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Derrick Rose is out indefinitely recovering from a torn ACL, but while he's gone, let's talk about the Chicago Bulls.
One of the five or six best players in the NBA is out indefinitely, we don't know when he'll be back or who exactly decides, the player's brother is complaining publicly about the direction of the team and we have no idea what comes next. It feels like this should be a bigger deal.
It's been two years since we've seen Derrick Rose at something like full strength, so it's hard to remember exactly what we've lost this year. Maybe that's part of it. Plus, we're not doctors, and we know nothing about D-Rose's knee. Guessing is pointless, and we're all sort of in the dark.
So instead of getting lost in speculation, let's say this: Regardless of when D-Rose comes back, the way his absence has played out says a lot more about the Bulls than Derrick Rose. If anything, having Rose gone has put the rest of the franchise in proper perspective. Let's start with what Derrick's brother said last week, when Reggie Rose vented to ESPNChicago:
"What have [the Bulls] pieced together? Have you made any moves? Have you made any trades to get better? You know all roads to the championship lead through Miami. What pieces have you put together for the physical playoffs? Joakim Noah is a great player. Luol Deng is a great player. But you need more than that. You have to put together pieces to your main piece. The players can only do so much. It's up to the organization to make them better."
He's right, isn't he?
He faced all kinds of backlash for this, but his criticisms are dead on. If Derrick Rose comes back tomorrow, they still don't have another scorer to help in a seven-game series against the Heat, Pacers or anyone else. Deng and Noah are great-but-limited stars, Boozer is not good enough as a second option, and the bench is thinner this year than ever before. They have a team that's good enough to win all year long and not quite good enough to win at the end.
This isn't a new problem. The same was true two years ago. Last year, too. There haven't been easy solutions to everything, but the Bulls haven't really tried anything. And that shouldn't be surprising, if you look at Bulls' history.
Reading Reggie Rose's comments reminded me of a story from this past summer, when the Bulls were the only team in the NBA that couldn't come to terms with their first round pick (Marquis Teague, No. 30), because they refused to pay an extra 20 percent of salary that's customary for just about every other draft pick in the league. Mark Deeks parsed the particulars at Sham Sports this past summer. Teague eventually signed without the extra money, but it was a small and perfect example of everything that makes the Bulls management hard to defend. They were playing hardball with an NBA rookie over about $800,000, money that every team but the Spurs concedes up front to anyone.
And the Bulls are NOT the small market Spurs. According to Forbes, the Bulls have been the most profitable franchise in the NBA over the past five years (averaging $55 million per year), and a team that Jerry Reinsdorf bought for $16 million is now worth around $800 million.
Even with all those profits adding up year after year, the Bulls have never actually paid the luxury tax. This year will be the first time in history that happens, but only after the Bulls tried and failed to deal Richard Hamilton at the trade deadline. They're also on track to pay it again next year (with harsher penalties for exceeding the threshold in consecutive years), but God only knows what kind of moves they'll cook up to avoid it.
For now, we know what the Bulls haven't done:
- They refused to match Omer Asik's contract this summer, giving Houston one of the best young rebounders in the league and losing a valuable weapon off the bench. Or, you know, a trade piece.
- They didn't sign O.J. Mayo, who's been fantastic for the Mavericks all year.
- They haven't used the trade exception they got when they gave away Kyle Korver.
- They declined to pick up C.J. Watson's $3.2 million option, and instead gave Kirk Hinrich an $8 million deal for the next two years.
- They didn't reward Tom Thibodeau with a new contract until this fall, leading to headlines like, "Tom Thibodeau, weirdly, can't get a contract extension."
- They could amnesty Carlos Boozer and his massive deal, but that would only take them a few million under the luxury tax threshold, and then they'd have to spend money to replace him while also paying his salary. Hence, Boozer hasn't been amnestied.
- They haven't made a single move to bring the team closer to a title, even though they have assets that would attract plenty of suitors (Joakim Noah, Luol Deng).
All of those points might make sense on their own, but the bigger picture is pretty damning when you put 'em all together. The most profitable team in the NBA won't spend money to add weapons in the middle of their superstar's prime. (Unless it's on Kirk Hinrich).
That brings us back to the Derrick Rose drama.
The team's been cryptic all year about when he'll actually be back, leaving it "up to him" and when Rose decides he's ready. On the surface this looks enlightened. The problem is, it shifts the focus from the team's decision-makers onto their 24-year-old superstar who loathes attention and is bad with the media in general. If Rose can't come back, it'll be his image that takes a hit, mostly because the Bulls have publicly put the decision in his hands. It's either manipulative or counterproductive or both -- Ric Bucher elaborates here -- which makes it quintessential Bulls.
If Rose's absence hasn't been a big enough story, neither have the Bulls, themselves, and how the only team in the NBA that can call itself a peer to the Lakers and Knicks quietly operates more like the Clippers or Wizards. It feels like this should be a bigger deal.
Since the Jordan dynasty ended with just about every major character cursing Chicago management on the way out of town, the Bulls have been to the second round of the playoffs twice in 14 years. As noted before, they've never paid the luxury tax, and they're only doing it this year because they couldn't find anyone who would take Richard Hamilton. They've given away guys like Elton Brand and later Tyson Chandler -- the guy they got for Brand -- and there have been roster makeovers every three or four years.
Sure, they kept Noah and Deng and signed Boozer in 2010 to help build a contender, but if Forbes' numbers are correct, the Bulls have made roughly $275 million in profits in five years. Should Reggie Rose be grateful the Bulls are at least spending the full salary cap?
In a perfect world, the Bulls will keep profiting and stay just good enough so that nobody notices everything they're not doing. Kelly Dwyer discussed it at length this past summer, when the Bulls basically conceded the 2013 season. They've been playing these games for a decade.
The only year they had a real chance at a title was 2011, when Rose was so dominant he made a good team great almost by himself. So here's to hoping he can be that great again, because he'll need to be. The Bulls may have two other All-Stars, sellout crowds, money to burn and a ceiling full of banners, but help is probably not on the way. Help is in Dallas with O.J. Mayo, Houston with Omer Asik or 10 other places the Bulls won't look.
Instead, in a season the Bulls front office forfeited in July, somehow it's Derrick Rose who's making people impatient. While he's gone, we can't help but look at the Bulls and notice what's obvious. A superstar in Chicago sure has to put up with a lot of bullshit.
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