When pundits analyzed LeBron James’ free-agent options last summer, many thought that signing with the Chicago Bulls would be the best option for him. With their promising second-year guard, Derrick Rose, at the point, and big man Joakim Noah acting as enforcer, the Bulls were built to win — if they could only add James.
Who knew they wouldn’t even need him? As the NBA playoffs tip off this weekend, it’s the Bulls — not the much-hyped Miami Heat, with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; or the Boston Celtics, who have won the Eastern Conference two of the past three years; or even the two-time defending champs, the Los Angeles Lakers — with the NBA’s best record. Home-court advantage goes to Chicago.
Fans knew the Bulls would be strong this season, but no one expected them to finish with a 62-20 record. And that’s because while we all knew Rose was promising, we just didn’t suspect he’d be the MVP. After a regular season in which he averaged 25 points, and 7.7 assists, per game (up from 20.8 and 6, respectively, from last season), Rose is the favorite to win that hardware. The Chicago native has the Windy City thinking of the title for the first time since Michael Jordan left the Bulls back in 1998.
Not unlike M.J. in his heyday, it’s hard to take your eyes off Rose. After the Bulls grab a rebound, Rose will often take a few dribbles toward half court, slowly building speed. Then, the boosters kick in. If a defender picks him up in the paint, Rose will either jump right over him, or knock him down, since he’s built like a running back. “His explosiveness is something I’ve never seen before,” says teammate Carlos Boozer, the power forward who signed with Chicago as a free agent, from the Utah Jazz, last summer (Boozer missed 23 games this season because of injuries). “I’ve seen quickness. I’ve played against A.I. [Allen Iverson]. I’ve played with A.I. But I’ve never seen someone with that explosiveness. He’s like a Dominique [Wilkins] from the point-guard position. He dunks like a power forward, except he’s 6 ft. 3 in.”
Even more scary, this season Rose is a more confident shooter. A year ago, for example, Rose took just 60 three-point shots, and hit 16 of them, a 26% clip. This season, he hoisted 385 shots, and made 128 of them (33%). That’s an eightfold increase in three-point production. “When I was thinking of signing here, guys were like, ‘Rose is amazing, but he can’t shoot,'” says Boozer. “And I get here, and that’s all he’s working on. He’s hit game-winning three-point shots, game-winning fadeaway jumpers on two people, on three people, on one person. He can shoot. Let me make that clear. He can do everything they said he couldn’t do.” For Rose, all the off-season sweat paid off. “This past summer was the hardest I ever worked out,” Rose says. “When I didn’t think I could go any further, when I was ready to pass out, my trainer would keep pushing me. Everybody kept pushing me. Seeing the results has been a nice surprise.”
Rose’s demeanor on and off the court has also been a pleasant surprise. While he is an explosive player, he’s not loud or brash. “When a lot of players around the league get superstar status, they’re always shouting,” says Taj Gibson, a reserve forward for the Bulls. “You see them yelling at their teammates, getting on them.” Sound familiar, Kobe Bryant? “He doesn’t do that,” Gibson says. “He’s always trying to improve your game, and he talks to you a lot. He’s real easygoing. He’s not one of those cocky players, saying ‘I deserve this and that.'” Boozer recalls a practice in February: the Bulls were on a five-game, 12-day road trip, and the team scheduled a workout in Oakland, Calif., before a game against the Golden State Warriors. The team was weary from traveling. “Nobody wanted to be there,” Boozer says. “We’re running through our plays, and I throw Derrick a backdoor pass. He goes off one leg, does a windmill, cocks the ball back, and dunks it with his other hand. And all of a sudden, we’re all hype. We want to play five-on-five. That’s the kind of kid he is. He inspires his teammates by his actions. He’s getting more vocal, but it’s not his personality.”
The pieces around Rose also fit. As a scoring point guard, Rose needs the ball in his hands, for a decent chunk of time to be effective. When you have too many of those kinds of players on the same team, you can run into trouble (see Heat, Miami). The Bulls don’t have this problem. Boozer can catch and shoot, quickly, in the post. Noah has no discernible offensive skills; he’s a garbage man, flailing around his elbows, sharp as box cutters, to pick up loose balls and rebounds for his points. Small forward Luol Deng, an underrated talent, is an effective slasher: he can get the ball and instantly drive to the basket, or pull up for a long-range shot. Guard Kyle Korver is a spot-up shooter. Everyone on the team knows his role.
The Bulls are also blessed with a first-year coach, former Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau, who has convinced his players to care about winning as much as he does. “He’s the most intense man in the universe,” says one NBA team exec familiar with Thibodeau. “There’s nothing that flows through his brain cells besides basketball.” When Boozer describes the size of Thibodeau’s playbook, he spreads out his hands wide. “I’ve played for Coach K, Jerry Sloan, Larry Brown, everyone you can imagine,” says Boozer. “[Thibodeau] is the most prepared coach I’ve ever had in my career.” Thibodeau is so dedicated to defense that, for warm-ups, the Bulls actually practice contesting shots, as opposed to just stretching or taking some layups like most teams do. “Every day,” says Boozer of the defensive drills, as if describing a daily dose of Robitussin.
Despite their impressive record, the Bulls are not a sure bet. Usually teams with point guards as the highest scorers don’t win titles. Why? “It’s easiest to scheme against an offense with a dominant point guard,” says the NBA executive. The point guard’s typical point of attack is the area at the top of the key; the defense players can see the ball in front of them and are more aware of what the offense is doing. If the ball is dumped down low, or tossed to a wing, bodies and heads have to turn. This movement can lead to more defensive confusion.
Further, the Bulls aren’t playoff-tested. The core players who have been with the Bulls the past three years — Rose, Deng, and Noah — have lost in the first round of the playoffs the past two seasons. The Celtics have struggled down the stretch of the regular season because they traded their toughest interior defender, Kendrick Perkins, to the Oklahoma City Thunder while their other aging big men, Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal, struggle with injuries. Still, they have four experienced All-Stars (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo) hungry for one more shot. Miami finished the regular season 15-3. And if the Bulls get through the Eastern Conference, there’s still a veteran team like the Spurs, which have won 61 games this season, or the Lakers, who are still the reigning champions despite a five-game losing streak near the end of the season and an injury to center Andrew Bynum that could cause him to miss some playoff time.
Still, Chicago is a team worth pulling for this postseason. The Celtics seem a little tired. Few people outside Miami are willing to embrace the Heat, though a LeBron-Bryant NBA Finals would be a dream matchup for the league and networks. But so would Rose vs. Bryant. “Chicago has been waiting for this,” says Rose, who grew up on the South Side of the city. “It gives them something to brag about.” Rose, who made it to the NCAA tournament championship game in his only season at Memphis, doesn’t really remember the Jordan years. He had to suffer through the post-Jordan losing. “I can remember in high school being in the living room and my brothers changing the channels,” Rose says. “They’d come to a Bulls game, and would be like, ‘Man, we’re not watching this.'”
If Rose pops on your screen this playoff season, make sure to leave the channel right where it is.