- Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption co-host
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The only question that matters after settling for Plan B in free agency is this: Have the Chicago Bulls upgraded enough to become a serious championship contender?
We've known the Thibs-era Bulls can defend, rebound, grind, work and play unselfishly, and with great discipline. And what that got them in May was bounced out of the postseason in the very first round by the neophyte Washington Wizards.
So the overriding goal of the draft and free agency was to add scoring. OK, deepening the roster was something the Bulls wanted to do, too, especially with a coach who goes to the whip hand the way Tom Thibodeau does. But more than anything else, the draft and free agency had to yield scoring and shooting -- plenty of both, actually.
OK, let's start with the good news. In Gasol, the Bulls added the back-to-the-basket post-up player they always wanted but never got in Carlos Boozer. And with Gasol playing with his back to the basket and with Mike Dunleavy, Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Tony Snell on the wings, the offense will absolutely have a necessary dimension of 3-point shooting it hasn't had these last four seasons. And if you think the NBA offenses were already 3-point obsessed, wait until everybody starts copying the champion San Antonio Spurs.
The Bulls at the least look like they'll have enough shooters to play the kind of modern-day NBA offense that is no longer a luxury but the norm. If the Bulls simply fill out their roster by signing a backup point guard and a backup big man, then the starting lineup could look like this:
I hear all the talk about McDermott starting at small forward, and these people don't seem to consider that the head coach hates rookies more than missed defensive assignments. Thibs isn't starting McDermott even if the kid averages 31 points a game in summer league. Not happening. And the only person who has less chance of starting than McDermott is Mirotic, who may be 23 years old but is still a rookie -- a rookie who has no clue about playing NBA-level defense.
The great news for the Bulls is it leaves the team 10 players deep, at the very least. There's a Thibs-ian bench again, which is to say an asset, like the one the 2011 Eastern Conference finals team had. Taj Gibson, valuable as he is, will almost certainly help most by coming off that bench, as will Hinrich, McDermott, Snell and Mirotic. And that doesn't even count whoever has to back up Rose and Noah.
So, the team that couldn't shoot was able to keep Dunleavy (so far) while adding McDermott and Mirotic. These are professional shooters, people. This is an upgrade.
Now, for the bad news:
The Bulls still didn't add a single player who can get his own shot in the playoffs when defenses blitz Rose as Miami did in the last postseason series Rose actually played. All of the above 3-point shooters need ball movement, scheme or a set-up man to get their shots. Simply having them on the floor guarantees nothing.
The Bulls will play bigger offensively with Gasol than they did with Boozer. They'll be deeper. They'll have better catch-and-shoot snipers. But they still have only one player -- Rose -- who can get his own shot anytime, and by anytime I mean anytime except when big, nasty defensive teams decide to smother him and make someone else handle the ball in May and June.
Carmelo Anthony would have given the Bulls that. And Anthony came a whole lot closer to saying "yes" to the Bulls than most people know. Anthony had a dilemma. How much is it worth to play for a contender now? Fifty million dollars? The fact that he took as long as he did, especially once it was clear LeBron was going to Cleveland, suggests how difficult his decision was, despite all the I-love-New York hoo-ha that took place after he announced in favor of the Knicks. Again, for the record, people who say Melo should have turned down the money probably have never turned down a raise in their lives and sound patently foolish telling Melo he should turn down $122 million guaranteed to take $77 million. The Bulls would have been huge favorites in the Eastern Conference had he done it, but this is the outcome that seemed logical all along.
Anyway, Melo's presence in the lineup would have given the Bulls that reliable singular scoring threat they need.
Gasol, Mirotic, Hinrich and McDermott do not.
It's difficult in the moment to even know how many more points we're talking about the Bulls being able to manufacture. Rose, if he averages, say, 17 per game, isn't going to score too many more points than D.J. Augustin did last season when he averaged 13. But let's give the Bulls plus-4 there. Gasol isn't going to average much more than Boozer's 14 per game last season, so offensively it's likely a push.
What's fair to ask of the combination of McDermott and Snell, a rookie and a second-year player? Maybe 12 to 14 points per game together, and that's optimistic. Mirotic? Six to eight per game perhaps, and that's if Thibs starts to use him by January. So how many more points is that -- when you deduct Snell's 4.5 last season? Actually, 18 to 22 per game, somewhere in that range, if Rose is healthy and can find his game by, oh, Christmas.
But there's another piece of good news for the Bulls: There's no super team in the Eastern Conference, nobody as good as Miami was the past four years, probably nobody as good as the Bulls were in 2010-11, Rose's MVP season.
The Cavaliers, Wizards, Raptors, Pacers, Heat and Bulls are all hard to separate. All are pretty darned good. Nobody's great. What's distinguished the Bulls the past four years is that when everything's pretty much equal they find ways to win.
They won't enter the season obviously short-handed offensively, the way they have each of the past two. But whether they've come up with enough firepower to hold their own against the top teams in the league will answer whether they made the correct personnel decisions this summer.
9hMichael C. Wright