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What up, Bulls Nation. I don’t know about you, but I could use a distraction right now from the mounting stress thinking about Zach LaVine’s knee, the Bulls slipping in the standings and their brutal remaining schedule. So let’s have some fun!
I started pondering the other day … where does this season stack up compared to some of the other memorably fun Bulls seasons since the dynasty ended 24 years ago? It’s definitely up there, but where will it land amongst the Baby Bulls and the Derrick/Joakim/Thibs Bulls? I haven’t even decided yet as I type this, so let’s find out together. And feel free to disagree with my rankings in the comments section under this column or come at me on Twitter @Bulls_Peck!
*Fair warning: Anyone suggesting that the Three Alphas season belongs on this list will be swiftly and irrevocably blocked.
Let’s do it. It’s the Pecking Order.
10. 2009-10 Bulls
The Bulls’ United Center roommates ruled Chicago in 2010 as suddenly enthusiastic hockey fans appeared from nowhere — I’ll admit to being one of those bandwagoners with little interest in the sport before Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, Hjalmy & Seabs stole my heart — to watch the Blackhawks capture their first Stanley Cup in half a century.
But the 2009-10 Bulls had their moments too. Most of those moments were about one big feeling: hope. Hope for championships in the not-too-distant future. Bulls fans watched as the hometown hero Derrick Rose earned his first All-Star selection in just his second season averaging 21 points and 6 assists. And then there was the dunk.
January 22, 2010:
They had a two-way ironman entering his prime in Luol Deng. They had a collection of fascinating frontcourt pieces: a maturing Joakim Noah, the hard-working rookie Taj Gibson, and Brad Miller, a card-carrying member of the “lovable-big-guy-but-don’t-you-dare-mess-with-me-or-my-teammates” club. And who can forget John Salmons, who the Bulls sadly traded to Milwaukee midseason? The man was a walking bucket.
[The Bulls traded Salmons to the Bucks for … *checks notes* … Joe Alexander and Hakim Warrick. They made this move to clear additional cap space to swing for the big free agents in the summer of 2010. That went … *checks notes* …poorly. And the Bulls threw in two second round picks in the Salmons deal, because of course they did LOL.]
These Bulls weren’t quite ready for primetime, as they quickly bowed out of the first round to LeBron James and the Cavs. But Bulls fans could sense that big things were coming.
9. 2004-05 Bulls
The emergence of the Baby Bulls. In Scott Skiles’ first full season at the helm, the Bulls saw a 24-win jump from their record the previous year to finish 47-25. This team was built on defense, finishing with the NBA’s second-best defensive rating at 100.3. In the middle of almost every suffocating defensive play was Andres Nocioni, who joined the Bulls this season after beginning his career in Spain.
So many other fun pieces to this team: the wily vets, Antonio Davis and Othella Harrington. Jannero Pargo, the Chicago native who was just beginning his career as an NBA journeyman. The young twin towers of Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. And the 2004 draft night trio of Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and Chris Duhon. Gordon averaged 15 points, shooting above 40 percent from downtown. He won the Sixth Man of the Year award as a rookie, and remains the only player to do so in NBA history.
In the No. 4 vs No. 5 first-round playoff matchup — the franchise’s first taste of the playoffs since the dynasty — the Bulls won the first two at home before losing four straight to the Wizards to bow out in six games. They lost Games 5 and 6 by a combined five points. Talk about heartbreak.
This marked the end of the second post-dynasty rebuild try (can’t forget Elton Brand!) as Curry was traded to the Knicks the following offseason.
8. 2011-12 Bulls
Some of you may be surprised to see this season ranked here. The Bulls did finish the lockout-shortened season with a 50-16 record (tied with San Antonio for best in the league) and another #1 seed in the East. Derrick ceded his MVP to LeBron, but made another All-Star team. Luol Deng earned All-Defensive team honors.
It had its moments, perhaps none better than Derrick delivering this Christmas miracle of a game-winner over Pau Gasol:
But I couldn’t truly enjoy this season. I spent too much of it worrying about Derrick’s health, as he missed 27 of the 66 games with various nagging injuries. Rip Hamilton was supposed to be the shooting guard upgrade the Bulls sorely needed (shoutout Keith Bogans) but missed 38 games to injuries. The league jammed a 66-game schedule into a January-April calendar to maximize their profits after the lockout. Tons of players across the NBA dealt with injuries and exhaustion as they played countless back-to-back and 4-in-5-nights stretches. It all seemed ominous…
And then April 28 happened.
If you’re on my level of Bulls fandom, you know that I am in no way being hyperbolic when I say that when Derrick tore his ACL in Game 1 of their first round series, it felt like a family member died. Part of my soul is still curled up alongside Derrick on that baseline. And it will always be there.
