Playoff tickets went on sale today for the Chicago Bulls and basketball fever has officially caught everyone in the Windy City.
And why not?
The Bulls are good. Really good, in fact.
The current No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls kill it at home (31-4) and own their division (12-1 vs. the Central Division).
They have the second-stingiest defense in the league (Boston Celtics), but own the best point-differential of any team in North America (+7.4).
Their bench is deep, versatile and talented.
With all the hype and excitement this team has shown, it's important to dig deeper into this roster and examine just how crucial their closeness and team chemistry has been.
There's a lot of moving parts on any NBA roster, and the constant battle of fighting egos and playing time can destroy coaches and teams.
So far, Thibodeau has shown the ability to handle the pressures of dealing with a roster that is more diverse than any in recent memory.
Look at who these guys are and where they come from and you'll understand just how tough it must be to work with them everyday, effectively communicating the messages of "team" and "defense", and, above all, "winning."
In Derrick Rose, the Bulls have their No. 1, their hometown hero, their All-Star starter.
Every team with title aspirations needs a player like Rose.
Rose gives the Bulls the star power and his hot hand can take a team to the finish line in a close playoff game.
His razor-sharp intensity and desire to win is Jordan-esque.
But it's a league where one man can't run the show alone.
Enter Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng.
The former Duke forwards come from much different backgrounds in life and the NBA.
Deng, born in the Sudan, grew up in England before playing his lone college season at Duke while Boozer did some bouncing around as well—only he has done it in the NBA.
Playing on his third team already, Boozer, 29, seemed to have established himself in Utah during a six-year stint as a member of the Jazz, but wasn't re-signed last year as a free agent.
The Bulls are glad he decided Utah wasn't for him.
Both Deng and Boozer provide the Bulls with the necessary second and third scoring options.
When Rose goes cold (does that even happen?) Deng and Boozer are more than capable of picking up the slack.
Deng (17.8 ppg) and Boozer (18.0 ppg) change the Bulls from a one-man show to a three-headed monster.
A fourth head emerges in center Joakim Noah.
Noah's ability to rebound and defend are second to none on this Bulls' roster.
His partnering up with Boozer has solidified the Bulls' front court, turning the Bulls in the second-best rebounding team in the league.
In Rose, Boozer, Deng and Noah we see just how different all four men are.
All four hail from winning college programs, yes, but all four took such different paths to get there and to find success in the NBA.
Does anyone remember Joakim Noah as a rookie?
How about the different personalities of the four?
Rose doesn't smile, Deng doesn't appear to open his mouth—ever—and Noah is a lunatic.
Boozer can mope on occasion, but also shows a similar intensity to that of Noah.
The wonderful job done by Thibodeau is evident in these four faces.
He gave Rose the keys to the car, but kept him humble and respectful along the road.
He benched Boozer down the stretch in an earlier game this season because he didn't care for his lackluster effort.
He has praised Noah for his work ethic and spoke highly of Deng's ability to stay on the court.
He clearly hasn't (and can't) treated any of the four the same way.
How about the other key contributors to this team?
Kurt Thomas looks like a city of Chicago worker.
All he needs is an orange-and-yellow vest, hard hat and a lunch pail.
Keith Bogans, the only player on this roster to have started every single game this season other than Deng, was brought on at the last moments in free agency.
Bogans signed almost a full month after reserve Kyle Korver had inked his name to paper, and three weeks after another reserve, Ronnie Brewer, was brought on.
It's almost as if the Bulls' front office said, "Hey, we need some guy to start at the No. 2 guard...let's grab Bogans or whatever."
Bogans doesn't fill the stat sheet, but there's something to be said about consistency in this league and his ability to line up next to Rose every night has had to help the third-year point guard in some form.
Korver and Brewer, though they played together in Utah last season, are very different players, too.
If Kurt Thomas is the dirty, blue-collar city worker, then Korver is the pretty boy who hits the night clubs every weekend.
But he can shoot—and he can score (8.6 ppg).
