Commentary

Savior? No, just savor these Bulls

Noah & Co. already are the foundation of a championship culture in Chicago

Updated: March 14, 2014, 11:00 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Late in the evening Tuesday, long after the Bulls' desultory loss to San Antonio, Joakim Noah finally appeared and stood near his locker in full uniform for his regular postgame media debriefing.

The tallest Bull was upset but not angry.

[+] EnlargeGibson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTaj Gibson might not be a starter for the Bulls, but there's no doubting his importance.

His team had gotten blown out early by the methodical Spurs, only creeping back to respectability -- and a 104-96 loss -- during "Jimmer Time" in the fourth quarter.

Noah takes losses hard -- "It'll be tough to go to bed tonight," he said -- and the only victories he really celebrates come against the Miami Heat, whom the Bulls had defeated just two days prior.

So when a reporter asked Noah if the makeup of the locker room helps the team bounce back from these types of games, he barely blinked before giving his answer.

"I don't take anything for granted, this team doesn't take anything for granted," Noah said. "Just because you usually do something doesn't mean it just happens. You gotta go out there and do it."

A bounce-back victory seemed to be in the cards, and the Bulls went out and got one.

As reporter and subject expected, Chicago bounced back with a vengeance Thursday night, drubbing the Houston Rockets 111-87. It was a fun victory -- and a gutty one.

After Mike Dunleavy got nailed above his eye by a Chandler Parsons' elbow in the second quarter, he returned with 10 stitches to score all 21 of his points in the second half.

"He had a huge knot on his head looking like [Evander] Holyfield, the white version, coming out there putting on a new jersey, gutting it out in the second half," Noah told reporters.

Bloodied but unbowed -- that's the Bulls this season.

This isn't a very tough team to figure out. The Bulls aren't about tricks. Coach Tom Thibodeau's defense isn't about gimmicks. From Jimmy Butler's lockdown defense to Taj Gibson's hammer dunks, this team wins through execution and effort. Simple to explain but hard to maintain for most teams.

With Derrick Rose out again and a crop of free agents on the horizon, the temptation is to think about the future, which is really only less than four months away. Noah swatted away the "recruiting Carmelo Anthony" stories. He's focused on the present.

We all should be, because what you're seeing now is why the Bulls could very well win a title without any outside help aside from a healthy Rose.

European star Nikola Mirotic might be a Bull next season, but for now he exists only in viral videos and fans' fertile imaginations. He's been described as more like Hedo Turkoglu than, say, Dirk Nowitzki, so at best he's a piece of the puzzle.

There is no savior on the way next season, unless you count, you know, the former MVP.

So forget all the talk about Anthony or whoever coming to lift the Bulls from the ignominy of not being "championship material." If you want to know how the Bulls will win a title, you just need to look around the locker room, win or lose.

Noah, Gibson, Butler, Dunleavy, D.J. Augustin, Tony Snell, Nazr Mohammed, Kirk Hinrich and, yes, even Carlos Boozer, whose "nickname jersey" would be read "Amnesty."

The culture of accountability borne out of the talented Bulls locker room is the missing ingredient for every good team that never becomes great. The Bulls already have it. And talent-wise, the core of Noah, Gibson and Butler keeps getting better. They could be three of the top 20 defensive players in the league, and Noah and Gibson have improved their offensive games.

As a small-town Indiana basketball coach once said, "We're way past big-speech time."

We know exactly what kind of team this is, and, good health intact, we know the Bulls will be a tough out in the playoffs, with a puncher's chance of making the Eastern Conference finals if the seeds fall right.

And they will be fun to watch doing it.

The Bulls are 36-29 with 17 games left and an impressive 22-11 since trading Luol Deng for nothing in the first week of January.

When Rose went down, championship expectations went down with him. When Deng was dealt, we wondered if this team could hold on for a seventh or eighth seed in the playoffs. But what's happened in their absence has lit a fire among the team's core veterans -- one that won't be extinguished when the playoffs end.

"I can't wait until the little homie comes back," Noah said of Rose after the Bulls beat Miami. "I know we have another level when that boy comes back. We're hungry, man. We're a hungry group. And that's what I want. We're going for one thing -- that's a championship. One day, I want to party in Chicago. I want to see what that feels like one day."

Noah will have to party like an All-Star for another year or so. But this season has turned into a celebration of all those hoary basketball clichés we say don't belong in the NBA. The city is awash in Bulls spirit, as fans have taken to the immediacy of this team's success after months of wallowing in post-Rose-injury malaise. But there is more to this team than the current good times. More to watch for than the final scores.

What this group has built is a foundation that will serve it well when Rose returns. And, yes, I believe Rose will return to his classic form. His speed was already back. He'll just need time to reconnect.

The Bulls culture we speak so highly of all started when Thibodeau took over in 2010, but the past two seasons have hardened and emboldened players such as Noah, Gibson and Butler, three of the four cornerstones for the future. There is a reason why I wouldn't want Chicago to get rid of any of these three to acquire a second big-time scorer, even Anthony.

You might advise that we just enjoy this Bulls team for what it is, but I see more. I see a team freed from the mental shackles of "championship or bust."

While the Bulls are constantly compared to Miami, and now Indiana to a lesser degree, their true role models are the Spurs.

Thibodeau raves about Gregg Popovich's bunch, as does pretty much everyone in the NBA. The Spurs weren't built for a three-year run. The culture that started in their instant post-lockout championship season has lasted for 15 years. Additions blend into the team and the Spurs keep rolling along. And yeah, they win titles, too.

"They're a selfless group," Noah said. "They play for each other. ... The way they play the game, you can learn a lot from them."

Do the Bulls think they're like San Antonio?

"Do I feel like we're like them?" Noah said. "Not yet. Not yet."

Noah repeated those words with an unspoken sense that their time is coming soon. In some ways, it's already here.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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