Their obituary had already been penciled in. ‘Good team that could’ve been greater’. Fans and analysts had already declared them finished before they could even blossom to their best.
Two years ago, Chicago had the league’s MVP, Coach of the Year, the best regular season record, and were one step away from making the NBA Finals for the first time since a certain Number 23 roamed their famous halls. But they failed, losing to LeBron James and the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. But even in defeat was the promise of future victory, and a season later – even in the regular absence of their injury-plagued MVP – they found themselves at the top of the East again.
Only this time, defeat struck more tragically. Their reigning MVP – Derrick Rose – went down to a torn ACL in the first game of the 2012 Playoffs. A week later, the Bulls were shocked and defeated in the first round by the No. 8 seed 76ers. When it was revealed that the then 23-year-old Rose would be injured for nearly another year, defeat turned into devastation. Their progress wasn’t just stalled, it was shattered. Their rivals in the East – the Heat, Knicks, Pacers, Nets, Hawks, 76ers and ever dangerous Celtics – were going to be better. The prevailing wisdome was that the return of the Bulls might have to wait for another era.
Only the team itself didn’t get that memo. For as long as the Chicago Bulls were concerned, they were going to keep winning, with or without Rose.
Led by Coach Tom Thibodeau, who has built a defensive system in Chicago above the talents of any one individual, the Bulls find themselves in the thick of the action in the Eastern Conference again. Rose hasn’t played a minute of action all year, but with the brilliant play of their triumvirate of star role players – Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Carlos Boozer – the Bulls are 23-16 and battling for fourth place in the East. They have won seven of their last 10 games and – with the return of Derrick Rose in sight – are once again starting to look like one of the most fearsome teams in the league.
Deng is clocking nearly 40 minutes a contest (leading the league in minutes played), continuing his stellar form as a jack-of-all-trades and taking over the reigns as the team’s leading scorer in Rose’s absence. He’s a tough perimeter defender and has shown the nerves of steel to hit big shots in big moments.
If Deng is the glue that has held this team together, Noah is the pillar that has lifted the team and given them their tough-as-nails identity. Noah is playing over 38 minutes a contest too. Known primarily for being a tough post defender and rebounder, Noah’s increased minutes have also led him to average his career-high in scoring this season.
And then there’s Carlos Boozer. The high-paid power forward may have never developed into a high-scoring superstar in Thibodeau defense-first philosophy, but he has become comfortable in his role as Chicago’s primary offensive post threat. He has especially upped the ante in the New Year (coinciding with the Bulls’ 7-3 run in 2013), where he has averaged nearly 24 points and 11 rebounds per contest and has developed into a regular 20-10 threat in any given match-up.
All three are playing near an All-Star level, and it will be interesting to see which one (or two, or three?) the NBA coaches pick to name as a reserve on the Eastern Conference All-Star squad. But they are certainly not alone. In the absence of Rose, Chicago needed their supporting cast to step up, and the likes of Richard Hamilton, Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Taj Gibson, and Kirk Hinrich have stepped up on both ends of the court to help keep the team in contention.
Thibodeau is the mastermind who continues to steer the ship and continues to keep them hungry for success. In a season where they could have so easily rolled up and quit, their head coach has kept them motivated.
The return of Rose is imminent; sources say he could be in uniform by late February. If the Bulls continue to keep their heads above water until his comeback, they should be ready for lift off by the time the playoffs begin. Few are expecting Rose to be in MVP form anytime soon again, but – even at say, 70 percent – he has the talent to make a good team into a great one.
Don’t write that obituary just yet.