The Bulls entered the season as one of the few Eastern Conference teams that could challenge the Cavaliers. They brought back the same team that pushed Cleveland to six games in the second round and had battled LeBron James for years. They were hoping internal development and new coach Fred Hoiberg would be enough to take them to the next step, much like a change in voice and player growth took the Warriors to new heights the previous season.
Needless to say, things haven't worked out as expected. Following back-to-back losses to the lowly Knicks, Chicago would miss the playoffs entirely if the season ended today. They have only 11 chances to make up a 1.5-game deficit on the Pistons that swells by the day. Worse yet, a foundation that at one point seemed solid is starting to feel awfully shaky.
Two days ago, the Bulls were the eighth seed. All-Star wing Jimmy Butler was back after missing time with a knee injury and appeared to be shaking off the cobwebs. With him back in the fold, the hope was that Chicago would make a push up the standings and build on a recent three-game winning streak.
Instead, they dropped two games to a Knicks squad that had completely fallen apart since replacing coach Derek Fisher with Kurt Rambis. Those are the type of stumbles a team on the playoff bubble can't afford to have.
The way they lost those two crucial games is the most worrying thing of all. On Wednesday, they went into the fourth quarter trailing by 19 points and their comeback attempt fell completely flat. The same things happened the next day on the road, as they trailed the Knicks by 15 going into the final period. Only this time, there wasn't even a reaction at all, as the Knicks led by double digits the rest of the way.
In the two games combined, they allowed New York to shoot over 51 percent from the field and average 118 points per 100 possessions, almost 16 more than their season average.
The Bulls had two crucial games against an weak opponent that would have allowed them to fend off the Pistons and put pressure on the Pacers for the No. 7 slot, which likely means avoiding the Cavaliers in the first round. Twice they were completely outplayed by a team that was 28-43 before facing them and 6-21 since reaching .500 in mid-January.
"I try to go out there and play my heart out," Taj Gibson said after Thursday's game, according to The Chicago Tribune's Chris Kuc. "And it's frustrating when we come up short and we look at ourselves when we lose to a -- I don't want to criticize -- but trash teams. Everyone is in the NBA for a reason, but we're playing against teams that aren't playing for anything and we're just laying down."
Effort has definitely been an issue, but defaulting to effort ignores the problems that run deeper. The defense has fallen off since the halcyon days of Tom Thibodeau. Chicago allows over 103 points per 100 possessions, the 13th-best mark in the league. That's not good enough for a team that also struggles on offense. The roster changes, featuring Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic more prominently and with the loss of Joakim Noah for the season are partially responsible, but the execution just hasn't been there.
Making matters worse, their best player has been battling injuries all season long. Butler has missed 15 games with knee trouble and he said he may need offseason knee surgery. He really struggled in the first loss to the Knicks, scoring seven points on 11 shots before bouncing back with a more efficient 19 points on Thursday. Still, he's clearly not right physically and he's the first to admit it.
"Is my knee the same as it was before the injury? No," Butler told the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley. "But I want to play, man. And at times I feel like I'm hurting this team. That's the most disappointing part because I'm not the player I was. I don't know if there's something really wrong in there, but it's not really right, either."
The Bulls, therefore, must face the final stretch with their All-Star wing hurting and their All-Star big man Pau Gasol dealing with some minor health issues himself. They boast a mediocre defense that has been leaky all season and an offense that ranks 25th out of 30 teams. At best, they're first-round roadkill for a top team. At worst, they'll miss the playoffs altogether without putting up much of a fight.
There's time to at least salvage that playoff berth. Derrick Rose has had some good scoring outings since February and even dunked for the first time this season on Thursday, which is encouraging. The talent is there to make a final push, health permitting. The Bulls will also face the Pistons and the Pacers, the two teams directly above them in the standings. Their last two games are against the Pelicans and the 76ers, so they should be able to close strong.
Barring a huge first-round upset, however, this season can't be considered anything but a failure and one that should prompt some debate among the people in charge. It's clear that changes are needed. This core has been incapable of staying healthy and playing elite defense. The role players are lacking. Rebuilding from scratch is not a realistic option, but giving the roster a facelift is a must.
If that doesn't happen, a year from now Chicago will find itself in this exact same situation, if not worse.
* * *
NCAA Cinderella: Notre Dame looks to make its mark