ESPN has been rolling out its annual "Future Rankings" this week, and our Chicago Bulls check in at No. 7, up one spot from last year. Five components make up the rankings, they are as followed with the Bulls' placement in parenthesis: players (fourth), management (10th), money (26th), market (sixth), draft (14th).
These are the type of articles that fanbases have a tendency to flip out over -- ohhh, our future is much brighter than the Pacers', HOW DARE YOU, TOM HABERSTROH -- and while that is silly, I do think there are some interesting rankings in here. Shouldn't Chicago be no lower than third in the market category? Isn't there's an ocean-sized discrepancy between Chicago ranked in 26th in money (we have a rough idea of how much they make) and 10th in management? If management had a history of spending the money, I would guess the Bulls would be in the top five of said category. So the fact that they usually don't should drop that ranking, no?
Anyways, the teams above the Bulls, in order, are: the Heat, the Thunder, the Rockets, the Spurs, the Warriors, the Pacers. I don't have much of a problem with that. Miami has LeBron. The Thunder are the only team in the league with two consensus top ten players. The Rockets have James Harden, who might already be as good as Rose, and they are seriously angling for Dwight Howard. The Spurs are the Spurs, even if I think they should be much lower here (ain't no free agent coming to San Antonio), the Warriors are super fun and the Pacers are downright commendable right now, at least when they're punching the Heat in the mouth instead of punching the Bulls.
I think the Bulls could be as high as No. 3 here; anyone who read what I wrote last week in this space (re: trading Deng) knows I'm pretty high on the Bulls' future. We complain a lot about the Bulls, and I am more guilty than anyone this side of YFBB and Jay, but it could be so much worse. We could be Knicks fans.
The Bulls do have a bright future, and I think the recognition of that is what makes all of us so anxious. This is the same city that houses the Cubs: we know a championship opportunity doesn't come around all that often, or even, say, once a century. What the Bulls have, with Rose, with Thibodeau, is something truly special and we simply want them to capitalize on it. The Bears got pretty damn close with the Lovie-Urlacher-Briggs-Tillman crew but could never break through, and it sucked. I don't want that to happen to the Bulls.
Here are some other loose thoughts on the Bulls' future:
1. Isn't the development of Jimmy Butler what should really vault the Bulls here? When these same "Future Rankings" were written a year ago, no one knew if Butler would even be an NBA-caliber forward. We thought he could fill Ronnie Brewer's role well enough, but few suspected he'd be this good this soon. So much of that credit goes to Butler for getting better. We live in a basketball world where kids are ranked in eighth grade; by the time you finish your sophomore season of high school, if you're any good, everyone knows your name. Well, being a great basketball player is a marathon in terms of development, it isn't a sprint.
Point being, Jimmy Butler got better. There are plenty of athletic, appropriately-sized forwards who fizzle out in the NBA (Darius Miles and Qyntel Woods come to mind), but Butler has a good head on his shoulders and worked hard enough to make himself a real asset to this franchise. It will make him a lot of money in his career, and the Bulls are very fortunate they have him at a pittance wage the next two seasons.
Butler will make his bread on the defensive side of the ball, where he might already be elite, but it is, of course, the improvement of his three-point stroke that makes all the difference in the world. Look at the dude's splits: he shot 42 percent from three in March and 56 (!!!) percent from three in April. In his first postseason, he average 13 points and five rebounds with 40 percent three-point shooting. There's a reason the guy is the talk of the league. He's a stud.
2. Thibodeau is such a trump card. He's the best X's and O's coach in the NBA; if you disagree, you are wrong. Do you remember Vinny Del Negro? Thibs is so much better it's almost impossible to assign a reasonable, calculable number to his effect. If there was a 'wins above replacement' type metric in basketball, I could only assume Thibs' score would be off the charts. Have Thibs lead the Clippers or the Knicks or the Thunder and those teams just might win the championship. At the very least, they would be vastly improved. His effect is that dramatic.
When the Bulls are duking it out with real teams in the playoffs over the next few years, we'll laugh about the season he started Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli and a not-100-percent Noah and still got a game from the Heat and played 'em close two other times. We'll talk about beating the Nets in the first round series. Simmons once wrote in the "Book of Basketball" that coaches don't really matter, but Thibodeau has taken that thought and blown it to smithereens. He is amazing and we should appreciate him, even if most of the criticism he faces is completely fair. Chill out with the regular season minutes load, and everything will be wonderful.
