Let’s get one thing straight. Even if Derrick Rose dons a game jersey, the Chicago Bulls won’t win an NBA championship in 2013. He’s too rusty. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be iconic. The Bulls are the NBA’s Million Dollar Baby. They won’t survive to win the title, but it’s about the journey, not the destination.
After being considered a lottery team in the preseason, the Bulls are still in the championship hunt, but the collective assumption three weeks ago was that they were less Predator assassins and more of duck hunters. I got caught up in that groupthink. After watching this squad for the past six months – especially in these playoffs – I get the feeling that it’ll be a team I remember for quite some time. In stock market jargon, Chicago is trending up in a Bull market and I’m emotionally invested in the outcome.
Scrappy teams like these Bulls should occupy a unique quarter in NBA lore separate from the all-time great champions or the abject busts. They’re sandwiched in the middle, backyard-brawling destiny. They’re the professional version of sanction-riddled Kentucky’s ‘92 Unforgettables who came seconds away from the Final Four with a proletarian lineup.
For example, the ’07 postseason was more notable for the Warriors win than it was for the Mavericks collapse or the Spurs title.
In ’05, the post-Malice In The Palace Indiana Pacers trudged through the regular season and playoffs with a depleted roster displaying an intestinal fortitude that mirrors the contemporary Bulls.
The Brawl, and the subsequent 146 games worth of suspensions (including the season-long absence of “The Baller Formerly Known As Ron”), effectively ended any reasonable chance of Reggie Miller copping a championship ring in his final season.
The Pacers would go down swinging, six games into the conference semifinals against the Detroit Pistons. The Return of Rose would be the antithesis to Reggie’s finale, but an equally enduring image.
Chicago doesn’t run on autopilot. Tom Thibodeau finishing eighth in Coach of the Year voting is a travesty, considering his role as the person responsible for instilling the toughness and defensive instincts that have kept the franchise afloat.
The Bulls aren’t Abercrombie & Fitch attractive, like the metrosexual Heat or the full-of-finesse Knicks. Aside from Joakim Noah’s sister, there wasn’t much allure to watch them play. However, over time, the city of Chicago has embraced their thrift shop roster better than Macklemore on a budget.
Chicago was already negative about this season’s prospects after Rose tore his ACL last April, but the UnforgettaBulls compounded the disappointment with a forgettable offseason. Instead of making incremental improvements, they dismantled their potent Bench Mob.
Houston outbid them for reserve Omer Asik, who’s become a double-double machine for Houston. In addition, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer were replaced with Marco Belinelli, Nazr Mohammed, Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson; a change which, at the time, was perceived to be a downgrade.
In February, Rose’s brother Reggie let us know how he really felt about the Bulls motley collection of characters and their thrifty spending habits as one of six teams never to pay the luxury tax.
“It’s frustrating to see my brother play his heart and soul out for the team and them not put anything around him,” Reggie Rose admitted less than a week after Deng and Noah played in the All-Star Game. “Joakim Noah is a great player. Luol Deng is a great player. But you need more than that.”
At the time, some took Reggie’s opinion to reflect Derrick’s, but that’s unlikely. Rose is the anti-Dwyane Wade, in that, unlike a majority of the NBA’s chummy superstars, he’s refused to actively recruit superstars to join him in Chicago.
This team has garnered memorable-status because of their Thibodeau-infused grit and smash mouth physicality. They took a Kimbo Slice-sized beat down on the road in Game 2 of the semis against Miami, but they’ve beaten the Heat like a backyard pool three times during the season despite being ground zero for one of the most injury-riddled campaigns in league history.
Team I.V. has yet to field a squad at full power, but managed to go all Buster Douglas on Miami’s 27-game winning streak and New York’s 13-game winning streak.
The Bulls could have thrown up the white flag in October, when Luol Deng considered season-ending wrist surgery. Instead, he led the Bulls in scoring and topped the league in minutes per game. Or when Noah developed plantar fasciitis, or after Kirk Hinrich bruised his calf muscle, or, now, with Deng enduring one of the scariest health situations imaginable.
