Outside of the Berto Center, perhaps nobody around the league truly believes the Bulls are equipped to win an NBA championship this season.
Even the Bulls themselves would be hard-pressed to call the team a favorite to advance to the Finals, let alone win a title, without the services of injured superstar Derrick Rose. But it would be just as tough to find a team eager to play them in the postseason.
The team embraces their underdog mentality and while it's been proven that a track record of relative regular-season success doesn't always translate against the two-time defending champion Heat, the toughness, determination and defensive mindset they've displayed in battles with Miami, not to mention Central Division rival Indiana, the Eastern Conference's other front-runner, can't be ignored. They have the full attention of those elite squads, who willingly acknowledge that they're in for a physical affair when they play the Bulls, while other teams in the East, even taking into account the Bulls' scoring woes, can't be overly excited for a playoff matchup with them, due to their top-tier defense and All-Star center Joakim Noah's stellar individual play.
Another team in the East with the potential to make life difficult for Indiana or Miami in a second-round series is Brooklyn, which is currently slated to be the Bulls' opening-round opponent. In the second half of the regular season, first-year Nets head coach Jason Kidd has figured out a formula of a small-ball lineup in the absence of All-Star center Brook Lopez.
The Nets have gone to a small-ball lineup, featuring scorers Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson at forward, with point guards Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston, who's had a quietly remarkable campaign in light of his past health issues and future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett, who should be well-rested after missing time due to nagging injuries, at center, where he can still impact the game with his active defensive presence. Pierce and Garnett have brought toughness to Brooklyn, a much-improved defensive squad, and an underrated bench with versatile veteran forward Andrei Kirilenko, skilled big man Andray Blatche and athletic rookie center Mason Plumlee.
In the competitive Western Conference, the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers are seen as the cream of the crop. It's hard to argue with that premise, as the defending finalist Spurs are in the midst of a long winning streak, the Thunder looks extremely dangerous after surviving another injury scare from All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook and first-year Clippers head coach Doc Rivers has his team performing at a consistently high level.
But the West's fourth-place squad, Houston, is lurking in the background and with the inside-outside All-Star duo of shooting guard James Harden and center Dwight Howard, arguably the league's best players at their respective positions, it's not inconceivable that the Rockets could unseat one of their more heralded opponents. Howard has been nicked up, causing him to be in and out of the lineup, and if Chicago native Patrick Beverley, their defensive-minded starting point guard, is sidelined for any significant amount of time, it would throw a monkey wrench into Houston's playoff plans, but the Rockets also have a cast of role players that doesn't get the credit it deserves, including talented small forward Chandler Parsons, sixth man Jeremy Lin, and ex-Bull Omer Asik, who is perhaps the best backup center in the NBA.
Memphis is the other team nobody in the West wants no parts of in the postseason, as after a disappointing start to the season and injuries to center Marc Gasol, the league's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, the Grizzlies have gotten back to their "Grit and Grind" style of play, though they still have work to do to ensure a playoff berth. The inside tandem of Gasol and rugged power forward Zach Randolph is among the NBA's best in the paint, underappreciated floor general Mike Conley Jr. continues to fly under the radar and the team has an upper-echelon defense, but contributors like savvy rookie point guard Nick Calathes, athletic former Bulls' draft pick James Johnson, backup center Kosta Koufos and the shooting-guard platoon of starter Courtney Lee and veteran Chicago native Tony Allen, still one of the better wing defenders in the game, give them added depth.
Of course, the West is still seemingly a bit more wide open, as opposed to the perception of the East being a two-horse race, but if the aforementioned clubs have their say, things could go differently than many observers expect.