The Chicago Bulls lost out on the Big Three in free agency last summer, but Jeff Van Gundy believes they have gotten the most out of their roster than any team in the NBA. And for right now, that is good enough for a half-game lead on the Boston Celtics for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
"A lot has been written in Chicago about who the two-guard is and that they didn't get [LeBron] James, they didn't get [Dwyane] Wade, they didn't get [Chris] Bosh," Van Gundy said Wednesday on "Carmen, Jurko and Harry" on ESPN 1000. "They couldn't have won more this year no matter what they did. They have absolutely gotten as many wins out of their roster as possible. I think when you're a player, that's the highest form of compliment that you can have for your individual game but also for your leadership ability. I think it's the highest compliment you can give a coach, that you've maxed out the talent at hand. I think they have done that better than any team in the NBA."
The Bulls made plays for free-agent superstars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh over the summer before the trio joined forces with the Miami Heat. The Bulls went with a backup plan, signing a free agent class that included Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer, and have watched their young star, Derrick Rose, develop into the frontrunner for the MVP award.
Asked what effect playing with James in Chicago would have had on Rose's development, Van Gundy said: "Individually I don't know that you would be talking about Rose as MVP. But for Derrick Rose, the winner, I think it would have given him an even better chance to win it."
Van Gundy said the 51-19 Bulls would benefit more from the East's No. 1 seed than the Celtics.
"If they want to win a championship I think the home-court advantage is more important to them than Boston," Van Gundy said. "But they are going to have the home-court advantage in the first round, and I think in the first round it's important to get the worst possible team. If they can stay first they are going to play a horrible team in the first round. Whoever they are, they are horrible. They're horrible. Whereas if they are second and it's the Knicks, they are a very talented team. They're as talented as the Bulls. Now, they don't play defense like the Bulls. They don't have the depth like the Bulls do. But when you're in a playoff series and you can trot out [Amare] Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, you're in for a rough series.
"I also think it's important for Chicago in that then they play a second round between Orlando and Atlanta. Both are highly flawed. I think the Bulls are more talented than both of those teams. So now you only have to play either Boston or Miami in the [East] finals."
Orchestrating it all is Van Gundy's former assistant Tom Thibodeau, who, in his first season with the Bulls, is a candidate for coach of the year. After spending 18 seasons as an NBA assistant coach, Thibodeau was a wanted man over the summer with New Orleans and New Jersey expressing interest before he chose the Bulls.
"He had every level of commitment, intensity, intangible that you wanted," Van Gundy said. "His grasp of the entire game, his communication ability was beyond reproach. I had no doubt he was the best candidate out there for many years. He wasn't ready three years ago; he was ready 10-15 years ago but for whatever reason no one wanted to give him an opportunity and give the Bulls credit.
"And give New Orleans and New Jersey credit as well. The same year he had three opportunities, and the moron took the one that paid the least with the least amount of years guaranteed. But he got the best player so guess what? It's all good. Who would have known that they would be a high-50-win team. When you consider all the injuries they've had. I give the lion's share of the credit to Rose and Tom in conjunction."
Van Gundy said Rose's talent is obvious but it's his intangibles that make him special.
"I think your best player needs to have the right attributes," Van Gundy said. "Rose to me, his humility, his work ethic, his ability to be coached and enjoy it versus resent it, those things are critical. You have to find the right best player. I don't care how great a coach you are, if your best player is one who is uncoachable, is not a worker, doesn't care about the end result of winning or losing, you're not going anywhere."