Da Bulls! Predictions for the 2011 NBA Playoffs
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Despite reaching the summit of the sports world by capturing six titles during the 1990s, the Chicago Bulls spiraled into NBA irrelevancy once the Jordan-Pippen-Jackson reign disbanded. After their last championship in 1998, the Windy City failed to produce a 60-win ball club in 12 long and lackluster seasons. This shortage of success stemmed from a series of failed draft picks (Marcus Fizer, Eddy Curry, Jay Williams), ill-advised acquisitions (signing Ben Wallace, trading LaMarcus Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas) and forgettable coaches (Tim Floyd, Bill Cartwright, Vinny Del Negro).
Yet more than a decade after His Airness abdicated the throne, the Bulls have returned to restore their reign over the hardwood empire. Hometown hero Derrick Rose, in spite of prolonged absences from big men Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, guided Chicago to a league-best 62-20 record to put Chi-town back on the basketball map. With Boozer and Noah healthy, as well an exceptional arsenal of auxiliary players, the Bulls are favored to take home the Larry O'Brien Trophy according to the WhatIfSports basketball prediction engine.
However, the task will be far from relaxed. The Bulls will face stiff competition in the Eastern Conference from the Miami Heat, who head into the postseason winning 12 of their last 14 games. Although still stalled and discombobulated at times, Miami's attack has become more efficient within the past six weeks as players have finally begun to assimilate on offense. Universally condemned for their decision to join forces with Dwyane Wade over the summer, all eyes will be on LeBron James and Chris Bosh, with James hoping to erase the stigma of last season's infamous playoff surrender to the Celtics while Bosh aspires to remove his reputation of collapsing in the clutch.
Another obstacle for Chicago in the East is the defending conference champion Boston Celtics. After trading enforcer Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City, the Celtics appear to be a shell of a squad that's bullied the Eastern Conference for the better part of four years. The lack of late-season toughness has some in Beantown concerned. But as many recall, Boston limped into the postseason in 2010 before tearing through the spring, upsetting Cleveland and Orlando before falling just short to Los Angeles in Game 7 of the Finals. The health of Shaquille O'Neal will determine if the Celtics will be contenders or pretenders come June.
In the West, the Lakers will be looking to capture their fourth-straight conference championship. Kobe Bryant might not possess the same physical tools as years' past, but the two-time Finals MVP has a diversified repertoire of moves that still get the job done. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are two of the most skillful bigs in the league, and Ron Artest remains a premier shutdown defender. However, the delicate nature of center Andrew Bynum's knee acts as Los Angeles' Achilles'' Heel, with the Lakers one knee twist away from a premature exit.
The Spurs once again will be a factor in the Western Conference race. Tim Duncan has shown serious signs of deterioration but endures as a powerful post presence for San Antonio. Tony Parker submitted one of his finest seasons in his career, while Richard Jefferson transformed into a long-range assassin. Manu Ginobili's injured elbow will hold the ultimate destiny of San Antonio, but if the All-Star Argentinean can play, the Spurs will have a shot at reaching the Finals for the first time since 2007.
And while the subtraction of Perkins has decimated Boston, the addition of the scowling big man has morphed Oklahoma City into a Finals contender. The acquirement of Perkins has allowed Serge Ibaka to roam free in the paint, turning "Air Congo" into a swat machine. League-leading scorer Kevin Durant and All-Star guard Russell Westbrook direct an offense that was fifth in the NBA with 104.8 points per game. Although they enter as the fourth seed, Oklahoma City is a company no one wants to battle.
One can't dismiss the odds of Orlando, Dallas, and Portland as teams that could stir up trouble during the playoffs, as this spring features one of the deepest slates of contenders in recent NBA history. Although Chicago remains the favorite, the surplus of solid squads should correlate into an entertaining event.
Joel Beall is a Content Writer for WhatIfSports.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.