Posted Jun 27 2012 12:13PM
CHICAGO -- They were the team most conspicuously absent from the later rounds of this postseason. No offense to Memphis or the Lakers or the defending champs in Dallas, but the Chicago Bulls were poised for a championship run this spring like no one else.
They'd won more games, not just this season but in 2010-11 too, than any other team. They held home-court advantage for as long as they needed it, or at least could defend it. Their moving parts, so often in disrepair through the compressed post-lockout schedule, appeared to be healing and meshing at precisely the right time.
One moment MVP point guard Derrick Rose was flaking off rust at a remarkable rate with 23 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in Game 1 against Philadelphia, his pockmarked season of multiple injuries and 27 missed games serving perhaps to keep Rose fresh for grind and fun to come. The next, he lay writhing on the court, the ACL in Rose's left knee blown, the Bulls' title hopes dashed, the franchise's blueprint torn asunder.
The prognosis was grim: A rehab of eight to 12 months for Rose. Start his recovery clock at the instant surgeon Brian Cole zipped him up on May 12 and -- in the speediest, most optimistic and probably most reckless forecast -- Rose is back sometime in mid-January, with three full months of regular season to regain his powers and boost Chicago toward the playoffs again.
Opt for the most cautious timeline, though, and the Bulls play all of 2012-13 without their engine (and transmission and steering system and tires). They miss the postseason entirely and, though they never fully admit this to season-ticket holders, shift their focus to 2013-14 and beyond, with Rose, 26 by then, presumably good to go and hitting his prime.
Something in between? A return after All-Star Weekend, perhaps, or even deep into March, about the latest such a move could be defended? Ehhh ... hard to say. Just remember that Michael Jordan came back to play the final 17 games of the 1994-95 season. He hadn't been hurt and he had Hall of Famers Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson around to help. The Bulls won 34 games before Jordan returned from his first "retirement" on March 19, went 13-4 with His Airness averaging 26.9 points and still couldn't get out of the second round.
The uncertainty over Rose's recovery and return is a lot trickier now. That Bulls team -- yikes, 17 years ago -- had only one gear, one mission (win now, as many as possible). This team might be tempted to downshift, to adjust to Rose's absence by retreating and reconfiguring. And quite possibly, by outsmarting itself.
The rumors have been swirling for weeks already that Chicago might opt to retool, the most prudent course for an expensive roster whose pieces soon may be out of synch. After all, Richard Hamilton, the scorer brought in to finally ease Rose's offensive burden, will turn 35 in February and be at or near the end of his two-year guarantee by the time the point guard comes back. Power forward Carlos Boozer won't exactly be adding any vertical lift or lateral quickness in his 11th NBA season, starting in October, with $47.1 million left over the final three years of his deal.
Then there's Luol Deng, who gamely played much of 2011-12 with a torn ligament in his left wrist but now is delaying a decision on surgery until after he participates for Great Britain in the London Olympics.
That's a hot one in Chicago, because if Deng has his surgery later in the summer, he'll be unavailable when the Bulls need him most. From his side, he has dreamed of playing for his national team in the Olympics hosted by the country that saved his and his family's life in their escape from South Sudan. Deng has had his tensions with team management and Bulls fans before, and the league has backed FIBA endeavors, allowing stars to moonlight even when it encroaches on company time and expense.
The other side focuses on the delay in Deng's repair -- he played his last game on May 10 -- and the eight-figure salary ($12.3 million) he'll be pulling this fall from the Bulls, not from British basketball, even if he misses games. With Deng and the rest of Rose's supporting cast, Chicago might be more capable of staying afloat as a middle seed for any playoff run; without him for a month or two, compounded by Rose's absence, and the whole 2013 postseason plan could unravel.
So naturally, fueled by some general crankiness over this lost spring and by Deng's various unknowns, the speculation has burned: Deng as trade bait? Deng for a lottery pick? Deng, a 2012 All-Star whose value might never be higher, as the chip that gets Chicago back in line with Rose's recovery?
Let's not forget the ever-popular one about Boozer: Amnesty now or amnesty later?
It might seem shrewd and pro-active for Bulls general manager Gar Forman and John Paxson, VP of basketball operations, to tinker and head off what could be one long, mediocre year for a operation that was right on the brink of greatness. But it also would be dangerous.
Chicago has been laboring for two or three seasons to surround Rose with more help. Does the best or safest way to achieve that begin now by shedding the team's second-best player? How high a pick might Deng bring -- and even then, what are the odds that a player selected there would be Deng's equal or better in two, three or four years?
As for Boozer, the Bulls are stuck because they overpaid in the 2010 free-agent shopping spree. He hasn't been much different from the guy he had been through eight NBA seasons in Cleveland and Utah. He just arrived pocketing heftier paychecks and facing loftier expectations. Chicago might be better off either starting Taj Gibson or giving him the bigger minutes at power forward, but paying Boozer to go away now doesn't fix much either.
The Bulls have the No. 29 pick in the Draft this year. They have 6-foot-10 forward Mikola Mirotic, a 2011 pick traded twice that night, stashed overseas as a future asset. They're still owed a first-round pick by Charlotte for the Tyrus Thomas trade in February 2010.
None of that gets the adrenaline pumping the way Forman's swashbuckling move did two years ago on draft night (dumping Kirk Hinrich and that year's first-rounder on Washington to clear enough free-agent money for two stars). But it seems to fit better than recklessly dismantling a team out from under coach Tom Thibodeau.
And Forman, in one of his few public moments since Rose's injury, seemed to know it. "Short-term, we're going to take a hit," he said at a press conference soon after the point guard's surgery. "Our thinking long-term won't change. You don't replace Derrick, obviously, but we're going to have to scrape it together with our other guys."
The noise that has built since then seems to scream otherwise, but it's more likely than not that Deng will be around, a cast on his left wrist in training camp the way, maybe, he should be as a non-playing ambassador through the London Games. So will Boozer.
Remember, this is a franchise flush with money that never has veered into luxury tax territory. It didn't panic -- or overspend Chariman Jerry Reinsdorf's budget -- when its run of six titles ended in 1998. Panic? The Bulls continued along quite contentedly, filling United Center while winning just 26 percent of their games for six miserable years.
It's hard to imagine the Bulls panicking now or overreacting or even altering what has been a pretty sound plan of late.
So expect Chicago to make good on its pledge to match any offer to restricted free agent center Omer Asik, a backup big vital to the team's height advantage over most NBA clubs. And look for it to shop hard for a fill-in at point guard who can handle starter's minutes for anywhere from 40 games up to 82 -- and then shift abruptly to backup status when Rose does come back.
Whenever that is.
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