Bulls feeling an extra boost in training camp


Oct 1

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It’s not quite for the 2013-14 Bulls “The Last Dance,” Phil Jackson’s famous declaration that the 1997-98 season would be–and was–the last one together for that championship core of the 1990’s Bulls.

But Jackson, the brilliant motivator and strategist, successfully was able to unite an aging Bulls team for a successful run, in part, because of the way he portrayed the season.

Though this current Bulls team obviously has not had that sort of success, and the personnel decisions do not seem so predetermined, there’s in a sense a similar view which could further provide an edge for the players.

“Last year, a lot of people had doubts and didn’t believe in us,” Luol Deng said as camp began. “I think we did great job winning games. This year everyone is expecting a lot. I can’t sit here and say we will win a championship. It’s all about the work we put in. We’ve got a great group of guys on (the same) page, the core guys who gave been here on one page. They understand. The time to win is now.”

It’s a sentiment heard in perhaps two dozen training camps at this time of the season. Most opened Monday, though a few teams, like the Bulls, began late last week because they are traveling overseas for exhibition games. The Bulls had a day off Tuesday, though the first three days of practice were pretty routine. The majority of attention, as expected, was on the return and condition of Derrick Rose after his May 2012 reconstructive knee surgery.

Rose seems on schedule for the opening preseason game in Indianapolis Saturday, though he took what coach Tom Thibodeau said was a predetermined rest day Monday. Everyone seems to have come through the first two-a-days sessions well.

Tom Thibodeau and Joakim Noah pose together at Media Day

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” said Noah. “Especially with Derrick coming back and the team we have we feel like we can do it. Everyone in the whole city, there’s a feel about this season that it could be something special. I think this is our year we get over that hump.”

But at the same time, everyone also is aware of the stakes facing this Bulls team in what is most likely a crossroads season.

Deng is a free agent, and his lack of negotiations was a big pre-camp story.

But Kirk Hinrich also is an unrestricted free agent after this season.

Jimmy Butler will be eligible for a contract extension or could afterwards become a restricted free agent.

Carlo Boozer will be going into the last year of his contract in 2014-15 and the Bulls still have not used their amnesty.

It suggests this could be the final run for this Bulls group of players.

Though the best way to stay together and to get paid is to win. Winning changes everything. Many have asked what the Bulls intend to do after this season.

I’m fairly sure they have not decided. The reason is in sports as much as anywhere, events determine actions.

During the 1990-91 Bulls season, John Paxson was at odds with management over his expiring contract. He sought an extension. Management preferred to wait given several seasons of losing in the playoffs and the uncertainty about the future of that team—really–rather than pay the $600,000 or $700,000 Paxson was seeking at the time. Then the Bulls won the title and Paxson was one of the big stars of the Finals. He ended up with a three-year contract at almost double what he originally sought.

Similarly, Eddy Curry was having his best season as a Bull in 2004-05 and the Bulls were in a January stretch of winning 12 of 13. Curry’s contract was expiring. But with the team streaking toward its best season since the last championship year and Curry dominating, management was close to a long extension for Curry. Then in March, Curry developed a heart issue and when he disagreed with the Bulls on treatment he was traded to the Knicks and his career went into decline.

The point is no matter how many grand plans and scenarios a team develops and considers, events generally change them.

Win and it’s likely you get another chance to play together and get paid. It could be a big driving force for this Bulls group.

“We’ve talked about the last couple of years we wanted to give the core of this team a chance to grow,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman said on media day last week. “I think we’ve done that. With the return of Derrick, the emergence of Jimmy Butler. In my opinion, it’s probably the strongest starting five we’ve had in recent history. Both from a mental and physical standpoint, this team is in a real good place right now. We’re optimistic going into the season.”

The Bulls were similarly optimistic when they put this core together in the summer of 2010. That was the big Summer of LeBron, and we know what it’s meant to Miami as the Heat and James go for their third consecutive championship.

How many would it be if the Bulls had been healthy?

Though the Bulls didn’t land their prime targets of James and Dwyane Wade, they signed Boozer and a strong reserve core that has been fine tuned from year to year.

The result was a team that could compete for a title if it were healthy. It basically never has been.

In 2010-11, when Boozer, Deng, Rose and Joakim Noah played together the Bulls were 24-5.

In 2011-12 when that foursome played together, the Bulls were 25-4. Combined, the Bulls are 50-9 since the summer of 2010 when that core is together.

Obviously, last season they never played together with Rose out all season recovering from his knee surgery.

It’s obvious you can only go so far with a core group. And given this group of Bulls players has missed so much time, you have to make a decision. You can’t keep continuing to ride them if they are going to break down or not succeed.

Which is what the players understand as well.

It’s not about contract extensions or raises or promises.

It’s about proving you can be the team you were constructed to be in 2010.

This is perhaps what the Bulls players understand best and what could be a driving force mostly left unsaid.

They believed in 2010 despite outside doubts they could compete with Miami or anyone else. They’ve mostly proven it playing the Heat even the last three years. But the Miami stars, notably James, have been healthy, and the Heat has won the two playoff series with the Bulls.

So it seems appropriate now given the contract uncertainties to come to give these players one more shot at them. If they cannot do it now they’d probably agree it’s time to make some changes.

At the opening of camp last week, Thibodeau was asked directly if this was the last run for this group.

“You go into every season with the approach of not looking ahead to next year or looking behind,” deflected Thibodeau in his moment to moment approach. “It’s a challenge to us all to lock into this year and be ready. For Derrick, it’s the ACL, for Luol it’s free agency. For Carlos, it’s something else. We have to eliminate all that stuff. Our concentration has to be on what is in front of us.”

But the players perhaps understand best and the sense you get from these first few days of training camp is they are embracing that challenge in almost a sort of dare. They want to show they can do it, somewhat like the challenges that Michael Jordan routinely took on as his own motivational tool. It helped drive Jordan, and it could help drive this Bulls team.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” said Noah. “Especially with Derrick coming back and the team we have we feel like we can do it. Everyone in the whole city, there’s a feel about this season that it could be something special. I think this is our year we get over that hump.”

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