April 19, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Chicago Bulls small forward Luol Deng (9) during the second half against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE
The Chicago Bulls will head into the playoffs as the top seed in the East for the second year in a row. We look at how they got there.
If only for a moment, forget all of the oddities and absurdities that went into making the 2011-2012 NBA regular season the most bizarre in recent memory: the real improbability in all of this is that we even had a season to begin with. Time is said to heal even the most egregious of wounds, and on the brink of the postseason, this appears to have been proven true yet again. You won't read a playoff preview which mentions BRI this weekend; even with a light being shone on Billy Hunter's money laundering past on Wednesday, the lockout's major players won't register over the course of "40 Games In 40 Nights", at least not until Derek Fisher hits his bi-annual game-winner to bail out Oklahoma City. And let's be honest: after watching the Charlotte Bobcats careen their way into the worst winning percentage in league history, it's no wonder His Airness never wanted this thing to get off the ground in the first place.
It's all been swept under the rug. The lockout was a hardship we won't have to endure again until the current CBA reaches its expiration date. But while the labor dispute that caused this truncated mess is the furthest thing on anyone's mind heading into these highly anticipated playoffs, its imprint can be found everywhere.
To call this regular season 'weird' almost seems to be underselling. The San Antonio Spurs were supposed to be pronounced dead after getting knocked off by an eight seed in the first round of last year's playoffs; yet, here they are, again on top of the West. Same can be said for the Boston Celtics, a team in "year five of a three-year plan" that is somehow still capable of striking fear into select hearts. There was the Dwight Howard drama in Orlando, which raised the standard on just how ludicrous this league's annual superstar-turned-hostage situation can be. The Lakers traded Lamar Odom to the team that swept them out of last year's playoffs for nothing, which looked like a nonsensical form of highway robbery until the player himself decided display a sort of unadulterated sadness and apathy in Dallas that even the most strident Saddle Creek bands couldn't relate to. Also: what the fuck is up with Andrew Bynum?
Yeah, this season has been straight-up kooky from the moment it began. This brings us, finally, to our Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls weren't supposed to win the East, and this was when they were presumed healthy. This was the year the Heat would finally learn to move as a symbiotic organism, when LeBron would prove his balls weren't made of paper mache, when their overwhelming talent advantage would finally rise to the top. Only it hasn't happened. Miami has been every bit as hot and cold as they were last season. They'll (quite literally) jump over opposing players to finish alley-oops and dunk enough with blunt force to be charged with a felony. Then they'll lose 8-of-9 on the road to teams above .500 after the All-Star Game. That the Heat did this while (mostly) healthy will give a once-and-final ruling to the NBA's capacity for an on/off switch. They're still terrifying, but they're also undeniably vulnerable.
Our Bulls, on the other hand, are the perfect foil to the self-proclaimed "Heatles". They are an emotionless, basketball-playing automation, the type of unit hard-wired to never let its collective foot step off of gas pedals and/or necks. These Bulls are not the most talented bunch even when they're healthy. When Derrick Rose misses 27 games, when Richard Hamilton misses 39, and when Luol Deng misses 12 games? With a lesser coach, they'd be lucky to make the playoffs. That is not an overstatement.
The Bulls don't have a lesser coach, though. They have the single most irreplaceable coach in sports, a man that has forced his way into being the NBA's version of Bill Belichick. Baseball has a stat called VORP -- Value Over Replacement Player. If Vinny Del Negro is the perfect "replacement level" coach, and he is, we can see tangibly just how valuable Thibs is: he's good for about 20 wins all by himself. Under Del Negro for two seasons, the Bulls were twice the eighth seed. With Thibodeau, they'll have homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Bill Simmons' relatively great "Book Of Basketball" debated if NBA coaches even matter. Please, after the watching the way Thibs has guided this injury-plagued unit to the top seed in the East yet again, that theory is crazier than that one episode of 90210.
That the players have all bought in seamlessly to Thibodeau's take-no-prisoners mentality is a modern miracle. It's no wonder Howard doesn't want to come to this team: he'd be sitting the bench with his iPhone telling Siri to remind him to have Thibs replaced with someone as hands off as, well, Del Negro.
I've said it before, but I'll say it again: what the Bulls accomplished this season is preposterous. The NBA is characterized as a pissing contest between the biggest dogs in the yard for a reason: because, under normal circumstances, that's exactly what it is. There are outliers, of course. Those mid-aughts Pistons team come to mind immediately, but it could be argued that those squads started five borderline All-Stars. The Bulls have sustained an even higher degree of winning this year led by dudes who can hardly be considered starters.
All of the injuries made it a decidedly frustrating regular season from a fan's perspective. There's nothing exhilarating about "the right way", at least not until it defeats the Heat. The Bulls are far from the most aesthetically-pleasing team to watch even with Rose; without him, they're tolerable to these biased eyes but not exactly a joy. Rose deservedly won the MVP last season by being the offensive catalyst for the NBA's best team, but Year 2 under Thibodeau has been even more revealing: the Bulls will finish sixth in the league in offensive efficiency with Rose missing so many games; last year, with Rose at his MVP-best, they were 12th in the same category. They win the same way they've always won under Thibodeau: defense, rebounding, effort. When the long range shots start falling? The opposition really doesn't have a chance.
The playoffs have a way of putting Everything In Its Right Place, though. The Bulls hardly win with smoke-and-mirrors -- it's not like they're the Bears, but no one can argue this formula -- kick-started by bench depth that is often marginalized in the postseason -- has a winning track record. Truth be told, no Bulls fan will believe this team can win the championship until Rose is back to the apex of his explosiveness. Thankfully, Chicago should be able to win a series or two until he can get there.
The Bulls postseason success will ultimately come down to several things. Rose's health, first and foremost. Luol Deng is a soldier, but even the toughest men get tired. That can't happen to Chicago's glue guy in the sure-to-be-grueling playoffs. Kyle Korver needs to keep that three-point stroke fresh to death. Same goes for C.J. Watson. Richard Hamilton needs to a) stay on the court and b) start knocking down the jumpers he's built a career off of hitting. Noah and Boozer need to keep doing their thing, and not get out-muscled or out-classed by the big and quick front-courts they're about to see.
But mostly, the Bulls need to just keep doing what they're doing. They're a favorite in record only: most wouldn't believe this bandaged-up crew could knock off chiseled-from-the-mountains men like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Reason and logic have no place here, though. Under Thibodeau, they never have. The Bulls face the Philadelphia 76ers in round one, with the first game starting on Saturday at noon. In round two, Atlanta or Boston. Then, assuming each lasts, Miami. The playoffs have a way of making you forget the regular season ever existed in the first place. After all of the injuries that have plagued Chicago since that Christmas day win over the Lakers, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing.