Every basketball writer around the world weighed in on who would win the NBA championship before the season started. Most said the Heat (myself included) with the rest tipping the Central Division Bulls and Pacers to grab second and third spot.
Despite a couple of early season blips, including a shocking Wade mistake two nights ago, costing them a home loss to the tanking Celtics, Miami are still looking pretty strong and ready to flirt with the possibility of a three-peat; although they aren’t top of most writer power rankings now.
The Indiana Pacers haven’t just shot out of the blocks to start the season 8-0, they’ve already put themselves five wins ahead of their nearest division rivals Chicago.
It hasn’t exactly been the storied return of Derrick Rose we’d all anticipated, the Bulls have started 3-3 and just don’t fill you with confidence.
Rose clearly isn’t back at his best which is one reason for the rough start but even with a healthy superstar Point Guard right now you can still question this teams ability to win it all.
If it wasn’t for Boozer averaging 18ppg and notching up a couple of 30 point games along the way it’s not out of the realms of possibility that the Bulls could’ve started 1-5 and created an over-hyped media panic about their start.
It’s not just Rose still shaking off his rust after 500 days without NBA minutes, but it’s the depth Tom Thibodeau no longer has to call upon. To amp up the intensity down the stretch last season, the team turned to Nate as the back up point runner behind Hinrich, but they failed to keep him from signing for the Nuggets over the summer and now there is a noticeable lack of firepower in the backcourt off the bench.
Luol Deng’s sporadic form and Noah’s continued back trouble and lack of offensive efficiency has made their ability to score physical baskets in the paint solely left to Boozer. The Bulls currently rank 16th in points scored in the paint, with a healthy Noah and in-form D-Rose they would easily be in the top 10.
So what do you do if you aren’t getting it done under the rim? You get your points on the perimeter. Yet another area that Chicago is struggling in with Marco Belinelli leaving to sign for the Spurs. Their potency from the mid range has diminished.
Chicago’s guards are currently averaging 21.5% from 10-19ft out of the basket, the area of the court you’d be asking your backcourt to get most of their shots off at. Mike Dunleavy has came into the side and put up a solid 8ppg after his first six games in a Bulls jersey but he’s a downgrade to what the team had to work with last season.
Maybe Rose will flip a switch and become the MVP we all missed for so long and maybe Deng will start playing with more consistency (currently shooting 5% from three point range.) Maybe Noah will get healthy and give the physical edge to Chicago they became renowned for down the stretch last season. These are all if’s and but’s for the organisation but early signs just don’t fill you with confidence, especially with Indiana dominating the league, conference and Central Division.
After the Pacers lost to Heat in seven last season they immediately set out to strengthen their bench, in contrast to the Bulls who focussed on making sure their starting five was ready to go.
Indiana is just packed with depth; Granger isn’t even healthy and the team is still getting it done in the backcourt through Hill, Stephenson, Johnson and Watson who provide an elite-supporting cast.
Hibbert’s monster defensive numbers are scaring any player from even attempting to score on him under the rim and with David West playing world class defence in and around the paint it’s made the Pacers virtually impenetrable.
Paul George has broken out as a potential superstar averaging 25ppg, 8 boards and almost four assists. With numbers like these and the clear favourite for defensive player of the year in the front court (and Scola coming off the bench and knocking it down from all over the court) it is no accident that this team is already five games clear in its own division and the only unbeaten team in the league.
Chicago, being so shaky to start off the year, has highlighted how good Indiana actually is, but there’s no doubt who I’d have my money on between the two – even with D-Rose in peak form.