7. 2014-15 Bulls
Just like ’11-12, some of you might think my spot for this season is too low. These Bulls finished 50-32, good for the No. 3 seed in the East. Pretty impressive considering Derrick spent most of the season knocking off two years of rust and didn’t really regain his All Star form. The arrival of Hall of Famer and two-time champion Pau Gasol definitely helped. Pau averaged 18.5 points and 11.8 rebounds on his way to an All-Star selection and All-NBA 2nd Team honors.
There was the emergence of Jimmy G. Buckets (“the G stands for gets!”), the former 30th pick and Thibs’ defensive workhorse to replace Luol. Jimmy made his first All-Star team this season while playing a league-high 38.7 minutes per game. Thibs Gonna Thibs LOL. Jimmy’s work on his offensive game paid off bigtime, as his scoring average increased to 20 points from 13 the previous season. He also earned this season’s Most Improved Player award, and a brand new contract worth far more money than the lowball offer he turned down the previous summer.
[…somewhere, in the distance, Gar Forman is still gleefully talking about how “both sides won” Jimmy’s contract negotiations after they lowballed him, watched him become an All Star and then signed him to a max a year later. *Matt busts a gut laughing*]
For me, this season felt like the beginning of the end of an era. The constant reports of Thibs and management bickering, or giving each other the silent treatment. It was a sigh of relief just to get to the playoffs and focus on basketball.
The Bulls took care of the upstart Bucks in the first round, but not before this happened:
…Oh, did you forget about the time Baby Giannis tried to kill Mike Dunleavy? Yeah, that happened. Now we’ve got Grayson Allen to deal with. FFS…
Then this happened:
LOL, shoutout Tristan Thompson at the :16 second mark of that clip!
Then, this happened:
We all know David Blatt tried to call a timeout he didn’t have and should’ve gotten a technical. Instead, LeBron ripped our heart out. Despite it being 2-2, the series ended when he hit that shot. And so did the Thibs Era Bulls.
6. 2006-07 Bulls
The Baby Bulls take another step, adding Ben Wallace in free agency after the bruiser won four consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards and a title with the Detroit Pistons. Gee, sounds a bit Rodmanesque, doesn’t it? Wallace would earn All-Defensive Second Team honors, and the Bulls would secure the No. 5 seed in the East with a 49-33 record.
The usual suspects were still there. Luol, Gordon, Noch, Duhon, Captain Kirk Hinrich. Adrian Griffin returned after going to Dallas for a year. And there were some fun new faces, too. Like rookie Thabo Sefolosha and another classic vet guy in P.J. Brown.
[Sidenote: for the first several years of P.J. Tucker’s career, I refused to acknowledge his existence as an NBA tough guy named P.J. He’s earned respect from me over time, but I was staunch in my belief that there can be only one P.J., and it was P.J. Brown.]
So why did I love this team so much?
Simple: They swept the defending champion Miami Heat out of the first round. There were plenty of villains on that Heat team: Dwyane Wade, the Chicago native who escaped the Bulls’ grasp entering the NBA and quickly became a champion in Miami. Shaq, who I despised (albeit respected) as an MVP winning titles for Phil Jackson. Alonzo Mourning, from past battles with the dynasty teams. Gary Payton, same reason.
But above all, beating one villain on that team meant the most. I grew up learning to hate Pat Riley and his teams with a fiery passion. Did you know that the Baby Bulls sweeping the Heat in Game 4 in 2007 was the last NBA playoff game Riley ever coached? They dismantled their title team, winning just 15 games the following season. That would be Riley’s last as coach before handing the reigns to Erik Spoelstra.
After all the battles with Riley through the ’90s, the 2006-07 Baby Bulls ended his playoff coaching career. Delicious. Magnificent. Perfect.
5. 2013-14 Bulls
The second straight season living the “we have enough” Thibs tagline, as Rose went down with another season-ending knee injury after just 10 games. Joakim Noah to the rescue.
Jo became the team’s point center this season, taking on a much larger offensive role than ever before. He averaged career highs in points (12.6) and assists (5.4) with a usage percentage of 18.7, the highest of his Bulls career. Flirting with triple doubles became a nightly thing. Joakim rebounds, scores with his nifty baby hooks and the strangely effective tornado jumpshot from 12-18 feet, and makes dazzling passes all over the floor.
Then there was his defense. Jo was everywhere on the floor at the same time. He led the NBA in defensive win shares (6.6) and individual defensive rating (95.8) as the anchor of a defense that held opponents to a league-best 91.8 points per game and finished with the second best defensive rating of 100.5.
His defensive dominance coupled with this growth on offense gained Joakim much-deserved praise from the media, earning selections to the All-Star team, All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive First Team and the Defensive Player of the Year award.
