What do you get when you mix Tom Thibodeau's hard-nosed, defense-first, leave-it-all-on-the-court coaching style with young, hungry, and hardworking players like Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah? Aside from a recent slew of injuries, the answer to this question appears to be a team that outperforms expectations nightly, but is perhaps doomed to post-season failure when the effort spread narrows, and talent overcomes heart.
While the Philadelphia 76ers are in no way comparable to the Bulls' assumed post-season challenger, the Miami Heat, the problems displayed by this Rose and Noah-less team against the more athletic and more talented 76ers, are but a microcosm of the challenges that awaited the Bulls in the conference finals had fate, fatigue, and bad luck not conspired to strip the Bulls of their two best playmakers.
This speaks to a larger, and more disheartening issue. Paxson and Forman have done an admirable job assembling a group of high quality, high character players that work well together, play elite defense, and maximize one another’s value. But this team is sorely lacking in talent.
Unquestionably, the Bulls regular season success is due in large part to the ideal fit between the Bulls’ top three players. Rose creates. Deng is a jack-of-all-trades, providing a nearly unrivaled combination of shooting, defense, and slashing. Joakim Noah anchors the team defensively and mentally, while providing just enough playmaking, offense, and intangibles to justify his lack of traditional big man skills. These three players work so well individually and as a whole, that they are the envy of any team this side of Miami or Oklahoma City.
Coupled with the Bulls’ impressive set of complementary players, this trio has a chance to win every single night, during the regular season or the playoffs. But to be a favorite in the post-season, they need one more consistent scoring threat. Though a valuable player, the promise of Carlos Boozer filling this role has all but faded, and it is clear that the Bulls must look elsewhere for this elusive "missing piece".
However, just as the basketball gods have conspired to mangle the above-mentioned almost-Big Three, team management has put the Bulls in a position where it is nearly impossible to cross the talent threshold necessary to guarantee another banner (or two or three) is hung in the United Center rafters.
Assuming that the answer to our problems is not Courtney Lee or OJ Mayo, this team faces a legitimate quagmire. The success of the team is predicated on the trio of Rose, Deng, and Noah, yet the latter two represent the only viable trade assets that can realistically be used to obtain a legitimate high-caliber scorer. Making matters worse, the value of Deng and Noah are well known at this point and the best the Bulls can hope to receive in return for these players is equal value. Thus, it is possible to improve our offense, but only at the expense of the defense, intangibles, and flexibility that Noah and Deng provide.
Barring a miraculous trade for Dwight Howard or a lucky draft pick, the prospects for improvement are few and far between. Making matters worse, the punitive nature of the CBA ensures that one of the Bulls current advantages – its depth – is likely to dwindle over the next two seasons. Mirotic may indeed be our savior, but the timing of his arrival is as uncertain as his NBA value.
Can the Bulls win a championship relying on their current formula? Yes, but this is far from assured. Given their limited options going forward, they had better hope that heart, determination, and team are sufficient to topple Miami’s talented giant and the looming combination of talent and heart that resides in Oklahoma City.