The Bulls are getting ready for the playoffs, but think back to the end of last year's postseason run.
Imagine this forecast for the 2013-14 season: The Bulls won't retain Nate Robinson or Marco Belinelli, Derrick Rose will suffer another serious knee injury after playing in 10 games and they'll trade Luol Deng for future draft picks in early January.
After all that, the Bulls will be better.
They need just 2 wins over the last six games to eclipse last season's 45-37 record and are in good shape to get a higher seed in the Eastern Conference, which is just as bad as it was a year ago.
How did this happen?
A lot of the usual explanations are in play: Tom Thibodeau is a good coach and the Bulls give a consistently strong effort. But here are some factors that helped turned this season into a bigger surprise than the previous one:
This one is subtle, but significant. Last year, the Bulls went into the season looking to essentially hold down the fort until Rose returned from ACL surgery. It probably wasn't until late March or early April when they realized he may not come back.
Contrast that to this season. Once Rose had surgery on Nov. 25 and Deng was traded on Jan. 6, there was no waiting for help to arrive. The players knew it was time to band together and make the best of it.
OK, besides Rose tearing cartilage in right knee, the Bulls have had relatively good luck with injuries. Last year might have been significantly better if not for Joakim Noah's plantar fasciitis. That problem appears to have been solved.
The Bulls have built some late-season momentum because their lineup has been consistent. Noah and Kirk Hinrich haven't missed a game since Jan. 27, Carlos Boozer since Feb. 11, Jimmy Butler since Feb. 25, while Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy have appeared in every game.
Everything that's happened to the Bulls helped create a unique, bizarre chemistry. Since Feb. 1, seven players have averaged in double figures, while Noah leads the team in assists with 6.6 per game.
Whether it was the right blend of skills, Thibodeau and the coaching staff figuring out how to get the best out of each player, or simply Noah's destiny to become a point-center, the Bulls have found the unusual path to success.
Playing without a go-to scorer doesn't bode well in the NBA playoffs, but a team that shares the ball can be greater than the sum of its parts.
4. Lost and found
Who knew that a single transaction would throw the Eastern Conference into such an unpredictable state? When Toronto traded Rudy Gay to Sacramento on Dec. 9, the Raptors took back more players then they sent away, so someone had to be cut.
Toronto chose to release lightly-used point guard D.J. Augustin. Not only did Augustin find a new team and end up "saving the Bulls' season," in the words of Thibodeau, the Gay trade ended up switching the Raptors' goal from chasing Andrew Wiggins to chasing a top-four playoff seed.
Augustin has been the Bulls' leading scorer since he arrived. Not bad for a discarded player.
Gibson is a strong candidate for the sixth man award, but he could also rack up some most improved player votes. Gibson had not averaged double figures previously in his NBA career, but has averaged 14.6 points since Feb. 1, second on the team behind Augustin.
Of all the crazy outcomes for this team, Augustin and Gibson becoming an effective fourth-quarter scoring tandem may top them all.
6. An appreciation
Luol Deng left for Cleveland as a two-time all-star and the fourth-leading scorer in franchise history. There's no question he was a significant reason why the Bulls were able to shake the post-dynasty doldrums.
But the storylines that management was trying to tank or create a bunch of angry players by making that trade are not accurate. The exact reasons for the disconnect between Deng and management are a little murky, but the Bulls had been expecting Deng to depart for a while and figured things would go OK without him.
The players miss him, no doubt, but things have worked out reasonably well, so far.
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