Over the course of Sunday and Monday, Seerat Sohi and I exchanged emails for a while in an effort to figure out what exactly to make of the 2012-13 Chicago Bulls. If you’ve been reading over the last few months, this is a question we’ve wanted answers to for quite some time, and we set out to actually find some.
We also discussed Tom Thibodeau’s coaching style, the destruction of the Bulls’ bench, and what we can expect once the playoffs roll around.
Note: This conversation took place in its entirety prior to both the Bulls’ loss to the Denver Nuggets and the signing of Malcolm Thomas. So if you’re wondering why there’s no mention of the controversial loss and we treat the signing as if it had just happened, well, that’s because it had just happened.
Caleb Nordgren: I do not understand this basketball team. I just don’t. They lost by 42 at Sacramento and won by 18 — more, really, but whatever — two nights later in Oakland. I mean, who does that? How in the world does that work? They’ve been doing this from the very beginning, but I don’t think it gets any better than in January — their single best month by far, by the way — when they went to New York to beat the crap out of the Knicks at MSG, only to fly home and get blown out by the Phoenix Suns, of all teams. I thought I’d nailed them down back around then, when I decided they would always do whatever made the least sense, but even that doesn’t really seem to apply anymore.
Obviously, there’s a lot going on here: the destruction of the Bench Mob, injuries, guys just getting worn down, probably some distraction coming from the prospect of #TheReturn, etc. But it’s getting really hard to watch, especially because you almost have to watch just to find out what the hell is going to happen.
So that leaves us with this: What team are we going to see when the chips are down? Is it the team that loses to Phoenix and Sacramento and Charlotte? Is it the team that fillets Golden State twice, New York three times and manhandles the Heat in Miami? Or is it something else? And will #TheReturn make things better, worse or keep things the same?
Seerat Sohi: Well, for one thing, I’d seriously have to reconsider that “you almost have to watch” point. I’ve been vehemently opposed to watching Bulls games recently by the advice of my psychiatrist. The result? My blood pressure has gone down, my heart rate has finally normalized and if I can keep it up, the doctors are saying I have a punchers chance at leading a normal life again.
In all seriousness though, it seems like the Bulls are just plain ol’ tired. And I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but we might be at the point where Tom Thibodeau has started to wear on the boys. Of course, that won’t be too much of a problem once Derrick Rose returns — whether that’s tomorrow or next year — and listens to everything Thibs says. As far as the Bulls playoff hopes go… let’s just say we’re playing fast and loose with the word “hope.” More than anything else, whether or not Rose returns is obviously going to be a dominating factor. In a vacuum though, Chicago has underperformed in the playoffs for the past two years. With a dismantled bench, even more fatigued players and Rose’s status hanging in the balance, I see no reason to think otherwise this time around.
CN: I think you’re being a little harsh. When they bring their trademark intensity and the shots are at least falling occasionally, these Bulls are just as fun to watch as any other team. Friday’s destruction of the Warriors was pretty fun to watch, as were all three Knicks victories and the win over the Heat. If I’m going to get that team, I’ll tune in every night. The problem is there’s a very good likelihood they won’t show up.
I’ve yet to figure out where I stand on the Thibs thing. On the one hand, his insistence on running Deng into the ground when he’s had perfectly capable alternatives in Ronnie Brewer and now Jimmy Butler is both ridiculous and somewhat troubling. On the other, the man plays to win, and there’s no way anyone can argue playing Noah 40 minutes a night isn’t going to give him a better chance to win than Nazr and VladRad — although it does seem like Taj should get more minutes than he has when healthy. I would say he needs to find a better balance between pushing for every single game and making sure his players aren’t dying for him, but there’s no doubt Thibs has made this team what it is and I don’t want him to betray that.
Having endured the Scott Skiles Era relatively recently, it’s hard to utterly deny the possibility of Thibs wearing out his welcome. But I can’t say as I’ve seen anything remotely like evidence that’s the case. Yeah, they’ve had some bad games, but they always seem to bounce back, sooner or later. Thibs is intense, and he’s a perfectionist, but his players legitimately seem to like him. Even when Noah had that fight with him a while back, he immediately made sure everyone knew he still loved Thibs.
There’s a theory — not one I ascribe to, but a theory nonetheless — bouncing around the fringes of the Bulls community that says the Bulls might actually be better off without their depth. The argument goes that in the playoffs, benches kind of naturally shorten and you see the top players playing heavier minutes. Of course, for that argument to hold any water, you’d also have to be arguing that the guys seeing those heavier minutes are better than they’ve been in the past, which is ludicrous. Not to mention that Rose almost certainly won’t be himself on his return, as much as I’m sure he’d like to be. But I think writing the Bulls off is premature. Their defense is still top-notch, and you never know what you’ll get out of the playoffs. Remember when Bulls-Heat in the conference finals last year was basically inevitable? Yeah, not so much. An old, flawed Boston team caught a few breaks and somehow came within a LeBron James evisceration of making the Finals. I agree it doesn’t look good, but let’s not start talking in certainties.
