Chicago's 2013-14 campaign was turned upside down before it ever even got started.
If you look up the word "disappointment" in your nearest dictionary, you'd probably find a Chicago Bulls fan's word-for-word description of the 2013-14 season.
Seldom has a legitimate championship hopeful faded to the ranks of mediocrity after just 10 games, triggering questions as to whether or not a complete rebuild is in order. Chicago finds itself in this very position, and all it took was one false Derrick Rose step.
Rose's season-ending knee injury acted as the earth-shattering boom of thunder, setting the Bulls' storm of letdown into motion. More dejection has followed—some related and some unrelated—though there's no question as to which event was the most catastrophic for Chicago, and probably the NBA as a whole.
It was a return roughly 18 months in the making. After sitting the entire 2012-13 season, Derrick Rose was set to lace up once again this year for the first time since tearing his ACL in the 2012 postseason.
It was a rough go from the start, despite sporadic glimpses of the former MVP attempting to poke through a rusty shell. Through his first 10 games, Rose averaged 15.9 points per game on 16.4 shots and 35 percent shooting, with just 4.3 assists and 3.4 turnovers. He failed to make half his shots in any game and exceeded six assists just once.
Then, before the rust was even remotely shaken, Chicago received the latter half of the world's most dragged-out one-two combination punch. While trying to change directions in transition against the Portland Trail Blazers, Rose tore the meniscus in his previously healthy right knee. The team later announced he'd be done for the year.
It's no secret the Bulls' title hopes were pinned around their star point man, and they came crashing down just as soon as he did.
It's now been nearly two full years—since March of 2012—since we've seen Rose relatively healthy and at peak performance. The point guard's health troubles create worries pertaining not only to this season's team but to the franchise's direction as well.
It appears this core's run is up, with Luol Deng's contract expiring and Carlos Boozer an amnesty candidate again after the year. Chicago may even begin to express internal concern about Rose, with two surgically repaired knees, as its centerpiece. But none of that is clear just yet.
After Rose's failed comeback, nothing about the Bulls' future is clear.
The primary topic of debate last summer regarding the Bulls was whether or not they'd be able to lure sufficient talent to supplement Derrick Rose's return, or if they'd even need to.
After not making a realistic attempt to retain Nate Robinson, the Bulls' third-leading scorer from 2012-13 fled to Denver, where he signed a two-year pact. The team added Mike Dunleavy, but not before Marco Belinelli fled to San Antonio. No determined effort was made to provide depth in the backcourt for Rose, and the team is immediately paying the price.
After floundering with a Marquis Teague-Kirk Hinrich-Mike James point guard rotation, the Bulls signed D.J. Augustin to an emergency deal—and when D.J. Augustin is your emergency option at the point, it says something about how lazily your supporting cast was constructed.
With limited financial assets available last summer, courting a supremely deep roster would've been a challenge. But if pieced together correctly, a Rose-less Bulls team could've been competitive enough to advance a round or two in the playoffs—just ponder back to last season's squad for reference. The lack of backcourt talent without Rose makes you truly wonder how the team's second team may have played out even if Rose remained healthy—but that doesn't make much of a difference at this stage.
Even last season, without Derrick Rose, the Bulls were within reach of taking home the division crown, falling just 4.5 games shy of the vaunted top-four seed accompanied with a division title. The Indiana Pacers came away with the Central at 49-32, before they went on to nearly dethrone the Miami Heat in seven games during the Eastern Conference Finals.
Indiana's relative struggles through the regular season suggested that there could've been reason for doubt in regard to a repeat—especially with a re-vamped, re-Rosed Bulls team in the conversation. After losing to Indy in the two teams' first meeting this season, Chicago was the first squad to put the Pacers in the L column after nine straight victories. Rose shot 6-of-11 from three in that game on Nov. 16, and it appeared Chicago would indeed be in the middle of a heated division battle all season long.
Until the one thing that Chicago couldn't afford to happen, happened.
Since Rose went down, Chicago has gone 6-13, while the Pacers have gone 14-5 and stand at an Eastern Conference best 25-6. Aside from a loss to the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 16, and the defeat at the hands of Rose's Bulls early, Indiana has won its other five in-division matchups by an average of 18.4 points.
