“I don’t know,” I’d tell them without a trace of irony in my voice. Then I’d explain that I’d watched 25 to 30 Bulls games this season, and I had no idea which Bulls team will show up. They were one of two teams to go into Oracle Arena in Oakland and beat the Golden State Warriors. On the other hand they lost must win games to lottery teams even though the contests were at the United Center. I felt the Bulls had the widest range of possible outcomes of any team in the postseason. I could envision scenarios where they were upset in the first round and yes, without much inebriation, I could see them going all the way.
With that in mind it was disappointing, rather than surprising to me that the Bulls bowed out of the playoffs meekly on Thursday night. The Good Bulls showed up in the first quarter and put up 31 points on Cleveland. Then the Bad Bulls took over and scored 42 points the rest of the game.
The 94-73 loss to the Cavaliers is more than the end of the season. It’s the end of this era of the Chicago Bulls. It’s very likely that the game was Coach Tom Thibodeau’s final game with the Bulls. He and the front office have been at odds for years and by some accounts he and GM Gar Forman haven’t spoken since November. Furthermore, it’s probably time for Thibs to go. I think he’s burnt out the team. It used to be that teams might have more talent than the Bulls but nobody ever outworked these guys. Repeatedly this season teams did. Intense coaches–and it doesn’t get much more intense than Thibs gravelly bark on the sidelines during nearly every play–often have short shelf lives. Bill James published a study illustrating that in one of his Baseball Abstracts, and I think John Hollinger published one showing that it holds true in the NBA too.
I suspect that the new coach will be a breath of fresh air for the team, which probably got weary of Thibs rigidity. I also suspect that a new coach will hasten the development of wings Tony Snell and Doug McDermott. He’ll have to. With forward Mike Dunleavy heading into free agency and Jimmy Butler due a max contract, the Bulls will either have to count on Snell and McDermott taking big steps forward or they’ll have to go over the luxury tax to keep the rotation together. I’m betting that Bulls management would prefer the former.
I’ve had some friends tell me that they think the Bulls have peaked, but I’m not so sure. Butler is 25, Derrick Rose is 26, Nikola Mirotic is 24 as is Snell; McDermott is 23. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are 30. With the exception of two 35 year olds, Dunleavy and Pau Gasol, the Bulls are a team whose most important players going forward are either still in their primes or just entering them.
For those concerned about Rose’s play after his third knee surgery in four seasons, his playoff stats were heartening: 20.3 points, 6.5 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game. He probably won’t ever be the MVP caliber player he was four years ago, but he’s definitely a well above average point guard and he has a well above average group of players surrounding him. With the right coach, they could easily go further next season. And hopefully, they’ll be a bit more predictable.
Optimism notwithstanding, it’s still a sad moment. I didn’t root for this Bulls team as this year’s Bulls. I rooted for them as a surrogate for the 2011-’12 Bulls. I was then and am still absolutely convinced that that team was one of the best Chicago teams of all time. Yeah, even better than some of championship units of the ‘90s. Then Rose went down on the first afternoon of the playoffs and as important, Noah went out a game or two later. Their postseason lasted six games. I was able to enjoy the ’12-’13 and ’13-’14 teams for what they were: solid mediocre teams that would outwork their opponents en route to a stellar record. This year felt like the last chance for the key members of ’11-’12—Rose, Thibs, Noah– to get what they deserved. I still believe that they’ll get their rings, but Thibs will come somewhere—I’m betting New Orleans–not Chicago. But the Bulls are still a contender; there’s too much talent on the roster for them not to be.