Chicago continues to push LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and the Cavs in an increasingly testy series in spite of mounting adversity. The latest setback was Taj Gibson getting a flagrant 2 (and the mandatory ejection that goes with it) after a scuffle with Matthew Dellavedova turned into a shoving match between both teams under the basket.
Losing Gibson in and of itself is more of an annoyance than anything. He provides quality depth and defense off the bench that Nikola Mirotic doesn’t, but he shouldn’t be such a critical cog. Unfortunately for the Bulls his is the only legitimately good defense on the front line at the moment thanks to Joakim Noah’s nagging injuries. Noah’s performance in the series has been particularly sad to watch as his usual high-energy game is a lot less effective at three-quarters speed.
With Gibson out there was no alternative for Tom Thibodeau to turn to for an additional defensive presence. The Chicago frontcourt rotation is suffering for more than just defense with Pau Gasol also sitting out due to injury. While his absence has at least come with the silver lining of more minutes for Mirotic, the Bulls could use as many healthy bodies among their bigs as possible.
Adding Mirotic and Gasol in the offseason, along with Jimmy Butler’s rise as a legitimate two-way perimeter threat alongside the shooting of Mike Dunleavy was supposed to amount to the best Chicago team in years. With Derrick Rose returning there was a faint glimmer of hope that the Bulls might finally be ready to compete again, but the fatal flaw the Bulls have always fought – that their core pieces are too injury-prone to stay on the court together – has never gone away.
Rose finally, after years of battling knee problems, managed to return to the court this season. He may not have been the same player, but he was still better than anything else the Bulls had, and the quality of the team around him meant that Rose didn’t have to carry the load as much as he did in 2011. The depth on the roster blows away anything that the Bulls have ever had around Rose. That depth, however, is only useful if enough of your rotation players are healthy enough to suit up and play at something approaching 100%.
Rose picked up his game once the playoffs started; Noah hasn’t been right the entire time. Noah is at the center of everything that Thibs does. At his best he pings around the paint, flies out at ballhandlers, and rotates back before the offense even knows there’s space to take advantage of. It’s a highwire act that, when performed well, effectively stifles opponents in spite of playing next to the likes of Gasol and Carlos Boozer before him. For his part, Gasol was the offensive-minded power forward Chicago always wanted Boozer to be. He can post up or punish defenses with pick and rolls and pick and pops that fluster defenses gearing up against Rose or Butler.
With both of them ailing, the deep frontcourt suddenly looks really thin. Losing Gibson only made it worse. That’s the real problem with the Bulls, and why they’ll never catch the luck they need to win: with this many fragile players, too much has to go right at once. If it’s not an injury to Rose throwing off the plan then someone else will go down. Noah has always struggled to stay on the court, Gasol is nearing the end of his career and starting to break down, and no one else aside from Butler is reliable enough to help consistently win games.