Coming off a league-best 62-win regular season campaign a year ago, expectations are high for the Chicago Bulls. Windy City native Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in league history, Tom Thibodeau garnered NBA Coach of the Year honors in his first season as a professional head coach and with the recent acquisition of veteran shooting guard Richard Hamilton, a three-time All-Star, the team plugged what was regarded as its biggest hole.
However, after a disappointing Eastern Conference Finals defeat at the hands of Miami, several questions were raised about the squad's potential. Rose having to shoulder so much of the scoring load, prized free-agent signee Carlos Boozer's postseason ineffectiveness and center Joakim Noah's offensive output were chief among concerns for a group poised to contend for its first title since the Jordan era.
For casual observers who hadn't studied the Bulls -- who went under the radar for much of the season -- their formula of gritty hustle, their hometown hero's spectacular play and a stifling defense just didn't seem like enough to truly develop into a champion. With all due respect to fans and so-called expert naysayers alike, they're wrong.
Chicago's consistent defensive effort, in a second year under Thibodeau, should only get better as evidenced by Friday's preseason opener against Central Division rival Indiana. The up-and-coming Pacers were held to 2-of-23 shooting in the second quarter after scoring a gaudy 33 points in the opening period, as well as a paltry 17-of-66 mark for the final three stanzas. Yes, it was only an exhibition contest, following a prolonged offseason due to the NBA lockout, but the Bulls' defense was already in midseason form.
Additionally, the notion that Rose has a non-existent supporting cast on offense is a misguided theory. While the product of the City of Big Shoulders does indeed carry on immense burden on his 23-year-old back, it shouldn't be ignored that underrated small forward Luol Deng is coming off perhaps the best all-around season of his career. Most importantly, he played in all 82 regular season games and ranked third in the league in minutes per game, no small feat -- and for all the commotion about Boozer underachieving, the power forward put up numbers fairly similar to his averages in Utah, where he was a two-time All-Star for the Jazz.
Now, Noah's production certainly tailed off after he returned from a two-month injury layoff -- prior to that, he appeared to be headed toward his first All-Star Game appearance as one of the NBA's top rebounders with excellent passing ability for a big man and providing a scoring threat with his patented, unique "Tornado" elbow jumper. His worth can't be accurately judged by his nightly point totals; rather, his dominant work on the glass, ability to keep up with Rose in transition and defensive presence are his hallmarks.
Last season's fifth starter, rugged shooting guard Keith Bogans, was vastly unappreciated for his contributions, which mostly consisted of toughness, veteran leadership and physical defense. But even the most ardent Bogans fan is aware that the team's perimeter firepower needed an upgrade, something Hamilton, one of the premier mid-range artists in the game -- although not necessarily a prolific shooter from deep range -- should be able to provide, along with his championship experience.
Joining the organization's newest addition in helping to spread the floor is holdover reserve Kyle Korver, one of the league's top marksmen. Fellow backup swingman Ronnie Brewer (Rose's starting backcourt mate for the time being, as Hamilton learns Thibodeau's complex system) gives the team some size, athleticism and active defense on the wing. Backup point guard C.J. Watson excels at defensive ball pressure and instant offense.
But perhaps the best-kept secret in the league is the young post tandem of Taj Gibson and Omer Asik, a formidable, paint-protecting duo on the back line of the defense that also possesses some scoring capability, particularly Gibson, who started for the Bulls during his first-team NBA All-Rookie debut campaign as well as at the beginning of last season, when Boozer was sidelined by injury. The only missing piece for the "Bench Mob," the nickname for Chicago's potent second unit is big man Kurt Thomas, the league's oldest player, who migrated to Portland as a free agent. Extremely underrated, Thomas was able to rack up DNP's for months seemingly, then start in place of either Noah or Boozer, and the team wouldn't miss a beat.
And then there's Rose. More significant than his MVP season was his personal development -- as a more vocal team leader, an improved outside shooter, a savvier penetrator, more intelligent defender and overall clutch performer. It's something that hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates, who once treated him like a precocious little brother with gobs of talent and now regard him as a player they expect to take over contests on a nightly basis, if he so chooses.
The understanding and appreciation of each member of a team's individual abilities is such a rare and special thing to observe, but the Bulls seem to have it down to a science, as very seldom will a player march to the beat of his own drum. When they're seen yelling at each other, the purpose is usually to encourage, not chastise. In a truncated season because of the lockout, the Bulls' cohesiveness and chemistry, on and off the court, will serve them well, especially when it's considered how self-motivated they are as a unit by the quest to win a championship.
That starts and ends with Thibodeau, who is so consumed by the singular goal of winning that his obsessive, workaholic nature immediately spread amongst his charges upon his arrival in Chicago. It's not a shock to know that Thibodeau is in his Berto Center office from almost daybreak to the wee hours of the night -- if not on the court, working out a player himself -- just as it's unsurprising to see various players hanging around late for extra repetitions or to see the team, en masse, eating out together on the road.
That said, great team chemistry might not be enough to knock off LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat, if the teams match up again in the playoffs. But with the improvements the Bulls have made, the burning desire to avenge their failure, guidance from the ultra-focused Thibodeau, a defense that requires near-flawless offense to overcome its vise-like grip on scorers and the brilliance of Rose, it wouldn't be wise to bet against them.