There’s No Season Like the Offseason

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The classic Bulls-Celtics series, arguably the greatest first round series in the history of the NBA and up there with any series in any round in terms of pure entertainment value, ended on Saturday in a somewhat anticlimactic fashion.  By normal NBA standards, it was a better than average basketball game, but with a playoff record 4 overtime games (covering 7 overtime periods) and another game that ended on a last-second Ray Allen shot in regulation (I recall thinking in Game 1 that Jesus Shuttleworth didn’t look too intimidating, and he of course then went on to hit roughly 978 fadeaway three point shots in a row while being double-teamed for the rest of the series), it was almost impossible to expect anything more even though this series had exceeded expectations up until the end.

When one of your teams gets eliminated from the postseason, there’s a sudden shutdown that’s quite different than, say, the end of a regular season where that same team doesn’t make the playoffs at all.  If your team had a bad regular season, you almost welcome the offseason and have plenty of time to plan for it.  In contrast, a team in the playoffs (especially in basketball and baseball where the sheer length of each playoff series increases the time commitment) dominates your life for days on end – you seem to plan all of your evenings around these games, so when it’s over, there’s a sense of emptiness after being constantly in an amped up mode.  Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, yet I would have been perfectly happy to have had the Bulls roughed up by the Magic on Monday (if Boston had a 28-point deficit at home in the first half, the Bulls probably would have had a 40-point deficit on the road).  At least the Bulls season ended on a relative uptick, which has already spurred me to spend hours scouring websites on what the team plans to do with Ben Gordon, NBA trade rumors (I’m hitting up the trade machine with any and all combinations for the Bulls to nab Chris Bosh), and potential draft picks (as much as I watch college basketball, I’m at a loss right now because there probably won’t be anyone of use at the Bulls’ 16th spot in an already weak draft).   If anything else, I want to spend as much time avoiding having to watch Octavio Dotel give up leads in the 7th inning at all costs.

(Image from Slam Online)

A Bulls Market Once Again

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With all of the people that have been jumping on the Blackhawks bandwagon (which halfway includes yours truly), it’s been easy to forget how many people still love the Bulls in Chicago.  In my opinion, when all things are equal (understanding that a less popular team that’s doing extraordinarily well in a particular year is going to receive more buzz than a more popular team that’s performing poorly at the same time), the Bulls are third in the overall Chicago sports pecking order behind the Bears and Cubs, but that’s been tough to observe these past few months with the team needing a surge after the All-Star break to secure a .500 regular season record and the concurrent Hawks renaissance and high expections for the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears.  However, the Bulls’ literally heart-stopping playoff series with the Celtics is likely going to return the pecking order back into normalcy as the general public starts to truly understand how special of an athlete Derrick Rose already is at 20-years old and that we’re witnessing a young team on the ascent.  Certainly, there are a number of issues with this club (as I’ll get to in a moment), but I’m really enjoying how the town is buzzing about the Bulls again (speaking as someone that followed this franchise intensely through a whole lot of dark days over the past decade and is anything but a bandwagon Bulls fan).  When I went to the Bulls-Lakers game at the United Center last month, it was apparent that the sold-out crowd (whether they were cheering for Chicago or L.A.) was mostly there for the chance to see Kobe Bryant and Company.  Now, though, the Bulls (and specifically the magnificence of D-Rose) are becoming an attraction unto themselves, which means that tickets at the United Center are going to become a whole lot harder to come by.  Here are my thoughts on the series that’s tied up at 2 games apiece so far:

