Bulls Get Bounced, Fork in the Road

History Book

Before we dive into the offseason ahead, let’s look over Chicago’s playoff run that just ended at the hands of the one and only, LeBron James.

James, for a few years with Miami and this postseason with Cleveland, continues to return the favor when it comes to number 23. In short, Michael Jordan reigned supreme for the Bulls during their dynasty in the 90’s, ending the hopes and dreams of several franchises and fan bases along the way. You most likely recall the western conference teams that fell victim in the finals: Lakers, Trail Blazers, Suns, Super Sonics, and the Jazz twice. Some of you may even remember the elite teams in the east that MJ and company eliminated: Cavaliers, Pistons, Pacers, Heat, and Knicks.

Simply put, Chicago is getting a taste of their own medicine, losing each time they face James in a series.

But I tell you, this was the best opportunity the Bulls were going to get. Credit James for his leadership role. He shared his postseason experience and intricacies about playing against the Bulls. The supporting cast has been undermanned, yet they followed their future Hall of Fame leader, the energy was contagious, and that series was over when James drilled that corner 3 to even the series at 2-2. The Cavaliers never really looked back.

So, what’s the good news about Chicago moving forward? Why don’t we save the optimism for the end to those “deflated” fans, the ones in the Windy City not in New England.

Here are some of Chicago’s characteristics are very positive.

  • Tom Thibodeau, 1x Champion and 2x Eastern Conference Champion (assistant with Boston), former Coach of the Year
  • Derrick Rose, former Most Valuable Player, 3x All-Star, former Rookie of the Year
  • Joakim Noah, former Defensive Player of the Year
  • Jimmy Butler, 1x All-Star, Most Improved Player of the Year
  • Pau Gasol, 2x Champion, 5x All-Star, former Rookie of the Year, NBA leader in double-doubles
  • Taj Gibson, previously finished 2nd in 6th Man of the Year
  • Nikola Mirotic, 2x Spanish League MVP, 2x Euro League Rising Star

The bad, well, it’s pretty ugly. You can see why I strongly believed in the Bulls finally getting over the “LeBron hurdle.” They had nearly every player matchup, the advantage with their bench and coaching, and still couldn’t get the job done.

They finally had the perimeter shooting that they lacked in previous series, between Mike Dunleavy, Nikola Mirotic, and Aaron Brooks. Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich were actually on the court. Butler improved his perimeter shot. Pau Gasol gave them, what they thought was their missing link, that Carlos Boozer didn’t provide. Gasol had the inside-out ability to score.

The main problem, Cleveland has the best player in the world in James, who has been exactly that for most of his 12-year career. Crazy that King James has played a dozen seasons, huh?

Unfortunately, the Bulls are only paper champions that have only reached the conference finals with this team, where they lost to a James-led Miami Heat.

Team Leaders

All of those bullet points highlighting the accolades on Chicago’s roster are obviously great. You would think another season for Rose to completely get back in the flow of things would naturally improve this team. It’s also fair to believe that a healthy Rose would give them more continuity, because even if they had it before, you can tell they didn’t just pick up where they left off before his injuries. The biggest aspect to point to here is his ability to create for teammates, cutting down the turnovers, and being more aggressive defensively. It just seemed that Rose was more into himself, with his focus on health and getting back to prime form. We didn’t see the guy that would get his teammates involved, and contrary to popular belief a few years ago, his defense was picking up before he got sidelined for so long.

Then you look at Butler, who’s gotten better every season and I believe will continue to do so. When a team has good players that still have room for growth, it gives you another special player in your core to build around. At times, you could argue that the offense flowed better when Butler was the focal point. The majority of his shots come from within the offense, not really so much isolation that has teammates standing still like when Rose goes 1 on 1 for stretches. There’s more for Butler to improve on in the coming offseasons, but boy, he stepped his game up to be the best 2-way player for his team, matched up against the best in the game.

Gasol was a go-to guy with the experience to back up his vocal leadership. He gave the team a post offense, and absolutely opened the floor up even more with his pick & pop shooting from mid-range. He was tough to keep off the glass, especially on the defensive boards, grabbing the most rebounds of his career under Coach Thibs. Although he got couple blocks per game, his defensive rotations were a liability, as was his post defense by inferior opponents. Gasol showed us his soft side that we had seen with the Lakers. James bodied him up in the 4th quarter of game 2, then had an invisible half of basketball the following game where teammates kept talking to him. He was supposed to be the team leader with that championship experience, and then the hamstring injury occurred. With all of these guards playing through injuries, and I’ve played through hamstring injuries among others, that is no excuse for Gasol to miss a pair of playoff games. Maybe 1.

