It's easy to understand why the Bulls (62-20) are the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference and compete for a title. The Bulls feature one of the league's most dynamic talents in Derrick Rose and have a defensive guru on the bench in head coach Tom Thibodeau. Add Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, two of the better big men around, and the Bulls should be able to compete in every playoff game.
Sometimes though, you have to throw out the statistics and just trust your instinct, which is why I believe the young Bulls are not ready to beat the likes of Orlando or Boston in a seven-game series, and will not reach the NBA finals this season.
In many respects, Chicago mirrors the Oklahoma City Thunder, a talented and brash team, but an inexperienced one as well. Rose, like Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, is a wonderful playmaker, but sometimes takes the offense out of the flow by acting as a pure scorer instead of point guard.
Usually, elite scorers come in the form of wings (i.e. Kevin Durant, Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant), and it's rare to have such a scoring juggernaut at the point guard position. Rose can get to the rim any time he wants, which is a good thing. But he is at times over-reliant on his own one-on-one ability, and causes the rest of the Bulls' offense to become stagnant. During the regular season, Rose had the league-best share of total team points in one possession, fourth-quarter games. In game one vs. Indiana, his Herculean performance proved the difference, and was the main reason why Chicago came back to win. The problem is that the Bulls struggle in finding consistency on the offensive end when Rose is having an off night because they're so dependent on his scoring.
The one thing about the Bulls though, above all else, that allows them to endure poor shooting nights and still win is how hard they play. When Boozer and Noah went down with injuries ealier this year, the Bulls could have easily spiraled, but the team's effort level only increased and the team continued to win. Thibodeau deserves much of the credit for for adjusting schemes and having the gall to turn his team over to Rose. Furthermore, the first-year head coach has been stellar employing intricate, yet effective offensive sets all season. The potential problem I foresee is when the Bulls are deadlocked in tight playoff games. Rose's tendency to deviate from playing a team game and focus on isolation plays will become a glaring problem that experienced teams like Boston and Orlando will take advantage of.
Neither the Magic nor the Celtics have been models of consistency this season, but both teams possess imposing defenses with immense shot-blocking threats at the basket. Rose loves to attack the basket as we know, yet struggled in doing so versus Orlando and Boston. In the six games he faced them (excluding the two without Kevin Garnett or Dwight Howard), Rose averaged 21.5 points on a putrid 41.5 percent shooting. On the year as a whole however, he averaged 25 points on 44.5 percent shooting.
While the Celtics have struggled since the Kendrick Perkins trade, Boston is still a physically imposing team with an elite defender at its base in Garnett. Don't be fooled by the notion that the so-called "fear-factor" for Celtics' opponents has been lost. Garnett, along with superior quickness of Rajon Rondo and the defensively committed Paul Pierce, allows Boston to continually clogs driving lanes and force kick outs. And for all the talk about their struggles, the Celtics are still best in the league in points allowed.
On the perimeter, Jeff Green is still adjusting offensively to his new role, but, as explained in the HuffPost Eastern Conference preview, the 6-foot-9-inch long-armed wing is a defensive menace who will not only guard his position against Luol Deng, but at times will match up with Chicago's bigs and even Rose, forcing him to shoot over the top. And as great as Rose is at attacking the basket, the hardest thing for any scorer to overcome is length and quickness. Green has both.
Orlando -- who should win the Atlanta series despite a loss in game one -- will most likely face the Bulls in the second round. The Magic has quietly stayed under the radar all year long, but they too are still a real threat in the East. While they don't feature the array of perimeter defenders Boston has, Dwight Howard is so dominant underneath it often doesn't matter.
Furthermore, Howard, for the first time in his career, poses a real threat offensively as well. His improved footwork and touch have led to a barrage of post moves that would surely result in foul trouble for Joakim Noah, a terrific, albeit very aggressive post defender. And as steady as Carlos Boozer has been offensively, he is still a marginal defender at best.
Howard's increased comfort and proficiency in the paint can only lead to one thing: double teams. When the Bulls are forced to send an extra defender, naturally a three-point shooter is open on the perimeter. With J.J. Redick, Gilbert Areans, Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson, the Magic have some of the best around. While Chicago has vastly improved its defensive rotations and overall accountability, the problems attacking the basket that could arise for Rose against Howard and the Magic, is not unlike facing Garnett and the Celtics.
No team is going to go through the playoffs unscathed. It's just not possible. This is when the experience factor comes into play. Both Boston and Orlando hold distinct advantages in experience, and in a prolonged playoff series, experience matters. Thibodeau has coached in the NBA finals, but only as an assistant. Rose and Noah have still never won a playoff series. Boozer, along with Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, experienced some winning in the playoffs with Utah, but Boston and Orlando know what it is like to go deep in the playoffs.
Only three players (Luol Deng, Noah, Rose) remain from the Bulls team that took Boston to seven games in 2009, and only Deng has experienced the second round of the playoffs in a Chicago uniform. Still, Chicago has never won a playoff series with this roster.
Make no mistake, with an MVP candidate in Rose, a highly intelligent coach in Thibs, and two elite big men in Boozer and Noah, the foundation for Chicago is there. The Bulls have the talent, personnel and coach to win a title ... but not in 2011.
The Bulls however, are only going to get better. The one thing that makes them that much more special is that Keith Bogans, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson are all under non-guaranteed contracts in 2012-'13. Further, Kyle Korver's contract is guaranteed in 2013, but for a paltry $500,000. After next season, GM John Paxson will have financial flexibility, the one thing that all franchises covet. This will allow him to determine if this team -- as it's currently constructed -- is strong enough to contend for a title both this year and next. If the answer is no, than he can reshape it around centerpieces like Boozer, Deng, Noah, and of course the real prize, Rose. Such financial flexibility is a real testament to Paxson and the main reason why the Bulls have a very bright future ahead.