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Playoff absence may be best move for Bulls' future

Change is sure to come to Chicago this offseason

POSTED: Mar 14, 2016 12:28 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Coach Fred Hoiberg and his Chicago Bulls have struggled to get on the same page all season long.

Ninth place in the Eastern Conference stinks.

Eighth place equals four or five or six more games, an exercise in futility in which nemesis LeBron James puts them out of the NBA playoffs for the fifth time in seven years.

Seventh place means matching up against the Toronto Raptors, an opponent against whom the Chicago Bulls oddly have had their "number" in recent seasons, though that could change considerably Monday night at Air Canada Centre (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass). The Raptors also have a dynamic All-Star backcourt playing the way Chicago's was supposed to be and an acceptance that they have something to prove to the league -- a humility that seems lost on the Bulls.

(Oh, and there still is a chance that seventh place means a best-of-seven matchup with Cleveland, if the Cavaliers decide to rest and cruise into the postseason without regard for the East's top seed.)

Sixth place means taking on a Boston team that has demonstrated how much better life can be with no stars than waiting for and worrying about "stars" the way Chicago has all season. Or it means Miami, the team that just completed its season sweep of the Bulls by scoring 240 points in two games in a span of 11 days.

Fifth place? Fifth place would get the Bulls a nose bleed. No way they're climbing that high anyway, not over so many teams with so few games left.

So maybe it's time for the perfectly mediocre, 32-32 Bulls -- the team whose preseason billing as the "East's second-best" now echoes as a taunt -- to start making peace with the idea of a lottery finish rather than a last-gasp run to the wire. Breaking a sweat, skinning some knees, looking in the mirror and sneering at what stares back? Nah, that's more accountability than this team has shown itself to be capable of during its 10-20 meltdown after waking up Jan. 7 with a 22-12 record.

For the folks who still fill the United Center 22,000 strong night after night, whether it's out of habit, for the show-biz stuff between the basketball or because they've been on a waiting list since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen romped there, the 2015-16 season is a combination "Groundhog Day" and the "boy who cried wolf" parable.

Heat vs. Bulls

Goran Dragic goes off for 26 points with 9 assists as the Heat take down the Bulls 118-96.

This is Year 6 of championship dreams forsaken, a process built in reverse in which the Bulls reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2011, had the NBA's Most Valuable Player that season, didn't make The Finals and has been disassembling ever since. The scaffolding and girders that dominate the arena's East side (future atrium and retail complex, with the Jordan statue as its centerpiece) is as stark and incomplete at the moment as vice president John Paxson's and general manager Gar Forman's master plan. One of them will be spruced up and completed fairly quickly, the other is going to get uglier before it gets better.

Injuries -- to Rose, to Jimmy Butler, to Joakim Noah, to Nikola Mirotic, to Mike Dunleavy and, as of Sunday, to Pau Gasol (swollen knee) -- have been crippling and undeniable. But as former Bulls forward Luol Deng noted late Friday, after his Miami team scored 64 points after halftime to yank a game out of Chicago's grasp, those things predated Tom Thibodeau's five-year run as coach and surely have post-dated Thibodeau this season.

What set management's hair on fire as Thibodeau's recklessness with players' minutes now is written off as bad luck under new coach Fred Hoiberg, Paxson's and Forman's hand-picked successor with a veneer more acceptable to the executive suite. But the defense that was the Bulls' face to the NBA under Thibodeau is gone now, too. And the offense that his bosses wanted Hoiberg to install as its keeping-up-with-the-Warriors idea is under construction more than your typical Chicagoland tollway.

Apparently the old joke about the city's seasons applies to the Bulls as well. There's only two -- summer and team construction.

The notion that Butler (expected to play at Toronto Monday), Gasol (a week or two away) and Rose (flip a freakin' coin) can come back, mesh with the role players (Dunleavy, Taj Gibson, E'Twaun Moore, Bobby Portis) and underachievers (Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Tony Snell, Aaron Brooks) around them and flip some switch for the home stretch is naïve. Not to mention narrowly held.

The Bulls' locker room remains empowered in unaccountability, residue from management turning its own coach into a lame duck all of last season? Telling a full roster of players "Aw, pay no attention to that guy, he's gone" only makes it harder when you bring back that same roster and suddenly announced, "Now this guy is the one you need to listen to."

The power in this dynamic resides with the players, more so now than with most teams. Rose made it clear when he tapped out before Friday's loss to Miami that no team circumstance -- a playoff berth in the balance, a game on the line -- never again will get between him and his sense of secure game-fitness. Or maybe his marketability for 2017 free agency.

GameTime: Pau Gasol

GameTime sits down with Pau Gasol sits down to discuss Bulls' season and what they can do to improve.

Butler seems to be moving along Deng's trajectory in Chicago, game to play whenever possible but achingly aware of the physical toll it's taking, and heeding it a bit more than his mentor did. Noah, his season done after 30 games with shoulder surgery, might have played his last game with the Bulls; he's the heart of the team pulled out and shown to them, as if in a Bruce Lee movie, before they actually die.

As for Gasol, he's smart enough to see what's going on and to keep his options open this summer, literally in an early-termination of is contract and figuratively. A double-double guy with surprising triple-double capacity lately, the 35-year-old doesn't even have to be that cerebral to grasp the math involved.

"The season is winding down," he said, "and every game that goes by it is [fewer] games left to play, and our margin of error is gone."

Chicago sports radio last week began bandying about the idea that the "second-best in the East" Bulls might miss the playoffs entirely and whether that might be preferable to the decidedly profitable two or three home playoff games in a one-and-done cameo. Folks who argue against it cite the run seven consecutive postseason appearances, the cachet that could help lure a free agent or two this summer and a subconscious organizational fear of ever returning to the team's 1999-2004 bleakness.

But with Gasol's opportunities elsewhere, Noah's uncertainty and both roster flaws in general and mismatches between the talent base and Hoiberg's preferred style of play, some serious roster reworking is going to be required regardless. Might as well begin it with a longshot lottery pick.

Maybe ninth place doesn't stink as bad as the spots just above it for the Bulls this season.

Hoiberg tried to perk up his players' pride and motivation over the weekend when he spliced into the team's video breakdown a clip from "Animal House." It was the one in which John Belushi's character mangles history in his "Nothing is over" speech.

Frankly, the Bulls coach should have used the Kevin Bacon one from later in the movie.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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