I don’t understand the state of the fans of the Chicago Bulls these days.  As the greater Chicagoland area lives and dies with the latest voice-to-talk-the-loudest about the state of Derrick Rose’s knee, my question to everyone is, what exactly were your expectations coming into this year?

I haven’t invested many words nor many viewing hours in the 2012-13 Chicago Bulls as I feel as though I’ve used the space that has been dedicated to them to make my stance quite clear (for the uninitiated please see here and here).  This year was not to be for our fair basketball team.  I was under the impression that that was understood by the faithful coming in and thus I am at a loss for the writhing and agony that comes after every such outcome. 

The fate of this season was decided nine months ago, before the first ball was dribbled, when the Bulls front office decided to dismantle the famed “Bench Mob” of seasons past.  I agreed with the decision then and I still do today.  The price of keeping the Ronnie Brewers, Kyle Korvers, & CJ Watsons of the world is not worth the mediocrity that was to come. 

It’s often said in sports that the worst place to be is in the middle.  An organization never wants to land the 6th thru 8th seeds in the playoffs or finish just on the outside looking in.  While they would never admit it, I will believe until my dying day that John Paxon and Gar Forman were aiming to be more towards the bottom of the league as opposed to the top heading into this season.  Think about it.  They brought in Nate Robinson to play major minutes off the bench – a guy who’s fall back plan was to tryout for the NFL if he didn’t sign with an NBA team; Vladimir Radmanovic, Marco Belinelli, and Nazr Mohammed, all guys on their last NBA legs coming into the year.  They drafted a project point guard from whom nothing was (and still is) expected, and signed Kirk Hinrich, the definition of the league average player.  This team was not built to compete for a Central Division title let alone an NBA championship. 

The public spin was that Jerry Reinsdorf didn’t want the team to go into the luxury tax for having exceeded the league’s salary cap.  Coming into this season, there was a $1 tax for every dollar spent over $70.307 million dollars on the roster.  The Bulls were committed to a shade over $56 million dollars just by having Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Carlos Boozer on the squad.  This is the reason they didn’t match the “poison pill” contract that Houston offered Omer Asik.  While most teams don’t make a practice of giving away project seven footers who are about to bloom after two years of nurturing, I think the Bulls ownership and management knew back in July that they were once again three years away from truly competing for the NBA title.

Personally I blame Rip Hamilton.  It wasn’t that long ago, two years to be exact, that a young Bulls team was taking the league by storm, on the way to the number one overall seed led by a rookie head coach and a soon-to-be youngest MVP in league history.  That 2010-11 team over-achieved by all accounts losing to the Heat in five hard fought games for the Eastern Conference championship.  Most anyone you talk to would tell you that Bulls team had arrived a year ahead of schedule.  The fan base what put to ease with the realization, they did all that with Keith Bogans starting at shooting guard.  Imagine how good they’ll be when they can upgrade to a real NBA player in that spot! 

I’ve got nothing against Keith Bogans.  I’m sure he’s a very nice guy and he must be good in the locker room or he wouldn’t have been able to stick around the league as long as he has.  Heck, the Bulls haven’t had a guy who could hit a corner three like him since he left.  Unfortunately that was the extent of his skills.  For those who don’t recall, the formula for the Bulls that year was for Bogans to start the game, they’d work the ball to him within the first three possessions, he’d take a three, and then they’d sub him out for Brewer until halftime.  Bogans was a starter in name alone, often actually playing 20 to 30 fewer minutes per game than the rest of the starting unit.  As a Bulls fan it was just a matter of time until that shooting guard position was filled by a real NBA player and the world would be our oyster.

That summer the Bulls parted ways with Bogans (actually waiting until the eve of training camp) and brought in the former Bull assassin, Richard “Rip” Hamilton.  Hamilton actually almost came to the Bulls for the playoff run in the spring of 2011 as the Pistons were actively trying to stage a coup d’état of their coach John Kuester.  Unfortunately Hamilton and the Pistons couldn’t come to terms on his buyout (again Detroit finds a way to screw us over) so his arrival was delayed until that summer.  Hamilton was billed as the ideal complement to Rose and the offense as he didn’t need the ball in his hands, could hit an open shot, and was renowned for his history of disrupting Dwayne Wade on the defensive end.  Everything sounded great on paper.  Unfortunately paper doesn’t translate to the hardwood.  The Bulls thought they were getting their own version of when Ray Allen went to Boston and instead got the Jerry Stackhouse who went to Milwaukee. 

As a Bulls fan, I ask you to think as hard as you can and tell me your favorite moment of the Rip Hamilton Experience to date.  Seriously, think about the past two seasons - 137 games including playoffs - and tell me what Rip Hamilton moment stands out above the rest.  There isn’t one is there?  Now mind you, Rip has only played in 79 of those games but that says enough right there.  The Hamilton getting paid $5 million dollars today plays ten fewer minutes and scores nine fewer points than he did in his heyday.  He went from the missing veteran leader and spot up shooter to Keith Bogans 2.0. 

I don’t want to sit here and rip on Rip.  He’s had a 13 year career and there’s a lot of tread worn off those tires.  He’s been a good pro but the Bulls fell into the classic error of buying with fond memories of past performance rather than realistic expectations of future returns.  I would argue that that has been the single biggest mistake of this front office’s tenure and they’re still paying for it today.  Had the Bulls gone a different route, say a Wesley Mathews-esque 2-guard (not saying that he was available but he’d be my ideal), the team could be in an entirely different situation today – Bench Mob or no Bench Mob – and who knows, maybe Derrick Rose is in a hurry to get back on the court to gear up for another epic clash with Miami in two months?  

Now the Bulls are stuck against the cap and they’re not going to win the whole thing whether Derrick Rose returns or not.  It’s unfortunate but true.  In fact going into this season there really were only three teams that had a chance to win the title (Miami, OKC, and the Lakers assuming back in October they had a chance to get their act together better than they actually did) but that’s a whole different rant about the NBA in general.  Barring any dramatic roster reshuffling or magic with the lottery balls this summer the Bulls aren’t going to win next year either.  It’s not until the summer of 2014 that Luol Deng’s contract comes off the books, Carlos Boozer fulfills his destiny as an amnesty clause recipient, and Nikola Mirotic is free to come stateside.  It’s not until the Bulls assemble for the 2014-15 season that they truly will have an opportunity to aspire to hardware. 

So save your handwringing and towel biting for another year and a half Bulls fans.  The Bulls will make the playoffs both this year and next, and next year they’ll even have a shot at the #2 seed in the East with a full year of a healthy Derrick Rose, but whether he returns today or in September the team’s short term future is set.  With that in mind support whatever stance you see fit but know that a healthy Derrick Rose is the most important thing to walk away from this season with.  For 2013, and unfortunately I think 2014 as well the best you can hope for this team is that they are able to RIP.