A Eulogy for ‘If Only’: The Bulls As We Know Them Are Probably Done

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You almost had to laugh. The fightin’ Chicago Bulls, down big in the fourth quarter with their season on the line, tried to mount a comeback with Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Kirk Hinrich on the floor together. Tom Thibodeau eventually swapped out Noah for Pau Gasol, but Hinrich remained in, and Nikola Mirotic did not sniff the court in the second half until the game was hopeless. Tony Snell, who can actually shoot 3s, may have been serving beer in the stands.

If Thibodeau was going out, he was going out his way: playing big, defense-first lineups made up of trusted veterans. And yet you laughed in part because, hell, it just might work. These Bulls never stop grinding. How many times have we seen Chicago, with zero spacing and an offense nearly eligible for antique status, ratchet up their revolutionary defense to ludicrous speed for some last-gasp 12-0 run? Opponents suffocate, Noah roars, some random jumpers find the bottom of the net, and the Chicago crowd rejoices in their peculiar bunch.

But it didn’t work this time — it never has against LeBron James in the playoffs — and the Bulls now step into an offseason that promises both hot melodrama and the cold reality that Chicago may be stuck with this not-quite-good-enough roster.

The principals have pooh-poohed the alleged rift between Thibodeau and the front office, but every sentient human close to those principals chuckles at those public pronouncements. The rift is very real, and people close to Thibodeau have been assuming for months that his time in Chicago would end after this season. The Bulls will try to trade Thibodeau before firing him or negotiating a buyout for some of the $9 million1 left on the contract extension he weirdly left unsigned for months. Thibodeau isn’t going to quit with that much cash on the table. He can bide his time with two nice fallback options: returning for another slog with the Bulls or going home with his pockets full.

Orlando and especially New Orleans present intriguing trade options for Chicago, though neither should surrender a first-round pick for a coach. Thibodeau wants to chase titles, and Anthony Davis gives him the best chance to do that over the next half-decade. Davis will be the best player in the league very soon, a pterodactyl on wheels who would grow into Thibodeau’s best individual defender since peak Kevin Garnett in Boston. Davis has already worked with Thibodeau on Team USA, and Monty Williams this season dialed back New Orleans’s pick-and-roll schemes to line up with what Thibodeau runs.

The Pelicans’ defense was still a disaster, but slot Thibodeau there next season, and I’d bet good money on New Orleans making the biggest leap up the defensive efficiency rankings. The Pellies’ perimeter defense was leaky all season, but Thibodeau imposes a rigid order that smooths away a lot of mistakes that happen when players veer outside their lanes. Thibodeau’s teams don’t allow corner 3s,2 they force pick-and-roll ball handlers away from screens, they don’t foul, and they (usually) clean the defensive glass. If you don’t do those things every single damn time, you don’t play. And if you don’t understand them at first, don’t worry: Thibs will work you through the longest practices and shootarounds in the league until you get it. Even the players who respect Thibs concede that it can be drudgery to play for him.

Orlando has a lot of young guys who should develop into plus defenders, but they don’t have a star, and their ugly parting with Stan Van Gundy — a close friend of Thibodeau’s — surely colors the way Thibodeau views the franchise. The Magic also just gave Rob Hennigan, their GM, a contract extension, and after his rocky relationship with Chicago’s front office, Thibodeau might crave a larger role in personnel decisions. He has the clout now to at least push for that kind of power in contract talks.

Waiting a year, either in Chicago or as a coaching free agent, also carries one big benefit: the possibility of the Lakers job opening once Byron Scott’s placeholder timetable expires and the Lakers are (theoretically) ready to get good again.

As for the Bulls, they’ll be fine going forward, but “fine” feels like such a disappointment for a team that looked set as a long-term Eastern Conference juggernaut in 2011. The Bulls won 50 games this season with a semi-healthy Derrick Rose, and if Joakim Noah’s knee feels better after an offseason of rest, perhaps they can reach 55 again in the NBA’s minor league. And if you can hit around that mark every season, you give yourself a chance to find the right combination of health, luck, fringe roster moves, and favorable postseason matchups to make a title run. The Mavs were “soft” until they broke through in 2011. It was popular to call for the Clippers to “blow it up” — until they outlasted the Spurs and surged within a game of the conference finals.

But Chicago just never seems to get enough of those breaks, and the Bulls don’t have the star power of those L.A. teams. Rose is always hurt, he’s now missing some meniscus cartilage in one knee, and he still just isn’t close to the same player he was before tearing his ACL. Noah’s body is betraying him, Taj Gibson is about to turn 30, Pau Gasol’s clock is ticking, and Mike Dunleavy is a free agent.

