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NBA PM: Bulls Underachieving in the Eastern Conference

The Bulls are underachieving this season and the players know it, the Hornets and Wolves agree to a trade and more.

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Bulls Underachieving in the Eastern Conference

The standings show that the Chicago Bulls are fourth in the Eastern Conference standings. But hearing some of the players talk about their season and watching them on the court suggests they might be ranked lower.

The Bulls are quick to talk about the struggles they’ve encountered thus far, such as defensive woes and inconsistent play that has plagued their performances to this point. The defense has slipped compared to previous seasons under head coach Tom Thibodeau and the team has looked lifeless during other stretches, such as Sunday’s game against the Orlando Magic. After jumping out to a 32-16 lead, they needed a complete collapse from the Magic to pull out a last-second win.

The Bulls will also talk about their depth. It’s a reason why most favored them in the East. Their proven veterans, the return of a healthy Derrick Rose, the emergence of Jimmy Butler and the addition Pau Gasol are all reasons why the Bulls were picked at the beginning of the season to come out of the Eastern Conference over teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors.

While the team currently sits at 32-20, it seems like the Bulls can be much better. They trail the Atlanta Hawks by 10.5 games and also have the Raptors and Wizards ahead of them in the conference. Butler is in the top 15 in points per game with 20.7, Gasol is fourth in the league in rebounds and blocks, and Rose has played the most games of any season since his MVP campaign in 2010-11.

Despite the players’ individual success, the Bulls are ranked 13th in the league in defensive efficiency. Being ranked in the top-half of the league in defense may be great news to some teams, but the Bulls are accustomed to being great on defense. After all, this is a team that was ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency in each of the past four seasons, including a top ranking in 2011 and 2012.

“I think we’re getting better on the defensive end [with] our help side [defense],” Butler said. “I think that has always been the key for us getting back to what we do on defense. I think we can get a lot better at it and we’re still learning, but it’s time we get it figured out because we’re halfway through the year now.

“Before you know it [the] All-Star break is going to be over and then we got like 30-something more games left and then it’s playoff time and there’s no time for mistakes and let ups. We need to correct everything now.”

The Bulls have been less consistent throughout this season. During the month of December, the team went 11-4 in 15 games and fired off 11 wins in 12 games, including victories over the Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Raptors and Wizards. The Bulls followed up December’s hot streak by going just 8-9 in 17 games in January, with losses to the Utah Jazz, Magic, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Lakers.

“[The] last couple of weeks it’s been up and down,” Rose said. “We can’t get caught up into the wins [and] the record. Every night we have to come out with an effort and play [with] the lead in the beginning of the games and we’re totally a different team.

“We showed spots in the schedule where we didn’t play our best. We just came off of a three-game losing streak; we won 11 out of 12 and we went on a losing streak after that. We’ve been up and down. We just got to go out there and try to get better every game, even the games that we’re losing.”

From the outside looking in, part of the blame can be pointed to Rose. Although Rose has seen his most minutes in a long time, he’s still not the same player that he was in that MVP season. Watching Rose on the court and even off of the court in the locker room or in practices, it seems Rose is disconnected with his other teammates. It’s clear that playing in just 49 games in the previous two seasons has created a barrier between Rose and his teammates as he is often the first one dressed following games and the first one to leave the locker room.

On the court, Rose is still trying to find himself and trust his body again to be that same player that we’ve all come to know. One glaring sign that Rose is still learning to trust his body is that he’s put up the second-most three-point shots in his career with 232 attempts in 41 games this season. To compare, Rose shot 385 three-point shots in 81 games during his MVP season. The ability to trust his body again and drive to the basket more will be something that comes with time (and allows him to play more efficient basketball).

As the season heads toward the All-Star break, there’s a sense of urgency to figure things out and start playing to their full potential. Many teams look at adversity as a positive thing. Most coaches want to see how their players react when things aren’t falling their way and that mindset has trickled down to the players.

“It really shows the type of team we are when we’re going through adversity and we’re not winning,” Butler said. “To flip it and start winning games, I think we’re going to string a few together here as long as we keep playing and helping each other on both ends of the floor.

We have a lot of good players on this roster and a lot of guys that bring a lot to the table. Like everybody always says: ‘Next man up.’ Even though we don’t want anybody to get hurt, I think we’re very confident in the group of guys that we have.”

The Bulls had one of the biggest additions over the summer in Gasol and they’ll continue to rely on their All-Star seven-footer. Gasol has benefited from a change of scenery in Chicago that has revitalized his career. Gasol is averaging 18.3 points and career-highs in rebounds (12.1) and blocks (2.2). The fans rewarded Gasol by voting him into the starting lineup in this weekend’s All-Star game, which marks his first appearance in the game since 2011.

“He brings a lot to the table,” Tony Snell said of Gasol’s presence on the court. “He’s a big man who can get a lot of rebounds, he has a nice mid-range game, he’s really good in the post. He’s a good big man who passes the ball; not many big men know how to pass the ball out of the post. He’s doing a great job for us.”

With the emergence of the Hawks this season, the Bulls may have lost some of their support among analysts and fans, but with the experience and chemistry they have, it wouldn’t be wise to sleep on them come playoff time.

Hornets Acquire Mo Williams

In an effort to bolster their playoff run, the Charlotte Hornets have acquired point guard Mo Williams from the Minnesota Timberwolves, according to Yahoo! Sports.

The Hornets are expected to send Gary Neal and a future second-round draft pick to the Wolves and will also acquire Troy Daniels in addition to Williams.

The move signals the Hornets are locked in on trying to secure a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Heading into Tuesday night’s game versus the Detroit Pistons, the Hornets are tied with the Miami HEAT for seventh place and are a game ahead of the ninth-placed Brooklyn Nets.

The team was expected to look at acquiring point guard help with starter Kemba Walker sidelined after undergoing knee surgery. Walker is said to remain out for at least four more weeks.

The Hornets were relying on Lance Stephenson and Neal as the team’s backup point guards behind starter Brian Roberts, but the results have been mixed. Williams will give the Hornets a proven player with experience that can either start or come off of the bench for head coach Steve Clifford.

Williams was averaging 12.2 points, 6.4 assists and 2.4 rebounds this season for the Timberwolves.

Dwyane Wade Misses Sixth Straight Game

With Dwyane Wade missing his sixth straight game on Monday night, his status for Sunday’s All-Star game is in question. Wade is currently nursing a hamstring injury that is expected to keep him out for Wednesday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers too, and Wade is not expected to even travel with the team.

Should Wade not play in tomorrow night’s game in Cleveland, he will not be required to play in the All-Star game and a replacement player would be selected by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. If Wade does somehow manage to play tomorrow night, he’d be obligated to participate in the game.

The commissioner would have an interesting decision to make for Wade’s replacement. The consensus around the league is that Hawks guard Kyle Korver would get the nod over other All-Star snubs like Brandon Knight, Nikola Vucevic or Derrick Rose.

Wade was selected as a reserve by coaches across the conference after being left out of the starting lineup by fans.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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