Photos of Bulls guard/forward Jimmy Butler.
How fitting that, in a season defined by its uncertain direction, the Bulls will wait until the final tick of the 82nd game before determining what comes next.
The Bulls should give out broken compasses Wednesday to the first 10,000 fans at the United Center. The fact that not even those with the highest basketball IQs in town have any idea which team will show up answers the only question that matters.
Which way are the Bulls headed again?
Nobody can say, not even after the six-month slog of a season. Approaching the Bulls’ last game, we know scant more than we did before their first.
We know Jimmy Butler can take over games. We know 35-year-old Dwyane Wade will play according to how his body feels, sometimes spectacular, sometimes spotty. We know underrated center Robin Lopez will work hard and score in double figures. We know the Bulls will lapse into playing matador defense and isolation offense for fourth-quarter stretches when Butler often turns half-court possessions into his personal playground games. We know Cam Payne can’t play.
Photos from the game on April 10, 2017, at the United Center.
We know nothing else to expect from the Bulls night in and night out, except that coach Fred Hoiberg’s unusual substitution patterns will make you scratch your head. These Bulls developed a strange habit of beating good teams and losing to lousy ones, depending largely on injuries and interest level. They can look like a lottery team or a playoff contender, sometimes in the same quarter.
They could beat the Nets by 20 in the regular-season finale to clinch a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference or lose by 10, and neither outcome would surprise a soul. Meteorologists compare Chicago’s unpredictable spring weather to the Bulls during forecasts. The 2016-17 version has become the indeciphera-Bulls, impossible to interpret or understand.
Wednesday’s outcome will change nothing, by the way, an important point to remember if things go the way they should against an inferior Nets team with the NBA’s worst record. Expect the Bulls to play with a sense of purpose, for Butler to dominate, Wade to complement and somebody else such as Nikola Mirotic or Jerian Grant to do something worthy of exaggerating its meaning.
The Bulls will win this playoffs-or-else game because it fits their season-long narrative of mixed messages. The sellout UC crowd will roar, the Bulls players will say I-told-you-so and management will … what exactly will management do?
Shrug if they’re smart.
Nothing about the Bulls making the playoffs and likely exiting in the first round says Hoiberg can coach players who don’t fit his system, Butler can carry a team alone or Wade has something left in the tank. Nothing should change the long-term plan of vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman, assuming there is one.
The postseason experience perhaps can benefit young players such as Bobby Portis or Denzel Valentine, but it would be a mistake to manufacture artificial meaning out of a potential series against the Celtics or Cavaliers. From a business perspective, the extra playoff games increase profits, but from a basketball standpoint, they hardly offer a panacea.
For an organization that won six titles in the 1990s, it can’t be only about making the playoffs — even after missing them last season for the first time since 2008. It must be all about getting closer to winning a championship. Besides falling out of the draft lottery in a year full of impact prospects, the only problem with the Bulls eking into the playoffs would be the front office fooling itself into thinking all is well.
The Bulls bought themselves a year of relevance last summer by signing free agent Rajon Rondo, who has been a revelation of unselfishness, and having Wade fall into their laps. They immediately became interesting and, with 30-something veterans Rondo and Wade joining Butler, competitive enough to flirt with the idea of a playoff run.
Here they are, the definition of mediocre, just under the .500 mark, teasing their fans into paying attention until bad basketball forces them to look away. And there have been too many of those moments in Hoiberg’s second season.
Regardless of any suspense surrounding the Bulls now, they remain closer to rebuilding than regaining Eastern Conference supremacy. The short view will guarantee sellouts at home. The long view can resume the chase for NBA titles.
That means the Bulls keeping an open mind toward trading Butler for young players and draft picks to transform the roster with the kind of depth necessary for the next run. That means resisting any temptation if Wade brings up the idea of exercising his player option and the Bulls trading for another ball stopper, buddy Carmelo Anthony. That means responding to this season like the disappointment it was instead of the redemptive exercise some will proclaim it to be after qualifying for the postseason.
Celebrate like crazy when the Bulls beat the Nets. Life is too short not to enjoy the fun moments sports provide. Just remember what the Bulls making the playoffs means — and what it doesn’t.