The rest of this squad struggled to find their consistency all season, but the Bulls still finished 48-34 for the East’s No. 4 seed. The season ended rather anticlimactically, with the Bulls taking a five-game beating at the hands of the Wizards.
As a silver lining, though, the 2014 NBA playoffs gave us this gem:
[I will die on the hill that this is the only good thing Pitbull has contributed to society. Who knows, maybe he’s a great philanthropist? Maybe he’s not. I don’t care enough about him to know. But this jam had me LIT for every tipoff. I just played it three times in a row while typing this. And guess what? I am lit. Still slaps.]
4. 2021-22 Bulls
This one. It could move up, we have to see how the playoffs go first. But we all know why we’re loving this season. Another All-Star for Zach. The unexpected renaissance of DeMar DeRozan, MVP candidate. The fun additions of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. Stacey King yelling “Cookies!” and “Chi Slama Jama!” as the United Center explodes in euphoria. And the cherry on top of it all, a hometown kid who turned out to be a steal of a second round pick. We stan for Ayo.
We all missed this. Having a Bulls team worth watching. We damn near forgot what it felt like. Well I sure did, anyway.
Things are tight right now as we near the home stretch of the regular season. But the fact that the season won’t end with Game 82 is just one of a zillion reasons why this season has been so freaking fun.
3. 2008-09 Bulls
There was plenty to love about this season. It started with the Bulls defying the tiniest of odds in the NBA Draft Lottery to land the No. 1 pick and the ability to select Chicago kid and Simeon product Derrick Rose. Less than 2 percent chances at that pick? It was kismet.
Derrick wasted no time showing Bulls fans just how real of a talent he was, dazzling spectators at the UC with his other-worldly athleticism and above-the-rim finishing. Pooh averaged 16.8 points and 6.3 assists, starting 80 games on his way to All-Rookie First Team and Rookie of the Year honors. Bulls fans were in love.
Then came the series. Bulls-Celtics, first round. You can argue it’s one of the best playoff series in NBA history, and that’s why I have this season ranked so high. It went the distance to seven games, featuring a combined seven overtimes. So many epic moments.
Derrick setting an NBA record for points by a rookie (36) in his playoff debut, along with dishing 11 assists.
The Kirk-Rondo fight.
The Allen shot. [*Matt’s skin crawls*]
And that Game 6, my god. It had everything. Elation. Horror. Moments that took your breath away. Back and forth, back and forth.
Brad Miller, Chicago’s hero:
Brad Miller again:
And then…take it away, Jo.
Iconic. Then Jo goes around high-fiving everyone within reach during an entire victory lap around the UC floor after the Bulls sealed the win to force Game 7. Jo being Jo.
The Bulls couldn’t win Game 7 to unseat the defending champs, but they gave ’em a good fight. And I don’t remember the heartbreak as much as other losses. I remember Game 6. And I remember watching — again — one of the greatest playoff series of all time.
2. 2010-11 Bulls
“Why can’t I be the MVP of the league? Why can’t I be the best player in the league? I don’t see why…Why?”
Derrick Rose said that on media day before the 2010-11 season. Then he went out and won the award, becoming the youngest MVP in NBA history. It’s arguably the greatest achievement by a Chicago native athlete playing for their hometown pro team. At least until Candace Parker won a title for the Chicago Sky last year.
This season was awesome. The Bulls struck out in the 2010 free agency bonanza — no offense to Carlos Boozer — and the entire season became about one thing: taking down the Heatles. LeBron, Wade and Bosh spurned the Bulls’ recruitments to form their super-team in Miami. When they held that celebratory rally before playing a single game…
“Not five…not six…not seven!”
I wanted blood. From that moment, I hated the Heat maybe even more than I hated the Knicks or Jazz growing up. And that’s saying something.
The Bulls played the Heatles three times that regular season, and swept them 3-0. They were all very tightly contested games, with a collective scoring margin of just eight points.
The Bulls had the No. 1 seed, but the Heatles flipped the script on the Bulls in the Conference Finals, winning in five games. Game 4 went to overtime. The Bulls led by 12 with 3:14 left to play in Game 5. The series could’ve gone very differently if just a few plays go the other way.
But oh my goodness, that Game 1 at the Madhouse. I was there.
So was Taj.
[You can actually see me at the :32 second mark of that clip, during the last slow-motion replay of Taj’s dunk over Wade. Bottom right corner. Jumping out of my seat and going absolutely BONKERS. I spilled drops of beer on the poor woman in front of me at least twice that night. Sorry not sorry. Game was lit.]
Winning Game 1 of that Conference Finals is the closest Bulls fans have felt to a championship in 24 years. The season didn’t end the way we wanted it to. But from Rose’s mind-bending plays to Kyle Korver’s timely hot sauce deliveries, from Joakim’s primal screams to that magical playoff run, it was so damn fun to be a Bulls fan.