SS: I don’t know. I’m just trying to be realistic. The Heat just won their 22nd straight game. They have a 12 game lead in the loss column over the Pacers. Chicago is all the way in the sixth spot. Derrick Rose has yet to return. LeBron James is having one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history. I know what you mean when you say a certain version of this Bulls team could compete with anyone. The problem is that it’s never seemed to manifest itself in the playoffs aside from certain spurts. You mentioned the Celtics, but the Bulls aren’t the Celtics. The Celtics have exceeded or met their regular season expectations every single postseason in the KG era. Chicago has generally gone in the opposite direction.
Touching on the Thibs stuff: personally, I think his place with the team is fine. It’s just a theory I’ve heard from time to time, and it’s not one that’s hard to imagine. It’s already surprising enough that he got the team to buy in for as long as they have without adding any of the “fun” stuff — like a functioning, rewarding offense. Of course, in previous years the Bulls’ 60 win seasons were enough to tip the scales in Thibs’ favor. When you’re not winning though, it’s a tougher call.
And speaking of theories, I don’t know a team can be considered “better” if the players they have this year are worse than the ones they had last year. It’s no secret that bench rotations shorten in the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean that somehow a bench that’s bad is more of a benefit than a bench that’s good. It’s still basketball. Good players do good things. Against the Heat, the series turned in game 4 when Omer Asik went down and Wade finally started getting his way. Chicago probably would have lost the series anyway, but there’s no doubt that having a second unit that was anchored by a guy who is currently averaging a double double on playoff team in the Western Conference was an objectively good thing.
CN: Right. I don’t buy the “shortened rotation” thing either, I just thought it was an odd point of view.
My point with the Celtics is mostly about luck. It’s not like they played all that well last spring — they took six games to get past the underwhelming Hawks and seven to beat the 76ers. A healthy Bulls team would likely have filleted them, based on how each team played against the 76ers. Now, I’m not saying I want this to happen, but what if LeBron gets hurt? It’s foolish to abandon all hope when we know full well anything can happen. That was my only point. The Bulls, as constructed, with or without Derrick Rose, are not particularly good. But there’s a reason you play the games.
I think the biggest thing about Thibs is that every player that plays for him seems to buy in immediately. Zach Lowe’s piece on the Bulls’ system features a quote from Belinelli, in which he admits to being confused early on by some of the intricacies, but nothing about not buying into what Thibs was selling. There’s nothing that says it has to always be that way, but still. There’s never been one single “malcontent” under Thibs. It’s entirely possible he’s just fundamentally different from Skiles and Doug Collins and others of that ilk. But I don’t think it’s something we should be worried about until we get something specific about somebody being unhappy.
SS: Of course, of course. Once again, I don’t agree with the theory that Thibs has worn out his welcome… it’s just something that’s been thrown around.
Back to the Bulls playoff chances. Yeah, if LeBron gets hurt then the gate to the NBA Finals becomes a three-way race between Indiana, New York and Chicago (if Rose comes back). I’m not advocating the idea that they shouldn’t try to get there. I’m just not optimistic. I see where you’re coming from, though. No postseason has been without its anomalies, and I’m definitely a proponent of Zach Lowe’s 5 percent theory. If you’re saying that there’s no such thing as a sure thing, I agree with you.
By the way, I’m just going to use this forum to say something that’s kind of related to this: Bulls fans, as a collective, should be a lot happier with their situation than they are. I’m not saying they should be flying off the wall — they did go from having one of the most formidable second units in the league, a 60 win season and a healthy Derrick Rose to well… not having that — but if Rose comes back, it means Chicago is at least in the “mix”. Only a handful of teams every year get to be in that position, so let’s enjoy it while we can.
CN: I think you’re right about Bulls fans collective attitude…to some extent. I’ve been extremely guilty of this, so I’m going to try to explain where I’m coming from.
For three seasons, Derrick Rose was the center of my sports universe. Watching him play on a day-to-day basis was thrilling and made everything else seem better. And then he won the MVP and MJ made that speech at the United Center about “don’t be surprised if you got another six or seven championships coming” and everything seemed great. Then the lockout happened, Rose kept getting hurt and then the ACL tear happened. Then “basketball decisions” happened and yadda yadda yadda, here we are. Here’s the point: Bulls fans — especially myself — love Derrick Rose to a probably unhealthy degree. He’s from Chicago and he’s “ours” in a way that’s hard to describe to people who don’t feel the same way. Are we severely underrating our team without him? Probably. But the nature of our relationship with Derrick leads to us simply being more negative about those who are not him. The destruction of the bench simply made things worse.
Again, it’s not rational. But I don’t know if there’s anything we can do about it.
SS: I get that. I feel the same way. I think I had to remind myself every few minutes that Derrick Rose wasn’t dead when he first went down. The thing is, he’ll be back. And he’ll be fine. It’s just that all I seem to see around here is either A) a completely defeatist attitude, which is the worst or B) “let’s be depressed because we probably win a championship in the near future.” Things aren’t great for Chicago right now, but they could be much worse. The Bulls will still win more games than they will lose, they’ll likely make a decent playoff run. Most teams don’t get that luxury, is all I’m trying to say, I guess. For the most part it’s just — HOLD ON! STOP THE PRESSES THE BULLS JUST SIGNED MALCOLM THOMAS TO A 10-DAY CONTRACT OH MY GOODNESS FINALLY NOW WE HAVE THAT LAST MISSING PIECE THANK YOU BASED GARPAX.
CN: Legitimately, that’s the best piece of Bulls-related news since … *searching* … um. It’s been a while, I guess.