CHICAGO – Defeat upon defeat has led rapidly to despair, and a Chicago Bulls team already demoralized by another season-ending injury to star point guard Derrick Rose soon might find itself on the verge of depression. Angry at the basketball gods, feeling sorry for themselves – that’s certainly no way to slog through the five long months that remain in the NBA regular season, months made tough enough in these parts by wind chills and salt trucks.
But a 1-6 stretch since Nov. 18, an exhausting triple-overtime home loss to New Orleans and a no-mercy NBA schedule that brings the two-time champion Miami Heat to town Thursday had the Bulls slumped in chairs and dead on their feet late Monday night. They had left town nearly two weeks earlier, eager to bond, Rose “close” to his pre-ACL surgery form, on their daunting annual “circus trip” (when United Center welcomes the clowns and elephants, sending the Bulls and the NHL Blackhawks on the road each November).
They didn’t come home with even a lousy T-shirt. Rose is gone again, done in by a torn meniscus in his right (other) knee this time. What remains, while a lot, was built to welcome and maximize his return, without alternate shot creators such as Nate Robinson or Marco Belinelli. Mike Dunleavy was signed to spread the floor, his deep threat opening lanes for Rose.
This time, there’d been no time to prepare the roster, never mind the Bulls’ psyches, for such an outrageous loss of star power, confidence, swagger and ambition. Pluck? Overachievement? Chicago got its bellyful of that last time around, when the Bulls at least had the carrot of a Rose return dangled through the season’s second half.
This one was gonna hurt, and it has. The Bulls lost in Portland the night Rose went down, got blown out two days later by the Clippers in L.A., and – aside from a character victory in Detroit last Wednesday – has dropped overtime games to Utah and New Orleans and lost in the final seconds at Cleveland.
“In this league, you start feeling bad for yourself and the wolves come,” forward Taj Gibson said after the Pelicans loss. “The wolves aren’t going to feel sorry for you. Every team is going to come in smelling blood and feel like they need to get a win.”
“We’re showing a lot of fight,” coach Tom Thibodeau said, “and don’t have much to show for it.”
Clearly, that can’t continue. If the Bulls hope to make this season bearable not just for the customers and the TV cameras but for themselves – entertaining and successful are pretty much off the board – here are five targets toward which they can strive:
1. Develop your young players. Bulls VP John Paxson said that, whether by design or not, player development invariably looms larger for teams that suffer manpower outages. For Chicago, that means plumbing the skills and potential of rookies Tony Snell and Erik Murphy. Snell already has been tested more than expected, moving into the starting lineup when Jimmy Butler – who benefited from last season’s talent drain, especially late – went out with turf toe. Thibodeau likes Snell’s attitude and effort, and his high-arcing 3-pointers are a welcome variation on Butler’s clothesline attempts.
Developing players also means learning what’s not there, which has been the case so far with point guard Marquis Teague. The team’s first-round pick in 2012, Teague had a typical Bulls redshirt season as a rookie. But he hasn’t earned anyone’s confidence now in his second try and has fallen behind 38-year-old Mike James in the rotation. On Tuesday, Teague was assigned to the Iowa Energy of the NBA Development League.
2. Remember who you are. Everyone figured the Bulls would struggle offensively without Rose, both throughout the game and particularly at closing time. The other side of the ball didn’t figure to suffer as much, and yet Chicago’s defense has been way too Thibodeau-vexing through the first five weeks. Rebounding hasn’t been reliable and so far, teams have pelted them from 3-point range (the Bulls rank 29th in opponents’ percentage from there, .399). Prior to Monday’s marathon, Thibodeau recited the three tenets of staying close/winning games: Defense, rebounds and low turnovers. It’s who they’ve been, even through Rose absences, and it’s who they need to be again.
3. Lean on the front office. This means more than the obvious keep-him-or-trade him decision on two-time All-Star Luol Deng, who will hit free agency this summer. That one’s been getting the attention from Chicago’s fan base – Lose Deng for nothing? Get something now or take the cap space in July? – but Paxson and GM Gar Forman face other challenges.
Dunleavy, who signed a reasonable two-year, $6.5 million mid-level deal, could attract offers as the February trade deadline approaches. The frontcourt needed more size back when the Bulls were chasing a Larry O’Brien trophy, but the most pressing position now is point guard, where Kirk Hinrich is starting again and almost certain to break down from overuse. Teague and James make some sort of move imperative, whether it’s from the waiver wire, the D-League or off the street.
Longer term, Paxson and Forman face the harsh reality of building around a one-time MVP who will have played only 50 games in three years by the time he’s back on an NBA court. Gibson, Butler, Snell, center Joakim Noah and, if he’s back, Deng still would form a young-enough, talented-enough core. But the Bulls would need their Nikola Mirotic import plan to pan out, put to stellar use the future No. 1 they hold from Charlotte and get Rose back as undiminished as possible as a franchise guy. That’s a lot. And they can’t just rely on the lottery luck that delivered Rose.
4. Spoil other teams’ nights. That never gets old. Remember the satisfaction that came from ending Miami’s 27-game winning streak — without Rose available — at United Center last March? (Of course, payback might pinch a little Thursday.)
5. Remember, someone always is watching. That means possible trade partners and future employers. If Chicago can’t realistically hope to reach The Finals, its players and coaches can find ways to redefine and reinvent themselves. Find the next Butler, in Snell or whomever, who can provide the roster with a bonus player. Discover a closer in Rose’s absence so he has more help when he does come back.
For Deng – a machine since Rose went down – there is a market to make. Maybe for Carlos Boozer, too, if the Bulls finally pull the amnesty trigger next summer and he wants to keep playing. For Noah, it’s the mental chore of soldiering on without “Pooh” (Rose’s nickname). For Thibodeau, add wrinkles offensively (the Bulls already were doing that before Rose’s injury) and somehow manage minutes in a way that doesn’t grind guys to nubbins.
There’s much to be done and accomplished. It’s just … different now.