Opinion column: They’re back

By Mike Szwaja

I watched the 2003 NBA Draft in a room full of Bulls fans who fully expected Dwayne Wade to fall to their team with the seventh pick. When Miami snatched Wade at No. 5, the room fell silent, and I could tell by the looks on their faces what they were thinking: “What are we going to do now?”

Paxson knew the answer. He knew his team needed a point guard in the aftermath of the nasty Jay Williams motorcycle accident, so he pulled a fast one on Bulls fans and made Kirk Hinrich his first draft selection as GM.

The silence turned to commotion. To the guys in that room, Hinrich was a slow, scrawny white kid destined to flop.

Today, the Hinrich selection is a blip in the memory of those guys in that room that night, and they pump their fists when the scrawny white kid turned best-Bull hits a big three, strips Chauncey Billups or throws a perfect lob to Eddy Curry.

Take one look at the current Eastern Conference standings, and it becomes apparent that Wade would have worked out nicely. But Hinrich has solidified himself as the second coming of Gary Payton – a well-rounded point guard that can post up, hit the outside shot and play pesky defense. If Payton was “The Glove,” perhaps Hinrich is “The Mitten.”

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And under The Mitten’s leadership, the Bulls are 42-32 and on their way to their first post-Jordan playoff appearance. Yet, the Bulls have their doubters who think the youthful team can’t will a playoff series. But the Bulls are currently the 4-seed in the East, which, in theory, means they should be a first-round favorite, and why not?

Senior Year

The four-year rule for NBA players who come straight out of high school has once again proven itself this year with the Bulls. Tyson Chandler has established himself as one of the NBA’s best rebounders, and a force on defense. His best game of the season might have been Wednesday night’s 15-point, 22-rebound effort in a win over Orlando on Wednesday.

Curry is slimmer, has softer hands around the basket and has learned how to play adequate, not-yet-great, defense. Together, they’re a big reason why the Bulls have remained among the league leaders in opponent field goal percentage this season.

Skiles in their Faces

Hard-nosed coaches like Skiles are frowned upon in the age of mega-stars that make considerably more money than their bosses. But when you have a team that has no mega-star and is filled with players who have high school and college basketball fresh in their memories, coaches in the mold of Skiles are perfect.

This team might outgrow Skiles in the future, but for now, his no-nonsense attitude has turned his team into a defensive wall and, most importantly, a winner.

The Closer

We all know what Ben Gordon does in the fourth quarter. We remember his buzzer-beater to beat the Knicks on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We remember how he upstaged Emeka Okafor in the battle of the rookies last week. But Gordon’s supposed to fizzle under the rigors of an NBA season, right?

Wrong. Gordon just keeps getting better, and when the season’s on the line in the playoffs, like it was for Connecticut last year, who knows how good he’ll be?

Fruits of the Crawford Trade

I mentioned in my first column of the year that we couldn’t judge the Jamal Crawford trade until we see who Paxson signs with the money-saved two summers from now, but I was wrong. It’s already made the Bulls a better team.

The trade set in motion a cycle that brought them Adrian Griffin, Othella Harrington and Eric Piatkowski. By no means are they great players, but they’re veterans who’ve been there before, and their experience and knowledge seem to be rubbing off on the baby Bulls.

Who Knew?

Nobody thought Chris Duhon and his magic ribs would be this good. Duhon has shown the poise of a veteran, seldom making bad decisions that lead to turnovers. And his improved shooting keeps defenses spread when he’s in the game.

And after the first quarter of the season, nobody thought Andres “Rebel Without a Cause” Nocioni would be anything, but he’s adjusted to the NBA game nicely. He plays bigger than his frame, and he’s the defensive gnat that every playoff team needs.

“What are we going to do now?” That’s what Bulls fans are asking once again, but this time it’s a question of whether these Bulls can win in the playoffs. Well, they’ve been winning, so why not?

Mike Szwaja is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected].