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The Bulls still have a long way to go (exactly 40 more regular season games) this season. But respectability (a playoff berth and a competitive first-round series is the minimum qualification) is within reach, and that would be a significant step forward for the franchise. I know the "championship or bust" people don't agree with me, but I'll try to persevere and make my case anyway.
The local team hung on last night to knock off the Grizzlies in Memphis 108-104 to even their record at 21-21, good for eighth in the Eastern Conference. It was one of their most impressive wins of the season, and it capped off a brutal stretch of schedule in which they went 2-3 in only seven illness-ravaged days. And even in the losses, the Bulls remained competitive despite obvious excuses for less-than-stellar efforts.
They pulled out last night's win despite the fact that Dwyane Wade sat out due to . . . I still just don't understand this stuff. I guess the official team line continues to be that he sat out in order to rest for the playoffs despite the fact that the Bulls went into the game sitting in the ninth spot in the conference, i.e. out of the playoffs.
But when they then win games like this I suppose it buttresses their case - wait, that is obvious outcome bias! We don't tolerate that stuff around here.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks' Marian Hossa took the ice for the second of back-to-back games earlier Sunday evening (the Hawks lost to the Wild 3-2). The risk of injury is far greater in hockey than in basketball and Hossa has been playing professional hockey for nine seasons longer than Wade has been in the NBA.
Most importantly, the Blackhawks went into that game tied for the top spot in their conference, i.e., they have every reason to believe they will make the playoffs and therefore resting someone for the playoffs actually makes sense. Hossa didn't rest.
But back to the Bulls - I am not of the mind that it is such a horror for a team to find itself "in the middle," especially in the NBA. That is where a team is if it is not expected to contend for a championship nor is it on track to lose enough games to have a real shot at winning the draft lottery.
Many have advocated the Bulls completely tank, i.e., lose big on purpose (primarily by trading away Jimmy Butler) so they can get better picks. Those people would be more persuasive if they could point to just one NBA champion that has used that model to make itself great.
Now, do teams on occasion take a realistic look around, realize where they are in a given season and then decline to upgrade their short-term roster? You bet.
The most successful team to do that in the last quarter century was the Spurs, who about 20 years ago were struggling with David Robinson sidelined with a back injury. San Antonio then instructed Robinson not to come back to the lineup despite his being healthy enough to do so, tanked the rest of the season and then lucked into Tim Duncan when they won the lottery. The rest is NBA recent history.
The Bulls have a star, some serviceable role players at varying stages of their development, and a former star who can still bring it on occasion. Far better that they play this year out, go after another star with what should be copious salary cap space and take aim at 2017-18.
The Bulls played one of their best games of the season Sunday and Fred Hoiberg coached one of his best. He nailed his rotations and he made the right calls in the closing minutes. A masterful bit of strategy saw Hoiberg switch Jimmy Butler onto Memphis All-World point guard Mike Conley for the home team's final possession trailing by only two. Michael Carter-Williams had drawn that assignment the previous six minutes. The switch had the desired effect when Conley was first forced to turn back from a dribble drive and then took an ill-advised long jumper that bounced out.
Doug McDermott grabbed the rebound, was fouled and hit the free throws for the four-point lead that finished off the game. For good measure, Butler dove to steal the final inbounds pass. McDermott, who brought the Bulls back from a terrible first quarter with 20 of his career-high 31 in the second quarter alone, was the game's first star.
As long as he and Butler don't need rest any time soon, the Bulls might be on the verge of a nice little run of successful basketball.
Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.