The plot lines have been meticulously developed all season.
The friction that's been brewing for years between a proud and stubborn coach and an overwrought front office might finally be reaching its boiling point. The star guard went to hell and back to try to regain his former status, but his quest remains incomplete with flashes of both redemption and defeat along the way. The center whose vibrant game and colorful personality provided relief through troubled times is now battling his own demons. There's a bearded upstart on the way, but no one is sure if he's ready to play the hero just yet.
As the Bulls finally put a maddening and uneven regular season to rest, it feels like each individual story arc is culminating just in time for the playoffs. The Bulls' future is hedged against their present, and the results of the next couple weeks are going to define exactly what type of story we've been watching all year long.
If that sounds overly dramatic -- well, this franchise has always had a way of making mountains out of molehills. Now, we've mercifully reached the point in the calendar where excuses mean less and the bottom line means more. The playoffs will expose the Bulls one way or another, and that sense of closure is as exciting as it is unnerving.
It hasn't been an easy year. Derrick Rose finally reached the finish line of a campaign, but had to endure another knee surgery, a drop in efficiency and more questions about his makeup along the way. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson haven't looked right all season. Pau Gasol is both a blessing and a curse -- he's the supplemental scorer this team has long needed, but his defense is so poor, it might not make sense to play him in crunch time.
Then there's the conflict that has come to characterize the season, the one that pits Tom Thibodeau vs. Gar Forman and John Paxson. The battle over minutes restrictions feels like it should have been an easy compromise, not the crux of a passive-aggressive blood feud and a hill someone might die on.
The trouble with all of this is that there are no simple answers. It goes without saying that you can do a lot worse than Tom Thibodeau as your head coach -- even in 2015, this league has coaches who advise against shooting three-pointers and use the word "millennial" as a pejorative. At the same time, is it a coincidence that the same problems the Bulls have been fighting against the last four years remain the same problems they're fighting against today?
The story with the Bulls this year feels like the story with the Bulls every year: they're battered and beaten, but still the type of resilient team no one wants to face. The starting lineup has somehow only been together 21 times all season. The full roster has only been at Thibodeau's disposal five times. It feels like a perfect thing to pin on the coach -- he pushes the team too hard when it doesn't really matter, and his players are burned out by the time it does. It sounds well and good and fits into a tidy narrative. But then what do we make of this?
Final quote from Deng: "I love this organization. It's been top-class everything. I've had 1 of my healthiest yrs. Med staff has been great"— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) April 14, 2015
Go back and read the details of what Luol Deng went through in the 2013 playoffs and you realize Thibodeau isn't the only one who might be a bit out of touch here. So much of this clash can be chalked up to a matter of perspective.
Fortunately for the Bulls, there's still an opportunity here. No one would be having this conversation if Chicago's basketball team played in the Western Conference like its hockey team. Instead of 50 wins earning you a No. 7 seed and a likely first round playoff exit like the Mavericks, the Bulls can still be seen as something of a sleeping giant. Conference imbalance might feel like it's been going on forever, but the Bulls should be smart enough not to waste this type of chance when the path to the finals in the East is this manageable.
It feels like an eternity ago now, but there was a time when the Bulls looked like a real contender. Back in December, a healthy Bulls team ran off 10 wins in 11 games, including victories over Memphis, Toronto and Washington. This was the part of the schedule when everyone wondered if this was the most talented team of Tom Thibodeau's tenure. It was before the Hawks went on a 25-game winning streak, before the Cavs made two season-saving trades and before LeBron James revitalized his season with a 14-day vacation to Miami.
Since then, it's been nothing but trouble for the Bulls. Mike Dunleavy missed a month and they went 9-10 without him. Noah never truly worked his way back from injury and Rose re-tore his meniscus. Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson battled nagging injuries that won't subside until the offseason, if ever. All the while, the defense fell outside the top 10 in efficiency when it had never been worse than No. 5 under Thibodeau. Throw in the constant speculation on Thibodeau's future and it was easy to be more pessimistic than optimistic entering the playoffs.
Still, there's a chance. There might not be another team with front court depth like the Bulls, it's just up to Thibodeau to maximize its efficiency. Perhaps the time off Butler, Rose and Gibson received over the last month will ultimately be beneficial in keeping them fresh for the postseason. Who knows, Rose and Butler could find a groove and start physically overpowering opposing backcourts, Dunleavy could shooting like it's December again and Noah might at least be healthy enough to quarterback the defense.
There's a lot of maybes involved in that because, due to all the injuries, it's still hard to get a good read on this team. So much depends on Rose, if only because Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich can't be counted on for major minutes in the playoffs. So much depends on finding playing time for Mirotic, getting something from Noah offensively and minimizing the number of times Thibodeau will allow teams to target Gasol defensively in the high pick-and-roll.
Which is to say: even after 81 games, there's still a lot of mystery associated with the Bulls. Are they fatally flawed or more talented than ever? Are they snakebitten by poor luck or will they finally have a healthy roster in the postseason? Is Thibodeau's neck really on the line or are both sides too proud and cheap to walk away from each other? Was Thibs' halftime speech against the Heat all the Bulls needed to flip the switch?
It could go either way, and that's why we're watching. The playoffs are never for the faint of heart, and the circumstances surrounding this year might make them more anxious than ever. The Bulls have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. Now that it's here, it's up to them to decide what they will do with it.