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NBA Sunday: The Chicago Bulls’ Crossroads

Another early summer vacation has the Chicago Bulls searching for answers, writes Moke Hamilton.

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Basketball Insiders chats with Cliff Alexander at the 2015 NBA Draft Combine.

The Chicago Bulls’ Crossroads

James Harden had arguably been the Most Valuable Player for Scott Brooks and his Oklahoma City Thunder during the course of their improbable run to the NBA Finals. To this point, the Thunder had knocked off both the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs and would now face LeBron James and his Miami HEAT.

Quicker than you can say “beard,” the Thunder found themselves on the wrong side of a 4-1 loss in the NBA Finals, but it was all good. With the rare combination of youth and experience on their side, it seemed this would not be the last time we heard from this group.

In the NBA, there is a thin line between dynasty and doom’s day. And now, the Chicago Bulls will see that first hand.

The Tom Thibodeau era is rumored to be over. Joakim Noah is now 30 years old and Pau Gasol is closing in on 35. Derrick Rose got hurt again and the franchise will be forced to pay a king’s ransom to retain Jimmy Butler this summer.

With the right set of circumstances, an NBA championship was within their grasp.

There is a thin line, indeed.

* * *

In today’s NBA, head coaches have become increasingly disposable. What most front offices have overlooked over the past 10 years or so is how the implementation and establishment of a culture affects the attitude and the morale of a team’s locker room. Moreover, it is impossible to build chemistry amongst a 15-man roster without having a constant voice of reason and leader guiding the pupils.

There is no team across the entire league that has done more to defy odds and obstacles than the Bulls, and Thibodeau deserves all of the credit for not only being on watch while this happened, but for forging the identity of one of the league’s toughest teams.

Over the years, I have had multiple conversations with Butler and Noah. In fact, in one of the Thibodeau-era Bulls’ finest hours, I spoke with each.

The Bulls had somehow just pulled out a seven-game series win. Game 7 was at Barclays Center and back in 2013. Somehow, despite battling plantar fasciitis, Noah managed to out-hustle and out-muscle the Nets, even on one leg. He ended Game 7 with 24 points and 14 rebounds.

Butler—long before he was a bona fide max player—performed admirably over the course of the series. His 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and three assists per game went a long way toward helping the Bulls pull off the upset, even without Rose.

I remember quite well, in the aftermath of Game 7, with the Bulls muted celebration in their locker room, I turned to Butler and asked him how in the world this team managed to be this tough and this strong.

His answer, in a nutshell, was Tom Thibodeau. Back then, Butler told me, that Thibodeau made his players want to run through a wall for him. The secret, according to Butler, was that, “Coach simply makes no excuses for anyone and treats everyone exactly the same.”

On both sides of the ball, Thibodeau treats his players like an assembly line. If one man goes down and is unable to perform, the next man steps up and will be demanded to fill in capably and admirably. When one man fails to pull his weight, no matter who he is, he warms the bench. Carlos Boozer knew that, all too well.

Thobideau got things out of this team and this roster than neither of his two predecessors Scott Skiles and Vinny Del Negro were able to. Under him, and perhaps even because of him, Noah and Butler became All-Stars and Rose became the youngest Most Valuable Player in league history.

By all objective measures, removing Thibodeau as the team’s head coach would seem to be asinine, yet, that is exactly what the Bulls are reportedly pondering.

In 2015, though, in a world where Monty Williams and Scott Brooks are both shown the door after objectively “good” seasons, nothing should surprise you. Not even this.

* * *

In the aforementioned Game 7, on one leg, back in 2013, Noah was the best player on the floor for Thibodeau and his Bulls. To this point and very much so since then, the question for Noah was not whether he was capable of performing admirably when he was hurt, but why he always seemed to be hurt.

Entering this season, with Gasol in tow and the Bulls being considered by many to be the favorite to win the Eastern Conference, the solution was to put Noah on a 30-minute-per-game minutes restriction. The hope was that he would be at or near 100 percent when the playoffs began.

As a result, Noah played just 30 minutes per game and turned in averages of just 7.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. Somewhat impressive still, those numbers were a far cry from the 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game he averaged over the course of the 2013-14 NBA season. The 7.2 points per game were his lowest scoring output since his sophomore season, when he averaged just 6.7 points per game while playing behind Drew Gooden, Brad Miller and Tyrus Thomas.