Brewer can score, but can also defend, rebound and slash to the hoop.
Both players are vital to the team's success and have lengthened the bench for Thibodeau.
In Thomas, Bogans, Korver and Brewer, do you see many similarities?
Thomas is one of the oldest players in the league at 38, while Brewer is just 26.
Korver and Brewer are paid very handsomely (roughly $5 million each), but Thomas an Bogans earn significantly less.
Has there been any chemistry issues with any of these four? Absolutely not, another credit for Thibodeau.
These four, much like the elite group of Rose, Boozer, Deng and Noah, need to be treated and handled differently as well.
Look at the rest of the bunch.
Taj Gibson is an under-appreciated forward who has played well in both a starter's role and off the bench.
Gibson may be the same age as Luol Deng, 25, but the level of experience in the NBA is far different for both men.
Gibson stayed four years at USC, while Deng bolted from Duke after his freshman season.
He adds another complex piece to the puzzle for Thibodeau and his staff.
You want to talk about effectively communicating the messages needed for team-building, but how do you tell that to a rookie center from Turkey?
Omer Asik sticks out like a sore thumb on this team—but has proved he belongs on the court with his improving play.
Can you imagine Omer hanging out at the clubs with Korver and Derrick Rose?
How does Thibodeau handle Asik and incorporate him into the big picture that the Bulls are starting to envision?
C.J. Watson, another free-agent signee from Golden State had to be fit into the scheme as well.
Watson was a big-time shooter as a Warrior, in terms of shots-attempted.
In his two full seasons in Golden State, Watson attempted well over 500 shots, but has attempted less than 350 with the Bulls.
His shoot-first, pass-second mentality might have fit in the West, but it would have never worked with Thibodeau's controlled offense and defense-first teaching.
And then there's Brian Scalabrine.
How on earth do you not laugh in his face, much less work him into a usable piece to a championship-caliber team?
You have, on your bench, a city worker (Thomas), a Turkish rookie (Asik), a Will-Ferrell-as-Jackie-Moon-wannabe (Scalabrine), a club dancer (Korver) and a former Bull and south side native backup guard (Jannero Pargo). Also, someone named Rasual Butler.
Talk about diversity.
If the starting lineup didn't have enough challenges fitting each others personalities and habits into a starting five, then what would you say for this crew?
In just one year, how has Thibodeau taken a 41-win team to a 51-win team (and counting)?
How has he taken 2009-10 leftovers (Rose, Deng, Noah, Gibson) and 2010-11 newcomers (Boozer, Bogans, Thomas, Korver, Brewer, Watson, Asik, etc.) and not stumbled more along the way?
I guess it didn't seem too hot starting off, as the Bulls limped out to a 2-3 start and an eventual 9-8 record through their first 17 games, but is that all it took?
Could it have been that simple?
Since then, the Bulls have gone 42-11—with the characters mentioned above playing in a system for the first time.
Tom Thibodeau is your NBA Coach of the Year. There should be little debate.
He didn't have a core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili like Spurs' head coach Greg Popovich does.
He had to mold this team together on the fly.
He had to fit in egos like Carlos Boozer's while preventing one from growing in Derrick Rose.
He had to start a guard who only averages 4.2 points-per-game (Keith Bogans) because he was the best candidate to start.
He had to play Kurt Thomas an average of 24 minutes a night despite Thomas not having averaged that many minutes since 2008.
And again, he had to find a place for a kid from Turkey named Omer Asik.
And he had to see Brian Scalabrine do whatever it is that Scales does.
The Bulls are no longer opposites, as they've grown on one another and are held together by their desire to win the Eastern Conference and become the new kings of the NBA.
What started off with a somewhat rag-tag group of players from all over the league and world has turned into a very good basketball team.
It's a long road still ahead for the Bulls and Derrick Rose still hasn't won a playoff series as a professional athlete, but there's something special happening in Chicago basketball.
This is a group that believes in one another and is attracting more and more to each other.