Doctors were concerned Deng had contracted viral meningitis, so they conducted a spinal tap to inspect for an infection. The tests came back negative, but that stroke of fortune immediately turned sour, when the tap resulted in a spinal fluid leakage. At this point, Bulls team physician Dr. Cole has surpassed Dr. James Andrews and Gregory House on the celebrity doctor scale.
With Deng out and Taj Gibson managing an MCL injury, it’s given breakout Bull Jimmy Butler a chance to get more shine. The 30th pick in the 2011 Draft only played four minutes during last year’s first-round series against Philly. This year, he played 48 minutes for three straight games (before getting a Game 2 breather) and has emerged as a viable starting 2-guard.
The ’99 Knicks were the petri dish for writer Bill Simmons’ Ewing Theory, which was hatched in light of the New York Knicks’ trip to the Finals as a No. 8 seed after Ewing tore his Achilles. The Rose-less Bulls have sparked similar hopes. However, Chicago’s postseason revelation doesn’t undermine Rose’s importance.
Instead, it discredits Reggie’s belief that his brother was Denzel Washington on a community theatre stage. Instead, the Bulls roster has proven itself to be deeper in talent than the Wayans’ family. Carlos Boozer and his immaculately shaven facial hair have curtailed his snowballing career trajectory.
The drop-off from Rose hasn’t been as dramatic as most expected, thanks to his previously maligned stopgap replacements Nate Robinson and Hinrich. The perception was that Hinrich was on the wrong side of 30 and that Robinson had that J.R. Smith impulsiveness gene. On the opposite end of the spectrum from his unreal fourth quarter Game-4 performance against the Nets, is Erratic Nate, who has played for five teams since 2010.
After the initial apprehension, Hinrich and Robinson have been welcome squatters in Rose’s vacant starting spot. Robinson is still an energy junkie who feeds off crowd fervor, but he has rarely OD’d on the fan support this season.
Conversely, when he gets in a zone, he can put the ball in the basket and put defenders on skates in summertime like a new-era Tim Hardaway – except he’s about four to five inches shorter. Rose has a reticent court demeanor, but the loquacious Nate Rob is the Rickey Smiley to Noah’s Russ Parr. The problem is, when he loses his emotional balance, he turns into a bull in a china shop and can shoot his team out of a game.
Robinson’s unpredictability has reared its ugly head before, but his passion bucket is probably heavier than any other player in the league. Enjoy him while you can. Chicago's postseason hero came for the veteran’s minimum, but he’ll be a hot commodity out of Chicago’s price range in the offseason.
The youngest MVP in league history is Chicago’s favorite son, and Robinson is an emotional load, but Hinrich is the organization’s prodigal son. He was traded from Chicago in anticipation of the 2010 free-agent bonanza. Last summer, he was signed as an inexpensive alternative to prevent Jerry Reinsdorf from paying the luxury tax, and he’s been the same old reliable point guard Chicago remembers.
Chicago’s combination of physicality and perpetual energy may be the only thing that has flustered the Miami Heat this season. In Monday’s showing, Chicago walked into LeBron’s lion den and emerged from Game 1 with Miami under their boots. Even in Game 2’s defeat, it was evident that Chicago was dictating the style of play. Miami first had to match the Bulls’ bully-ball and then go from there.
In the Kentucky Derby’s aftermath, I have an unhealthy fetish for dark horses. The magnitude of seemingly insurmountable obstacles the Bulls have overcome this season has been inspirational.
Making the playoffs when they could have played their NBA Draft lottery hand is commendable. Beating Brooklyn in seven games with half their roster on the mend deserves a standing ovation. Just hanging with Miami would be awe-inspiring.
Even if you’re sipping margaritas in the back of Miami’s Hummer stretch limo, you should still love these Bulls, and hopefully, the Rose family can love this squad one day, too.
There’s no Bulls bandwagon, but Thibodeau’s crew has chosen ridin’ over dyin’ all season long; even if it meant pushing the hooptie on E down the highway. The Bulls may not win this series, but at some point this season, they won over Chicago’s most skeptical fans. Count me down, too. I’m all in.