For eight straight seasons, LeBron James led a team to the NBA Finals.
That reign of terror upon the Eastern Conference began in the 2010-11 season when LeBron made the controversial decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and sign with the Miami Heat. After four years and two championships, he left to return home to Cleveland. A four-year stint in Cleveland, and four consecutive run-ins with the Golden State Warriors, concluded with LeBron heading west to his current Los Angeles Lakers.
We tend to forget how dominant and innovative those Heat teams were.
Playing Chris Bosh at the 5 and LeBron at the 4 helped usher in the small-ball, stretch-big transition for the entire league. Erik Spoelstra’s offenses were filled with great actions, and Pat Riley assembled a Big Three team that re-ignited the trend of franchises hoarding trios of superstars.
But what of those teams in the Eastern Conference that fell by the wayside in their wake? Without a LeBron-led dynasty, some of these teams would be in the annals of history with Finals appearances or championship banners.
Instead, they serve as footnotes in a conference defined by its inferiority to the supreme talents of King James. Forgotten in particular are those from the earliest parts of the decade—the teams toppled by the excellence of the Miami Heat.
Many of those rivals were close to toppling the Heat, and many impacted the evolution of basketball in ways we have to examine to understand fully. We begin a five-part series diving deep into those teams to find a new appreciation for their impact.
We’re all familiar with the narrative. A budding superstar wins the NBA Most Valuable Player award at age 22, the youngest ever to do so. Over the next three seasons he would play in a mere 49 games, suffering debilitating knee injuries and crushing blows to his long-term superstardom.
The tale is that of Derrick Rose, the heir apparent in Chicago to the Michael Jordan days. Rose helped the Chicago Bulls reach heights they had not dreamed of since their last NBA Finals victory in 1998. After two consecutive 41-41 seasons and meh playoff appearances under Vinny Del Negro, the Bulls made a coaching change in the spring of 2010. General Manager Gar Forman brought in Tom Thibodeau, famed Boston Celtics assistant and stingy defensive mind, to run the show.
Dividends were paid immediately. Thibodeau, an MVP Rose and a great defensive group went 62-20, securing the NBA’s best record and top seed in the Eastern Conference—even with the newly-assembled Big Three in Miami.
Hindsight is always 20/20. The best chance for the Bulls to make the NBA Finals came during the Rose MVP season, before his knee gave out and the hopes of their own championship crumbled from within. That team from 2010-11—and even the subsequent versions that battled to four more playoff appearances and two Eastern Conference Semifinals appearances under Thibodeau—remain one of the biggest “what if” teams in history.
Flanking Rose were elite frontcourt pieces.
Joakim Noah, an underrated defender in historical context, was a super-mobile 5-man and played low-post defense with a studied brilliance. Next to him was Carlos Boozer, the ying to his yang. Boozer could score from 15 feet and inside when given time and was incredibly strong on the blocks. The small forward was 6’9″ Luol Deng, who was entering his prime as a secondary scorer and is one of the more underappreciated defenders of his era.
The rest of the roster was filled with elite role players. Kyle Korver spread out the defense. Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer were other credible wing defenders. Taj Gibson provided strength and scoring off the bench, while Omer Asik and Kurt Thomas were their second unit’s defensive anchors. This was a group of tough, blue-collared, chip-on-their-shoulder guys that were a pain in the ass to play against.
Rose flashed his brilliance in the first-round against a difficult eight-seed Indiana Pacers. He carried them to two home victories to kick off the series, scoring 39 and 36 respectively. Such a performance, with 39 and six from Rose in Game One, helped solidify his MVP candidacy in only his third season and propelled the Bulls forward as a team that previously lacked successful postseason experience.
Rose was just killer in Game 1, helping complete a fourth-quarter comeback, outscoring the Pacers 12-1 in the final 2:30:
The Pacers put up a valiant fight and proved themselves worthy of consideration moving forward, but the defensive grit in Chicago was too much to contend with. Lying in wait for the Bulls were the Atlanta Hawks, an upstart group with experience as a core unit. Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams were a formidable group, led by first-year head coach Larry Drew.
