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2014, a year in review
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By Sam Smith | 1.01.2015 | 12:40 p.m. CT
It’s the year 2015, which for the Bulls holds perhaps more promise than any since the title years of the 1990s. Since that last Bulls championship in 1998, the Bulls’ best season was 2010-11 when they were 62-20 and went to the Eastern Conference finals, only to lose to the Miami Heat in five games.
But that season was a surprise and a gift.
It was the first for coach Tom Thibodeau and the beginning of the breakout for Derrick Rose, who would surprisingly go on to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award. It might have been more for the team the following season until Rose sustained the first of two major knee injuries. And until that magical period, the Bulls after their expansion period of the early 2000s were an overachieving group of high level role players searching for 50-win seasons and perhaps winning a playoff round.
Now there are hopes and dreams that seem not so unrealistic anymore.
So as the calendar turns, and even if the NBA doesn’t count years this way, it’s time to take a look back at the 2014 calendar year for the Bulls biggest stories:
- The Joakim Noah impact — With the loss of Rose again in late 2013, Thibodeau refigured the offense around Noah, who took the challenge to produce historic statistics for a center. Noah went on to win Defensive Player of the Year and be named first team all-NBA, probably a bigger surprise than Rose becoming a league MVP. Noah produced extraordinary assist totals as the Bulls tilted their offense to go through him, breaking records held by Wilt Chamberlain. Noah’s season of more than 12 points, 11 rebounds and five assists has only been matched among centers Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. That’s a dinner party worth attending. Noah had some remarkable games, like 26 points, 19 rebounds and six assists in a triple overtime win in Orlando and 17 points, 21 rebounds and six assists in the Martin Luther King game against the Lakers. In one 22-day stretch, Noah had three triple doubles, which hadn’t been done by a center since David Robinson in 1990. Noah also matched Robinson and Chamberlain as the only centers ever to have four triple doubles in a month. But what separated Noah most, to me, was not only his passion for the game but for the people for whom he plays, the fans. After the disappointment of the Luol Deng trade, Noah explained to media his emotions that should be a Bible for all pro athletes: “I feel when I come to the game and see the guys selling newspapers on the street; it’s cold outside. He sees me driving and he’s excited. He’s like, 'Let’s go Bulls. Get it done tonight.' I feel I play for that guy. I look in the arena when the team calls a timeout and see this guy who looks this big jump up and down (in the upper deck, 300 level). That’s the guy I play for." It was a very special year for a very special player.
- The Best Summer of Free Agency — It didn’t have the tension and anticipation of the Summer of 2010 for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and it seemed a disappointment when Carmelo Anthony praised the Bulls’ recruiting efforts and then resigned with the Knicks. But the Bulls recouped and responded to where Gar Forman and John Paxson should be among the favorites for league Executive of the Year. The Bulls landed center Pau Gasol, who is back to his All-Star level of play, persuaded European star Nikola Mirotic to forgo his European contract and come to the NBA and found point guard Aaron Brooks on a minimum deal. They also parlayed two draft picks to get into the lottery to select highly regarded shooter Doug McDermott, thus putting players in place for the future as well. It’s enabled the Bulls to move into the category of serious title contender for the first time since 1997-98, turn around their offense from one of the poorest to one of the highest scoring, produce a bench and front line among the best in the NBA and make the summer perhaps the franchise’s most productive ever.
- The trade of Luol Deng — It brought with it calls from fans and media to give up the season and purposely lose while sending away one of the most productive players in franchise history. Deng was tied for third all time in seasons with the team, sixth in games played, fourth in minutes and points scored and top 10 in rebounds, free throws and field goals and a two-time All-Star, all-defensive player and league sportsmanship winner. The Bulls basically got nothing in return as they released Andrew Bynum to save money for future moves, which they would do in the summer that worked out so well. There was a last weekend offer of a $30 million extension, which Deng rejected as too hurried. Deng went to Cleveland, where they missed the playoffs and signed in the summer with Miami. The Bulls were 14-18 at the time of the trade and the feeling among many players was management was giving up on them. Many, including me, felt the Bulls would miss the playoffs. But with Thibodeau’s coaching and the passion and competitiveness of the players, the Bulls turned the season around and went on to tie for third in the Eastern Conference with 48 wins.
