As the Chicago Bulls come down the stretch, and Joakim Noah’s remarkable play as a “point center” leads the way, he’s been getting some MVP chants at the charity stripe. This is leading people to wonder: Are the Chicago Bulls still Derrick Rose’s team?
There’s reason to wonder.
Rose has played just 49 games since winning the MVP in the 2010-11 season, and has seen his star status fall accordingly. During his brief time on the court, the rust was only starting to shake loose before he went down for the season, averaging just 15.4 points on .394 shooting to go with 4.3 assists.
Meanwhile, Noah has improved to the point of being in the MVP conversation this year, and not just from loyal Bulls fans at the United Center, either. He’s climbed to fourth on Sekou Smith’s MVP Ladder at NBA.com.
Noah's one of the few players in the league whose point total does not indicate the impact he's had on a game. To his credit, Noah is averaging 14 points, 10 rebounds and 7.8 assists over his past 10 games, cementing his status as the best big man in the game and arguably its most versatile low-post operator, given his ability to facilitate the Bulls' offense.
I don’t like it. I don’t like it. Our MVP is not playing. We’ve got one MVP and it’s Derrick Rose. It’s about rings, and one day I hope that we can get one here. That’s all I want. I don’t care about none of that stuff.
So at least on one very significant level, Noah’s, it would appear that this is still Rose’s team.
But is that true? Or is just Noah being polite, and it's really his team now?
And that kind of rhetorical question—reducing things to just two options—makes for great debate on TV, but shallow thinking.
The media and fans like to invent controversies where none exist.
Whenever two stars align, they have to be defined into “Batman and Robin” roles, often dubiously assigned, purely for the sake of generating debate.
“Who takes the last shot?” was the ubiquitous question in Miami after James joined Dwyane Wade with the Heat. Why does it have to be one or the other?
In New York City, once the Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony, there was an endless fascination with what happened when he and Amar’e Stoudemire were on the court together.
We in the media have a tendency to force an “alpha dog” scenario where one player has to be the one in charge, and the rest submit. But it doesn’t have to be just one player in charge, and it doesn’t have to be a “player” in charge at all.
Michael Jordan was always the most important player on the Bulls, even if Scottie Pippen was one of the 25 greatest players in history.
Because there are times when that mold fits, though, it doesn’t mean it must be the same every time.
Let me offer an alternative thought, and introduce it with this related question. Are the San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan’s team or Tony Parker’s team?
If you answered either, “Duncan,” or “Parker,” you’re wrong. If you said, “Neither, it’s Gregg Popovich’s team," you get an e-chicken dinner, because you are a winner.
The truth is the Bulls never were Rose’s team. They aren’t Noah’s team now. Since the day that Tom Thibodeau arrived in the Windy City, the Bulls have been a coach’s team.
And the on-court leaders have been and will remain both Rose and Noah, who operate as an extension of Thibodeau’s will.
Noah is not going to be the player with the ball in his hand with time running out and the Bulls trailing by one. That’s going to remain Rose’s job when he's healthy.
Rose is not going to “resume” his duties as the anchor of the defense because he never had such responsibilities. Those have always belonged to Noah.
If there’s any difference, it’s that the third part of the three-headed leader, Luol Deng, is no longer there as a member of the committee.
Temporarily, with Rose out, Noah has assumed the full on-court leadership of the team by default. But, that’s a situational event, not an assumption of power.
The reason the Bulls have thrived over the last four years, in spite of a significant number of games missed by Rose, Noah and Deng, is that they share the leadership responsibilities.
No one player is bigger than the team. And to a man, they all follow their coach’s lead.
Thibodeau looks for his leaders to cultivate an atmosphere of hard work, bringing "energy and effort every night," per Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago. Thibodeau, explained:
So veteran leadership's important, having the mindset. "In talking to [John Paxson], I love hearing the stories about Jordan and the things he did when he was here. It gives you a much greater understanding of how driven Jordan was -- because he didn't only drive himself, he drove the rest of the team. And that's what's necessary to win a championship.
Yes, Jordan was the best player on the Bulls, but what Thibodeau is referencing here was his drive. And it impressed him when it was a committee doing the same thing with the Boston Celtics.
I was fortunate in Boston to be part of a group like that. We had [Kevin] Garnett, who was relentless and [Paul] Pierce and [Ray] Allen were the same, and you need that. So, hopefully, we have that. We try to bring it every night, I think that's important. You build that habit. You can't pick and choose when you're going to bring it. You got to bring it every day. And I think that's important.
He's brought that mentality to Chicago. It's a partnership on the court, leading by example, not just by words.
The truth is that nothing has changed in terms of “whose team this is.” The defense will remain one anchored by Noah. With the game on the line, the offensive captain and catalyst will still be Rose next season.
Most importantly, it will retain its “Thibodeauian” identity, even if Carmelo Anthony comes on board (although the media will doubtlessly run with that narrative too).
When Noah proclaims it’s about the rings, he’s not just spouting idioms. It’s championship first and team first with this group. That’s the core of the Bulls' philosophy, espoused by their head coach, and the first expression of Rose’s and Noah’s leadership is buying into that.
Is it still Rose’s team? It never was. It’s Thibodeau’s team. And, Rose and Noah would the first to agree.
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