Sunday, May 15, 2011

These Chicago Bulls from Just Another Fan's Perspective

These 2010-11 Bulls sure have come a long way. Nobody expected them to be a title contender this year. Yet here we are with an MVP season from Derrick Rose, a Coach of the Year in Tom Thibodeau, the NBA's best overall record at 62-20, and now they're hosting the Eastern Conference Finals. As a Bulls' fan, I've found this team to be a joy to watch.

When this season started, I attended the Bulls' home opener against the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons were a bad team, but what would be the story of the Bulls? They had a new coach in Tom Thibodeau, and most of the roster was also filled with new guys. It takes time for players to get used to a new system and each other. It also takes a while for the coach to figure out which rotations work best for his team. If the Bulls lost this home opener against the lowly Pistons, I actually would be OK with it. This team -- and season -- was going to be a work in progress.

That night the Bulls struggled early and often against the Pistons. Part of it was bad play, but it also seemed to be exacerbated by bad calls.  By my count at least five blatantly bad calls went against the Bulls. I didn’t see any blatantly bad calls go against the Pistons.

But by the 4th quarter, the Bulls mounted a big comeback led by Derrick Rose. In the midst of D-Rose’s spectacular 4th quarter, every time he went to the line the crowd chanted something that my ears couldn’t believe: “MVP! MVP!”

My initial disbelief quickly turned to amusement and laughter. Was this crowd really chanting “MVP” for a 22-year-old kid in his third season during the home opener against the lowly Pistons? Was anything sacred anymore? In my mind you don’t break out the MVP chant until at least March, after the player is finishing off an MVP-type performance in a heated rivalry game.

Despite my confused mental state, I quickly regrouped and seized the moment. How often do you get to participate in an MVP chant at a sporting event? This would be my first time, so I happily joined in. After all, ignorance is bliss, and it sure felt good to fit in with the crowd: “MVP! MVP! MVP! MVP! MVP!”

As I left the United Center that night after the Bulls' victory, two thoughts kept floating through my head:
1) The Pistons really are bad.
2) The Bulls really are a work in progress, but how good can they become?

Honestly, that night my hope was that the players would buy into Thibodeau's system, the rotations would start to be figured out, and Carlos Boozer (their star free agent signing) would get back from injury sooner rather than later, allowing them to make a run at the #4 seed in the East. That was my Chicago basketball hope for this year.

We now know that I hadn't even begun to dream big enough. Much like the MVP chants for D-Rose in the home opener, the Bulls surging to the best record in the NBA seems like too much too soon. It's been fun to watch, but in a way, it's also been surreal.

The following is a story of this year's Bulls' team told from the perspective of an average fan: me. We'll take a look at where this team came from, their mentality, their personnel, and how they fit into the playoffs. (Warning: If you're not addicted to the NBA, you should have stopped reading this long ago.) 

The John Paxson Era: A New Hope

It's the stuff of legends. A few of my friends were over to watch a 2009 playoff game between the Bulls and Celtics. Despite the Bulls being at home, things weren't looking good in overtime. Not much time was left on the clock, the Bulls were down 3, and the Celtics had the ball. Then I just blurted out something like, "Watch the Bulls get the ball back and then Ben Gordon will hit a sideways 3 to send it into another overtime."

Well, the Bulls did get the ball back. And eventually Ben Gordon got the ball in his hands with time winding down. He took a hard dribble and jump to the right, elevated behind the arc for a crazy (dare I say sideways?) shot... and it goes in.

The room exploded with joy; and then people marveled at how my prediction had come true: The Bulls gotten the ball back and Ben Gordon hit a sideways 3 to send it into another overtime. I might have had a future as an oracle if my friends didn't already know me as the guy who can't find the napkins at a Wendy's.

But what I didn't mention that day--and have never disclosed until now--is why I had predicted a sideways 3. In some ways, it was steeped in my pessimistic view of that 2009 Bulls' team, and in particular, Ben Gordon. Nobody else on that team could hit a pressure jump shot, so you knew the ball was going to Gordon. And once Gordon has it, he ain't passing. That's not in his nature. Of course Boston knows all this, so they'll be covering Gordon like a blanket with a guy who is bigger. Since Gordon is undersized, he'll be relegated to making some drastic, desperate move to get separation and take an off-balanced (sideways) shot. As an NBA observer, you cringe at the sight. As a Bulls fan, you pray it goes in.

It wasn't until after we saw the replay that we noticed Gordon had celebrated his game-tying shot by grabbing his balls. It was rather uncomfortable to watch, but hey, that was the real Ben Gordon. He was all about himself, never really knowing how to fit into the team concept. He hadn't won the game with that shot, but he had managed to bring himself glory.

