What was once a likelihood is now official. The Chicago Bulls have announced that Derrick Rose took the smarter, long-term route with his right knee surgery, and is out for the season. Rose underwent an operation to re-attach, and not trim down, the medial meniscus in his right knee on Monday morning, knocking him out for the season, making it so the 2011 NBA MVP will have only played 10 NBA games between April of 2012, and the fall of 2014. Had Rose chose to pare down the meniscus, he would have left himself prone to a career full of arthritis, and a possible career-killing eventual microfracture surgery. The re-attachment avoids all that, but it does mean he will miss nearly all of 2013-14.
The news is clearly devastating for Rose and his fans, and what it will likely secure is the fact that the team Rose returns to in time for the 2014-15 (sigh) NBA season will look nothing like the one he left behind in Portland on Friday night. Chicago has myriad free agent, talent, draft, and luxury tax complications getting in the way of the team holding serve between now and then, and what was once a presumed 2014 mini-makeover should rightfully be looked at as an inevitability.
Whether or not the Bulls can hold serve during the 2013-14 season remains to be seen. The team was blown out by 39 points in an embarrassing road loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, the squad’s third straight loss and a startling reminder of just how far they are away from the league’s elite if every one of Tom Thibodeau’s plays isn’t performed to perfection, and if the attitude and energy isn’t there. It was certainly there last season while playing without Rose, but that run was also executed with the carrot of Rose’s hoped-for in-season return dangling in front of them.
With some of these players understanding that this could be their last season with Chicago, and with Rose’s marked in pen as out for the season, there’s no way of telling if this group of players can keep it together. We don’t blame them – 2012-13 was a ridiculous and unprecedented effort, dismay has to set in at some point, and these guys are only human.
This is still a top five defensive team, but even with Rose around in 2013-14 Chicago ranked 25th on offense. Derrick’s 35 percent shooting and uneasy touch at the point guard wheel added to this, but Chicago was at a loss offensively last year, and that was with offense-first types like Nate Robinson and Marco Bellineli floating around. The addition of Mike Dunleavy Jr. helps, but with Jimmy Butler on the shelf for a spell with turf toe (an injury that tends to linger as the year moves along) and Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich all a year older, this will be a rough team to watch at times.
That’s before the futures of Deng, Boozer and Hinrich are assured beyond this season. Hinrich’s presence is needed even if he is a lacking shooter and scorer at this point, so he’s not going anywhere, but he is a free agent this summer. Ditto for Deng, whom the Bulls declined to sign to a contract extension earlier this fall. Luol is a favorite of coach Tom Thibodeau, and while he’s had a fine year, he’s been in the league since 2004 and is an old 28, what with all those minutes heaped on him. Chicago may not deal Luol before February’s trade deadline, but after taking so much from Luol throughout his 20s, the franchise may decide to let some other team pay him eight figures a year in his 30s.
Boozer, meanwhile, may be sent free using the amnesty provision, something Chicago has yet to use in the years since the 2011 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement was ratified. Orthodox NBA thinking would have Chicago knocking both Deng and Boozer’s salaries off the blocks to secure double-figure cap space next summer, but this isn’t the Chicago way. The team’s ownership may balk at the idea of paying Carlos Boozer over $16 million next year not to play basketball for them, and could soldier ahead while over the salary cap, but without Deng – hoping Dunleavy and Butler can make up for the loss.
You’ll recall that Chicago is unlike most other big market NBA teams. The franchise will likely end up paying the luxury tax two seasons in a row (unless the team is able to make some sort of surprising trade involving Deng, while cutting $8 million in salary along the way; hard to do mid-season), but it took years for the franchise to pay the tax, all while working as the NBA’s most profitable franchise for the last quarter century. The Bulls are a clear Numbah Two to owner Jerry Reinsdorf in comparison to his beloved Chicago White Sox, in spite of the big salaries over the last few years.
The addition of well-regarded European forward Nikola Mirotic and the lingering presence of an eventual draft pick from the Charlotte Bobcats (who currently stand at 7-7) will be tossed out there to assuage the fears of Chicago fans, but these are just distractions should the team’s ownership and front office continue in the usual way. Which we fully expect them to do.
We’ve no idea how Rose’s absence will affect the relationship and job status of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and general manager Gar Forman, as Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski discussed on Saturday. It remains to be seen whether or not Thibodeau can suffer through yet another year without Rose, and without his lean-on in Deng as Luol possibly heads elsewhere – whether it’s in February or July. Thibodeau has come through with a superhuman day-to-day effort with this team since joining in the summer of 2010, and while he’s the closest thing to an NBA robot as we’ve seen in a while, even robots break down from time to time.
This is a rather dour outlook, but this is also what happens when a confluence of influences drags a franchise in several different directions, and your superstar follows up an MVP season by playing 50 games in three seasons. Chicago is a good team without Derrick, especially if Joakim Noah can find the All-Star touch he utilized in Rose’s absence last season, and they play in a particularly weak Eastern Conference. Still, Noah has struggled to start the year following a missed preseason due to a groin injury, and it’s very possible the Bulls don’t come through with the same esprit de corps as they did in 2012-13.
With all these options, and with the basketball-based motivations of the coaching staff and the finance-based motivations of the front office, things are likely to change. Slowly, of course. As Bulls fans count the days until they get to try it all again, for real this time, in October of 2014.
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