- LZ Granderson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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Well, that's that.
With the Bulls' 97-81 drubbing of the Celtics on Thursday, Chicago has all but ensured we experts have no idea what we're talking about. All of that preseason attention paid to the Heatles and Celtics? It's Derrick Rose's oft-injured squad that has proved to be this year's beast of the East.
At least in the regular season.
Since 2001, only three squads with the best 82-game record in the Eastern Conference have gone on to the Finals. And if you're a Chicago fan, you may not want Rose to win MVP. The last time a player from the East won the award and reached the Finals was Allen "Do You Know Who I Am?" Iverson 10 years ago. The last player to win the award and a ring in the same season was Tim Duncan in 2003. That doesn't mean the Bulls won't be parading in June, just that recent history is not on their side.
But even if Rose falls short of winning it all this season, one thing's for certain -- Chicago is here to stay.
If there's one thing we experts do know is championship windows can close as quickly as they open. So while on paper the Bulls seem primed to make numerous runs for a championship over the next five years, the reality is in 2012 Rose, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, Kevin Love and Dwight Howard are all free agents and anything can happen.
What's that? Rose is a restricted free agent?
Well, you can't get more "restricted" than a signed contract, and yet Denver ended up shipping franchise player Carmelo Anthony to New York and Utah sent Williams to New Jersey. Let's face it, this ain't the '90s. Players have learned they not only have the ball in their hands, but the cards too. If a guy is not happy with the way things are going, even a restricted free agent can find a way to get going. Just look at Rose's former teammate Ben Gordon. In 2008, when Gordon was a restricted free agent, he turned down a pair of extension offers in part because he was tired of being a part-time starter. After he couldn't work out a sign and trade, he agreed to a one-year deal as a stop gap and then bolted to Detroit for more money the following summer where he is a part-time starter.
And loses a lot.
Bad for him but great for my example: He wanted out and he got his wish.
Today Rose is an MVP-caliber star in his hometown, on a winning team playing for a coach that he loves.
Two years ago that was LeBron.
And what young franchise player won't heed the haunting words spoken last year by Kevin Garnett, who epitomized "loyalty" while in Minnesota: "I can honestly say that if I could go back and do my situation over, knowing what I know now I'd have [left] a little sooner."
The younger, less knowledgeable Garnett wanted to bring a championship to the team that drafted him, so he stuck around for 12 years.
Now more than ever young stars now know they have options other than taking the maximum cash from the team that drafted them and hoping their GM acquires the teammates they need to win a title.
And while The Decision may have ushered in this idea of players forming super teams, but that doesn't mean it's a trend.
Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports, a Chicago firm that represents players, says players still decide moves case by case during free agency. What's high on one player's list may not be as important to another.
"I have a few guys on the Bulls and they all say Rose loves being in Chicago and loves his teammates but that doesn't mean he's going to stay," he said. "There are a lot of factors that go into a player's decision, and when the time comes he's going to have to sit down and figure out what's most important to him."
Of course, depending upon how collective bargaining negotiations shake out, this could all be moot. Owners already don't like the current arrangement, and marquee players like LeBron, Melo and Amare Stoudemire leaving or forcing their way out of smaller markets to form super teams in big markets could make talks even more tense. Among the items on the owners' wish list is a hard cap, which would greatly cripple any team's ability to pull a Miami. But as Bartelstein points out, the league is as popular as it's ever been and Miami pulling a Miami is partly responsible for fan interest.
"The league sold more season tickets this summer than ever, the ratings are up fans like player movement because it makes the game exciting," Bartelstein said, adding, "it would be a mistake to restrict it."
Of course one of the other items on the owners' wish list is shorter contracts, which could potentially keep player movement alive to a degree. But given the number of superstars not only grouped together on the same teams, but also represented by the same agencies, guessing which side is going to get its way in CBA negotiations would be like predicting who is going to have the best record in either conference.
That uncertainty about the future is why it is so important that the Bulls focus on winning now.
The Heat may not win it all this year but beating the Big Three year in and year out is going to prove difficult. Just as New York will try to sign a top point guard to form its own Big Three. And heaven forbid Howard finds teammates who consistently feed him the ball. Last summer's free agency not only produced a poorly received TV special but marked the beginning of a monumental power shift that likely won't stop until 2012's top players sign (or owners' restrictions prevail at the bargaining table).
If the dust clears and the Bulls' roster still has only one All-Star, will Rose be happy going up against a slew of super teams by himself? Pat Riley's a smart man, but he's not the only GM who knows how to quickly clear cap space to add talent, so while a team like the Knicks may look cash-strapped now, 2012 could be an entirely different situation.
Ultimately the Bulls' future doesn't depend on the kind of player Rose is but rather the kind of person. The Decision not only revealed where James was going to play but it also showed us what was most important to him. In Cleveland he had a great team, good coach, fan adoration, the money and still it wasn't enough. If the Bulls, like the Cavs, come up short of a ring, will all those other things be enough for Rose when it comes time to make his decision?
Summer 2012 may seem like a long way off but it's not. That's why Clippers GM Neil Olshey felt compelled to call dibs on Blake Griffin back in February even though the rookie sensation is not an unrestricted free agent until 2014.
Things happen fast in this league like competitive windows opening and suddenly closing.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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