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There's always this feeling, when a team does nothing before the NBA trade deadline, of being left out, especially when you think your team, as is, is close to winning a championship. Especially when a key player has been injured all season and when the perception is that a tweak here or there could mean the difference between beating or losing to the Miami Heat in a seven-game series.
|These Bulls have earned to the right to see how far they can go -- as constructed.|
So you look at some of the players who changed teams Thursday -- Stephen Jackson, Richard Jefferson, Nick Young -- and it's understandable if you feel this was an opportunity missed. They're all guys who can do the one thing the Chicago Bulls aren't positively great at -- putting the ball in the basket with little or no help.
Thursday, at 2:15 p.m. Central time was the Bulls' last chance to add somebody who can do that. They could have added Young, particularly, for what amounts to a ham sandwich. Instead, the Bulls did what they probably should have done: nothing. That's right, the Bulls stood pat, and it might very well wind up being the right thing. And nothing drove that point home like the victory over Miami on Wednesday night.
OK, maybe the Derrick Rose-less victory meant nothing grand. Maybe Miami didn't take the Bulls seriously without the MVP. Maybe they weren't properly motivated, or the Bulls played a fantasy of a game they couldn't possibly reproduce in the postseason. Maybe. But here's the one thing Wednesday's effort and the result did underscore: This group of guys, from the MVP down to 10-day Mike James, earned the right to stay together the rest of this season.
The Bulls are two games clear of Miami and have the best record in the NBA despite having had their two best players, Rose and Luol Deng, and their most accomplished player, Richard Hamilton, miss a whole lot of games.
Just building the best record in the league, that alone, could earn a team the right to go into the playoffs intact. The last time a team had the best record in the league and worried more about what it couldn't do than what it could was in 2008, when the Phoenix Suns traded for Shaquille O'Neal before the deadline and couldn't get out of the first round of the playoffs.
So, if the Bulls were going to do anything, perhaps making a little deal was in order, and it's hard to be a little deal if the person you're acquiring is someone you're asking to come in and play enough minutes to score 10-12 points per game. NBA sensibilities are, well, fragile. Anything can upset the balance of the room, sabotage the rotation, kill the chemistry. So, even if we agree that the greatest area of concern, looking ahead to the playoffs, is that the Bulls go into long dry spells offensively, there are some other facts that must be entered into evidence, as well. The Bulls are the No. 1 team in the NBA in rebounding. (They outrebounded Miami 13-1 in the first 7 1/2 minutes of the second quarter.) The Bulls are the No. 1 team in the NBA in scoring margin. They're the No. 1 team in the NBA in offensive efficiency. The Bulls are the only team in the NBA that is undefeated (18-0) when scoring 100 points. They're the only team in the NBA that has a winning record (7-2) when its opponent scores 100 or more points. They're the No. 1 team in the league in assists. They're No. 2 in the league in points per game allowed. They're No. 5 in the league in 3-point shooting. They're No. 6 in the league in points per game, which is a pretty decent ranking for a team said to be offensively challenged. Those are facts.
They're the best road team in the NBA, having won in San Antonio, in Philadelphia, in Orlando, and in Los Angeles against the Lakers and the Clippers. They have the best bench in the league; 10 players scored in the first half against Miami. And, fueled by the energy of those reserves, the Bulls play harder and with more purpose than any other team in the NBA. I would say it's an opinion, but that would diminish that the observation was made by one Earvin Johnson, even before the Bulls and Heat tipped off Wednesday night. The Bulls come closer, he also said, to maximizing their potential night after night than any other team in the league. Would the league's best passing game operate with the same efficiency if you put no-passing Young on the floor for 18 minutes a night? Would the rebounding be as superior? Would the defense be as stifling?
|Nick Young can get his own shot, but would he clog up a Bulls passing game that leads the NBA in assists?|
This isn't to suggest that the Bulls are a lock to beat Miami or the Oklahoma City Thunder or even the Orlando Magic in a seven-game playoff series. The feeling here is still that Hamilton is going to have to play 25-30 minutes per night for the Bulls to win a championship. All I'm saying is that the Bulls did the right thing in not tossing anybody overboard -- or, for that matter, disrupting what has been carefully assembled -- for a maybe. Rookie Jimmy Butler, who has earned more minutes, was more productive Wednesday night than anybody in a Miami uniform except LeBron and D-Wade. Butler should sit on the bench to get some time for Young or Captain Jack?
There are no guarantees here, certainly not that the Bulls won't struggle to score in stretches, especially against defenses such as those of Miami, the Philadelphia 76ers and perhaps even the Boston Celtics in a playoff series. But I'd argue that the Bulls are less flawed with a healthy Hamilton than Miami, which still looks inadequate in the middle and skittish late in close games. The counter, of course, is that Miami, which tends to coast more than it should in the regular season, can go to a postseason gear that the Bulls, pedal to the metal all the time, simply don't have. It's a fair point.
But so is this group of Bulls having earned, so far, the benefit of the doubt. There's no historically great team in the NBA this season, not even Miami, whose front-running tendencies remind me a little too much of those of the San Diego Chargers.
The great harm playing fantasy sports has done to real sports is in valuing individuality above team. The Bulls, beyond Rose and perhaps Deng, are easy to pick apart. Joakim Noah's shot looks funny; Carlos Boozer struggles with length and doesn't play much defense; Hamilton is too creaky; Ronnie Brewer isn't really a starter on a championship team; blah, blah, blah. Yet there they are atop the NBA standings, strong in the ways the serious contenders always are (defense and rebounding).
That the decision-makers took a look at a team that, despite many a speed bump, is leading the race and decided to leave it be might not be the headline-grabbing move, but time might prove it to be the smart one.