One thing should be clear at the All-Star break about our Chicago Bulls, they are not NBA championship ready.
The Bulls own the third best won/lost record in the NBA and are clearly, once again, an elite team. You don’t have to search too long to find a basketball Power Ranking listing the Bulls at the number one spot. But, most of the ranks have the Bulls at second or third and it’s their nemesis, the Miami Heat, occupying almost every number one ranking.
Marred by more injuries than any other elite NBA team it’s not difficult to imagine a fit Bulls team atop most Power Rankings. But, the injuries are a reality. And, the vivid picture of what last year’s injuries to Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer taught us is a lesson to remember. The two big men played only 26 regular season games together and as a result the right hand never fully knew what the left hand was doing – leaving Derrick Rose with his hands full. Granted, Boozer played with a painful toe injury during the playoffs resulting in an awful individual performance, but it was obvious to all Bulls fans that the chemistry between numbers five and 13 never added up.
This season, the duo has recently begun to develop championship chemistry. Noah has overcome the early-season funk of becoming a $60 million man (really, Joakim?) and is now playing well on both ends of the court. Meanwhile, Carlos, while not as competent a two-way player, looks more comfortable playing shoulder-to-shoulder with Joakim. There’s hope they will continue to bond; especially on both ends of the court, Noah giving Boozer more space to score points and Boozer being a stronger presence under his own rim.
Of the multiple injuries the team has endured this season the most painful belongs to Richard Hamilton (remember him?). His maladies have kept him out of 24 of the Bulls’ 35 games. The shooting guard, with a 2004 NBA championship ring, was deemed the missing jewel towards being crowned NBA champs. But, the masked man’s absence has obscured how we can accurately assess the Bulls’ chances of dethroning the Eastern Conference champion Heat.
At first, the results with Hamilton in the line-up looked almost as gorgeous as any SI swimsuit model. The team’s offense was jaw dropping as evidenced by their Offensive Efficiency Rating, which was easily the best in the league during Rip’s first nine games.
For the season, Hamilton has averaged 14 points a game and the team has an 8-3 record when he’s not in street clothes. But one of those three losses was a heart-breaking 97-94 loss in Miami. For much of the game, Hamilton looked adrift. Maybe Luol Deng’s absence, he was out with his wrist injury, put too much pressure on Rip because he was only four of 16 from the field and lost the ball five times. Ugly.
The Rose, Rip, Deng, Boozer and Noah quintet has only been on the court for five games this season (4-1 record) – their last performance together was about the time I had already broken all of my New Year’s resolutions – January 4th. Certainly, this just adds resolve to Miami’s confidence.
After last year’s heartbreaking playoff series loss to Miami, five major needs became evident for the Bulls to become Heat resistant. They were:
1. The Bulls need a Shooting Guard, to better combat Miami’s scoring weapons
2. The Bulls need a defensive stopper to guard one-half of the Heat’s super-scoring combo of Dwayne Wade and LeBron James
3. Booz and Noah need to become crime-fighting superheroes
4. The bench needs to live up to its Bench Mob hype.
5. Rose needs to learn how to win championships
Hamilton’s presence is supposed to address points one and two. He’s a proven scorer and defensively, according to Bulls.com writer Sam Smith, Hamilton “really bothers Wade, who doesn’t like playing against him.” We’ll see. Hamilton returns to the lineup February 28th when he and the team should be at full-strength. Ten games later the Heat and Bulls square off on March 14th at the United Center.
The third point, as mentioned earlier, appears to be coming together. Boozer and Noah will never remind anyone of Batman and Robin, but whereas I initially thought the duo would never emerge beyond the status of the lame DC Comics pair of Aquaman and Aqualad, now I’m hopeful they will rise to Green Hornet and Kato status – preferably the campy-TV version.
Points four and five were not mentioned much during the offseason, but should be talked about even if the Bulls bench is widely considered to be the strongest in the NBA and Rose is having a sensational, albeit injury-filled, season. Don’t get me wrong. I love Derrick and the Bench Mob and after a beer or two they can do no wrong. Typically after every regular season victory I’m behaving like a giddy Giants fan after a Super Bowl win.
But, after I sober up the concerns overcome me. The NBA’s most perfect bench does have imperfections. For instance, try watching Kyle Korver play defense. Better yet, don’t. It’s sickening. It’s similar to experiencing some mind altering hypnosis. It’s impressive how successful Tom Thibodeau is at creating the illusion that the bench is near flawless, but during a playoff series it’s difficult to disguise the optics.
And, then there’s Rose. Our, “Wind Beneath Our Wings.” Our, “Raise Me Up.” Our, “Eye Of The Tiger.” You name it. He’s every schmaltzy inspirational song we’ve ever heard. He’s our hometown, momma’s boy, with a heart of gold and a 24 Karat crossover dribble.
But, he still hasn’t learned how to win championships.
Derrick, who possesses all of the talent and will-to-win needed for championships knows there’s something missing, but he doesn’t know what it is. So he sought out fellow hometown, momma’s boy and a heart not quite made out of gold, but two-time title winner, Isiah Thomas and solicited his advice on how to win.
Thomas’s answer (“know your opponent”) is more an indication of what a miserable failure Zeke has been as a coach and basketball executive.
Derrick should have called Michael Jordan, or Phil Jackson, or even someone he runs into quite often former Bulls point guard and current Vice-President of Basketball Operations, John Paxson.
Each of these men (20 titles between them!) could respond to Rose’s question with a one-word answer. That word is, “trust.”
Derrick Rose will never win a championship by himself. No player ever has. No one ever will. When Derrick learns that he has to trust the team, not force himself onto the game and therefore trust his teammates to knock down shots is when his talent and will-to-win will result in championships.
Phil Jackson knew it was trust that the ball-hungry Michael Jordan was lacking. And, Jordan learned he needed to trust when he started to feed teammates like John Paxson. Rose just needs to see highlights of the decisive game of the Bulls first NBA Finals and it’ll be impossible for him not to eat it up. Trust is the key.
Isiah Thomas’ failure to help Rose was evident against the Heat earlier this season. With nine seconds left and the ball in Rose’s hands he drove the lane for a game-tying bucket. Three Heat players converged in a sloppy manner leaving Rip Hamilton open in the corner for a game winning three-pointer. Rose didn’t trust. And, after the game, our Eye Of The Tiger still didn’t get it when he said, “Next time I’ll hit those shots” Rose was also referring to his two missed free-throws in the last minute of play which, I’m quite sure, drove his pride right past trust leading him to bypass the wide open Rip Hamilton.
Trust is a skill. One Rose hasn’t honed yet.
But he will.