There’s a monster waking up in the Windy City (feel free to insert joke about the upcoming Chicago mayoral election).
It’s not the Jekyll and Hyde Bears team that fell a touchdown short of the Super Bowl to a division rival they could have knocked off in the regular season. And it’s certainly not the injury-prone, once-and-present Cubs reliever Kerry Wood—the curse of the Billy Goat will make sure of that.
It’s the Chicago Bulls.
I’ll even take the clichéd monster metaphor a step further: the Bulls are going to be in contention for the NBA Finals once the playoffs roll around.
But you probably wouldn’t have guessed that listening to Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson or most of the other NBA analysts on ESPN.
Despite a 36-16 record, and trailing the Boston Celtics by only 2.5 games for the first seed in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls are viewed as second-class citizens in the eyes of most NBA-insiders.
“They’re not going to compete without a serviceable shooting guard,” they often say, referring to the lead-footed journeyman, Keith Bogans, who’s struggled at times this season living up to his reputation as a defensive-specialist and occasional three-point threat.
“Carlos Boozer can’t play defense to save his life,” they say about the two-time all-star and Olympic Gold medalist, acquired in free agency from the Utah Jazz last summer.
And that’s if they say anything at all.
But the Bulls keep winning.
They win quietly.
They win sloppily.
They win after playing down to their competition for more than three quarters (see the Jan. 22 game at the United Center, in which the Bulls blew a 20-point lead to the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers, who, as of that Saturday, had lost 20 straight games on the road).
And most importantly, they win games they’re not supposed to win.
Approaching the All-Star break, the Bulls have strung together a pretty convincing set of victories over Eastern Conference rivals – teams supposedly better poised for a Finals appearance – Boston, Orlando and Miami.
The Bulls’ success this season has largely come on the shoulders of the much-improved play of Chicago-native Derrick Rose, the team’s first All-Star selection since Michael Jordan.
So far, the soft-spoken Rose has solidified himself as a bona fide MVP candidate, something he predicted in an uncharacteristically bold statement on the Bulls’ media-day in September.
“Why can’t I be the MVP of the League?” Rose asked, despite being affectionately disregarded by many fans and analysts at the time. “Why can’t I be the best player in the League?”
He’s averaging 25 points and eight assists and has repeatedly made other elite point guards such as Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul look inferior when placed in head-to-head matchups.
Rose is the piece that the few notable Bulls teams of the past decade have lacked – a marquee player able to take over games in the crunch.
The Scott Skiles-coached teams of the mid-2000s were good, and even swept Dwayne Wade and the defending champion, Miami Heat, in the first round in 2007 after finishing 49-33 in the regular season.
But they weren’t good enough – certainly not good enough to make it to the Promised Land.
If there’s any redeeming factor of the team’s mediocrity during those years, it’s that the fallout during the 2007-08 season, in which the Bulls finished a disappointing 33-49, catapulted them into the draft lottery, where they stood a 1.7 percent chance of landing the top pick—meaning there were 983 ping-pong balls out of 1,000 in their way of landing the number one overall pick in an otherwise underwhelming draft.
They beat the odds.
They got Rose and have since wisely engineered a young, talented roster to compete with any team in the league.
They have an already-deep frontcourt (a phrase that’s probably never been used to describe the Bulls) that will soon feature the return of Joakim Noah.
They have head coach Tom Thibodeau, who was largely behind the defensive gems in Boston the past several seasons, and who is no stranger to post-season success.
The Chicago Bulls are more than ready to make a run.
Just don’t sleep on them.