By Dan Bernstein–
A little certainty isn’t so bad every once in a while.
As we take a breather from scrutinizing the week-to-week convulsions of the melodramatic NFL, here is the comfort of the NBA’s Eastern Conference, with its reliably true-to-form performances as midseason approaches.
The immediate aftermath of the summer free agent maelstrom included a range of first-blush assessments that all agreed on some order of a top four including Miami, Boston, Orlando and the Bulls.
Your actual top four, 33 games in? Boston, Miami, Chicago, Orlando.
It’s all setting up just as the consensus envisioned. The Knicks are better than we thought, Atlanta is still unthreateningly good, and the Central division has yet to produce even a worthy sparring partner.
What this means for the Bulls is a strange position of stasis – they will be no worse than the fourth playoff seed, and likely the third. They are currently lounging through the slackwater of their schedule in their version of the Joe Louis Bum-of-the-Month club, beating lesser foes despite playing largely inconsistent and uninspiring basketball.
They have won 13 of 15, including a 6-2 record since losing Joakim Noah to a thumb injury. They held up at 9-6 through their first 15 without 20/10 machine Carlos Boozer, a stretch that included the killer Circus Trip.
There have also been no surprises whatsoever from their new head coach, who, too, has turned out to be exactly as advertised. Ever since Tom Thibodeau’s name began to appear alongside NBA vacancies, we heard of his thorough, no-frills approach, bland personality and well-tuned strategic antennae.
He’s all that. Thibs is Scott Skiles without the snark.
The rest of the season, now, will involve two main storylines. First is Derrick Rose’s ascendance to rarified, superstar air. MVP chatter has begun, and it should not yet be dismissed. We all seem to know we are watching something that may be bigger and more special than maybe we knew.
Second, we will examine the games against potential playoff opponents — perhaps overly so – interpolating and extrapolating “marking points” and “statement games (ugh)” to give us some idea of how to calibrate expectations come spring. The Heat are damn good, as are the remodeled Magic. Kevin Garnett’s leg injury underscores the fragility of the aging Celtics, but they look to have enough for one more year of title contention.
We will wait for Noah’s return, keeping fingers crossed that Rose avoids a crash-landing on some dreary February night in Toronto or Milwaukee. There may be a shooting guard added who is worthy of starter’s minutes, since the Bogans/Brewer/Korver amalgam underwhelms.
This may, however, be the NBA hell we imagined – Jazz East, with playoffs a yearly lock, along with the annual second-round loss. Think ‘80s Bucks or ‘90’s Pacers.
But it’s too early to be sure of that, and that’s a tantalizing uncertainty that’s not so bad, itself.