The Chicago Bulls summer activity consisted of paying millions to Jimmy Butler, re-upping Aaron Brooks and Mike Dunleavey, firing a coach of the year, hiring a coach who has never done anything in the NBA besides be a role player to Kevin Garnett, and saying they accomplished something.
The Bulls did nothing to improve their team. They stayed pat. The didn’t play their hand. They did the business as usual thing when evidence showed business as usual got them tossed out of the NBA playoffs before reaching the conference final. Derrick Rose is not who he used to be and-gulp- may never be. Pau Gasol can be beat by physicality and explosiveness and by his own aging body. The Bulls bench was particularly pathetic and needed an upgrade. None of this is new or particularly groundbreaking, it is the Bulls narrative, one that was in need of reform.
But the Bulls backed away from the free agent table. Firing Tom Thibodeau was enough for them to say it was a successful off-season.
The Bulls are not some magical collection of players to whom something special is entitled. The only Bulls player who has been in the NBA Finals is Pau Gasol and he played Robin to Kobe Bryant’s Batman. The rest of the Bulls have tried hard but have come up short for a variety of reasons, most having to do with the bitter truth that they are not good enough. The Bulls collect All-Stars but so what? When you get punked by Tristan Thompson, when the Cleveland Cavaliers come into your house and work you over like you stole from them and they are going to either make you scream to holy hell or make you pay with your life, then their has to be structural changes to a team that, frankly, has been together too long.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The Bulls-and in this I mean that front office brain trust- believe what they are doing somehow works. Okay, yes. But, only if you count losing.
Do the roll call. The Bulls lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011. They lost in the first round in 2012. They lost in the semi-finals 2013. They lost in the first round in 2014. They lost in the semi-finals in 2015.
There is nothing reassuring about those numbers. The Bulls, who are blinded by their own ego, counter the facts with the usual Derrick Rose injury excuse. Rose’s body has derailed three of the past four post-seasons and while that has validity the Bulls are at fault for giving Rose too much credit and too much blame. Consider: this is the year the Bulls had Pau Gasol, finally a big man who could rebound, score, control the offense, sort of defend and be an option outside of the Derrick Rose circle of floaters, missed shots, makes and game winners.
Earlier in the season, on a western road trip, the Bulls went into Oakland to play the Golden State Warriors, holders of the best record in the league. By then Steph Curry was adored and romanticized by the media, the MVP was his. In short he had everything Derrick Rose had three years earlier and Rose seemed to know it, he came out firing, putting up shots like he was some sort of one man crew needing to show Steph Curry something, and he did. That he shoots 37%. In that game (and in several others) Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol were bystanders by default, as Rose was in his own private resurrection play, trying to unearth some former past history that was buried, never to be recovered. In that Warriors road game, Rose took 33 shots. The next game the Bulls played the Lakers and lost in two overtimes and Rose once again went on his scoring binge when Jimmy Butler was their best weapon on the perimeter.
The Bulls have an identity crises. On the team level it is: whose team is this? On the organizational level it is: what do we expect to accomplish?
In the offseason, the Milwaukee Bucks improved to the point that in two years they will replace the Bulls as the threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Bucks added a young center in Greg Monroe who is not much defensively but can score in the paint and so a 41 win team made it possible that they may win 50 games. The Cavaliers re-upped just about everybody and, oh, they signed Mo Williams as their back up point guard. Forget Matthew Dellavedova and his five minutes of fame. Williams is going to run the show for the Cavs second unit and he is very good at it. The Pacers added Monta Ellis, shipped that stiff Roy Hibbert out west and brought in Jordan Hill at center. Detroit did some Detroit things and they are even better and will compete for the bottom of the playoff tier.
Everyone in the division was busy as they worked to become a better club but the Bulls, who celebrated exiling their coach, blaming him for everything they did wrong, were paralyzed by their own greedy inactivity.
These are the facts. Pau Gasol was worse in the playoffs. He was 19 and 12 in the regular season and then descended to 14 and 9 in the playoffs. He just turned 35 years old; he is now on the Father Time clock. Joakim Noah was horrible all year, unable to fit with Gasol offensively, invisible and disappearing, and in the playoffs he didn’t turn over some new page, he continued his miserable shooting of 40%. Nikola Mirotic shot 30%, 23% from three. Tony Snell shot 34%. Aaron Brooks, who the Bulls just resigned, shot 34%. This is why the Bulls didn’t make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Their roster was incompetent.
But the blame is Tom Thibodeau’s and the solution is a former bench player with no NBA coaching experience who has to somehow untangle the complicated relationship of Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, add youth to Gasol’s hamstrings, back and shoulders, get something out of last year’s first round pick Doug McDermott, act as if Mike Dunleavey’s 10 points a game at small forward is good enough in a conference with LeBron James, Paul George, Tobias Harris, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarre Carroll, Luol Deng, Nic Batum.
Whatever faith there is left in the Bulls front office is treading on cracked ice. This is the organization that jettisoned Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson AFTER a championship. They could have had Kevin Garnett but didn’t want to pay the luxury tax. They could have had a younger version of Pau Gasol but the Lakers stole him because they didn’ t mind taking on the extra income. They got rid of Kyle Korver for no apparent reason. And they wouldn’t pay Luol Deng.
Faith and trust is in short supply here. Summer moves to make the Bulls a feared contender in the Eastern Conference Finals faded after day two. LeBron James has always had his way with the Chicago Bulls and it doesn’t look like that particularly song and dance is changing anytime soon. It’s been a long summer for the Bulls and their fans and it may just be a long, long winter followed by a short spring and disappointment once again.
photo via playitusa.com