We’ve reached the All Star Break and basketball fans in Chicago should feel positively giddy. Two thirds of the way through the season, the Chicago Bulls, a team most analysts pegged for 44-48 wins are 38-16. The question is no longer are they elite team, but can they go all the way.
The case in their favor is compelling. For the most part the team has compiled a .704 winning percentage while missing one of its three best players, first forward Carlos Boozer, then center Joakim Noah, for long stretches of time (the Bulls have had their projected starting five available for only nine of their 54 games). The team is also improving dramatically. When Noah went out the Bulls were top seven defense, now they are a top two defense. The team has risen on offense from 20th in points per 100 possessions to 16th. Boston, a team with universally respected championship credentials is top two defensively and top 13 offensively. With their impressive win over San Antonio, they now have victories over every other top tier team.
The case against the Bulls rests primarily on the narrative. This is the NBA not the NFL. In pro football a team can rise from the depths, the 2009 Arizona Cardinals for instance, and come within minutes of a title. In the NBA change typically occurs at a glacial pace. The Spurs and Lakers have been good forever; the two teams have made the postseason more than 80% of the time since 1980. Except for some good drafting coming together as was the case with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2010 or a wholesale offseason makeover as happened in Boston in 2007, teams rarely go from outside the elite to championship contention. The Bulls are a little bit of both. Good drafting (Noah, forward Luol Deng and point guard Derrick Rose) and offseason acquisitions (Boozer, pivotman Kurt Thomas, and
reserve wings Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver).
A more salient criticism is that the Bulls two-guard, Keith Bogans isn’t worthy of a championship starting five. Bogans is a good defender but a poor shooter who contributes little save from an occasional corner 3 to the offense. Many analysts have suggested the Bulls offer Houston whatever they want for Courtney Lee, but the Bulls have that player with his skill set on their bench already, Brewer, and he averages many more minutes per contest than Bogans. The Bulls would do well to upgrade the position in the offseason but it isn’t holding them back presently.
So how good are the Bulls? The right answer is that nobody knows. The projected starting lineup has played together for a mere 1/6 of their games. Noah returns to action on Wednesday night and once the team has its starting frontcourt intact for a few weeks, then it should be sensible to gauge what the possible outcomes are. Until then Chicago sports fans should continue to enjoy a magical run. The Black Hawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Bears made it to the NFC Championship game, and now here come the Bulls. The best thing right now is to sit back and enjoy, when it comes to fandom, winning without expectations is second only to title celebrations