Pippen: Bulls' secret to success lies within team concept
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As the first half of the season ends and we shift to NBA All-Star weekend in Orlando, there are two questions in my mind that will ultimately tell the story of how successful this Bulls team will be when it’s all said and done.
First, can the Bulls get and stay healthy? And second, does this team at full strength have what it takes to beat the Miami Heat?
At 27-8, the Bulls are on pace with last season’s record which was the best in the NBA. And while they lead the league in games played, having crammed in 35 games in 60 days, they will close out the season with 31 games in 59 days, with 18 of those games being played at home.
The Bulls have had all of this success in the first half despite eight different starting lineups and a number of injuries to key players. Yet, here they are, poised to have an even stronger second half.
I have to say that this year’s Bulls remind me a lot of our teams in the late 1980’s. When I look back at my first few seasons in the NBA, we didn’t dominate as a team. There were a lot of nights where we took a beating and got whacked across the head. But we got better along the way and we started to taste the success. With that came the pressure and expectations to be successful. That’s what this team is going through right now.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
Last year, the Bulls put together as impressive of a regular season as anyone. To me, they presented a very real challenge to Miami. They swept the season series 3-0 and even though they fell 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals, there were a couple of games that came down to the wire and could have gone either way.
We have to remember, no one expected the Bulls to come out of the East last season. When LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami, practically everyone assumed they’d be the team to win the Eastern Conference, if not the whole thing. People counted the Bulls out, but the team showed a lot of determination and resolve in winning 62 games. They established the identity of being a hardworking, hungry team, and put themselves in a position to make it to the NBA Finals last season.
I can guarantee you that the series against Miami still lingers in the back of the players’ minds. Granted, they are focused on the task at hand this season, but it’s something that helps the Bulls play with an edge. Again, it’s like our teams in the late 1980’s, when we were a team on the rise and the Detroit Pistons were the defending champions. Even in the years we lost, we felt like we were the better team. The rest of the world looked at what the Pistons had done and how they worked their way to the top, and we understood that. But we didn’t accept it. The Bulls have to adopt that mentality and endure some of the same growing pains that we did. Granted, the situation was different in that the Pistons had won back-to-back titles and the Heat has only had its core together for a season and a half now, still without a championship. But it’s clear that if you want to get to the Finals this season, you’ll have to get past Miami.
The Bulls are a team with a chip on its shoulder. It’s easy to look back and see that there are things a team could have done better to win a series. Derrick Rose in particular has talked about how he didn’t play as well as he hoped against Miami. I can look back on my own playing career and the early years when I wasn’t successful was because I didn’t prepare enough. I wasn’t physically ready for the long haul of an 82-game regular season and then the playoffs. I thought I was ready, but late in the season, the games began to break you down and I learned I was not. It can cause you to lose the battle and the war if you’re not up to the task.
This year’s Bulls seem like they’re ready. I look at Joakim Noah, and he’s in the best shape that I’ve seen him. Carlos Boozer looks to have his conditioning where it needs to be and he’s been effective offensively. Luol Deng looks great physically and he’s finally got that league-wide recognition as an All-Star. He’s playing with a hurt wrist, but so far, he seems to be able to play at a high level regardless. And of course there is Derrick Rose, back now after missing five-games with his back issues, but looking like they are hopefully behind him. What else can you say about Derrick? It is easy to see how much better he makes his team when he’s out on the floor, and in Monday’s game against the Hawks it was never more evident. He’s got that drive every night, in terms of wanting to win and a desire to carry his team and do whatever it takes to succeed.
Once Richard Hamilton is back, which sounds like it could be next week, he’ll give the Bulls a boost as he’s still a more than capable player offensively, but also uses his length to be a very good defender. He’s missed a lot of time this season, but I don’t think it’s anything to be worried about—having him healthy for the second half and postseason is what’s important. Rip is a proven winner who knows what it takes to be successful in the NBA. And once he’s back, it makes that second group all the more potent.
The taste of success that the Bulls enjoyed last season was a great experience and it propelled them to the level of being a contender. As a group, they have the confidence to believe that this is their season. So could it be? The key obviously will be to get healthy and stay healthy. If they can do that, there is no reason to rank any team ahead of the Bulls.
Tom Thibodeau and his staff have instilled a mindset on the players to do what they did last season, but do it at a higher level and go further when it matters the most. They could have taken a step back and eased up during the regular season. Instead, they have turned it up even more. It’s good to see them playing that way, because it’s fun to watch and with the talent they have, more often than not, it’s going to mean winning a high percentage of their games.
Embodiment of team starts with unselfish leadership
Chicago’s success, of course, begins with Derrick Rose, who is a very unselfish player. It’s not common for your best player to also be your most unselfish player. I wish more point guards played like Derrick. He tries so hard to always involve his teammates that sometimes, you wait for him to be a little more selfish and take over games. I think he’s got that characteristic from how he was raised—his mother and siblings always kept him grounded and humble. He’s so incredibly determined to win, but he only wants to do it within the framework of a team.