This is the NBA’s great “if only” team, but too many of the things Chicago needs to go right just feel improbable now.

Upgrading this team will be difficult, and perhaps impossible, absent big improvements from Snell and Doug McDermott. Jimmy Butler, Chicago’s best all-around player, is a lock to get a maximum contract starting at about $15.8 million next season. Chicago can match any offer for him, and given how the cap is going to soar, the Bulls should just break the bank and plop the full five-year max in front of Butler the minute free agency opens. Don’t mess around here. Don’t let Butler “test the market” and sign the four-year max deals other teams can offer just because matching that deal saves you some scratch.3

Going that route opens the door to lots of bad stuff. Butler could sign a Chandler Parsons–style two-year deal with a player option in the third year — a deal that would be disallowed under league rules if the Bulls preempt it with that fat five-year offer. The Bulls could match that, but ask Minnesota how smart it is to voluntarily reduce the time you have with your best player. Butler could even get annoyed, sign a one-year qualifying offer from the Bulls, and hit unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2016 — when his max deal would start at just over $21 million, per league cap projections. That’s a risk for Butler, who battled injuries in the 2013-14 season, but so was declining the Bulls’ four-year, $40 million–ish extension offer in the fall. Just lock the dude up. He’s an elite defender at both wing positions, and a cold-blooded shotmaker who draws fouls at a Hardenesque level when he gets to run the show. Restricted free agency scares off some teams — the Lakers hate it — but there are enough teams with cap room and nothing to lose this summer.

Unfortunately, re-signing Butler at the max would bring Chicago’s payroll just shy of $80 million for 11 players4 — right below the luxury tax line set at $81.6 million. That doesn’t include a dime for Dunleavy, a crucial player here; a new Annual Little Guy Point Guard to replace Aaron Brooks; or minimum contracts to fill out the roster. Forget about using the full midlevel exception, or even the smaller one for tax teams, to snag another key veteran. Just bringing Dunleavy back at market value would send Chicago well into the tax. The Bulls paid the tax for the first time two seasons ago, but that doesn’t mean they want to do it again.

Trading one of Chicago’s four core frontcourt players for a wing would be the best way to unclutter the roster and open up at least the mini midlevel exception. All four guys deserve major minutes, and a team just doesn’t need four bigs who require that kind of time — especially when none of them can slide into the small-forward spot. Thibodeau tried that with Mirotic, but it’s a waste of his skill set, and he struggles at times to defend wing players — especially when teams put him in the pick-and-roll, as Cleveland did when Mirotic was guarding Iman Shumpert.

Gibson is the likeliest trade candidate, though there is some intrigue around the league about Noah on an expiring contract. Executives are curious: Is Noah forever diminished, or can we rehabilitate him? But Noah is so central to Chicago’s culture that the Bulls may be reluctant to move him. He is their soul. Then again, people said that about Luol Deng, and when the Bulls found a killer trade, they didn’t hesitate.

Mirotic is on a cheap contract, and brings shooting no one else in the foursome can touch. Finding a workable Gibson-for-a-wing deal is tough, but Gibson has two years left on a fair contract, and he’s a solid two-way player. If Amir Johnson leaves Toronto in free agency, perhaps the Raptors would think about swapping Terrence Ross for Gibson. Johnson is permanently hobbled, and the Raptors need at least one more reliable defender after plummeting to 23rd in points allowed per possession this season. Dwane Casey would love Gibson.

A Chicago-Boston deal involving Gibson and Avery Bradley would probably at least spark some initial talks. The Celtics need a little more force on defense from someone in their big-man rotation, and they’ll have a glut of perimeter players once James Young earns playing time. But Gibson’s age and Danny Ainge’s well-known love for Bradley — he turned down a first-round pick for Bradley at the trade deadline, per league sources — would likely scuttle any such deal.

The Suns could use an extra big if Brandan Wright leaves, and they have two young wings in T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin who are ready for minutes. A deal involving Gibson and P.J. Tucker might work. Sacramento is forever searching for a power forward but doesn’t have much to trade. Gibson could work well within Jason Kidd’s hyperactive defensive scheme in Milwaukee, but the Bucks would have to attach something good — two second-round picks, maybe — to O.J. Mayo or Jared Dudley.5

Golden State could use a reliable third big to get the “uh-oh, Draymond’s in foul trouble” minutes going to David Lee and Festus Ezeli, but Harrison Barnes is playing so damn well, it might be unpalatable to deal him for Gibson.6

There just aren’t that many great deals out there, and Chicago has a ton riding on McDermott turning into a rotation player — and a replacement for Dunleavy. The Bulls flipped two first-round picks to get him, and he hit just 14 triples over 321 minutes this season.