- Rose Returns again — It’s been a story for basically two years with the rumored return in 2012-13 and then the return in 2013-14 before the November second injury. This time Rose came back for USA Basketball, and though he played a reserve role for the team, he looked strong and healthy in September for the gold medal winning World Cup of Basketball team. He had some fits and starts to open the season in November with a sprained ankle and hamstring injury. But Rose returned quickly and has played regularly throughout December. Though his shooting woes have been examined and scrutinized, there’s been less attention to health issues as his knees have responded well and he looks on course toward a strong season.
- The Jimmy Butler debut — Butler had been around since the 2011 draft when he was the No. 30 pick, though the larger story then for the Bulls was the trade to get Nikola Mirotic. Fans were furious about the Bulls failure to draft Marshon Brooks and lit up the Bulls phone lines with complaints. They also demanded Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson. It was agreed Butler could become a nice reserve, but the consensus was the Bulls still had issues at shooting guard that were not addressed. Most of the analysis was positive for a late pick and NBAdraft.net was typical with a B- rating for the Bulls draft. Butler assumed a more significant role once Deng was traded, which led to being named second team all-defense. But it was Butler’s offensive game which took the giant leap this season with improved shooting and physical play to get free throws. Butler became the Bulls scoring leader, among the top 10 in the NBA in scoring and even into the conversation for the league’s best players. It’s one of the more remarkable climbs in league history thus far.
- D.J. Augustin saves the season — The small guard who was released in December by the Toronto Raptors, his third team in three seasons, becomes what seems just an emergency replacement with Rose out again for the season. The decimated Bulls throw Augustin in and after a rocky first game, he averages 37 minutes mostly starting the next four and averaging double figures in scoring. In January, Augustin takes off and becomes the team’s most reliable scorer the rest of the season. In the team’s last 46 games, Augustin leads in scoring 19 times, more than double anyone else. Coach Tom Thibodeau repeats often how Augustin saved the season. Augustin goes onto a better contract with the Detroit Pistons as the Bulls revive his career, and the Bulls do well in replacing him with Aaron Brooks. Win/win, as it goes.
- The Bulls run — That was January through April when the Bulls being seen even by their own fans as a likely lottery team go on to have the best record in the Eastern Conference, 36-16. It produces a tie for third in the East and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, though that is lost to the Wizards in the first two playoff games in the United Center. But it was a terrific close with an thrilling overtime win over Miami in March with Augustin scoring 22 and Noah with 20 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. The Bulls then beat Indiana, the other Eastern finalist, later that month with Taj Gibson scoring 23. The Bulls in early April ironically went into Washington behind Augustin’s 25 points and defeated the Wizards by 18. The Bulls lost close games in New York and Charlotte in the last week to come that close to another 50-win season.
- The growth of Taj Gibson — Though still technically a reserve, Gibson became the Bulls go to player along with Augustin down the stretch as Gibson was the team’s top scorer in the fourth quarter. His growth as a scorer and post player had him runnerup to Jamal Crawford as Sixth Man of the Year. Gibson made a game winner at the buzzer to beat the Lakers in January and then had 32 points in the Game 4 playoff loss in Washington. He became the offensive and defensive finisher along with Noah for one of the league’s top defensive teams, another low first round pick who became one of the more highly valued players in the NBA.
- Joakim Noah turns the All-Star game defensive — Noah makes his second straight All-Star game appearance and even with Indiana coach Frank Vogel coaching the East team, Vogel turns to Noah down the stretch in the fourth quarter instead of his own All-Star center, Roy Hibbert. It’s a 163-155 games but Noah plays the last 12 minutes as the East with defense scores the last 10 points to pull away for the victory after three consecutive losses. Noah ends up with eight points, five rebounds and five assists as his defensive plays are crucial for the victory in what is usually an indifferent offensive game. “The game’s got to be defensive if you want to win,” says Noah.
- Tom Thibodeau's impact — The Bulls coach went into his fifth season with once again almost another new team with a half dozen new players, most of whom have joined the regular rotation. Amidst major injuries, continuing personnel changes and varying performances, Thibodeau has been among the winningest coaches with almost a 70 percent winning percentage. Despite all the changes the Bulls continued to rank among the league leaders in defense. To start 2014-15, the Bulls became the best offensive team they've been since the title years after being the best defensive team they'd been since then. In every season, the Bulls basically exceeded media expectations and to start 2014 when much media and fans said the Bulls should intentionally lose after the Deng trade, Thibodeau pushed the team to the East's best record for the rest of the regular season.