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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Can the 2012 Bulls Emulate the 1994 Bulls?

I predicted that this year's championship could be affected by "key injuries dictating the ultimate outcome in a way rarely if ever seen before." NBA Commissioner David Stern denies that the lockout-compacted schedule has increased the rate and/or severity of injuries this season but, with all due respect to one of the greatest commissioners ever, that is nonsense; this season featured no real training camp, a two game preseason and tons of games stacked on top of one another: the players did not have sufficient time to get into playing condition and they had no time to recover from the little nagging injuries that are inevitable for any professional athlete--and the resulting wear and tear has undoubtedly contributed to the wave of formerly durable players who have suffered serious injuries, including three-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard and 2011 NBA regular season MVP Derrick Rose.

When Rose's left knee exploded near the end of Chicago's game one win versus Philadelphia--a game in which Rose came within one rebound and one assist of posting a triple double--I felt sick to my stomach. Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant are the future of the NBA, two true superstars (as opposed to guys who are falsely anointed as such by "stat gurus" and/or media members who do not understand the sport) who have the perfect combination of confidence and humility: they believe in themselves and their teammates but you never see them saying or doing stupid things.

It will obviously be very difficult for the Bulls to win a championship without Rose but there is a precedent for a Chicago team vastly exceeding expectations despite being without the services of an MVP caliber player: Michael Jordan stunned the world by retiring just before the start of the 1993-94 NBA season but Scottie Pippen showcased his all-around "five-tool" prowess, leading the team to a 55-27 record and a hard fought seven game loss to the eventual Eastern Conference champion New York Knicks--and the Bulls may very well have defeated the Knicks if not for a call by referee Hue Hollins that was so egregiously bad that Hollins' partner Darell Garretson later called "horrible", an unusually candid admission considering that referees rarely call out other referees publicly.

Scottie Pippen wrote an open letter to the Chicago Bulls, encouraging the team to be inspired by the great run that the 1994 team made. Here is an excerpt:

While I dealt with my share of injuries throughout my career, I was fortunate to have been healthy for the majority of our run in the 1990’s. The same can be said about Michael Jordan. But, when Michael retired for the first time to play baseball in 1993, we were faced with a similar challenge to what you’re up against—playing without your best player and leader. Granted, Michael chose to step away from the game and Derrick is sidelined because of his injury, but it comes down to the players who are still out there coming together to collectively rise up as a group and win games. We exceeded a lot of expectations in the regular season, finishing 55-27. But as we entered the postseason, a lot of people had written us off and said we didn’t have a chance without Michael. There was a lot of talk about how we wouldn’t make it out of the first round and might even get swept. But we didn’t listen to any of that. We believed in ourselves and we went out to play the type of basketball that we knew we were capable of playing. We swept Cleveland in the first round and it was a great feeling. Even though we ultimately fell short and lost to New York in a second round Game 7, we all believed we could have—and should have—done better. My point is that there was never a moment where we felt sorry for ourselves or let anyone push us into any self-doubt. We stayed positive and believed that if we stuck together and played good, hard defense, we could beat any team out there. That’s what I believe you can do as well. 

You lost a very important piece to the puzzle, there is no denying that. But having dealt with Derrick’s injuries during the regular season, as well as those as some of the others, gave members of the bench an opportunity to step forward as you did all season long. And every single individual on this roster has shown that they can make positive contributions to winning. Obviously the other starters in Richard, Luol, Carlos and Joakim—all All-Star caliber players in their own right—need to raise their level of game across the board to compensate for missing Derrick. But it’s the bench too that will be as important as ever in answering the call. And as we’ve seen these last two seasons, the Bench Mob is up for that challenge. You all believe in yourselves and the coaching staff believes in you too. You’ve already demonstrated you can have success without Derrick in the lineup. Now it’s time to do it when it matters the most.

As you all know, this is when it pays extra dividends to have a coach like Thibs. To me, his preparation is what separates him as one of the league’s very best coaches. It’s got to be his greatest strength. Having watched him coach night in and night out these last two seasons, this team comes ready to play, whether it’s a back-to-back or three games in four nights. He’s always ready and the job that you as players do reflects that. It’s an underrated asset to have a group that truly knows its personnel and the intricate schemes of a gameplan. Thibodeau has you ready to go every night and battle and that’s because of his attention to detail. He’s also kept you focused and prevented you from looking ahead. That’s the mentality you need as the playoffs continue—one game at a time. Execute. Play good, hard defense. Protect the ball. Even without a great player like Derrick, you are still capable of doing those things.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:05 PM