Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - If you don't bother to scour the Eastern Conference standings past the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, you're missing something special.
The Chicago Bulls have climbed all the way to the fourth seed, just a half- game behind the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors. They stand at 33-27 and are 21-9 since the ball dropped in Times Square.
We all know that Derrick Rose's return from a torn ACL that cost him all of last season lasted just 10 games of this season.
Luol Deng was traded for Andrew Bynum, who spent less time in Chicago than a pigeon, and some picks.
Were the Bulls joining other teams and tanking at that point? It was early January, Chicago had dipped as many as seven games below .500 earlier, and what hope was there?
The hope rested in the shoulders of two men whose passion and commitment burn brightly - head coach Tom Thibodeau and Joakim Noah.
Thibodeau immediately dismissed the notion of letting the season fall by the wayside. He's not built that way. Coaching is in his blood, and winning the game ahead of him on the schedule is the only requirement of his job.
Noah is the same. His outward displays of emotion in-game may seem like theatrics at times, but he, like Thibodeau, doesn't know any other way.
"People really counted us out," Noah said after a win over the New York Knicks Sunday. "Just to be in this position feels good."
Noah is the on-court igniter of this run. His defense has always been stout, one of the few centers in the game athletic enough to switch out on pick-and- rolls on the perimeter. He's an elite rebounder and his offensive game is like the Millennium Falcon - it may not look like much, but he has it where it counts.
Noah's jump shot looks awkward at best. CYO coaches would make a kid change his form if it looked like Noah's. But no one ever did that, or Noah resisted, and he just made his second All-Star game.
What makes Noah such a dangerous offensive player is his playmaking. The Florida product has posted four double-digit assist games since Feb. 6. His 14 helpers against the Knicks on Sunday were a franchise record and the most by a center in the NBA in 30 years.
Noah has two triple-doubles in the last three weeks and five for his career. His two this season rank third in the NBA and his five as a member of the Bulls is third on their all-time list behind a couple of schmoes named Jordan and Pippen.
"What can you say? He is playing MVP basketball," said teammate Taj Gibson. "He is doing everything in all facets of the game, offensively, defensively, making plays for other guys and we are feeding off of that."
Noah's greatness works in concert with Thibodeau's genius. Thibs is a passionate guy who is hoarse in almost every in-game interview he gives. He allows Noah to display the leadership on the floor, and the coach now runs the team through his pivot man.
Thibodeau is a defensive master. The Bulls are second to the Indiana Pacers in both opponents' scoring and field-goal percentage. Chicago is a fixture in the top five during Thibodeau's tenure. That's why he was hired from Doc Rivers' staff with the Boston Celtics.
What's most impressive about Thibodeau, at least in these two Roseless seasons, has been how he's maximized the talent of the unwanted.
The Bulls have had trouble scoring when Rose isn't available. Noah, through all of his greatness, is not a guy you can dump the ball into and expect 20- point nights. Same goes for Carlos Boozer, who is no longer an All-Star-caliber player.
What Thibodeau has done is allowed a surprisingly long leash of freedom for shooters to shoot and playmakers to make plays.
Take Nate Robinson. Last season, when no one really wanted him, Thibodeau got maximum output from the little man after Rose never came back and Kirk Hinrich got hurt. Robinson can score. Sure, he can aggravate because he's a shoot- first kind of point guard, but Thibodeau let him fly because that was one of the only ways the Bulls could put points on the board.
Marco Belinelli was always a good shooter, but he played the best basketball of his career while in Chicago (until this season with Gregg Popovich, one of two active coaches better than Thibodeau.)
Both of those players moved on in free agency. Thibodeau made them attractive.
This season, it's D.J. Augustin, who basically had one foot out the door of the league, but Thibodeau has gotten 13.6 points per game out of the underachieving guard.
When that many retreads excel under a coach, it's as much opportunity as it is system. Thibodeau has no choice to use these players, it's necessity. But he gets them to buy into the defense first, then easy baskets come from good defense. But, it's the unconditional freedom Thibodeau bestows that instills confidence.
That includes veterans one couldn't classify as retreads like Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy or Nazr Mohammed.
(Worth noting - Thibodeau has been battling general manager Gar Forman for the better part of the year, leading some to speculate he may try to bolt in the summer. He has dismissed that and even laughed once in doing it.)
The Bulls will be in an interesting place this summer. They aren't going to win an NBA championship without Rose, but, if they finally amnesty Boozer, which they should and probably will, the Bulls should have some money to spend.
You've heard or read the name Carmelo Anthony. He'd certainly cure the offensive woes and is very intriguing. He's a much-better all-around player than given credit, but he's not a great defender. One summer with Thibodeau and Noah could aide that cause.
Another name to watch out for is Deng. If the small-forward market doesn't pay fruits (Anthony, or what's his name, LeBron), then Deng going back would make sense. Thibs loves him, the front office doesn't. Deng turned down an extension already and is now a Cleveland Cavalier. But don't be shocked if Chicago goes back to Deng when bids for James or Anthony fail.
(Full disclosure - I've always believed the Bulls were the dark-horse candidate for James. It'll take a Boozer amnesty and some creative trading, but it could happen.)
The Bulls have developed Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson beautifully. Call it good coaching. Veteran guys will always want to play for Thibodeau. He's fair and there's always a chance that player could be Robinson or Belinelli or Augustin.
And Rose will come back. How dynamic and explosive he will be are legitimate questions, no doubt. But the system is solid, the professionalism is unmatched by anyone outside of Miami or San Antonio and the team should be right back in the mix next season and maybe the foreseeable future.
Just don't tell them they're out of it this season.
"We're happy; we're not satisfied," Noah said Sunday. "We're hungrier than ever. We feel we're the hungriest team playing in the NBA. When you get that feeling, it's good."