Coach Tom Thibodeau insists the Bulls are good enough to win without Richard Hamilton. But win what?
With everything else in place – the Bulls have the best record in the NBA (32-8) and a healthy Derrick Rose and play 16 of their last 26 regular-season games at home – Hamilton’s latest injury puts the focus on general manager Gar Forman. If Hamilton can’t be counted on, do the Bulls need to make a trade before the March 15 deadline?
Don’t hold your breath. Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, Forman and Thibodeau like their team with or without Hamilton, who according to the Bulls is ‘‘day-to-day” with a mild sprain of his right shoulder. And it’s hard to blame them. Hamilton’s injury, suffered in the victory Monday against the Indiana Pacers, actually bumps the Bulls into their most productive starting lineup.
The Bulls are 12-1 this season with Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Ronnie Brewer starting. The only loss was a road game against the Atlanta Hawks, when the Bulls were playing their fourth game in five nights. Since then, they’ve won 10 in a row with that starting lineup by an average margin of 17 points.
Paxson, Forman and Thib-odeau have put together a championship-caliber team that can handle the rigors of the post-lockout regular season better than most. Despite all their injuries, playing 21 of their first 32 games on the road and a first-half schedule that featured a stretch of 23 games in 36 days, the Bulls still have the best record in the league. They’re 11-2 on the tail end of back-to-back games, including nine victories in a row.
It’s not happenstance. Thibodeau’s laser focus on the next moment and only the next moment gives the Bulls a big advantage, especially in an unconventional season.
But what happens when everybody else gets a chance to catch their breath in the playoffs? What happens when every team’s focus is on the next game? Will the Bulls still have the same edge when the marathon becomes a sprint?
Or, to get right to the point, do the Bulls have enough to beat the Miami Heat without Hamilton?
‘‘A hundred percent,” Boozer said. ‘‘I think the guys that came back from last year are better. And hungrier. We want to be healthy going into the playoffs. Knock on wood, hopefully we will be. But once we get to that point, whoever we’ve got, we ride with.”
Hamilton has missed 17 of the Bulls’ 40 games and hasn’t played more than five games in a row. It could be a while before he’s back. But Thibodeau didn’t want to contemplate life without Hamilton into the playoffs.
‘‘I don’t look at it that way,” he said. ‘‘We’re hopeful he’ll be back sooner rather than later. We’re disappointed for him because he put a lot of work into getting back. But we also feel we have more than enough to win with.”
That’s a tough call. Even if the Bulls wanted to make a move, there’s an inherent risk. They seem so dependent on energy, effort, chemistry, selflessness and Thibodeau molding a team that fits his philosophy that even Orlando Magic star Dwight Howard – believe it or not – would come with some trepidation.
More than likely, the Bulls will stick with what they’ve got. You can’t blame them for liking their odds. But their chances of taking that next step are better with Hamilton than without him.
‘‘We know what he brings to the table; we know his history,” Brewer said. ‘‘One of the best guys [moving] without the basketball, what he does shooting-wise.
‘‘Most important is that we have him down the stretch. We felt pretty positive about him coming back and slowly but surely working his way and getting minutes. His shot was coming back. His conditioning was coming back. It’s just unfortunate he got hurt. Hopefully it’s not as serious as it looked and we can get him back because he’s definitely missed.”