Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The 2010-2011 NBA season in review

It started on July 8th with a wave of disgust.

We had been hearing reports throughout day of Miami — a city who already laid claim to two of the league's best — but no word had yet been made official. The king wouldn't want his party pooped, after all. The cities of Miami, Chicago, New York and Cleveland awaited with anticipation, holding their collective breath.

I was at work. I had had it in mind not to get my hopes up, but nothing could stop my heart rate from shooting through the roof. As the night's seventh hour grew older and my productivity level shot through the floor, the anxiety became a petulance. It was no longer fun being strung along like this. After all, he probably wasn't going to choose us. He seemed to be hamming it up for the ratings, a bad sign for Cleveland, which was essentially an entire city watching the televised equivalent of its girlfriend "wanting to talk."

Finally, after a half hour of what has since been verified as bullshit, he uttered those famous words: "This season, I'll be taking my talents to South Beach."

Oh. Great.

In that hour-long television special that was somehow as warranted as it was unnecessary, LeBron James changed the face of the NBA. The league's top dog, instead of the savvy and vicious pitbull known as the Los Angeles Lakers, was now the Cerberus birthed to patrol the grounds of Miami. At this point, we had no evidence to suggest that the threesome of LeBron, Wade and Bosh would actually work. They were anointed as favorites at the moment of their inception by names alone, not play.

It sucked. I felt like I had lost at least three years of my NBA-loving life. It was hard to imagine any scenario in which Miami didn't rule the NBA with an iron fist for years. It'd be cool, you know, if I didn't hate them. They were sure to have a millennium's worth of highlights, all of which would induce momentary excitement followed by bitter disdain.

It wasn't the team's talents that caused anger. It was the contrived and pre-meditated nature of the team's comprisal. The fact that the Big Three cheated the system, taking less money (which we commend) for the purpose of dominating the rest of the league (which we hate). It was the fact that things like this were written months beforehand, the concept of a superduperteam was born, as ominous and seemingly avoidable as a train spotted miles down a track. It was the fact that the recipient of the gift of the most star-studded basketball team in the NBA's history was the city of Miami — a city four years removed from a title, with apathetic fans who enjoy infinite sunshine and beautiful beaches, not to mention some of the country's best nightlife.

The biggest objection I had personally was that LeBron James turned a backstabbing into a spectacular charity event (the proceeds were given to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America). The city of Cleveland needed LeBron more than any other place. They loved and worshiped him. They forgave his failures, and vicariously cherished his achievements. They treated their superstar like a superstar should be treated. And it wasn't even really a backstabbing, because the city of Cleveland was watching. But LeBron wasn't looking at them. It was some kind of weird no-look heartstab. It was televised and self-celebrating, and The Decision was rightfully bashed by the public as distasteful and strange. Never before had a seemingly simple career decision been turned into an hour-long nationally televised special event.

It was that big a deal, though, in hindsight. Contrary to what I anticipated, the world kept turning. The NBA execs didn't stop operations, yell at the Heat for being unfair, and reallocate the players. We were actually going to have a season like this. The Heat continued to make themselves a spectacle. Free agency continued, the Chicago Bulls netted Carlos Boozer, giving them the scoring forward they sorely needed. Joe Johnson did pretty much the exact opposite of LeBron, staying in Atlanta and taking a buttload more money (more per year than any Heat player). 

The NBA had its first true villain in years. The Heat had become what USA basketball is to the rest of the world in international competition; unfairly stacked. The rest of the league braced for impact, contenders made moves to prepare for the oncoming storm. The Lakers, our defending champions and pretty much only team with a target on its back, suddenly became something of an only hope. It would have to be the Lakers to fend off the Heat this year, it seemed like the two teams were on a crash course. The only thing standing between them, it turns out, was the 82 games known as the regular season and a few measly rounds of playoff competition.


Meanwhile, in a warm, dirty gym in Santa Monica, California, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook were busting their asses. Rose and Westbrook were working to ensure their respective teams achieved more than first round playoff exits in the upcoming season, while Love was merely working to provide his franchise with a face. The three of them practiced six days a week, twice a day. Not at all mandatory, the sole incentive of these workouts was for each player to bring out the best in themselves.

The season began with a triumphant bang. In their first quarter together, the Big Three of Miami netted just 8 points, lower than any quarter the LeBron-less, Bosh-less Heat registered last season. Thanks to a pre-season injury to Dwyane (whose mom may or may not be dyslexic?) Wade, the Heat had virtually no time to jell before the season started, so they looked hilariously lost as Boston beat them 88-80. It seemed that there was hope for the rest of the league, so long as Miami didn't get eight points better over the course of the season. Uhh ...

Westbrook and Rose took center stage the following night against each other, and Westbrook's Thunder bested Rose's Boozer-less Bulls by ten points. The Bulls had relatively low expectations, the year was seen as a stepping stone. After all, the management had failed to get a shooting guard in the offseason. What was to be expected of the trio of Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver? Service by committee, as it turned out.

