I wrote a two-part NBA report when the teams returned from the All Star break. I noted then, that the Chicago Bulls entered the All-Star break with a winning percentage over .700 (38-16, .704) for just the fifth time in franchise history. Three of the previous four times Chicago had done that, the Bulls went on to win the NBA title. However, MJ was part of those three NBA title teams, and those teams were playing quite a bit better than .700 basketball at the break. The 1995-96 team was at .894, the 1996-97 team at .875 and the 1991-92 team at .813. The 1993-94 team was the fourth entry, entering that season’s All star break at .723, the first season of MJ’s ‘first’ retirement. How did I assess Chicago’s title hopes a month ago? Here’s exactly what I wrote.
“Just how good are the Bulls? More than a few people will argue that Derrick Rose (24.9-4.4-8.2) is this year’s MVP, as the Bulls opened the season with Boozer (17.4-10.1 in his career) missing the team’s first 15 games and then shortly after he got back on the court, Noah (14.0-11.7 TY) was sidelined with that thumb injury. Boozer’s missed 18 games in all this year with the Bulls going a respectable 11-7 while they’ve gone 22-8 in Noah's absence. The good news is, that the Bulls say Noah’s ready to return on Wednesday. For the Bulls to be a serious playoff contender, they’ll have to start proving they can win on the road. Chicago is 25-4 at home through the All Star break but just 13-12 on the road. Let me point out that Chicago is one of five NBA teams to come out of the break with a record of better than .700 but it’s very significant that those other four teams, the Spurs, Celtics, Heat and Mavs are a combined 76-35 away from home, a winning percentage of .685 (compared to Chicago’s .520). That won’t cut it!”
The Bulls lost their very first game post-break, 118-113 at Toronto but that was just a ’speed bump.’ The Bulls have won 12 of 15 since that game vs the Raptors, going 7-2 on the road, including wins at Orlando and Miami. The Bulls are now 20-15 on the road with six games remaining. The first four are at Milwaukee, Minnesota, Detroit and Cleveland. Those teams are a combined 83-194 (.300) as of Mar 23 and while Milwaukee (19-18) and Detroit (18-18) are .500 teams at home, Minnesota is just 12-24 and Cleveland 8-25. The team’s final two road games are in Orlando and at New York. Give Chicago just three more road wins and the team would have as many road wins as four of the last 10 NBA champs. Give them five more road wins and that would as many (or more) than six of the last 10 champs. When play opens Friday night (Mar 25), the Bulls will own the East’s best record at 51-19, a one game better than the 50-20 Celtics and 2 1/2 games better than the 49-22 Heat. If the Bulls can finish with the No. 1 seed in the East, it means they’ll only have to beat the Celtics/Heat winner, not go through both teams to make the NBA Finals. It’s amazing the Bulls are where they are, this season.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau brought a new defensive scheme to the team and it was not an easy one to master. To make things tougher, Boozer began the year by missing the first 15 games, then Noah missed 30 games from Dec 18 through Feb 17. Through all that, Chicago allows 91.1 PPG, second to only Boston’s 90.9 (remember, Thibodeau came from Doc Rivers’ staff). What has surprised many regarding Chicago is the way its offense has also jelled. Maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised. Rose is having an MVP-like season, averaging 24.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG and 7.8 APG, missing just one of the team’s 70 games. Noah is a nightly double-double guy, averaging 12.0 PPG and 11.2 RPG (the 5th-best average in the league). Boozer averages 18.0 PPG and 9.3 RPG, playing 47 of the team’s 70 games. The Bulls are playing .739 ball with Rose in the lineup (lost lone game he missed) and are 28-11 (.718) with Noah in the lineup while actually winning more often without him (23-8, .742). Now this may surprise some but look how important Boozer has been. The Bulls are an impressive 36-11 (.766) when he’s on the court but just 15-8 (.652) when he hasn’t played (missed the first 15 games, then missed three straight from Jan 17-20 and five in a row from Mar 11-18).
This trio is Chicago’s version of a “Big 3” and as we’ve seen recently, three star players are more than enough to win the NBA title since 2000. In fact, there have times it’s only taken two stars. The Lakers opened the new millennium by winning the first three titles from 2000-02 with the dynamic duo of Shaq and Kobe. Shaq averaged 29.7 PPG and Kobe 22.5 in 2000, Shaq averaged 28.7 in 2001 with Kobe chipping in 28.5 and then Shaq averaged 27.2 in 2002 with Kobe adding 25.2. Who were LA’s third-best scorers those three championship seasons? Glen Rice averaged 15.9 in 2000 while Derek Fisher held the honors in 2001 (11.5) and 2002 (11.2). The Spurs were NBA champs in 2003 with Duncan scoring 23.3 PPG, Parker 15.5 and Stephen Jackson at 11.8. The Pistons won in 2004, led by guards Hamilton (17.6) and Billups (16.9) plus “late pickup” Rasheed Wallace, who scored 13.7 PPG in 22 regular season games with the Pistons.
The Spurs won again in 2005 with Duncan (20.3) again leading the way but now joined by Parker (16.6) and Ginobili (16.0). The Heat surprised in 2006 behind Wade (27.2) and Shaq (20.0) with Jason Williams (12.3) scoring the third-most points on that team. The Spurs won their fourth title since 1999 in 2007 with that familiar trio of Duncan (20.0), Parker (18.6) and Ginobili (16.5). It was the Celtics in 2008 behind their “Big 3,” Pierce (19.6), KG (18.8) and Allen (17.4). The Lakers have won the last two seasons behind Kobe (26.8 in ‘09 & 27.0 LY) and Gasol (18.9 & 18.3). Bynum ranked third in scoring both seasons, averaging 14.3 in 50 games in ‘09 and 15.0 in 65 games last year.
So clearly, three players the caliber of Rose, Boozer and Noah should be more than capable of making the Bulls legitimate title contenders in 2011. However, here’s something I haven’t mentioned yet. The Bulls also feature Luol Deng, who been a forgotten man. He was the 7th overall pick in the 2004 draft and has played all 70 games for the Bulls this season, while averaging 17.8 PPG and 5.8 RPG. He’s averaging a career-high 39.2 minutes and is just shy of the career-best 18.8 points he averaged in the 2006-07. Chicago’s 2010-11 club is not the “Unbeata-Bulls” of 1991-93 or 96-98, as those teams won six titles while setting a league record for wins in 1995-96 (72-10) and tying the 1971-72 Lakers for the second-best regular season mark of all-time (69-13) in 1996-97. However, they are looking very much like a title team these days. Now here’s a what if? What if LeBron had brought his talents to Lakeshore Drive instead of South Beach? Would the 2010-11 Bulls be this good? As Macauley Culkin famously said in Home Alone, “I don’t think so!”