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Thursday, December 7

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Bulls Thu May 16 2013

Treasure The Bulls' Throwaway Season

Bulls_200.pngAs the old adage goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure. Since the start of the year the Bulls were (by experts and perhaps their own management) considered to be damaged goods who could do no good come playoff time. Consequently, with shoddy roster decisions they were sent to the curb, with no one expecting them to pick up until next year. However, mixed with garbage and grit, their ruby red hearts shined and displayed solid-as-gold determination as they delivered a season with a landfill's worth of "whoa, what just happened" memories. That's why we watched the games, isn't it?

The Game 5 loss against the Heat didn't feel anywhere near to the type of dejection felt after last year's Game 6 defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers. This time around the Bulls were beat by the best team in basketball, and they've grown accustomed to being seasoned veterans when it came to playing without Derrick Rose. Surprisingly, the Heat were vulnerable at times and kept the Bulls in two of the close games that they ultimately lost.

Would a healthy Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich have made a difference? Yes, to the extent that two of the Bulls' glaring weaknesses were turnovers and getting to the shooter on rotational defense. In fact, if both were healthy, you wouldn't be reading this piece until Monday, which would have been after Game 7, where the Bulls would have mightily lost the deciding tilt in Miami. What if Rose had put matter over mind, and stepped in at any point in this series with his teammates sharing a clean bill of health? Fortunately for next season and beyond, we'll never know.

I'm not going to bore you with a 5 Stages of Grief piece, it's been done before -- and also there's more reason to celebrate this team of overachievers than there is to bereave them. In a sport where its post-season has the least amount of surprises in terms of advancement from round-to-round by underdogs, the Bulls beat a squad in Brooklyn that was more talented than them, and hung tough with one in Miami that's more talented than everyone. During the regular season, they ended winning streaks of the league's top contenders, and lost gimmes against draft lottery gambling addicts. The Bulls' year-long balancing act was unsteady at best, predictable at worst, and is now over.

Joakim Noah, a surface level pest, fan-favorite and serviceable center, was the center of attention for the Bulls this year for the right reasons. The All-Star worked on his game during the offseason and was certifiably the Bull who picked up the most slack during Rose's absence. The All-NBA Defensive first-team selection added to his regular season accomplishments with well documented playoff heroics. There's not much more he could have done to help the Bulls, literally. At 28 and under contract for the next few years, Noah will be anchor to future championship contending Bulls teams.

Luol Deng received another All-Star nod, led the NBA again in minutes played, and was as consistent as ever. This team needed stability, and while his season averages didn't really improve from his career stats (16 points, 6 rebounds per), Deng's presence kept the unit cohesive. Due to a meningitis scare and complications from a spinal tap, Deng didn't get to finish this year fighting it out on the court, but he'll fight his way back next year and help this team compete.

Jimmy Butler, a depth chart afterthought, became a starter and never relinquished the gig. He did his best work against the best in LeBron James in Round 2. The kid proved he can play on both ends of the court (for all 48 minutes.) Whether he's Luol Deng's replacement (Deng is a free agent after next year, which means he could be traded by the deadline), or the shooting guard of the future, Butler isn't going anywhere and he will be a big part of the Bulls' core moving forward.

Carlos Boozer turned in output somewhat worthy of the large contract he signed in 2010. Hate to love him, love to hate him, he bailed out the Bulls plenty of times. Rip Hamilton yet again disappointed. Even for an aging veteran, he was hurt or ineffective all too much. Hinrich, when around, led the offense (boringly but efficiently), and did a great job on defense -- memorably against the Heat back in March to end their 27 game winning streak.

Roll call for all the role players

Taj Gibson's contract extension kicks in next year, let's hope he eases the tension of Bulls fans after an up-and-down 2012-13 campaign, and actually earns his keep. Nazr Mohammed lived Coach Tom Thibodeau's mantra of "next man up" and filled in nicely -- or at least fouled the other teams big man when the Bulls asked him to. Marco Belinelli drove the Bulls and Thibs crazy for good and bad reasons. He had a couple of game winners, and made a bunch of mistakes, but overall he was a great asset for this team. Marquis Teague is a work-in-progress with an upside that hopefully can be on display more frequently next year if he's given time.

Nate Robinson, hired to be a lame duck point-guard, turned into a golden goose and earned himself the multi-year deal he deserves this upcoming off-season; unfortunately it won't be from the Bulls. This Summer, the Bulls can't afford much more than a few veteran's minimum contracts, barring a trade or unlikely amnestied contract (2014 is most likely for anyone to be amnestied, then Bulls can bring over Nikola Mirotic when his buyout will be plausible.) He was always ready when called upon, and his win share was tied for the highest in his career at 5.9. He's good enough to be the sixth man and a difference maker next year on a championship contender (you think Oklahoma City wishes they still had his services?) Seeing Derrick Rose at the point and Robinson playing at the two-guard position would have been as ridiculous as it would have been ridiculous, but seeing this team's emotional leader do what needed to be done this post-season was better than any "what could have been." You will be gone but not forgotten Mr. Robinson.

On a quasi-personal note, in this entire season, I only titled one of my articles with Rose's name in it. I did this for two reasons; I, like everyone else, wasn't privvy to any actual information on Rose's decision, and didn't feel it was appropriate play guessing games. The other reason was, the Bulls were playing games without him. Rose's win share this year was zero, next year it's probably going to be 81 games. Wherever you stand on the former MVP, know this; he's spent all year working on a jumper he never really had. He cares about his future more than all of the Chicagoland area combined. His reasons for not coming back this year, may make nary a sense to you, but it's going to make all the sense next year and moreover.

This Bulls' future is bright based solely on this past season. Thibodeau can get the most out of any player willing to buy into his system, and getting to the second round proves it. He and his ball club kept winning games they shouldn't have. On paper, or the court, the Bulls had too many tangible deficiencies. They kept winning with undying heart no matter which body went down. Next year, as the roster stands now, the Bulls will have a starting five of Rose-Butler-Deng-Boozer-Noah. Can you think of a more solid crew than that? While it's still unknown what you'll get out of Rose next season, we all proudly found out what we got without him; the hardest working bunch of players who had stars in their eyes without ever having a star on their team. Treasure the Bulls' throwaway season, because it'll be the last time in the foreseeable future where anything less than a title will mean that, that year was a waste of time.

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