While the Hawks never broke through with this quartet, they were also a fearsome team. They entered the series coming off a systemic dismantling of the Dwight Howard Orlando Magic, who had made the Eastern Conference Finals the last two seasons. Positivity was aplenty in Atlanta.
Those Hawks delivered a scare to the Bulls, toppling them in Game 1 on Chicago’s home court. The Bulls even led by six in the final minutes of the third quarter before the Hawks went on a crushing run they would not relinquish.
Rose would respond later in the series. His career-high 44 points on a bum ankle led Chicago to a Game Three victory, and he scored 34 during Game 4 and 33 in Game 5 as well. The Bulls went back to Chicago with the series even at 2, then their trademark defense stepped up to win in six.
Atlanta went 2-23 from deep in the final two contests, and Chicago was heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now was time for the showdown everyone eagerly anticipated. On one side were the top-seeded Chicago Bulls, with the reigning Coach of the Year, MVP and league’s next superstar point guard surrounded by the top defensive unit. On the other was LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Bosh and the Miami Heat who had finally just started to gel as a group.
Game 1 went to the Bulls in dominant fashion. They outscored Miami 55-34 in the second half, had 19 offensive rebounds and went 10-21 from three. Rose looked like an MVP once again:
Game 2 did not go the Bulls’ way at all,however.
Both teams combined to shoot 6-33 from deep. Chicago mustered only ten points in the final frame, while Rose and Deng were its only scorers in double-figures.
The series evened 1-1 and shifted back to Miami, where the Heat were comfortable after stealing a game on the road. Games 3 and 4 both saw the Bulls score fewer than 85 points in regulation. Down only two points at the start of the fourth quarter, Chicago collapsed to lose by eleven in Game 3. A neck-and-neck Game 4 was forced to an extra frame.
Rose had a clean look at the hoop with 30 seconds remaining, and his step-back jumper over LeBron rimmed out.
In overtime, the Heat outscored Chicago 16-8. Rose was held scoreless and yet another opportunity slipped away from the Bulls in the deciding moments. The suddenly vulnerable top seed saw a trip to the NBA Finals slipping away.
Game 5 was another fourth quarter in which the Bulls would relinquish a large lead. They were up 76-64 with 3:12 remaining; their stingy defense doing its job on the superstar trio. Miami closed out the series with an 83-80 victory, however, ending the game on a 19-4 run to punch their ticket to the NBA Finals.
Over the span of that run, James and Wade combined for 17 points and three three-pointers. In the blink of an eye, the Bulls went from rejuvenated to finished, losing when some simulations pointed to a 99 percent certainty of victory.
Just like that, the dream season was over, though optimism still reigned. Conversations around the Bulls were driven by the response of Rose and this group, preparing the MVP for an ascent towards the highest tiers of superstardom that inevitably awaited.
Surely, they’d get another shot and be more experienced for it.
Most championship-caliber teams exhibit a slow, multi-year decline from their heyday. Owners cling on too long and don’t manage assets well. A core group can age and see younger stars pass them by. And to some extent, the Bulls were guilty of much of the same, sticking with Luol Deng and Joakim Noah deep into their careers.
For Chicago fans, though, one particular moment stands out as the defining and precipitous collapse of their championship hopes. And there was no amount of wisdom or foresight that could have prevented it:
Or is that previous statement true?
If known for one thing, the Tom Thibodeau era in Chicago became synonymous with overusing star players and a lack of development for the bench. Rose tore his ACL up twelve under two minutes in the 2012 Playoffs. Still, Thibodeau refused to adjust.
The Bulls won 45 games in the season without Rose, riding Luol Deng to 38.7 minutes per game, the most in the league that year. The season afterward, Jimmy Butler ascended to that mantle and lead the NBA in minutes.
The Bulls met the Heat once again in the 2013 Eastern Conference Semifinals. The cyclical nature of art came true again: The Bulls took Game 1, this time on the road, while Nate Robinson served as the force behind the outburst. He scored 27, Butler played all 48 minutes, and Chicago’s stingy defense held the Heat to below 40 percent shooting. They stole Game 1, 93-86.
