SALT LAKE CITY — Before the epitaph to the Bulls’ season is officially written, it’s important to understand that this isn’t a team prone to folding simply because Derrick Rose is sidelined for the remainder of the season following surgery on his right knee, specifically repairing his medial meniscus.
For better or worse, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t the type to tank and neither are his players, especially after experiencing a modicum of success last season, which was played entirely without Rose’s services. The Eastern Conference, at least early on in the regular season, appears to be worse this season, meaning that even sans superstar, the Bulls should be penciled in as a playoff participant.
Obviously that’s not a completely positive development, particularly this year, in which a stronger than usual potential draft class features a handful of franchise-changing prospects. If the Bulls are a bottom-tier postseason squad, that would mean a draft pick in the middle of the first round, which could still reap a prospect of some significance, but not an expected impact player.
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Even presuming overworked types like the All-Star duo of Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, currently-sidelined swingman Jimmy Butler and Rose’s de facto replacement, Kirk Hinrich, inevitably miss some time due to injuries, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bulls finish with a .500 or so record.
Of course, if they make trades to accelerate the rebuilding process—Deng, who has one more year on his contract, is the most obvious target — that could certainly change some things. But knowing the rest of the league is acutely aware of their situation, it’s a pie-in-the-sky line of thinking to assume that rival teams will ship the Bulls favorable, expiring contracts that match the high-salaried Deng — or Carlos Boozer, for that matter — not to mention coveted first-round selections in a draft with ever-increasing hype. And attempting a high-profile, blockbuster swap to bring in another upper-echelon point guard to replace Rose — Noah, Butler and perhaps Taj Gibson would be the assets potential trade partners would prefer, due to their reasonable contracts and relative youth — can pretty much be ruled out, too.
Thus, if the Bulls are ultimately stuck with much of the roster for the rest of the season—acquiring a role player or two, maybe some inexpensive scoring punch or backcourt help, is possible—expect them to tread water, beat the majority of the teams they’re supposed to, surprise a few of the more talented squads and based upon defense, balanced offense and a high level of execution, somehow stay afloat. Basically, a repeat of last season’s overachieving, but without the likes of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli around.
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So expect more ugly games and accept that the Bulls won’t go in the tank just because Rose is once again unavailable to play, which isn’t the best of scenarios if one considers that a total rebuilding process isn’t necessary, since the former league MVP will eventually be back on the court and injecting a culture of losing, even temporarily, is something that doesn’t always fade away very easily.