HANG TIME, Texas — Close your eyes and think of those days when the Bulls were a mean, snorting threat to win it all. Try to remember way back when they took the floor with their heads down, horns sharp, pawing at the dirt, ready to challenge LeBron James and the Heat for Eastern Conference supremacy and make a run at their first championship since the Jordan Era.
Was it just three months ago?
From the moment Derrick Rose crumpled in a heap at the end of the playoff opener against Philadelphia, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, it was obvious that 2012-13 was going to be a different kind of season in Chicago.
But this summer has been more like Extreme Makeover: Lake Michigan Edition.
Kyle Korver has been shipped off to Atlanta. C.J. Watson is now in Brooklyn. Omer Asik is the latest to hit the door, landing in Houston when the Bulls chose not to match a three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet.
As noted by our well-respected friend Rick Telander in the Chicago Sun-Times:
A Bulls team that last offseason seemed so improved, so solid, so primed to take on the Miami Heat and go for the NBA crown, with fine starters and a feisty Bench Mob, isn’t exactly a memory, but it’s a fading vapor.
Even as the Heat celebrates and LeBron James says ‘‘uh-huh’’ to all his doubters, the Bulls seem to be saying, ‘‘Huh?’’
The team is built around beloved homegrown point guard Derrick Rose. Last season, there was tall Joakim Noah to rebound and defend, big Carlos Boozer to score and rebound, lithe Luol Deng to do everything, slippery Rip Hamilton to receive assists from Rose and Rose himself to be a rolling hand grenade. And then the Mob would descend on foes like a plague of locusts.
That was the plan. That’s how it worked — for a time.
Then came chaos.
Noah, Boozer, Deng, Hamilton, and Rose are still here. But who is healthy? Who is certain? What is there to stand in the way of a possible Heat dynasty?
The Bulls did welcome guard Kirk Hinrich back into the fold. But these days he is best cast in the role of a reserve.
Other summertime additions have been Nazr Mohammed, Marco Belinelli, and Vladimir Radmanovic while second-year swingman Jimmy Butler showed positive signs in Las Vegas. All told, that is hardly a five-some that is going to make LeBron and Dwyane Wade do much more than yawn. Not when the Heat have supplemented their roster with Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis.
So what in the name of Benny the Bull is going on in Chicago? General manager Gar Forman said on draft night last month: “Our decisions this summer will be basketball decisions, not financial decisions.”
Yet the trade-offs from Asik to Mohammed and Korver to Radmanovich have certainly come with cheaper price tags, as pointed out by K.C Johnson in the Chicago Tribune:
In the wake of Derrick Rose’s knee injury, the Bulls have made their decisions. Whether they are interpreted as basketball or financial is in the eye of the beholder.
On the one hand, the Bulls will enter luxury-tax territory for the first time in franchise history. But they will do so after letting Asik walk for nothing, an asset Forman repeatedly said he would match any offer for throughout last season.
Plus, the team’s biggest star beyond Rose in posting the NBA’s best record in back-to-back seasons was its depth, its Bench Mob. That unit, save for Taj Gibson, whose extension is next on the docket, has been dismantled.
Management will say its financial decisions are cloaked in basketball reasons. With Rose out until likely March, next season is a treading-water season. So instead of depth being the secondary star, the Bulls hope to add a legitimate one alongside Rose.
With Hinrich, Belinelli, Radmanovic and Mohammed all signing short-term deals, the plan to clear major salary-cap space in 2014 will remain intact. That’s also when Luol Deng’s contract expires, Nikola Mirotic could come over from Real Madrid and Carlos Boozer likely will be a victim of the amnesty provision.
On the one hand, it would seem to make sense for the Bulls to tread water while Rose is on the mend and try to keep their options open for the future.
But if their superstar can make a complete recovery and be back at full strength next spring by the time the playoffs start, wouldn’t it be nice to have a supporting cast that is just as strong as the one he left?
For a team that’s had the best regular season record in the league the past two years and appeared prime contenders, things are definitely, uh, different in Chicago these days.