Adding insult to injury, Chicago's top target is now undoubtedly championship caliber, and its taillights are well clear of the Bulls' view. Though Chicago is tied for second, the team is a whopping 12 games back of the Central lead. Even if Rose had made it this far, it's unlikely the Bulls would be able to keep up with the Pacers, as they currently sport the league's best point differential at plus-8.9 on average.
By all accounts, he's a premiere center in the East. But Joakim Noah has taken a significant step backwards in 2013-14.
A 50.3 percent career shooter, Noah is sinking just over 45 percent of his attempts from the field this season. According to NBA.com, of the 75 players that see at least 10 rebound chances per game, he ranks 34th in percent of rebound chances actually pulled down, with 59.3 percent. He's getting to the free throw line at a rate of .409, which is a few beats shy of his career .438 pace.
His rim defense, however, has remained in tact. Per NBA.com, Noah's opponents shooting at the rim finish at just a 43.7 percent clip, which ranks third amongst players who've logged at least 20 games and face at least five attempts at the basket. According to 82games.com, though, those opponents are posting an 18.5 PER against him and scoring 17 points while grabbing 14 boards per 48 minutes. The team's defense improves by more than 15 points per 48 minutes while he's sitting.
According to NBA.com (subscription required), the Bulls are actually a net-positive while he's on the bench. The only other Bulls that also pertains to is Tony Snell, who has played 497 minutes, and D.J. Augustin, who's played 320. Noah has logged 970 minutes—the most on the team.
Noah has been plagued by a few different injuries this season, but he hasn't been able to give Chicago anywhere close to what it got last season. With Rose missing, the Bulls need Noah to be more than just a secondary piece. Though to a lesser magnitude, Noah's regression has much to do with the Bulls' 13-18 record, just as the Rose injury does.
His near triple-double performance on Jan. 2 against the Boston Celtics is encouraging, but consistency and health will be the keys for Noah as the meat of the season approaches.
In typical Bulls fashion, it doesn't appear that a decision regarding the team's future will be made any time soon.
Rose's injury likely marked the end of this current group's run for a title, with Luol Deng's contract ending this summer and Carlos Boozer a candidate to be amnestied. The team could opt to trade some of its assets and stockpile draft picks or young players in order to rebuild and give Rose youthful talent to grow with during his prime years.
But, at least during this season, general manager Gar Forman has given the indication that the team's most anticipated move won't be made at all. According to ESPN, the team will not be trading Deng, but rather let his deal expire and attempt to negotiate a new deal after the season.
“I’m mature enough to understand that I can’t worry about things I can’t control. If I wake up tomorrow, they call me and they tell me otherwise, then that’s what it is. I can’t control that,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times (h/t NBC Chicago). “That’s their job, and they’ve got to do their job. That’s a decision they have to make on what they feel is best for the team.’’
Trading Deng and/or other assets like Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson or even Joakim Noah could garner significant future assets while opening up cap space in the immediate future—namely the summers of 2014 and 2015. Management, however, hasn't given any hints that it plans on blowing up the current roster.
It's possible, and some would say likely, that Chicago re-signs Deng long term, limits its spending and attempts to give this core one more spin at the Larry O'Brien Trophy next season. At this stage, though, with Rose entering his prime seasons upon returning, and major free-agent difference-makers set to hit the market in the coming summers, playing the role of seller doesn't seem to have that steep of a price.
Even if the Bulls don't wish to spend any acquired cap space on a flashy name, cap space is dually valuable in that it doesn't need to be spent. Teams with room can acquire players of greater salaries back in trades, among other things. It's a luxury that not many winning, large-market teams have very often and has worth in more ways than one.
It's a very appealing option that management may not take the liberty to exercise, whether it be due to a fear of striking out in free agency, as Chicago did in 2010, or because it frets a short-term rebuild could disgruntle Rose.
Given the circumstances, and considering recent history as context, it's fair to say that Chicago making a significant play for the future—whether it be involving Deng or anyone else—is unlikely.