- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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DEERFIELD, Ill. -- The skies were blue, the sun shining, the temperature perfect and the day miserable in Chicago on Friday -- at least for Chicago Bulls fans who, though not exactly optimistic about the team's playoff chances after Derrick Rose tore his ACL two weeks ago, were left with an aching void after the team was eliminated in the first round by eighth-seed Philadelphia.
The only thing left now, other than the typically frustrating rhythms of Cubs and Sox baseball and football in shorts, is to dwell on the what ifs and what-will-bes.
Here are 10 burning Bulls thoughts sure to bug us all summer:
1. Will Rose ever be the same?
This is obviously the most haunting thought of all as we wait to see how long it takes for Rose to get back on the court and how he looks when he does. We can certainly expect him to dedicate himself to his rehab and, at 23 years old, with no history of serious knee problems, in otherwise superior physical condition, with the best medical advances and a good attitude, to return close to the player he was. But Rose, as we all know, is no ordinary point guard. What has made him so special is his incredible quickness and uncanny skills and unpredictability in driving to the hoop. The weird move he made when he injured his knee is what makes him great. Can he return to being that player physically and mentally?
2. Why did we think Rip Hamilton was the missing ingredient?
He came in with 12 NBA seasons behind him and a recent history of injuries, but no one was expecting him to carry the team, only to complement Rose as a secondary scorer while adding some veteran experience to the lineup. Sure, it didn't help team chemistry when he played only 28 games this season because of a series of injuries, but with Rose playing just 39 himself, there wasn't going to be many opportunities to jell anyway. That being said, hopes were rightfully high going into the playoffs as the two played well together in the final week of the season. And Hamilton played well at times during the playoffs, though without Rose, he and others were not effective enough. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau didn't seem to trust Hamilton enough to play him in the fourth quarter for most of the series. But like it or not, he will be back as the starting shooting guard next season, and I still want to see him and Rose together and healthy, though that might not occur until next spring.
3. Is Thibodeau not as fabulous as we thought?
This really shouldn't be the most gnawing fear of Bulls fans. Thibodeau was a great hire two years ago, he earned NBA Coach of the Year honors for getting the team to the 2011 Eastern Conference finals with Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer missing a combined 57 games, and he coached the Bulls to the NBA's best record this season with Rose, Luol Deng and Hamilton together on the bench in street clothes more than they were on the court. But now we are left with a justifiable debate over whether he wears out his team during the regular season and what kind of a playoff coach he is with an 11-11 record.
Oh, and did he make Noah's sprained ankle worse by reinserting him in Game 3 of the Sixers series? While it is unfair to blame him for that, you wonder how much "philosophical" bumping of heads will occur this offseason regarding the wearing-out-his-guys issue. What makes Thibodeau and his Bulls teams play to and above their potential is his unrelenting demands that they rebound and play defense like they're in the playoffs. That should not change. But the minute distribution of his top players can and no doubt will next season.
As for his job in the playoffs, he chose to leave the team without a timeout at the end of Game 6, his players were in disarray following Omer Asik's free throws, and his rotation left his players spent in the fourth quarter. But you either trust your coach's decisions or you don't, and Thibodeau is still one of the most trustworthy coaches in the league.
4. Why is Boozer so infuriating?
Though we knew before he came to the Bulls that he had the tendency to disappear in big games and take off extra long for injuries, Boozer came through for the Bulls this season. After missing 23 games in 2010-11 (during which the Bulls went 15-8) and slogging through the playoffs both before and after he suffered a turf toe injury late in the Indiana series, expectations were not high for 2012. But with Rose, Deng and Hamilton struggling with their own issues, Boozer did not miss a game for the first time in his career, showed a little improvement defensively and was more than solid with 15 points and 8.5 rebounds a game.
Then what does he do when they need him most? He again lays an egg in the playoffs, playing an inferior perimeter game the Bulls did not need and finishing with three points on 1-of-11 shooting with 13 rebounds and three turnovers. Thibodeau had so much confidence in Boozer on Thursday night that he sat him the entire fourth quarter, which is nothing new to Bulls fans. Perhaps fittingly, his contract is equally infuriating -- three years and about $47 million left on a five-year, $75 million contract -- as it does not exactly make him desirable on the trade market. The amnesty clause idea may have sounded good for a time, but don't count on it.
5. Will Deng ever be fully appreciated?
Probably not. But Deng was downright heroic this season, playing with torn tendons in his left wrist and sore ribs while earning his first All-Star berth. Even the league's elite have off-shooting days, and Deng, certainly among the next tier, struggled at times. The Bulls had a chance because he was on the floor, he finished strong, and, as always, he played hard.
While it is fair to second-guess his decision to put off possible surgery and play for the U.K. in this summer's Olympics, it is difficult to second-guess his motives or his dedication to the Bulls.
6. Do we love Asik or is he just a big lug with bad hair?
"Love" may be a little strong, but there is every reason to like him. As a backup. To be fair, as a starting center playing 39 minutes in his fifth career start Thursday night, he did yeoman's work with 10 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. He needs to be better than 45 percent from the foul line, but in the big picture, it's unfair to pin the loss on him. It would have been nice to see him take a bigger leap forward this season, but he is still a serviceable backup to Noah and a vital part of the bench mob.
7. Will the bench mob ever be the same again?
It might, but the players won't have the same names on their jerseys or the same magic they have built together the past two regular seasons.
The Bulls hold options for Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson. Brewer almost certainly will not be back with Jimmy Butler a less expensive option, and Korver is highly iffy, though the Bulls will have to look for a 3-point replacement. As for Watson, a suitable backup behind a healthy Rose, the playoffs exposed his weaknesses as a floor leader and reliable shooter. The Bulls will be looking for an upgrade, and it is not inconceivable that they could open the season with Watson. Considering they will need a starter for at least the first two months, if not more, you have to think it will be someone new, though.
8. Would Noah have given them a chance to get to the conference finals again?
He definitely would have given them a significantly better chance to get past Philadelphia and into the second round. Averaging 15 points, nine rebounds and three assists before spraining his ankle in Game 3, Noah provided that tangible intangible known as energy, resulting in great defense, better ball movement and leadership. Given that the Bulls should have beaten the Sixers even without Noah, you have to think he would have led them into the second round. Once there, I liked the Bulls chances of making it a series against Boston or Atlanta. Noah also made Boozer better. Without him, well, it wasn't pretty.
9. Should Taj Gibson be a starter?
Yes. Will it happen with Boozer's contract? No. That's not the way it works in the NBA, and it is a huge advantage for the Bulls to have his outstanding shot-blocking ability and overall defense come off the bench. Gibson was perhaps the only Bulls player to come out of this postseason disaster with his stock higher. He was already a fan favorite and improving. Now he needs to stay the course. Not starting will only really matter to his agent.
10. Would the Bulls have been good enough to beat the Heat and go on to win the NBA title if everyone were healthy?
It was going to be tough, no question. With the advantage of seeing Miami, San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the first round, it may have been that much tougher. But I liked the Bulls' chances with home-court advantage a few weeks ago. If healthy, the Bulls could have given any of those teams a run.
Hindsight is not always a good thing, and there will be those who pick apart the Bulls to the point that we forget how good a team they were at full strength. Looking back, you can make the argument that it was a monumental feat with Rose and Noah out of the lineup, that they should have at least pushed the series to a Game 7 in Chicago. The Bulls can only hope that 2012 doesn't turn out to be the best chance they never had.
10hEthan Sherwood Strauss
8hArash Markazi and Ben Alamar
2dAlok Pattani, ESPN Stats & Information
2dDan Le Batard