1. 2012-13 Bulls
This season was so special to me. Derrick’s knee injury was devastating. Hopes crushed. But the Bulls scrapped without him. Oooh, how they scrapped. A 45-37 regular season record with plenty of memorable moments. But none greater than the Bulls snapping the Heatles’ historic 27-game winning streak. Remember that?
Another favorite of mine was this ridiculous Marco Belinelli game-winner in overtime at the Boston Garden:
I watched that one with my brother from a bar in Brooklyn. Speaking of which, I’m going to tell y’all a true story.
I lived in New York from 2012-2014 while I was still in the actor phase of my life. During the first round playoff series in 2013 between the Bulls and Nets, I was acting in a play at the Signature Theatre in midtown Manhattan. I lived in Queens. The Bulls lead the series 2-1, and Game 4 is a Saturday matinée tipoff at 3:00 PM Eastern Time. Curtain for my play is at 7:00 PM.
I’m thinking, “OK, I’ll have just enough time to watch the game, take the train into Manhattan and get to the theatre in time for fight call.” My character was only in one scene, but it involved some fairly aggressive fight choreography. So my scene partner and I would always run through our fight sequence as part of our preparation for that night’s performance. Pretty standard stuff.
Well, in case y’all forgot, Game 4 turned into a wild one. A three hour and fifty-seven minute, triple-overtime barn-burner. As I’m watching Nate Robinson conduct a furious one-man comeback in the fourth quarter, I’m thinking, “Oh my god I would love the Bulls to pull this off but I really can’t afford overtime right now.”
But to overtime they went. So I texted the director and stage manager, telling them that I might run a tad late today but should still be able to make it for fight call. Just in case.
Then a second overtime.
“OK, I definitely have to give them another update. I haven’t even left Queens yet and curtain is in 30 minutes.” So I text them again and tell them that I’m on my way [false], but there’s been a delay on my MTA train. Especially going from Queens to Manhattan, that’s an A+ alibi. Happens all the time. I tell them that I’ll miss fight call, offering an apology but also assuring them that it will be fine. We had done the fight sequence several times through without anything ever going wrong. I promise them I’ll be there in time for my scene, if not for curtain. My scene wasn’t until ~45 minutes into the first act.
Then a third overtime.
“Oh crap. I can’t leave now! I’ve got to see how this game ends! … Should I text them again?”
Just imagine me, furiously pacing around my living room, reacting to every one of these plays like it’s life or death while shouting to myself, “Oh, I’m so late. I’m SO LATE! C’mooooon Nate!”
The Bulls got the W. I took a cab to the theatre, threw on my costume and got ready for my entrance with 5 minutes to spare. The scene and the fight sequence went off without a hitch. To this day, I’m thankful that I didn’t accidentally hurt my scene partner because my body was pumping with adrenaline.
It wasn’t until a year later that I first thought about my sports fandom as an alternative career path. I should’ve known then.
The Bulls dropped Games 5 and 6 to force a Game 7.
Enter Joakim Noah.
Battling plantar fasciitis the whole series, basically playing on one foot, Joakim guaranteed victory before Game 7. He guaranteed victory. That’s some MJ shit. Michael guaranteed victory before Game 7 of the Conference Finals against Reggie and the Pacers. But the Bulls played that game at home. Jo guaranteed a Game 7 victory on the road. That’s insane.
Jo delivered, with a 24 point-14 rebound-6 block masterpiece as the Bulls won 99-93.
“We fought really hard. A lot of guys are out. We just wanted to make the city proud, make Chicago proud. That was our whole thing.” [*Matt cries again*]
The Bulls even went on to steal Game 1 against the Heatles in the second round. The refs then handed the series to Miami, because they had to appease the league and their ratings-obsessed sponsors. [Yes, I know the Heat blew out the Bulls in a couple of those games. But I choose to remember it the way I remember it. Hollywood as hell. Joakim forever.]
That’s why this season is my favorite post-dynasty season. My childhood Bulls fandom was easy. Too easy. Title after title. Over time, as I grew up, my Bulls fandom transformed into something different and better: rooting for a shorthanded underdog team that has no business winning, but says “F that, we’re giving everything we’ve got to try to win anyway.” And when those triumphs do happen, it’s so much more gratifying than winning a game or a series that you’re expected to win.
The post-dynasty eras of Bulls basketball have seen iconic moments, jubilation and heartache. They’re still searching for that mountaintop, trying to find their way back. It’s been a long 24 years and counting, but I believe they’ll get there someday. Let’s try to have fun watching them go for it as often as we can.
Isn’t that what being a sports fan is all about?
[Fade to black]
See Red. Be Good.