The Weird Present and Uncertain Future of the Chicago Bulls

How are the Bulls not easily beating a depleted Cavs team in this year's playoffs?

If I told you at the beginning of the season that the Chicago Bulls would have a healthy Derrick Rose, two-way star Jimmy Butler, a frontcourt trio of Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, Rookie of the Year finalist and floor spacer Nikola Mirotic -- and also told you that the Cavaliers would have J.R. Smith out for a couple games, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving majorly banged up, and Kevin Love out for the playoffs -- you would have rightfully thought a Bulls-Cavs series would be over quickly.

However, that's not exactly what's gone down, as the Bulls and Cavaliers are currently tied 2-2 in their series, with two of the final three in Cleveland. Bulls fans have been hoping for this for years –- "if Rose ever gets healthy, Butler hits his potential, Mirotic comes over from Europe, and we get a star free agent, watch out! We'll easily be title favs!" However, the present brings up an interesting dilemma for the Bulls –- if you can’t beat Cleveland now, when are you ever going to beat them?

With the injuries to Cleveland, the Bulls clearly have a talent advantage. The Cavs’ two most talented players have largely been held in check too, as Irving can hardly move with injuries to both his legs and LeBron has had to resort to heavy isolation ball against notable “LeBron stopper” in Jimmy Butler. This series shouldn’t be close in the current context.

Bulls in the Postseason

The defense under head coach Tom Thibodeau has always been good, even if it wavered at times this season. So far in the playoffs, the Bulls boast the best defense, only allowing opponents to score at a rate of 95.2 points per 100 possessions. They’ve slogged things down in typical Bulls fashion to their pace, which is second-slowest in the playoffs at 94.23 possessions per 48 minutes.

The problem is a putrid offense that just can’t shoot effectively enough to take advantage of a great defense. They do share the ball really well -– their assist percentage in the playoffs is 64.1%, second-best only to the Atlanta Hawks –- but they share it equally well with their opponents, as they currently have a playoff turnover ratio of 15.5, which ranks second worst.

They’ve survived bad shooting (a team true shooting percentage of 52.3%) by rebounding the heck out of the ball on the offensive end, grabbing 27.4% of all available offensive rebounds, again second best in the playoffs. It really all comes down to their frontcourt pairings and whether Thibodeau will let rookie Nikola Mirotic on the floor to space out their offense.

But it’s somewhat of a catch-22 for Thibodeau, who has gotten quite a bit of public criticism for Mirotic’s low 14.7 minutes per game in the playoffs. Mirotic has been very bad offensively in the playoffs with an Offensive Rating of 85 . Perhaps it’s because he hasn’t gotten any rhythm or chemistry with the starters? But perhaps his spacing is valuable even despite the bad play? See the dilemma?

However, if Mirotic isn’t going to hit outside shots or provide any spark on the offensive end, it’s hard to keep him on the floor. Noah is a superior passer, Pau Gasol is a superior interior offensive player, and Taj Gibson is a superior defender and rim protector. Mirotic is a superior shooter and floor spacer –- something the Bulls desperately need -– but if he isn’t doing that, it’s hard to give him minutes over the veterans Thibodeau has been with for years.

The Future

Rumors have been circulating that Thibodeau is gone after the playoffs regardless of what happens, as things with the front office has gotten too hostile. If the Bulls lose to the Cavaliers in the second round, there are a lot of questions that should be asked about the ceiling of this roster. Notably, what do you do with the frontcourt situation this summer?

The theme for the Bulls this season has been a group of talented players not fitting into an elite team that their talent suggests they should be. Is their frontcourt too crowded? If so, how do you remedy it? Nikola Mirotic showed this year that he’s ready for an increased role, despite his playoff struggles. His game is perfectly suited to the pace-and-space nature of the NBA in 2015, and can be a legitimate pick-and-roll terror with Derrick Rose in the future.

The Bulls signed Gasol through the 2016-2017 season in a move that looks unnecessary -– and possibly detrimental to the team –- after seeing how good Mirotic can be. Noah will be an expiring next year and as a career Bull and loved player, it’s likely they’ll try to re-sign him, albeit at a lower cost. What do you do with Gibson? His contract was thought of as a major discount at about $8 million a year through the 2016-2017 season, but it’s just too crowded to warrant that contract now.

Rose has been up and down all season, but he’s not going anywhere. He’s due to be paid $20 and $21 million over the next two seasons. His play doesn’t warrant that salary, but it’s not bad enough to stretch him and it’s not good enough to justify it or garner any trade interest. Jimmy Butler is a star and will be paid this season by the Bulls –- that’s not even a question.

It will be interesting to see if anything in the playoffs affects their offseason. Again, rumors are Thibs is out. Period. But it’s a fairly realistic possibility that the Bulls could beat the Cavs and then make the NBA Finals. Do you really run a respected, defensive genius coach out of town if he takes your squad to the NBA Finals? There is no shortage of interesting questions in the Bulls future, and every game from now on can affect them.