Some say he left for the pride, some think it was for the money, others presume he just wanted to go home. Whatever the real reason Lebron James bolted the Miami Heat for the Cleveland Cavaliers may be, it does not matter. Lebron and the rest of the NBA should be well aware that he is not quite king of the jungle in the Eastern Conference as it stands. The one team standing in his way? The Chicago Bulls.
During my three month international journey to Israel, Poland and Prague, I found myself (remarkably) watching my beloved Washington Wizards facing off against the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Yes, the Wizards, as a number five seed, upset the fourth seeded Bulls in a six game series; but the fact that the Bulls earned a fourth seed, the fact the Bulls still made the playoffs despite another tolling injury to the face of their franchise point guard Derrick Rose was remarkable.
On May 3, 2011 at the mere age of 22, in just his third NBA season, Rose was named the youngest MVP in NBA history. The fact that a player, not even in his prime yet, had been named MVP was astonishing. Rose and the Bulls began the next season with high hopes. Unfortunately, it ended with Rose tearing his ACL in his left knee, causing him to miss the duration of the entire next season. Rose returned this past season, just to go down with a season ending meniscus tear in his right knee in only his tenth game back.
Despite this second season ending injury to Rose, thanks to a stellar effort from defensive player of the year Joakim Noah and a strong supporting cast the Bulls managed to put forth a record of 48-34 and earn home court in the first round.
Not many teams would be capable of persevering through tough times and setbacks like the Bulls did this past season. Reigning NBA champion and coach of the San Antonio Spurs Greg Popovich praised the Bulls and their head coach Tom Thibodeau for their persistence in an interview with the Chicago Tribune back in January.
“First, [Thibodeau] is relentless in trying to get them better in every aspect of the game,” Popovich said. “Second, they have a group that has character — and they care. Third, they play outstanding defense and that keeps you in games on nights you can’t put it in the hole.”
Popovich said it himself, the Bulls resembled the blue print of last season’s championship winning Spurs. They played disciplined and unselfish basketball that helped them succeed in Rose’s absence. Their management’s decisions and acquisitions this offseason have made them resemble the Spurs even more.
One thing the Spurs have built their franchise on is traditional values. They have always brought forth teams consisting of stars, role players and bench players alike; but they have played like a team no matter what. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili may have been the stars for the Spurs last season and for the past decade for that matter, but to an outsider watching the NBA finals, there would be no difference between the legendary big 3 and Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and the rising and finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
The Bulls made the move of the offseason thus far, bringing in longtime dominant big man Pau Gasol. Gasol, like Duncan in San Antonio, will not only contribute to the team with his own production but will make everyone around him better. The Bulls now boast possibly the best tandem of big men since David Robinson and Tim Duncan dominated the league as the twin towers.
In addition to Gasol, the Bulls return Jimmer Fredette from last season and former longtime Bull Kirk Hinrich coming back for a second stint with the team that drafted him. These two guards will provide depth behind Rose and will be able to step right in to the game in the case that he misses time due to injury.
A lack of offensive firepower last season led to the Bulls eventual downfall. Acquiring Doug McDermott on draft night immediately alleviated this setback. “Dougie McBuckets” will be able to provide production on offense from day one. The Bulls also bring back the likes of Mike Dunleavy Jr. along with Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell, two up and coming youngsters who can put forth playing time as wing players.
And don’t forget Taj Gibson, the runner-up sixth man of the year played an instrumental role in the team’s success last season in Derrick Rose’s absence. They also quietly brought over Nikola Mirotic from Real Madrid in Spain to further bolster their front court, he boasts superb ball handling skills for a big man and the three point shooting capability of Kevin Love.
The Bulls valued their core and their system this offseason, rather than vastly overpaying to acquire one of the top prizes in free agency in Carmelo Anthony. By not signing Anthony, the Bulls were able to bring in scraps and under the radar players along with a starter in Gasol who will immediately improve the performance and morale of the team. Whether it was intentional or not, not acquiring Carmelo Anthony was the one of the best things that happened to the Bulls this summer.
In sports, nothing is a given, but with a strong core and the return of Rose, the Bulls will be able to counter anyone standing in their way. Whether it’s the Cavs and the now humble Lebron, the young guns in Toronto, Paul George and the Pacers, the rising Wizards or the makeshift Miami Heat; the Bulls will for sure be right in the thick of it. And if Rose can stay healthy, they are the clear cut NBA favorites.
Follow Alex on twitter @flumdognosebest to see his optimistic tweets about the Wizards.