It's tough not to love these Bulls
Losing out on LeBron might have been the best thing to happen to Chicago
CHICAGO -- There was sobbing throughout Northeast Ohio and plenty of whining in New York City when LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach. Meanwhile, in Chicago, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah shrugged and went back to the gym.
With all due respect to the skills of LeBron and Chris Bosh and the recruiting savvy of Dwyane Wade, Rose and Noah weren't begging anyone to join them, which is part of what makes this the most irresistible Bulls team since Michael and Scottie left town.
"My thing was, no one person can make a decision for a group," Rose said last week. "Guys knew if they came, we'd have welcomed them. But ... "
Rose stopped. His answer wasn't meant to be insulting. He already thought his team worthy, and after Bulls management redirected its free-agent efforts and signed Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver, Rose believed his boys could rumble with anybody. Nothing has changed his mind, especially now that Chicago has won six straight and begun to fully incorporate Boozer into the lineup since his debut Dec. 1.
This isn't the first time in the post-Jordan era that Chicago has put together an appealing cast. Remember, the Baby Bulls swept defending champ Miami in the 2007 playoffs, and Rose had a coming-out party in that seven-game classic against the champion Celtics in 2009. But those teams, to a great degree, were hoping and praying; the first group was too inexperienced and the latter too perimeter-oriented. Don't get me wrong, this season's team isn't a finished product in terms of personnel -- acquiring a proven shooter is an absolute necessity -- but if you've been watching the Bulls as long as some of us (the entire 44 years of the franchise for me), there's something irresistible about this group.
It's OK, finally, to fall in love with the Bulls again, starting with the fact Rose and Noah didn't spend all summer begging for help; it's indicative of a tough-mindedness that ought to immediately endear this squad to Chicago. Not trading Noah -- in fact, doing just the opposite and signing him to a long-term deal -- already has proved to be the right move, if for no other reason than Noah's value to the Bulls is so much greater than his statistical contribution, even his prolific rebounding.
Noah is one tough SOB, as evidenced by him playing through a right hand injury. Rose is toughness squared. And the rest of the Bulls had better take a cue from them. Each was instrumental in leading his college team to the NCAA title game, which historically has forecast a degree of success in the NBA. Rose, in fact, might be too tough-minded for his own good. Like Allen Iverson, Rose plays with virtually no regard for his body, which is either going to inspire the hell out of his teammates or leave them wondering what to do as he sits on the sideline wearing a cast.
At halftime of the Bulls' victory over the Lakers on Friday, Scottie Pippen expressed skepticism as to whether Rose could actually play with this level of abandon for an entire 82-game season. Pippen's point was underscored in a win over Indiana on Monday, when Rose crashed to the floor twice in the fourth quarter and was in such pain after the game that he had to put on his socks with one hand while standing on one foot. But as long as Rose remains upright, broadcast analyst Stacey King's "Too big, too strong, too fast, too good" tag seems to be about right.
Rose -- along with Rajon Rondo, Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook -- would make the early short list of MVP candidates. Rose improved his game remarkably over the summer for a player who was already an All-Star. He made himself a better 3-point shooter the old-fashioned way: by practicing the darned thing until he got it right. Perhaps more importantly, Rose convinced himself (rightly so, I would add) that in order to be an effective point guard he had to have something approaching a personality transplant.
Randy Brown, a former Jordan teammate who works for the Bulls as special assistant to the general manager, said, "He had to become more vocal, and he knew it. But it's not in his nature. He just decided to do it. The only thing I told him was, 'You don't have to cuss guys out; you can say something nice, pat them on the back.' He knew he was the point guard on a team with guys who aren't that vocal, so he had to do something about it. I am surprised he did it so quickly."
As for asserting himself verbally, Rose said, "I'm lucky that I have a bunch of good guys on my team. And also, I realize people might get offended if I got carried away. I realize what I can say to Joakim, I might not be able to say to Luol [Deng]. I take it personally, improving in areas I need to improve. I'm the point guard. I decided over the summer, 'Just do it.'"
Rose's determination not only has made him a next-level player, but it could be the primary personality trait of the team. "He's our general," Noah said. "His swag is crazy right now. I've never seen somebody so hard on himself. He's got a lot of ability, but it's the mindset that's unique."
Noah's hide-nothing candor, meanwhile, seems to be the perfect complement. After beating the Lakers, Noah said, "To say, 'This is just another game on the schedule' ... man, that's what coaches say. That's not what a player's going to think. You want to beat the two-time champs."
Noah paused and added he wanted to "hit the streets and enjoy Chicago" that Friday night but concluded "that's not the right mindset, I know."
Noah's rebounding numbers might actually decrease with Boozer in the lineup, but their tag-team presence is a net-gain for Chicago. Last season in Utah, Boozer had to try to defend the basket and grab every rebound, too. Now, when Noah drops back to guard the rim, Boozer can crash the boards. Regardless of the distribution, it seems they'll total 25 rebounds most nights. And recently, as they've grown accustomed to one another, their high-low passing has produced an increasing number of dunks and layups. Noah is one of the very few players in the league who can have six blocked shots and six assists in the same game.
More From Wilbon
Michael Wilbon made his debut on ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com last week. Here are more offerings from Wilbon:
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Rose's emergence as a 25-point scorer and the acquisition of Boozer means Deng, who is so much more comfortable in Tom Thibodeau's offense than he was in Vinny Del Negro's, should be much more effective as a guy who is often the team's No. 3 scoring option. The clamor to trade Deng (along with Taj Gibson) for Carmelo Anthony has rightly quieted.
Though Carmelo is one of the league's top seven or eight players, and though teams that acquire great players in exchange for nice players usually make out like bandits in the long term, the Bulls would have had to rework everything had they traded for Carmelo. The Bulls' incumbent players, remember, thought they needed help but not a makeover in the first place. Holding onto Gibson gives Chicago one of the best big reserve defenders/rebounders in the league and insurance if Boozer or Noah gets hurt. And in the bigger picture, the Bulls don't have to slog through chemistry issues or wonder who their leader is.
As one veteran All-Star said last week about all that summer speculation of LeBron coming to Chicago, "Are you sure you want to take the ball out of Derrick Rose's hands and give it to anybody else, the way Rose has played so far this year?"
The answer, for now, is an emphatic no.
You would not want to take the ball from Rose, or let go of Noah or Gibson, or do anything that would dramatically change the Bulls from what they appear to be at the moment, which is no worse than the third-best team in the Eastern Conference, depending on how convinced you are that Miami has found its stride.
The Bulls, through the first quarter of the season, had the most difficult schedule in the NBA but negotiated it well. A bona fide shooter, a knock on wood for D-Rose's health and a slew of games against the Wizards, Raptors, Nets, Pistons and Sixers are all the Bulls should be looking for under the Christmas tree.
We're reminded of why LeBron James thought of joining the Bulls in the first place ... and why Rose felt his team would be just fine, regardless.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.