- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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With 23 victories already, same as last season's tally, perhaps it's time to play Twenty-Three Questions With The Bulls, in honor of the win total and, well, You Know Who.
Or maybe not.
Since these are the new Bulls, let's play Seven Questions instead, in a bow to Chicago's sixth man extraordinaire: No. 7, Ben Gordon.
Or as a tribute to the fact that this season -- the Bulls' seventh since their last championship -- might finally be the one that halts their playoff drought.
Let's play Seven Questions because even Eddy Curry welcomes our curiosity.
"I think that's the natural response of somebody who's watching this team and who's been watching for the last five years," Curry said. "You've got to wonder if this is just a (good) stretch we're going through or have the Bulls finally got it? Are these guys really ready to make that next step?"
"This team is definitely for real," he said. "In the NBA, I think you can run through a good stretch and win maybe two, three or four in a row, but to have the turnaround we did . . . I think this team is definitely for real."
Let's keep asking questions to see if we can agree.
1. So ... what were these guys thinking at 0-9?
The initial response, courtesy of Luol Deng:
"This is a tough league."
From there, though, the Bulls swear they were as upbeat as a team can be at 0-9. Very few unprintable thoughts, they insist. Hard as that is to believe, perhaps it wasn't impossible for Chicago to be philosophical about its horrific start, given that the circus comes to United Center every November, forcing the team to start the season with a killer road trip.
The upturn, ironically, started with a one-point loss to Dallas at home on Dec. 13. It was a total giveaway, and it left Chicago with a worse record through 19 games (4-15) than expansion Charlotte (5-14). Yet somehow, the kiddies came away from the giveaway with some confidence, believing that -- at least at home -- they could trouble anyone. That night, Dallas was the sixth straight opponent Chicago held below 100 points. The Bulls wound up holding the next 20 opponents under 100 as well, stunningly rising to the top of the league in field-goal defense.
Just how far they've U-turned became clearer Tuesday night, when the Bulls came back to Dallas for the rematch. With its athleticism and deep fleet of kiddies, Chicago pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 107-100 triumph. Perhaps the Bulls ran out of gas the following night, dropping a 105-92 decision at Houston and falling to 10-10 overall against the West.
"I believed before this," said veteran forward Antonio Davis, an injured spectator against the Mavericks. "Even when we started out 0-9, I felt like there was something about us that was going to turn this into a better situation."
Said Deng: "Any team would be worried (at 0-9). But I don't know much of a surprise we are any more."
He's right. They're not. Although the Bulls' 13-3 mark in January would not have been possible without a favorable, home-heavy schedule, no one is excited to play them these days.
"I think people are taking notice," said forward Tyson Chandler, smiling slyly.
2. How did the Bulls, without warning, get so good defensively?
This time we turn to Ben Gordon for the ready response.
"Coach Skiles," Gordon said.
"Yup," Gordon said.
You guys just do whatever Skiles says?
"Yup," Gordon said.
Seems that the revamped Baby Bulls are much more obedient than they used to be, but Skiles has an explanation for his ability to get through where Tim Floyd and Bill Cartwright failed.
"We have a totally different team," the coach said. "That has something to do with it."
Skiles also tries to keep the schemes simple, because of the inexperience. But he doesn't have to compromise on effort, getting dogged work defensively in spite of the fact that his roster is so short on veteran know-how. You can argue that the Bulls' top six players are 24 or younger, with second-year point guard Kirk Hinrich ranking as the senior member of a group that starts with a 19-year-old (Deng).
"The coach demands it out of you," Deng said. "If you want to play, you have to play D."
As a result, they've formed an active-hands unit that allows the opposition to shoot just 41.4 percent from the field, lowest in the league. Skiles doesn't deny that he misses the days when, with a veteran-laden team in Phoenix, he could introduce a couple coverages at the morning shootaround and know Jason Kidd and Co. could carry them out in the game that night. But he's growing to like simplicity, too.
