By Argie Grigorakos
Many involved in professional sports will say that most of the time talent will win out, and usually the team with the best player or players will rise to the top of the competition. When it comes to winning a championship in all of team sports luck, special events and unique circumstances may go hand and hand with talent when the eventual winner is determined. Having the “ball bounce your way” is critical when striving for a title in more ways than one. Everyone in professional sports is talented and most possess great competitive desire, but what may separate league champions from the rest are events and actions from previous months, or even years, that has nothing to do with the actual last few games.
The last few seasons, arguably no team has faced more adversity and competitive despair than the Chicago Bulls. They saw their best player go down with 2 knee injuries in consecutive years, and the roster also experienced turnover as the team saw a veteran leader in Luol Deng depart for future financial flexibility. Just last year the team had a sense of transition as injuries and trades made it seem that the Bulls were entering a stage of rebuild. Fans were left puzzled and frustrated as the idea of the unknown left a cold breeze throughout the Windy city. In hindsight however, the ACL injury that Derrick Rose experienced in the spring of 2012 had started a chain reaction within the organization. The sudden unexpected developments the last few years coupled with intriguing league wide storylines this season , will likely lead the Chicago Bulls to their 7th championship in team history.
The moment Derrick Rose went down with his first major knee injury, a change in mentality for the organization occurred, as multiple questions surrounding the Chicago native immediately surfaced. Question marks surrounding the former league MVP surfaced, as publicly many doubted whether he would be able to get back to an elite level. The organization knew the rehabilitation period for Derrick Rose would be extensive, and cautiously dealt with, thus they had no choice but to envision building a roster with Rose not exclusively for him. That mindset was even more confirmed in 2014 as Derrick Rose tore the meniscus in his right knee which led him to miss 72 games of that season. The injuries had sadly created the realization that depending on one special athlete to not only carry most of the load for the entire ballclub, but for the organization and basically the whole city of Chicago, was too much especially one deemed physically fragile.
The organization knew that the roster needed to be upgraded, however seeing that DRose represents a bulk of the teams salary cap, they had to be clever in their strategies moving forward. As the Bulls were in a “wait and see” transition the last 2 seasons , a magical occurrence was happening right before our eyes. The rest of the roster was fighting, growing and playing with a sense of pride as they battled along. The Bulls could have folded and look forward to long summers and draft lotteries, but they refused to ultimately quit. They scratched and clawed their way to 2 playoff appearances, and they became the team no one wanted to face because the toughness and no quit attitude they developed. Essentially the injuries to Derrick Rose led teammates like Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler to develop into better players as their workload became so much more. No more was number 1 there to relieve the team in extreme pressure situations, they had to do it together on their own, which led to individual improvements.
As they were getter better and fighting the adversity, they were ultimately developing championship habits that will better serve them as they compete for a title this season. In the 2014 campaign Joakim Noah became an All-NBA player, Defensive Player of the Year, and the best passing center in the league as the Bulls had no choice but run their offense through the Florida Gator. Taj Gibson developed a much team needed post game with a vast array of pivot moves to go along with his already special defensive tenacity. Surprisingly, Jimmy Butler has taken his game to another level this season as he faced plenty of criticism last season for his poor efficient numbers. He shot 39.7% from the field and 28.3% from deep during the 2014 campaign, however this season those numbers have jumped greatly as he is shooting 47.8% from the field and 35.1% from the 3 point line. Jimmy Butler is also averaging 21.7ppg, 6.3rpg, 3.2apg and 1.6spg. Jimmy is now being recognized as an MVP candidate, which is remarkable as he was drafted 30th in the 2011 NBA draft. Many will say that Jimmy relentlessly worked on his game this past summer for a bigger contract, which is true, however playing with a major incentive in mind and a chip on your shoulder can heighten your focus and really have you concentrate on a large goal. What better a negotiating chip than being a major contributor to a championship team. How can Jerry Reinsdorf argue with that this next summer. Eventually every championship team requires its core players to improve on their skill set and take the next step to experience ultimate success. Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler have definitely evolved as basketball players. The tragic injuries to Derrick Rose forced his teammates to get better, as they tried to salvage the seasons he missed, but at the same time it has fully prepared them for what lies ahead this season as they are fully healthy.
The injuries to Derrick Rose has also made the organization take a more conservative approach when managing the minutes of the roster. Minute restrictions and days off have done wonders for the San Antonio Spurs as they have gone to the Finals the last 2 years with relatively good health and a refreshed roster. Past injuries have taught the Bulls organization that pacing their roster through a gruelling 82 game season is needed in order to avoid the wear and tear that goes along with it. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are coming off knee injuries that have to be carefully monitored and constantly evaluated, therefore their specific minutes have been set by the medical staff at a reasonable number. One can only imagine that as both Rose and Noah approach the playoffs they will feel fully healthy, and not as tired as their overall minutes were well paced during the regular season. The more fresh a roster is at the end of the season, naturally the better they will perform.