The years have progressed and Noah has earned a reputation as being one of the most versatile and gifted big men in the league. He has not, however, earned a reputation as being a player whose durability matches his heart.

Historically, players do not become more durable after their 30th birthday. Noah will be entering the final year of his current contract and is scheduled to earn $13.9 million for the 2015-16 season. Over the years, his increasing productivity can be directly attributed to his place within Thibodeau’s offense. The Bulls have employed a triangle-centric offense that utilizes backdoor and off-ball cuts by wing players. A big man who can move with the ball in his hands and has good passing instincts is a necessary component. In many ways, the success of the team can be tied to the thriving and developing of Noah. The two have been intertwined.

However, if Thibodeau is moved along, his successor may have a different offensive philosophy. Concerns over Noah’s durability, his age, his cap-friendly contract and the fact that he is not far removed from being an All-Star contributor could certainly make him a candidate to be moved. It is difficult to imagine his trade value increasing from this point forth, especially if he is playing for a new head coach next year.

Noah is another uniform? As the Bulls approach their crossroads this offseason, it is certainly something that should, at the very least, be considered a possibility.

* * *

For NBA teams with cap space and hopes for returning to the status of contender, this time of year springs unlimited hope. The NBA Draft Combine officially introduces a number of youngsters who could help cellar-dwellers improve and free agency is right around the corner, as well.

Without question, Butler has played himself into being the number one free agent on the market.

And because Butler happens to be restricted, any team with even a remote hope of poaching Butler from the Bulls will be forced to not only tender him a maximum contract (about $60 million over four years), but also find creative payment schemes and incentives that could make the contract more painful for the Bulls to match.

There are at least two within the Bulls front office who have maintained since last July that there is “no scenario” under which Butler would not return to the Bulls next season, but the same was once said of restricted free agents Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons—all three of whom ended up changing teams.

In all likelihood, retaining Butler would push the Bulls’ payroll to somewhere in the neighborhood of $75 million for next season and would seem to marry the team to this current core. All things considered, especially considering the influx of capital that the league will see over the next few years thanks to its new television deal, the proposition seems relatively painless.

Butler will turn just 26 years old this summer and was one of the better two-way perimeter players over the course of this entire season. He made huge shots for the Bulls over the course of the season and did so in the playoffs, as well, perhaps showing that he is entering the stratosphere of “elite” player rather than simply being motivated by a potential payday.

Still, entering the summer, Butler is just another question mark for a team that seems to have quite a few of them.

With the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers just two of the teams out there that will be bidding for Butler’s services, he will continue to be the most talked about free-agent-to-be and until he signs on the dotted line. He will have a constant question mark hovering over his head.

* * *

With 1.5 seconds on the clock and Matthew Dellavedova inbounding the basketball, the Bulls stood on the precipice of throwing LeBron James and his Kevin Love-less Cleveland Cavaliers into a 3-1 hole. The overwhelming majority of NBA teams have tried, in futility, to overcome those daunting circumstances.

The Bulls were 1.5 seconds away from all but assuring themselves a great opportunity to square off against the Atlanta Hawks for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2015 NBA Finals. Maybe, just maybe, as Rose said as recently as a few weeks ago, these Bulls could emerge as improbable champions the same way the 2011 Dallas Mavericks once did.

But those 1.5 seconds proved to be enough. With a catch-and-shoot opportunity that seemed much too easy to convert, the Bulls instead found themselves locked in a 2-2 series against James and his team.

At that moment, it was a shot that yielded many questions. How did James get so open? Can the Bulls still win the series? What happens now?

And now, after finding some of those answers, a new one emerges.

Have these Bulls made their last stand?

As another early summer approaches and questions hover around Thibodeau, Noah and Butler, one must remember: be surprised by nothing.

Today, after all, James Harden is the franchise player of the Houston Rockets, Scott Brooks is looking for a new job and Kevin Durant may be plotting a defection to Washington, D.C.

Indeed, there is a thin line between a dynasty and doom’s day. And in short order, we will know which side of the equation the Chicago Bulls find themselves.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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