"We were actually really surprised," Skiles said of Chicago's defensive struggles in November. "We defended so well in camp, right from the beginning of two-a-days, and then we just came out giving up 100 points, 48 percent shooting, We were fouling at an unbelievable rate. Then when we really looked at it, it was just basically one guy breaking down every possession. It wasn't a total team thing. As soon as we got after those individual breakdowns, we started becoming a very good defensive team.
"With our youth, we're not going to be a 100-plus points-per-game team [offensively]. We're going to be in the mid-to-low 90s. So doesn't take a genius to figure out that, if we don't keep the other team in the upper 80s, we're probably in trouble. ... For being rookies [or close to it], they've been exceptional."
3. How has Skiles, a supposed screamer, connected with these particular players?
Reason A: Insiders say Skiles isn't nearly the screamer that his reputation suggests, and that he's far more a teacher than a screamer in Chicago.
Reason B: The advantage to having so many young guys, as opposed to veterans, is that they're less likely to fire back at a demanding coach than vets would.
"I think so," Curry said. "I think that's one of the reasons we've been able to turn it around so fast."
Curry was careful to clarify that Skiles is as hard-nosed [and blunt] as legend has it. "Harder than I can probably explain," Curry said after a long pause. "He's a tough guy. He really demands perfection from this team, and we try to give it to him."
Gordon echoed that opinion, putting Skiles in the same intensity class as his University of Connecticut coach, Jim Calhoun.
"They're about as demanding as demanding gets," Gordon said. "They know exactly what they want and they're very confident in their teaching."
Yet Gordon quickly adds that he thinks that kind of push "is something I need in my career," and he's not the only Bull who feels that way. Several young Bulls come from good programs where respect for the coach is ingrained early -- Gordon from UConn, Kirk Hinrich from Kansas, Chris Duhon and Deng from Duke, even Andres Nocioni from Argentina's gold-medal winning national team. In an era when top draftees rarely stay in college for more than a year or two, the experience those players bring from their years in the best college systems is an undeniable plus.
Curry and Chandler, meanwhile, seem ready for someone to push them in the right direction after three lost seasons. Having been bashed so much locally and nationally for their lack of development and consistency, they're both willing to absorb Skiles' tough love if it means that they'll continue to rebound.
"The inexperience is not really that bad, because even though they're young, a lot of these guys are mature for their ages," Davis said. "They're good kids, so we don't worry about them being young. The biggest thing is, they're really listening."
4. Will Bulls fans -- and Bulls management -- continue to be patient?
The fans have been amazingly patient, so patient that the Bulls have no right to expect more. Some sort of dropoff is understandable after a run of six championships in eight seasons, but the Bulls haven't merely faded. In the six seasons since its last title in 1998, the franchise has posted a cumulative record of 119-341.
Yet the patience shown by general manager John Paxson is almost as laudable. There were widespread calls for a major shakeup when the Bulls opened 0-9. Curry, a restricted free agent this summer, was, in particular, a pretty unanimous choice to be the first one traded away.
Yet Paxson held firm. GMs everywhere called, but Paxson, according to league sources, didn't want to be the one who had lived through Curry's growing pains and then moved him just in time for the 22-year-old to blossom. It's a stance that history supports, since most every big man to jump directly from high school to the pros eventually makes it.
So somehow he convinced Curry, after his mother and agent demanded a trade, to put off contract-extension talks until the summer and focus on the season.
"We established that early," Curry said.
A few months later, Curry and Chandler are at the forefront -- or at least the front court -- of a nucleus that has rival GMs envious. The roster Paxson has assembled recently prompted influential Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti, a regular on ESPN's "Around The Horn," to write that Paxson "has moved on to something more amazing" some 12 years removed from his famed clinching jumper against Phoenix in the 1993 NBA Finals.
"We feel within our organization in the past year and a half or so, we've definitely turned a couple of corners," Skiles said. "We're moving in the right direction and all that. But you don't get anything for that.
