Boston, Chicago feels your pain. The news that Rajon Rondo's knee injury from the Celtics' double-overtime loss Friday to Atlanta, prompting him to miss Sunday afternoon's double-overtime win over Miami in Ray Allen's return to Boston was felt throughout the NBA. But the Bulls, perhaps more than any other team, have to be more sympathetic.
Despite the two teams' recent rivalry, stemming from their historic 2009 first-round playoff series, it's no fun seeing even a despised foe weakened due to a devastating injury, particularly when it's a young, elite-level player viewed as not only the face, but the future of the franchise and the biggest reason for the team's potential success. Seeing Paul Pierce, suddenly now the star now most expected to be dealt by the trade deadline, react so genuinely upon learning Rondo's status after Sunday's big victory and Celtics head coach Doc Rivers defiantly state that he believed his team is still a contender were poignant moments reminiscent of last spring in Chicago.
At least the Bulls had an entire offseason to plan for the current campaign and with a younger roster, no reason to push the panic button due a closing championship window. The Celtics, already on the fringe of the playoff picture, don't even have another point guard, let alone the horses to ensure that they remain in postseason contention.
Boston top executive Danny Ainge was reportedly in the market to make a deal before Rondo got hurt, so observers now believe Pierce, who is only guaranteed 4 million next season, and All-Star Kevin Garnett are trade bait to either start the rebuilding process or, after a summer that saw them lose Allen, but replenish their bench, stay in win-now mode by adding more expensive star power. Either way, as crushing as Derrick's injury was, Bulls fans should be grateful that the organization wasn't faced with a similar dilemma.
On to the mailbag. As usual, I've included a few questions from Twitter.
1. What is Jimmy Butler's ceiling (potential)?
Ryan, I can't come up with a player comparison off the top of my head -- in all honesty, Jimmy reminds me of a player from the '80s or early '90s, in a good way -- but I think he has the upside to be a starting-caliber NBA wing. In fact, on a developing team with less aspirations, I think he could be a starter right now. I believe Jimmy is a 10-year pro, a player who can be a defensive stopper of sorts with eventually enough offense to become a low double-digit scorer. Whether or not that happens in Chicago remains to be seen if he's stuck behind a heavy-minutes All-Star like Lu or doesn't develop the handle and consistent jumper to play shooting guard, but an athletic, high-energy, hard-working, defensive-minded young player always has a chance.
2. With Rose bulking up (upper-body) during his rehabilitation, will this help improve his post-up game or improving while finishing at the basket?
Tirso, without a doubt. I'm not so sure about Derrick's post-up game, simply because we haven't seen much of it yet--both he and Thibs have insisted to me that it's decent--but it's feasible that he could utilize that as he regains his explosiveness. Perhaps if and when he's off the ball and still has a smaller defender on him, Thibs could run some of the stuff the Bulls use when Rip has a mismatch. But finishing around the rim is where the added bulk will really help Derrick, already one of the best in that department.
3. Is there any chance Jimmy Butler starts at shooting guard when Luol Deng returns (or, if Deng returns before Monday), "at any point in the season?"
Mark, I highly doubt it. Thibs seems to view Jimmy as more of a pure small forward, which might be a nod to having at least one designated outside shooter in the lineup. Barring injury, it's extremely unlikely that Thibs pulls Rip from the starting lineup (anybody remember Keith Bogans?), regardless of his minutes. Also, after Marco's performance as a starter when Rip was out in December, he's definitely the next man up, as Thibs likes to say. Now, I do think Thibs will be more comfortable pairing Lu and Jimmy on the wing for size and defensive purposes when the time comes, if only to steal some minutes from Jimmy when Lu gets back to his 40 or so minutes a night.
4. Do you foresee the Bulls playing an international game anytime soon?
Johnny, I wouldn't be shocked if the Bulls played in Paris or even visited London again, due to the respective presences of Jo and Lu, and with Derrick's popularity, they'd be a draw just about anywhere, especially if they make a playoff run this postseason. But you never know and sometimes the NBA's choice of teams to play overseas--for instance, low-profile Detroit, which recently played appropriately chosen New York in London--can be a head-scratcher. However, the Bulls have as good, if not better of a chance as any team, unless the league thinks their 2009 game wasn't long enough ago.
