SLAM 148: The Bulls have become title contenders quicker than anyone imagined.
“You’re never quite sure because I didn’t really know the players. The obvious thing was from sitting on the opposing bench, I liked what I saw. I saw how hard Derrick played and Joakim and Luol, so I knew there was a good nucleus already in place,” rasped Thibs before a recent game. “Once I got here and I saw the makeup of the guys, and I was able to observe how driven they were and how coachable they were, I knew it would be a great fit.
“I thought we would have an opportunity to be good because of the players that were here and the careful planning by the management team to create the cap space to add to it,” he continues, before Bulls VP and three-time champ John Paxson pokes his head into Thibodeau’s United Center office. (“Studying?” queries Pax, before excusing himself.) “The challenge for us at the start of camp was how quickly we could all get on the same page and then make the commitment to improve every day, so we could build ourselves into hopefully what is a championship-caliber team.”
While the contributions of Boozer (one of two Bulls capable of commanding double teams), Noah (his intangibles are immeasurable), Deng (one of the best two-way small forwards in the game) and the supporting cast (Chicago’s second unit has emerged as one of the League’s best) have all played major parts in the Bulls’ success, the League’s MVP—hands down—is the primary reason they’re considered the most dangerous team in a wide-open East.
“He’s the Most Valuable Player, but he’s the Most Improved Player, as well,” argues Noah. “He’s added defense to his game. He’s a lockdown defender, he can rebound, he added a three-point shot, he’s added going to the free-throw line, he’s added being more vocal. He’s added like four or five things and usually, coaches always preach about adding one thing a year.”
Adds Thibs: “The big thing about Derrick is this: When you’re sitting on the opposing bench, you see the talent; that’s obvious.
“When I got here this summer, having the opportunity to watch him with Team USA and then working out in the gym here, I was able to see how driven and humble he is, and what a great teammate he is. I started to see some of the leadership there and to see how he approaches every day. He’s never satisfied, and the team success is very important to him. He’s everything that I was hoping he would be and even more. His commitment each day, it’s real steady. He gets to the gym early, he stays late, he works hard, he practices hard and the improvements are small, but when you add those improvements up each and every day, all of a sudden, it becomes a quantum leap. He hasn’t gone from A to Z. It’s been step by step.”
As for the 22-year-old himself, if he’s burdened by all the expectations—if you recall, he brought up MVP before the season even started—he doesn’t act like it, even if he could do without all the attention.
“I’m living with it, man. Saying it [MVP] is one thing, but going out there and really playing is another. It’s hard,” invoking another frequently used phrase that he makes a mockery of on the court, as Bulls greats like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant congratulate him on a win in a UC hallway. “I’m happy that everybody’s talking about me, but I’m just trying to keep playing.”
All the way through June, if things keep progressing ahead of schedule.