The last three seasons of Chicago Bulls basketball have been an exercise in rationalizing disappointment and coping with severed expectations. A bummer isn't a bummer until there's a real hope of something more. If there's a common thread between the last few seasons from the perspective of fandom, it was reconciling the reality of lost opportunity with a team on the floor that still fought and competed in a way that resonated with the city.
If we were just passing the time, it wasn't all bad. The Heat's record-setting winning streak came to an end on the United Center floor and the feeling was almost enough to send everyone to Grant Park. Nate Robinson went full on NBA Jam to give the franchise arguably its most memorable individual performance since the dynasty era. Joakim Noah established himself as a recognized star, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson proved to be hidden gems and Carlos Boozer made us cry so hard it looked like we were laughing.
Ask a Knicks fan how they would like a "broken" season like the ones the Bulls have enjoyed under Tom Thibodeau without Derrick Rose. The problem, of course, is that the Bulls were never after a feel-good campaign and a consolation trophy. Success is finite in the NBA and overlapping primes need to be taken advantage of, because the next rebuild is only a few years away. Without Rose, a championship ceiling caved in and the story, at least locally, became more about an undermanned team making the best of a bad situation.
I don't know about you, but "Rudy" or "Hoosiers" never really did it for me. Having a championship-or-bust mentality is dangerous for a fan because you lose sight of the little joys that go into each season, but I'm not sure if it's even about that right now. More than anything, Chicago just wants to see the Bulls throw their best punch. If it's still not good enough, so be it. All you can ask for is the opportunity.
Yes, the Bulls still have to play 52 more regular season games, and each of those will present their own unique pitfalls. As 2014 is set to give way to a new year, though, it seems like the right time to take stock in where the are and where they could be going.
For all of the adversity the Bulls have endured over the last few seasons, it feels like you can never really complain when you have a good team in the Eastern Conference. The East is always there for the taking, and this season is no different. If you're spending your free time daydreaming about the Bulls making it to the Finals right now, it's probably because most the league's best teams still permanently reside in the West.
Still, you play the hand you're dealt, so that is what the Bulls will do. The Raptors have a bulldog at point guard and maybe the best bench in the NBA. The Wizards thoroughly out-played the Bulls in a series last season and might be even more formidable this year. The Hawks zip the basketball around in a way that would make Phil Jackson proud. The Cavs still have LeBron James, and he's only 30 years old.
It's not going to be easy for the Bulls in the playoffs, because the type of thing they're hoping to accomplish is never easy. Think back to how tough that Hawks series was in 2011, for example. Think back to how tense those last few games against the 76ers were in 2012. It will not be a cakewalk. As long as you acknowledge that, there's no reason to head into 2015 with anything other than extremely positive vibes surrounding these Bulls.
It feels like everything is falling into place. A basketball team is at its best when everyone accepts their role without opposition, and that's what's happening. Of course, these things tend to be easier when one of your young players suddenly turns into an overnight superstar.
It doesn't begin and end with Jimmy Butler, but he's still been at the center of everything for the Bulls this season. He was named the conference's player of the month in November and his numbers only got better in December. At this point, it doesn't feel like he's going to fall off.
The rise of Jimmy has been astounding. He's gone from a player averaging 13 points per game on 39.7 percent shooting to one averaging 22 per game on 49.1 percent shooting. Only James Harden has drawn more shooting fouls, and the rest of Butler's numbers are up, too. He's a killer on baseline cuts, a reliable threat on pull ups from mid-range and a developing post presence. He's also in the class picture of the best wing defenders in the NBA. What more can you really say?
Is there any reason Butler should be leading the NBA by playing 40 minutes per game right now? Of course not. It's the scariest thing about the rest of the regular season, but all the other teams in the East have bigger problems.
With Butler blossoming into one of the best players in the entire league this year, everyone else is free to slide into their role. At the moment, it looks like that could be a very good thing for the Bulls moving forward.
Mike Dunleavy Jr. has been about as underrated as a former No. 3 overall pick can be, and he's turning in another solid season at age 34. Dunleavy leaves something to be desired in terms of playmaking and transition ability you expect out of a starting wing, but he makes up for it with a size advantage and sweet shooting stroke. He's taking 4.3 shots per game from three-point range and is making exactly 40 percent of them. For $3.3 million this year, he might be one of the best bargains in the NBA.
Speaking of bargains ... meet the Bulls' entire front court. Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, and Nikola Mirotic are all underpaid and each gives the Bulls a new dimension.
Noah is still the best player of the bunch even if offseason knee surgery has limited him at times this season. Noah is typically a slow starter before finding a groove before the All-Star break and slowly becoming the Bulls' best player from there on out. In terms of importance to winning, it's hard to find players around the league more valuable than Noah. If he gets back to being one of the best defensive centers in the NBA while being a multifaceted auxiliary weapon for the offense, the Bulls are going to feel pretty good about their chances.
Gibson might as well be one of the most selfless players in the league. He's been a good soldier for the entirety of his time in Chicago, even if he's been better than the power forward starting ahead of him every year since 2011. That's no small thing in a business that runs on pride and money like everything else in America. In a seven-game series, he'll give the Bulls a mobile defender capable of checking anyone from Kevin Love to Nene while doubling as a supplemental rim protector. On the other end, he's the Bulls' emotional core as much as Noah and Rose are.
In Mirotic and Gasol, the Bulls have two ends of the same spectrum. The offense has been running through Gasol, and his play has been downright admirable for someone with his mileage. He isn't the most efficient player in the world and he's certainly declined some at age 34, but his scoring out of the post is a much needed relief for this team. In certain matchups, Gasol is still capable of carrying an offense, which is a hell of an option in a seven-game series.
Mirotic isn't quite at that level yet, but it feels like he'll get there soon. The man is a sniper, and the fourth different type of look the Bulls can throw at you at 6'9 or taller. Everyone has a wingspan of at least 7'1 and each are skilled in their own way. This isn't just a luxury for Thibodeau, it's a jackpot. Big men control so much in the postseason and the Bulls might have the best lot of big men in the NBA. Now it's up to Thibodeau to decide when to bust out each look.
Finally, there's Rose. For all of the consternation over his status the last several seasons, it's starting to feel like he's back to being a basketball player rather than a symbol. He doesn't need to be a one-man army the way he was back in 2011, and we're all healthier for it.
With Rose, there's always such a tendency to focus on things that don't really matter. It's not about how much money he makes or where he falls in the hierarchy of this incredible point guard era. What's important is that the Bulls are so much more dynamic on both ends when he's playing the type of game only he can play.
After a string of bad luck, it finally feels like the Bulls are hitting an unthinkable streak of good luck. From Gasol deciding to sign in Chicago because he likes going to the opera to Butler breaking out into a superhero to Mirotic fulfilling every prayer we've ever had for him to Gibson not being a clubhouse cancer even if he never got the starting gig he deserves ... it's all kind of overwhelming. That doesn't even begin to go into moves not made, like failing to sign Carmelo Anthony and not trading Butler, Mirotic and Gibson for Kevin Love.
You don't get to where the Bulls want to go without good luck. Every past champion has had it. Life owes you nothing and so the Bulls aren't playing through this season like they deserve their good fortune. At the moment, it's all sort of just working out. With crossed fingers and a positive mindset, let 2015 begin. It should be a fun year.