5. Can the Bulls survive as a team without much outside shooting, or will it catch up to them?
Alex, if by "survive," you mean make the playoffs, at least contend for home-court advantage in the first round and depending on matchups, potentially advance, then yes, I think the Bulls can survive, despite not having much outside shooting. But I do think they fall short of being a true title contender -- I can't project how much Derrick's eventual return helps them until he's back on the court -- for a few reasons. One of those is outside shooting, though the Bulls do have a knack for making timely perimeter shots in the clutch. More significant to me on offense, is their lack of ability, besides Nate, to create off the dribble, which is something Derrick could address. But before I'm accused of expecting him to be the savior, the Bulls suffered from periodic offensive droughts, even when he was in MVP form. In case you're curious, my other concern is additional depth at center.
6. If the Bulls could select one role player (non superstar) to add to their roster to improve the team, who would you choose?
Zach, there's a giant gulf between role players and non-superstars, in my opinion -- and what about superstar role players, like Nicolas Batum, not to mention players who aren't quite stars, but can't be called role players, such as Danny Granger? -- but I get your drift. It would depend on what one prioritizes and while familiar names like O.J. Mayo and Tyreke Evans could be tossed around, I might go with a guy like J.J. Redick, who obviously is one of the league's best shooters, but also an underrated playmaker and solid team defender, as well as having a seemingly perfect game to mesh with a healthy Derrick's drive-and-kick ability.
7. Who is the biggest bargain in the NBA right now?
Anthony, besides the aforementioned Pierce because of the circumstances discussed above, I'd say Kyle Lowry. Toronto's major offseason acquisition has struggled with injuries, lost his short-lived starting point-guard role -- to incumbent floor general Jose Calderon, who at the outset of this campaign, many observers believed would be traded this season -- and is apparently being blamed for the Raptors' early-season chemistry woes. Regardless of whether he's eventually packaged with currently-sidelined big man Andrea Bargnani or not, Toronto has been consistently rumored to be in the market for a trade and with Raptors top executive Bryan Colangelo in a contract year, it's logical that the hard-playing Lowry, equipped with a palatable deal and on a underperforming team with the luxury of two starting-caliber point guards, finishes the season in the States.
8. Where does Kirk fit when Rose comes back? Rose, Nate, Marco, Butler and Deng should manage the 1-3 spots. What will the Bulls rotation be when D Rose is at full strength?
I figured I'd combine both of these questions, via Twitter from @RAndresLucas and @kdog0126, respectively. Starting with the first question, let's not forget the current starters at guard: Rip and Kirk. If I had to predict an odd man out when Derrick returns, I'd expect it to be Nate. If everyone is healthy, I wouldn't be surprised if he logs a DNP or two. Although Derrick won't be his old self right away, he is, like Nate, a scoring point guard, only bigger, a superior playmaker and a better defender.
I see Nate being used more situationally, with Kirk as Derrick's primary backup, as well as occasionally playing alongside him, likely stealing minutes from Marco and relegating Jimmy to strictly backing up Lu or playing next to him in the odd small-ball set. Besides Lu and obviously the bigs, I think Rip's playing time will be the least impacted by Derrick's return, while Kirk will benefit by getting some much-deserved rest, defending more shooting guards and going against second-unit players instead of the gauntlet of starters at arguably the league's most talented position.
9. I know given his play you might disagree, but I think NOW may be the perfect time to move Carlos. Think I'm crazy?
@BearDownPete22, in theory, you're correct, in that Carlos' value is higher due to his recent stretch and though other teams are still wary of his contract, I can't call you crazy. But I'd disagree that this is the time to trade him, just because of how the Bulls are playing. There's no substitute for chemistry and when Derrick returns, having the handful of guys he's used to playing with will be key for his adjustment and maintaining playoff positioning for this postseason, as well as a potential run next year. Carlos is clearly a primary scorer and facilitator, things that won't change for the foreseeable future, but even if the Bulls were determined to move him, it's unlikely that they'd receive anything close to equal value, at least not without taking back a similar contract.
10. @Ewalz32: How does Stephen Curry not make the All-Star Game roster?
Disregarding his rough outing Friday night in Chicago, Curry is certainly having a season worthy of an All-Star appearance, but timing is everything. Golden State is one of the league's surprise team, but the Warriors are in the West, not the underachieving East, so it's tough to say they deserve two All-Stars. Maybe David Lee is a borderline pick, but Curry's not having a better season than James Harden, Russell Westbrook plays for the conference-leading Thunder, who warrant multiple selections, and the final reserve guard named ahead of him, Tony Parker, is the best player on a better team. Curry can be considered a snub, but not on the historic level many are making it out to be.