The Bulls' ambitious new head coach, former Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau brought an extremely defensive mindset to the team, and Chicago became the gold standard for defense in the NBA. Defense has become a sort of novelty in the NBA in the last decade and more since Jordan retired, despite its consistently proven benefits. An intensive defensive focus kept the Bulls in games, leaving it up to D-Rose to win it in the end. This strategy usually worked, obviously.

Derrick Rose is not a shining personality. He isn't a jokester. He doesn't pander to the media (like those punks in Miami). He doesn't have much to pander. He's generally a boring person. Luckily for the world and Derrick, he plays basketball. He plays a lot of basketball. He plays the crap out of basketball, too. He's quick, strong, relatively big-bodied, and damn good. He's got heart. And that's often said about people who know when to give 100%. That isn't what heart is; heart is not knowing when to give 100%. Derrick doesn't know when to give 100%, so he's trying his hardest all the time. Good things happen when Derrick Rose tries, and he was clearly the Most Valuable Player in the regular season this year, and that doesn't change with his less-than-stellar postseason performance.

What many will point to as the biggest weakness that kept Rose's Bulls from reaching the top was the shooting guard position. Kyle Korver can shoot, but he can't defend. Ronnie Brewer can defend and slash, but he can't shoot. Keith Bogans sucks, but can defend and occasionally shoot. If we could combine them into one supershooting guard, we'd have a weak Reggie Miller. But we can't, so we have a merry-go-round of mediocrity. Not truly weak enough to sink the team, but weak enough to keep them from soaring.

The Bulls' second best player, whether they knew it or not going into the season, is Luol Deng. Despite looking very Kenyan, Luol is actually a Brit. A model of consistency, Luol could be counted on to keep his mouth shut, put his head down, keep his man in check on defense, never fear a big shot, and give you 15-25 fluff points a game.

The team's big free agency acquisition, Carlos Boozer, provided the team with an invaluable element.

You see that beautiful and ever-useful blue bottle in the clip? Yeah, that's Carlos Boozer, metaphorically speaking. All last year we had an excuse for not being a top contender; youth and the lack of a scoring big man. We wanted Chris Bosh, which like, thank God we didn't end up with Chris Bosh. But here's hoping you're wondering the connection from Boozer and Michael's Secret Stuff. Well, Carlos Boozer is the league's best placebo-forward. I mean, he can score, he does do that. But did he not miss a large portion of the season, as we trudged to the best record in the NBA? He provided us with an awesome form of false confidence that we would beat people we should beat now. Additionally, we always played up to the level of the top competition. We swept the Miami Heat in the three regular season games we played against them (Impressive, as they are on their way to a title.) In two of those games, we were missing one of our best two bigs. We managed, however, and came out with W's in all three. Apparently this confidence was temporary, maybe we lost it in the first two rounds of the postseason when Boozer showed his unfortunate and presumably true colors? Taj Gibson and Omer Asik (and Kurt Thomas too, yeah) stepped their asses up, prevailing with hustle and that thing we discussed earlier, Heart.

But in the center of this well-oiled machine was the season's biggest secret disappointment; Joakim Noah. Bulls fans love Joakim, other fans think he's a tool. I would too, were I not a Bulls fan. Regardless, he played tough, but he was missing a couple things. First off, health. He was injured for a long stretch in the middle of the season, and played injured for a long time as well. It was his wonderful excuse for lacking the fire and energy Bull-backers are accustomed to seeing from the long-haired and lanky seven-footer. He was occasionally bullied, and he would do something rare for Joakim in certain instances: he would accept it. This was the second thing Joakim lacked — Heart. He wouldn't scrounge and fight like the old Joakim would. Blame it on the new contract, whatever.

Despite their sparse flaws, the team operated on a higher plane than most other teams for the majority of the year. In the last month, we edged past Boston and Miami to earn the top spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.


Maybe this was another problem. Being favored — we weren't used to it. We didn't handle ourselves like superior playoff teams do, we didn't handle ourselves like underdogs either. We handled ourselves ... differently. Or maybe we didn't handle ourselves at all. We went in without expectations, and so we were oddly hindered, playing, imitating maybe, our opponent. Folks, the Indiana Pacers are not really a good team to imitate. They play feisty above their collective skill level, old-Bulls style. They played us in three close games, a real confidence hit, before we finally lost one. We finished them off in Game Five, but it was a bad five games. Not what you wanted to see from a team you're still trying to trust in the postseason.

Next series, we were surprised to face Atlanta. Things were definitely getting hairy. Not working out the way we Bulls fans were hoping. Unfortunately it was a hope, it wasn't an expectation. The Hawks shocked us in Game One, beating us by ten points. To boot, Derrick Rose muffed his foot on the floor when the game was out of reach with about ten seconds left. A first sign of a first year coach, not taking his go-to guy out in a game that was decided. Confidence was hailing on the city of Chicago, melting away and disappearing beyond recovery. The problem wasn't anything anymore, it was a number of things. Luckily we ran the Hawks out in the next five games (a way more encouraging five games than those it took to dispatch Indy.)  We were on our way to the East Conference Finals.

