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The Inbounds: The Chicago Bulls can defy expectations again. Is that a good thing?

Sep 24, 2012, 6:00 PM EDT

Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, Joakim Noah AP

Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

The Bulls were supposed to be a middle-seed in 2011, maybe a 4 or a 5 seed. They took the No.1 overall seed in the East.

Chicago was supposed to be hampered by injuries, particularly those to Derrick Rose in 2012, falling back maybe to a 2nd or 3rd seed. Again, No.1 with a bull-et. (Get it? Because they’re the Bulls? And it’s a Bull-et? Get… OK, sorry.)

This year, Rose is out recovering from ACL surgery, as highlighted extensively by Adidas, and most are not targeting them for a top-four seed, expecting a fall back to the pack. They revamped their roster in terms of the bench and many feel not for the better. Carlos Boozer‘s another year older, Luol Deng had a long, hard summer, and Kirk Hinrich is starting at point guard.

But let’s think about this for a minute. Is it really smart to dismiss not only what the Bulls accomplished, but how? The Bulls the past two seasons have not succeeded based on superior talent, in truth. Yes, Luol Deng has really improved offensively and put himself in the top 5-10 of players defensively. Carlos Boozer is so overrated hes’ underrated, and suffers from the same kind of misconception that Joe Johnson deals with. Joakim Noah is very quietly, ironically, one of the better centers in the league at both ends of the floor. They have the talent, but they also have the system. Thibodeau relies on veterans making veteran plays offensively and a barbed-wire trap surrounded by landmines as his defensive construct. Anyone can be good defensively in Thibodeau’s system, or at least invisibly poor, because all you must do is what you’re taught and do so with emphasis and effort. You can be as unskilled or slow as any player in the league, and if you learn the things he teaches, you’re going to be good enough to not be a problem on the floor.

Put it this way, the Knicks can’t put Steve Novak on the floor for stretches because if they do, he leaves them vulnerable defensively, despite Woodson’s excellent defensive coaching. Novak could exist in the Bulls’ system, and while still a liability, be less of one.

So if your liabilities aren’t really liabilities and your strengths are still strength, why are we so quick to shove the Bulls off the top rungs of the Eastern ladder? The Heat will be resting stars as they always do, the Celtics, much the same. Indiana is certainly a threat but it’s hard to argue they’re better than the Bulls at their best. So why can’t the Bulls win the division, and get a top seed?

There’s no reason. That’s how good Tom Thibodeau is. (Which makes the Bulls’ continued all-too-typical wrangling with him over his contract all the more maddening, and that’s all I’ll say about that for now.)

But there’s a question beyond that. Is that what Bulls fans should want? Is that what the Bulls organization should want? Is that the best outcome for them?

It’s hard to say that the Bulls are overachieving if this is the third year they would reach that kind of height, but it’s still true. They’re playing at a level which defies pretty common rational analysis of how good they are, as a sum of their parts. A team can definitely reach higher as a composite and is more than just the individual talents. But is it this much? The results of the playoffs would indicate no. You can toss out last year, sure, if you want to go with Rose’s injury and the emotional impact on the team leading to the loss to the Sixers, but remember, that same team had problems with Indiana, always in close games in a short-but-fierce five-game series, then really had some emotional swings vs. Atlanta, before finally winning Game 1 vs. Miami and looking unstoppable, then getting railroaded like Wile E. Coyote. They just needed a little white ACME sign.

The Bulls need so much to go their way, for Boozer to play as an elite player he’s never really been, for Deng to shoot the lights out when he’s a good but inconsistent mid-range shooter, for the bench mob to constantly overwhelm opponents with hustle (or veteran savvy, I suppose, this year, with the bench significantly different). They can still look really good but eventually, they’ll run up against a mirror that shows how good they really are, and when that comes, they tend to mix down to about the team we thought they’d be in the beginning. It doesn’t take away from what Thibs has done, if anything, it emphasizes it. But we also can’t realistically look at this team as a title contender, and if that’s the case, what’s the point?

The maddening part is that Rose’s injury leaves so much in the air. If the team gels and plays together, it’s going to excite the team and its fans, prompting more belief. If they don’t somehow reach the impossible dream, then it will be crushing, but still be filled with “Well, Derrick wasn’t really back yet.” Rose’s injury causes a constant level of self-doubt, not only towards any positive regard for the team, but for any criticisms as well.

There’s no real way to evaluate the Bulls, other than “really good, but probably not a title team.”

A year in which they did not reach expectations, did not exceed them, just kind of slumped to a close could bring another lottery miracle, a younger player with talent at the least. It could force changes from the front office desperate not to waste Rose’s youth, and a move to amnesty Boozer. There could be change and progress, versus the current results which are just good enough to be able to justify not making any sort of bold move. How do you say “we have to get better” when you were the best team in your conference?

And the answer to that is “by examining the level of superstar talent you need to win a title in today’s NBA.” Rose is a special talent, regardless of his limitations, and has a remarkable future ahead of him. But another year of taking a hammering in the playoffs, fresh off his recovery, would work contrary to the long-term goals.

The Bulls are stuck between a Rose and a hard place, and the only way to facilitate change may be for them to not do the thing they’re best at: playing at a level far beyond what may be sustainable in the playoffs long-term.

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