Chicago's "Baby Bulls" Remain In Infancy
The final horn had sounded, and while Boston Celtics fans knew they had to regroup for an even more challenging second round match, the Chicago Bulls could only stare into space knowing that their season was over.
Sure, they played at a very high level.
Sure, they shocked the world and made this a series to remember.
Sure, they came close to knocking out the defending world champions.
For all the good news and silver linings that Chicago fans can tell themselves, the Bulls still were unable to finish the job and win a significant series, in what would probably have been the team's biggest win in the post-Jordan era
Now, obviously there are excuses.
Chicago was without Luol Deng, but of course, Boston was without Kevin Garnett.
Chicago had a few shots go the wrong way and cost them a chance, but then again, so did Boston.
And Chicago is full of young and inexperienced players, while Boston is full of veterans with championship experience.
Even the coaches have a major experience gap. Chicago's Vinny Del Negro is a first-year head coach who was a radio commentator just three years ago.
Boston's Doc Rivers has coached 10 years, including 55 playoff games. He truly did a commendable job of keeping the Celtics spirits high when Garnett went down and the Bulls refused to give in.
So with all this young talent and a close call in the postseason, Chicago must be destined for good things in the future.
Well, I wouldn't be so sure.
Taking a look at Chicago's history might just prove the audacity of hope for Bulls fans.
In the 2004-05 season, Chicago reached the playoffs for the first time since Jordan's departure with the introduction of rookie and Sixth Man of the Year winner Ben Gordon.
Gordon and Deng came in through the draft and Chicago did a good job of bringing in a good energy player in Andres Nocioni.
Those "Baby Bulls" earned the third-best record in the Eastern Conference and captured the first two games at home against Gilbert Arenas and the Washington Wizards before dropping four straight.
Next season, Chicago once again snuck into the playoffs and this time faced off against Dwyane Wade and the second-seeded Miami Heat.
The Bulls may have lost the series 4-2 but there were two definitive silver linings.
1. Miami went on to win the NBA title, proving that Chicago had faced the stiffest challenge possible.
2. Chicago had lost the first two games by a combined 12 points. If the Bulls had just finished a little stronger, they could have changed the course of the playoffs (and Mark Cuban would be a far happier man today).
Surely that experience would pay dividends next season.
Many people began to job on the Chicago bandwagon. Rumormongers realized that Chicago needed just one more piece to get it over the hump.
Maybe even the increasingly disgruntled Kobe Bryant would opt to come to Chicago.
Instead, Chicago got Ben Wallace, and the fanfare began.
Wallace and his inside presence would complement the growing guard tandem, and the Bulls were becoming a relevant franchise once more.
The "Baby Bulls" became the trendy pick.
Pardon the Interruption's Tony Kornheiser predicted Chicago could be a title contender in 2006, but that prediction proved a bit too optimistic.
Still, the playoffs started well.
In 2006, Chicago finally won a playoff series for the first time since 1998.
Better yet it was against the Miami Heat, the defending NBA Champions that had bounced the Bulls a year before.
On the other hand, Miami was a shell of the team it had been the year before due to injuries and inconsistencies.
Chicago had a far more difficult challenge in the Detroit Pistons, the East's most consistent team over this timespan.
Detroit's experience once again looked to be the difference as they appeared on the verge of a sweep before Chicago pulled off a win at home and then destroyed the Pistons in Auburn Hills to put the pressure back on Detroit.
Game Six, though, was all about Detroit, as their ten-point victory took them to the Eastern Conference Finals and sent Chicago packing.
Oh well, next year right?
Surely this was the breakthrough Chicago needed.
Well, 2007, was a year to forget for Bulls fans.
Another slow start cost head coach Scott Skiles his job with Chicago, and with an interim coach the Bulls could never seem to get things going.
For all the hoopla surrounding the Ben Wallace signing, his offensive deficiencies were hard to ignore. Chicago made a multi-player deal with Cleveland in an unsuccessful effort to shake things up.
Chicago was rumored to be looking for a big name to help lead the younger players, but that plan failed.
The Bulls finished 16 games under .500 in 2007.
Chicago did get lucky, pulling off the No. 1 Draft Pick last season, and the Bulls brought back native son Derrick Rose to lead the team at point guard.
Rose clearly showed he is a developing talent and his Rookie of the Year award gives Chicago fans reason to hope for 2009-10.
That's just it, though: Hope.
For all the great efforts, for all the close calls and for all the would have, could have, should haves, Chicago seems stuck in infancy.
Since Ben Gordon was drafted in 2004, Chicago has compiled a record of 211-199.
Four out of five years they have won at least 40 games, but every year they have lost at least 30 games.
Chicago is 1-4 in playoff series, including two in which they were the better seed.
In other words, the Bulls has not been all that bad. They just have not gotten better.
The Bulls have been stuck in mediocrity, and until that breakthrough victory occurs, Chicago fans are less than willing to jump into blind optimism after another close loss.
Chicago has perhaps its most important off-season since the 2005-06 season if it truly want to make progress from this year's strong finish.
First and foremost, the Bulls must re-sign Ben Gordon.
Chicago has been searching for a face of the franchise since Jordan's departure, and although Rose may one day be that man, it is clearly Gordon's team.
The way he played in the Boston series was truly something special to watch.
Sure, he made some errors in judgement, but he also made shots that only a few players on Earth can make when the stakes are that high.
He is an incredible talent with the ability to carry a team, like he did with his famous duel with Ray Allen earlier in this series.
The Chicago brass need to show their commitment to this guy.
Secondly, Chicago needs one more piece.
Sure we have been saying it for five years now. If only Chicago had this player or that player...then they would be the best team in the East.
Well the iron is hot. It's time to strike.
Gordon is near his prime, Rose is becoming more and more confident. Deng is returning.
When Chicago stole John Salmons and Brad Miller from Sacramento, the team instantly got some experienced and talented players that fit some glaring needs.
Chicago has the cast. Now it needs the star.
Someone who can work alongside Gordon and Rose to shift the power in the East as other teams are already beginning to decline with age and injuries.
Playing hard makes the Bulls a tough team to play, but it does not make them winners.
Five years and they are still trying to make it over the hump.
Is Chicago close to emerging as a contender for the Eastern crown?
Sure, if they can find one more front court player who can force teams to give up space to some of the talented shooters Chicago has.
Until they do it, though, the Bulls will continue their prolonged infancy.
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