Bulls Remain Playoff Threat Despite Offseason Dismantling
By any measure, the Chicago Bulls initiated an offseason of surrender, a reminder of how quickly a franchise’s dismantling can occur. Faster than expected, the Bulls became championship contenders during the 2010-11 season, and their fall from that upper echelon has been equally rapid; Derrick Rose will be rehabilitating from injury into 2013 and several key players have been lost for nothing this summer. Title aspirations have been shelved, but the blueprint for the Bulls to be a threat still remains.
While the bench undoubtedly took a hit when Chicago parted ways with Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver and Omer Asik, they still have effective frontcourt bodies and disciplined players. The Bulls clearly prioritized financial prudence over basketball moves, but even so, their offseason was respectable. In the backcourt, Marco Belinelli will fill the sharpshooting swingman role left by Korver and Nate Robinson is primed to backup Kirk Hinrich as Rose rehabilitates from his torn ACL. Up front, Nazr Mohammed will play behind Joakim Noah and should provide an offensive upgrade over Asik while Vladimir Radmanovic will bring depth at both forward positions.
The one aspect that will be assured is the Bulls’ high effort across their 82-game schedule. They are so well prepared and driven to supply the energy that they know will have to be the separating factor between them and other squads. Most of all, Tom Thibodeau is the coach whose brilliance can squeeze every last win from this team. Thibodeau is hard charging, relentless, and will have much more time to prepare than he did during the compressed 11-12 season.
Thibodeau’s abilities and mantra as a coach are perceived as unrivaled across the NBA. Players say no one else preaches quite like him. Incredibly, Thibodeau pushed the Bulls to an 18-9 record without Rose last season, instilling within his team that they could beat anyone no matter who was in uniform.
In every way, Thibodeau is the overwhelming reason why some around the league believe the Bulls can be dangerous despite the fact that Rose will miss most of next season.
“Coach Thibs is going to have those guys ready like always, and it’s a new team but those guys can really play [for him],” John Lucas III told RealGM recently. “I don’t know why people are writing them off, because they still have their core guys, just a different look now.”
Yet for all the cohesion the Bulls had over the past two seasons, building chemistry could very well take a while given all the new players. From Korver to Lucas, Brewer to Watson, they all publicly acknowledged the bond that was built in the locker room in recent years was special. It was the type of comradeship that will be hard to duplicate with their new teams.
Furthermore, the Bulls continue waffling on personnel moves that should be virtual formalities. Thibodeau still hasn’t solidified his future with the organization, and contract extension talks between the two parties have gone nowhere this offseason. It’s safe to be confident, however, that a deal will be worked out eventually. But the longer discussions last, both sides run the risk of getting into an ugly back and forth.
Even more inexplicably, Marquis Teague’s rookie contract remains unsigned, making him the only first-rounder without a deal. Teague had a disappointing summer league showing, clearly putting him third on Chicago’s point guard depth chart. But the Bulls spoke glowingly about Teague on draft night and promised he would be part of their future plans even as they attempt to sign him for less than 120 percent of scale.
Of course, none of this negates the growing sentiment within the league that the Bulls are trying to sandbag next season while staying competitive. And even so, the Bulls appear stuck in the middle: As much as they’ve downgraded across the board to take as light a luxury tax hit as possible, the team will put up a valiant fight but still be so far from a legitimate title chase.
Nevertheless, it isn’t beyond possibility that the Bulls attempt to hold out Rose for the entire campaign. They have shown extreme caution while gauging his rehab process, but it’s hard to imagine that the competitive Rose will sit out the entire season, with a return in March seemingly the most likely target. But if the Bulls are in the midst of a lost year when Rose is ready to return, will the organization try to prevent his comeback similar to when it pleaded Michael Jordan to sit out the 1985-86 playoffs after recovering from a fractured foot?
The preciousness of competing for championships has become evident to the Bulls, a whirlwind that began when Rose blew out his knee. Ultimately, the Bulls will give their long-term commitment to Thibodeau. After that, the focus shifts toward a season many believe is lost for them, but the blueprint to threaten opponents – Thibodeau’s schemes, the swarming defense and rebounding, the strict know-how offensively – remains intact.