Let’s go way, way back — all the way back to when pitchfork-armed citizens were outside the Berto Center three months ago, clamoring for a military vehicle. Specifically, a tank.
You know who you are: the people who wanted the Bulls to give up on this season in word and deed to get one of the top picks in the 2014 NBA draft. Derrick Rose’s other knee had betrayed him, and you had given up on the present in favor of a future that might include Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid or Andrew Wiggins. You wanted an everybody-must-go sale. You wanted the Bulls to tank the season.
I want to be clear here: I’m not blaming you for your moment of weakness. And what follows isn’t a finger-wagging. You were mired in despair. There are still questions about what Rose will be like when he returns. But a tanking was never going to happen. Never. And the notion that coach Tom Thibodeau would fail with lesser players at his disposal had the whiff of the absurd to it. This guy could win NBA games with you, me and three Shetland ponies.
That’s why the discussion was silly.
After losing to the host Nets 96-80 on Monday night, the Bulls would be the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference if the playoffs started today.
As we all know, the East isn’t exactly a crucible. There are two great teams, the Heat and the Pacers, and there is everybody else. The Knicks, whom the Bulls dispatched Sunday, are awful. The Raptors are the third seed.
It’s fair to ask what the Bulls’ recent surge means in light of the weakness of the competition in the East. This: It would have taken a spectacular tanking, a tanking probably beyond the Bulls’ capacity, for them to have a good chance in the lottery.
And if the Bulls end up losing in the second round of the playoffs, what does it all mean?
It means that when Rose comes back, a decent team will be waiting for him. It means there’s still hope.
Tanking doesn’t always work. Former Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo recently admitted that he tried to tank the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. The Raptors finished 23-43 and ended up with the eighth pick overall. I’d say that result is the rule more than the exception.
For the heck of it, try to imagine how the Raptors would have fared with Thibodeau as their coach. There’s the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail’’ in which the Black Knight reacts to getting his arms cut off by King Arthur by calling it “just a flesh wound.’’ That’s how it would have been with Thibodeau. After each trade, he would have said the team had “more than enough’’ to win. And, given his abilities, maybe he would have been right.
The problem is that when someone lauds Thibodeau’s coaching, it can sound like a patronizing shot at the players. The Bulls as constructed have talent, and they would have won games with whoever was coaching them. Maybe not as often, but they would have won.
Joakim Noah’s heart thumps just as loudly as Thibodeau’s does. Same with Jimmy Butler’s. Noah has come so far since his first few years with the Bulls, when he was immature and combative. Now he’s a leader, and his teammates want to follow him. They need to be in shape for that. He can run all day. He plays to his 6 feet, 11 inches when he needs to; the rest of the time, he acts like a pass-first guard. It’s how he got a triple-double against the Knicks.
The Bulls haven’t missed a beat since they traded Luol Deng to the Cavaliers in early January. That’s Thibodeau’s coaching, that’s the talent and will of the players and that’s the weak East. No apologies necessary. And no what-ifs allowed. Gar-Pax and Thibodeau are not wired to throw a season. It was never going to happen.
Jimmer Fredette is Thibodeau’s latest reclamation project. Is anyone willing to bet against the project’s success? Thibs has made D.J. Augustin look like a pro, something the point guard hasn’t always resembled. Thibodeau helped make Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli money.
The Bulls are in excellent position to sign the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony after the season. Would Thibodeau be able to turn him into a team player? There are projects and then there are miracles. But I’d pay to see if Thibs can make the blind play defense.