If you’re a fan of the Chicago Bulls, November 22, 2013 is the second worst day in the history of the franchise. The fact that the cause of the worst day in Bulls history — April 27, 2012 — was exactly the same as the second worst day speaks volumes about the fortunes of the team over the last 3 years.
On both those dates, former MVP Derek Rose went down with serious knee injuries. The 2012 injury happened in the first round of the playoffs against Philadelphia. The Bulls never recovered from that blow, losing in 6 games to the 76’ers after entering the post season as the top seed in the East.
After a full year of rehab, Rose returned to the game rusty, but apparently none the worse for wear. He was struggling, but improving when tragedy struck again, a torn meniscus shelving him for the season. It was a cruel blow for a team aching to prove themselves against two-time champion Miami Heat, who defeated them in a memorable conference championship series in 2012, and the rising Indiana Pacers who proved they could compete with anyone.
Once again, the body blow of losing Rose laid them low. By December 9, they were 8 games under .500 and some fans were openly urging the team to “tank” the season — deliberately lose games so that they could have a better chance at a high draft pick.
But the Bull’s mercurial coach Tom Thibideau wouldn’t allow such nonsense. Taking their cue from their fiercely competitive leader, center Joachim Noah, the Bulls began to claw their way back to respectability.
But then, another blow fell when team management couldn’t sign all-star forward Luol Deng to a contract extension, and traded him to Cleveland for Andrew Bynum — who they summarily released — and a couple of mid-level draft picks. It was a salary dump, nothing more.
Perhaps even more than Rose’s injury, the trade of Deng hurt the team psychologically. It was a sure sign that ownership had given up on the season and was pointing to adding pieces next year to make a run for glory.
For Noah, it was close to heresy. Deng was one of his best friends on the team and for a week following the trade, the usually outgoing center refused to talk to the media. Speculation was he couldn’t trust himself not to go off on management and create a rift that would be hard to heal.
Finally a week after the deal, Noah opened up with a few beat reporters for the local papers. Yes, he was upset, but that didn’t matter.
“The trade definitely hurt,” Noah said, adding that he had spoken to Deng about it. “But we got to move on. I feel confident in this team; we’re working really hard. A lot of people say this is a business and all that but this game is more than a business to me. I put everything I got into this. I feel like Lu was the same way so it was hard for me to digest. But that’s just my perspective, that’s just my side of the story. Everybody has a different job. I’m not mad at anybody. I’m not mad at the organization or anything like that. It’s just that my brother isn’t here anymore. So I just needed a little bit of time to digest that.”
Noah has shrugged off the Rose injury, the Deng trade, the pundits and reporters who say the Bulls can’t win, and the fans who were asking him and his teammates to quit on the year, and has raised the level of his play beyond anyone’s expectations to carry the Bulls to the best record in the East since January 1, 2014.
How the Bulls are doing this having the 30th – and worst — ranked offense in the league is astonishing. But there is sorcery at work here — the rarest kind of magic one can find at the professional level.
This group of middling talents, rejects, youngsters, and veterans actually like each other. They play for each other. They believe in each other. And perhaps most importantly of all, they have bought into their coaches’ belief in them and are currently playing some of the best basketball in the league.
It’s not always pretty. They have no one on the team that can create their own shot, although their candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, Taj Gibson, has developed a nice little low post game. But with the 24 second clock winding down, they’re just as likely to take a wild, 3-point attempt as they are to get a bail out jumper.
It doesn’t matter. Noah has become one of the top passing centers in the league, and in recent games the Bulls have begun to work their offense through him. This has meant fewer bail out shots and more pick and pop jumpers from reasonable range. The results are impressive, at least in the short term.
What of the near future? If the past is prologue, it’s a good bet that no team, no matter where they are seeded, are going to want to play the Bulls in the playoffs:
“When you deal with all the adversity we’ve been through this year, it makes your group that much tougher and stronger,” Bulls leader Joakim Noah said Friday night. “We’re going to be that resilient group, that tough group that is going to be very, very tough to play in the playoffs.”
It’s easy to talk that way now, the Bulls assuming the postseason. That looked uncertain in the first week of January after the Deng trade, when it looked like the team was preparing to head into the lottery. But primarily because of the leadership of coach Tom Thibodeau and especially Noah, the players never questioned where this season was headed.
They were disheartened when Rose went down again in November. They were downright mad when Deng was salary-dumped. But they’ve never done anything but give everything on the floor, and it’s led to win after win. The talent and the luck aren’t like it was back in 2010-11, when everything went their way and they racked up 62 wins before getting beat in the conference finals, but their execution and effort is the same.
They had seven different players average double figures in scoring in February, when they went 9-4 despite playing nine of those 13 games on the road. Noah is the team leader in rebounds … and assists, a pairing you will find nowhere else from the center position. Taj Gibson is having a career season. Midseason pickup D.J. Augustin is resurrecting his career. Accused of running his players into the ground in seasons past, Thibodeau doesn’t have any Bull averaging more than 36 minutes per night
Noah, who at one time in his 7 year career was thought to be something of a goof, with his pony tail, and antics on the court. But the mature Noah is less carefree, more careful in his statements, and very conscious of the leadership role he plays on the team. His intensity is frightening, and he’s not shy about calling out a teammate if he isn’t pleased with their play — or their enthusiasm. Just recently, Noah glowered at rookie Tony Snell who didn’t perform an enthusiastic “chest bump” to his satisfaction.
No, the Bulls will not win an NBA championship this year. They probably won’t get past the second round, given that either of their likely opponents — Indiana or Miami — can most assuredly beat them in a 7-game series. But whoever they play, their opponent will know they’ve been in a war. And who knows? When a team possesses magic, anything can happen.