Don’t look now… The Chicago Bulls are tied for the top spot in the Eastern Conference of the NBA. Tied with the Boston Celtics. Ahead of the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks. One year ago, no one would have thought this to be possible. Improved? Sure… This good? No way.
The Chicago Bulls have evolved back into an Eastern Conference powerhouse. It has been 13 years since the Chicago Bulls put a banner up in the United Center. 1998, the Chicago Bulls led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, side pieces like Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper. That team was expected to win the NBA title. In fact, it was the last of Jordan’s six titles in eight years. Only separated by a brief stint in minor league baseball and a season where he came back near the end and had to work back to his rhythm and get his game back to his Airness’ standards.
Fast forward to 2011. The Bulls of late have been 1st round and out the last couple years. In 2008 they drafted a kid out of the southside of Chicago named Derrick Rose. Combined with pieces like Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. Players like Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon. They got to the first round. Rose’s rookie year they gave the Boston Celtics everything they could handle. Overtime after overtime in what is no doubt the most thrilling first round series of all-time. The Next year, they got back to the playoffs only to meet up with LeBron, Shaq and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was evident, the lack of post scoring cost the Bulls that series as Shaq turned in his best performance of the playoffs against the under-sized Bulls.
Trade leader and captain Kirk Hinrich to Washington for basically nothing (since traded to the Hawks), trade under-performing prospect to Toronto for a late 1st round pick. Ben Gordon is in Detroit. John Salmons was shipped to Milwaukee. Loaded with a ton of cap room to make a run at the likes of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Carlos Boozer, the Bulls landed the mostly likely of the bunch in Boozer. Added the right pieces in Ronnie Brewer, Keith Bogans, Kyle Korver, CJ Watson and Kurt Thomas. Brought over former draft pick Omer Asik from Turkey. Kept their core minus Hinrich. What you have now? A team on the verge of being the best team in the East. And they are all under long-term contract. All relatively young and getting better and better.
The only exception? Kurt Thomas. At 38, Thomas has been the most vital player on the Bulls roster this season short of Derrick Rose. Carlos Boozer, who has added valuable inside scoring and rebounding has been hurt for stretches of weeks at a time this year. Joakim Noah missed two months with fractures in his hand. The man that plays no minutes when those two are healthy, falling in the rotation behind Taj Gibson and surprising prospect Omer Asik, consistently comes in when his number is called and not only provides leadership but valuable rebounds and on occasion scoring from the center and power forward positions.
Derrick Rose… What can I say that hasn’t been said already? The southside kid that has become the face of the franchise he grew up idolizing. With posters of Michael Jordan on his wall. Now? Michael Jordan as the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats is claiming Derrick Rose is the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. That he along with the rest of his teammates will potentially put six more banners in the rafters of the United Center. All the while, Rose keeps his humble and mature approach. An approach that way beyond the maturity most 22 year old superstars have. Ask him a question, you will always get the canned yet humble response of praise towards his coaching staff and teammates. Averaging 24.7 points and 8 assists a game. Rose has the Bulls at 47-18 and is poised to win his first MVP of his career. He is the one that the entire city of Chicago is leaning on and yet even at 22 he does not break. It has to be a lot for him. The pressure immense. But Rose continues to thrive in late game situations and lead the Bulls to victory after victory.
Loul Deng… Having his best year of his young career. Injury free. Questionably snubbed from the All-Star team, Deng has responded by having a monster post all-star break stretch. Leading the team past the Heat with his offense and defense. Playing great against the Magic and Hawks. Dominant against the Jazz. If Deng plays this well after feeling snubbed, Bulls fans should hope he gets snubbed every year. The motivation is driving Deng and the Bulls to new heights.
But Rose, Deng, Noah and Boozer aren’t the reason the Bulls are winning all those games. A big part, yes. But maybe even a bigger part is the role of the bench in Chicago. Players like Kyle Korver, CJ Watson, Ronnie Brewer and Omer Asik have come off the bench and delivered time and time again. Most of the time, not only holding the current leads they inherit but stretching those leads versus other teams second units. Chicago’s bench is one of the deepest in the NBA. Maybe only surpassed by the Dallas Mavericks bench.
The Bulls are back. They are running. They are playing with passion. New coach Tom Thibodeau has them locked in defensively. Playing smart offensively. Executing. This team is ready. Not in the future. Not next year. This team is ready now. People can talk all they want about the problems of the Miami Heat, the age of the Spurs and Celtics. The up and down play of the Lakers. Even the Mavericks injuries. None of that matters. The Bulls fly under the radar but are silently heading towards the league’s best record and a strong playoff seed. With home-court advantage, there is no reason this team can’t make a run. Will they win it all in 2011? Why not? Stocked with a MVP, solid bench and supporting cast. Arguably the Coach of the Year. The Bulls might not only win the NBA title this year, but be the start of a run of titles for years to come.