Had you told me that before the season? "Bullshit," I would have called.

So, we headed into the Conference Finals, not really sure if we could actually beat Miami in a series. Game One eased those worries as we dominated Miami in the second half to win by 21 points. Unfortunately, we lost control of the series in the next game when the Heat erased our homecourt advantage to tie the series at 1-1, and Miami had three games to play at home in the series.

Then the unthinkable happened: Miami reached its full potential. Like Frieza in his final form, the Heat terrorized us and simply became the closest thing to unbeatable that the NBA has seen this year. They didn't particularly blow us out in any given game, but, when the game was in question, it was LeBron's Miami Heat who were the answer, contrasting the regular season matches when Derrick Rose was the answer in the closing minute.

This became hard to watch. A team that had been hated all year long, suffered noticeably because of this hatred, and seemed to not have the answer when it mattered most, was killing us. Watching, you kept expecting the Bulls to dig deeper — deep enough to get a game when they needed it. They didn't.

Most gut-wrenching of all was the Chicago Bulls' last stand in Game Five in the United Center in front of the faithful home fans. The Bulls were up 77-65 with three minutes left. It appeared we had finally bounced back, and we were going to get one. Then Miami unleashed a metaphorical spirit bomb, conjuring the world's energy and turning it into an 18-3 run that left us crushed, windless, and most importantly of all, dead.

83-80. In a shocking comeback. It brought memories back to a regular season game against Atlanta. One in which the Bulls were dominating throughout the first half, up by (I want to say) 17 points, before the team seemingly quit in the second half and gave up the lead for the first time all game with under a minute left. We lost to Atlanta, 83-80. This game was a learning experience for us, we went on a huge tear after the embarrassing defeat. No such opportunity is available this time. We're just dead. Coach of the Year. Most Valuable Player. Best regular season record. Phenomenal team chemistry. Not enough.

You have to revert to the pre-season mindset; this season is a stepping stone. We took a pretty huge step, considering all the awards and winning we experienced. But we aren't a perfect team. It's hard to say whether we're going to be better next year. The youth excuse is no longer relevant. I think the key is to get a shooting guard, someone who can fill out the lineup and allow the trio of shooting guards to take their rightful spots on the bench.

It hurts to lose to the Miami Heat. The No. 1 team we'd rather not see ourselves lose to. And what's worse, we did so timidly. When the final buzzer sounded, we had no choice but to be cordial and respectful. They outplayed us. They beat us. They deserved to win, and we didn't.

Things will be different next year. How? I don't know. But the circumstances will be different. Right now the championship isn't yet decided, and if it's the Heat that will be the most painful thing of all. I really think this year, preseason, my top concern was that Miami not winning, rather than the Bulls winning. Of course, the second goal accomplishes the first, so I was hoping more for that, but I can still consider this NBA season a success if the mighty Heat get taken down. It will be hard for me to watch LeBron tell the haters (aka me) to shut up and that they were wrong. I will do so, but despite the talent advantage being clearly in Miami's favor, that round ball has bounced odder ways before. If Miami plays with a three-man team, they're probably going to lose. Then again, when three of those guys are All-Stars, you stand a pretty good chance no matter what.

So the season is over. We may not yet have a champion, but the Bulls are done. I won't cower away from watching the Finals, and if the Heat win, they will have certainly earned it. But something is definitely at stake, and I don't think there's a single way you can honestly root for the Heat. A monstrous team of Bosh, Wade and James will have their successes. But like every up and coming basketball dynasty, the Heat need to be humbled. You cannot just choose success and have it. You have to earn it.

Dirk Nowitzki lost to the Miami Heat in the 2006 Finals and has been fighting to get back to that point ever since. Future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd made two  NBA Finals with the New Jersey Nets, only to lose to the Lakers and Spurs. He's 38 now and very likely to retire before too long. This past offseason, Nowitzki was a free agent. He was the third most highly sought after free agent behind James and Wade. He could have gone to any number of organizations with diabolic plans for league takeover. Unlike LeBron he stuck to his guns. Unlike Dwyane Wade, he didn't beg and plead for the league's best player to come save him. He and his team have made it back to the Finals at long last, and this is the best shot they'll have to win it all.

I wouldn't pin this Finals as a battle of good and evil, not quite. But as far as building teams is concerned, it's a battle of the right way versus the wrong way. LeBron and D-Wade aren't wrong for wanting to win titles, but they couldn't do it alone so they decided to essentially combine two of the league's top teams into one superforce. Worst of all they're surprised that people don't respect them. I appreciate greatness, but I appreciate even more someone elevating themselves to greatness in order to beat greatness.

If the Mavs can't do it, then it seems as though this summer will be worse than the last, with all the Heatles worship and whatnot. Oh, and don't forget, the NBA will spend this summer trying to figure out a new collective bargaining agreement.

Sigh ... the NBA. It's a love-hate thing.

--Eliot Sill

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