By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – Amid the most crowded Bulls locker room of the season, Scottie Pippen stood in nothingness.
A few condolences, clasped hands and “I’ll see you laters” already doled out in his deep, booming voice, Pippen waited patiently, all alone, seemingly staring through the horde forming a semi-circle around center Joakim Noah’s locker.
A mere 15 feet separated the legend who was so instrumental in Chicago’s 1990s six-peat from the heart and soul of today’s Bulls, but time made it seem like a gulf.
For rarely has a franchise that has present-era championship aspirations ever looked less the part.
Chicago’s season ended quietly, embarrassingly and fittingly Tuesday night at the United Center, where its NBA-worst offense set a season-low in points and perhaps a season-high in missed layups in a 75-69 loss to Washington in Game 5 of an Eastern Conference first-round series. When it was over and Noah had finished his 11-minute postgame media session, Pippen approached Noah and the two exchanged a hearty handshake.
A special assistant to Bulls’ executives, Pippen told Noah he looked forward to next year, to seeing Noah back out there again after he registered a career year and willed the Bulls to 48 regular-season victories.
“Appreciate you, man,” Noah said. “I appreciate you.”
There was little more that could be said after dusk had settled on the Bulls’ season, as a dream stayed just that for another year.
This was supposed to be the fourth year of Chicago reigning among the NBA’s elite with Derrick Rose manning the point. Instead, it was the third straight season of lost cause, of wondering what could have been. The oft-overlooked aspect of Rose being sidelined with knee injuries for the past three postseasons is that the Bulls never really had a chance to find out if their blueprint could work in today’s NBA, if the defense-first make-up of their team was capable of producing a championship around one lead star.
“The future’s bright,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “But it’s been bright for a while now. We just got to take the opportunity and overcome. We’ve been saying the future’s bright for us for a while now.”
What Tuesday’s finale and the 4-1 series loss to the Wizards showed is that Rose isn’t the simple solution for the Bulls, who shot a pathetic 33 percent in their exit. He’s part of it, but this is an offense that needs reconstructed in more ways than one.
In a league a pick-and-roll heavy league, a third consecutive dribble by any given Bull is often a disaster waiting to happen. John Paxson and Gar Forman understand they must find a second star who can carry the scoring burden, perhaps another player who can create with the ball in his hands.
Thibodeau even came as close admitting all this as he’s capable of.
“Obviously, we’re going to have to address the shooting,” Thibodeau said. “How we surround Derrick will be critical. And not only Derrick but also Taj and Joakim. You can never have enough shooting. We’ll see how things unfold.”
No one questions the Bulls’ toughness, and they wouldn’t Tuesday either, despite its ugliness. Chicago fell behind by 12 early before fighting back. Jimmy Butler played nearly 43 minutes, hounding Washington’s premier perimeter players. Noah recorded six points, 18 rebounds and seven assists in playing 43 minutes, 12 seconds with a left knee injury that he admitted “limited” him, even though he didn’t know what it was.
“I couldn’t sub him in the second half,” Thibodeau said with no context, and we all still understood what he meant.
It’s the nature of this city and today’s digital age that there will be second guessing of Thibodeau, of the Bulls come Wednesday. You can make a strong argument that the coach erred in riding his starters for too many minutes in the regular season, that his stubbornness morphed into senselessness when he continued to bring two of his top scorers in D.J. Augustin and Gibson off the bench, despite slow starts plaguing the Bulls.
That criticism is deserved, but it would also wash over the bigger takeaway.
As noble as these Bulls were, they didn’t have the necessary talent to make a run, and the manner of the ending was simply as fitting as it was predictable.
“They gave us everything they had,” Thibodeau said. “There was nothing left.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.