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Even healthy, Bulls still can't beat Heat

5/16/2013
The Bulls might have to shake up the roster to get past the Heat. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

MIAMI -- The Chicago Bulls deserve all the praise in the world for dragging themselves to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

They played the underdog role well and continued fighting all the way up until Jimmy Butler's 3-pointer clanked away just before the buzzer of their 94-91 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 5 on Wednesday night. They gave fans a reason to be proud in a year that was meant to be forgotten without Derrick Rose. Tom Thibodeau proved once again why he is the one of the best coaches in the league by squeezing every last drop of talent out of a roster that wasn't built to win a championship, let alone attempt to flourish in the playoffs.

But if there's one takeaway from this season aside from the fact that the Bulls' heart is unquestioned, it's this: The Bulls do not have more than enough to win a championship with no matter how many times Thibodeau tries to convince his players and fans into thinking it.

Obviously, the tenor of the entire season would have been different if Rose played. Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng would have given Thibodeau's roster a major boost if they hadn't gone down with various ailments in the final few weeks.

But even if all three of those players were healthy and accounted for, that doesn't change the fact that the Bulls don't have enough talent to match up with the Heat. The fact that the Bulls had a successful year that exceeded expectations without Rose shouldn't change the fact that Gar Forman and John Paxson have constructed a roster that is still missing a major piece.

"The thing about our team, in the three years we've been together, we haven't been healthy in a playoff run yet," Bulls forward Carlos Boozer said. "If we are next year, it could be scary."

The reality for the Bulls is that while a healthy group of players would give them a much better shot to win, they still don't have the star power to knock off the Heat four times in a seven-game series. Specifically, the Bulls don't have the multiple superstar options who can consistently create their own shot.

The fourth quarter of Game 5 should have been a chilling reminder to the Bulls' front office of the work that's left to be done. The Bulls came charging in with an eight-point lead but they couldn't hold it down the stretch because they couldn't find enough guys who could score.

Compare that to the Heat, who had LeBron James knocking down shots. When James wasn't driving to the rim, Dwyane Wade was picking up the slack. Their penetration and ability to get to the rim opened up looks for Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Norris Cole to rise to the occasion.

The problem for the Bulls is that even when Rose was on the floor, they still didn't have enough pieces around him to feel confident in getting the ball down the stretch in close games. It's been the Bulls' Achilles' heel for several years, but the lack of a multiple closers was especially jarring on a night when it seemed like Thibodeau and his team did everything else they needed in order to win.

"Our team has been together for quite some time," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "We always can look forward to next year. The main part is how healthy can we be next year? We're always right there and it's so frustrating because we're always right there about to go over the hump and we got a ton of injuries. We just got to battle. It's a part of the NBA; guys just got to keep battling."

The Bulls' problem over the past few years has nothing to do with a fighting spirit; Thibodeau's team thrives off the fact that pundits count them out. The issue, as recent postseason history has shown, is that talent almost always wins out over heart. The Bulls just don't have enough talent on the roster to believe they can get over the hump that Gibson was referencing.

So how do they get there?

The front office could decide to try and make a trade for someone this summer, perhaps Kevin Love in Minnesota. But their big chance figures to come a year from now during the summer of 2014. That's when, assuming they use the amnesty clause to rid themselves of the final year of Boozer's deal, they could have upwards of $30 million to spend on another free agent to pair with Rose.

In the meantime, the Bulls will continue to watch Jimmy Butler's game grow with pride. They'll continue to watch as Nikola Mirotic thrives in Europe and they'll continue to cheer the longer the Charlotte Bobcats suffer since they have the rights to Charlotte's pick that could finally become unprotected in 2016.

But if the right deal comes up in the next few months, Forman and Paxson must act. They know that the window on championship contention is only open for so long and this postseason was another reminder that good health doesn't last long, if at all, in the Bulls' case.

"It's hard right now because we just lost," Noah said of looking ahead. "And it's always hard to sit here knowing that your season's over but there are a lot of positives. We're a young team that has experienced a lot at a young age. When you see what a guy like Jimmy Butler brought to the table. ... We're going to come back healthy, we're going to be able to compete with these guys for a long time and I think that one day we'll get our shot."

The Bulls should be extremely proud of what they've accomplished this season, but they will only get that shot that Noah is talking about if they make a move to shake things up. Grit and determination is crucial to championships, but so is talent.

Right now, even if they get all their injured/ill players back, the Bulls don't have enough of it on their roster to knock off the Heat and they know it.