What if the Chicago Bulls had kept intact the core that in 2007 notched the organization’s first playoff series victory since 1998?
That’s a question former Bulls and current Detroit Pistons guard Ben Gordon admittedly still has on his mind. The 28-year-old – who spent his first five NBA seasons in Chicago and led the team in scoring in his final four, including two campaigns of 20-plus points per game – believes the Bulls team that swept the Miami Heat in the first round and suffered a six-game defeat in the semifinals to the Pistons in 2007 had more upside and was on the path to compete for championships, like the current squad.
“I felt we were on the way,” Gordon told reporters after his team’s shootaround on Friday morning at the United Center, where the Bulls earned a grind-out 83-71 win over the Pistons later in the day. “I felt like we had that young team, with guys like Kirk [Hinrich], Luol [Deng] and Chris Duhon. We were a young team and I felt like we were on our way. But you know just how the NBA is, teams get broken up and a couple players get shifted.”
Gordon also admitted his best seasons came in Chicago, which statistics would clearly support, but he hasn’t expressed much regret for rejecting the Bulls’ contract offer in the 2009 offseason. Instead, the 6-foot-3 sharpshooter inked a five-year, $55-60 million deal with the Pistons that summer, and over the last three seasons he has regressed and has not had a campaign in which he averaged more than 13.8 points. This season, he’s putting up 12.3 points on 43 percent shooting.
Although Gordon said the pre-Derrick Rose Bulls had a chance to reach the next level, it is important to note that the front office stuck with the team’s core, yet the 2007-08 squad, fresh off the franchise’s longest playoff run in nearly a decade, compiled a disappointing 33-49 record, a season after going 49-33. In that season, the Bulls dealt with injury issues and off-court distractions, such as trade rumors and the uncertain contract statuses of Gordon and Deng, and that ultimately led to the firing of Scott Skiles. So, technically, that group was indeed given the chance they obviously deserved after getting the Bulls back on the map.
Still, Gordon, who played a major role on the 2008-09 team that featured Rose and clashed with the Boston Celtics in an entertaining seven-game, first-round series, cherishes the moments when he returns to Chicago and has nothing but praise for the city, although he was noncommittal about potentially coming back for good.
“It’s always fun to come back here and even just to go through shootaround and walk around the city,” he said. “[I have] a lot of good memories here, still got a lot of family here. It’s a good place; nice city.”
As for the current Bulls squad, Gordon raved about his former backcourt mate, Rose, and the job coach Tom Thibodeau has done over the past year and a half. Even though Gordon is in Detroit, he keeps close tabs on his old teammates and has noticed the Bulls have gone 14-5 without the reigning league MVP.
“He’s probably the best coach in the league,” Gordon said of Thibodeau, who after Friday’s game refuted a report that stated he was unhappy with his contract situation. “You look at what they’ve been able to do without their MVP player in Derrick, and just the consistency the ballclub has, it seems that they don’t really miss a step. He kind of has cookie-cutter guys and they just come in and perform their roles to a T and they get wins … night in and night out, regardless if someone was hurt or whatever the case may be.”
While Gordon is nearing the three-year anniversary of his lucrative long-term deal with the Pistons, he continues to have positive feelings about the Bulls and the city of Chicago. The United Center crowd didn’t get a chance to boo, or cheer, Gordon on Friday night because he sat out with a sore groin, similar to the injury that has sidelined Rose for the last nine games.
Staying determined: Thibodeau is constantly in the Bulls’ ears, preaching that the team cannot afford to “skip steps.” The Bulls know they have to maintain their game-to-game focus, even on nights when they face a lowly club like the Pistons (18-33).
But, yes, it can be hard.
“We’re playing for something big,” Bulls center Joakim Noah told reporters after Friday’s win. “You’ve got to take it game by game, keep improving. Right now we’re in a situation where you’re tired, but you can’t think like that. You’ve just got to keep it game by game, keep the right mindset. And it’s hard. But being the number one team in the NBA is tough.”
And how about Sunday afternoon’s highly anticipated, nationally televised game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, in a potential Finals preview?
“It’s a big game,” Noah said. “It’s going to be exciting. We want to play against the best. They’re a great team; we think we’re a great team. Let’s get it poppin’.”