Even with Derrick Rose still in remission, this NBA postseason promised to be different for the Chicago Bulls, they assured us. They were healthier than they had been at this time in recent years. They were a confident bunch, as any team with a 36-16 record since the turn of the calendar year had a right to be at the time. They especially liked their chances in round one against a rather young Washington Wizards team that hadn’t made a playoff appearance since that man moved into the White House down the block.
But late in the fourth quarter of the fifth and final game, it was obvious that the Bulls had met their match again. Emotional leader Joakim Noah hobbled around on a bum left foot. Several players who logged heavy minutes in the regular season were gassed, Noah and Jimmy Butler in particular. The younger, fresher Wizards beat them to loose balls time and again. The surprise wasn’t that the Bulls lost the series but that they did it so quickly and so convincingly.
Suddenly, some of those regular-season victories like the one against the Magic in Orlando that saw Butler and Noah combine to play 109 minutes seemed very small in the big picture.
“C’mon, man, we lost,” Noah begged off when I asked whether fatigue had been a factor especially late in games. “Yeah, I’m disappointed that we lost some rebounds that we should have had, but give (the Wizards) credit.”
Consider it done. As a group, the Wizards didn’t consider defense to be optional for a change, the kind of effort some doubted they could sustain in an entire series. Bradley Beal and John Wall showed signs that they would become the backcourt standard in the years to come. “Well-coached,” Noah called the winners. “Their system bothered us.” To that point, head coach Randy Wittman pushed a lot of the right buttons, showed that he could be flexible and make adjustments on the fly.
You know, unlike Bulls counterpart Tom Thibodeau, who’s as compromising as a grease stain.
“Since when has Thibs ever changed?” one prominent member of the Bulls entourage told me. “He pretty much ran the same plays with the same (player) rotations since training camp. Did you see any of the bench guys develop along the way? Neither did I. That can win a lot of games in the regular season, but it’s not nearly as effective in the playoffs. (The Wizards) had time to prepare for them. They knew exactly what to expect, and they had a great plan to handle it.
“But Thibs will never change. He is who is is.”
Which is to say, a maniacal ballcoach who can take a selfless, no-frills team from Point A to Point B but no further.
Got that, Carmelo Anthony?
As their 69 points in the clincher indicate, the Bulls need a go-to scorer the way a camel needs water, Rose or no Rose. After the front office bids good riddance to veteran Carlos Boozer and his $16.8 million salary either via the trade or amnesty route, it will target Anthony in the free-agent market. I couldn’t imagine that New York Knicks president Phil Jackson would allow his best player to sign with his old team. Even if it did happen, a Melo-Thibs marriage might not be a long and prosperous one. While Thibodeau couldn’t help but make Anthony a better defensive player, whether he could do the same at the other end is open to debate. Anthony would be expected to score within the structure of the system, not the other way around. Could he make the necessary adjustments? Would he want to make them? With a loud voice in his ear? Double down, Melo, double down! If so, could he do it at no loss in effectiveness?
There’s also the issue of whether two accomplished, widely recognized talents can can co-exist on the same team. Rose and his advisers believe the Bulls are his team and his only, so much so that the Chicago native refuses to recruit players of any significance in the open market. If Rose dominated the ball, then could Anthony be even remotely effective? Or could Rose be convinced to share the spotlight for the good of the whole?
The more urgent question is, which Rose will show up next season and the one after that? In his brief return earlier this season, the one-time Most Valuable Player was a shell of his former self. He’s on the books for $60.3 million in the next three years, which will leave the organization with limited financial flexibility in the meantime. If Rose turns out to be much less than the MVP version, figure the Bulls to remain who they are – a team stubborn enough to compete in the regular season but not good enough to capture the big prize.