Saturday, April 21, 2007

Yay! Playoff Basketball!!!

As much as April means baseball to me, for a long time in my childhood, basketball shared the spring spotlight. How could an avid baseball fan such as myself split my sports world showing attention to a team not playing in Wrigley Field? The easiest answer: I grew up in the Michael Jordan era.

As a child of the Jordan era (and Chicago native) the Bulls took center stage from April to June. It's as if nothing mattered in the regular season, the Bulls always turned it on in the playoffs.

And how could they not? They had Michael Jordan, the greatest of all time. They had Scottie Pippen, the greatest complimentary player of all time. And they had Phil Jackson, one of the greatest coaches of all time. Phil did an amazing job taking some of the biggest ego's in sports and molding them together to bring championships to Chicago.

The first three championships featured Horace Grant, John Paxson and a deep bench of role players. The second set of three championships featured rebounding machine Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc and another deep bench. The constants in those two teams are Jordan, Pippen & Coach Phil.

After Jordan and Co. left, the Bulls disappeared off the face of the basketball earth. They got bad, real bad. They were constantly one of the worst teams in basketball. They couldn't attract any impact players through the free agent market, they failed to pick up young talent through the draft and their coaches weren't doing their jobs.

Enter John Paxson who replaced Jerry Krause as GM. Krause is best known as the architect of the Bulls championship teams. Paxson rebuilt this team from scratch. He dumped high price, high ego players in an attempt to build team chemistry. Next, he dumped all the remaining links of the Krause era--players, coaches, all of them. Then, Paxson did what Krause couldn't do and built through the draft.

In 2003, he drafted PG Kirk Hinirch out of Kansas. In 2004, he drafted Ben Gordon (UConn) and Luol Deng and Chris Duhon (Duke). Paxson's draft strategy was to draft players out of perennial NCAA powerhouse schools with a pedigree of success. Hinrich appeared in two final fours. Deng and Duhon went deep in the tourney under Coach K at Duke. Gordon won a Nat'l Championship in his junior year at UConn.

In free agency, the Bulls added Andres Nocioni who won a gold medal in the Olympics while playing for Team Argentina. He was also successful overseas.

In 2006, the Bulls stepped away from their draft strategy a bit. They chose Tyrus Thomas (LSU) and Thabo Sefolosha (Switz.). Thomas was chosen with the second pick (acquired from NY Knicks for Eddy Curry) and possesses amazing athletic ability and draws comparisons to Suns forward Shawn Marion. Sefolosha starred in the European basketball leagues and is another superb athlete who is versatile enough to play three positions.

Again, Paxson hit the free agent market this summer doing what Krause couldn't do--land the big free agent when he signed C Ben Wallace away from the rival Detroit Pistons.

So the Bulls look for their first playoff series win since the Jordan era again. Last year they took the eventual champion Miami Heat to six games. This Bulls team could be better with their additions while the Heat bring back basically the same team from last year. And the Bulls (despite having a lower seed) will get home court advantage because of their better record.

So break out the black shoes and the black socks. It's time for some Bulls playoff basketball.

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