The Lost Dance: How Chicago missed out on its 7th NBA title
MANILA, Philippines – After they won their sixth franchise title off a second three-peat in 1998, the Chicago Bulls quickly fell off a cliff and got largely forgotten by the basketball world.
As the championship-winning core of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and head coach Phil Jackson went their separate ways in the offseason, the fallen dynasty was left in a barren state for years to come.
As of today, the Bulls have yet to win another championship in the post-Jordan era, and judging by their current 22-43 record before the league-wide suspension, they are nowhere near another Larry O’Brien trophy for the foreseeable future.
But there was one stretch of years when the winds were finally back in the Windy City’s favor. Maybe, just maybe, the Bulls had a legitimate shot at winning it all one more time.
Unfortunately, one fatal mistake turned a favorable tide into a perfect storm of misfortunes.
Running of the balls
The year was 2008. The Bulls had just finished the previous season with a mediocre 33-49 record and were stuck in the “no man’s land” of NBA franchises. They were neither good enough to compete for a ring nor bad enough to get a good lottery pick.
Considered an afterthought in that offseason’s draft lottery, the Bulls stunned the basketball world after the lottery balls fell in their favor to award them the first overall pick of the 2008 draft.
They had exactly a 1.7% chance to skyrocket to the top of the draft boards, and they cashed in big time as they selected a young hometown boy by the name of Derrick Rose.
King of The King’s East
Although Rose had all the talent in the world from day one, it took a few years for the Bulls to see the fruits of their labor and luck.
After two straight seasons with a perfectly split 41-41 record, it all finally came together in the 2010-2011 season where the Tom Thibodeau-coached squad clinched an astounding 62-20 slate to lead the Eastern Conference.
With two-way stalwarts like Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Kyle Korver peaking in Rose’s corner, this success took no one by surprise.
Coincidentally, the Bulls have not reached that lofty mark since “The Last Dance” concluded in 1998 with the exact same win-loss figure: 62-20.
It did not matter that in the 2010 offseason, the Miami Heat rose as a supervillain squad led by their new “Big 3” of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James.
Although James is “The King” and then a reigning two-time league MVP, it was Rose and the Bulls who were the true kings of the East.
Sure enough, Rose cemented Chicago’s reign at the top by seizing the top dog award away from James at the tender age of 22, thus becoming the youngest MVP in league history.
Rose and the Bulls were primed to make a deep postseason run that year, and indeed they did just that.
After making light work of the Indiana Pacers and the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago then met up with the second-seeded Heat led by the league’s most hated players at the time.
It was at that moment when sheer talent bested team chemistry as the Heat booted out the Bulls with 4-1 series win to represent the East in the NBA finals. Despite the late elimination, Rose solidified his MVP win by averaging 27.1 points for the entire postseason.
At the time, it simply looked like a case of a team taking its turn to shine over the other, but little did Bulls fans know that their window for ring number 7 closed right there and then.
A legacy torn at the joint
The 2011-2012 season began in Chicago with as much optimism as ever. Just a few months after their playoff exit, Rose signed a massive five-year, $94 million extension, a figure that ate up 30% of the team’s salary cap.
At the time, it looked like a no-brainer deal as Rose has given more than enough proof that he holds the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel in Chicago.
Sure enough, the youngster continued to show a wisdom for the game beyond his years as the Bulls finished the lockout-shortened season with a 50-16 record to again lead the East
For comparison, their 75.8% win rate that year is just as good as the season the year prior, when they won 75.6% of their full 82-game schedule.
Despite the shorter schedule, the lockout season took a huge physical toll on the players league-wide as they were forced to play in an extremely-condensed calendar and were all but burned out by the time the postseason arrived.
Rose was not safe either as he missed 17 of Chicago’s last 21 regular season games due to an assortment of minor injuries. All in all, he only played 39 out of 66 games as he lost his MVP award back to Miami’s James at the season’s end.
Still, the Bulls continued their dominant run as they faced the 8th-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. Sure enough, Game 1 of their seven-game series looked like a routine Chicago win as they led by 12, 99-87, with less than two minutes left.
However, that’s when tragedy struck.
Despite having the game all but over, Rose was still on the floor with little time remaining in regulation. At the 1:22 mark, he took his usual drive to the basket, but this time, he inexplicably lost the ball off a non-contact hop-step dribble and crumpled to the floor.
Play had to be stopped as Rose was helped out of the court in front of a hushed, sold-out hometown crowd fearing the worst.
For some reason, Thibodeau forced the banged-up Rose to play 37 minutes in a blowout game where they led by 20, 95-75, with 4:36 left in regulation.
Sure enough, later that same day, Rose was diagnosed with a torn left ACL and subsequently missed the rest of the playoffs. The underdog Sixers then took full advantage and promptly ousted the Bulls in 6 games.
Wilted Rose on a road of thorns
Even though Rose missed the entirety of the 2012-2013 season, the Bulls still competed their way back to playoff contention with a stronger defensive mentality thanks to Deng and Noah’s leadership.
Rose’s absence also freed up minutes for the emergence of future All-Star Jimmy Butler, who averaged 8.6 points, 4 rebounds and 1 steal in 26 minutes off the bench.
Through sheer grit, the Bulls defeated the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs before again quickly falling to James and the Heat in the second round.
This pattern would go on as "The King” solidified his hold on the East, whether from Miami or back home in Cleveland.
Meanwhile, Rose suffered a meniscus tear just 10 games into his return and again missed the rest of the 2013-2014 season.
Even though Chicago soon boasted an even deeper roster with the addition of two-time champion Pau Gasol and European star Nikola Mirotic, they still missed the piece they wanted the most.
By 2014, the Bulls were gunning for one more try at championship glory. Even with a marginally-healthy Rose, the Bulls still won 50 games off the leadership of Noah, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, and All-Stars Gasol and Butler.
As usual, Rose again met James, who was now back home in Cleveland, in the second round of the playoffs for a battle of hometown heroes.
The Bulls gained an early edge after Rose drained a miracle buzzer-beater to win Game 3, but James responded with a game-winner of his own in Game 4 to tie the series 2-2.
Momentum then swung in the Cavaliers’ favor as they won Game 5, 106-101, at home and crushed the Bulls back in Chicago with a series-ending 94-73 blowout.
Thibodeau was then fired before the 2015 season while Rose was traded to the New York Knicks a year later, effectively ending an extremely promising era marred by injuries and in-fighting within the organization.
Rose’s trade was especially painful to both the Chicago fan base and Rose himself, who was then only starting to get his legs underneath him after years of excruciating rehab.
Springtime on the horizon
Fast-forward to the present, and neither Rose nor the Bulls are any closer to winning it all.
As Chicago lunges further back into mediocrity, Rose has been working tirelessly to regain his MVP form despite being passed on from team to team.
After short stints in New York, Cleveland and Minnesota, the 31-year-old guard is now on a two-year deal to play with the Detroit Pistons, another team with zero title hopes.
Despite finding little team success, Rose is now at peace with his transition to a role player as the former MVP is now in the annual conversation for Sixth Man of the Year.
He even recorded a new career-high of 50 points during his time with the Timberwolves and got showered with familiar MVP chants whenever he returns to Chicago.
For now, both Rose and the Bulls are again out of the spotlight as the basketball world moves on to new storylines and new superstars.
Right now, they both exist merely as cautionary tales for others to play smarter and protect their most valuable assets for the long run.
Championship number 7 may be out of reach for now, but the Bulls proved that they don’t need the greatest players to play at the highest level. – Rappler.com