"We want what everybody wants. We want a ring. That's what everyone's trying to get. But from where we came from, we've got to sort of get back in the game first. Which is becoming a competitive team every night, winning games [and] at some point becoming a playoff team, and then you take it from there. Normally, teams get in the playoffs, they take their lumps for a few years, they make progress, and sometimes they win it. It's a long, long process."
5. Won't the Bulls start feeling pressure now that a playoff berth is expected?
Common sense says yes. Skiles concedes that "expectations have been raised" by the magical January, and now the schedule is working against them. The Bulls are just three games into a stretch that calls for them to play away 13 times in a span of 18 games.
Yet they sure looked loose in Dallas, especially in crunch time. Which might have been an example to remind us about the good side of inexperience -- being oblivious to the pressure sometimes.
It also doesn't hurt that, in the East, the expected elite of Detroit-Miami-Indiana is only a two-team elite at present, given Indiana's struggles.
So if Chicago's D holds up ...
"This franchise, the past six years or whatever, it hasn't even been in playoff contention," Gordon said. "So we have nothing to lose."
Adds Deng: "It really couldn't be a disappointment [if Chicago misses the playoffs]. We're a rebuilding team, and we've already shown that we're building something."
And Curry: "To the fans it'd probably be a pretty big disappointment, but at the same time I think they're happy with our effort, knowing that we don't have any quote-unquote stars on this team. I think people in Chicago recognize that."
6. Are the Bulls willing to pay whatever it takes to re-sign Curry and Chandler in the summer?
This is the biggie, of course, and the feeling here is that they can't afford not to re-sign them. It figures to be very expensive to hang onto both seven-footers, restricted free agents who are bound to attract big-money offer sheets. Then, down the road, whatever the Curry-Chandler outcome, it'll undoubtedly impact Chicago's efforts to re-sign Hinrich, Deng and Gordon when those Baby Bulls come up for new contracts.
Curry and Chandler want to stay and finally appear to be prospering. The fear, of course, is that Curry will re-gain all his lost weight and Chandler will never shake his penchant for injury once they get their money.
Yet the risk is just as great that they'll flourish elsewhere if they leave, a la Jermaine O'Neal, as they continue to grow up.
Skeptics will note that Curry continues to be a factor at only the offensive end . . . and that his rebounding on either end isn't close to what it should be . . . and that he didn't lose weight until his contract year. With the defense-first Chandler, the doubts about his ability to stay healthy aren't going away, either.
"He's so young. He has to get better. And I keep telling people, he's a beast already."
Said Curry: "I do feel that me and Tyson are a good fit for the franchise together. But things happen. Owners and organizations tend to look elsewhere when you don't have a winning season. The more games that we win, the more likely we'll stay here.
"[But] it's not a problem. I think that I'm a good player and that I'll have a fairly decent contract waiting for me next summer, if not [in] Chicago then somewhere else.
Chandler and Curry stressed, however, that staying in Chicago is their shared first choice.
"Especially," Curry said, "after going through the hard times and seeing what it's like when you go through some good times."
7. More than halfway through the season, is it safe to say this team is for real?
Depends on whom you ask.
From the players, there's no hesitation.
"Definitely," Chandler said.
"We believe," Deng said, "that we're a playoff team."
Skiles, not surprisingly, is the only Bull in downplay mode.
"We were starting on the bottom," he said. "We had one of the worst overall records in the past several years. So when you're starting that low, it doesn't take much to get everybody to sort of overhype everything.
"We like the direction we're headed in. We like our young guys. But we've tried to focus on how we play and not wins and losses, and that's helped us. So if we do hit a really rough spot, that's what we have to fall back on -- how we play.
"When guys have a little success, it's definitely possible that they can have a letdown. We try to keep an eye out for that, but you can't have an iron fist or anything. We're dealing with young people. They're human beings. We just try to talk our way through it. We're hoping to have some success that doesn't go to their heads."
The good news?
"They don't seem like that kind of people," Skiles contends.
"I'd rather have people think we weren't for real," Chandler added. "When people notice you're for real, they tend to spent a little more [preparation] time on you."
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