The Bulls' bench saved their regular season last year, and came close to saving the team again in the playoffs. Naturally, the team proceeded to gut that invaluable bench this offseason. That is the Bulls' way.
Derrick Rose's injury-plagued season came to an end when the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee tore in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Playoffs against the Sixers. The Bulls' very presence in the playoffs, as the No. 1 seed, was largely due to the play of C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver, John Lucas III, Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer, as Rose was held to only 39 games during the regular season. All except Brewer came off the bench the majority of the time, and all are gone or are likely to be gone when the Bulls' offseason purge is complete.
This is not a traditional, obvious roster purge, either. Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer are still employed by the Bulls, so to a casual fan little will seem different when the team takes the court this season. The players whose jerseys fans buy will still be around.
Marco Belinelli, Kirk Hinrich, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmanovic and Nate Robinson are a puzzling set of replacements for Chicago's indispensible role players. None of those players is a shooter on par with Korver, a defender on par with Brewer or a reliable spark on par with Watson. Asik probably was too expensive for the Bulls after he signed a three-year, $25 million offer sheet with the Rockets, so it is hard to complain about Mohammed and Radmanovic.
But the other three, and the mere principle of disbanding such a scrappy group of role players — ugh.
No matter the soft spot Celtics fans hold in their hearts for "Donkey," Robinson is mostly a negative addition at this stage. He takes bad shots, does not defend very well and at 28 years old no longer has the immense athleticism that gave him a "What will he do next?" quality as a Celtic and a Knick. He personifies the Bulls' offseason of adding players who could be really exciting and impactful for the Bulls, if everyone really, really uses their imaginations and the absolute best-case scenario occurs.
Hinrich and Belinelli are no less risky. Both can be very good in spurts, but neither is consistent enough to trust for more than half a season, which is at least how long it could take for Rose to return. Where the scoring comes from if Boozer is having a typically underwhelming offensive night is anyone's guess.
With Rose out and the rest of the roster looking underwhelming, if anyone can coax wins out of this squad, it is Tom Thibodeau. The former Celtics assistant coach had directed the Bulls to the best record in the East each of the last two seasons even though the team possessed more flaws that they let on. Thibodeau, like Doc Rivers, lives by the belief that even when key players are missing, the system can prevail.
But even Thibodeau's situation is not without issues, because the Bulls are the Bulls. Keep in mind that this is the franchise that believed its management, not Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, was most responsible for those six championships in the 1990s. The Bulls do not seem ready to hand out a deserved contract extension to Thibodeau just because he has won them a whole lot of games. The team picked up his option for the upcoming season, but next summer the most sought-after free agent from the Bulls may be Thibodeau.
In other words, the dismantling of a promising team may not be over. This offseason it was the bench. Next offseason, it may be the coach. In two years it could be Deng, if he is not traded before then, followed by the seasons in which Rose's contract becomes really expensive. The slow decay of a contender may already be under way.
In the meantime, enjoy Nate-Rob, Chicago fans. There will never be a dull moment.