<
>

Era Apparent?

4/17/2009 - NBA Derrick Rose Chicago Bulls + more

Like most sports, basketball is not only a sport of competition, but also a sport of comparison.

When Michael Jordan stepped on the old Stadium hardwood for the first time in the 1984-85 season, he set about establishing a baseline that Bulls and NBA fans likely will use for several decades to determine a worthy successor.

Who truly could be like Mike after Mike? Kobe? Nope. Shaq? Not a chance. LeBron? Close, but not yet. They all are mere pretenders to the throne.

But as the Bulls prepare to meet the defending champion Boston Celtics in the opening round of the playoffs, it's hard not to draw the conclusion that we might be watching the beginning of the next era of Bulls basketball with budding hometown hero Derrick Rose.

And in many ways, Rose enters his first postseason in the same manner Jordan did 25 years ago.

Don't choke on that coffee you just gulped. Hear me out:

Case No. 1: The Bulls were 38-44 in Jordan's first season and made the playoffs for the first time in three years. In Rose's first season, the Bulls finished 41-41 and reached the playoffs for only the fourth time in the past 11 years.

Case No. 2: While Jordan's first-year scoring average was about 12 points per game more than Rose's current 16.8 average, he virtually ran away with Rookie of the Year honors. Rose is a cinch to earn ROY honors, according to several experts, including Scouts Inc. NBA analyst David Thorpe.

Case No. 3: No one expected the 1984-85 Bulls to go very far in the playoffs, and they didn't, losing to Milwaukee, three games to one, in the first round. That's pretty much the same scenario for this season's Bulls -- they're not expected to go very far, particularly against a team like Boston, although Kevin Garnett's injury might give them a fighting chance. And given how scrappy the Bulls have played down the stretch, they very well could extend the Celtics into a long series.

Case No. 4: Although the early phase of Jordan's tenure was marked with Kevin Loughery, Stan Albeck and Doug Collins at the coaching helm, it was Phil Jackson who molded Jordan and the Bulls into champions. Jackson took the job with no prior head coaching experience in the NBA. How much prior NBA head coaching experience did current Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro have before assuming the job this season? Just like Jackson, none.

Case No. 5: Then-general manager Jerry Krause decided to rebuild the Bulls around Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick in the 1984 NBA draft. Current GM John Paxson, who joined the Jordan era as a player in 1985-86, made Rose the No. 1 overall pick in 2008. Paxson elected to build the team around Rose's speed, shooting and versatility, just like Krause did with MJ.

As the playoffs begin, Rose is peaking at the best possible time, having averaged nearly 20 points per game in his final six starts of the regular season -- and with a lingering sore wrist, no less.

It was in 1984 that Jordan began his reign, soon to be surrounded by a cast that would become known as the Jordanaires -- Scottie Pippen, Paxson, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr and several others -- a backup band that would make sweet music for more than a decade with its bandleader.

Twenty-five years later, and despite lacking a decent nickname (sorry, "Thorns" or "Petals" just doesn't work too well), Rose has himself a strong supporting cast going into the playoffs, including Ben Gordon, John Salmons, Brad Miller, Tyrus Thomas, Kirk Hinrich and Joakim Noah.

The loss of Luol Deng, who has been out since early March with a stress fracture of his right tibia, was considered near-devastating to the Bulls' playoff hopes at the time. But the Bulls have worked around Deng's absence and have become a stronger team in the process.

The key for the Bulls in the first-round matchup with the Celtics will come down to three things: Rose continuing to play well on the offensive side of the ball, Gordon and Salmons maintaining their leadership and scoring roles, and Thomas and particularly Noah picking up their defensive games now that it's crunch time.

The Bulls' defense, 17th in the league, needs to dramatically improve if Chicago is going to upset Boston.

Offensively, the Bulls are mid-pack in the league, 14th in scoring. That's nice but nowhere near good enough for the postseason. But given how well Rose has been shooting of late, as well as Gordon (last week's Eastern Conference player of the week), the Bulls might catch their opponents looking ahead.

It won't be easy. With the series opening in Boston, the Rose-era Bulls have to focus on breaking their terrible road record (13-28). If they can split on Boston's homecourt, their 28-13 record at home -- including wins in 15 of their final 17 games -- could keep them in the series.

Yes, as hard as it might be to believe, it's been a quarter-century since the Jordan era began in Chicago. There were struggles along the way, but those who really knew basketball knew the Bulls were on to something very special back then.

And even though these Bulls are underdogs to Boston in the first round, much like Jordan's Bulls were to Milwaukee in his first season, don't be surprised if the comparisons between Rose and Jordan pick up markedly.

Jordan, who was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame last week, was the real deal back then, and Rose is proving he's the real deal right now. That's not only a comparison -- it's one of the highest compliments any player can be given.

Last week, ESPNChicago.com's Scoop Jackson asked Rose asked his goals.

"I know it'll be big if, say, we change this organization around," Rose said. "I want to be the guy that can change it."

Just the way Jordan did.

Jerry Bonkowski is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.