(This is continuing a series detailing each of the 30 teams in the NBA).
For the first time since John Stockton's desperation three pointer clanked off the rim in the waning seconds of the 1998 NBA Finals and Michael Jordan and the Bulls claimed their 6th NBA Championship, the Bulls are poised to make a splash in the post-season.
To all the Bulls' diehards out there, yes I remember the 2007 playoffs where you swept the defending champion Miami Heat who were coming apart at the seams anyway.
I also remember the over-hyped, albeit massively competitive series against the Celtics in 2008 when they were without their best player, Kevin Garnett.
Unlike the others, this current Bulls team has enough talent and potential to build upon so that they could realistically compete for the Larry O'Brien within the next couple of seasons.
Don't expect the current 2010-11 season to be uneventful for this club though.
The Bulls have already proven that they consider themselves to be contenders even if the world disagrees, and when a team plays with focus and attitude like that, the end result is always interesting.
With their swagger and potential in mind, let's review seven things we've learned about the Bulls thus far.
On one hand, you have a top five player in the NBA. He’s the only player drafted in the 2000’s to have led his team to the playoffs each and every year.
He hasn’t had a ton of post-season success, but appeared to be on the brink in 2009 when he led his team to the Western Conference Finals and pushed the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in a highly competitive six game series.
On the other hand you have a scrappy, young center who's shown steady improvement, but isn’t a top-tier talent.
He’s as hard working as they come, but lacks the size to single-handedly deal with the Dwight Howards, Shaqs or the Andrew Bynums (when healthy).
Your team is an up and coming squad and shows promise, but so have many other young squads that have either lost their way altogether (i.e. 76ers,) or have threatened to spend the better part of the next decade treading water (i.e. Trailblazers, Thunder, Rockets).
The top five player has shown discontent with his current team and you now have an opportunity to trade your center for him.
What do you do?
Many NBA GMs would have simply pulled the trigger. Well, I think its officially time to credit the Bulls organization for being smart enough not to.
Taking into consideration common traits of every NBA Championship team in the last decade, there are three things we know that a team needs to win the title:
1) A go-to scorer
2) Very good coaching
3) A physical, defensively capable frontcourt
The Bulls have numbers 1 and 2.
Alongside Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose is arguably the best young point guard in the league and his 25 ppg is the highest we’ve seen from any point guard since Gilbert Arenas poured in 28 points per game in 2007.
Though the firing of coach Vinny Del Negro seemed like more of a scapegoat tactic than a necessity, the team hasn’t suffered much of a drop off underneath former Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, and they aren’t likely to start.
Thibodeau comes highly recommended by his former associates in Boston.
Paul Pierce claims that Thibodeau watches so much game tape that he’s got “square eyeballs”.
Garnett wasn‘t hesitant to sing Thibodeau‘s praises either."When you think of Tom Thibodeau and what's his strengths, he's obviously a defense guy. He watches an uncountable amount of film. He's a worker. He's a guy that loves his job. He does it with passion.”
When a guy as verbally venomous as Kevin Garnett sings your praises, there's usually something to them.
I guess that covers the first two. Now all that remains for the Bulls is number 3, a defensively capable frontcourt.
The problem is the Bulls don't have one.
Although Noah’s taken leaps in bounds in his overall game, posting career highs in points and rebounds, he’s the only big man in Chicago with any real defensive worth.
Even when Carlos Boozer returns, he won’t likely be a significant contributor on the defensive end of the floor. Boozer has never averaged more than 0.7 blocks per game and he hasn’t even done that since his sophomore season.
Boozer is somewhat undersized for his position and hasn’t had much success in slowing down the likes of Pau Gasol or Amar’e Stoudmire.
Although Boozer isn’t notoriously injury prone, he’s missed 60 games in the last three seasons alone, which should serve as a bit of a warning sign.
Though Carmelo Anthony’s scoring would be a welcome addition to any team, the Bulls were wise in refusing to compromise their interior; you don’t want Boozer to be the best defensive player in your frontcourt.
Maybe we could have said it last year, I don’t know, but its official now: Rose is the best player Chicago has had since the Michael Jordan led dynasty came to an end in ‘98.
Rose still isn’t a great shooter, but his ability to penetrate and create for his teammates or finish near the rim has skyrocketed.
A few point guards today such as Aaron Brooks and Russell Westbrook fit Rose’s mold: a speedy score-first point guard capable of hitting slashers on the way to the rim or driving and hitting the open shooter once the defense collapses, but even fewer match his ability to twist, turn and score over much bigger and stronger opponents.
The scariest thing about the guy is that he’s only 22 years old.
If Rose is able to add a consistent jumper to his repertoire the way LeBron James did in 2009, he could very well be the best point guard in the league.
Deng is not, nor will he ever be a marquee player.
When the Bulls signed Deng to a six year, 71 million dollar contract, many believed they had grossly overpaid him. But at that point, Derrick Rose was a rookie with a lot of promise and potential, but hadn’t shown quite enough for the Bulls to feel comfortable leaving the franchise entirely in his hands.
The fact that Rose has taken over as the unquestioned leader of the team allows Deng to be what truly is: a complementary asset.
If ignored, Deng is capable of going off for big scoring nights, as evidenced by his 40 point explosion against the Trailblazers in November. But the Bulls are capable of winning even when he has a sub par night, like the road victory the Bulls claimed in Dallas despite only getting eight points from Deng.
Deng’s skills and somewhat inconsistent scoring outputs have proven to be most effective when he is allowed the room to fluctuate between being a breakout scorer and an average contributor.
As we saw yesterday when the Bulls fell to the Celtics 104-92, the Bulls cannot protect the paint against elite frontcourts.
