A Bulls Market Once Again

derrick-rose-chicago-bulls-boston-celtics-2009-nba-playoffs

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)

Bulls Should Make the NBA Draft a Rose Bowl

One would think that there would be a raging debate in Chicago for the next month about how the Bulls should use the first pick in the NBA Draft that fell so fortuitously in the lap of Steve Schanwald last week, considering that this is a two-player draft between Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley.  Having been too young to have watched the Hakeem-MJ draft of 1984 even if it had been televised, this will be without question the most important draft that I’ll personally witness for a Chicago sports team.  As a result, you would think that the sports radio talk show hosts in town would have a great incentive to milk this out for as long as possible.  However, a consensus has quickly built around Rose as the choice on both the national and local fronts with only a smattering of exceptions.

Fortunately, I’m whole-heartedly in the Rose camp.  This is partly based on all of the standard arguments that point guards are becoming more valuable than ever in the NBA while it’s “easier” (not easy) to get a power forward in the manner of Beasley.  Look at how Chris Paul and Illini great Deron Williams have respectively turned around New Orleans and Utah over the past couple of seasons with relatively average talent around them.  In particular, CP3 has turned Bulls retreads Tyson Chandler and Jannero Pargo(!) into viable NBA players on the offensive end of the floor.  When considering that Rose is more fully developed at 19 than either CP3 or Deron were at that age with almost a combination of Paul’s slashing ability and Williams’ size and strength, it’s not crazy to surmise that Rose has the potential to be the preeminent point guard in the league for the next decade.

(By the way, let’s quickly go over two things that DON’T matter in this draft.  First, the fact that Rose is from Chicago is inconsequential.  It’s great for the headline writers in town for the next month trumpeting the return of the hometown kid to lead the favorite team from his childhood out of the dumpster, but draft picks in any sport need to be made in a vacuum with respect to where such draft picks grew up or went to college.  If Rose was from American Samoa, I’d be just as excited.  Second, whether Rose or Beasley is picked, no one should care one bit with how either one would fit with the Bulls’ current players.  The team needs to be built around this draft pick as opposed to the other way around.  John Paxson’s ability to restore the fans’ confidence in his management skills is not going to be based on this draft pick, which is essentially idiot-proof, but whether he’ll be able to package Kirk Hinrich and/or others to obtain a solid scorer at power forward (organizational mea culp on Elton Brand, anyone?) assuming that he takes Rose.)

More importantly, while I think that Beasley will become a star in this league, I just think that Rose has a certain jen a se quas that I believe will make him a superstar.  Rose already has enviable passing, driving and defensive skills, so if he’s able to develop a consistent jumpshot, there’s not much this guy can’t do on the floor.  I hate going back to the “upside” term, but the ceiling seems higher for Rose and it’s not as if though he’s substantially more of a risk than Beasley considering that Rose was able to lead Memphis to the national championship game as a freshman point guard.  The more I think about the image of Rose stepping out onto the United Center floor in a Bulls uniform in November, the more giddy I get about the state of our basketball team.  This is by no means any disrespect to Beasley, who I believe will be every bit of the impact player that he’s been advertised as for the past year, but Rose is the right pick for the Bulls.

(Image from Zimbio)

Lottery Ball Miracle

I have been prepping for an entire summer of posts about how the Chicago Bulls organization has been in disarray and aloof over the past two years, ranging from misfiring on legitimate opportunities to obtain Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and/or Paul Gasol (all of whom are still leading their teams today in conference finals round) to having such a wacky power structure that Mike D’Antoni didn’t even wait for the team to make him a coaching job offer to go off to the Knicks. Let’s face it – I don’t care how convincing Donnie Walsh might be. After all that’s happened to Knicks management (not to mention their pitiful roster), how awful is Jerry Reinsdorf face-to-face that D’Antoni would rather hang out with Jim Dolan for the foreseeable future?

Two years ago, the Bulls were set up to get back into the NBA’s upper echelon for the first time since Michael Jordan made his last shot to clinch the franchise’s second three-peat ten years ago (I’ll remind you again that my brain’s internal hard drive has erased all memories of the NBA from 2001 to 2003). The team had a young and rapidly improving team, plenty of salary cap room and trade possibilities, and a large market locale that could attract a marquee player or two. John Paxson, who I do believe did a good job drafting players overall considering the positions where he was making picks, was able to parlay all of that into… Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden??? With the lack of a superstar in a league where you need at least one superstar at a minimum to be a legitimate contender to win the NBA Finals, it should not have been a surprise that the Bulls faded in miserable fashion this past season after three straight overachieving years. Last fall, there were a number of Jim Jones Kool-Aid drinking Chicagoans that were actually arguing that giving up a combination of Luol Deng, Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich in exchange for Kobe Bryant would have (a) been too much in terms of talent and (b) upset the chemistry of the team. (For once, I ended up on the right side of a sports debate – I’ve always known that you can’t pass up on Kobe.) By the time this year had concluded, I doubt that Paxson could have traded all of three of those players for even Gasol, much less someone of the caliber of Kobe Bryant.

Every once in awhile, though, the Sports Gods will throw you a bone. Look at the Celtics, who were a smoldering carcass of a franchise a year ago at this time after getting whacked in the Oden/Durant sweepstakes despite having all of the statistics on their side. As Celtics fans stared into the proverbial abyss (or it could have just been the Big Dig), that team subsequently pulled off trades in summer to nab Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen that transformed themselves from one of the worst teams in the NBA to the top record in the league.

Likewise, just a few hours ago, I was resigned to the fact that the Bulls were going to get another solid-but-not-great draft pick in the NBA Draft Lottery to add to their collection of undersized shooting guards and power forwards, with the best case scenario being a sacrificial lamb in the first round of the playoffs. But then, amazing actually happened (just as the NBA has told me roughly over 800 times over past few weeks with somewhat-creepy half-head split-screen shots). With only a 1.7% chance, after years of getting top draft picks in the wrong drafts (or top draft picks with motorcycles), the Bulls freaking got the first pick in a draft where they could get that legitimate superstar – in the form of Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose – that I’ve been screaming about from the very beginning of this blog nearly three years ago. This has come after a decade where the Bulls went from being six-time champions and the most famous team in any sport in the entire world to a close-to-irrelevant franchise that just got passed over by a very good coach in order to go to the human cesspool known as the Knicks organization. It is way too soon to tell whether this day will go down in Chicago sports history as a stroke of luck on par with the Portland Trailblazers thinking that Sam Bowie was a better fit for their system than Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft, yet the Bulls have finally got the burst of energy, regardless of whether that player is Beasley or Rose, that can give this franchise a legitimate chance to get back to where it was ten years ago.

(Image from Bulls.com)