It's decision-making time for the Chicago Bulls.
Currently sitting in the middle of the Eastern Conference, teetering on the edge of becoming a playoff team, the team formerly led by the now-injured Derrick Rose must figure out whether it wants to tank or make a run at the postseason.
Either is possible right now. And as Doug Thonus of ChicagoNow.com writes, they're both potentially positive outcomes:
Either situation has it's bonuses for Bulls fans.
If the Bulls come together, then my dream of a high lotto pick will end. However, I can't say I'll be disappointed if Chicago fights back and earns a No. 3 or 4 seed this year (both actually obtainable given how bad the East is) and possibly wins a first-round match up.
Chicago could move a few prominent pieces and fake a couple of injuries, cementing its place among the lottery teams. But the Bulls could also play hard and squeeze into the playoffs, thanks to the weird inevitability of a 35-win team making it past the 82nd game of the season.
Before they get much further into the 2013-14 campaign, it's necessary to figure out the best route.
The Case for Tanking
What's the point of being kinda good in the NBA?
Ask any Atlanta Hawks fan (myself included), and we'll tell you that being mired in mid-level mediocrity isn't very much fun. Supporters of the Milwaukee Bucks and Portland Trail Blazers—prior to this year—could do the same.
While it may be impressive to make the playoffs year after year, championships are the ultimate goal. Consistently coming up shy without even making it to the conference finals is a rather depressing reality, and it makes the fanbase desire a lot of change.
Now how exactly do the Bulls plan on making a run to the Eastern Conference Finals this season?
To do so, they'll have to get past either the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat, two teams that have asserted themselves as the clear-cut favorites in the East. And even if a miracle occurs and the Bulls advance to the penultimate round of the playoffs, they'll still have to get by the other Eastern powerhouse before facing the representative from the NBA's tougher conference.
It's quite the gauntlet, and it doesn't bode well for a team that is much worse than last year's version. Take a look at the depth charts—unaltered and as provided by Basketball-Reference—from the 2012-13 and 2013-14 squads:
|'12-13 PG||Kirk Hinrich||Nate Robinson||Marquis Teague|
|'13-14 PG||Kirk Hinrich||Mike James|
|'12-13 SG||Marco Belinelli||Rip Hamilton||Daequan Cook|
|'13-14 SG||Jimmy Butler||Tony Snell||Marquis Teague|
|'12-13 SF||Luol Deng||Jimmy Butler|
|'13-14 SF||Luol Deng||Mike Dunleavy|
|'12-13 PF||Carlos Boozer||Taj Gibson||Vladimir Radmanovic||Malcolm Thomas||Lou Amundson|
|'13-14 PF||Carlos Boozer||Taj Gibson|
|'12-13 C||Joakim Noah||Nazr Mohammed|
|'13-14 C||Joakim Noah||Nazr Mohammed||Erik Murphy|
Those rosters really aren't too different—like...not at all.
The Bulls were expected to be contenders during the 2013-14 season, but that wasn't due to any external improvements. The improvement could be solely attributed to the return of Derrick Rose, and he's now out for the foreseeable future with a torn meniscus that needed surgical repair.
Even if he does return, there's no guarantee he's any good.
Essentially, the Bulls have swapped out Robinson, Belinelli, Hamilton, Cook, Radmanovic, Thomas and Amundson (only the first three names really matter) for James, Snell, Dunleavy and Murphy. That would be fine if "James" referred to LeBron James, but not when the point guard's first name is Mike and he's since been waived by the team.
Gaining the services of Dunleavy has been useful, but the loss of Kryptonate was most significant. He would've been the one player who could create looks for himself on a consistent basis, and explosions like this were always possible:
Without Robinson on the roster, the point guard position is nearly futile.
Kirk Hinrich isn't meant to be anything more than a quality backup at this stage of his career, and there are virtually no options behind him. This team just doesn't have the shot-creators necessary to hang with any of the big boys, even if Deng continues his torrid run when he's fully healthy.
The 2013-14 version of the Bulls is worse than the team that was eliminated last year by the Miami Heat in resounding fashion, worse than the squad that needed seven games and a bunch of overtime periods to advance past the Brooklyn Nets and get out of the first round.
How exactly are the Bulls expected to make a playoff run?
It's just a good business decision to minimize the amount of time that rebuild takes, especially since Rose has gone on the record as saying that he doesn't wish to be part of a rebuild in the first place. The easiest way to do so is to get the best draft pick possible.
The Case for Making a Run at the Playoffs
As the legendary Jim Valvano once said, "Don't give up...don't ever give up."
Not only is tanking going to be incredibly hard in the ridiculously weak Eastern Conference, but the Chicago Bulls are also by no means out of the race for the Larry O'Brien Trophy, even though they're well behind the front-runners.
A championship can't be won until the playoff field is set, and once the 16 teams are determined, anything can happen. What if the Bulls sneak into the playoffs and then catch fire, taking down the No. 1 seed in the East and riding the momentum to a shocking playoff run?
Hey, we've seen a No. 8 seed win a series before. It's not completely impossible, even though it seems highly improbable.
The Bulls don't have too hard a road to the postseason, after all.
With a 9-14 record at the time of this article's publication, they're only a game out of the postseason picture. The Toronto Raptors are barely holding them off, and Masai Ujiri, the general manager of that squad, is doing everything he can to blow up the roster and make rebuilding around Jonas Valanciunas an easier process.
And it's not like anyone above the Raptors is particularly safe (at least not until you get up to the Atlanta Hawks at No. 3, one of just three teams with a record over .500 in the Leastern Conference). Chicago is only 1.5 games behind the Boston Celtics, and the C's hold down the fort at No. 4 heading into the Dec. 18 action.
Now that Jimmy Butler is back, Chicago could quite easily move back up into the playoff picture and rise as high as the top half of it. There's enough talent to do so, especially on the defensive end.
And if the Bulls don't give up during the regular season, they get to compete in the playoffs. You know, the same playoffs that Rose has stated he may return for, via ESPN's Nick Friedell:
If I'm healthy and the situation is right, I'm going to be back playing. If I'm healthy and my meniscus is fully healed, of course I'll be out there playing. But if it's something totally different and the outcome is not how I would want it to be, there's no need.
It's tough to bet on Rose actually living up to these claims and returning, especially after he failed to come back during the 2013 playoffs when his team was stronger and in the second round against the rival Heat, but there's at least a possibility.
That's why this is the better of the two options: There's actually a possibility of finding success.
In the NBA, it's tough to find a situation conducive to success at the highest level. Only a handful of teams can legitimately be called contenders each and every season, and it's imperative to maximize the chances at championships each time a franchise finds itself in that position.
What should the Bulls do?
The Bulls could be one of those teams if they sneak into the playoffs.
Four teams have to advance to the semifinals in each conference. That's inevitable, and the Bulls could very easily get there by earning the No. 4 or 5 seed and taking down the other middling representative. And from that point on, Rose could be with the team, making it a whole different squad.
Don't waste an opportunity. Above all else, that has to be the motto in the Windy City.