Real and Spectacular
Best believe the Chicago Bulls are title contenders.
by Aggrey Sam / @CSNBullsInsider
I’m here to tell you they’re real. As real as it gets.
My apologies if you’ve already jumped on the Bulls bandwagon (or never left it, as evidenced by the sold-out crowds at the UC during last season’s .500 campaign and subsequent first-round exit); if that’s the case, then this isn’t for you.
This is for the casual observers, the ones who marvel at Derrick Rose’s MVP season, recognize Tom Thibodeau’s defensive-oriented philosophy and have even come to appreciate the team’s blue-collar, infrequently aesthetically pleasing style, but…refuse to accept them as legit.
I’m here to tell you they’re real.
As somebody who was around last season, saw a dramatic shift in approach since training camp (Thibs brought a little “ubuntu” with him from Boston) and have watched these cats quietly go about their biz to rack up 62 regular-season wins, I can honestly say that I’m prepared to be working until June. This isn’t the place for predictions (I’ll save that for my day job), but nothing positive the Bulls do would surprise me at this point.
Why would it? This is a team that hasn’t lost more than two games in a row all season, conquered every team in the NBA at least once and when they do lose—and even when they win, but don’t live up to personal expectations—there’s a genuine collective cloud of dejection hanging over the locker room.
Much of that stems from the personal affection and respect they have for each other; while Pat Riley was putting together “The Big Three,” Gar Forman and John Paxson were tinkering with that Berto Center chemistry set, putting together a roster of like-minded, humble and hard-working dudes who fit their returning young core (Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson) and new coach.
Not one of those guys mentioned exhibits a trace of selfishness on or off the court—as someone who sees the team on a near-daily basis, I can’t testify to having an unpleasant experience with anybody on the roster (not that I’d be snitching anyway, but this piece wouldn’t come off nearly as glowingly)—and by adding stable veteran presences (Kurt Thomas, Keith Bogans, Brian Scalabrine, late-season acquisition Rasual Butler and the Utah expatriate trio of Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver), as well as quiet, know-your-role types like CJ Watson and rookie Omer Asik, the pieces just fit like a jigsaw.
At some point this season, each and every player has been called upon to step up, and they’ve unfailingly responded, regardless of the situation. Booz goes down with the pre-season gym bag incident, Taj builds on his First-Team All-Rookie campaign like he’s the two-time All-Star with the huge free-agent deal. Jo has surgery and misses 30 games, “O.G.” (Kurt) has an extended ’90s flashback stretch. Even in the one game Derrick missed—with a weird stiff-neck injury; they lost in Denver on a Melo buzzer-beater, back on the arduous November “circus trip”—CJ comes in and drops 33. Oh, and I can’t forget “Big O” frustrating Dwight Howard in Orlando to avenge their only true blowout loss this season.
It’s now become cliché to say the Bulls have a college-like spirit about them and while that makes sense on the surface because of their closeness (how many NBA teams hang out together on the road in large groups?), it doesn’t speak to their professionalism, level of preparation and shared win-at-all-costs mentality. Of course, it starts with Thibs, but Derrick is the embodiment of that ethos on the court.
Speaking of Derrick, I’m also here to tell you that it’s not an act. You’ve seen what he does on the floor and I can tell you a bunch of anecdotes to describe his nature, but the simplest way to put it is this: Derrick will never be a better player than person. I know, he’s only 22 and a lot can happen between now and the end of his career, but I’m confident that as grounded as he is now with the world at his feet, his life decision-making won’t get more irresponsible as time goes on, especially in his hometown and with his longtime support system.
It’s not just about him, however, regardless of what Danny Granger believes. I’ve touched on Derrick, Thibs and the entire team dynamic, but perhaps the key to the Bulls post-season success is the longest-tenured player on the team, Luol Deng, who I also wrote a sidebar about in SLAM 148.
For the first time in his career, Lu, unanimously referred to as the team’s glue, has played all 82 games and responded with perhaps his best overall season. His individual match-up against the aforementioned Granger as the Bulls-Pacers first-round series kicks off Saturday, but regardless if you’re a fan of his or not, he’s easy to root for because of his journey, giving spirit and like the rest of the team, he’s just a good dude.
I’m not from Chicago, I didn’t grow up a Bulls fan and even though I know I’m lucky to be able to see the likely MVP and Coach of the Year work their magic every night for the League’s best regular-season team, that’s not the best part of my gig. It’s knowing that I’m going to see an honest effort on the court every game, good enough to beat any team on a given night and that dealing with them off the floor is just as rewarding.
Like I said, they’re real. And spectacular—that is, if you define a no-frills, championship-caliber team as spectacular.