By this point, the Heat Dynasty was in full effect. They’d been NBA champions and back-to-back Eastern Conference champs. Chicago, meanwhile, was drastically different without Rose. Noah was receiving MVP votes and Butler was a budding star, but the fearsome nature of their presence was no longer. Miami reeled off four-straight to win the series and head back to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Thibodeau’s last season in Chicago, the 2014-15 campaign, saw the Bulls win 50 games and Butler once again lead the league in minutes per game. Thibs was winning, but flirting with disaster via his refusal to adjust minutes. Butler, Rose, Deng and Noah were still a formidable core, but the tread on their tires wore far thinner than it should at their age.
The rise and fall of Derrick Rose is the defining storyline of this era, but two important takeaways from their success remain talking points in league circles. The first is about ice coverage, a prevalent form of defense utilized on side pick-and-rolls. Jared Dubin, formerly of Bleacher Report, wrote a great piece on how Thibodeau’s defensive success has revolved around the defense of pick-and-rolls and detailed exactly what ice coverage is under the coach
My guy Coach Nick of BBALL BREAKDOWN has looked into the successes of that defensive scheme for a long time and has plenty of video breakdowns of how it is structured:
No middle. Force tough, contested two-pointers. Force side pick-and-rolls to the baseline. They’re all staples of the game that are thrown around in discussion today, but Thibodeau was the first head coach to weaponize a defense with all tenets thrown together.
It wasn’t that long ago when such a strategy was fairly new on the block.
When the Minnesota Timberwolves hired Tom Thibodeau to run their basketball operations and ready a young, talented group, they expected defense to be the calling card of their identity. But the rest of the league caught up to some of the aggressive and ice-centric pick-and-roll coverages that Thibodeau employs, and that familiarity didn’t exist when his Bulls made their leap.
Stretch bigs, improved spacing and an emphasis on the three-point game doomed Thibodeau in Minnesota (among other plagues). Thib’s teams were also last in three-point attempts routinely. It’s as if the rest of the league had figured him out but he hadn’t.
The second takeaway is Thibodeau’s refusal to adjust his rotations and provide rest for his players. Stars logging over 40 minutes a night is an antiquated concept, but he’s been known to mismanage rotations and overload his best guys.
Where did Thibodeau’s philosophy come from? He’s always been stringent on his players and over-extending them due to what some may call paranoia. Or perhaps it’s just a basic over-emphasis on short-term wins.
He mentioned his reasoning after February 2012 game with the Hawks:
“You have to play tough with a lead. Especially with the three-point shot. A guy like [Jannero] Pargo, if you let him loose in a minute he can make three threes. I know you guys think all leads are safe. But in a minute, three threes can erase a 10-point lead. It’s funny. Every time I see him I think about it, particularly when I’m coaching against him. I’ve seen (Tracy) McGrady score 13 points in 35 seconds. That always sits in the back of your mind. You can never relax against a good NBA player.” — Tom Thibodeau
Jannero freakin’ Pargo.
Thibodeau was relentlessly stressing on his stars due to a fear of guys like Jannero Pargo? It’s no wonder he’s been unable to reel in his rotations.
One can make the logical case that if he’d trusted and developed his bench more during the regular season—akin to what Gregg Popovic has long done with the San Antonio Spurs—he’d have other trusted bench options to check a bench opponent like Pargo besides his starters in the first place.
Joakim Noah and Luol Deng are now clinging onto utility for end-of-bench roles as veterans. Kyle Korver and Derrick Rose remain productive offensive-minded role players. Jimmy Butler has emerged as a true star in this league, though concerns about his career workload and a future precipitous decline still haunt his reputation.
Nonetheless, Thibodeau and the entire Bulls organization deserves credit for the success they built, despite not achieving it at the highest level. Their legacy will still hinge on the debilitating knee injuries of Rose and the “what if” nature that surrounds both his career and their long-term trajectory.
This was a team that could (and should) have put a bigger scare into the Heatles more often and for a lot longer than we got.
Read Part 2 here:
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.