The Celtics managed to secure 10 more rebounds, and had a +16 advantage in points scored in the paint.
Also, the Bulls had no answer for Kevin Garnett, who scored 20 points, and the 17 rebounds he racked up yesterday was the highest total he’s seen since December 2008.
Though the Bulls managed to stay competitive with the Lakers and Mavericks, two of the Western Conference powerhouses, the Mavericks are not known for their interior scoring or physicality and the Lakers were without Andrew Bynum.
As stated earlier, Joakim Noah alone is not enough to protect the Bulls’ interior for the duration of a game.
They need to add another dependable defender, preferably one at the power forward position which is likely the Bulls' weakest position on the defensive end of the floor.
If the Bulls are unable to provide defensive help for Noah, teams with frontcourt depth like the Lakers (when healthy), the Celtics or the Magic will continue to expose them.
Not-So-Fun-Fact: The Bulls Are 0-4 against the Lakers, Celts and Magic this season.
While the Bulls have the talent to compete with anybody for a game or two, they have no real shot at overcoming any of those teams in a seven game series.
Remember when so many pundits were talking about the marvelous opportunity the Bulls were missing in turning down Tracy McGrady?
Well so far, they’ve continued their trend in proving the talking heads wrong.
Its not just that McGrady hasn’t returned to form and isn’t likely to ever fully regain it, it's that the Bulls have outstanding depth as is and they already have players to fill the roles they would ask of McGrady.
Taj Gibson and Kyle Korver are both capable of putting in a 20 point nights on occasion, but aren’t one of the Bulls' top three offensive options.
Bringing back T-Mac would have been pointless as McGrady would have either found himself on the end of the bench or using minutes that the other role players could use more effectively.
So far, the Bulls organization has shown extreme wisdom and patience in building their current roster, adding pieces only as they fit.
Any team, fan or coach in their right mind would love to have LeBron James suit up for their team.
He can take over a game in an instant, guarantees ticket sales and has the widest skill set of any player in the league.
Think about it: how many other guys can go from defending shooting guards to power forwards, run a fast break, dismantle one for the opposition, rack up more assists than most point guards all while leading your team in points per game?
That said, the chemistry issues he’s had with Dwyane Wade would have been even worse with Derrick Rose.
Even with James’ vast skill set, he hasn’t looked nearly as comfortable or been nearly effective during stretches when he wasn’t dominating the ball. When James has the ball for stretches, Wade looks equally uncomfortable and out of rhythm.
During the games when James is in control of the ball, Wade isn’t nearly as efficient as he’s proven to be in the past and settles for low percentage looks as evidenced by his career worst .463 field goal percentage.
Wade is an accomplished veteran who knows the ropes and is capable of getting his points, even with other go-to scorers on his team.
Rose is just coming into his own.
He’s been given the keys to the team and is the unquestioned leader and number one option.
Adding James to the mix would have stripped Rose of both.
Sure, Rose is flourishing on the Bulls’ current roster and their fast paced, inside-out system which is based almost entirely around him, but it's doubtful that he could have reached such a comfort level or became anywhere near as productive with another ball dominant, scoring and passing threat like James.
In the Heat’s recent game against the Cavaliers on Thursday night, Wade seemed to garner the bulk of his points and assists on the fast break.
Though Rose’s similar skill set suggest he could do the same, there’s no question that being exclusively relegated to doing so would have stunted his growth.
One of the key reasons the Heat were able to avoid panicking during their embarrassing 9-8 start to the season was that players of James and Wade’s immense talents will find common ground eventually.
You wouldn’t have been able to say the same for the Rose just yet.
A newborn baby is the pride and joy of its parents and can do no wrong. At least for the first year or so.
Did he vomit on your freshly ironed white collar shirt? No problem. Get a new one.
Did he knock over his baby food onto your freshly mopped tile floor? Oh well.
Did he crap his diapers in the backseat of your car on a long trip? Time to pull over and fix him.
This is the luxury babies are afforded. They’re too cute to be mad at and they just don’t know any better.
Really, it’s the same principle in the NBA.
Kevin Durant only shot 35% from the floor in his first playoff series? Give him a break, that was his first rodeo.
Blake Griffin, despite his stellar play, can’t elevate the Clippers past the worst record in the NBA (4-15)? He’s a rookie, and a Clipper at that, what do you expect?
The Rose era Bulls haven’t won a single playoff series yet? The era hasn’t even seen the end of its third season. Give it time.
What happens when your four month old becomes a four year old?
Well then, if he intentionally knocks his spaghetti on the floor you warn him not to do it again and you make him clean up after himself.
When he needs to use the bathroom you point him to the nearest potty.
If he yells and acts up in public, well, you spank his ass.
What’s the NBA translation?
Well, if Durant goes another couple of seasons without a ring, he’ll be dismissed as a post-season choker.
If in that time frame Derrick Rose doesn’t win a playoff series, he’ll be a Robin in need of a Batman.
If Griffin doesn’t achieve success by then… people will probably sympathize with the fact he’s with the Clippers, but that’s beside the point.
Expectations in Chi Town are as high as they’ve been in the 2000’s and for good reason. This is the most talented roster the Bulls have had since then.
Everyone loves a young team when they’re first starting out. They have no real expectations and any success they do achieve is just gravy.
Once they get a bit older, things change, perceptions quickly worsen and expectations grow.
The Bulls have the entire city of Chicago behind them now, as they should, but they need to realize that windows of opportunity don’t last forever.
But with the exponential growth we’ve seen from Rose and Noah, it shouldn’t have to.
Its unfair to expect more than a single playoff series win now, but sooner rather than later, this Bulls team should be goal-oriented towards playing in June.