This past offseason saw the Chicago Bulls aggressively pursue the highly talented Carmelo Anthony with ideas of pairing the Orangeman with the returning Derrick Rose. Eventually Melo decided to return to New York which may have been the best news for the Bulls. It led the Bulls to spread their cap space around and add quality depth to the roster. Backup point guard Aaron Brooks is averaging 10.8ppg and shooting 41.6% from the 3 point line. European sensation Nikola Mirotic is shooting 36.5% from 3, while grabbing 5.1rpg and scoring 8.1ppg in 18.4 minutes per game. If Melo had taken the Bulls offer not only would the depth of the Bulls not exist, but some of the improving core like Taj Gibson, and potential All-Star and MVP candidate Jimmy Butler would have had to be shipped out in order for the economics to work. Another major piece added due to the Carmelo Anthony deal falling through was the addition of future hall of famer Pau Gasol. The Spaniard Center has been a breath of fresh air for the Mid West team, as Gasol has seem rejuvenated in white and red which is great news for a team with championship aspirations. Not only does Pau bring a special low post repertoire to the Bulls offensive schemes, but surprisingly his defensive presence has not gone unnoticed. He is currently ranked 5th in rebounding (11.1rpg) and 4th in blocks (2.27 bpg) in the entire NBA. Pau Gasol had many teams interested in his services this past summer such as the defending NBA champions San Antonio Spurs, and Western Conference powerhouse the OKC Thunder, but he chose the Bulls on a reasonable contract because he saw a team the last 2 years play with a sense of hunger, selflessness, and determination stemmed from the loss of their best player. Pau Gasol watched the Bulls not wince under the pressure of losing their best player, but face the challenge head on.
Essentially Pau picked the Bulls because their true characters were revealed once DRose was out of the equation. Pau made a great sacrifice from a lifestyle perspective that surprised many including new teammate Joakim Noah. Noah was quoted on October 1st 2014 by CSN Chicago’s Mark Strotman saying, “When you’re used to the beach every day, to pick the polar vortex says a lot…I just thought there was no way we were going to get him, but I think it just says a lot about him as a player, about his mindset”. The Bulls experienced a great amount of career threatening injuries to their franchise player, they were lucky to have a 2 time NBA champion and an All-Star agree to join the ballclub when there was so much doubt surrounding the health of the roster.
As the season is reaching the midway point, the Chicago Bulls seem to be heading North in the Eastern Conference standings and a possible 60 win season is not out of the question for the ballclub. Many Bulls fans may be concern with the inconsistent play of their star point guard Derrick Rose as he has definitely had his ups and downs this season, but what is most encouraging is the confidence he displays to go along with his remaining natural athletic gifts. As Derrick gets more acclimated and comfortable playing basketball there shouldn’t be any doubt that Rose can get back to an All-star level come this Spring’s playoffs, still 4 months away. He has shown glimpses of the old Derrick, and time is on his side to become more consistent when it truly matters. He has the luxury of a deep roster that will build a successful regular season, thus all the pressures Pooh has faced in the past are relinquished.
The Bulls success this season may have a lot to do with the different storylines developing around the NBA. Lebron James and his new team the Cleveland Cavaliers are facing major adversity that makes it hard to imagine them contending for a title, as 2 of their other All-Stars are new teammates with 0 playoff experience. Coaching and chemistry seem to be major issues in Cleveland, therefore the Cavs seem to be at least a year away from truly competing for a title. Once seemed as a major threat to Chicago’s title hopes may be a mere afterthought come this Spring. The time for the taking in the Eastern Conference may be now, as top teams like the Raptors, Wizards and Hawks, seem to lack the playoff experience to knock off a healthy Bulls team. Out West the OKC Thunder seem to be the biggest threat to the Bulls, but faced early injuries to their 2 star players that may lead ultimately them to finishing with a lower seed in the playoffs. Although not impossible, it would be very difficult to see OKC win 3 playoff series on the road as the West bolsters a deep conference. Other teams out West will present major problems to the Bulls, but OKC possesses 2 top tier talents that can break down any defence and present matchup nightmares. How fitting is it that the OKC Thunder may see their title hopes end early this season due to injuries when finally the Bulls are 100% healthy.
Adversity and hardship can break individuals or ultimately mould them. As everyone experiences despair and grief after a single action, what may be undervalued is how they react to the pressures of the moment. When Derrick Rose went down with an ACL tear the Bulls could have easily folded and went into another direction but didn’t. The moment forced players, coaches and management to become better at their jobs as the challenge became tougher. That 2012 Spring afternoon a sport tragedy happened and it caused a chain reaction to occur. In the moment everyone who witnessed DRose go down, immediately questioned whether number 1 and his teammates would ever be the same again. In reality they are different. The “pop” Derrick Rose felt in his left knee may have forced everyone in the Bulls organization to become better, and ultimately bring them much closer to their collective goal of an NBA championship.