LeBron James is the Bulls' white whale.
James is on a mission to making his fifth NBA Finals in as many years, and the NBA storyline will always be about his personal accumulation of rings. The Bulls are on a much different mission.
That is the mission to simply have that shot at an NBA title for the first time since 1998. And once you get past the injuries to stars, and the drama between Tom Thibodeau and the front office, there is still one hump to jump. A hump that got in their way the last time the Bulls had a realistic shot at an NBA championship, in 2011: LeBron James.
Five years ago the Bulls crept into the playoffs as an eight-seed, led by then-reigning Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose but woefully coached by Vinny Del Negro. They lost in five games to the LeBron-led Cavaliers. The Bulls then made that jump from a mediocre team with a budding star to an Eastern Conference contender with an MVP, largely by replacing Del Negro with the most revolutionary defensive coach in the league, Thibodeau.
The window for the Bulls to compete for an NBA title was open. Maybe only a crack, but it was open. With LeBron James infamously leaving Cleveland to form a Big Three in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat were still fallible, if only by their lack of familiarity with one another and gelling themselves with new roles.
The Bulls beat the Heat in all three of their regular season matchups of that 2010-11 season. Their 62-20 record was better than anyone in the NBA to secure the top seed in the East and home court throughout the playoffs. Thibodeau won Coach of the Year as a rookie general. And Rose dethroned King James as the league's MVP.
The Bulls got to the Eastern Conference Finals. And lost to LeBron and the Heat in five games.
The loss didn't seem as demoralizing then, because the Bulls were at least out of the mediocrity, known as 'NBA Hell'. Elite status seemed sustainable being led by Thibs with a nucleus of Rose, a vastly improved Joakim Noah, a maximized Luol Deng, and a Bench Mob that was the most efficient five-man unit in the league. Plus, the Mavericks showed that the Heat can be beat, winning the 2011 championship.
The sights were set high for the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. The Bulls, again, finished with the best record in the NBA at 50-16. They, again, secured the top seed in the East and home court in another seemingly inevitable Eastern Conference Finals matchup with LeBron and the Heat. But, instead of the best, the worst was yet to come.
Rose tore the ACL in his left knee in the opening round of that year's playoffs and the Bulls became only the fifth top seed in NBA history to be ousted from the playoffs by an eight-seed--only the third to do so in a seven-game series. LeBron and the Heat won the NBA Championship.
Rose missed the entire 2012-13 season and playoffs, recovering and rehabbing, but the Bulls kept on keepin' on. They went 45-37 to make the playoffs as a five-seed, winning a series only to be ousted in the second round by LeBron and the Heat. It was now the third time in four years that James had ended Chicago's season. He went on to win his third consecutive Eastern Conference Finals and second NBA Championship.
The 2013-14 season was marked by optimism. Rose was returning. Thibs was a perennial Coach of the Year candidate. Deng was coming off of an All-Star season. Noah had dethroned Dwight Howard as the reigning All-Defensive First Team center. But, alas, 11 games into it, Rose's season was over again with a meniscus tear. And the window that was once opening seemed boarded up, far in the past.
There was still a season to play, and Noah led the Bulls to keep on keepin' on, though, despite a solid regular season they were ousted in the first round again. LeBron did not win the NBA Championship in 2014, but he and the Heat did win their fourth straight Eastern Conference title.
The team and city of the Bulls' biggest rival has changed, but the player remains the same. LeBron went back to the Cavaliers this year, and the journey of he, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and rookie head coach David Blatt trying to gel had a very familiar ring to it. Many outlets were, again, anointing the Bulls as the alternative favorites to win the East, even the NBA Championship, with: Rose returning again; Noah as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year; the replacement of Carlos Boozer with Pau Gasol; and the introduction of European rookie sensation Nikola Mirotic.
Ups and downs occurred throughout the regular season for the Bulls, as they do for any team in any regular season. The degree of Jimmy Butler's rise to stardom was unexpected and potentially changed everything. However, injuries came and went: following offseason knee surgery, Noah has struggled to be who he was in 2014. Rose had another surgery. Nikola Mirotic indeed broke out this season, but looks hobbled from an injury in round one.
Cleveland had a similar roller-coaster year, starting out even more slowly than the 2010 Heat, until a pair of midseason trades and a two-week sabbatical by LeBron rejuvenated their season. Though, as things were starting to move along well for them, they lost Love to injury in their first round series.
And, now, here both teams are. Confronting the fates laid out by the most profitable handicappers in the world.
The Bulls really haven't seen 'this team' together for a playoff run before. For the Cavs, Irving has never even been to the playoffs, and Blatt had never even coached an NBA game until six months ago, But the storyline overwhelming, not just this matchup, but the 2015 NBA Playoffs will be: LeBron won two titles in four years with Wade and Bosh in Miami; can he do so in Cleveland? Fair or unfair of a litmus test as that may be, he is the gatekeeper to the conference and all roads to the NBA Finals in the East have gone through LeBron since the Bush Administration.
Since 2007, LeBron has been on five of the last eight Eastern Conference representatives in the NBA Finals. In 2008 and 2010, the Celtics won the East and the Magic in 2009. All three of those teams had to beat LeBron's Cavaliers on their playoff runs to get there. There is nothing uniquely 'Bulls' about The LeBron Hump; it has been the most overwhelming force for the entire Eastern Conference.
Look back to all of the what-ifs, which have plagued the Bullsiest of Bullsy narratives over the last five years: injuries, and minutes management, and how terrible Boozer was, and what should have been done with Deng....to Taj Gibson or Nikola Mirotic or Tony Snell or Doug McDermott or Jimmer Fredette or James Johnson playing more. They never, ever really mattered. Because even if all of those situations were or were not optimized, the Bulls would then have to confront The LeBron Hump.
On Monday, the Bulls will begin their fourth attempt to get over it.