In 2010-11, the Chicago Bulls came the closest they’ve ever been to a title since the Jordan era: They took the Miami Heat to 5 games in the Eastern Conference Finals. 2011-12 had some lofty expectations for the Bulls….you know, assuming they actually had a season. A bitter lockout was threatening the NBA season with reportedly a huge disparity between players and owners. But the lockout was resolved and 66 regular season games of NBA basketball were crammed into a shortened season from Christmas to it’s regular end in April with an extremely short training camp and mere 2 preseason games.
The results of this tightened schedule were evident: Tired teams, injuries, sluggish early season performances. The Bulls were not immune to this either: Only 6 guys played 60+ games (Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik, Kyle Korver, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson) and only 1 more player played 50+ (Luol Deng). Rip Hamilton, CJ Watson, and Derrick Rose all missed significant time with a variety of injuries. But the Bulls persevered and were tied for the best record in the league with the San Antonio Spurs at 50-16. Things looked bright as the team was healthy heading into the playoffs.
And we all know how that ended. In fact, we’re reliving the harsh reality of that ACL injury to this very day, hoping Derrick Rose can be what he was and remain healthy over the course of an NBA season. When you look at that season as a whole and how special that team was, I believe that 2011-12 was the championship that slipped away.
This team was not a carbon copy of the 2010-11 team. They replaced the incomparable Keith Bogans with aging veteran scorer Rip Hamilton and he performed admirably in the 28 games he played averaging 11.6 points per game and 13 in the playoffs. He had filled that shooting guard void that had plagued the Bulls a year earlier. Rose missed 27 games due to a variety of injuries, but still posted averages of 21.8 points per game, 7.9 assists per game, and 3.4 rebounds per game. He was playing well and dropped a 23/9/9 in Game 1 against Philadelphia before going down with injury. This team had evolved and were much improved. You may look at their points per game and not notice much of a difference, but in 2010-11, they ranked 12th in Offensive Efficiency and 1st in Defensive Efficiency per John Hollinger’s rankings on ESPN.com. These efficiency stats are based on points scored per 100 possessions, which in some ways accounts for the Bulls pace and their slower style of play. In 2011-12, the Bulls jumped to 5th in Offensive Efficiency while remaining 1st at Defensive Efficiency. They were ahead of teams like Miami, Indiana, Boston, Orlando. In fact, there were only 4 teams ahead of them and they were all Western Conference teams. The Bulls were the class of the East on both ends.
That season also produced many great highlights in the Rose/Thibodeau era: D-Rose hitting the game winner over new teammate Pau Gasol in the very first game of the season, my favorite D-Rose game ever where he decimated the Clippers and embarrassed Chris Paul to show he’s the best point guard in the league, the Joakim Noah/Luol Deng connection to cap off a crazy comeback against the Atlanta Hawks, Rose sinking the game winner against Milwaukee, and D-Rose throwing down a violent dunk against the Knicks at the height of Linsanity. The season was just memorable. The Bulls were so good they beat a completely healthy Miami team with D-Rose returning from injury and going 1 for 13 in overtime. Miami was dealing with injury issues as well in the playoffs as Chris Bosh was injured and missed a big chunk of time before ultimately returning to flip the script against the Celtics. What if that had been the Bulls with home court advantage over the Heat? Remember, Miami still needed an epic Lebron James performance to overcome the Celtics and the series went 7 games. They were vulnerable and frankly, the Bulls were on a mission. It’s a tragedy we never got that Eastern Conference Finals.
Some may agree, some may disagree and say the Bulls would’ve still come up short. That’s fine, we’ll honestly never know, but ultimately, with all the evidence I have and have witnessed this team was a contender. The Bulls have a shot of recreating this season in a way this year. They finally have depth that they haven’t seen since the Bench Mob this year and are strong at every position. If Rose can stay healthy again and play like we saw against Slovenia on Tuesday afternoon, the Bulls are primed for another title run. Let’s hope this is the year this finally falls together.