On Wednesday night, the story for the Chicago Bulls wasn't Derrick Rose's knee, profit reports or luxury tax bills. It wasn't about what they should do or what they didn't do or how the hell Gar Forman, John Paxson and Jerry Reinsdorf plan on getting this team back to where they were, among the NBA elite with a puncher's chance at the title. No, on Wednesday, finally, it was just about basketball. If there's one thing that has been proven without a doubt during Tom Thibodeau's reign as head coach of the Bulls, now pushing into its third season, it's that basketball will cure all.
For the first time in six months, there was a moment when I was genuinely happy and excited about Bulls basketball. There were, for once, positive vibes. The final buzzer had sounded on the team's season opener, an ugly but effective 93-87 win over the Sacramento Kings that looked exactly how one might expect it to. A 1-0 start over a squad as young, undisciplined and inferior as these Kings is all fine and well, but the victory could have been overshadowed by more negativity before Saturday's tilt with the Hornets ever began. It could have all been ruined by 11 p.m.
Yes, this was the deadline for Class of '09 draftees to get early extensions. As Wednesday rolled along, so did the contracts. James Harden got the max deal he wanted, the same one that broke up the NBA's best and most fun young core, and he promptly rewarded Daryl Morey and the Rockets with a debut for the ages. Ty Lawson got paid and so did DeMar DeRozan. When it came to Bulls power forward Taj Gibson, though, it seemed as if the franchise's hellbent intentions on making everything harder and more frustrating than it should be would again prevail.
As Gibson entered the locker room before Wednesday's game, a fleet of tweets from the Bulls beat writers hit the Internet. It painted the power forward as somber and disappointed. When asked about a potential long-term extension, Gibson said he wasn't optimistic. It appeared as if the Bulls' top reserve, the one whose blue collar, hard-hat-and-lunch-pail ethos resonate so well with the city and fanbase, would be the latest victim of the front office's hardline negotiating.
Thankfully, there was basketball. Even if Gibson's future hung over the game vs. the Kings like a storm cloud, basketball is always a welcomed distraction.
As someone who lists preseason basketball (and football!) on medical allergy forms, this was the first good, long look I got at these Bulls. Most of that is intentional, as the team's offseason was so utterly abysmal there was no point in investing extra time getting to know this troupe in exhibitions. The addition of Kirk Hinrich has been at the core of much of the moaning and groaning this offseason, but I'm telling you: seeing him on the court, corralling the opening tip, was the most grounding image. It was no longer "Kirk vs. C.J." or jokes about the house he kept in the area. It was Kirk Hinrich, starting point guard for your Chicago Bulls, same as it ever was. I was hardly in favor of The Captain returning back to his palatial Deerfield estate, but you're kidding yourself if you thought it would work out any other way.
The Bulls were heartbroken when they had to deal Hinrich for a snowflake's chance in hell at two max free agents in the summer of 2010. It didn't work out, of course. This is the universe correcting itself, everything back in its right place, whether you want to believe it or not.
Hinrich was Hinrich: gritty, tough, bad at shooting. He finished 1-for-7 from the floor on Wednesday to end with three points and seven assists, though I'm sure somewhere a newspaper columnist is praising his leadership. Such is life. What affected the Bulls' fortunes more on Wednesday night, and will going forward, was a monster effort from Joakim Noah.
If the Bulls are truly going to fight for more than 45 wins this season, they'll need to remain (mostly) healthy. That's No. 1. If all the critical cogs can all stay on the court, then it's Noah, the 27-year old entering his sixth NBA season, who is the most likely candidate for a breakout campaign.
He's off to a good start.
Noah flummoxed Sacramento's talented and enigmatic center DeMarcus Cousins all night on the way to an unbelievable all-around effort: 23 points, 10 rebounds, five steals, three blocks, three assists. It's a stat-line that brings Scottie Pippen to mind, and sure enough, Pippen was the last Bulls player to reach those plateaus.
It was Noah's thunderous effort that combined with Carlos Boozer's rainbow jumpers and some hot shooting from a healthy Richard Hamilton that did the job for the Bulls. Well, that and tremendous defense, as they held the Kings to 34-of-84 shooting from the field (40.5 percent) and won the rebounding battle 46-40.
The best news of all came not even a half hour after the final buzzer sounded. Gibson had accepted the Bulls' extension, a four-year contract with a base salary believed to be $8.5 million. It's fair, even team-friendly, for the organization, and a huge payday for the player. Gibson tweeted:
Truly blessed, went from sleeping in the floor in south central and now this!!! Tears of joy!!!! GOD is GOOD— Taj Gibson (@TajGibson22) November 1, 2012
There are hundreds of layers here, things we'll surely get to at a later date. But for now, just focus on the concrete. The Bulls are 1-0, and Taj Gibson will spend the rest of his prime in Chicago. This is great news any way it's sliced.
The Bulls needed this. The fans needed this. Abstract too much from this one win at your own peril, because any basketball fan worth his or her salt know the greater issues that loom. But we can forget it for a day and enjoy the serenity. The Bulls are back, and it actually isn't so bad.