Mirotic shot poorly this season, but his presence on the floor helped Chicago breathe and represents the easiest path to improving an offense that falls apart in the playoffs every season. Chicago in 2011 and 2012 became a very good offensive team despite the spacing issues that come with playing two bigs who work inside the elbows. But the pieces were different then, and everyone was healthy. Those Bulls had two players, Deng and Kyle Korver, who stretched the defense by sprinting around picks off the ball. They had prime Noah and Carlos Boozer, and despite Boozer’s embarrassing defense and loud shouting, he was a canny passer with a solid midrange jumper.

They also had a healthy Rose, until that awful night against the Sixers that changed this franchise forever. It wasn’t a pretty offense, but it worked well enough when Chicago had some shooting and everyone was operating close to 100 percent. The cuts were crisp, passes pinged around the interior, and Rose supplied those eight or 10 “holy crap” points that every championship team needs.

Everything has gotten a tick worse since — the health, the speed, the cuts, the passing, the shooting. The Bulls just can’t get the ball into profitable places anymore. Every possession is so much agonizing work, but it’s mostly work that goes east-to-west:

Chicago took more possessions to the end of the shot clock than almost anyone, and generated few uncontested looks relative to the rest of the league, per SportVU data. Rose on the right nights can still fly to the rim for those “holy crap” points, but he’s not the every-minute driving force he used to be. He looked good in the playoffs, but he still shot just 39.6 percent overall and struggled to generate free throws.

Rose says he’s a smarter player now, and he’s right. He has that angled bank shot down, and early-career Rose didn’t have these kinds of pick-and-roll reads in his bag:

The timing of that cross-court pass, the way it catches the rotating defenders lurching in the wrong direction — that’s advanced NBA stuff. It’s the kind of pass that would work much better if the Bulls had any semblance of spacing or modernity in their offense. But that’s hard to manage when you spend 15 seconds trying to enter the ball to the post, or with Noah running dribble handoffs that don’t scare anyone anymore — not when defenses can just sag off of Noah, or press him, or switch smaller players onto him.

The Bulls don’t have a killer pick-and-roll big man — a Tyson Chandler sort who can slice through defenses, catch the ball, and dunk it. They’ve had to steer their offense in other directions — post-ups for Gasol, shooters curling around screens on both sides, and those dribble handoffs. That stuff is fun when it works, but having access to simpler tools would be handy.

And here’s the thing: Chicago’s big men, especially Noah and Gibson, turn into perfectly fine pick-and-roll players when they have space to roll into. And Mirotic, even when bricking away from deep, provides that space:

The threat of a Mirotic pick-and-pop can stress a defense into mistakes. Watch a common Cleveland strategy, directing pick-and-roll ball handlers toward help defenders, blow up when that help defender (James Jones here) sticks to Mirotic instead of dropping into the usual spot:

Look, Mirotic was overplayed as a savior, though Chicago’s numbers with him on the floor were consistently pretty good. He shot badly, and he was a bit out of sorts at times on defense. Play Mirotic more, and teams will start going small against Chicago — sticking a wing player on Mirotic, switching more, and spreading Chicago’s defense out on the other end.

But the Bulls can’t win four series playing offense the way they played it this season — especially if Rose can’t at least regain All-Star form. They couldn’t score against a wheezing, limping Cleveland team. Mirotic needs to be here, and the Bulls need to keep using him. A new offensive guru somewhere on the coaching staff would help.

Regardless, these Bulls may not be able to win four playoff series. They’ll struggle to upgrade the team this summer, and if they re-sign Noah in the summer of 2016, they may not even have much room left over for the coming cap space orgy. That is the penalty for having a super-max deal attached to a player who, sadly, can’t approach that level of play anymore. If Rose tops out in his current form, that contract is an anvil.

Any team near the top of the East is working with a larger championship window than most of the similarly positioned teams in the West. You get freaking championship French doors in the East. That is Chicago’s hope — along with all the “if onlys” this franchise has carried with it for nearly a half-decade now.

We’re still waiting for enough of those things to break right, and now we might be waiting on a new coach to replace the most successful Chicago head man since Phil Jackson.

Filed Under: 2015 NBA Playoffs, Chicago Bulls, Tom Thibodeau, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA