We've all heard the story by now. Derrick Rose is an MVP candidate, Joakim Noah has missed 30 games and Carlos Boozer has missed 18. So what is it that makes the Bulls such a hard-nosed competitor?
For years and years, the obvious weakness on the Bulls was big man depth and especially inside scoring. But something overlooked in those needs was phsycial defense on the interior.
Second-year man Taj Gibson, rookie Omer Asik and Kurt Thomas, who is rumored to being the inventor of fire as well as the wheel, has been a three-headed monster for the Bulls all year long. If someone had stated before the season that those three would play arguably the most important role on a team with a .704 winning percentage, it would have been met by raised eyebrows and awkward silence. In fact, the reaction would have had an uncanny resemblance to the media members listening to Rose utter the words ''Why can't I be the MVP?''.
Gibson, who has had a nightmare of a season off the floor with several deaths in his personal circle, has deserved the outmost respect for his game this year. While struggling with grief all year long, he's been able to put it aside on the floor and some of the best defense you'd find at the power forward position. His footwork and positioning on the court has been nothing short of elite, and he's developed into an elite shot-blocker. He already has 83 swats in the 52 games he's played, and that's in only 22.8 minutes a night.
Gibson has also worked wonders as the third big, as he can replace both Boozer or Thomas if one should be in foul trouble. While not having the physique or strength of a center, the 6'9 lenghty Gibson has yet to shy away from the challenge. When overmatched, he backs off his man, just a little, and attempts to go for the block.
Luckily for Gibson, he isn't forced to play a lot of center minutes due to the emergence of Turkish rookie center, the 7'0 tall Omer Asik.
Finally coming over, two years after being drafted, Asik has made the most of his minutes. His body language and appearance may look awkward, but Asik's game is anything but. At just 24 years old, Asik knows how to defend the pick and roll, and understands proper rotations. Sure, he'll make the occasional mistake here and there, but that's only natural when adjusting to the NBA game. Asik has accepted big challenges and, like Gibson, is a fierce shot-blocker, swatting over two per 36 minute he's in there. At 255, Asik is strong enough to maintain his ground on the floor, and he's agile enough to disrupt plays at the rim. As expected, Asik's offensive game has some ways to go but it hasn't proved to be a problem. Grabbing 1.2 offensive rebounds a night, in just 11.6 minutes (second highest rate on the team), Asik is been able to often lay it back in using the glass, which is a strong sign of high IQ in the post.
Not to be forgotten, it's worth noting that Asik drips of offensive potential from a pick and roll perspective. When he's learned the in's and out's of proper NBA spacing, Asik should be a viable offensive option down the road. He sets strong picks, and is quick to rotate his body going to the basket. He has good hands and catches the ball well, while also being able to finish plays above the rim. He's not projected to be as good as Joakim Noah, but his development could have a similar path.
At 38 years young, Kurt Thomas is tied with Brian Scalabrine for having the worst per minute scoring average on the entire Bulls squad, at seven points per 36th minute. However, you wouldn't believe it if the stat sheet didn't say it. Thomas, a 16-year NBA veteran has filled Joakim Noah's shoes perfectly, averaging six rebounds a night in 24.3 minutes. While obviously not an offensive-minded player, Thomas is still fully capable of stepping back for the 12-15 foot jumper and hitting it with regularity. But it's his defense that's worth talking about. Thomas takes charges better than most NBA players. He beats people to the spot, puts his arms down the side, and accepts the physical punishment of being knocked to the floor hard. More often than not, his plan works and the call goes his way.
When Ben Wallace was signed back in 2006, the Bulls expected a strong defensive effort every night from the center position. Wallace, who at the time had turned 32 and lost quite a bit of his athletic ability, never lived up his former Defensive Player Of the Year standard, and was shipped out after just a year and a half. Kurt Thomas, right now, is doing what the Bulls hoped Wallace would do. He's keeping players out of the post, he's rebounding the basketball at a decent rate, he's taking charges and he's using his 260 pound body (his reported weight of 230 is 16 years old) to give and take nightly beatings from opponents.
Add in a versatile defender in Luol Deng, the pure size of Boozer, the defensive improvement of Derrick Rose, a defensive head coach in Tom Thibodeau and a healthy Joakim Noah, and this team has the defensive tools and personnel to make a trip to the NBA Finals this year.