- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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DEERFIELD, Ill. -- When I write my book on this Chicago Bulls season, tentatively titled "First to 45 Wins: The Road to the Central Division Championship," Monday's stunning implosion against Milwaukee could be the turning point of the narrative.
After all, it's not every day you see a Tom Thibodeau-coached group, mostly starters, lose a 27-point lead to the reserve players of the Bucks. Something has to change, right?
Maybe that game will be the crux of a story about a franchise in transition waiting for an injured star. Or maybe we'll keep seeing this type of outcome, a disappointing one-point loss, only without a 27-point lead to lose.
While this team has no shot at a championship without a lot of dominoes falling, certainly the Bulls (6-7) can still win a very mediocre division, even if Derrick Rose doesn't come back until March. It's going to take a lot of minutes for the starters and a lot of flop sweat for Twittering radio man Chuck Swirsky, but all of your wildest dreams are still within reach as long as those dreams end in winning a lousy division. I don't believe in writing off a season and you shouldn't either.
The Bulls will beat their share of bad teams, but it's not going to be easy and it's not always going to be fun to watch. Like Thibodeau's approach to team defense, we will have to endure this team together, all pulling on the same rope as we pull our hair out yelling at Carlos Boozer.
Man, it was fun the last two years, wasn't it? I hope you saved your Bench Mob T-shirts and memorized your Boozer rap singles. Stacey King might have to start yelling "Serenity Now!" when Kirk Hinrich unleashes that jumper.
But really, who said this year would be fun?
If you opened your eyes as the Bulls dissembled their team in the wake of Rose's franchise-altering knee injury, you knew this season was going to be rough. Who thought the Vinny Del Negro days would return so soon?
But that's life in the NBA, especially when you're a hard-capped team in a luxury tax league. Last year we were asking if the Bulls could beat the Heat. Now the question is if it's the Cubs or the Bulls that are waiting for 2015. Oh yeah, it's both of them.
I think most fans were aware this was going to be a rough season, but watching the Bulls' starters sleepwalk through the second half made people pay attention to a team they're simply trying to casually ignore.
To answer a question that's starting to form, yes, Thibodeau is still a very good head coach, one of the best in the league in only his third season. But he's not a magician. This is a players' league and the best coaching can make a good team, with a star player, great; it can't always save an average team, without a star, from the throes of mediocrity.
He can teach the fundamentals of transition defense, but if the players are too tired, or too disinterested, to focus, which is what happened Monday, what can he do? He doesn't have the bench to use as a cudgel to the starters. And he doesn't have Rose to use an example.
While everyone lavished praise on Thibodeau the last two years, there were always coaches who were quick to point out that the superstar, Rose, was the real key to the team.
But even when Rose was out last year, the Bulls won, because they had a bench that was deep, unique and experienced at playing with each other. They had two post players in Taj Gibson and Omer Asik who were defensive specialists who could fill in for Boozer and Joakim Noah, when the latter was flagging, and stop runs like the one that lifted up Milwaukee on Monday night. While the starters lost the game, the absence of a dependable bench played a major effort in the loss. This is a trend that will continue.
The Bulls still have Gibson, who got his big contract but looks lost without Asik, who is prospering in Houston. Losing the big Turk, for fear of the massive "poison pill" contract hit in two seasons, should go down as a major blunder for this franchise.
Defensively, this group isn't the same and even though Asik only played 14.7 minutes a game, those were often important minutes.
If you had Nov. 26 as the date when Thibodeau would grumpily go to an eight-man rotation, collect your money. Then again, what else did you expect, a real "Bench Mob 2.0?" That was a unique group that took time to jell. This is a group of cost-effective (except for Hinrich) Best Fits Available.
"Honestly, I don't know what was expected," Luol Deng said after practice Tuesday at the Berto Center. "I don't know if you guys expected exactly the same bench. That bench, that 'bench mob,' was great. We won a lot of games because of them. But they're gone. And some of them are struggling with their teams, some of them are doing well. But this is a new team. Not every team is going to be about a 'bench mob.' I've been here nine years and every year has a different story. I think for this team, there's going to be ups and downs until we all get our chemistry right and starting playing the way we want to play.
"We've got to find our identity. But it's a totally different year. It's not fair to the guys that are here, the new guys, to be compared to the old guys. They're still getting used to it. Even the 'bench mob,' the first year that we had them, it took awhile to get going and when we got going, it clicked. And the year after it, last year, what helped us a lot was we had a lot of guys returning, so we know how to play and how to play with each other. We're still learning how to play with each other."
Deng is right about the maturation process of the old group, which was judged negatively for their lack of offense early on before the defense coalesced. But even though he knows it's the truth, Thibodeau doesn't want to hear about it anymore, just like he's all but banned public talk about Rose. The Bulls have to live in the present. Unfortunately, so do we.
"The thing is, you can use that as an excuse, but you've got to be ready," Thibodeau said. "It's how quickly you can adapt to change. We can't keep using the excuse that we have all these new guys, they're still learning and all that. We've got to get the job done. You've got to know what your job is and get it done."
But here's the difference. Even with time, this group isn't going to be as good, especially without Asik and Kyle Korver, who doesn't get enough credit for spacing the floor and making heady plays. I don't think the fit is right, and neither does the front office, hence the one-year deals.
I also don't think Thibodeau has the patience that he preaches to everyone outside the team, so he's going to run the starters down.
Last weekend in Milwaukee, he told reporters, "I'm more concerned with us doing the right things than the end result right now."
Raise your hand if you believe Thibodeau doesn't care about end results right now. If you raised it, you probably also believed general manager Gar Forman this summer when he said, "our decisions this summer will be basketball decisions. They won't be financial decisions."
Right, you let Asik go for Mohammed because it's a "basketball decision."
In truth, Thibodeau will ride any hot hand and loves to bench starters. He just won't play guys who aren't "doing the right things." He sours on guys quickly. Belinelli, to his credit, was the last Bull in the gym Tuesday, shooting with assistant coach Ron Adams. That won't help his defense, though. When Belinelli was introduced to the media, I mentioned to him that Thibodeau judges guys on their defense. His reply: "Defensive play is not my best."
That's when I knew he was in trouble.
Thibodeau was asked what can guys like Belinelli and Mohammed, not to mention rookie Marquis Teague, do to get more minutes to help the team? Thibodeau avoided saying, "Not stink."
"Everyone has to do their job," Thibodeau said. "Our bench has to stay ready. They're capable. They've all proven they're good players. Just have to stay ready."
I'm curious on how this team reacts to scrutiny as it underperforms to the lofty example it set the last two years. Players are loath to complain or criticize for fear of Thibodeau's wrath. But for how long? This is a proud group of veterans, some of whom are used to winning at a high clip. They put up with Thibodeau because they know he's a good coach, but also because the results were there.
The reality of the situation is that Rose's return, currently existing only in adidas advertorials, can't come soon enough for everyone.
Deng, of course, has seen it all in his nine years with the Bulls. The franchise survivor is ready to play his customary 40 minutes a night (he's averaging a league-high 41 this year and led the league last year at 39.4) and just see what happens.
"We're trying to win and stay positive," he said. "I'm trying to stay as positive as I can be."
You wonder if they'll be able to do either one if the season continues at this pace.