By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Front-office executives are not fans, and that’s a very good thing.
That the Bulls are in tough in the playoffs is no surprise whatsoever to general manager Gar Forman and vice president John Paxson, who have long understood that team was not yet a title contender, even before Derrick Rose tore up his other knee.
While the United Center roars with excitement over another batch of regular-season victories, the suits haven’t been among those blinded by this city’s now-annual celebration of overachieving mediocrity. Instead, they have acted methodically to retain roster flexibility and accrue moveable assets, all while skirting the onerous NBA luxury tax.
This isn’t to say that the roadmap to a championship is complete, sitting on a desk and waiting to be followed to glory, but that Forman has been keenly aware of what the Bulls are not, and what they have to be to really matter again.
The Little Engine That Could is cute for a while and enough for less demanding fans who are satisfied with expressive players screaming and waving their arms after beating the Cavaliers in January, but the pro basketball version of the story always ends with that adorable, courageous locomotive getting flattened by something big and nasty.
There is nothing encouraging or romantic about not being able to score.
TNT analyst Steve Kerr said it plainly and dispassionately last night: “What’s fairly obvious is that Washington is the much more talented team. They’re faster, they’re more skilled, they shoot the ball better from the perimeter.”
Charles Barkley went further, counting the Bulls out completely. “This is O-V-E-R in a 4-0 sweep,” he said after the game. “It is flat-out over. They can’t beat them. They can’t score enough. They’re gonna sweep the Bulls. This series is a wrap.”
Whether the strident Barkley is right or wrong about this series isn’t as important as the larger truth: that the Bulls’ ability to overplay teams when it matters less keeps many from considering what the point of that is, as if there’s a prize for trying hard.
Every day that Forman comes to work at the Berto Center in Deerfield, he sees a glass case that contains six gleaming championship trophies. While Tom Thibodeau dutifully watches game tapes to find defensive schemes he can impart to his eager players in an effort to win the next possession, Forman and Paxson consider much bigger things.
And they have been doing so, for some time.
More talent is needed, clearly, and the long-shot pursuit of Carmelo Anthony is real enough at this point, much more than rumor, and identified months ago as one reasonable plan of action. It’s not without downside risk even if successful, but recent glimpses toward the future of a weak Eastern Conference make the idea more intriguing than before.
The once-ascendant Pacers are collapsing like wet cardboard, and the hegemony of the LeBron James Heat will soon give way to Dwyane Wade’s deteriorating knee. The Bulls can look to sync a brief window of still-prime Anthony with a recovered Rose, count on the usual dedication to defense and rebounding and hope for a puncher’s chance in the finals. Also in their plans is offensive-minded power forward Nikola Mirotic, whom they like far more than they have shared publicly.
While simple fans and some unfortunate media members keep getting all aroused by the lovable yearly story of Tom’s plucky do-gooders, the guys in charge want something better, involving more actual players.
Bulls management is more than ready to show that they can be try-hard guys, too.