On one hand, the Chicago Bulls — like every other non-Cleveland team in the Eastern Conference — are just about impossible to figure out.
They were really bad before Christmas. Then they smoked the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road on Christmas Day, and got hot for a little bit. Then they turned around and lost three of four games, the only victory being an overtime escape against the Philadelphia 76ers after trailing the NBA’s worst team by 24 points. Jimmy Butler had to put on his cape and score 53 points to rescue the Bulls from what would have been an awful defeat.
Then came Friday night against the Dallas Mavericks at the United Center.
The Bulls finally realized — or at least, they should have — exactly where they stand in the larger scheme of things.
First, Joakim Noah re-injured the shoulder he injured on Dec. 21 against Brooklyn. A dislocated shoulder (with an MRI to come later on Saturday) will almost certainly mean an extended absence. Following the game, teammates spoke with a tone which suggested that the news from the MRI is going to be particularly grim. Not only will Noah not be available for awhile (and maybe much longer than merely “awhile”); he is now presumably off the trade market, at least within the course of the regular season and the not-too-distant trade deadline, which is February 18.
Yes, Noah’s teammates were shaken by his injury, as one could readily understand. This partly explains the paltry 77-point outing by the Bulls against the Mavericks, an ugly loss in what has been a lost week for the franchise. Yet, that can’t be used as a catch-all explanation.
Part of the problem in Chicago remains the caliber of the roster Gar Forman and John Paxson have given to new coach Fred Hoiberg.
The statistic was widely circulated by Bulls beat writers, columnists, and bloggers Friday night: The trio of Tony Snell, Doug “McBuckets” McDermott, and Nikola Mirotic combined to hit just 1 of 14 field goal attempts. The numbers are ghastly in their own right and on their own terms, but the figure is even more depressing for a Bulls fan when one realizes that this came one night after Jimmy Butler’s 53-point piece of salvation against the Sixers.
Everyone in that Chicago locker room other than Butler knew that it was essential to do a little more against Dallas, carrying the team’s best player through a night when he was almost certain to lack his fastball. Butler handed out six assists, but his jumper was not there. He hit just 2 of 11 shots, but again, this was something Chicago needed to prepare for. Other guys had to step up.
Three men asked to hit some jumpers could not make them.
This has been the story of the modern (21st-century) Bulls for a very long time.
The point does not need any embellishment, just a little bit of historical detail: The Bulls have lacked a world-class jump shooter at the height of his powers ever since Derrick Rose’s second season, his first 20-points-per-game season as a pro.
In 2009, Rose’s rookie campaign was marked by the presence of Ben Gordon, who helped the Bulls push the Boston Celtics in a classic first-round series. Gordon, though, then went to Detroit for the 2009-2010 season. Since then, Chicago has not been able to give Rose the elite shooter who can space the floor and make the Bulls’ offense truly formidable.
Kyle Korver was a member of the 2010-2011 team, but he was close to a ghost in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. He was a fraction of the player he became for the Atlanta Hawks last season — surely, he was not at the height of his powers five years ago. Marco Belinelli’s 2013 season in Chicago was ordinary (9.6 points per game). He was much more effective in the 2014 season with the world champion San Antonio Spurs.
Last season, Mike Dunleavy, Jr. was not able to hit enough threes in the East semifinals against Cleveland. No one on the Bulls’ roster was able to hit enough triples to change the nature of that series. One conspicuous and profound need has remained unaddressed throughout the Gar-Pax era, a need which was so obviously unmet on Friday against Dallas.
These days, of course, Rose — due to accumulated injuries over time — is no longer the supernova he once was. He, Butler, and the Bulls’ offense still need a special knockdown shooter, but as great as Butler is, Rose at his best — his 2011 and 2012 best — represented Chicago’s gateway to a basketball resurrection. That version of a transcendent player is forever gone. The Bulls, in order to supplement a solid-but-no-longer-otherworldly version of Rose, need even more resources.
After this ugly and injury-marred loss to Dallas, that point should be as clear as it has ever been in the City of Big Shoulders, where Jimmy and Derrick need some big shoulders to lean on — during 82 regular season games and in the playoffs.
If anyone ever felt that Tom Thibodeau or (now) Fred Hoiberg were the main reasons the Bulls have fallen short of their potential, Friday’s combination of events — an injury to Jo Noah, and the utter absence of made shots from complementary players — should blast those remaining thoughts out of the water.
Coaching always seemed to be the least of Chicago’s problems over time, taking a backseat to specific on-court needs the front office couldn’t provide.
That notion has been affirmed more powerfully than ever. We’ll have to see how this organization and its central decision makers react.