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Feeling Bullish

May 25, 2011

The Bulls finish as the top team in the East.  A prolific scoring, shooting-guard Bull garners MVP honors.  Phil Jackson coaches a major championship contender.

However, we’re not talking about Derrick Rose and the 2010-11 Bulls; rather, this is a flashback to 20 years ago, when the memories of the (first) Gulf War were still fresh and the NBA had just switched to NBC.  Michael Jordan would lead the Bulls to their first NBA championship and the first three-peat.

The similarities between the two teams appear obvious.  However, a deeper analysis is required to understand whether or not the new Bulls have a shot to repeat what MJ and company started a generation ago.

A brief glance at the 1990-91, 1995-96, and 2010-11 seasons—the first two seasons representing the start of a three-peat, and the last perhaps heralding a new dynastic order—shows that the 1990-1 and 2010-11 Bulls played similarly across the season.  Indeed, the earlier edition of the Bulls started 0-3—think Bobcats’ quality—before posting a 61-21 record.  During the regular season, at least, the two Bulls’ iterations appear to be the same.

Digging deeper, though, the differences between the starting lineups of the respective teams bode ill for the baby Bulls.  The inevitable comparison of Rose to Jordan falls flat because of Jordan’s dominance of the game over time and his breathtaking feats.  Therefore, we examine Rose’s supporting cast against the rest of the 1990-1 Bulls

Keith Bogans vs. John Paxson:  A comparison here is somewhat unfair, since MJ took the 2 spot and Paxson took the 1.  In addition, Jordan’s defensive skills enabled him to take on the specialist role that Bogans plays.  Nevertheless, Paxson’s contributions to the Bulls—wisdom on the court and ball-handling—make up for his lack of defensive specialization.  Additionally, Paxson shot well—an astounding 57% from two-point land—which contrasts sharply with Bogans’ lackluster contribution when he receives the ball.  Despite the halcyon glow around Paxson from the 1993 Finals series against Phoenix, Paxson measures better against his modern-day counterpart.

Carlos Boozer vs. Horace Grant:  Effectively averaging a double-double, Carlos Boozer is one of the lights of the new Bulls.  His toughness and ability to thrive in different contexts—the Bulls are his third team, and he has not disappointed wherever has gone—make him a valuable asset.  At the same time, Horace Grant averaged almost a double-double and brought a greater degree of athleticism to the power forward position.  Significantly lighter than Boozer, Grant fit in well with the faster-paced triangle offense of the 1990-1 squad.  Additionally, Grant’s role in the offensive lineup was that of an additional weapon, not that of major contributor.  The jury is out here, but Boozer means more relatively than Grant did.

Luol Deng vs. Scottie Pippen:  Deng reminds one of Pippen on paper:  lean small forwards, good scorers with some outside range and decent rebounders.  However, the similarities stop soon after.  Scottie brought a hard defender’s attitude to his excellent offensive repertoire, blocking and stealing left and right.  Deng, while a good defender, does not always translate his skills to blocks and steals.  Additionally, the Jordan-Paxson-Pippen triumvirate successfully ran the point, which changed their offensive strategy.  Deng provides decent firepower, but does he have lasting, potential MVP status?  Pippen wins the battle here hands down.

Joakim Noah vs. Bill Cartwright: The comparison here is almost unfair, but for different reasons than Bogans on Paxson.  Cartwright resembled a professor more than a player.  He was well past his prime but still provided solid minutes and a steadying hand.  (Later Bulls teams would remember him fondly.)  On the other hand, Noah currently offers explosive and productive inside-the-point power to the Bulls.  His production has steadily slipped in the playoffs from series to series, but his youth and talent bode well for future trials.

As historically minded persons say, to compare a team out of context is to diminish the power of comparison and, in fact, to remove any validity of the comparison.  The 1990-91 Bulls faced a strong Portland Trailblazers team in the regular season and a Los Angeles Lakers squad still equipped with Magic Johnson.  On the way to the NBA Finals, Michael and Pippen battled past Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, and their great Central Division rivals, the Detroit Pistons.  Now, the baby Bulls face a different league with different norms and types of teams.  Nevertheless, the team does not appear to have the starting lineup strength to take them to the top.  Reserves such as Kyle Korver and Kurt Thomas offer some relief from the bench, but they do not match the punch that BJ Armstrong and Craig Hodges offered.  The Miami Heat’s Cerberus appears poised to stop these babies in their tracks.

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