(Ezra Shaw/NBAE/Getty Images)
He’s developed into the perfect leader for the Bulls, and while he’s become more vocal this season, he’s most effective when he leads by example. Given the way Derrick thinks and plays, that probably comes easy for him. It takes a self-motivated player to show up and do that on a daily basis. But the guys who can combine that with being vocal, that’s when you really see an impact. They become an extension of the coach and they can push teammates in more ways than just going out and trying to execute. It gets teammates excited about the goals of a team and what you’re trying to accomplish on the basketball court.
A mentality like Derrick has can be contagious. That being said, there are times when you almost need a little confrontation between the players to get and maintain that level of respect. For example, Michael Jordan was never afraid to get in someone’s face if they took a play off in practice or missed something in a game. It’s about holding everyone accountable.
Bulls a group of high character
You have to give a lot of credit to Gar Forman and John Paxson for the group of people they put together to make this team. They spent a lot of time to make sure they bring in the right personnel. And in terms of this roster, it’s clear that everyone is on the same page. It seems that with all of their moves or player acquisitions, they asked, ‘Can they play with Derrick? Can they get along with him?’ And really, it’s pretty easy to do those things and fall in line with what the Bulls are trying to do. If you come to the gym and work hard, and do those things consistently, then you can play with Derrick. He’s a driven player who sets high standards for himself, so it’s only fair that his teammates should do the same.
The same goes for Coach Thibs, as he wants players who he can coach. He has to be able to teach and constructively criticize each and every man out there so they can get better. You can’t say enough about what Thibs does for his team in terms of showing them how to be professionals. The veterans know that this is a business. It’s not as simple as going in and playing basketball for fun, then you go home. They represent a team that has a tradition of winning and that’s what is important to the organization, the fans, and the city of Chicago. When you have a roster of veterans who have been in this league long enough to truly understand that, it makes it easier for everyone to come together and work towards a common goal.
Possessing the sustainability to get to the top and remain there
Everyone likes to strike while the iron is hot. That’s a philosophy I’ve always liked. And while this group looks like it will absolutely sustain this level of play for several more seasons, you never know what’s going to happen down the road. So in other words, the time is now.
Chemistry is a very important element for any team that wants to be serious about winning. It’s also one of the Bulls’ biggest strengths.
Without chemistry, it’s difficult to get on a roll in this league. But once you do that, you can get hot and win 10 in a row or 13 out of 15, streaks like that which either help you get to the top of the standings or increase your lead. Talent is good and necessary to have, but it can be stopped. When you factor in a team’s chemistry and guys are fulfilling their roles, it’s very difficult to counter.
Teams like that always have something positive in their favor, where if one option may not work out for them, the next one will. If all you have is talent, you could have a bad shooting night and it’s over. On other nights, you might turn the ball over too much. Or you might not feel well. But when your team has a great deal of cohesiveness, those detrimental things contribute to a much lesser extent. It becomes more of a team game. Put it this way—five guys coming at you clicking on all cylinders is always going to be more difficult to slow down than just one player doing it.
There is a window of opportunity for the Bulls. It goes back to staying healthy. The opportunity is there to win; they’ve just got to continue to grind it out. This season has a lot of games crammed into a short timeframe, but every team in the league is experiencing that. And I don’t see anyone that is a clear-cut favorite to win it all. You can see what Miami and the Oklahoma City Thunder have done to this point, but we’re only halfway through the season and there is a lot of basketball left to be played.
Overcoming that final obstacle
Going back to the way our teams had to get past the Pistons, it took time for us to gain the proper experience and some tweaks to our roster were necessary. So does this Bulls team have what it takes to overcome the Heat? I think so, if everyone is healthy.
Again, there isn’t any one team out there which scares me to the point where I feel the Bulls have to make a move to get to their level. The Bulls have demonstrated to have a very complete roster which is also very consistent and cohesive on whole. And one thing that isn’t talked about enough is their depth. It’s what has allowed them to keep winning despite stretches without Rose, Deng and Richard Hamilton. This core, aside from Hamilton, has been around each other long enough to have that familiarity. The guys know each other, they know how each other play, and because of those things, their chemistry should be extremely high. It’s something that makes a huge difference in close games down the stretches and road games too.
That’s basically what defines a championship team, being able to execute and win, whether you’re at home or on the road. With the most road victories in the NBA this season, the Bulls have shown they can win away from the United Center. Coupled with the high level of defense we know we can expect from the Bulls, it gives them a chance at doing something special this season. You always want to build on last season, which means not just getting to the Eastern Conference Finals, but winning the series. And the Bulls have an opportunity to do just that.