Thibodeau gets heat front he front office and media for playing key players heavy minutes. Are you kidding me? I got on him for his substitutions and rotations, but he had to play his better players those minutes to win the 4th most games in his era with the Bulls. They aren’t a potent offense that could blow teams out all year-long. You could say that the GM combo of Gar Foreman and John Paxon gave him a versatile and deep roster, that’s absolutely true. But, it doesn’t help when they leak out negative reports, or wherever they come from, that does have an effect on the team. It also doesn’t help that Rose was sidelined this season as well, Butler and Gasol missed some time during the year, as did Noah, Hinrich, and Gibson. So, Thibs is supposed to snap his fingers and make it all work like it does in a video game?

If you think Thibs is the problem, you’re wrong. I have been the first to notice and express my problem with his rotations. At some point, the GM should be let go before the coach does and it just not the way the business is run. I’m not necessarily saying that here, but good business doesn’t have to mean good personal relationships. The team was made of glass, got relatively healthy despite the season-long fatigue, and it took a 3-1 lead to wake the beast that is the rival James. If this is an evident situation as Mark Jackson with Golden State or Jim Harbaugh with San Francisco was, the next coach has a tall order to take an established team to the next level. To me, only Scott Brooks getting let go by the Thunder was long-overdue.

Offseason Ahead

Chicago has been conservative and unable to land the big fish in free agency. Gasol was a big step toward steering that ship in the right direction, I guess. They could be conservative again and still finish as a top-4 seed, but it would likely be another predictable dead-end for them. Just maybe, having Rose, Butler, and Gasol on the court for another year could make a world of difference. Then the rotation players like Gibson and Mirotic can actually play in those roles rather than be shuffled in and out of the starting lineup. Can you rely on Noah being healthy or productive? Maybe they figure out a way for him to distribute the ball when Rose is suiting up, because they have yet to mesh, but Noah misses a lot of close shots and free throws. He isn’t a rim protector like DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Howard either.

Chicago can ship some pieces out-of-town, in a package of course, to upgrade at certain positions. Being 2-deep at a few positions hasn’t resulted in a trip back to the Eastern Conference Finals. The front office can get radical well for them at least. They can blow the current group up. I could see Rajon Rondo hopping on board if Thibs is still the head coach. They won a title together in Boston, he could take the point to slide Rose to shooting guard (finally) and Butler to forward. Chicago will finally have an on-ball pressure defender that also just wants to penetrate and dish the ball around. For any free agent acquisition, a trade would be needed to create cap space.

Kevin Love is someone they went after last offseason, when they landed Gasol. If Noah or Gibson were to be moved, or possibly both, you could play more Euro ball with Love and Gasol as the starters. Talk about stretching the floor. But those are just the initial ideas on the upcoming free agency. There’s some other good players out there, some more realistic than others, that we’ll talk about all offseason. The NBA Draft is another place to add a player or two. The Bulls will make Butler a priority, who is a restricted free agent.

What I Think the Bulls Will Do

I think the Bulls move on from Thibodeau with him landing with the New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis in the western conference. I also think that management keeps this team in tact and bring on a new coach, probably a new voice in Alvin Gentry of the Warriors, who was formerly with the Clippers. Gentry is known as an offensive coordinator who tweaked Mike D’Antoni’s offense in Phoenix, where Steve Nash won a pair of MVPs.. Is there a coincidence that when he was with Doc Rivers and the Clippers, that Blake Griffin finished 3rd in MVP voting? How about his contributions to Steve Kerr, where Steph Curry won the MVP Award, coincidence there? Just maybe, Gentry could help to get Rose back to that MVP level if he replaced Thibs, and further continue the maturation process with Butler. I’m sure he can share some things from the Splash Brothers with this backcourt, as well as some insight from his work with Nash and CP3.

What I Want the Bulls to Do

I would welcome that replacement, although I personally prefer the Bulls to keep Thibodeau and gain some courage to trade some of their core. It’s been too long with these same guys without getting back to the Eastern Conference Finals. Why not get bold and trade Noah and Gibson? They don’t have to replace them with offense, that’s why the Spanish forwards were brought here, Gasol and Mirotic. So, instead of targeting a guy like Love, why not a rim protector and leading rebounder like DeAndre Jordan? That’s an upgrade, especially since Noah just shot worse than Jordan from the stripe this postseason. Danny Green is a free agent from the Spurs. He would be a good fit as a 2-way player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to impact a game.

  • LaMarcus Aldridge (Blazers)
  • Marc Gasol (Grizzlies)
  • Kawhi Leonard (Spurs)
  • Kevin Love (Cavaliers)
  • Brook Lopez (Nets)
  • DeMarre Carroll (Hawks)
  • Roy Hibbert (Pacers)
  • Arron Afflalo (Blazers)
  • Get Luol Deng back? (Heat)

This is a group of players to choose from, realistic or not, especially since they have Rose, Butler, and Gasol to build around.

Stay tuned, as we will talk about player movement when the playoffs conclude and the attention shifts to the draft, for every team.

As for Chicago, they are at the fork in the road as everyone can now see. It will be interesting to see how everything turns out come opening tip next season.