Where Do The Bulls Go From Here?
That, obviously, was not the way this season was supposed to end for the Chicago Bulls.
Say what you want about how the Bulls should’ve beaten Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs even without Derrick Rose, but the fact is that once 2011’s MVP went down with that torn ACL, the season was over.
It also made it pretty clear that few teams are going to be talked about more in this offseason than the Chicago Bulls. Already, there are fans and analysts calling for team president John Paxson and GM Gar Forman to break up the band and find a new way to rebuild around Rose when healthy, while others are steadfast that the team with the best record in the NBA two years running needs only to be healthy and make a few tweaks to compete for a championship.
However one might feel about them, the Bulls are a team with a whole lot of good and a whole lot of question marks, the latter of which were punctuated by their early exit in the 2012 postseason.
Even people that aren’t fans of the Bulls would like to see what they’re really made of, if they can overcome the HEAT at some point and win their first title since Michael Jordan was suiting up, but it’s hard to tell if that will happen. In the more immediate future, it’s even harder deciding where the team goes now that everything is apparently in disarray.
Tom Thibodeau seems like a reasonable place to start, since he won Coach of the Year in 2011 and came in second in COY voting this past season. He took a hefty load of criticism in 2011-12, not only for the Rose injury, but for overworking his starters and putting too much stock in regular season games.
Considering the guy has gone 123-47 (including playoffs) over his first two years of coaching and was the fastest coach in history to reach 100 wins, it’s kind of a small miracle that he has neither received a contract extension nor even had his option picked up for next season. Thibodeau originally signed a two-year deal with a team option for a third year, but his regular season accomplishments would seem to warrant considerably more time in Chicago.
To be fair, the option will get picked up. It will. But beyond that, there are concerns about how Thibodeau’s coaching style adapts to the postseason. In 2010-11, the criticism was that he relied too heavily on Derrick Rose for offense, but looking at that team, who could blame him?
This year, it was blasts for playing his starters too deep into games, something he does even in the regular season, as well as his inability to come up with more creative offensive sets in the wake of Rose’s Game 1 injury.
Bulls brass has worked hard to find their next Phil Jackson—a guy they could hire and hold onto for years and years, to become a key part of the organization. Perhaps Thibodeau has some things to work out, but he has hardly had enough time to make his adjustments from year to year, and he’s shown more in his first two years of NBA head coaching than some NBA head coaches show their entire careers.
Say what you want about Thibodeau, but he’s too good a coach to let walk away. He’s intense and he’s focused, and sometimes that works to his detriment. However, like many successful veteran coaches figure out over time, there are other ways to be successful in this league than the way Thibs ran his team the last two years. At the very least, he deserves more time to show he can figure that out.
If the Bulls do let him go, it would be one of the biggest mistakes they’ll have ever made. It’s easy to criticize him, but it’s also easy to see how much better a coach he is than so many others in the league. One would think they’ll hold onto somebody who’s been so good so fast.
More can be done about the players themselves than the coach, however. Traditionally, the Bulls have been a pretty conservative organization when it comes to retooling the roster. In the years since the last title, the majority of Chicago’s major roster moves have been no-brainer lottery picks, no-brainer free agency signings (at the time, at least, few of us lambasted the Ben Wallace and Carlos Boozer deals), and inexpensive, overachieving role players.
They don’t typically pull off blockbuster trades or make inordinately splashy moves, and coming off the last two successful regular seasons it doesn’t seem likely they’ll do anything all that crazy this summer, either.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done, just that we shouldn’t expect anything major. Pretty much everybody that played big rotation minutes for the team this year is on the books for next year, save John Lucas III and perhaps C.J. Watson, who’s got a $3.7 million team option for next season. The whole rest of the gang is under contract, which means moves made are going to have to be via trade, and the Bulls have a couple of guys they could explore moving.
Ronnie Brewer is the most obvious player for Chicago to consider moving, due in part to the fact that they’ve got Jimmy Butler ready to slide right into that backup three role next year, but also because Brewer has to be at least a little unhappy with his inconsistent role on the team. He’s been a starter at times and played huge minutes, but he’s also been one of the last guys off the bench who’s barely played at all. That sort of thing happened all the time when Scott Skiles was coaching the team, but Thibodeau has been insanely consistent with rotations his first two years in Chicago, except as it pertains to Brewer. He makes $4.4 million next season on the last year of his contract. There’s got to be a team that would bite on that, should the Bulls find themselves interested in dealing him.
Kyle Korver and Richard Hamilton each make $5 million next season (Hamilton has a team option the year after next), and they’re relatively expendable pieces, as well. These are all niche guys, but if Chicago’s looking for change, those are the players they’re going to have to start looking at moving.
What about Luol Deng and Joakim Noah? Would the team consider trading either of them? Despite their histories of nagging injuries, the organization appears very loyal to both players. They still want to see what they’re capable of with this core when Rose is healthy. Until they know what they’ve got isn’t good enough—for sure—they won’t trade those guys. Again, consider the conservative nature of this organization.
Fans may want big changes to the roster this summer, but they just aren’t going to get them.
The Amnesty Provision
If the Bulls are ever going to use their amnesty provision, they’ll use it on Carlos Boozer, but it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll use it on him this offseason, however disappointing he may be to fans.
The reality is that Taj Gibson is likely to hit restricted free agency in another year because the Bulls simply can’t afford him with all the huge contracts they’ve already got on their books. Between Rose, Boozer, Deng, and Noah, we’re looking at close to $55 million already, and Gibson has proven he can command quite a bit more than the Bulls can budget with that payroll.
Eventually, it may come down to a Gibson-or-Boozer ultimatum, and by the end of the 2012-2013 season that decision may be a pretty easy one to make. At that point, Chicago could amnesty the last two years of Boozer’s contract and then re-up Gibson for a fair amount to be the starting power forward for quite a bit less money than the current starter in Boozer.
It’s not a decision they have to make now, but it’s coming, and what happens next season will go a long way in determining how that all shakes out.
The Draft & Free Agency
These are footnotes in the Chicago game plan for 2012-2013 because, frankly, not a lot can be expected out of the Bulls in either free agency or the draft. Because the team is already precariously tip-toeing towards the luxury tax line as it is, it’s hard to see them chomping at the bit to go out and spend even more on new players. As is mentioned above, ten of the team’s twelve most important players from last year are back next season, and that number could hit 11 very easily if (when) the team picks up C.J. Watson’s option.
It’s going to be hard to add to that, both from a financial and a personnel perspective.
As for the draft, it’s hard to get too excited about the 29th pick in the first round, which is right about where the Bulls drafted Butler a year ago. We can’t expect a major talent to show up that deep into the draft, so instead Chicago’s wish list will probably include a best-player-available search for some depth in the backcourt or a fifth big man.
If you want to know where the Bulls go from here, all you’ve got to do is look at their past transactions and know that it’s pretty unlikely they do anything splashy. This was a painful, painful postseason, and there will be plenty of people out there who believe the team’s best bet would be completely overhauling the roster. That won’t happen, though, because the Chicago higher-ups still believe that when D-Rose is healthy, they’re a real contender. Right or wrong, true or false, that’s what the organization believes.
And since they believe that, the answer to all the questions about what they do next is the same—stay the course, get everyone healthy, and give it another go next year.
We’ll see how successful that is, but that’s the way it appears this team is ready to go.