You won't find many examples in entertainment history where the backup singers survived and even thrived without the front man. The Jacksons minus Michael? The Supremes without Miss Ross? The E Street Band without the Boss?
In the NBA, however, a wonderful and surprising story is still developing in Chicago. The Bulls without Derrick Rose are not only doing fine, but sitting pretty in the East (a 27-17 record and 2 ½ games out of first, at the time of this writing), setting the table for his pending return from knee surgery. In a best-case scenario, Rose will be back to being Rose and he and the Bulls will make a dreamy run through the spring and get a championship shot this summer.
Yes, that's certainly high-end thinking right there, not taking into account a few factors. Namely: Rose being Rose, and meshing almost immediately with his old mates, and Chicago being good enough to beat Miami when they couldn't two years ago with a healthy Rose. And there's the chance Rose might not return at all this season. Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf went on Chicago radio the other day and dropped this:
"There's no date. The doctors say that he's doing everything he's supposed to be doing and there's no specific date. He's not going to come back until doctors say unequivocally that he has no greater chance of getting hurt than any other player. If there's any risk, then he's not coming back."
But the point is this: The background-singing Bulls are humming along without the 2011 MVP and are still in the mix. They have two All-Stars and a Coach of the Year candidate. Their defense is nearly bulletproof. Their general manager made a few tweaks to keep them competitive -- and, presto, the Bulls are now the most unlikely top-10 team in what was supposed to be a season spent on-hold.
How did they get here? And where are they going? We must wait and see about that second question, but the Bulls put themselves in this position by being smart and tough and stubborn and yes, a bit lucky. If they get really lucky and Rose returns to breaking ankles, well, that would be the story of the year.
As for the story of how the Bulls put themselves in position to raise hopes, that can't be explained without examining a few important factors.
1) The Weird and Wonderful Big Man
Joakim Noah is a different dude. He called his famous father "a pain in the ass" (lovingly so) and addressed him as "Yannick" and not "dad" or "pops." He wore all-white African garb, instead of a suit, when he and the champion Florida Gators squad he was on visited the White House years ago. He's not afraid to call out Kevin Garnett or LeBron James. He is, in every sense of the word, a free spirit -- goofy in a good way.
And he's one of the best centers in basketball.
Noah is grabbing 11.3 rebounds a game, he's gifted at finding the open man (4.2 assists, second on the team), and is leading the Bulls in blocks -- plus, get this, steals. He had a 30-point, 23-rebound game. He beats his man down the floor with regularity. He's not passing up shots as he did during his first few years and his free throw shooting is much improved. Then there are other areas, like raw emotion and leadership that set him apart from most.
He's the rare player who can help his team win without scoring much. He's probably the best "energy player" in the NBA. And yet that designation might be belittling to Noah, who's turning into a more well-rounded player.
2) The Coach
Tom Thibodeau was named coach of the year in 2011, but may seem a better fit for the award this time around. Rival coaches gush at how he's managed to keep his players motivated and running in-step this smoothly without his franchise player.
And Thibodeau hasn't hesitated to apply discipline when necessary, benching Noah recently when the center hissed at the coach after a disagreement.
"I'm happy to see how much success he's having," said Mark Jackson of the Warriors. "But I'm not surprised."
It's a good thing Thibodeau is a defensive coach. That way, there's no need to tinker with the team's strength in Rose's absence. Chicago played good D with Rose and is still playing at a high level without him, allowing the second-fewest points in the league. Defense is one area where they don't really miss Rose all that much.
They often struggle to score, but that's understandable. They were built around Rose and built to play off his penetrating skills. That said, Thibodeau has done as well as expected with a ball-sharing approach that really doesn't rely on anyone except the hot hand. With the possible exception of Luol Deng, the key players aren't experts at creating their own shots, but somehow manage to make it work.
If this keeps up, it'll be hard to deny Thibodeau his second coach of the year award in three years.
3) The Overpaid Stiff
Whenever anything goes wrong with the Bulls, the first mention is "Carlos Boozer." The second mention is his $15 million a year salary. One is always followed by the other and the insinuation is always clear: Boozer hasn't been worth the money since they signed him three summers ago to be a difference-maker.
Rather than becoming defensive and lashing out and even worse, falling into a rut, the classy Boozer has stayed above it all and is now experiencing a bit of a renaissance. He hasn't played this well since his breakout days in Utah. He'll never be the player who averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds, as he did at his peak, but he's closer than anyone would've imagined. And unlike before, when he was accused of being a poor intangibles guy who couldn't stay healthy and motivated for a full season, Boozer's production is coming at all the crucial moments in games. He's averaging 16 points and almost 10 rebounds for the season, which is what you want from your power forward. In December, those numbers were 19 and 10.
Boozer received some support for the All-Star Game, which represents an about-face in terms of perception. Did he just go from overpaid to … good value? He can still be a lazy defender and might need to sacrifice once Rose returns -- but, at last, this is the player the Bulls thought they were getting when they lost out on LeBron and Chris Bosh in 2011 and had to settle for a double-double power forward.
"You can count on Carlos," said Thibodeau. When's the last time you heard that?
4) The Help
Gar Forman and the Bulls were slapped around a bit for not keeping Omer Asik from bolting to Houston on a free agent contract they thought wasn't worth matching. But their reserves weren't completely depleted, and you could argue the Bulls have the deepest bench in the East.
The biggest help is coming where it's needed most -- in the backcourt, filling the crater left behind by Rose. Kirk Hinrich is in his second tour of duty in Chicago and making it work by playing smart basketball and finding the open man. He and Nate Robinson make an ideal combo at point guard because they're completely different players, Hinrich being the conservative passer, Nate the liberal gunner.
Taj Gibson is having a slightly less productive season than last year but the Bulls found a front-line bonus in Jimmy Butler, who recently replaced an injured Deng and had some nice moments: 18 points, 9 rebounds against the Pistons, 19 and 6 against Charlotte, 16 and 12 against the Warriors. Add in the shooting from Marco Belinelli and you know why the Bulls are giving 20 minutes or more to nine players.
5) The Spirit
The idea of starting the season without Rose didn't suck the life out of the Bulls. Not like last spring when Rose collapsed in the playoffs. Chicago had all summer to get over the shock and move on as best it could. The Bulls had a handy excuse to fail if they wanted to play that card, and a 6-7 start to the season raised concerns. Once they hit their stride, their confidence soared and now there's a team-wide belief that they belong.
"We've kind of had that edge," said Hinrich. "There's a good calmness but also a readiness and a sense of urgency at the same time."
The Bulls are 3-0 against the Knicks, beat Miami in their only meeting and, next Monday, they take on Indiana for the second time after losing by only four last month. Ten of their 17 losses came to teams in the West -- so, clearly, they've got traction in the East and capable of finishing in the top three or four.
That's where they stand. Because of their missing ingredient, the Bulls are the one contender with major upside. They can actually get considerably better than they are right now. Of course, they can also still be a year away.
As good as the Bulls have been through a half-season, they need the return of Rose in order to justify the respectable start. And the time is right to pull a surprise finish. Look around them. After five years, the Celtics are done as contenders. The Knicks and Pacers have flaws and really don't send a chill through Miami, all things considered. And as for the Heat, their rebounding and defense has been subpar, perhaps hinting at some vulnerability.
The Bulls plus a refreshed Rose? Can that come together quickly and efficiently enough to be a difference-maker?
Said Noah, "I know there's nothing he wants more."