The NBA season is almost to the All-Star Break, and the team in the Eastern Conference which has suprised most basketball experts is the Chicago Bulls. After a sluggish start to the season, the Bulls have quietly rolled to a remarkable record of 33 wins and 14 losses. The Bulls continue to improve, and contrary to preseason predictions, it is possible for the Bulls to win the Eastern Conference of the NBA.
The Bulls’s record has been accomplished despite major injuries to power forward Carlos Boozer and center Joakim Noah. Both Boozer and Noah have missed over 20 games each, and Noah will miss at least another two weeks. Arguably, if healthy, Boozer and Noah, both averaging a double double, could have been Eastern Conference all-stars.
Carrying the Bulls throughout the season has been the MVP play of guard Derrick Rose, the superior bench depth, and the coaching of defensive-minded Tom Thibodeau. To win the Eastern Conference, however, the Bulls have to get healthy and remain healthy, and they have to quickly mature as a team.
The Bulls will easily win the Central Division, as no other team in the division has a winning record. In the Eastern Conference, the following three teams present the biggest challenges to the Bulls.
1. Orlando Magic. The Magic have Dwight Howard, and a decent supporting cast of Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Jason Richardson. Though this team has been revitalized since the December trades that brought them Turkoglu, Richardson, and Gilbert Arenas, the Bulls have a superior starting lineup and a superior bench.
2. Miami Heat. The Heat, of course, have the Big Three of Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. But as formidable as they are, the Heat do not have much else and they lack a strong inside presence on the court. The Bulls’ starting lineup of Rose, Boozer, Noah, and Luol Deng, can match up well with the Heat’s starting lineup, and beyond that, the Bulls have greater depth.
3. Boston Celtics. The current Eastern Conference champions are probably the best team in the east. They have strong starters, with a Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, and a strong bench. But these starters are all in their mid-30s, and add to that Shaquille O’Neal, who is 38. Man for man, the Bulls can match up well with the Celtics, but the question is whether the Bulls’ youth can out-duel the Celtics’ experience.
During one 10-game stretch in January, the Bulls beat Boston , Miami , and Dallas, three of the NBA’s elite teams, but they also lost to Philadelphia , New Jersey , and Charlotte twice, teams with losing records. That should not happen; a championship team can not lose to teams they should beat.
In the 1990’s, the Bulls’ championship teams won the games they should have won, and usually won them easily. But, then again, they also had the leadership of Michael Jordan and the supervision of Phil Jackson. Similarly, for the Bulls to be a force in the Eastern Conference, Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau have enormous shoes to fill.