Batten down the hatches, Chicago. There's a storm of epic proportions and harrowing consequences headed your way.
Roughly 18 months of waiting and torment has culminated in more of the same for these Chicago Bulls. Derrick Rose suffered a right knee injury in a road loss to the Portland Trail Blazers Friday night. Nary a day later, the Bulls announced he sustained a "medial meniscus tear" and would be out indefinitely.
Rose's surgery has already been scheduled, and Bleacher Report's Will Carroll reports that recovery time varies. Those close to Rose, however, have already indicated he will take his time.
"Derrick is going to do what’s best for him long-term, no matter how long that takes," a source told the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley. "If it’s the year, it’s the year."
All that waiting, all that longing and we're here. Again. More waiting. More longing.
Rose tore his left ACL in April 2012 and didn't return meaningful action until October 2013. His absence was supposed to be worth it. He was supposed to be better. The Bulls were supposed to contend now.
Any hope the Bulls have of contending this season now is gone. History. So, too, is the possibility of keeping their current core together any longer.
A Call for Reform?
Everything about the Bulls revolves around Rose. The current team was built around him. For him. He was the foundation on which their future would be erected.
But the Bulls' infrastructure has proved insecure. Their pillar, Rose, is unable to remain healthy long enough to put the current plan into action. They've always been on the cusp changing directions since his injury in the 2012 postseason.
Would they deal Luol Deng? Amnesty Carlos Boozer? Package Jimmy Butler in a trade for another superstar?
Almost reluctantly, the Bulls have labored. Fought. Stayed together, played together. For Rose.
There's no guarantee Rose returns soon or even this season. No promise of redemption even if he does. Their immediate ceiling impaired by a season-threatening injury to their most important player once again, this won't be the time for unfurled patience. As Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski writes, it could be a time for change instead:
Whatever choice Rose makes now, make no mistake: The uncertainty surrounding this franchise's combustible mix of management, coach and players threatens to further destabilize now.
Several players, including Rose, have fully lined up with coach Tom Thibodeau in his never-ending battle with the front office. Rose and Luol Deng carry resentments with management, too. Thibodeau doesn't want to lose Deng to free agency, but management seems determined to choose the younger Jimmy Butler's contract extension over Deng for the future.
Faced with the prospect of another lost season—i.e. one that doesn't end in a title—the Bulls will have no choice but to fold their current hand. At minimum, they'll draw a few more cards from the deck, invoking reform. Conjuring change.
Manipulating a clouded vision they can no longer see.
The Coaching Situation
"We have more than enough to win," coach Tom Thibodeau could probably be heard saying, like he has many times before, after Rose went down. "Next player up. Fight on. Play on."
Only, the Bulls don't have enough to win. Not in Chicago, where anything less than a championship at this point is a disappointment. Rose's return promised success like the city hadn't seen since the days of Michael Jordan. Contending and ultimately winning a title is what was expected. Not this.
Thibs may believe his Bulls are good enough to win, but they're not. They may compete in an anarchic Eastern Conference, making a play for a top-five or even -four playoff spot. What does that earn them, though? A potential first-round victory with the assurance of a second-round exodus?
Owner Jerry Reinsdorf isn't footing the bill for a $78.2 million roster to simply make the playoffs. General manager Gar Forman didn't leave this expensive group together through Rose's first prolonged absence to endure more sorrowful mediocrity.
With Rose potentially out for the season, the prospect of blowing it up will be discussed. Believe that. Coach Thibs, stubborn as they come, will continue to stand for the same ideals, but they may no longer align with the organization's goals.
The front office and Thibs are already at odds, according to Woj. From disputes over Deng's future to general contempt, the foreground of their relationship is flimsy at best:
Thibodeau is in the second season of a four-year contract extension, but those close to him and the Bulls wonder: Is this a partnership doomed to perish sooner than later? With Rose and a championship contender, there was reason for Thibodeau to push through a most toxic environment. Now? Rose returns to perpetual rehab, Deng plays out his deal, and Thibodeau and his nemesis, general manager Gar Forman, could come to a crossroads sooner than later.
One of Thibs' biggest supporters (Rose) is down. Again. And Thibs remains defiant. Fiercely loyal to a combination of players who just aren't good enough to win without Rose. Again.
With reality rearing its grisly head (again), patterns will be shattered. The Bulls could elect to hit the reset button and part ways with players Thibs adores. They could decide to rebuild—to usher in a new era with new players. With a new coach.
The Player Situation
Equipped with the knowledge they're no longer good enough, the Bulls have some decisions to make.
First, they must start by asking themselves: Is it worth it? Is it worth fighting on like this?
Their current roster, without Rose, is good enough to make the playoffs. In an Eastern Conference that has only a handful of teams playing above-.500 basketball, the Bulls have the talent to secure a postseason berth. But their potential ends there.
Only those who remain blindly attached to these Bulls, or subscribe to Thibs' exhausted mantra, waste breath on arguing the opposite. The Bulls cannot contend without Rose: fact. They can contend with a healthy Rose at the center of it all: theory.
We know what Rose can do, what he was once capable of. But is he capable of it anymore?
It's time for the Bulls to consider that Rose may not be the lone answer to all their problems moving forward. When healthy, he's one of the best point guards in the game. Only he's now never healthy, and the version we saw of him this season, when he was supposedly healthy, was distorted and underwhelming.
Fact of the matter is, the Bulls will make moves not only out of fear for populating the middle, but as a solution to their corroded answer.
Rose on his own isn't the answer until he proves otherwise. Benefit of the doubt was afforded to him the first time around, but now it's abundantly clear he needs help. That the Bulls need help. That they need another superstar to pair with him.
Upon first glance, you see that player isn't presently in Chicago. All-Stars Deng and Joakim Noah aren't the type of players you build around. The former is headed for unrestricted free agency, and the latter is a picture of injury woes and underdeveloped offense. Jimmy Butler, who is also injured, could be that player, but he's not the established luminary Chicago will crave.
Outside the organization is where the Bulls will look. Bound by salary-cap constraints, their vision will be limited. Here's a look at their salary structure over the next five seasons:
|Chicago's Salary Outlook|
In guaranteed salaries alone, the Bulls are projected to be over the cap through 2014-15, meaning they aren't going out and signing a superstar this summer. Not unless they shed some serious dough from their bottom line.
Amnestying Boozer this offseason remains an option. Without his $16.8 million salary, the Bulls would have around $48 million on the books, leaving them with $10-plus million to play with. That's still not enough for a franchise-changer. It's barely be enough to re-sign Deng—if they do re-sign Deng.
Chicago needs another answer. Yesterday. The Bulls are going to make inquiries, work the phones. Anyone not named Derrick Rose could find themselves available. They're going to make changes.
"Things like this have happened on this team the last five years I've been here," Taj Gibson said, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. "We have to push forward."
Who they'll push forward with remains to be seen.
Let the Search Begin
This is still Rose's team, Rose's city. He's still the future of Chicago.
But the Bulls won't play the waiting game any longer. Smaller, insignificant tweaks to the roster were made in his absence this season. This year, the Bulls will be more aggressive. They have to be. They have no cap relief coming their way, Deng is going to hit the open market, and Thibs has butted heads with those at the top. It's a mess.
The days of believing Rose, Noah, Boozer, Deng and, to a lesser extent, Butler will lead the Bulls to a title are over. The core of this team won't be the same next season. Thibodeau won't necessarily be around next season, either.
Change is coming. This season, this summer, the status quo will be butchered.
Brace yourself, Chicago. Rose's latest injury is just the beginning.