By Brad Thompson–
The Bulls secured the top spot in the Eastern Conference awhile back and after winning their ninth straight game have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. While this is all good news and points to a deep playoff run and possibly a championship ring, recent history suggests otherwise.
In the last 10 years the No. 1 seed in the East has only advanced to the NBA Finals three times and won only once. The 2000-2001 New Jersey Nets advanced to the Finals as the top seed, but lost to the Lakers. The following season the No. 1 seed Philadelphia 76ers were also defeated by the Lakers in the Finals. The 2007-2008 Boston Celtics were the only team to be the East’s best during the regular season and win it all in the last decade.
The scary thing about this year’s Bulls team is that it reminds me of the No. 1 seeded Cleveland Cavaliers of the past two seasons. Cleveland won a franchise record and league best 66 games in the 2008-2009 season with a defense-first mentality. The Cavs also had the Coach of the Year in Mike Brown and the MVP in LeBron James that season. Last season, Cleveland, again the overall No. 1 seed in the playoffs, had a 61-21 record and went 35-6 at home. Both seasons the Cavaliers played team ball, but were ultimately dependent on one superstar to carry the team.
Derrick Rose will likely bring home the MVP hardware this year and there’s a strong possibility that Tom Thibodeau will be the Coach of the Year. Thibodeau’s defensive approach is similar to Mike Brown’s. Consider these defensive statistics: In 2008-2009 Cleveland held opponents to 43.1 percent field goal shooting and only gave up 91.4 points per game. In comparison, this season’s Bulls held opponents to 43.0 percent field goal shooting and allowed 91.3 points per game. Scary how similar the numbers are, especially considering Cleveland didn’t make it to the Eastern Conference Finals either season.
At the time, Cleveland fans were drunk with euphoria from having a title contending team, much the same way as Bulls fans are feeling right now. Cleveland fans were convinced that the Cavaliers were a sure bet to make it to the Finals and win a championship. The same type of buzz and assumptions are currently swirling around Chicago.
Beyond the statistical comparison to the Cavaliers of two seasons ago, maybe the most troubling similarity is with their superstars. James makes his teammates better, facilitates the offense and finishes strong around the rim in much the same way that Derrick Rose does. Both players are at their best when they are driving into the lane and making frequent trips to the free throw line. If either player has a weakness, albeit only a slight one in both cases, it’s their jump shot. In the playoffs, James’s inability to make jumpers has been exposed by teams making adjustments over the course of long playoff series. Will that happen to Rose?
The recent history of No. 1 seeds in the Eastern Conference and the similarities to the Cavaliers is reason for concern for Bulls fans. The good news is that Chicago is incomparable to Cleveland in almost every other way. The Bulls don’t have the history of sports heartbreak that Cleveland does. Rose is a better big shot maker and end of game closer than James. Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng provide better support for Rose than James ever had around him in Cleveland. Oh and there is a bit of history that does bode well for Chicago. Every other season that the Bulls won 60 or more games they won the NBA championship. That is the history that Bulls fans hope repeats itself.
Do you agree with Brad? Post your comments below.
Brad M. Thompson, a former college football player and coach, made his return to the Midwest in 2009 after fighting wildfires out West. He earned his master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and covers the Big Ten Conference and Chicago sports. Follow him on Twitter at @Brad_M_Thompson. Find more of Brad’s blogs here.