3. I've been (very slowly) working my way through "The Jordan Rules" recently, Sam Smith's book that documents Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the runup to their first title. It's tremendous and full of gleefully psychotic MJ anecdotes. You should read it. There's also plenty in the book about Toni Kukoc, even though we know now he was a few years away. Krause is obsessed with him, Jordan hates him, and his presence makes the organization such a divided, spiteful place. I can't help but draw parallels to the Mirotic situation currently on-going, only with a heavy emphasis on hope instead of angst. D. Rose has made some weird decisions, but at least he isn't an outright dickhead like MJ. Hopefully Mirotic never becomes a point of contention for Rose's camp (there's no reason to think it would be) because Mirotic's presence is a big part of what makes the Bulls' future so bright.
The NBA has changed. In a bygone era, with skilled giants like David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaq and Alonzo Mourning roaming the Earth, having a low post scorer was so critical. Now? Well, there isn't really an American-born player with that skillset. The game is always evolving, and this is (generally) how it has evolved: you want your four best athletes on the floor, and you want them to space said floor with shooting ability. You also need a monster in the middle to protect the rim and get rebounds and do the dirty work.
The way things are trending, Mirotic just seems like such a perfect fit. He'll be the stretch four, keeping the lane cleared for Rose to drive and create while making himself a viable threat from the outside. If he were in this draft, he'd probably go top-five. We don't know a ton about him, it's true, but there doesn't seem like a good reason not to be very excited. The Bulls are fortunate to have him. He could be a game-changer.
4. OK, so, D. Rose. Was this year weird and frustrating and confusing and ultimately pretty stupid (re: the discourse), all things considered? YES. Did it feature an unprecedented decision by a modern athlete, one I really don't believe would have been made by any other superstar alive? YES. Seriously, you should have seen Nerlens Noel's face when I asked him if he might miss the entire season at the draft combine. He looked at me like I was purposefully trying to damage his reputation or something. He thought the question was insane, you could tell, and did not really like it being asked. Of course he's not going to miss, what, 14 months with an ACL injury. Who the hell does that??
Well, it's over now. Seriously, it is. The Bulls may have had a chance at the championship this year, but Rose pissed it away by choosing not to play. There's nothing we can do about it now. YFBB wrote a lovely thing on Friday about Rose's summer conditioning program, but the outright anxiety surrounding it needs to stop. Who cares. When the Bulls take the court next season, Rose will be on it and he'll be the Bulls' best player. My dad (and he has company, I'm sure) thinks Chicago can't trust Rose anymore. He is crazy.
I really think Rose will be amazing next year. He will probably be better than his MVP season. That year, he shot 44 percent from the field and 33 percent from three. Both of those numbers are very beatable. His supporting cast has gotten better (at least the primary teammates), so his assists should be up. I really think he can be the third best player in the league, behind James and Durant. He turns 25 in October.
25 is a weird age. You feel some sort of immediacy, like you know you're still young but you won't be young much longer. Not much has changed from being 22 or 23, but you can feel that change approaching. For Rose and the Bulls, I think this is a good thing. Part of the problem with Rose is that everyone has always treated him like a child. Well, he's not anymore. He's a grown man. With that comes responsibility, and that responsibility, for Derrick, is to bring Chicago a championship. In the past, he didn't want to recruit. He didn't want Dwight or LeBron as his teammate. That's fine, but then you better deliver or change your outlook.
After what we just went through, I think the appropriate course of action with Rose is tough love. He is my second favorite athlete ever, probably, and I adore watching him play basketball. He is a very important role model in this city, given all the senseless violence going on where he was raised. Chicago needs him, I really believe that. But part of being an adult is facing the consequences of your decisions, and Rose has to do that now. He can handle it, I'm sure, but we don't need to treat him like a baby anymore. Dude can handle a little heat.
The Bulls' future, really, all comes back to Rose. He needs to be a top five player for them to have a prayer of dethroning in-his-prime LeBron. I don't see LeBron slipping anytime soon, and the Thunder aren't going anywhere either. Rose needs to be great and I think he will be. That, right there, is the Bulls' future.