This season wasn’t supposed to be about the Bulls. It was about the flash of the Heat and the intensity of the Celtics making one more run. It was about the Lakers out West. The Bulls were going to be good, no doubt, but not good enough.
Then they started defending like mad men, executing their defensive game plan better than any team in the league. Then Derrick Rose started playing like an MVP and slashing to the rim with quickness and body control that is unmatched. Then the Bulls evolved and took on the persona of their workaholic coach — they came to play every night harder than the other team.
In the end it was about them. They worked and slashed their way to the best record in the league (62-20).
And they haven’t begun to fulfill their potential. This wasn’t about just this being their season in Chicago. It was about how next year might be their year, too. And the year after that, and the one after that and….
The Bulls are now the team of the future in the NBA.
Chicago is young — Carlos Boozer is the “old man” at 29, entering his prime. Rose is 22, Luol Deng is 25, as is Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. The only older guy making any significant contributions is 38-year-old Kurt Thomas.
People look at the Heat and see a team that will be good for the next several years because their core is in its prime. The Bulls are younger, with more room to improve as individuals, and they have a more well-rounded roster right now. The Heat will be contenders going forward. The Bulls are going to be right their with them.
Still, there are doubters. Certainly about this season and these upcoming playoffs. Put Chris Bosh in that group.
The argument against the Bulls goes like this — you’ve already seen their best. Chicago outworked teams during the regular season, simply played harder than everyone else. Good for the Bulls, but in the playoffs everyone is focused, everyone plays hard every game. (Well, maybe not the Lakers, but you get the idea.) Their advantages will disappear.
But if you believe defense wins championships, you have to believe the Bulls have a legitimate chance.
David Thorpe, the Executive Director of the Pro Training Center and ESPN analyst, said in an e-mail hard work alone by the Bulls was not enough. He used a football analogy to make his point.
“I think they out-execute everyone,” Thorpe said. “They remind me of the 2002 Buccaneers, Super Bowl winners (and owners of arguably as great a defense as the NFL has ever seen). … Both defenses were built around the idea that every man has a job to do on every possession, and each job changes based on what and who they are defending. That is why executing is so crucial.
“Put it this way — like football, if each player was graded on the total number of breakdowns they had for the game (beaten off dribble, not getting to their help spots fast enough, not following the schematic plan on certain actions, etc.), my guess is the Bulls players would score better than every other team. That is coaching.”
Defense and coaching are big steps toward a title. But the Bulls do have challenges ahead in these playoffs, and it’s not about the defense.
Rose is the center of everything they do on offense, and both Thorpe and the doubters (including scouts we spoke with) note that the better teams are going to start trapping him and denying him and doing everything they can to take the ball out of his hands. Indiana has a good defense (12th in the league in efficiency) and will start to execute it, but teams in the second round and beyond (Boston, Miami and Orlando) have the players to really execute it. Rose will not be able to dominate in the same way. He will be forced to pass or expend wild amounts of energy to get contested, difficult shots. He’s going to have to pass.
Other Bulls players will have to step up and make plays. We will see if they can — Boozer can score inside, but will he do it enough? Deng can by streaky, Ronnie Brewer can slash but will he get the ball, guys like Kyle Korver can shoot. But will it be enough?
What if it’s not? What if the Bulls learn they really need a better shooting guard and some more maturity as a team?
Then you can bet they will be back next year. And the year after. And the year after that.
Whether or not this season ends being about the Bulls, you can bet seasons in the near future will be.