This was supposed to be the season when everything came together for the Chicago Bulls.
Derrick Rose lighting up the court with dizzying athleticism, Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes strangling well-orchestrated offensive attacks, a deep roster piling up wins with a rare combination of talent and intensity... that's how things were designed.
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Instead, the blueprints got trashed before construction could even begin.
Rose went down with a torn ACL during the 2012 playoffs, the organization decided to tear apart arguably the best bench in the league as a means of saving money, and 2012-13 became another season in anticipation of the franchise's big run towards its seventh NBA title.
Even as the Bulls head to their fourth consecutive playoff appearance with a 45-37 record and multiple marquee wins on the season, fans around Chicago can surely attest to the disappointment of this season. Making the playoffs wasn't supposed to be the goal. Hanging a seventh title banner next to those of the Jordan era, that's what fans hoped for.
Once Rose went down last April, it became clear this season would be about something else. The trading of Kyle Korver and the refusal to re-sign Omer Asik were further examples that the Bulls were a franchise resigned to simply treading water this season, acknowledging a championship comes only when Rose brings it.
And yet, the Bulls continue to win. Say what you want about Thibodeau's willingness to push his best players to their limits, this guy knows how to coach. Beyond the defensive wisdom, centered on principles that have essentially been accepted league-wide, Thibs is a truly great motivator.
Entering this season, the Bulls always felt like a lame duck. This was just a year to get through, before the real work began again with Rose back. And yet, when Chicago comes up with a less-than-stellar effort, even this season, it feels like something of an exception, something bizarre.
The Bulls don't lose because they don't want it enough. They lose because they simply don't have the talent to win.
In the postseason, winning on intensity isn't going to work. The opponents are too talented, the atmosphere ratcheted up ten notches -- teams will match Chicago's intensity, and ultimately it will come down to talent and execution. With Rose out and other players ailing, those two aspects of the Bulls are in question.
The reality of this team, as anyone can attest, is that it was built for Rose. Ever since he was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft, the Bulls have worked to surround Rose with players tailored to his skills -- and to fill in the gaps where he struggles.
Take the key cog out of a well-oiled machine, and it doesn't matter how those other parts fit. Without Rose, the Bulls are an expensive car with great upholstery, sweet speakers and a busted engine -- you'll still find some things to like, but the final product isn't going anywhere.
When the Bulls forked out huge contracts for Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng, this wasn't the plan. They were supposed to be the veteran support for a young star, expensive-but-worthy investments within the scope of success Rose might bring.
In the past, they've shown themselves capable of filling the roles expected of them. Chicago wasn't the top seed in the East in back-to-back years simply because of Rose's brilliance. And even in expanded roles, the trio has proven capable of leading a team to relative success, a testament to their talent and willingness to buy into Thibs' system.
But this isn't the championship team laid out in the blueprint. That team was a fancy mansion, capable of hosting wild parties and screening films in its Batcave movie theater. This team is more like a three-bedroom home in the suburbs.
Can the Bulls win a first-round series without Rose? Considering they won't be facing the Miami Heat, sure, it's absolutely possible.
Things were just supposed to be better than this.