At the conclusion of the 2010 free agency period, a lot of people expected the Chicago Bulls to be a significantly better team than they were last season, when they barely made it into the playoffs as the eighth seed.
But were people really expecting them to be three games away from holding the top seed in the Eastern Conference less than a week before the All-Star break? Probably not.
Despite unfortunate injuries to stars Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose has carried the Bulls on his back and propelled them to a 36-16 record as of February 14. And we all know he's earned a bunch of MVP chatter along the way.
But what will happen after the All-Star break? Will the long season take its toll on D-Rose? Will Chicago be an unstoppable force when fully healthy? Will the Bulls trade for a better starting shooting guard?
What follows are 10 bold predictions. But they are not stupid predictions. I'll tell you right now I don't expect the Bulls to win the NBA Championship nor do I believe Rose will ultimately win the MVP award.
But the consistency this Bulls squad has shown in the face of adversity, under a first-year coach, does make me believe a lot of good things are going to happen after the break.
Boldest prediction first!
But seriously, if he can stay healthy, it will be a huge boost for the Bulls. If Chicago is going to succeed in the playoffs, it needs to establish a rotation with all of its players healthy. Just when Boozer was starting to get going in December, Noah went out with an injury.
Boozer is known for his health issues, but he's also a very in-shape athlete. He's already had a shortened season, and he will just be playing with his kids during the All-Star break.
But why else do I think he will stay healthy, you ask? Read on.
The Bulls have the luxury of having one of the best backup power forwards in the NBA. Taj Gibson made the Sophomore Team at the All-Star Game, playing alongside stars like Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry. It shows the level of respect coaches around the NBA have for the second-year Bulls player.
With Noah coming back, and with Omer Asik playing increasingly well, I believe Tom Thibodeau is going to tinker around with lineups based on matchups. And I also think he has confidence in Gibson, particularly on the defensive end, where Gibson is averaging 1.6 blocks and 0.5 steals in just fewer than 23 minutes per game.
Carlos Boozer is currently averaging about 32 minutes per game, which should remain somewhat stable once Noah returns, though I could see it dropping to 30. That would mean, naturally, that Gibson would get about 16-18 minutes at power forward.
Here's where the matchups come into play. Gibson has already gathered some experience at center during the past two months, and I see that potentially continuing when Thibs wants to go small. Gibson could also probably handle small forward duties in a situation in which the Bulls must go big.
And then of course there's the fact that, when healthy, the Bulls will be firmly in control of more games, meaning more time for the bench. All in all, Gibson should get around 25 minutes of playing time even in a crowded rotation thanks to his versatility.
The Bulls are already ranked second in the entire NBA in points allowed, which is generally a good measure of a team's defensive prowess.
And they are only going to get better.
Why? First, the obvious, Joakim Noah is coming back. No one can deny that Kurt Thomas has played well in Noah's stead, but he can't alter shots and move as quickly as Noah can. Noah plays the "Kevin Garnett" role in Thibodeau's defensive scheme, meaning he's the anchor of the entire defense.
Second, Derrick Rose showed why he truly carries the superstar mentality. After Portland's Nicolas Batum called D-Rose out for not being able to play defense, he promptly used his next two games against Deron Williams and Chris Paul to send a message to the rest of the NBA. Not only did he keep the two well below their season averages, but he also made his case for why he's the best point guard in the game right now.
With Rose committed to defense, Ronnie Brewer and Luol Deng providing length on the wings, and Boozer/Gibson and Noah battling down low, this is not a squad opponents want to go up against. It's easy to foresee this team ranking near the top in every defensive category at the end of the season.
The latest trade rumor out there is that the Bulls are thinking about sending young Turkish center Omer Asik to the Houston Rockets for shooting guard Courtney Lee.
Let me tell you right now, that is not a good trade.
While I don't deny that Chicago needs a better starter next to Rose, the front office would be stupid to trade away the only true seven-footer on the team. Asik is a game-changer when he is in the game, and, though raw, is a much more valuable long-term asset than Lee could ever be.
It's much easier to draft a shooting guard in the late first round than to nab a center with the potential that Asik has. To me, it seems the Bulls would like to win now, but it's not imperative. This is not a make-or-break year like it is for the Celtics, and possibly the Hawks. Rose, Deng and Noah are all young, and Boozer is still in his prime.
See how the currently assembled team does this season, and add the necessary pieces in the offseason. No need to panic. Every team has holes, and all things considered, the Bulls have a very small one.
If this pans out, which I obviously believe it will, it would go a long way towards shedding the perception across the league that Derrick Rose is not a true point guard.
It sounds like a stretch: After all, only Rajon Rondo and Steve Nash are averaging double digit assists. Chris Paul and Deron Williams have 9.7 and 9.6, respectively.
But once this Bulls squad is healthy, anything can happen, and I think Rose will facilitate even better than he is right now (with eight assists per contest). Kyle Korver still has not found his stroke, so once he does, that's a few more assists. Noah and Boozer both have great hands in the paint and can finish strong, so when Rose slashes they should be easy targets.
