Commentary

Healthy outlook

Despite injuries, Bulls one of NBA's elite teams and aren't in dire need of trade

Updated: March 7, 2012, 11:53 AM ET
By Michael Wilbon | ESPNChicago.com

You would think from the hysteria about town that the Bulls were struggling through a losing streak, that they were middle of the pack or worse, that they had issues in the locker room, or undefined roles or a problem between the star and head coach. You wouldn't know from all the screaming and crying over Rip Hamilton's shoulder injury that the team being fretted over has the best record in the Eastern Conference … oh, make that the best record in the entire NBA. You'd never know that in the context of a season defined by injury and misfortune that the Bulls might just be living under a lucky star.

[+] EnlargeRichard Hamilton
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRip Hamilton's shoulder injury isn't serious, and neither is the Bulls' need to add another scorer.

OK, Rip Hamilton hasn't had the impact anybody hoped for … so far. He's played 16 of the team's 40 games, and that actually includes Monday night's 90-second appearance before spraining his shoulder running through a screen set by 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert. The groaning and moaning is understandable, what with LeBron and D-Wade flying around like acrobats, with Oklahoma City looking formidable.

But.

Last I checked, nobody is hoisting a trophy seven days into March. Or April. Or even May. There's no need for hysteria. Annoyance? OK, fine. At some point relatively soon the Bulls need to see what they've got, the entire hand, all the cards. That day is going to get here, but it ain't here now. It's stupid to trash Hamilton; it's dumb to insist that Paxson and Forman stop what they're doing to make a deal right this instant to come up with a scorer to replace Hamilton.

For starters, the best news is that Hamilton's shoulder isn't seriously injured. He's OK. Even if you ignore the "day-to-day" characterization the Bulls call everything from a dislocation to a compound fracture, Hamilton should be back fairly soon. Even if it's three weeks, fine. Perhaps you've noticed: The Bulls just beat the team that had been the hottest in basketball, the Spurs, and in San Antonio no less; with something less than their A-game they went to Philly and beat the previously troublesome Sixers; perhaps most important of all, they trashed the Pacers, which might actually count as a big regular-season win. Three playoff teams dispatched. The Bulls, given where we are in the season, are fine.

They can't play a seven-game series with Miami in March. As disappointing as the whole Hamilton thing has been so far, he has plenty of time to be the impact player the Bulls need him to be. When he has been out there we've seen enough of the ball movement, floor spacing and offensive efficiency to know that Hamilton is the right piece. Acquiring him was the right move. The only way to accurately judge Hamilton and his impact is during or after a series with Miami. Can he help beat the Heat? We don't know the answer to that any more tonight than we knew on Christmas Day, or than we'll know two months from now.

I know, we want to see Rip go a stretch of a dozen games averaging 15 points and five assists because every single night of this basketball season, wonderfully so, is viewed through the prism of Miami. That isn't a complaint; it's a statement of fact. It's pretty cool, actually, to follow the twists and turns of a season that in total (so far at least) has gone exactly the way most people thought it would … Bulls and Heat separated by essentially nothing.

That's likely the way it's going to wind up playing out all spring, so stop thinking that Paxson/Forman are going to make some huge fantasy basketball deal to save the day. That's as likely to happen as Hamilton returning to action Thursday night to record a triple-double against Orlando. So forget about a big deal for a scorer; forget about getting Stephen Jackson or Jamal Crawford. And definitely forget about Ray Allen. The Bulls don't have money or a player with a comparable contract to acquire any of the above, especially not Allen. To get anybody of consequence who can score, the Bulls would probably have to give up Taj Gibson, and doing that would be plain dumb. Thankfully, Forman doesn't seem a bit tempted to do so. And as much as most scouts around the league believe Omer Asik has taken a step back this season, what's also true is that Asik can rebound and play defense and play critical minutes if Joakim Noah is in foul trouble or rolls an ankle or whatever. Dealing Asik, as tempting as it might be to find that very necessary additional scorer, is very, very, very risky.

So the Bulls are stuck, sorta. Good stuck, but stuck nonetheless. The guys they have will have to play better than they did last year against Miami, because the roster is likely set. Don't get me wrong; I keep scouring the rosters of awful teams like the Hornets and Raptors trying to figure out who could score a dozen points against the Heat, on his own, during a Game 4 or 5 … and do it cheaply. I keep coming up with one name: Nick Young, the Wizards' 6-7 swing who can flat fill it up better than anybody the Bulls have now. Young comes cheap, too; he makes only $3.8 million. He doesn't hog the ball, can catch and shoot, might be a damn good complement to Rose. And the Wizards are of no mind to hold onto him if they can get something of value in return.

Of course, there's always a "but," and here's the "but" on Young, even worse than the fact that he doesn't play a lick of defense and averages fewer assists than a potted plant: He's a knucklehead. A very smart coach once told me of Young, "You can't fool him 'cause he's not paying attention." He seems to never ever be paying attention. But he can shoot the hell out of it. Hey, maybe.

But even more than going after a Nick Young, the Bulls and everybody thinking they can win a championship this year will have to do something that's necessary in the culture of professional basketball: Shut up and be patient. NBA seasons demand patience. The championship Bulls found this out in the late 1980s and early 1990s when they had to negotiate the Detroit Pistons. It's hard, frustrating, often annoying. Why the hell do you think LeBron James bolted Cleveland after seven years and hooked up with Dwyane Wade?

Of course, there's another way to look at this.

The Bulls appear to be pretty damn lucky. Yes, lucky.

[+] EnlargeNick Young
Harry E. Walker/MCT/Getty ImagesNick Young has the skills that could help the Bulls, but the word is that his focus and defense may be too much to overcome.

I've seen that same Rip Hamilton collision -- running through a 7-footer setting a screen -- result in a torn labrum or worse. Yeah, the Bulls seem to have spent all their time hanging out in the infirmary, but all in all (so far at least) it hasn't been all that bad.

Let's see, there were the leg injuries to Hamilton to start the season, then C.J. Watson's dislocated elbow, then Joakim Noah's ankle, then Luol Deng's wrist … In some order there have also been Rose's back, Watson's concussion and Watson's ankle. For that matter, while you were obsessing over Hamilton's shoulder, did you happen to notice Deng fall on that already bad wrist during the Pacers game? Probably not. Boozer, Brewer, Korver and Asik are the only Bulls to play in all 40 games so far, yet the team has the best record in the league despite playing (and winning) the most road games. The wins at San Antonio, at Philly, at the Lakers, at the Clippers, at Boston and at New York are as impressive as any team's list of road victories this season.

Have the Bulls, at their best, looked as dominant at any point as Miami? No. As Oklahoma City? No. But have the Heat or Thunder looked as mentally or as physically tough as the Bulls? No. Don't get me wrong, the Bulls are going to need a healthy Hamilton, contributing at the highest level he can, to beat Miami in a seven-game playoff series. Even if he's able to contribute the way the Bulls dreamed when they signed him, Miami would be favored in such a series. But the playoffs don't even begin for another seven weeks. There's plenty of time for Hamilton to get healthy and stay that way. No amount of cursing Rip or screaming for a trade that's unlikely to come is going to alter the course of the Bulls' season.

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.

Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
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. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon

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