Blame it on bad luck. Blame it on an organizational philosophy that publicly triumphs grit over talent. Blame it on a risk-averse front office or an owner that would rather be watching Jose Abreu hit. Blame it on the small group of men leading this franchise that seem to lack even the most basic people skills. For the Chicago Bulls, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Bulls begin Tom Thibodeau's fifth season the same way they've began the last four, with the faint hope that if the stars align, there really might be enough talent here to win the championship. The Eastern Conference remains a gift of opportunity that keeps on the giving. The defense will continue to be among the very best in the league. The individual markings of a good offense are hiding in plain sight, too: the big men can pass, the offseason additions can shoot and Derrick Rose returns as the gravitational force capable of bending the court to his whim whenever he decides to break down the defense.
It could be a great season, but then again, it could always be a great season. Follow this franchise close enough and sometimes it seems undeniable that the Bulls' toughest opponent is themselves.
If you distill this past offseason down to its most critical moments, the Bulls of today look a lot like the Bulls we've known for the past decade. The front office swung big in free agency with Carmelo Anthony, but didn't have the extra $50 million required to get the job done. Instead, they settled for an aging big man who might not be better than players already on the roster. Sound familiar?
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A lower body injury to Joakim Noah is one of the biggest stories of the season before the season even begins. Again, the Bulls can't get out of the preseason healthy. Jimmy Butler is about to defend Carmelo and LeBron James in the first two games of the year with a splint on his thumb. Butler is set to inherit Luol Deng's former post, and not just as the team's go-to wing stopper. After tying Anthony for the league lead in minutes per game last season, it seems likely that Butler will play even more this year. Will Thibodeau ever chill?
And then there's Derrick, and everything his return means to the team, the city and the state of the NBA. If it seems like there's more off-based opinions on Derrick Rose than any other athlete, it's only because people care. Chicago cares because he's one of our own, that lightning fast point guard we watched and read about at Simeon who came to back to his hometown by the grace of a 1.7 percent miracle.
We saw him announce himself to the league under Vinny Del Negro and explode into a supernova under Thibodeau, winning MVP at 22 years old and capturing the soul of anyone who has ever loved the sport. What's happened since has been just about the most disheartening and unimaginable decline this sports-loving city has ever seen.
Rose was a unicorn for his four seasons here, a player so perfect and likable he seemed beyond criticism. All it took for the public perception to do a 180 was almost two full seasons without basketball. There are still many people in in this town who believe Derrick Rose let the city down. He did it by choosing not to return in 2013 even after the team doctors cleared him. He did it by not distancing himself from a brother most see as meddlesome instead of as the reason he's in this position in the first place. He did it by attaching himself to too many corporations, by refusing to recruit, by treating his own future delicately and with care.
Rose is more than a point guard to this city, for better or for worse. This is the third time the anticipation of his return trumps everything else that combines to go into this team. It's so easy to catch yourself daydreaming about the sappy, storybook ending, one that finds Rose validating his own caution by tearing up the league, winning a playoff series against LeBron and DDT'ing Dan Bernstein into oblivion. It seems believable if only because we so badly want to believe it's possible.
Rose might also get hurt again and incidentally drain the joy out of everything this season might just become. It's not just Derrick who needs to stay healthy, either. Noah and Pau do, too. So does Jimmy. So does a bench that has different strengths and weakness from Bench Mob 1.0 but could potentially be similarly effective.
Everything with the Bulls is always so tenuous because everything with the Bulls is always so fragile. It's a franchise that constantly seems like its clinging to contention by a thread if only because the string gets worn out time and again by factors that should often be within their control. The temperament of Thibodeau and the front office is both the greatest strength and weakness of the franchise, even when they can't come to an agreement on how it should work.
There is so much narrative here, but that narrative creates the context for a season that could go a number of ways. The Bulls haven't competed in the playoffs with their full roster for the last three years, a fact that can lead you to believe this core is either cursed forever or finally due for good fortunate. The future is unknowable, and so we cling to the optimism that hurdles us into this season.
Rose looked great in the preseason for the second year in a row, but we know now that's not guaranteed to be a future predictor of his performance. Nikola Mirotic seems like he could have the potential to be a special player, but will he get an opportunity to prove himself as a rookie under Thibs? Taj Gibson might be pissed off he'll never get the minutes to prove he's an All-Star after so many years of being a good soldier, and who can blame him? These are things that can go one way, or they can go another. Given the last three seasons, we know which way the trend is pointing.
There are times when I'm legitimately proud to be a fan of this team, when Noah is fighting like hell to grab every rebound, when Gibson dunks harder against better competition, when the three-pointers finally start to fall. The last few years have been tough, but fortunately there was always something to carry us through. Nate Robinson would explode, Kirk Hinrich would tackle LeBron in the open court, Noah would go out of his way to talk shit to Chris Bosh.
Those little things matter, because they were enough to distract you from the facts. Facts like, last season, the Bulls finished with the third worst offense in the NBA. They shot the ball worse (effective field goal percentage) than the Bucks and 76ers. They played the third slowest pace in the league. They hit the fifth fewest three-pointers.
Derrick is the remedy here, but so is Pau and so are McDermott and Mirotic and Jimmy. There are plenty of ways to the top, the Bulls just have to figure one of 'em out.
Will it happen? At this point, it feels like there's no point in making predictions. If everything goes right, this could be a special year for the Bulls. I can't wait to see how it plays out.