By George Ofman-
(CBS) There, he said it.
Tom Thibodeau finally admitted what we’ve known since LeBron James made “The Decision”. When he chose South Beach, the Bulls fate was sealed. They weren’t going to win an NBA title even with a healthy Derrick Rose. We saw that during the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago. And that wasn’t just a sneak peak of the future — it was a full-length feature management surely knew, or you wish they knew. These Bulls would be bridesmaids at best. Hindsight is 20/20, not 62-20, the Bulls regular season record during the 2011-2012 season. Being No. 1 after 82 games was a feather in the Bulls’ cap. It did not produce $30,000 championship rings.
The Bulls have suffered myriad injuries during Thibodeau’s tenure, but whether Joakim Noah was dealing with plantar fasciitis or Carlos Boozer a broken hand tripping over a bag (or was that using his fist for another reason?), the Bulls managed to win games. Lots of games. Shorthanded? You never heard the head coach utter those words. It was always, “We have enough here to win.”
In the regular season, yes.
Then came “The Injury”. The one proceeded by several others. When Rose crumpled to the floor late on that fateful spring afternoon, the air left the United Center and the heir apparent to Michael Jordan’s throne. At least for the next several years. Any thoughts of winning a title with this aggregate disappeared.
But the Bulls never had a chance in the first place.
You can lead a horse to water; you just can’t make him win the Derby.
The Bulls were never going to be Affirmed, or even Alydar’s Affirmed. Maybe Oklahoma City will take that mantle. Being very good in the NBA isn’t good enough. You have to have all the pieces or in this case, the biggest piece. LeBron’s hook up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh gave Miami the pieces. Meanwhile, Rose, Boozer and Luol Deng simply didn’t match up. Never will.
Now the Bulls have hit a speed bump this season — or is that a massive pot hole? They’ve lost nearly as many games at home as they’ve won. They’ve lost to Charlotte, Washington and Cleveland and blew a 27-point lead to Milwaukee. That’s like flossing with a drill bit. Meanwhile, if Noah isn’t resting his foot, Kirk Hinrich is probably scanning the black market for a new elbow. Then Taj Gibson wrenches his knee. And Rose’s brother Reggie rips management for not having a better team around his younger sibling. It was a somewhat ill timed rant, but not inaccurate.
This isn’t going to work. But you knew that.
As much fun as it’s been watching the Bulls, their latest travails have exposed them for what they are: mediocre without Rose. And that’s the issue. When Rose returns, and I truly believe it will be this season, he won’t be able to save his teammates. Can they salvage a first-round playoff victory? Maybe. But it’s not about this year or next. It’s about after Boozer and Hinrich, after Rip Hamilton and the entertaining though often aggravating Nate Robinson. And it could be after Deng, who becomes a free agent after next season. As valuable an asset as Deng has been, will the Bulls be willing to fork up another 80-plus million over five years to keep him?
It’s obvious the Bulls will have to rebuild around Rose, a difficult task in this salary capped NBA. Unless LeBron suffers some debilitating injury, (and you hope he doesn’t because he’s a joy to watch), those multiple championships he promised just may come to fruition. The Bulls can’t count on LeBron disappearing. What they have to count is dollars they’ll need to save in order to spend it on another group that will surround Rose.
Then everyone might be happy again. Even Reggie.
George Ofman is a sports anchor and reporter for WBBM Newsradio 780 & 105.9FM.