I'm not proud to admit it, but we're all friends here so I will: there was a point in this season when I thought the Chicago Bulls were pretty good. It was in March, right after the Bulls ran the Heat off the United Center floor, out-gunned the Rockets and suffocated the Pacers all in the course of 15 days. This was the month when D.J. Augustin was playing like a legitimate starting point guard, averaging nearly 17 points per game on 46 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent shooting from three. This was the month Joakim Noah started getting MVP chants when he came to the foul line. This was the month Indiana really started disintegrating, and the month I thought the Bulls might have a long run through the Eastern Conference playoffs in them.
Hindsight can be a bastard like that. The Bulls ended their season with a thud on Tuesday, hitting the floor with the cumulative sound of one loud brick after another. The Bulls were disgraced, dismantled and dislodged from the 2014 NBA playoffs in the first round by the lower seeded Washington Wizards in five games. It wasn't that close.
Sports fans are an objectively bad-tempered and combative bunch; we're always looking for other folks to blame when the home team is finally eliminated. It's the refs fault, it's the tight rims in the opposing arena, it's that moment when you heard about Joakim Noah mouthing "'roid rage" about Nene and thought, "yeah, test him!". This is not what happened in the 2014 playoffs to our Bulls, though. The Bulls did not lose because of some half-baked conspiracy. The Bulls lost because the Wizards were a much better team.
Noah admitted as much in his exit interview: Washington had no holes. While it's a compliment to the competition, it's also an indictment of the team he plays for. The Bulls had holes. They had a lot of them. They had a hole at point guard, where Augustin was unable to sustain his March magic and Kirk Hinrich was a certifiable non-threat on offense. They had a hole at shooting guard, because Jimmy Butler had completely forgotten that he was once a very good perimeter shooter. They had a hole at power forward for the unbearable 24 minutes per game Carlos Boozer was on the court. They had a hole on the bench, where coach Tom Thibodeau only trusted two of his reserves and buried everyone else under an avalanche of dirt.
The Bulls had holes. The Wizards, for the most part, did not. Sometimes basketball is just that simple, and it makes you wonder why everyone thought Chicago was going to win this series. It wasn't just bias from Chicagoans. It was 18 of 19 writers at ESPN.
How did that happen? It goes back to something to we're all tired of hearing about, and something I'm now hoping the 2014 playoffs have finally killed. It goes back to that Heat game in March, when my roommate came home from the United Center VERY drunk hours after the game ended and burst into my bedroom while I was working. "I don't know how else to say it," he began, at least six or seven different times. "Joakim Noah just has so much heart."
The Bulls had heart, sure, but heart only gets you so far. This is the lesson of the first round playoff defeat, and something I badly hope management takes note of. Having "heart" is cute, maybe even admirable, but in the end you just need good basketball players. The Bulls didn't have enough good players this season, so they lost in the first round in five games. There is no nicer way to put it than that.
The mirage is over, or at least we have to hope it is. This team needs a talent infusion in the worst way, and it has become apparent at a very opportune time. We're about to enter the summer of 2014. It's the period we've been talking about since at least 2012, when Jason was oddly referring to me by my last name and we were still all mourning the end of the original bench mob. This was before Nate and Marco and Dunleavy and D.J. It was before Taj Gibson was extended and before Noah had some lofty hardware on his mantle. It was before we knew Derrick Rose would miss all but 10 games over the course of two full seasons.
It's been leading up to this point for a while for the Bulls, and now we're here. Their reward? Flexibility. Options. The ability to take hold of their future and shape it however they see fit. Maybe that's an all-in push for Carmelo Anthony, a one-man fix to all of this team's scoring troubles. Maybe it's finally bringing over Nikola Mirotic. Maybe it's a trade we don't see coming. Maybe the Bulls will find two stud rookies through the draft and the rebuild this team needs can happen organically.
The problem is that it's a lot easier to champion flexibility to than it is to actually do something with it. Bulls management is, if nothing else, conservative in their approach. This front office doesn't seem like the type to push all of its chips to the middle of the table. Now that the summer of 2014 is approaching, "flexibility" isn't a term you can hide behind. It's something you take hold of and control your future with.
For all of their narrative power, the truth is that the 2013-14 Bulls never had a chance, at least not after Derrick went down and not after Lu was traded. We can bemoan the way assets were mismanaged and say a prayer for the original Bench Mob, but trust me, it never mattered. It was always all about Derrick, and without Derrick I don't think Omer Asik and Kyle Korver weren't going to save this team. That's by design: Rose makes 30 percent of the salary cap for a reason. He really was that good, hard as it is to remember now after how long it's been since we've seen him totally healthy, after every twist and turn of his personal history.
Did the Bulls turn into an also-ran? They did, but it would happen to any franchise in a salary capped league that was unfortunate enough to watch their star go down for three playoffs and two full seasons in a row.
We don't know what Derrick Rose the Bulls will be getting back next season. It would seem awfully foolish to rely on him to supply the vast majority of the offense again, like he did in 2011. That's a very sad thought, because Derrick had a chance to be one of the greats. The chance that he still can be -- yes, it's possible -- is what's exciting about this offseason.
Maybe the Bulls had to reach the ledge to find a certain boldness they've always lacked. Maybe it took two lost seasons to realize this team was never talented enough. These are the crossroads the Bulls find themselves at as they enter the offseason. It's been building to this for a while. Now it's time to do something about it.