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The Bulls are slated to be an even bigger underdog than before entering this season. Things could work out again for Thibs and crew but that shouldn't hamper an aim towards real improvement.
Long-time nemesis of this blog (and human decorum, really) Matt Moore had an interesting 'state of the Bulls' type of post up at ProBasketballTalk earlier this week. The kind of big-picture, what-does-it-all-mean, kind of thing that had me nodding but also thinking along. The crux of it is, essentially: the Bulls could be good again, but so what?
So why can't the Bulls win the division, and get a top seed? There's no reason. That's how good Tom Thibodeau is.
But there's a question beyond that. Is that what Bulls fans should want? Is that what the Bulls organization should want? Is that the best outcome for them?
It's hard to say that the Bulls are overachieving if this is the third year they would reach that kind of height, but it's still true. They're playing at a level which defies pretty common rational analysis of how good they are, as a sum of their parts.
They can still look really good but eventually, they’ll run up against a mirror that shows how good they really are, and when that comes, they tend to mix down to about the team we thought they’d be in the beginning. It doesn’t take away from what Thibs has done, if anything, it emphasizes it. But we also can’t realistically look at this team as a title contender, and if that’s the case, what’s the point?
The maddening part is that Rose’s injury leaves so much in the air. If the team gels and plays together, it’s going to excite the team and its fans, prompting more belief. If they don’t somehow reach the impossible dream, then it will be crushing, but still be filled with "Well, Derrick wasn’t really back yet." Rose’s injury causes a constant level of self-doubt, not only towards any positive regard for the team, but for any criticisms as well.
There’s no real way to evaluate the Bulls, other than "really good, but probably not a title team."
There are a couple ways to go with the idea of the Bulls ever being a true contender. You can make the case that their season showed such dominance at times it'd be folly to call them anything else. But a counter would be that they weren't that different of a team than what lost 4 of 5 games in the previous Eastern Conference Finals, and though they were never given the chance as a whole to try again it quite likely would've been a similar result.
But, whether they were ever at that point spoke to me less than Moore's one about what, in fact, the Bulls are trying to do this season. The Thibodeau era has been about being better than expected (though as Moore points out, the talent in Chicago is pretty good too) and the expectations will be even lower this season, after an offseason that has taken away one of their main strengths (the bench) even if everyone else is fully healthy. I'm sure on media day we'll hear a lot about 'doubters' and 'showing them wrong', and based on the previous two seasons they have a case to be confident.
My fear is that the Bulls culture is a fetishism of the scrappy underdog, and with help of the Adidas corporation have a real juicy storyline to hold on to all season. Maybe the Bulls own a low playoff seed when Rose is back. But even so, if they're good they won't be as good as before, Rose will be back but not quite what he was before (not in that first season he returns, anyway), and they'll exit from the playoffs with many of the same questions they have now.
And that in itself is fine, since there are plenty of other teams who have far less of a chance. But my concern is that I think sometimes the Bulls prefer things this way (and this is probably ripping off of and old Kelly Dwyer bit), that being the Lakers or Heat is boring and they'd prefer to be the TEAM (capitalized!) that wins the title as opposed to the greater collection of talent. That even though they openly didn't even try to improve this offseason, they still could be in pretty good shape entering the playoffs based on the memories of a team that really won't be the same...but was still a really fun watch, remember you guys?
Moore goes on to suggest that the only path to true change would be a one-season dip into the lottery a la how they got Rose in the first place. I don't think that's likely, let alone their intention. And honestly I didn't want it to be their intention. It's much easier to do a tear-down than it is to make improvements once you're already good, and I prefer the latter. But running in place may have the lowest chance of succeeding even if it makes for a good story.
(Or the last few paragraphs had no point, the Bulls have a desire to improve but just a lousy combination of cheapness and incompetence to effectively do so)