Luol Deng received stitches after taking an elbow to the nose in Chicago's loss on Thursday (Getty Images)
Of course, none of this was supposed to happen, but even before none of this was supposed to happen, even fewer of these things were supposed to happen to the Chicago Bulls. And before even that, none of this was supposed to happen. All the way back to 2009, none of this was supposed to happen. In a way, the most dependable, hardest-working team in the NBA is the most unreliable, mercurial and flighty outfit of them all. Chicago didn't think its season would end on May 10. It didn't think it would miss out on seeing Derrick Rose until possibly 2013, and it didn't anticipate wondering whether Luol Deng would start his 2012-13 season on the wrong foot after playing hurt through the Olympics, and then having surgery.
None of this was supposed to happen. But before we get too maudlin over a season gone terribly wrong in just the span of 12 days, understand that these Bulls were never supposed to put in a place to disappoint their fans. Derrick Rose wasn't supposed to land in Chicago, with those lottery odds. The Bulls weren't supposed to luck into Tom Thibodeau after other teams (including Chicago) passed on hiring him. They weren't supposed to dash to the league's best record last year with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah missing a combined 57 games. They weren't supposed to improve their winning percentage this year with Derrick Rose and Luol Deng combining to miss 39 contests, and Rip Hamilton missing half the season.
And they weren't supposed to go out this early this year, with Rose tearing his ACL, Noah hideously spraining his ankle,and 2011 Coach of the Year Thibodeau making some odd playoff missteps along the way. The NBA's most cerebral and just-about best defensive team isn't supposed to blow what would have been another underdog win with a bad decision from C.J. Watson on one end that led to a defensive breakdown on the other. Nothing ever makes sense with Chicago, even if the team's style is as one-note (you play, hard) as they come.
I just have to put that in place. Not as some warming or even defense mechanism to make us feel less empty, as we walk away from a Bulls season that never seemed to have a chance. But we have to remind ourselves of what an absolute trip this has been. How odd this run has been. Not to remind us, Bulls fans, of how lucky we've had it. But to remind ourselves that as cruel and instantaneous as the defeats — be they in games or losses in personnel — are, that the victories — the same, and same — have been just as remarkable in their creation.
The sticking point with these Chicago Bulls is that they appear to be a team created for the regular season, and nothing else. That the group, when mixed together, has an obsession formed by drive and probably intra-squad peer pressure to treat games in February and December as they would during the spring and possibly summer months, but that this spirit either wears on a team, or renders them easily matched in the playoffs. There is a legitimacy to this claim, after a second straight season of huge amounts of regular season wins followed up by either a struggle of a postseason run (as Chicago slogged through last year), or a too-early exit like we witnessed on Thursday night.
This is where Chicago, perhaps, reverses all that. They may have no choice but to.
Because the fact that the notoriously-injury prone Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah missed just two games all season was as remarkable as anything that happened in the NBA this year. Rip and Rose and Lu all had to spend time on the shelf, and it was the presence of those two (in shape, on point) that pushed the Bulls to the league's best record. You might not enjoy Noah's antics, and you might be sick to death of Boozer (and the three years and $46 million he has left on his contract; provided the Bulls don't use the amnesty clause on him in the summer of 2013), but these were your rocks, Chicago.
And those rocks might have a rocky 2012-13. And Rose might not play a minute until two months into 2012-13, and it will take him weeks after that to regain his full athleticism, to say nothing of the mental obstacles he'll have to overcome as he attempts to dash into the paint as he once did prior to his ACL tear. And Deng has given every indication that he probably won't have surgery on the torn ligaments in his left wrist until after the Olympics, which places his return to the court right around the same time the first of Thibodeau's precious 82 games starts up.
Can Thibs and his crew be forced into taking a regular season in stride? We doubt it, but we also don't think it a prerequisite. In the 2011 playoffs Rose and Boozer (who was out of shape) were hurt and Noah had none of the offensive confidence he showcased this season. Keith Bogans was still a thing. Those were different times.
This year? You saw what happened.
2012-13? It's going to be the same cast and crew, you know. The Bulls will be paying the luxury tax, unless owner Jerry Reinsdorf deliberately wants to ruin his own team's chances at a title by passing on fully guaranteeing any of the much-needed Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer or C.J. Watson's contracts. This same roster is coming back, eventually, and the Bulls don't have a lot of assets to put together a deal for … what, exactly, does the team with the NBA's best record two years running need?
So it will return, and Thibodeau will have to adapt. He can't play Deng the sort of minutes that he's spun him through over the last two seasons, because Deng's body cannot handle it. Absolutely cannot, as you saw with Deng's lack of lift in both this postseason and the last. There is a lot to love about Thibodeau, but this is something that has to change.
And it's about the only thing about these Chicago Bulls that has to change. The note that began can also destroy — Rose's aggressive instincts, Deng's professionalism, Noah's guile, Boozer's talent and Thibodeau's unrelenting obsession — but it'll put Chicago right back there. It has to. These aren't turncoats. They didn't lie to you. They meant what they said.
Chicago will be back. It's supposed to happen.
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- Derrick Rose
- Chicago Bulls
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- Tom Thibodeau
- Luol Deng