  • I’m wondering where that significant contingent of people that thought that the Bulls should have taken Michael Beasley over Derrick Rose have gone.  That argument is looking as inane as the 1998 NFL Draft debate where Ryan Leaf supposedly had more upside than Peyton Manning.  (Of course, every upside has a commensurate downside.)  There’s been plenty of print about Rose’s performance so far, but it’s all deserved – here’s a rookie point guard that was attending his high school prom two years ago at this time completing already breaking veteran players down, in a playoff series against the defending NBA champs, no less, in a manner that legitimately has made impartial observers openly state that there’s no ceiling on what this kid can achieve.  This was why I was so excited when the lottery balls bounced the way of the Bulls a year ago – while there’s no 100% sure thing in sports, Derrick Rose was about as close to that as anyone could reasonably get.
  • The focus on Rose and also shone the spotlight on his counterpart on the Celtics, Rajon Rondo.  While watching the Celtics’ run to the title last season, I saw Rondo as a solid complementary piece to a championship team – someone along the lines of a more athletic version of Kirk Hinrich.  However, I’ve been completely blown away by Rondo’s performance during this series with the Bulls, where he’s been the best and most consistent player on either team over the first four games.  The jump in his game from last season to this year makes me believe that Rondo has gone from a supporting cast member to a cornerstone player that the Celtics can build around once the Boston Three Party has moved on.  Frankly, even as a Bulls fan, I’m miffed that the media swarm around Rondo has been relatively muted compared to his stellar performance – the storylines around Rose, the ability of both Ben Gordon and Ray Allen to swish 30-foot jumpshots while double-teamed by 7-foot defenders, and Paul Pierce’s overall game seem to have taken away a lot of print from the former Kentucky point guard.  This is a shame since Rondo’s play is the most surprising story in the first round of the playoffs.
  • I still have no confidence that the Bulls can make a key defensive stop when necessary.  Both of the Bulls’ wins would never have even gone to overtime if the team could have avoided a stupid foul and/or buckled down in man-to-man defense in the respective last possessions in regulation.  The defense at the end of game 3 was passable in the sense that Ray Allen made a ridiculous fadeaway shot over Joakim Noah that no one could have defended, but that also ignores the fact that Allen was the one guy that the Bulls absolutely couldn’t let get the ball in the first place.  This series is a Paul Pierce free throw and game 1 and a made open Celtics jumpshot in game 4 from being a Boston sweep as opposed to an even series.  Ultimately, the subpar defense in pressure situations is going to be the downfall for the Bulls whether it’s in this round against the Celtics or another team if they somehow move on.
  • It’s hard to believe, but Joakim Noah is actually growing on me.  I was a harsh critic of the Bulls drafting him two years ago, but his overall play in this series along with his performance over the second half of the season has at least given me some indication of his value.  If Tyrus Thomas can keep up his all-around production (which I have my doubts on – we’ve seen a whole lot of flourishes from him over the years and he always seems to recede shortly afterwards), then Noah makes a whole lot of sense on the floor as a disruptive defensive player.  For all of those people out there that are just starting to get back into following the Bulls and have a completely negative impression of Noah, whether it’s because of his days at Florida, ridiculous hair, or general d-baggery, I completely understand where you’re coming from.  However, if you can just focus on his basketball play, you’ll find that he actually has been a very good contributor and the Bulls are certainly a lot worse off defensively when he’s not on the floor.
  • It took up until game 4, but it appears that Vinny Del Negro has finally figured out that a timeout in the last seconds of the game might be a little bit useful.  I’ll repeat my mea culpa on my premature dissing of Rick Carlisle last summer (although I’ll note that I wrote that post before the Bulls hit the lottery jackpot) – it’s not that he’s a particularly great coach, but at least he’s not affirmatively making his team worse by his presence.  As everyone is witnessing now, this Bulls team is pretty talented and deep.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the Bulls would have won 9 or 10 more games in the regular season along with game 2 of this series with a halfway competent coach.
  • What’s the test of whether you’re a true Bulls fan that stuck through the down years?  If you saw the brief spat between Brad Miller and Glen “Big Baby” Davis in game 4 and immediately thought back to this legendary fight between Miller (during his first stint in Chicago) and Shaq.  Please note the irony of Ron Artest actually acting as the peacemaker in this brawl (plus Shaq gets tackled by Charles Oakley – honestly, there’s nothing that I don’t love about this video).
  • I wonder if I’m alone in this reaction, but I went from laughing out loud in watching this Burger King commercial featuring Sir Mix-a-Lot to being quite disturbed upon finding out at the end that it’s actually to sell kids’ meals (and I usually find a direct correlation between offensiveness and comedy).
  • Speaking of old school rap in commercials, I was delighted to see the marketing recognition of the genius that is Biz Markie.
  • The one thing that has surprised me above all else is that despite the defensive and coaching flaws of the Bulls so far in the series, this team has still been able to win games.  Prior to the start of the series, I was pretty convinced that the Bulls would need to play completely perfect games in order to take any games from the Celtics.  Part of me is disappointed in knowing that the Bulls ought to be seeded a whole lot higher (maybe even fourth so that they would have had home court advantage) if they had played up to their talent level all season, but overall I’m ecstatic that they’ve showed up at the right time and making the most of their opportunities against a depleted Boston team.

Boxing analogies applied to other sports are all too commonplace, but in the case of this series, it’s entirely appropriate.  Outside of the horrific game 3, these games between the Bulls and Celtics have been about withstanding multiple punches and who can throw the last knockout blow in the end.  As emotionally draining as these games have been, it’s the first time in a whole long time (maybe since 1998) where it’s a whole lot of fun to be a Bulls fan!

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

Derrick Rose is the Truth

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I know that my 3.4 regular readers love my rants, and boy oh boy, there’s a lot to rant about between the mauling of the Bears at the hands of Gus Frerotte on Sunday evening, the Illini football team failing to become bowl eligible even though they had enough NFL prospects to have been reasonably expected to make a New Year’s Day bowl this season, and the Illinois basketball team forgetting in the Clemson ACC/Big Ten Challenge game that the purpose of a last second shot when you’re down by 2 is to actually shoot the ball before time expires.  However, I’ll focus on the handful of good things on the Chicago sports front (other than the fact that the Bears could still very well back that ass up to an NFC North title with an 8-8 record): Derrick Rose, Derrick Rose, and more Derrick Rose.

Many of you are well aware by my litany of posts during the summer that I was quite excited from the moment that the Bulls won the draft lottery that Derrick Rose would be coming home, but thought of him as more of an “upside” guy since the only position more difficult for a rookie in professional sports than NBA point guard is starting NFL quarterback.  Well, after a month of watching Rose in action, I’m simply flabbergasted at the magnitude of his play.  Believe me, I’m not one for hyperbole in terms in of athletic praise, but DERRICK ROSE IS THE FUCKING TRUTH.  Not only is he blowing past top tier defenders off of the dribble and consistently scoring 20 points a game, he’s got jackasses like Larry Hughes and Aaron Gray on the court with him that can’t hit open shots, thus holding down Rose’s assist numbers.  I can’t emphasize enough that the fact that he’s doing this as a 19-year old true point guard is beyond comprehension to me.  I’m not going to go off on some prematurely wacky MJ or LeBron comparisons, but let’s just say the Derrick Rose is wildly exceeding some already pretty high expectations.

Speaking of LeBron James, this brings up the well-known NBA free agent class of 2010 that includes the King, Chicagoan Dwyane Wade (it has been fascinating to see Wade’s alma mater and one of my high school’s conference rivals, Richards, featured prominently in his new Converse commercial), and Chris Bosh.  As expected, the New York-centric media is all in a tizzy over the fact that the Knicks have cleared cap space through a series of trades over the past couple of weeks, which puts the franchise in a position to bring LeBron to his rightful place at Madison Square Garden (since it would such a “waste” to have a superstar of this stature in place like Cleveland).  Sam Smith actually poses a legitimate question in all of this: Why not the Bulls in 2010?  The Bulls can put themselves in position to have enough salary cap space to offer a max contract to one or even two of those marquee free agents.  Let’s not forget that with all of the talk about LeBron’s affinity for the Yankees, he has also stated repeatedly that his favorite NBA team growing up was the Bulls (granted, he was the ultimate front-runner by also being a Cowboys fan, ensuring that he covered every possible 1990s dynasty).  I’m not saying that LeBron will be the new attraction at the United Center in two years, but the fact that Derrick Rose is already here means that this team will not be an empty cupboard like many of the other teams that will be clearing cap space at the same time.  Unlike a barren Knicks team, pairing Rose up with any one of LeBron, Wade, or Bosh would almost certainly make the Bulls the dominant team in the Eastern Conference, if not all of the NBA, for the better part of a decade.  Add in the fact that it is a standard shoe contract clause for players to receive additional financial incentives to play in the Chicago media market (along with New York and Los Angeles) and the Bulls ought to be the most enticing 2010 free agent destination out there assuming that the franchise can clear the necessary cap space.

I’ll admit that before the ping-pong balls bounced the right way back in May, the summer of 2010 was all that I was really looking forward to as a Bulls fans that actually wants to see some new championship banners since I knew for a very long time that the Deng/Hinrich/Gordon nucleus would have a maximum ceiling of advancing a couple of rounds in the playoffs but never have a legitimate chance to win it all.  However, Derrick Rose has changed all of that.  While I’m still dreaming of the sky-high possibilities of 2010, the presence of Rose has made every Bulls game appointment television for me right now (even though this team would be fortunate to get the 8th-seed in the playoffs).  With the way he has adjusted to the NBA as 19-year old starting point guard with subpar teammates after only a month, he’d still be the headliner at the United Center no matter who the Bulls may or may not sign in 2010.

(Image from Bleacher Report)