More than any other league, the NBA values its superstars. These players are coddled by referees, beloved by the fans, and made millionaires many times over by endorsement companies. This treatment is, in many ways, justifiable. The NBA wasn't profitable on an international scale until Michael Jordan introduced the idea of the lone superstar. These marquee athletes are built up so much that they often become more famous than the teams they play for. How many Americans can name a New Orleans Hornet other than Chris Paul? A Los Angeles Clipper other than Blake Griffin?
Aside from the melodramatics of Cleveland, this mentality is what terrified and infuriated most non-Miami NBA fans last summer. When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to team up, fans were furious for selfish reasons. Why couldn't this video game group come to their city? The idea of three (well really two and a half, Bosh isn't always there) of these giants teaming up seemed to be impossible to stop.
The Chicago Bulls have one player better at the level of the Big Three, 22-year-old MVP Derrick Rose. Wade and James are two of the best defensive players in the league, and Bosh is no slouch on that end himself. For the casual fan (and many, many sports pundits) the Heat were a no-brainer pick in the conference finals. Three superstars versus one should be an easy Heat victory. So why did the Bulls coast to a 103-82 Sunday night in game one? One word, depth.
Outside of their big three, the Heat do not have another player who would get minutes in Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau's 10-man rotation. Unlike most teams, the Bulls have no letdown when their backups, nicknamed "bench mob," come in the game. In fact, with the spark of guys like Taj Gibson and Ronnie Brewer, the Bulls are often able to cut into deficits or widen leads. Nowhere was this more obvious than Sunday night. The "Bench mob" combined for 28 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists with a plus 55 rating while the Heat backups tallied 15 points, seven rebounds with no assists and a minus 41 rating.
Another twist to the already deep connections that the Heat and Bulls have with each other came last week, when Heat GM Pat Riley and Bulls GM Gar Forman were given co-executive of the year honors. On first glance, this seems absurd, as Riley pulled off one of the greatest coups in NBA history, landing James and Bosh in the same summer. After watching Sunday, it doesn't seem so crazy. Forman added Brewer, C.J. Watson, Keith Bogans, Omer Asik, Kyle Korver and Carlos Boozer this past summer, all key contributors to the Bulls league-leading 62 win season.
With the exception of Rose, nobody on this Bulls team will sell jerseys. Nobody will be hosting a "decision" in the future, and who knows if anyone besides Rose will become an all-star. But the combination of this group with Thibodeau's brilliant defensive strategies may be enough to bring a trophy back to the United Center. Through all of the NBA theatrics of the past 10 months, the irony is, in the conference finals, it's the unheralded guys who are making a difference.