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updated: 5/16/2013 9:11 PM

Now not the time for Bulls to tinker with roster

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  • With an improvement on the injury front, coach Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls should be just fine next season.

      With an improvement on the injury front, coach Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls should be just fine next season.
    Associated Press

 
 

The Bulls have been taking in plenty of compliments for lasting 12 games in the playoffs with their depleted lineup.

LeBron James called Miami's 94-91 victory in Game 5 one of the toughest closeout games he has played.

During Wednesday's TNT broadcast, Kenny Smith gushed, "I'm going to live my life like the Chicago Bulls now. I'm going to stay in character, always stay the course, and I'm not going to panic. If you live your life like the Chicago Bulls, you've got a great life. Win, lose or draw."

He forgot to say he'll always have more than enough.

Anyway, even though the Bulls' effort was exemplary, they still were the first team knocked out of the second round. Oklahoma City followed the Bulls through the exit door a couple of hours later.

For purposes of assessing the Bulls' future, we're going to assume Derrick Rose returns next season and is able to play somewhere near all-star form. All that patience from the past 12 months is going to pay off and the criticism he received for trying to be smart will be long forgotten.

Beyond that, Bulls fans have every reason to feel optimistic. They could be in great shape to make a run at the NBA Finals and maybe complete their dream of beating Miami in the playoffs.

This much is required, though: The Bulls should plan on keeping the current nucleus together.

Since they've already crossed the luxury-tax threshold with the eight players under contract for next season, this is not the time to tinker with the roster. It will only make things worse. There will be more flexibility for that in 2014.

Then they have to stay smart, be prepared and keep their fingers crossed for some better injury luck next spring. They were mostly healthy in 2011 but still lost Omer Asik to a broken leg in the conference finals. Since then, they've been without Rose twice, lost Joakim Noah in 2012, and finished this year's playoffs without Luol Deng or Kirk Hinrich.

Whether the Bulls can improve their healthiness is tough to say. Keeping the minutes down on Rose, Noah and Hinrich next season would be a good start. At the Berto Center on Thursday, coach Tom Thibodeau talked about what can be done.

"You have to look at, 'OK, what are the injuries?'" he said. "Kirk, kicked in the calf, Luol, spinal tap. Derrick, ACL. Some of those things, I don't know if you can avoid them. But you're always looking to improve."

When Rose comes back, the No. 1 reason to believe the Bulls will be improved is Jimmy Butler. You might have to go back to Mickey Johnson in the 1970s to find a player who came out of nowhere to be such a valuable contributor.

Butler, the No. 30 draft pick in 2011, was able to hit 3-pointers, pull up for midrange jumpers, drive to the basket and finish, then play competitive defense against LeBron James.

And this all happened in his second season as a pro, the first with any reasonable playing time.

Butler's stats were inflated because he played so many minutes as a starter. But if he averages a more reasonable 38 minutes per game next season, what could he average? 13 points? 15 points? Either one would be a solid number.

The Bulls should have seen a preview of this already, but imagine taking on the Heat next year with Deng on James and Butler on Dwyane Wade. Then at times, they could put Hinrich on Wade and switch Butler to James.

And that's with two mobile big men in Noah and Taj Gibson ready to switch and help. Miami is going to spend all summer thinking about how to contend with this lineup.

With Rose, Butler, Deng, Noah and either Gibson or Hinrich, the Bulls will have the ability to have an elite defender at every position, with also five guys who can score. It should be interesting to watch.

Carlos Boozer figures to return. He might be an amnesty candidate in 2014, but not this summer. Rookie guard Marquis Teague is the other player under contract for next season.

One more piece of advice: bring back Nate Robinson. The Bulls will be reluctant to go beyond one season for Robinson, but they'll have the taxpayer midlevel exception of $3.2 million available, so use it.

The Bulls have tried for three years to come up with a reliable second scorer to go with Rose. For next season, they won't find a more realistic option than Robinson, who could excel in late-game situations playing next to Rose. Remember, Dallas won a championship two years ago with a small shooting guard (Jason Terry) as the No. 2 late-game scoring option.

Thibodeau seemed to be on the same page when asked if he could make room for Robinson next season.

"The thing is about Nate, in the last month-and-a-half, I thought he and Kirk played extremely well together," Thibodeau said. "Nate was more at the two and I like that versatility. I wouldn't rule anything out."

So, Bulls fans, leave the Rose ridicule behind, and don't bother listening to any "they can't beat Miami anyway" talk. Next year could bring the best playoff run of the Thibodeau era, with a little better injury luck.

mmcgraw@dailyherald.com

•Follow Mike's Bulls reports on Twitter @McGrawDHBulls and check out his All Bull blog at dailyherald.com.

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