End of an era?

Fresh of a 21-point drubbing to end their season courtesy of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Chicago Bulls face more uncertainty than ever before.

Before the season began, John Paxson, Chicago’s GM, retooled the team to be more potent on the offensive end. In the 2014 NBA Draft, they traded 2 of their 1st round picks (16th and 19th, which would turn out to be Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris) for the Denver Nuggets’ 11th pick that they used to draft the nation’s top collegiate scorer from Creighton, Doug McDermott. A couple of weeks after, they heard the news that 2-time champion Pau Gasol would test the market, opting against resigning with the Los Angeles Lakers. Chicago successfully signed one of the game’s best big man passers, and “amnestied” Carlos Boozer to officially give Gasol the starting spot he deserves.

The signing of the 34-year old signaled their intention to be a championship contender. Coupled that with the resurgence of Derrick Rose, who missed most of his previous 3 playing years, and the ascension of Jimmy Butler as one of the game’s best 2-way player, the path was very much clear for them. Kirk Hinrich would resign with the Bulls, the team that drafted him in 2003. Last, but definitely not the least, Chicago would finally sign Euroleague MVP, Nikola Mirotic, who they acquired via draft day in 2011.

The regular season was a roller-coaster year for the Bulls. Injuries hampered the starting five, playing only 21 games together. In that small period of time, they managed to win 16 of them – equaling to a win percentage together at 76%. One of the most notable injuries came from Rose, who missed 31 games after tearing his meniscus on his right knee againMike Dunleavy was out for a month just when the calendar turned to a new year, suffering an ankle injury. Joakim Noah, who was previosly named the Defensive Player of the Year, struggled to find his form while playing through plantar fasciitis and injuries to his knees.

It was the same old story for the Bulls – oozing with talent, struggling with health. Fingers were pointed at Tom Thibodeau, for running his team to the ground again. He kept his team on an 8-man rotation, failing to use all the weapons that Chicago have saved in their Arsenal.

It could also be argued that Tom Thibodeau saved their floundering season with his motto – “Next man up.”

Thibs has always praised how important every one on his team is, even though he kept everyone on a tight leash in terms of playing time given. He gave Tony Snell and E’Twaun Moore a chance to break out this season. He gave Mirotic and Aaron Brooks the keys to run the offense when Noah and Rose were out. Even Doug McBuckets had some great moments as a rookie. The coach pushed Jimmy Butler to become the player that he is today, while also making sure that Pau Gasol would get his touches. The result? Jimmy B got his Most Improved Player while Pau led the league in double-doubles with 54, resulting in his 5th NBA all-star appearance and a revival of his career.

The success of Chicago during a struggling year was marred by the rumors that the management and the coach weren’t seeing eye to eye. Reports were surfacing about Tom Thibodeau being replaced by Fred Hoiberg, former NBA player who was with Kevin Garnett during their playoff run in 2004 and currently a collegiate coach for Iowa State. The signs of an impending divorce were already present in the previous season, when the management decided to fire Ron Adams (who is finding success with Steve Kerr in Golden State), one of Thibodeau’s assistant and closest advisers, and trade Luol Deng, arguably his 2nd most important player aside from Derrick Rose and a close confidante in the team.

The season came to an end, and Chicago Bulls earned a home-court advantage in the 1st round with the 3rd seed and against the Milwaukee Bucks. Many wondered why Chicago was still aiming to win their remaining games, when they could have stayed in the 4th seed and avoid an early date with Cavs in the Conference Semi-finals, who were sitting in 2nd. Throwing games away for the purpose of positioning just wasn’t in their DNA. The team got it from their coach, who instilled the value of every win as a learning tool. The coach got it from hard work and dedication that made him the game’s best defensive minded coach.

That arrogance may very well have caused them a premature end to their season.

In their first round against Milwaukee, Chicago had the series in the wraps with a 3-0 advantage. They drop the next 2, including the pivotal Game 5 that they could have won in the United Center. The Bulls again were lacking in consistency, not finding the extra gear to close out a young team. Meanwhile, on the other side of the bracket, the Cavs swept the Boston Celtics but lost Kevin Love for the rest of the postseason with a dislocated shoulder and JR Smith to a 2-game suspension after punching Jae Crowder in the face. The Bulls finally found their form and dominated the Milwaukee Bucks to close them out in Game 6, a 54 point blow-out win (120-66). They were ready for Cleveland.

Rumors that the Chicago Bulls management were eager to remove Tom Thibodeau, and the outcome of the CLE-CHI series would greatly affect his future were finding its way back to his ears. He found himself in the crosshair again.

The first 4 games of the series were a back and forth affair, and buzzer beaters from Derrick Rose and LeBron James changed the momentum of the series as quickly as Mayweather ran away from Pacquiao. The Bulls lost the pivotal Game 5, and the whispers of Thibs’s days as the coach is already numbered grew louder. Game 6 was a must win for him, if ever he decides to shut his critics. He failed. Scoring droughts from the Bulls have cost them the games and the series. It might have cost them their coach and their future.

Tom Thibodeau currently still has a 2-year $9 million contract, but not far behind, New Orleans and Orlando are already prepping their contract offers. The Hornets need him to guide Anthony Davis to “superstardom,” the same way he did with Derrick Rose as he became the youngest MVP in 2011. The Magic needs him to integrate the importance of being a dominant defensive team, and they certainly have the pieces to do so. If the Bulls finally decide to part ways with Thibs, they can offer him in a trade for compensation through draft picks exchange.

For Chicago, they need to answer questions surrounding their team as they head to next season.

Assuming that they will pay Jimmy Butler the maximum contract (I’m sure they will), this will limit their cap space and sign any notable free agents out there. Mike Dunleavy and Aaron Brooks are unrestricted free agents, so will they let both go or at least resign Mike Dunleavy, who’s probably the most consistent shooter we have on the team that also brings veteran presence? How about Doug McDermott and Tony Snell, who struggled to find consistent minutes despite “beeming” with potential? Could we package the 22nd draft pick we have for the 2015 NBA Draft and one of the young guns and trade for someone? Has the window closed for this core of Rose-Butler-Noah?

And of course, the important question we have to ask – Is this the end of the Thibodeau era in Chicago?

I, for one, still hope that they bring Tom Thibodeau back and let him finish his contract. But for a team that had championship aspirations before the start of the season, this has just been another disappointing year. A failure in the historic legacy of the Chicago Bulls, and someone has to pay.

Next coach up.

– David Gamboa

(image from: http://bit.ly/1A546fx)


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