Commentary

No quick fixes in sight

Even Tom Thibodeau's 'team' system can't keep these depleted Bulls in title chase

Updated: May 8, 2012, 1:51 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Poor Rip Hamilton. He gets no burn in the fourth quarter and the Chicago Bulls make him address the media on an off-day.

A day after sitting out the majority of the fourth for the third time in four games of the most depressing series since "Twin Peaks," Hamilton was trotted out as designated veteran to appease a media corps that is ready and willing to give his team its last rites.

"Right now it's live or die," Hamilton said at the Berto Center. "It's win or go home. It makes the game more challenging. It makes it better, I think, because you're not looking to another game. This has to be the game."

Inspired yet?

Hamilton also answered questions about coming back from a 3-1 series deficit with the Detroit Pistons in 2003, as if that matters for a team lacking Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, like a comic with a bad catchphrase, had the audacity to label Joakim Noah "a game-time decision" before admitting it's most likely Noah is out for Game 5 against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night.

Most likely out? Thibodeau's sunniest description of Noah's status was "He's doing some walking around now."

If Noah were a toddler, that would be impressive. As a center, it's less so.

As for the rest of Thibodeau's media debriefing, this is the crux of it:

Joakim Noah
Kyle Terada/US PresswireWithout Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, the Bulls don't look like a title contender.

"We know if we improve in some areas there's a fine line between winning and losing," Thibodeau said. "I think our guys understand what needs to be done."

As much as I kid him, Thibodeau isn't wrong, just boring. A little more effort in the fourth quarter of the past two games in Philadelphia, however you define effort, and maybe it's a different series.

But there wasn't enough effort, nor was there enough to win with, and now Bulls fans are waiting for a blindfold and a smoke and a merciful end to this disappointment. I'm sure there are Bulls with eyes on vacation next week. I don't blame them. They put their bodies through a grind this season with the idea that the reigning MVP would be there to lead them. He's not and they're done.

We can dispense with any rah-rah nonsense. With Rose and Noah out, and C.J. Watson and Luol Deng playing hurt, the Bulls don't have more than enough to win with. It's a stretch to say they have enough to win with, let alone "more."

Maybe this is the fitting end to a "weird" season. The Bulls won a lot of games, but never felt whole.

The 50 wins in the regular season were fine, but even as they piled up, fans fretted about the true meaning because the prospective Miami Heat series was on the horizon. My take was that they were unimpeachable, for this very reason: Sports are entertainment, first and foremost, and the Bulls provided more than their share, even as Rose hobbled through much of the final six weeks.

So I can't play backseat writer and say the regular season was worthless, even if it paled in comparison to the fun had in the previous season. But if the regular season were coming attractions, the playoffs were supposed to be the real show, "The Avengers" in 3-D, only real-life.

Instead, this was "Howard the Duck" on Betamax.

Now, down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series against Philadelphia, the Bulls are on the precipice of a disastrous end, one without a clear plan to fix things.

Unless there is some serious turmoil in the front office, everyone off the floor will return, from general manager Gar Forman to trainer Fred Tedeschi, whom apparently clears everyone to return.

After Noah limped around in Game 3, returning on an obviously injured ankle, Thibodeau excused himself by saying Tedeschi cleared it. If we all only had a trainer to blame for our bad decisions.

"Honey, why did you let the baby hang from the chandelier?"

"Fred said it was OK!"

"Jon, who is this woman in our house?"

"Fred cleared it!"

In truth, Noah's ankle was already bad, and the extra few minutes of Willis Reed-ing it up and down the court probably didn't hurt. But we could all see the futility of the exercise.

The question of whether or not a Rose-less team could challenge Miami in the conference finals is quaint, if not completely provincial in retrospect.

The question now is: Can the Bulls add to their expensive core next season? Or here's a better answer: Should they?

If all things go as planned, Rose can recover fully from his torn anterior cruciate ligament injury, once he has surgery, but he might not be available until January. Luol Deng hasn't made plans for wrist surgery yet, but given the pain he exudes every time he lands on that wrist, or has it smacked, you have to figure he goes under the knife after the Olympics, presumably in early August.

That means both likely will be getting in shape in January and February, and hopefully the Bulls can jell in the stretch run. The upside is that the Bulls, who likely won't return the exact same guys who have made up the winningest team in the NBA these past two seasons, won't have to carry the mental weight of being lauded again after two playoff exits. They can play under the radar and gain momentum late and maybe sneak into a good situation.

For a season, at least, that might be beneficial. In a related note, I'm eager to see how the team responds to Thibodeau if they struggle. His hard-driving ways could alienate some players if the results don't follow, and if he doesn't have a new contract, he has no leverage.

The Bulls should look toward 2013-14 as a return to gunning for a championship season. Rose will be back around full strength, European draft pick Nikola Mirotic could be around after more seasoning, and perhaps they could spin off that first-round pick from Charlotte for some help as well.

And that's when the Bulls will have to think about exercising its amnesty rights on Carlos Boozer as he enters the last two seasons of his rich, Alfonso Soriano-like contract. It's foolish to eat his salary next year if Rose and Deng are questionable going into the season, but while Jerry Reinsdorf deserves credit for running his team responsibly, his son Michael will have to consider eating Boozer's salary to make a run in 2014 playoffs. Let's be honest, the team can make up the money. I paid for seats a few weeks ago -- upper deck, third row, half court -- and each one was $125 face value. And it was packed. The Bulls can go into the luxury tax.

The Bulls won't be adding another trophy to their collection this summer, nor will they be adding a big free agent. For now, the team is in limbo, waiting for Derrick and the return of hope. Hope you're wearing comfortable shoes, because it's going to be a long wait.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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