While I never was much of a Gordon fan, I did like how that 2009 Bulls' playoff team played hard. In fact, during the era of John Paxson as a Bulls' executive (and we'll include Gar Forman as well), overall they've done a good job of bringing in quality players who work hard. And much of that is a credit to Paxson, who is known for being both disciplined and intelligent, as well as being a championship player who understands the importance of player roles and how they fit into the larger concept of a successful team.

Ultimately what doomed Jerry Krause's tenure with the Bulls was his inability to recruit free agents. Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan had made sure the entire league knew every "bad" thing Krause ("Crumbs" as they called him) had done to them. But another problem for Krause was that he had fallen a little too in love with high school players who were loaded with "potential." In 2001, Krause went for broke and took Tyson Chandler with the #2 pick and Eddy Curry with the #4 pick. When you bring in two top-flight high schoolers like that, nobody expects them to come in and be All-Stars the first year. But you do expect them to be eager to learn and work hard every day. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. What resulted in the following years was two kids who consistently underachieved and set a bad tone for the team.

Krause's failure to land the big free agents and his draft debacles of Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler are important to understanding John Paxson and Gar Forman as Bulls' executives. They didn't want to repeat those mistakes.

In 2003, his first draft, Paxson tried to trade up from 6 to 5 in order to get Dwyane Wade (Final Four with Marquette). But when Pat Riley was having none of that, Paxson went with Kirk Hinrich (National Runner-Up with Kansas). In 2004, he drafted both Ben Gordon (National Champion with Connecticut) and Luol Deng (Final Four with Duke). Some other notable examples through the years include Tyrus Thomas (Final Four with LSU), Joakim Noah (National Champion with Florida), and Derrick Rose (National Runner-Up with Coach Cal at Memphis).

I've heard many interviews with John Paxson going back to 2003, and he has always preached putting a quality system in place and filling it with quality players who work hard and understand their roles. Especially in Chicago, people are always looking for the next Michael Jordan. But Paxson knows there will never be another Michael Jordan, and he's always been careful to emphasize team and role players working together. Yes, you want star players, but they're difficult to acquire. What you can control is putting the right system in place and finding players who can execute that system.

Paxson brought in fellow ex-NBA guard Scott Skiles as his first coaching hire. Skiles had some coaching success with Phoenix, and he was known for his no-nonsense my-way-or-the-highway approach. The transformation of the Bulls organization was now in full swing with their system becoming more disciplined in practice, in games, and in player personnel decisions.

And of course, not everything goes perfectly. Ben Wallace wanted to wear a headband, but the Bulls had a rule against it. This led to a national controversy, but it reiterated the Bulls emphasis on team being more important than the individual. (The following season the Bulls did make an exception for Wallace to wear his precious headband.) And Tyrus Thomas didn't exactly live up to expectations. One early warning sign with him was when he had the privilege of being in the NBA All-Star dunk contest and had this to say, "I'm just going to go out there, collect my check, and call it a day." The Bulls fined Thomas for that comment. But perhaps the biggest example of the Bulls strict new system was when Paxson discovered that Eddy Curry was displaying symptoms of a heart condition. The Bulls were actually doing pretty well at the time, but Paxson decided he could no longer allow Curry to play without submitting to extensive heart tests to see if he had a life-threatening condition. Curry refused to the test, and thus was held out of the playoffs as well. At that point Paxson had no choice but to trade Curry out of their system -- he just didn't fit.

While Paxson had instilled a new type of discipline in the organization, he also was sensitive to the importance of PR. No, not public relations. Player relations, as in treating players the right way so you have a chance at the good free agents. This was on full display during his first months on the job. When star guard Jay Williams nearly died in a motorcycle accident, many GMs would have told him, "Glad you lived and hope you eventually recover some day, but in the meantime, the team needs to exercise its legal right to void your contract." But Paxson (and Reinsdorf) instead opted to give Williams a very generous $3 million buyout. Paxson also made a savvy move that same summer by signing Scottie Pippen. That didn't work from a personnel standpoint, but bringing Pip back to the organization helped heal old wounds, and was another big step toward rehabbing the organization's image with potential free agents.

Mentality: Winning Is Everything

My earliest, lasting memory of Derrick Rose is when I listened to the end of the national championship game on the radio in the background. It was a close one between Memphis and Kansas, and for a moment near the end it seemed like Memphis would seize control. But there was one problem: Rose missed a free throw.

Kansas went on to win the championship and Rose came up just short. From what I heard on the radio, he had played a spectacular game. But missing that pressure free throw made me wonder a little bit. After all, there are lots of guys with loads of NBA talent, but only a relative few who can regularly get it done in pressure-packed situations. I had no idea what would become of Rose's NBA career, but I made a mental note of how that game ended.

A few months later when the Bulls shocked the NBA draft lottery and ended up with the #1 pick, they unexpectedly got the opportunity to draft Rose. Some people thought Michael Beasley should be their pick, but most favored Rose, including the guy who mattered most: Paxson.

It was a nice story for the Bulls to get Rose, who happened to also be Chicago's hometown kid. I was glad the Bulls got him, but that missed free throw lingered in my mind. When the game was on the line, would he be able to get the job done? Or would Rose wilting under pressure forever be the thorn in his side?

Early in Rose's first season I heard him talk about how losing physically affects him. He even went so far as to say that after a loss he has a hard time eating and sleeping. It sounds like a good thing to say, but I wondered if it was really true. And if it was true, was it really a good thing? I mean, if you lose a game and then don't eat or sleep, won't you be making it more likely that you'll also lose the next game? At the very least, Rose's comments about wanting to win so badly caught my attention. Again, it was one more item to put in my memory bank to save for later.

During last season (2010), I found myself listening to Bulls' players interviewed in the locker room after games more and more often. It was usually late at night, just something to have on in the background. The more I listened to Rose, the more I realized that he wasn't faking a passion to win. It was real. And it was deep.

In today's NBA you're not allowed to say that somebody wants to win as much as Kobe, and you will straight up be burned at the stake if you say somebody wants to win as much as Jordan. But from what I was observing in Rose, he seemed to be blossoming into that fiercest level of competitors.

In listening to random late-night Bulls' postgame interviews during the 2010 season, only one other player aside from Rose stood out: Joakim Noah.

I had never really been a Noah fan. Maybe it was the wild hair or agitating style of play. But for whatever reason, he just seemed off. When the Bulls drafted him, I was indifferent. While I didn't particularly like him, maybe Pax saw something in Noah that would turn out to be a good player. If Noah delivered for the Bulls, I wasn't going to worry about whether he was personally "off" or not.

Unfortunately, the early reports on Noah weren't good. Aside from not being much of a factor his rookie season, he had multiple disciplinary incidents, culminating in his teammates unanimously voting to suspend him from yet another game. Then in the offseason he was apprehended by police in the middle of the night and busted for marijuana possession. My suspicions of Noah were all being confirmed. He was a bum.

And really, I never intended to change my opinion of Noah. But at some point during that epic 2009 playoff series between the Bulls and Celtics, Noah began getting more playing time--especially at crunch time--than Tyrus Thomas. Whatever I may have disliked about Noah, he was becoming better than Thomas. And finally at the end of Game 6, Noah stepped out and got a steal from Paul Pierce, furiously dribbled the length of the court and finished with a thunder dunk. Not only was that one of the most exciting plays I've ever seen in the playoffs, it was more than enough for me to welcome Noah back into the Circle of Trust.

Getting back to those late-night 2010 interviews. It started to become apparent that Rose wasn't the only Bulls' player with a laser focus on winning. The way Noah talked about his desire for winning was also remarkable. Sure, everyone will give you the "That was a tough loss tonight" quote, or "We need to go out and get the next one." But Noah's words went way beyond that. Watching his interviews on TV, you could see he was really bothered by losing. And we're not only talking about playoff losses. We're talking regular season games, too. I had never heard Kirk Hinrich talk this way. Never heard Luol Deng talk this way. Definitely never heard Ben Gordon talk this way.

When the Bulls' 2010 season ended with a playoff loss to the Cavs, it was soon announced that Vinny Del Negro had been fired as the head coach. I distinctly recall both Rose and Noah being asked in one of those locker room interviews about Del Negro's firing. Even though they were asked at separate times, their answers were remarkably similar. Both players spoke with respect for Del Negro and actually expressed some sadness that he wouldn't be back for the next season. Rather than looking forward to a fresh start, it was almost as though they felt like they had failed Del Negro as players.

Every day, every game, every play: Very few NBA players have the raging fires of competitiveness that burn within Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose.

It was refreshing to see both Rose and Noah be so fiercely competitive and focused on winning every game. Now. It had been a long time since Bulls' fans had seen that type of attitude on this team. When Ben Gordon was here, he was just interested in collecting his paycheck and grabbing his balls. But with Rose and Noah, their goal is to win a championship.

Here and Now: The 2010-2011 Chicago Bulls

During the 2010 season when people started talking about potential NBA coaching changes, one name that I started to hear was Tom Thibodeau. He was advertised as the architect of the Boston Celtics' 2008 championship defense, and he still was an assistant coach with them. However, what really got me thinking that he would make a good coach is when it surfaced that both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett loved having Thibodeau as a coach. It's one thing to be a basketball guru. It's quite another to be a guru who has the respect of NBA champions who will be going to the Hall of Fame.

Many months later when the Bulls hired Thibodeau, I applauded the move. Obviously, you never know how these things will work out. Every NBA coach who is hired has somebody who believes he'll become a great coach. Most of them still don't work out. Although, at least with Thibodeau the Bulls were bringing in a guy with championship experience and the endorsement of great players.

Some people didn't like the Thibodeau hiring, saying his specialty was defense and they should instead go with an offensive guru. But I don't think that was going to fit in with the Bulls' front office's thinking. Two years prior when Mike D'Antoni was interviewing for the Bulls' head coaching position, there was a story that when he sat down with the team's owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, things didn't exactly go as he had planned. From what I had heard, Reinsdorf began to extensively quiz D'Antoni about defense. After the meeting was over, there was no immediate job offer. D'Antoni quickly accepted the job with the Knicks, and the Chicago media criticized Reinsdorf for being too slow to get D'Antoni.

In hindsight, D'Antoni was never going to be the answer for Chicago. Historically, a strong defense is critical to winning an NBA championship. And as LeBron James once said of the New York Knicks coached by D'Antoni, "They don't play no D."

With the Thibodeau's first regular season as the Bulls' head coach under his belt, the league's best record,  best defense, and Coach of the Year honors, he's obviously doing something right. Let's take a look at his roster and how they fit together as a team.

Point Guard Derrick Rose is the team's superstar, leader, and closer. By adding the three-point shot to his game and becoming a more vocal leader, he's elevated his play and this team to levels that have surprised the so-called experts.

Shooting Guard Keith Bogans sets the team's defensive tone for the game, calling out the defensive plays and knowing where to be on the floor. He's their best perimeter defender. On offense, Bogans mainly just shoots an occasional three (about 38% on the season). If he hits his threes early, he gets to stay in the game and the Bulls become even tougher to beat.

Center Joakim Noah is the team's energy guy. At 6' 11",  his combination of size and athleticism present problems for every team. When he's playing great defense and getting offensive boards, it's a huge lift for the Bulls.

Small Forward Luol Deng is the glue that holds this team together, according to Coach Thibodeau. Deng has played the most minutes, and he'll often be out there holding down the fort with the second unit while Rose is catching a breather. Deng can do a little bit of everything on offense and defense. In the past, people questioned his toughness, but he has stepped that up this year.

Power Forward Carlos Boozer is the low post scoring threat. Boozer is a little bit older and dealing with a turf toe injury, so he doesn't have quite the athleticism that he used to. But he's still the Bulls' best option for creating scoring opportunities down low.

And now for the bench players, a.k.a. The Bench Mob:

Point Guard C.J. Watson is a solid backup for Rose. Watson started once this season and scored 33 points. He shot the 3-ball at about a 39% clip this year.

Shooting Guard Kyle Korver is the team's best three-point shooter. His three-point percentage was down a bit this year to 41%, but he's still money in the clutch. This season during the 4th quarter and overtime, Korver shot the 3-ball at 58%. He tries hard on defense, but he's usually a liability on that side of the court.

Shooting Guard Ronnie Brewer is athletic, and defense is his strong suit. On offense he's a good baseline player, capable of being crafty and getting to the rim in a hurry.

Center Omer Asik is one of the team's best defenders. One assistant coach even said he could become the league's best defender in a few years. Asik has potential on both ends of the court, but he's still inconsistent and a poor free throw shooter.

Power Forward Taj Gibson provides the team with great defense and can also be an offensive threat. If needed, he can step into the starting lineup and do well.

Center Kurt Thomas has been called the team's best interior defender by Thibodeau earlier in the season. Thomas also has a reliable medium range jumper. He's a veteran who's been through the battles before and has stepped into the starting lineup admirably well for various stretches this season.

Shooting Guard Rasual Butler was acquired late in the season. The only time he played was during some garbage minutes at the end of the last game of the season where he actually hit some big shots to help the Bulls come back and win. However, the Bulls don't want to have to use him in the playoffs.

Power Forward Brian Scalabrine is a good team chemistry / rah-rah guy. He was familiar with Thibodeau's system in Boston, so his biggest role was early in the season when helping to get other players on the same page. At this point, Scalabrine hasn't even been dressing for the playoff games.

The strengths of this team are well documented:

1) Defense. It starts with their defense and the system that Thibodeau has in place. The players have all bought into this system and the importance of defense, and they know their roles. Plus they have good size and athleticism. This all makes the perfect recipe for the league's best defense.

2) D-Rose. Another strength is having a superstar in Derrick Rose. His spectacular ability to attack the basket and both score and create from various angles wreaks havoc on opposing defenses. Rose's leadership also helps to set this team apart from most others. When your best player is also your hardest worker, it has a trickle-down effect on the other players.

3) Depth. The Bulls have six quality players they can bring off their bench from the notorious "Bench Mob." In particular, the Bulls are deep in the front court, which makes it much easier for their bigs to stay out of foul trouble. It also helps them to keep fresher legs on defense and clean up on the rebounds.

And if this team has a glaring weakness, it's the lack of a second ball handler who can create his own shot. At the 2-guard the Bulls rotate Bogans, Korver, and Brewer, but none of them can really get their own shot. During the season many people called for Chicago to trade for a shooting guard who would be able to fill this void. And I'm sure the front office thought about it. But there wasn't anybody available for the right price. In order to get a deal done, the Bulls would have had to trade away some of their front court depth (such as Taj Gibson). However, in doing so, the Bulls would have likely been plugging one hole but springing another. It's an area that will likely be addressed in the offseason. For now, the Bulls have to run with the guys they have.

Playoffs: The Time is Now

As the Bulls get ready for the Eastern Conference Finals, there's much speculation as to how they'll do. Can they match up well with the Miami Heat? Or will the star power of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh reign supreme?

I've thought from the start of the playoffs that the Bulls have as good a chance at winning the championship this year as anyone else. And my feeling isn't really based on the fact that they had the best regular season record. To borrow a phrase, "the playoffs are a different beast." Playoff basketball is just different than the regular season. Here's how:

Defensive intensity: Every team turns up its defensive efforts in the playoffs. So naturally the game gets slowed down, there are fewer possessions, and less scoring. Fortunately for the Bulls, they've been used to playing and winning defensive struggles all year.

Coaching adjustments: In a seven-game series, sometimes it's amazing how different two teams can look from game to game. Part of the reason is switching from one venue to another, home and away. But another reason is coaching adjustments. Matchups and schemes can change quite a bit from game to game when coaches have more time (generally a full day or two) to prepare for fewer teams (just one team in the playoffs compared to three or four a week in the regular season). It's more of a chess match between coaches, and if one comes up with something for which the other has no counter, it's season over. But here again the Bulls are looking good. During the regular season, they never lost more than two games in a row. That is in no small measure due to a coaching staff that's prepared -- and knows how to adjust.

Star power: At the end of the day, the NBA is a star's league. And it becomes even more so in the playoffs. You can play the best defense in the world and make the smartest coaching adjustments, but if some guy is going to hit a 20' foot fadeaway jumper with a hand in his face, that's nearly impossible to guard. And some players are able to make those unbelievable shots time after time down the stretch. It's fun to watch, unless you're trying to stop it. One of the most surprising aspects of this season has been the emergence of Derrick Rose as a superstar. He's capable of making some unbelievable and unguardable shots, repeatedly and in the clutch. The Bulls have a closer, which is especially important to have in the playoffs.

In some ways this current Bulls team is a hybrid of the 2009-10 Blackhawks and the 2010-11 Bears. The Blackhawks were super-talented and deep, and they finished with the NHL's best record. The Bears caught lucky breaks, overachieved, and found themselves with home field advantage against the vaunted Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship.

With those Blackhawks I already knew they were the most talented team in the league, and for them to win the Stanley Cup would only confirm the obvious. It was like the New England Patriots that year they went to the Super Bowl with an undefeated record. Win or lose, they were the best team in my mind. Fortunately for the Blackhawks, they brought home the Cup.

With those Bears I already knew they had overachieved and weren't as good as the Packers who had been riddled with injuries. The Packers seemed to have a better system in place and a better quarterback. The Bears, while good, had just been too inconsistent (such as when Cutler was sacked nine times by the Giants). As a fan, I wanted the Bears to beat the Packers, but my brain told me they likely wouldn't.

These Bulls are more consistent and have better leadership than those Bears did. And while these Bulls have similar depth to that Blackhawks team, they don't have the elite talent across the board that those Blackhawks did. So I wouldn't put the Bulls as a heavy favorite to win the title, but they've got a great shot.

Regardless of what happens from here, these Bulls have been fun to watch all season long. Yeah, they're winning. But it's more than that. They're well coached, they work hard, and they play together. Most of all, they've been a pleasant surprise.

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