Before yesterday's afternoon matchup with the Warriors, the Bulls had been playing well. They had won their last four games and seven of their last 10 entering a highly winnable game against Golden State.
That was before they laid an egg against a severely under-manned Warriors team. Despite the fact that they only had four healthy NBA-caliber players, the Warriors still dominated the fourth quarter and defeated the Bulls by 17 points.
The loss left the Bulls at a middling 18-21 and dropped them to a meager 4-14 on the road. They still hold a two-game lead over the Knicks for the eighth playoff spot, but the general lack of depth in the Eastern Conference is a far bigger reason for that than the play of the Bulls.
After a shockingly poor effort, one has to wonder if the Bulls are making any progress. Ever since their surprising 2006-07 campaign where they reached the second round of the playoffs, the Bulls have been treading water on the fringe of the playoffs.
Current Roster Issues
The reasons for their problems are pretty obvious when one looks at the roster.
The Bulls don't have a 20 PPG scorer, and no one on the team is shooting 50 percent from the floor. They're also hitting fewer than four three-pointers per game, and no one on the roster gets to the free-throw line with any kind of consistency.
Their defense this year has been pretty solid on paper, but they still have meltdowns like last night. They've allowed 100 points or more on 14 occasions, which doesn't give them much of a chance to win given their offensive issues (in fact, they're 1-13 in those games).
They simply don't have enough talent to be a consistently competitive team. Derrick Rose has been excellent of late, and Luol Deng and Joakim Noah have generally played well. However, they're not nearly good enough to overcome the lack of help they've received from the rest of the roster.
John Salmons hasn't come close to replicating his career-best performance, offensively, from last season. The Bulls were depending on him to replace much of the scoring from the departed Ben Gordon, but he's been an offensive liability in many games. He is solid defensively, but your team has issues when he is your third leading scorer.
Tyrus Thomas was also supposed to be more consistent and dependable this year, which simply hasn't happened. Granted he has missed some time due to injury, he hasn't been close to dependable when he has been healthy.
Last night was a prime opportunity for him to dominate given Golden State's lack of frontcourt depth and suspect defense, but instead he finished 2-of-7 shooting from the floor, didn't get to the free-throw line, and fouled out in 20 minutes played.
He's still far more of an athlete than a basketball player and probably won't be on the team after this season given his restricted free agent status.
The rest of their typical eight-man rotation might be even more suspect.
Kirk Hinrich is basically being paid $9 million to be their backup point guard. He's a decent ball handler and plays good defense, but his jumper is highly inconsistent, and he's not a real threat to drive.
Brad Miller simply doesn't have enough athleticism to be effective anymore. Taj Gibson has played reasonably well for a rookie, but he's really not talented or productive enough to be counted on heavily.
Hope for the Future?
So how do the Bulls build on this situation? There are two major things that are expected to help improve the team: the development of Rose and the 2010 free agent class.
Rose definitely has the potential to be a difference-maker and has played better of late. However, he's still not there yet. He has to get to the line with more regularity (his 3.9 attempts per game is surprisingly low for someone with his driving ability) and he has to bring a more consistent effort on defense. Both of those things would allow him to dominate the game more consistently.
Even if he does take the next step to super-stardom, he's going to need more help. Recent playoff history hasn't been kind to the dominant point guard, especially if they don't have dominant big men to complement them.
That brings us to the elite free agent class this off-season. LeBron, Wade, and Bosh are considered the big prizes and players like Stoudemire, Boozer, and Joe Johnson could also change teams.
The theory is that the Bulls would add one of these players and instantly become a contender. Personally, I'm not buying it for a few reasons.
First off, what are the odds that one of the big three comes to Chicago?
I can't see LeBron making that move. Cleveland can offer him more money under the collective bargaining agreement, and they're already in first place in the East. The only argument I could see is increased endorsement opportunities in a larger market, in which case New York makes more sense than Chicago.
I also have a hard time seeing Wade leaving Miami. Free agents tend to go somewhere warm if the money is the same, which makes Miami one of the more popular destinations. They also have a potential star already on the roster in Michael Beasley, as well as the cap space to sign another max free agent.
So if I'm Dwyane Wade, do I stay close to South Beach for more money (again, Miami can offer more, given the collective bargaining agreement) and work on recruiting another elite free agent to play with, or do I come home to Chicago as their one-and-only major acquisition and try to coexist with another driving guard on a team with no big man?
Unless I'm really homesick for Chicago, I'm staying in Miami.
Wade is a better player than Rose and has proven that he can dominate a playoff series, plus the weather is much better and Florida doesn't have an income tax.
That would force the Bulls to throw big money at lesser but still solid free agents like Stoudemire, Boozer, and Johnson.
Here's another thing to consider: How much better does one of those free agents really make them?
LeBron could make an awful lot of teams a contender, though the Bulls would likely need to replace Salmons or Deng with a better outside shooter to take advantage of the double teams (one thing the Cavs have going for them is they shoot 41.2 percent from the arc). Then again, I said I don't think he's coming anyway.
