As inspired as the "next man up" effort has been, yet another injury could make you wonder if this one, a torn ligament in Luol Deng's left wrist, will push the Chicago Bulls to the tipping point. While Deng is said to be week-to-week, the reality is much more precarious, much scarier to the Bulls' championship aspirations.
As much credit as coach Tom Thibodeau deserves for getting the team to play through just about anything, there are certain realities in the NBA. The first one is that it's a players' league and at some point you have to have your best ones on the court to seriously contend for a championship. If Deng, one of the best two-way forwards in the league and his team's second-most valuable player, for sure, misses a few weeks or even two months, the Bulls can survive. They've got a big enough cushion and can win enough without him to comfortably make the playoffs, which is all you can ask this season.
It's the most underappreciated, most under-the-radar story in the NBA so far this season, the Chicago Bulls somehow compiling the league's best record while just about every player on the roster is required to bring a doctor's note to the gym. And now Deng sits atop the injury list, with the most serious of the sprains, bumps, bruises and tears. It's not his shooting wrist, thankfully, but who knows how the injury will respond to treatment or whether Deng can or should play through the considerable pain.
OK, injuries aren't unique to the Bulls this strange, compressed season; most teams in the league are constantly tinkering with their lineups to compensate for players of consequence missing games. But no team has had the volume of injuries the Bulls have had. And no team, not even those at full strength, has played as well as the Bulls have short-handed. One of the reasons so many preseason forecasts had the Bulls reaching the Eastern Conference finals is their uncommon depth and Thibodeau's willingness to play 10, 11 players consistently.
But if Deng has to have surgery -- and neither he nor the Bulls think that is necessary as of now -- or is out of action into the playoffs, it's trouble. Yeah, he's become that critical to the team's success. There simply aren't that many forwards who can guard multiple positions, give you 20-plus points and eight or nine rebounds in a playoff game, space the floor by hitting the 3, log 40-plus minutes, lead the second unit and play off a superstar. There really is a sort of a Pippen-esque versatility to Deng's game. If we're drafting players who aren't "All-Stars" (and Deng should have been one last season), I might pick him first. Of course, it's impossible to replace Derrick Rose, but at least the Bulls have a more-than-competent backup in C.J. Watson. There's no such backup for Deng. Simply put, the Bulls must have him on the floor to even think of beating Miami in the playoffs.
The NBA season has been wholly unsatisfying, in this context. You buy a ticket to see the league champion Dallas Mavericks play, you're not going to see Dirk Nowitzki as he sits out trying to get himself into midseason condition. Excited about watching "Lob City?" Well, you'll get the understudies, because Chris Paul has missed games recently as the Clippers try to do the smart thing and not rush him back. The Heat are playing mostly without Dwyane Wade. And the beat goes on.
Any one injury can be explained away, but the volume of injuries is about one thing: the lockout. This isn't debatable. As Thibodeau said the other night by way of explanation, "usually, you have a month of camp ... plus most guys are in the gym after Labor Day." And by "in the gym" Thibs meant working under the watchful eye of professional trainers who have players in their routines before camp even begins. Even now that the season is on, not only isn't there any practice time, there isn't any physical recovery time, not with 10 games in 14 days as the Bulls had during one stretch. In other words, a great many bodies, maybe most of them, simply were not ready to be put through the stress and pounding of an NBA season.
That's why veterans of the 1999 lockout, like Richard Hamilton, looked into their crystal balls and saw just this kind of season unfolding. It's damn impressive that Thibodeau and the Bulls were able to plug in Watson, then John Lucas III and keep on keeping on with Rose missing four of five games. And it also speaks to the kind of smart scouting and personnel decision-making John Paxson and Gar Forman have done. No wonder they've been reluctant to trade pieces they value just for a big-splash player who might not fit into what they've built. In a recent game without Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, the Bulls played the same way as if they had those players, which opposing coaches say is remarkable. Thibodeau, without changing expression, said, "We shouldn't change the way we play ... defend, rebound, keep the turnovers down, playing inside-out, share the ball ... "
Indeed, before the Deng injury there was a growing school of thought that the Bulls would actually benefit from Rose being out for a few games, as long as it was nothing serious. Against Miami in last year's Eastern Conference finals, when the Heat trapped Rose and forced him to give up the ball late in the shot clock, the Bulls couldn't produce any reliable offense. The acquisition of Hamilton was going to help, but as one Eastern Conference coach said, "They're learning how to play without Rose, which can only help them in the long run. If Rose gets into foul trouble in a playoff game, if a team tries the same tactic Miami did, their other guys will have developed confidence from this stretch without him ... they'll have a much better feel for what they want to do. They'll be much more assertive this season because they'll have played without him, won some games without him."
Even so, one thing the Bulls did, which must be counterintuitive to the competitive instincts of Rose and Thibodeau, was come quickly to the realization that rushing injured players back to the court isn't going to cut it this season. Hamilton went to Rose and told him, "There's a bigger context to the season." In other words, trying to play every game might have worked last year, might work next year, but not now. "There's a big picture out there we have to pay attention to," Noah said, referring not only to Rose sitting out a few games but his grudging willingness to sit out Saturday night instead of playing on a sprained ankle. "The point with Derrick," Noah said, "is he has to come back and be right. I'd have done anything to play tonight ... but I had to think, 'Is that the smart thing to do?' We need Derrick to be 100 percent as we get deeper into the season, me to be 100 percent, Taj to be 100 percent."
Hamilton, from the first game of the season, tried to explain that there was zero need for him to play big minutes early in the season because there would likely be a point when he would need to. That point has come earlier than Hamilton expected, though he responded Monday night with 22 points and 10 assists, stepping easily and efficiently into the void left by Deng's absence ... at least for one game.
Then again, this is what the Bulls have done all season, so far. Rose goes out, Watson steps in. Watson goes out, Lucas steps in. Hamilton goes out, Ronnie Brewer goes in. Noah goes out, Omer Asik steps in. An hour before Saturday night's game against Charlotte at the United Center, Thibodeau told reporters, "Derrick's out. Taj is out. John [Lucas] is out. That's it." Not even he knew at that moment that Noah would be out, too. Yet, the Bulls ran away from the Bobcats even with all those players missing.
Granted, the people who still rank the Bulls behind Miami point out that the Bulls hit a soft spot in the schedule (opponents, not number of games), playing the likes of Charlotte, New Jersey, Milwaukee and Washington. That stretch is conducive to holding onto the league's best record, while other teams, notably the Heat, have struggled through much tougher schedules.
But the tougher opponents are coming, beginning with the Pacers on Wednesday night and Miami on Sunday. Then there's a nine-game road trip. If Deng returns to the lineup by, say, late February or even mid-March, all things seem possible.
The Bulls would love home-court advantage but they don't need it; remember, they're the best road team in the NBA. By then they should be a team less dependent on Rose, a team which, at least in theory, will have become more resourceful, bolder from having to navigate stretches without its biggest stars.
But if Deng is out for long, if he's not there when the big action begins, there's no amount of depth that will make up for his absence.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.