Last season, Lebron decimated the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs, leading them to a 4-1 series win. Forget about the string of private sit-downs between Lebron and John Paxson for a moment. That playoff series was the Bulls' best audition to convince Lebron that the Bulls could become a viable championship contender. A hard fought series would have earned Lebron's respect. A mini-series would have planted seeds of doubt.
Unfortunately, the Bulls got steam-rolled.
The ease with which the Cavs were able to pick apart the Bulls must have weighed in on Lebron's decision to some degree. And despite having 2 young stars in Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, in hindsight, it should have been no surprise that Lebron spurned the Windy City in favor of South Beach. After playing with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on Team USA and playing against Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in the playoffs, Lebron knew that Wade and Bosh gave him the best chances at a title. Alpha male status, beta male status, TV special, Lebron West - all that mess aside, based purely on championship odds, Lebron's decision was the right one.
Months later - I'm not so sure the Heat are coming out of the East.
Since the Decision, the Bulls have made a series of undervalued moves that improve their championship hopes significantly. Ric Bucher and Chris Broussard completely missed the boat in their recent debate on whether Steve Blake or Anthony Randolph was the off-season's best value signing. The top under-the-radar acquisitions don't belong on the coasts, they reside in the Midwest.
Perimeter Defense - Ronnie Brewer
Any championship contender needs to have a perimeter defender to slow down the likes of Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and Ray Allen. It's a must. Enter Ronnie Brewer, 6' 7" 5th year guard who has enough length to bother DWade's shot, but is also quick enough to recover on defense. He's always been among the league leaders in steals, doesn't need many shots, and is exactly the Tony Allen/James Posey-type that the Bulls need.
Coaching - Tom Thibodeau
Players do not function in a vacuum. The best teams have well defined systems in which the players have well defined roles. The best coaches also know how to tailor that structure to optimize the strengths as well as limit the weaknesses of their individual players. One of my favorite moments from last season was hearing ESPN's Jon Barry describe the Celtics defenders as "moving along on a string" as they shut down the Orlando Magic. Paul Pierce helps, Kevin Garnetts slides over, Perkins then shifts, and Ray Allen adjusts. Alley-oop passes were deflected, Jameer Nelson was funneled into designated areas, and Dwight Howard was completely contained.
While the Heat continue to lick their chops at the prospect of out-scoring, out-dunking, and out-flashing teams, architect Tom Thibodeau is quietly working on a plan to install Celtic-like maniacal, intense, defensive principles in Chicago. Lest we forget - defense wins championships.
Interior Defense - Joakim Noah
Speaking of defense, there's a reason why the Bulls are so reluctant to let go of NBA's closest look-a-like to Side Show Bob. His per-game averages mask how effective Joakim truly was last season. In several games, Joakim had subpar production due to his recovery from plantar-fasciitis. However, in games in which Noah received 36 minutes last season, he averaged close to 13-14 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. Sick!
Every championship team needs a high-caliber interior defender to roam the paint, alter shots, take charges, and dominate the glass. The 2008 Lakers lost to the Celtics partly because they needed Andrew Bynum more than they realized. And because of the Lakers, nowadays, every contender needs not just 1 but 2 solid defensive bigs. The Lakers have Gasol and Bynum, the Celtics have Garnett and Perkins, the Bulls have Joakim and Boozer, while the Heat have Chris Bosh on an island. Joakim and Boozer will give Bosh and _________ fits next April.
Outside Shooting - Kyle Korver
How many times have we seen Derek Fisher nail a dagger 3 point shot that breaks the opposing team's back? Steve Kerr, John Paxson, Eddie House were also pure shooters on championship teams who could hit when it mattered most. Whether or not Korver can also convert in the clutch remains to be seen. But his shooting prowess in general cannot be questioned. A career 41% 3 point shooter, last season, Korver shattered Steve Kerr's 3 point percentage record by shooting 53.6% from deep. If he can carry even some of that momentum to the playoffs, Korver's deep threat will go a long way towards neutralizing the Miami Thrice.
The Closer - Derrick Rose
In all of his interviews this summer, Derrick Rose has stated a desire to make the Bulls his team. That mentality should help him carry the Bulls in key end-of-game moments. It's a scary thought - but Derrick Rose also continues to improve. In a previous post, I showed that Derrick Rose's perimeter shooting had already taken a leap from his rookie to sophomore seasons. But this summer, he's shown zero complacency and if anything has turned workouts up a notch. A Derrick Rose with a reliable jumpshot is all but unguardable and he should be able to wreak havoc on the Heat next season.
Coaches, media, and fans everywhere continue to question the Heat's ability to win it all. As Phil Jackson recently said, "Talent doesn't always win." Championship teams need players to sacrifice ego for the good of the collective. Roles must be clearly defined and a good system needs to be in place.
The Bulls have all the pieces of the puzzle, shooting, a closer, post-presence, but their defensive potential is what really sets them far apart from other teams. The signings of Ronnie Brewer and Tom Thibodeau fortify the Bulls defense to an underappreciated degree. And with Korver, Deng, and Boozer, their offensive capabilities are no slouch either. Add in Derrick Rose and you have an extremely dangerous team - one that even King James might regret not joining.