being a starter next season.
Supportive evidence: Don't laugh. Boozer has been steady this season. He can score when needed, provides some big rebounding games, and remains a positive presence. He's right behind Deng for the team scoring lead (16.2 ppg) and is averaging 9.7 rebounds.
The case against: There are two things he doesn't do: Slide his feet to help on defense and run the break more than a couple of times per game. That doesn't make him a bad player, but it probably precludes him from team MVP.
Supportive evidence: Everyone talks about how there's Good Nate and Bad Nate. He will lose as many games as he will win for a team, blah, blah.
Well, maybe it's time to stop repeating those lines. There was a rough night in Houston in November, but since then Bad Nate hasn't been seen often.
Robinson was almost an afterthought when he signed last summer. Now he's the team's inspirational center, ready to hop off the bench and change momentum. The Bulls would be smart to bring him back next season.
The case against: For all his highlights, you can't win consistently in the NBA with one guy taking all the shots. Ball distribution is the biggest issue, not bone-headed plays.
Supportive evidence: Noah made the all-star team and was a strong contender for defensive player of the year until missing 16 games with plantar fasciitis. His improved offense and consistent defense have made him one of the NBA's best centers.
The case against: This might have been an easy call before chronic foot pain knocked Noah off the court. Now it's unclear. The Bulls went 9-7 in the games he missed.
Supportive evidence: Want a meaningful stat? The Bulls went 7-15 in games Hinrich missed due to injury.
Maybe some of that is because Robinson is a better X-factor off the bench than starting point guard, but clearly the Bulls have been better with Hinrich on the floor. The reasons are obvious: runs the offense, plays solid D, leads the team.
The case against: His .368 field-goal percentage is low. He also hasn't been strong defensively these last few weeks. It's possible the injuries are slowing him down.
Not really team MVP material, but he is an underrated barometer for the Bulls. When he plays well, they usually do well. The Bulls went 7-10 in games he missed with a left- knee sprain.
This is a tough call that seems to change daily. Remember, the number of games played is a key factor to team success. Here is one observer's ballot: 5. Hinrich; 4. Noah; 3. Butler; 2. Robinson; 1. Deng.
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