Bulls' future looms larger than present

Updated 2/15/2013 12:38 AM
  • Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is not one to focus on anything but the present, but circumstances don't give him much option.

    Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is not one to focus on anything but the present, but circumstances don't give him much option. Associated Press

Summarizing the first half of the Bulls' season -- or the portion before the all-star break anyway, since we're well past the halfway point -- isn't difficult.

They've gone 30-22 without the services of former MVP Derrick Rose.

Newcomers Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli have been better than expected, while second-year forward Jimmy Butler quickly turned into a quality contributor.

Coach Tom Thibodeau, meanwhile, continued to prove that he's one of the best ever at teaching NBA defense.

Even while turning over most of last season's "Bench Mob," the Bulls are again one of the league's better defensive teams and they've beaten quality opponents -- in the East, at least.

But what does it all mean?

Whatever triumph has been achieved so far is tempered by overwhelming questions affecting the future. Will Rose play again this season? How will management deal with the bloated payroll? Will the current group wear down as the year drags on?

The conservative approach with Rose's recovery is correct. No sense messing with anything when it comes to the franchise player.

Rose addressed the topic following Wednesday's loss in Boston.

"I'm feeling good, but like I said, if it's where it's taking me a long time and I'm still not feeling right, I don't mind missing this year," he said. "My leg still isn't feeling right. Mentally, I think that I'm fine."

From talking to people involved with the Bulls, it was easy to think the ideal scenario for this season was actually missing the playoffs. That way, Rose could make a low-key, late-season return with a focus on regaining his confidence. Plus, the Bulls would get a decent draft pick.

It would take quite a collapse to miss the playoffs at this point, considering they're 7 games ahead of ninth-place Philadelphia.

As much as Bulls fans want to see Rose back to his old self in time for an inspiring playoff run, it's not clear what's in store at this point. If Rose does start playing soon, how will the conservative recovery mesh with the NBA playoffs? Then again, maybe he won't play again soon.

Getting back to the team on the floor, it should be a positive sign that the Bulls' nucleus remains a proven winner, like it was in Thibodeau's first two seasons.

But there's no telling how many from this group will stick around, since the Bulls already have enough salary commitments among nine players (including Richard Hamilton's partial guarantee) to be above the luxury-tax threshold next season.

The desire to trim payroll was illustrated recently by the Carlos Boozer for Toronto's Andrea Bargnani trade rumors. Doubt if the Raptors agree to that one, and if nothing changes the Bulls may consider using the amnesty provision on Boozer or checking Luol Deng's trade value this summer.

Heck, there's no guarantee Robinson and Belinelli are back next season, since they are on one-year deals. Rose, Butler, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Marquis Teague figure to stick around, but everyone else is a question mark.

That's why the Bulls' focus is geared more toward building the next championship contender around Rose and trying to find a Russell Westbrook-style second star to help him out.

This season has been a pleasant surprise, but in reality, it's just a diversion before the long-term business begins.


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