Most of all, Rose is improving his court vision, because all his doubters say it's one of his weaknesses. Thibodeau is continually putting more and more responsibility of the offense in Rose's hands, and thus far he's delivering. I'm excited to see how many double-doubles, and maybe even triple-doubles, D-Rose can muster with a complete roster.
To go along with my no-trade-for-a-shooting-guard scenario, I predict Keith Bogans will continue to shoot as well as he did in the month of January. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune on January 30, Bogans was hitting 43.8 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
So, why shouldn't that continue? Bogans is now more comfortable with the players on the Bulls, and has two simple tasks: Make corner three-pointers, and play tough defense.
His improved stroke is the main reason I jumped off the we-need-a-shooting-guard-now bandwagon. Now that he's making shots, teams have to respect him when he shoots the ball. He's a solid passer, so the ball rotation does not suffer when he's in the game.
Look for Bogans to continue quelling the naysayers and putting up respectable percentages from distance.
Now quickly onto the hardware before I make playoff predictions.
Tom Thibodeau should absolutely win Coach of the Year if the Bulls continue to play as well as they have been this season. To prove this, here are a list of other possible contenders, and why they shouldn't get it.
Erik Spoelstra: Though the Miami Heat will probably have the top record in the Eastern Conference when all is said and done, the simple fact of the matter is that he was handed LeBron James and Chris Bosh to go along with Dwyane Wade. While he gets some credit for getting the three egos to mesh together, ultimately most people who know the game of basketball at all could win with those three on the same court. When LeBron said going to Miami hurt his MVP chances, he should have also said it hurts Spoelstra's Coach of the Year chances.
Gregg Popovich: The Spurs are going to fade in the second half as Pop rests Duncan, Parker and Ginobili for the playoffs. Plus, they are the Spurs. They're always good. Maybe that's a weak argument, but it's true.
Jerry Sloan: Whoops.
Monty Williams: He looked like a surefire bet when the New Orleans Hornets raced out to an undefeated record, but ever since the Hornets have been cut down to size. Even if New Orleans were to finish, say, fourth or fifth in the tough Western Conference, is that really better than second or third in the Eastern Conference? I don't think so.
Other names like Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers and Stan Van Gundy are too well-known to have a shot. As long as the Bulls continue to play at a high level like they are right now, Coach of the Year is Thibodeau's to lose.
If it were up to me, Derrick Rose would be the league's Most Valuable Player. After all, he did hold down the fort when both Boozer and Noah went down, and is the only All-Star on the Bulls.
However, LeBron James has to be considered the favorite for the award, yet again. He recently had a 51-11-8 game, just to prove how dominant he still is. The only way he's not getting the MVP is if the voters penalize him for playing in Miami, or if voter fatigue sets in and they want a new MVP.
But, all hope is not lost! Should The King indeed be crowned MVP once more, what better way to acknowledge Rose's tremendous season than to award him Most Improved Player?
Granted, he has some stiff competition. Kevin Love comes to mind first, along with players like Raymond Felton and Dorrell Wright. Yet Rose has upped his scoring and passing, all while making tremendous strides in shooting from three-point range. But he still merits consideration, and when all is said and done, I think the voters will want to reward Rose with the MIP award, while also signalling to him that he's going to have to improve his efficiency if he wants the top award.
Though the Boston Celtics just defeated the Miami Heat for the third time on Sunday, ultimately, the Heat are rising and the Celtics are falling. That leaves the door open for Chicago to make a run at the top spot in the East, or at least the second seed.
The latter is where I believe the Bulls will fall. Miami, Chicago, Boston, Orlando, Atlanta, New York, Indiana, Philadelphia.
Obviously the Bulls would prefer to get the top spot, but overall the second seed is a much better situation than the third seed. Indiana is playing much better since it fired Jim O'Brien, but you better believe Chicago would rather face Indiana than a New York team that has beaten the Bulls twice so far this season.
And assuming the top seeds advance, it seems to me the Bulls match up a lot better with the Celtics than with the Magic, or especially the Heat at full strength. Not too long ago, a rag-tag Bulls squad led by then-rookie Derrick Rose took the Celtics to seven games. The Bulls are better now, while the Celtics are older.
Sorry Boston. I know your "Top Five" have never lost a playoff series, but they've also never faced this Bulls squad. Thanks to home-court advantage, I say the Bulls win the second-round matchup in seven games.
Against the Heat, I'm not sure what will happen. Brewer, Deng and Boozer/Gibson are about as good of defenders on Wade, James and Bosh as you can put out there, and then Rose and Noah can exploit the holes in the Heat roster.
But, in a game I attended, the Bulls barely were able to defeat the Heat at the United Center when the Heat were without LeBron James, and Chris Bosh missed the fourth quarter. Sure, a win is a win, but the fact that Wade nearly willed Miami to a win himself shows just how dangerous the Heat can be.
I'm not going to predict anything further than the Bulls will make it to the conference finals. I'll leave the question of whether they can advance to the Finals, and even win a championship, to the community.
No matter what happens, the second half of the Chicago Bulls' season is sure to be exciting, as for the first time in a few years the team is jockeying for playoff position instead of hovering on the bubble.