If you sign Wade, you drastically upgrade at the shooting guard spot but don't improve your post scoring or outside shooting. You would have a mostly one-dimensional offense with two very good driving guards, but no one to punish other teams for double-teaming the driver, and no one you really have to worry about inside.
All of their cap space will be gone as well. Deng and/or Salmons would have to be moved for a more dangerous shooter at SF or PF, which probably won't be easy.
Deng is a reasonably solid player, but he should only be the third best player on a contender and is paid more like a No. 1 or No. 2.
Salmons is a better fit as a bench player and doesn't really make enough money to match salaries with an elite talent, making a trade harder.
Also, can you really win 50-plus with a frontcourt of Noah, Gibson, and probably their mid-first pick? That is what you'd have to deal with after Tyrus walks to make space for Wade. I think it'd be hard.
Joe Johnson would be a better fit style-wise given his shooting ability, but then again he's not as good as Wade, and you'd still have serious frontcourt issues. His Hawks are already a dangerous, well-balanced team, so staying put could be smart for him.
Bosh easily is the best fit for the Bulls, but again, I'm not sure how close to a championship contender they would be without more moves. Keep in mind that his Raptors won 33 games last year and are fighting with the .500 mark this year.
They also have far better outside shooting than the Bulls do, something that is key with a big man who draws a double team.
That said, a Rose/Bosh pick and roll combo would be quite scary. The Bulls would also give Bosh far more help in defense and rebounding up front than the Raptors do by playing an actual big man next to him instead of a small forward.
Unfortunately, Deng isn't as good a fit in that lineup as a small forward who can bury the three. They would probably need to move him for a better shooting SF to be a real contender, ideally someone like Danny Granger or Rashard Lewis (yes, I realize both are pipe dreams that are not coming to the Bulls, they are merely examples).
Rose and Bosh would be a very nice core to build around, but the roster would still need some significant changes at the wing positions.
Stoudemire and Boozer would also be good fits, but I don't think they make nearly enough of an impact to put the Bulls over the top. They are both currently on better teams than the Bulls and are still not particularly close to winning it all.
One other possibility would be to try to move Hinrich and/or Deng to try to create space for two max contracts (if it is Kirk, they would probably have to include Salmons, as well).
I see two problems with that: 1) It will not be easy to convince teams to take either of those contracts and giving up expiring deals; and 2) they would still have to sign two free agents who are better than the out-going players. The feasibility of this approach seems quite low.
Can Management Pull It Off?
Given the title of the article, I think you can guess what my answer will be.
The Bulls haven't exactly been the most well-run franchise since Jordan retired. Their draft picks have been decent but not great, they overpaid two of their "core players," they splurged on a past-his-prime Ben Wallace, they gave away Tyson Chandler for two second-round picks and an expiring contract that they didn't use in a trade.
Not to mention that they waited so long to make a decision on Gordon and Thomas that both will likely walk with no return, they didn't pull the trigger on D'Antoni when it appeared that he was interested (hiring the seemingly over-matched Del Negro instead), and they've stubbornly waited for their young players to develop and gel, rather than making one of numerous rumored deals for an elite player.
As I mentioned before, I feel like they will strike out on the big three free agents, which would be the quickest and easiest fix for the roster.
That would put the Bulls in a tough spot. Their next attempt would probably be to try to sign Joe Johnson. If he were to sign with the Bulls, their cap space would be gone, and they'd have to try to fill their void up front through the draft.
Unless they get lucky again like they did to get Rose, that would probably mean they would get someone like Patrick Patterson or Cole Aldrich who probably won't be an impact player, or someone like Greg Monroe who may or may not work out.
DeMarcus Cousins has more potential, but given his perceived laziness and character issues, I can't see the Bulls taking him. Their perimeter players are pretty strong, but with no scorer up front, they run into too many off shooting nights to be a real threat.
Win 42 games, lose in the first round, repeat for several years.
If Johnson stays in Atlanta, I would imagine that their next target is probably either Stoudemire or Boozer. Both can finish down low and can also step out and hit some jumpers, but neither is a particularly good defender, and Amar'e is a mediocre rebounder.
The Bulls draft a wing player to solidify their backcourt, but since this is one of the weaker guard classes in recent memory, they face slim pickings. Barring a surprising trade for an impact jumpshooter on the wing, teams clog the lane with impunity, making Rose and their new big man try to beat a pack of defenders or pass to an open wing player with a mediocre jumper.
Win 45 games, lose in the first or second round, repeat for several years.
I know I sound pretty pessimistic, but I feel like the Bulls have backed themselves into a corner. They're not good enough to get home court in the playoffs or threaten the top teams, but they're also not bad enough to have a good chance to strike gold in the lottery and build up a young core around Rose.
That's a very difficult spot to escape without a bold management group and some luck. I'm fairly confident that the Bulls don't have the former, so they're going to need an awful lot of the latter.