Generally speaking, 18 games in an NBA season can only be considered a sample size. Heck, last year it was a blessing to get our starters on the floor for 18 games. With a condensed season, teams are receiving crash courses in everything — game management, avoiding injury, lineup changes, shifts in coaching philosophy, a chance to truly test depth and most importantly, long stretches to truly test how good teams are.
Many fans figured the Bulls would get off to another solid start. However, if you would’ve told me our beloved Bulls would rocket to an NBA best 15-3 record while Derrick Rose, newly acquired Richard Hamilton and Joakim Noah all missed time, I would’ve questioned your sanity.
Sadly, that has been our reality so far in the track meet that is the 2011-12 NBA season. But what has this tumultuous season taught us so far? Here’s five things Bulls fans should know heading into February.
Luol Deng has cemented himself as our second-in-command
When Deng signed his $71 million dollar contract in 2008, there weren’t too many people who felt as if this would turn out to be a fruitful commitment to make for the Bulls future. And during the first two years, it didn’t look like we’d have a happy ending. Injuries and a plateau of improvement had fans calling for a trade.
Those same fans now hold their collective breath as we await the verdict from Deng’s wrist MRI this morning. This is truly a testament to the leadership role he’s taken next to Derrick Rose. While he may never turn into a superstar, his vast improvements on defense and range offensively have proven the contract wasn’t careless spending.
If his defensive efforts against LeBron James in last year’s postseason doesn’t convince you, the praise of his coach and management should. Everyone in the Bulls franchise knows Derrick Rose is the undisputed leader, but Luol Deng very well could be the backbone that holds us up.
The Bench Mob will be more important than ever
Yesterday, I emailed the Bulls front office asking if they would be interested in changing our name from “Bulls” to “M.A.S.H. Unit.” The response I received was a blank email with a picture attachment of Gar Foreman giving me the middle finger. All jokes aside, everyone know a shortened season coupled with two weeks of preparation could spell disaster.
If you ask me, it’s been nerve racking seeing Luol Deng do wind sprints for 44 minutes every night. It’s even harder to swallow that our prized off-season acquisition has spent more time in street clothes, which forced us to sign Mike James, a pint-sized guard who hasn’t played a meaningful NBA game in over two years. That being said, we’re sure to get a heavy dose of the Bench Mob as our season creeps towards the halfway point.
Omer Asik tallied 39 minutes, 15 rebounds and a powerful defense performance against Charlotte, and the aforementioned James dished out 10 assists in a mere 17 minutes. In a postgame interview, James echoed the importance of the Bulls depth. “Championship teams are not built on individuals, it’s built on a team. It’s not just the starters that make a championship roster. It’s everyone from 1-15. So you have to be able to step in if your number’s called, you have to be able to play your role and that’s all I was trying to do.”
Amen to that. I know for a fact that no matter how healthy we are, our depth will pay dividends come playoff time.
We can play tough and win without Derrick Rose
Now, I’m not saying I want to keep watching games with Rose wearing a suit, but our worst nightmare of having Rose out for an extended period is a stark reality. Turf toe may not be in the same class as a blown out knee or broken bone, but it’s the kind of irritating injury that can linger for a guy’s entire career. Deion Sanders spoke numerous times how a similar ailment bothered him for several seasons. Rose never takes a play off and knowing there’s always the possibility of a turf toe reappearing, teams will push even harder to pound on Rose when he returns.
What Bulls fans should be excited about is that the quality of play during Rose’s absence has been a relief. Bragging about beating the lowly Bobcats and Cavs would be foolish, but what those victories did show us is that even with a depleted roster, the heart and character that’s become synonymous with this team never takes a day off.
To echo the Mike James quote, guys understand that regardless of who’s running down the court with you, it’s all about executing and keeping a positive atmosphere during this stretch of bad health. With Rose set to return against New Jersey, the team looks to further their lead in the Eastern Conference.
Defense will be the reason we reach the NBA Finals
I was never one to believe that Richard Hamilton’s addition was going to turn us into the Warriors of the early 90s, putting up 130 points a night, but you can’t ignore the fact that the Bulls have reached 100 points in only eight of their games so far this season. Part of that can be contributed to the time missed by Rose, the other to Hamilton (who’s also been hampered by a groin injury) meshing with the starters. Still, it’s a cause of concern that our team has continued to struggle offensively.
The other side of the ball is a different story. The Bulls are leading the NBA in points allowed and rebounds, even with Joakim Noah lacking the passion and intensity we’re accustom to seeing from him. Many people are calling for his head — trade the guy, make him ride the bench. To me, his struggles are a product of poor conditioning and a lack of preparation to begin the season. Is that all on him? Absolutely, but as the season wears on, I fully expect him to make adjustments and revert back to his stingy defensive ways. This is only going to improve the Bulls defensively.
An NBA Championship has to be a group effort
With the Pacers and 76ers vast improvements, the Bulls now have two more teams to worry about as they journey to represent the East in the NBA finals. We won’t be awarded the fortunes of teams not giving us their best night in and night out. Miami is going through the same injury problems with Dwayne Wade, ditto with the Hawks and Al Horford. On top of that, who knows where Dwight Howard will be come the trade deadline.
To me, this means the East is wide open. With the Knicks and Celtics struggling, most preseason predictions are up in smoke. As a Bulls fan, I’ll definitely take it. Those who think a walk to the Finals is a given need to remember this is an 82, er…66 game season. I’m impressed by our team’s resiliency through injury, especially on the three games in three nights stretches. Give us all the injuries now, as long as they’re not happening in May. With due time, we’ll be firing on all cylinders. From what we’ve seen so far, I’m certain the adversity will pay off in the end. Not because of one player but a team effort.