TORONTO -- Much of the basketball world may have given up on the Chicago Bulls this season after a season-ending knee injury to Derrick Rose and a trade that sent Luol Deng to Cleveland. But coach Tom Thibodeau and his team still have high aspirations for a season many pundits believed was lost.
Bulls players admit Thibodeau still talks to them about title aspirations throughout the season.
"At least once a week we go over where we're at, where we can go," Bulls guard Mike Dunleavy said after shootaround Wednesday. "Why not us? Why not? Once you get in the tournament, anything can happen."
That's exactly the approach Thibodeau wants his players to have as they begin the post All-Star break portion of the schedule Wednesday night against the Toronto Raptors.
"I've said this all along: The only thing that's important is what we think and what we believe," Thibodeau said. "If we listen to what everyone had said from the start, the season would have been over. So now, the last 25 or 30 games, I think we're starting to believe we can be pretty good. And if you do certain things, you've got a chance to win no matter who you're playing against, no matter where you're playing. So just take it step by step.
"Don't start jumping ahead, like we've got it figured out or we're this and we're that. No, you have to take a businesslike approach; it's a process of working as hard as you can each and every day, concentrate, play as a team. Who knows where you'll be at the end of the season? The whole point is to strive for improvement, get better, and then take your chance at the end. Wherever you may be, then make the most of it."
Thibodeau was asked why there continues to be a perception hovering around the Bulls that if they don't add another superstar either by Thursday's trade deadline or at some point this summer, they will fall short of teams like the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.
"Unless you win it, every team is lacking something in many people's eyes," Thibodeau said. "And the challenge for everyone is to play to your strengths and cover up your weaknesses. If you're in this league, you're a great player, so you have the potential to be a great team. Then it's your willingness to sacrifice and play together, play to your strengths.
"Some teams are built more around, say, one or two superstars, and maybe they don't have the same depth. Other teams are built with more depth. So whatever your strength is, you want to try and take advantage of that. Then it comes down to the end. I think the teams that go into the playoffs that are the healthiest and playing the best, those teams have the best chance."
Thibodeau is selling to his players that anything can happen once the playoffs begin.
"There's not a big difference between 1 (seed) and 8 (seed)," Thibodeau said. "Every team in this league is capable of beating you. So you have to be ready every night, you have to be healthy, and you have to be playing well. If you're fortunate enough to get to the playoffs, that's a different animal."
Thibodeau was asked if there was a particular model he preferred in regards to building a championship-caliber team. He won a championship as an assistant on Doc Rivers' staff in Boston in 2008 with a Big Three of veterans Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
"I guess we all have short memories," he said. "If you look at the history of the league, there have been a lot of big threes. You go back to the Celtic teams in the '80s, it's always been that way. And then there have been other teams that have gotten it done different ways. You look at Detroit when they won it. I know I was part of a Knick team that was an eighth seed that got to the Finals, and who knows what would have happened?
"We had (Patrick) Ewing and Larry Johnson, who got hurt and couldn't really play in the Finals. Larry played but he was on one leg. So you never know. That's what makes the league great. Someone takes an injury at the wrong time, that changes things. That opens up the door. There's opportunities for other people, other teams, so that's why you play as hard as you can each and every day; you strive for improvement, and you never know where your team can go. I look at our team and I see where we are; I think we can get a lot better."
What is clear is that Thibodeau believes if the Bulls acquired another star, All-Star center Joakim Noah would be more than capable of filling a role as part of a Chicago Big Three.
"Joakim has gone to a completely different level," Thibodeau said. "It's not just his defense and it's not just his passing and his screening, his scoring now -- he's playing a complete game, so that's given us a big boost."
While Thibodeau never came out and said the Bulls had to add another star to win a title, like any coach, he would love to have as much talent as he can.
"You need good fortune, too," Thibodeau said. "You look at, 'OK, well, how did these teams get these guys?' And sometimes it's just good fortune. Someone's going into a rebuild, really that's how we got (Kevin) Garnett in Boston. That's how the Lakers got (Pau) Gasol. It's just sometimes that's the way it works out, but whatever way you get there, that's how you get there. The challenge is to make the best of whatever your circumstances are and not to say, 'Hey, we need this or we need that.' No, we've got enough. Let's find a way to get it done with what we have. Then we go from there."
Thibodeau was asked again if there is a way that he prefers to build a championship team.
"No," he said. "Look, some teams -- you look at OKC, they had good fortune, too. Getting (Kevin) Durant was huge for them and getting (Russell) Westbrook. So there's different ways to do it. Whatever way you can get there, you get there. Miami, they had good fortune with free agency. So, whatever your circumstances are."